If you read only one book about Cornwall this year, make sure it’s this one. Western Morning News
The Almost Island is a collection of well nigh perfect prose and poetry that should be on every bookshelf. The Cornishman
The Almost Island is a collection of published work and new writing by the travel writer Des Hannigan about the far western outliers of Britain, from the coast and cliffs of Cornwall’s Land’s End Peninsula to the offshore waters of the Western Approaches and the Isles of Scilly; an authentic view of the world below the cliff edge and beyond the beaches. The Almost Island tells of dramas at sea, of adventures on remote cliffs and of exploring the Cornish coast in the company of fishermen, coastguards, lifeboatmen, rock climbers, writers and artists and the most unpredictable player of all, the Atlantic Ocean.
THE FOLLOWING ARE EXCERPTS FROM THE ALMOST ISLAND
Cornwall has long been described as an almost island linked to the ‘beyond’ of England by a thread of land. The Elizabethan writer, Richard Carew, put things more elegantly in his Survey of Cornwall when he wrote:
Nature hath shouldered out Cornwall into the
farthest part of the realm and so besieged it with
the ocean that it forms a demi-island in an island.
The demi-island metaphor is an apt one. Cornwall does seek to put clear water between itself and England, to strain westwards towards detachment, towards freedom, like a tethered ship eager to let go. The River Tamar defines the Cornwall-Devon border emphatically. It is barely two kilometres across country from the source of the Tamar to Marsland Water, the tiny stream that demarcates the border westwards to the Bristol Channel. Thus, Cornwall is indeed ‘almost’ surrounded by water. It hangs by that thread of land from Devon’s English quayside.
ROLLER COASTER RIDE: HAYLE RIVER AND BAR
I worked out of Hayle for a couple of years in the 1980s netting for crawfish on the stalwart old boats, Ocean Pride and Our John. Hayle was a hard place from which to work. Even on still mornings as you cruised slowly down river from the tucked away quietude of the quays, you would see dark lines of swell beyond the bar and hear the roar of breaking surf on the sand flats of Porthkidney. The bar would be in full strut, a brawling heave of ground sea rolling in, green and lovely, not breaking but silent in itself until the boat began its big dipper ride, up and over and up and over. Then, she would go down with a shuddering thud on the hard sand as the next wave engulfed her, roaring waist deep over the bows and down the skidding deck until the old boat picked up and climbed towards the sky once more and the bar spat us out onto the calming deep of the bay… and so to work.
ABSEIL INTO THE AFTERLIFE: CLIMBING IN ZAWN DUEL, GURNARD’S HEAD
In 1994, on a May afternoon full of sunlight and still air, I abseiled into Zawn Duel with Mike Raine, a highly skilled Yorkshire climber who was teaching in Camborne at the time. We used a 300-foot static line that took us with our climbing ropes and gear to a tiny ledge ten feet above low water mark. The final fifty feet of descent was below an overhang so that we hung in mid-air and, at the last, had to swing in to reach the ledge; an abseil into the afterlife.
WINDING UP THE CLOCKWORK ORANGE (Looking after Anthony Burgess during a television shoot)
The novelist Anthony Burgess and I took to each other immediately. Two grumps together. As soon as we met in the Queen’s Hotel, Penzance – where else in the absence of a Ritz? –Burgess dragged me aside and started to complain, in fluent Anglo Saxon, about television, television crews, television programmes and, again, television. I had only heard such fabulously inventive cursing from certain trawler skippers. Burgess was, however, in a profane league of his own.
In the foyer of the Queen’s Hotel, Burgess’s wife, Liana, the Italian translator and literary agent, and fierce protector of the Burgess Grail, fussed round Anthony with almost maternal affection. She took to me as well, I’m pleased to say. I was being doubly recruited beyond my brief. Mrs B had decided that since there was no way she was going to traipse about the Cornish cliffs, I was to be Anthony’s guardia del corpo.
‘You must watch his every move, my dear young man!’ Mrs B said. ‘Do not let him fall into the seas! And do not let him smoke too much!’
This last was definitely beyond my brief. Burgess smouldered non-stop, in every way.
FOLK MUSIC AT BOTALLACK
Botallack hooked me into Cornwall in the summer of 1965 when I first walked down a dusty road to the famous Count House Folk Music Club. The club was just getting on its feet. The ‘resident’ singers were John the Fish and Tel Mann. The club was owned and managed by Ian Todd and John Wood who lived with their families in the adjoining mine captain’s house of the old Crowns Mine. I walked through the door of the Count House one fine summer’s evening and walked into several years of fun as a resident folk-singer. I had barely a dram of talent but Irish blarney and Scots brass saw me through. I could manage three shaky guitar chords on a good night. I recycled constantly a dozen songs, told stories and smiled a lot.
STORM WARNINGS: CAPE CORNWALL ON THE NOSE
A few miles to the north, a squall ghosted in towards Pendeen Watch. The wind pressing ahead of it shaved the crests from the biggest waves without diminishing their mass. Long ribbons of foam streaked the surface of the sea and a lone seal surfaced for an instant amid the white water. Farther out, a brace of gannets cruised steadily upwind towards the Brisons, where great wings of spray flared to either side. The sea surged halfway up the cliff at Kenidjack Castle’s headland and then drained back like quicksilver. Great slabs of storm cloud filled the sky, the air was fresh and sharp, and for a thousand miles out there was more energy on the loose than it takes to light up London.
SOUTH EASTERLY GALE; LAND’S END
There is a long way round Land’s End
When beating from the north.
Do not wear too briskly past the Light,
Let her roll and rascal west by south
A good sea mile or two to get it right,
To hold the sea at arms’ length, and then,
Wear her, point by point, hard through the rout.
Hold to the turns that wrench her keel,
That bury her in flame and foam.
Let her roll and let her rise and heel,
She’ll turn at last and find a straight road home.
Alexander Reichardt: Fish & Olive Creations: fisholive.com
Sometimes, night air in autumn falls
Bone-chill on Gwavas Lake,
Where only the rumble of our wake
Disturbs the silent sea’s content,
As Newlyn shines its eerie light
On Gwavas Lake at the black midnight;
While, at our backs, gargantuan,
A harsh and overarching sky relents
From threatening us with harm.
BRETON COOKING AFLOAT; ISLES OF SCILLY
‘You come with us, Scottie!’ the Breton fishermen would shout to me and off we’d ramble at low tide to the more sheltered beaches of St Mary’s where the world lay flat all the way to the horizon. The drained foreshore seemed to lie beneath a distant sea and its crests. The Bretons quartered the rock pools and the weed-swathed reefs, buckets in hand, pick-pecking away, lifting stones, foraging in the limpid pools like a little flock of wading birds, like turnstones, oystercatchers, until they had filled the buckets with every kind of seafood you could hope to find. The air fizzed with the harsh smell of the sea and seaweed and damp salt-crunching sand. Then it was back to the boats, where soon a different smell, the aroma of rough-cut bouillabaisse, came drifting from the galleys. You could happily drink Le Gut Rot, known more elegantly as intestinale pourriture, along with that kind of fabulous food. You can never have too many Breton cooks oiling the broth.
BISHOP ROCK; ISLES OF SCILLY
Making passage into Broad Sound from the west on a big following sea can be heart stopping, even in a sizeable vessel. This is the Atlantic’s Gate where the depth of water would barely cover a house and where wrecking reefs with names to match their menace lie to either side – Hellweather, Gilstone, Tearing Ledge, Retarrier, Crim and Zantman; names to savour while they set your teeth on edge. The sea is so fast here that a vessel may lose way as the stern lifts on a following wave and the prop spins uselessly in thin water only to bite again, as the great sweep of the wave surges on and the next one builds astern. At such times, the Western Rocks hardly bear looking at where they run off to starboard beyond the streaming stem of the Bishop Lighthouse to Gorregan, their black teeth in a fury of white water and seething tide.
LONGLINING IN THE WESTERN APPROACHES
Longlining involved shooting thirty baskets of line, each one carrying over two hundred hooks that were hand-baited with slices of fresh mackerel. It took nearly four hours to shoot the ten miles of joined lines and then anything up to fourteen or fifteen hours to haul them. You do not need a calculator to work out how much sleep we had when you add in the gutting and icing down of the fish, clearing decks and dealing with unexpected delays. Add to this the shared night watches during which the vessel was kept close to the big wooden dhan and its blinking ‘winkie light’ that marked the end of the lines. All of this on decks that often rocked and rolled in tumbling seas and howling winds. Three shots in a week’s trip; by the second shot, sleep became a distant promise. We broke through a barrier of endurance somehow
KEMYEL CREASE, MOUSEHOLE
Beyond Kemyel is Mousehole where the coast is a turning point into the inner confines of Mount’s Bay and where the village seems to absorb the coast into its amphitheatre of granite houses that rises like a terraced cliff from the cove like harbour. Offshore lies Mousehole Island, St Clement’s Isle, a marker for outgoing and incoming Newlyn boats. The seaway changes here as you turn into a freshening sea when you’re bound away or ease out of the open mouth of the bay towards home when bound in across the reach of water known for centuries as Gwavas Lake, past Low Lee Buoy, past Penlee Point and all its noble ghosts.
The almost island is available from selected bookshops, galleries and other outlets in West Cornwall. To order copies direct, send a cheque for £10 (inc p&p), made payable to Des Hannigan, to: Trevowhan Farmhouse, Morvah, Penzance, Cornwall TR20 8YU
or email email@example.com