The Almost Island is a work of beauty – lyrical, evocative and closely-observed. Philip Marsden
If you read only one book about Cornwall this year, make sure it’s this one. Western Morning News
Had Des Hannigan not been a serial writer but a serial killer, had each of his written pieces been a body, the detective plotting where his victims lay would have observed from their littered position how that battlefield’s fallen pointed to someone living just where he lives. Quietly the house would have been surrounded and he would have been caught typing. Andrew Lanyon
The Almost Island and The Long Deep feature published work and new writing 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.
Both books tell of dramas at sea, climbing on remote cliffs, and explorations of the wilder reaches of 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 Almost Island and The Long Deep are published by SCRYFA and are available from selected bookshops, galleries and other outlets in West Cornwall and in Waterstones, Truro. To order copies, send a cheque for £10 (inc p&p), made payable to Des Hannigan, to:
Trevowhan Farmhouse, Morvah, Penzance, Cornwall TR20 8YU
or email for an order form:
EXCERPTS: THE ALMOST ISLAND & THE LONG DEEP
In the parish of Morvah, our weather forecast is written across the northern sky. No Met Office chart is as graphic as this. Squalls advance like vast grey barrage balloons. Rain hisses into the sea beneath them. The sea hackles frantically ahead and is then hosed flat. We calculate their courses and judge whether they will engulf us.
When squalls become full-throated Atlantic fronts, the Land’s End Peninsula buckles down against wind and rain. Morvah bears the brunt. We have a special code for hanging out washing at Morvah. A one-peg day means a sweet, unthreatening breeze; a two-peg day means brisk winds; a three-peg day means horizontal blasts; a four-peg day is notional; it means a full-blooded Force 8 or 9 gale – with gusts. We would never see our washing again.
Haul in the sheets and then sheet them in Before the next fell squall blows out
And takes the loosely-pinned
Into the blazing air and in a spin.
The sea is full of linen;
Lines of foam and fleeces flap
Beyond Manankas and the gap
Of Zawn Alley Isle.
They flit across the sky like semaphore gone wild,
A ragged line of letters single file,
Spelling out the sea’s rough lexicon,
Its texts, its tweets, its warning shout,
To haul the sheets in, pin them tight,
Before the next fell squall blows out.
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. (cont.)
There are lonely areas of sea where the ground deepens and sea becomes ocean. At night, this sense of ‘aloneness’ intensifies. It is not unpleasant. It is more a sense of detachment from the everyday. There is company; shipmates are sleeping below; the distant lights of other vessels post the watch; sailing companions are the moon and stars seen fitfully through racing clouds. At
times, in calm weather, dolphins keep pace to either side of the bows. They trail streams of phosphorescence in their wake.
The sea is fretful most of the time. A boat twists and turns like a restless horse. Random waves thud into the bows as rain and spray whip across the wheelhouse windows. Nothing is ever
still. Then, all you wish for is to come off watch and burrow deep into the bunk for a short respite before the next haul, the next lonely spell at the wheel.
If you spend many years at sea, the imprint never fades. The sea is a big beast. You may bury the anchor but even in crowded cities – especially in crowded cities – surrounded by the overwhelming artifice of fads and fashion, the sea heaves through your mind; those winds carry the fresh tang of salt, and they box the compass still.
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. (cont.)
The coast from Carn Vellan to Kenidjack Castle is crossgrained to the northwest. The cliffs rise in steps from the shoreline and the zawns below Botallack, Wheal Cock and Stamps-an-Jowl are deep, narrow and sunless. Botallack Zawn is the black heart of hidden Cornwall. It is access ble at low water if there is no swell; but even when the sea is slight, you can still get a faceful of the Atlantic if you misstimed the final traverse. The zawn lies between a soaring north cliff and a shorter overhanging south cliff. Polished boulders, as big as barrels, rumble between these black walls during storms. At the base of the north face, there are scooped-out basins in the rock floor. These have been formed by the sea spinning the boulders like quern stones before tossing them higher into the zawn from where they tumble back in the biggest pinball game in Cornwall. (cont.)
PENDEEN: LIGHTING UP WITH LAUGHTER
One of the great characters of Pendeen Lighthouse was a keeper called Handel Bluer. Handel ended his long career at Pendeen, but he had also served on the Longships off Land’s End and on the most iconic lighthouse of all, the Bishop, last outpost of the Isles of Scilly. The Bishop lies to the south of St Agnes and oversees the Western Rocks of Gilstone, Gorregan, Retarrier, Flemmings, Crim and Tearing Ledge.
Handel and I were both old Bishop hands, although my story was of frequent passage in fishing boats through the channel between the lighthouse and Flemmings Ledge where a red can buoy marked the way. More than once, in ugly weather, I would gladly have traded the heave of breaking seas around the Bishop for the lonely security of the lighthouse and a yarn or two with Handel.
Handel played bassoon in Pendeen Silver Band. He was unquestionably a man of music. His sons were christened Elgar and Haydn.There was music in the air on the annual Band Sunday when Pendeen Silver Band played at the lighthouse. The band’s conductor in the 1980s was Rushworth Harry, a lovely man. On Band Sunday, band members sat beneath the dazzling white tower of the lighthouse. Colourful signal flags were draped on the compound walls. Pendeeners, young and old, sat on the grass in their bright summer clothes. The music rang out under Rushworth’s impassioned conducting and the air filled with the sounds of Arnhem and such formidable test pieces as A Malvern Suite.
Offshore, the tide swirled fiercely around the reefs known as Three Stone Ore.
CAPE CORNWALL: STORM WATCH
At dawn, the wind came back to earth. Low water coincided with first light. The rocky outliers of the Brisons were ringed with boiling surf. There was a rout of broken water all the way down The Ridge, the mile-long reef that runs southeast to the rocks of the inner Greeb. Off Land’s End, a matching line of white water laced the shoal ground from the Longships to the Kettle’s Bottom reef. Storm waves are extraordinary in the true sense of the word. Each one is a potential killer pushed on by the one behind until Cornwall stops it in its tracks.
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 seal showed 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.
RISK: BIDDY’S GROUND, ISLES OF SCILLY
In late October 1980, I shot eight tiers of nets on Biddy’s Ground to the east of St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly. Leaving nets out so late in the year was a gamble, but catches of crawfish could be very good in late autumn. I took the risk. We ran home to Newlyn to wait until the tide eased. Two days later, a friend phoned from Scilly to warn me that a 150-foot Hull stern-dragger was inside the legal limit for her size and was towing mid-water for mackerel across Biddy’s Ground. This could prove disastrous to fixed gear if the trawler dragged the lines and dhans that were attached to the anchored nets.
We took off west immediately. Poor weather was forecast. When we reached Scilly, the trawler was gone. We searched fruitlessly for gear dhans. Most of the dhan lines were cut or tangled below surface. I had to tow a heavy ‘creeper’, a metal shaft with rows of ‘teeth’, across the estimated location of a net-end in hope of hooking into the net. Miraculously, we recovered all the gear. There was not too much damage to the nets and we had a decent haul of crawfish. That was it. I brought the nets home for the winter.
Alexander Reichardt: Fish & Olive Creations: fisholive.com
WORSE THINGS HAPPEN AT SEA
The Cornish fishing vessel, Sharon Corrina, had been working many miles from its home port of Newlyn and was closer to France than to Cornwall. The vessel had been at sea for a number of days. As they headed away from their gear, the crew heard a loud bang, startling in its suddenness. They had noticed earlier what they assumed were two military planes manoeuvring above them. Now, when they looked astern they saw a spreading circle of oil and debris on the sea’s surface. One of the planes had nose-dived into the sea. (cont.)
BAD TIMING AT PENZANCE
The entrance to Penzance harbour faces east-by-north. When there is a south-easterly gale, wind and swell can quickly sweep a boa beam-on past the harbour entrance. The trick is to ride the following sea as slowly and steadily as possible without losing way and then to begin the turn into the harbour as if the vessel is heading for the end of the seaward pier. Part way into the turn the swell will have already pushed the vessel broadside past the seaward pier, at which point a sharp burst of full power pops you through the harbour gaps pitching and rolling into quieter waters with the brakes on. Job done; exhilaration and relief all round.
At first light on that January morning, the Frenchman appeared to have mistimed his moves. There was no way back. (cont.)
There is a spaciousness about Bodmin Moor that mirrors the sea. The rough bounds of the east moor flow to either hand unbroken by substantial heights of land, although the moor’s granite undertow throws up ridges and tors that are like the sea’s reefs and offshore stacks, especially in winter.
On clear days, the view from Stowe’s Hill is far reaching. But it is the minutiae of this stark and bare-boned winter country that captures the eye; the dead bracken and grass, dusted with frost in the shade, the metallic glint of waterlogged ground and the razor-sharp edges of moorstone. At winter’s dead heart, the frost seeps through the veins of the rock and shatters the ground. In January, on a still day, on the summits of Stowe and Kilmar and on Sharptor and Langstone, when your breath is like smoke and the air smells sharp as blades, the cold of centuries rises through your feet, seeking your bones. Never stand still.
The Almost Island and The Long Deep are published by SCRYFA and are available from selected bookshops, galleries and other outlets in West Cornwall and in Waterstones, Truro. 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