Little England?

Starting At The End


View of the amazing  Cornish coastline. Photos by Gargi Shastri

I take a deep breath and plunge into the darkness. I’m not keen on narrow, dark tunnels and this particular one, deep below the Cornish countryside, is as narrow and dark as they come. It’s easy to forget that on the surface lies some of the most beautiful, rugged coastline in all of the United Kingdom. I try to quell my rising claustrophobia, especially when a Welshman behind us gasps for breath and talks of his “weak (hea) art”. But our guide soon calms our group and recreates the world of a Cornish miner.

As I listen to him tell the history of Geevor Tin Mine, I realise what a lifeline this ancient industry was to Cornwall. He explains how the miners would descend into the mine shafts at day break with nothing but shovels and sturdy shoes (without socks) and work for up to 12 hours. Some would dig so near the seabed they could hear the Atlantic Ocean raging just above their heads! Former miner at Geevor Cyril Raymond Honey tells me that it was camaraderie that kept him going. “At those depths,” he says, “it was my fellow miners who became my immediate family.” As I climb towards the light, I’m filled with awe for an ancient industry. I also can’t wait to discover what’s above ground in the rest of stunning Cornwall.

I begin my journey at the end. Land’s End to be precise. The Land’s End peninsula is the very last leg of the UK. This south westerly region is home to some of the country’s most vivid landscapes — golden beaches, turquoise waters, rugged cliffs and, further inland, sub-tropical gardens and quintessential English countryside. Or, rather, Cornish countryside. Because the Cornish have a proud local identity and culture, and the rest of the UK is often generalised into just one short phrase — “Up Country”. I’m told that, as I’m a tourist, I have a special name, too. “Emmett”. It means ant. Because during the summer Cornwall is crawling like an ant hill with tourists! I feel thankful for timing my visit in May, just before the mad summer season. And in truth the Cornish come across as a warm and hospitable people, ready to show you their beautiful backyard. You’re never too far from the sea in Cornwall and, for one family, it’s a constant companion. I’m visiting the St Aubyn family of St Michael’s Mount. This 11th-century castle rises above an island in the middle of the sea, just a short distance from the seaside town of Marazion in Land’s End. When the tide is out, a cobbled causeway links the Mount to the mainland and at other times the only access is by ferry. St Michael’s Mount started out as a priory in the 11th century, became a fortress during the civil war and finally a home to its aristocratic owners in the Victorian era.

James St Aubyn, of this historic family, tells me of the curious life he shares with a small handful of inhabitants on the Mount. “A strong sense of community develops when you’re removed from the mainland,” he says. “The best part about it is the sea, which is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s always changing and has many moods.”

The castle itself is a joy to explore. Each room is a glimpse into the Mount’s past as a monastery, fortress and private Victorian home. No castle is complete without its resident ghost and my guide informs me that I’ve just missed the Lady in Grey — a former servant who patrols the long corridors at approximately 3 pm every day. I hop onto the ferry back to the mainland, with a quick look back towards the castle to make sure the Lady in Grey isn’t following.

My next stop is further into mid Cornwall and the delightful fishing town of Mevagissey. Narrow cobbled streets lead to a busy fishing harbour. But there’s a strange air about town today. Shadowy figures in eye patches and cloaks amble along the main promenade. I’ve walked into the middle of a pirate festival! With a little trepidation, I walk up to a heavily bearded man with a parrot on his shoulder. His name is Juan Barbalager — Spanish for Wayne Longbeard — a mechanic by trade and a part-time pirate. Wayne tells me being a pirate has been a childhood dream and he’s now part of a reenactment group. The evening is spent humming along to sea shanties and watching swordfights and brawls.

Cornwall’s reputation as a sub-tropical haven is best experienced in one of its many gardens. My curiosity is piqued by the intriguingly named Lost Gardens of Heligan. The gardens, which are also in mid Cornwall near the towns of Truro and St Austell, have a fascinating history. They were the seat of the Tremayne family for almost 400 years. During the Great War they fell into neglect and were largely forgotten about until the 1990s, when they were rediscovered and restored to their former glory. My spring visit is perfectly timed and I marvel at the sub-tropical palms, camellias and rhododendrons all around.

As my holiday nears its end, my host tells me no visit to Cornwall is complete without sampling a Cornish pasty. This local delicacy started out as the staple food of miners and is now an integral part of the Cornish diet. For a proper understanding of the pasty, I make my way back to Land’s End and to the hugely popular Philps’ Bakery in the town of Hayle.

Neil Philp, proprietor at Philps’, explains how the pasty started out as a Cornish miner’s dinner, with one end of the pastry parcel filled with a sweet dish and the other end with a savoury one. Today his most popular flavours are steak, mince and a veggie cheese option. “At summertime we can’t make enough,” says Neil. I take a giant bite of the crispy, crumbly pasty and wait for the steaming hot vegetables and cheese to melt in my mouth. It’s absolutely divine. A parting shot from my host: “Think of it as the Cornish samosa.”

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