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‘They wake, they work, they wait,
Then they fall,
Like the gulls call to the shore:
Ro an mor, ro an mor. ‘
February 2020 had been the hardest month, not through cold, no, but from the warnings sent in by the Atlantic. Even as March came, wet slate still glistened on the terraces each morning. I had postponed my journey long enough. So, on Tuesday 10th March 2020 I headed west to Newquay on the Great Western Railway.
Outside Plymouth, a fine, misting drizzle blew in from the sea. The promised sunshine of the vernal equinox had not yet materialised. After the change of trains at 10:10am, onto the Newquay branch line, I crossed Cornwall to its northern shore. From Par onwards to Quintrell Downs yellow gorse bushes were already in bloom. The railway had followed this course into Newquay since 1876. I was not due to meet my guide at Trenance Heritage Cottages, the museum of local life, until the following morning so I had the whole afternoon to lunch and explore the town.
From Newquay station it was easy to cross over the road to find fish and chips for lunch, and in the terraced dining area of number 9, Cliff Road, I had my first view down onto Great Western Beach. The name was used by Emma Smith as the title for her book where she looked back to her childhood in the late 1920s. After lunch, I walked west along Cliff Road, into East Street and went to buy a local newspaper at 27, Bank Street, just as Max Sebald always did on his explorations. I doubled back to talk with the staff in the tourist office on Marcus Hill; they told me about the outdoor museum, called Newquay Tree Walk, which had a large sweet chestnut tree (castanea sativa) that produced a good crop of edible chestnuts. Fore Street then took me north around the curve of Newquay Bay to reveal the new coffee bars and clothes shops, like London Girls Surf Club and Wet Dog Pizza Co. Finally, after I had spotted North Quay Hill, sloping steeply down on my right, I discovered my hotel, The Harbour.
The Harbour Hotel, and Harbour Fish & Grill, seemed an organic part of the rock face. It was a grain store, converted first into a house in the early 1900s, when Emma Smith still lived in Newquay, and then into a five-bedroom boutique hotel. What type of grain was stored here? Oats for the horses that pulled the tram along the quay below us? Or barley for malting at Trenance Heritage Cottages? In recipes for Cornish pasties, even as late as the 1980s, barley flour was still recommended for the pastry crust. A much earlier recipe was more specific and advised black barley. In July 2011 the Cornish pasty was granted PGI, Protected Geographical Indication by the European Commission. Cornwall employs 1800 people in pasty-making and sells £60 million worth of pasties a year. That’s about 6% of the county’s food economy. Now that Cornwall has left the protection of the EU, their status has been lost.
By 3pm I was sitting in the lounge terrace of the Harbour enjoying coffee and overlooking Harbour Beach. I suddenly realised that about 30 surfers were out in Newquay Bay catching waves that broke on Towan Beach, on the western side of the famous rock, named The Island; they were achieving runs of around six seconds. Exposed rocks made the entrance onto Great Western beach too treacherous for the surfers. I glanced through the newspaper, Newquay Voice dated from the previous week, Wednesday 4th March and was treated to a review of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit which was playing at the Lane Theatre. By 4pm I calculated that the tide was coming in and thus reducing the runs of the surfers down to three seconds. Eventually the Atlantic met the rocks, leaving the few surfers that remained no exit onto the sand to finish their run.
Aaron arrived in the lounge to talk about ethnobotany. He told me that his tiny orchard of one apple and one pear tree fruited earlier than most, we could see the black branches below from where we sat and talked. When he first experimented with the apples he had found that they had an almost savoury flavour because of the salt from sea spray. The flesh had very little pectin and was dry, almost powdery; this put me in mind of cider apples. He said the apples made great crisps. The thin slices stayed white and attractive for eating. It was a lot of labour to pick and prepare them but Harbour Beach apple crisps could extend the late summer season with a festival for the harvest. Juice from the pears of Newquay though, Aaron thought, would need the enthusiasm of a local winemaker to convert to sparkling perry.
When I’d made perry, I harvested fruit in August, which included windfalls, too. To pick from higher branches I had used a sock on a long pole. I ripened the collected pears in an outhouse for an extra week. Then fermented just one gallon in a glass demijohn for a month before bottling. Impatient, I tried the perry in early November but it was practically undrinkable and still very cloudy. On New Year’s Eve, though, my neighbours told me that the bottles I had given them were delicious and the wine a clear, very pale gold, thanks to careful pouring. The complexity of the pear, with its malic acid needs a second fermentation, it seems. The pear’s extension to Newquay’s season, then, would be not in the autumn but in March, the very time that I was here, to celebrate the uncorking of the winter perry. Tourism is created because the town’s artisan perry production is restricted in both time and place. We have to travel to the perry in its own season. Local producers must keep their nerve and not pasteurise, nor filter, not add sugar to preserve, not refrigerate nor move but wake and work and wait.
On Wednesday morning, I wanted to walk to Fistral beach to find the holiday apartments where we had stayed back in summer 1974. I set off before breakfast because the weather looked poor. It was windy and threatened rain again. I walked up North Quay Hill from my hotel, and at the crossroads I judged that Tower Road would lead me to Fistral Court Holiday Apartments. It would have done, but I wanted to see Fistral Beach. After a long, but gentle climb, unaware that I was walking away from Fistral Beach, I arrived at the junction with Pentire Road. This did not look hopeful. An empty car park, with wind coming in off the sea, left me lost and disappointed. I had misjudged the land on this plateau. The golf course here did, however, stir my memory from 46 years earlier. I had a strong recollection of parking on a plateau like this back in 1974. I walked over it to find a route down to the sea. It was a different land from the geology that I knew at 18. The sand-covered Devonian rocks had the quality of downs, or as Emma Smith says ‘the rabbity rough uptilting commonland of Pentire Head.’
It was 7:42am. I looked across at a Victorian hotel, way off on a headland but low in the sea. Dirty puddles surrounded me. Over in the north east sky, a postage stamp patch of blue appeared through the grey clouds. That was enough to make me turn back in the direction of the blue sky and head for breakfast. Fistral Beach would have to wait until I visited Newquay again.
As Aaron promised over breakfast, the sun did break through, and, fortified, I set off to walk across town to visit the heritage museum. Just after 9am, I reached Belushi’s at 35 Fore Street, and walked down to the cliff edge and turned to photograph the headland of North Quay Hill. My hotel was very clear from there, the last large building before the drop into the harbour. Then I made the climb up onto Mount Wise. I joined it just below the summit of Trenance Hill. As Emma says ‘On the seaward, or town side of the ridge … runs a road called Mount Wise.’ This is where she lived in 1924.
Then, like Emma one day in spring nearly a hundred years earlier, I made my ‘way down and down the further steep slope of Trenance Hill’ until on my left, I finally saw the museum in ‘Wilton’s cottage, which stands at right angles to and higher than the road.’ Walking down Trenance Road, I saw stone walls built with grey slate in a herringbone style to adjust the levels, like a terrace, to the falling slope. The stones were like chevrons pointing back and forth, and between them the first circular, fleshy leaves of pennywort. Spring had arrived after all. For Emma it had too, and she and her family collected the tips of nettles along the estuary of the River Gannel. Contemporary foragers say that pennywort makes an excellent salad leaf.
The crop most closely linked to Wilton’s, now the Heritage Museum, is barley. In the early 1800s the cottages were created from an old malthouse. When I explored the museum, I found that a small quantity of husks and a few grains had been framed, with a label saying that they had been found beneath the floorboards. I remembered seeing barley fields alongside the railway track on the way into Newquay. This was a local crop. Was there a way of updating barley scones or tray bakes to make this grain a part of life today in Newquay? I thought of a breakfast bar made from barley, the word in Cornish, is barlysen and breakfast, of course, is hansel. It would have helped me earlier in the day on my quest for Fistral Beach. I should experiment, cutting them into a shape for carrying to the beach.
1:10pm 11th March 2020. The end of the line. I waited beside Newquay branch line for the only train out of town on its single track. My guide at Wilton’s had told me that the trains were rare at this time of the year but more ran in the summer, bringing holidaymakers from London. I spotted a glazed, handmade tile that depicted the cottage museum on the low wall that marked off the station waiting area. I wondered if they knew this tile. With such infrequent services those tiles were probably well-known by locals dreaming of Par or even in their imaginations crossing the River Tamar to the city. I remembered the gorse that was flowering alongside the single track past Quintrell Downs and realised the meaning of the Cornish saying ‘Kissing’s out of season when gorse is out of bloom.’