Cornwall vs Devon: Part III

On which side of the border do the muses' loyalties lie?

There remains one important area we have so far left untouched. Yes: it is time to plough the green and pleasant field of English letters.

Cornwall has the better musicians, Devon the better cream teas, but which county has the better writers? And what can they tell us about England’s southwest corner? And what the actual shit, you enquire politely, have they got to do with surfing?


Daphne du Maurier, who lived for a large portion of her life on Cornwall’s sheltered south coast, drew on the duchy in much of her work, most notably in Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, both later adapted by Hitchcock. John le Carré also deals in suspense, but he plots his cliff-hangers from a more favourable stretch of coastline. The master of the Cold War spy thriller has lived just along from Sennen Cove for over 40 years, and owns a mile of clifftop in the area… jealously guarding a top secret slab, perhaps?

Another important 20th century novelist, William Golding, was born in Newquay and spent much of his childhood there, though little of his adult life. It seems unlikely that the Nobel laureate and Lord Of The Flies author ever shredded Little Fistral, and when he did return to Cornwall as an old man he set up in the inland village of Perranarworthal (see also: Nomenclature).

We mustn’t forget poet and historian A. L. Rowse, of course, who memorably wrote of his home county: “This was the land of my content.” These words now adorn a memorial near Black Head, which heralds Rowse as “the voice of Cornwall”. Born into poverty in St. Austell, the son of a barely literate miner, Rowse became — remarkably — a prominent Oxford scholar, famous for his strident views and withering dismissals of anyone who didn’t share them. A keen homosexual for most of his life, he recanted somewhat in old age, explaining, “of course, I used to be a homo; but now, when it doesn’t matter, if anything I’m a hetero.” I’ve not read them, but I daresay Tudor Cornwall and A Cornish Childhood, works of history and autobiography respectively, are riveting.

“Of course, I used to be a homo; but now, when it doesn’t matter, if anything I’m a hetero”

The Cornish have another eloquent champion in Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984. Originally from London, Betjeman spent the summers of his childhood on the north coast and later moved there permanently, though he always considered himself something of a foreigner in Cornwall, maintaining that it wasn’t truly part of England. The poet’s favourite walk took him along the stretch of clifftop — “this turfy mile” — between Trebetherick and the average and intensely crowded beachbreak of Polzeath, via the church where he is now buried. In Betjeman’s prelapsarian Cornwall the beginner hordes were yet to descend, enabling him to write, in ‘Delectable Duchy’, of “The golden and unpeopled bays, / The shadowy cliffs and sheep-worn ways; / The white unpopulated surf, / The thyme-and-mushroom scented turf.”

“The white unpopulated surf…” Polzeath. Photo: iStock

Naturally, Betjeman was familiar with Brown Willy (see: Nomenclature), and even granted it a mention in one of his poems, titled — not inappropriately — ‘Summoned by Bells’:

Here, in his deafness and his loneliness,
My father’s sad grey eyes in gathering dusk
Saw Roughtor and Brown Willy hide the view
Of that bold coast-line where he was not born

All very impressive, but a brief survey of Devonian literature would suggest that the muses’ loyalties lie on Devon’s side of the border. One oft cited example comes to us from Charles Kingsley, an author who is seldom read nowadays but wrote several bestsellers in the mid 19th century. His historical novel Westward Ho!, set partly on the North Devon coast, was one of them, and its title was taken as the name for a village founded shortly after the book’s publication. Westward Ho!, just south of Saunton, even has its own beach break, albeit an unremarkable one.

Then there is Agatha Christie, who besides being the best-selling novelist of all time and a born and bred Devonshire lass, was also a bonafide real-life shredder — one of Britain’s first. In 1922, whilst holidaying with her husband in South Africa, the doyenne of detective fiction rode prone upon a thin, wooden bodyboard, and later that year, now in Hawaii, took up surfing on her feet. As she wrote in her memoirs many years later, she “learned to become expert — or at any rate expert from the European point of view.” A bit like Jeremy Flores, then. She spent several months at Honolulu that year and surfed regularly, taking to the waves of Waikiki in a “wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well!” Agatha, you fox.

Agatha Christie at Honolulu, 1922.

We also find in her memoirs this lovely description of the surfing experience:

“Oh, it was heaven! Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seemed to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves.”

Perhaps even more to the point was a remark made by Anne Beddingfield, heroine of Christie’s 1924 novel The Man in the Brown Suit. “Surfing is like that,” she says. “You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.” How true.

“Surfing is like that. You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.”

Going back another hundred years, the Romantic poets had a very close affinity with Devon. In particular they were drawn to the village of Lynmouth on the north coast, home to one of England’s best point breaks — a long left-hander breaking over a boulder bottom. Indeed, it was on the way back from Lynton, the town perched just above the village, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had his famous opium-induced dream, in which he later claimed to have composed the poem ‘Kubla Khan’. Might a leg-burning, mind-altering left-hander also have contributed to the poet’s inspired reverie?

Coleridge, originally from the Devon town of Ottery St Mary, explained in the preface to the poem that he had been returning to his Somerset lodgings when he stopped to rest for the night at a farm house. A dose of opium prescribed to treat “a slight indisposition” — he later developed a serious addiction to the drug — caused the poet to fall into a profound sleep lasting about three hours, during which he “could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines”. On waking he retained the lines complete in his memory, and had hurriedly transcribed perhaps a third of them when he was interrupted by some pillock on business from the neighbouring town of Porlock. By the time he returned to his room over an hour later, the remainder of the poem had mostly vanished from his mind.

Percy Bysshe Shelley. Engraving by W. Finden.

Wordsworth also spent time in Lynmouth, often joining Coleridge on his walks through the region’s hills, but it was Percy Bysshe Shelley, following in their footsteps some 15 years later, who developed the deepest attachment to the place. He honeymooned in Lynmouth in 1812 after eloping with 16-year old Harriet Westbrook, and it was there that he wrote much of his long poem ‘Queen Mab’, as well as the radical pamphlet ‘Declaration of Rights’.

It was summer at the time so it’s unlikely he ever saw the point firing, but that’s not to say Shelley didn’t get wet. He set about distributing his insurrectionary propaganda sealed inside corked bottles or borne by toy ships, which he let out to sea from Lynmouth’s rocky shore. (They weren’t called the Romantics for nothing.) Several of these vessels were intercepted by revenue cutters, one even turning up on the other side of the Bristol Channel, and the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth was duly informed. The reporting naval officer, possibly overestimating the danger, warned that “this novel mode of disseminating their pernicious opinions [could reach] many hundreds . . . and do incalculable damage.” It’s a nice thought. The prospect had seemed both real and intolerable, however, to certain Lynmouth residents, who went out in boats — real ones — specially to retrieve Shelley’s messages.

The newlyweds found the village enchanting and spent the entire summer there, but their stay came to an end when Shelley’s servant was arrested in Barnstaple for circulating his master’s works, and sentenced to six months in jail. Under observation and fearing for his own freedom, Shelley journeyed west to Ilfracombe, and from there boarded a boat across the Bristol Channel to Wales.



The Verdict

That makes the whole thing a draw, by my count — a winning draw for Devon, seeing as Norfolk took out the pasty category and they weren’t really playing. Chalk it up as a Devon moral victory. Soz Cornwall.

Oh sure, it’s been pointless, this little exercise, but no more pointless than arguing over the precise number of degrees in Albee Layer’s latest air, and so much more edifying. Think of all we’ve learnt. Think of all the girls and boys that will melt at your feet when you explain to them the mechanics of the Brown Willy Effect.




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