CHAPTER I WINTERING IN WEST CORNWALL
England’s “observables”—Why I delayed visiting Cornwall—A vision of the Land’s End-Flight to St. Ives-Climate-The old town-The fishermen-Their love of children-Drowned babes—The fishing fleet going out at sunset-Old memories suggested-Jackdaws at St. Ives—Feeding the birds—A greedy sheep-dog-Daws show their intelligence—Daws on the roofs—Their morning pastime-Dialogue between two daws.
KNOW,” said wise old Fuller, “most of the rooms of thy native country before thou goest over the threshold thereof. Especially seeing England presents thee with so many observables.” But if we were to follow this advice there would be no getting out of the country at all. It is too rich in its way: the rooms are too many and too well-furnished with observables. Take my case. I have been going on rambles about the land for a good many years, and though the West Country had the greatest attraction for me, I never got over the Tamar, nor even so far as Plymouth, simply because I had not the time, albeit my time was my own. Or because there was enough and more than enough to satisfy me on this side of the boundary. It is true that one desires to see and know all places, but is in no hurry to go from a rich to a poor one. I was told by every one of my friends that it was the most interesting county in England, and doubtless it is so to them, but I knew it could not be so to me because of the comparative poverty of the fauna, seeing that the observables which chiefly draw me are the living creatures-the wild life-and not hills and valleys and granite and serpentine cliffs and seas of Mediterranean blue. These are but the setting of the shining living gems, and we know the finest of these, which gave most lustre to the scene, have been taken out and cast away.
Cornwall to me was just the Land’s End-“dark Bolerium, seat of storms”-that famous foreland of which a vast but misty picture formed in childhood remains in the mind, and if I ever felt any strong desire to visit Cornwall it was to look upon that scene. Then came a day in November, 1905, when, having settled to go away somewhere for a season, I all at once made up my mind to visit the unknown peninsula and to go straight away to the very end. It almost astonished me when I alighted from my train at St. Ives to think I had travelled three hundred and twenty odd miles with less discomfort and weariness than I usually experience on any journey of a hundred.
It is common, I think, for lovers of walking to dislike the railway. So smoothly had I been carried in this flight to the furthest west that I might have been sailing in a balloon; and as for the time occupied it would surely be no bad progress for a migrating bird, travelling, let us say, from Middlesex to Africa, to cover the distance I had come in a little more than seven hours!
St. Ives is on the north side of the rounded western extremity of Cornwall, and from the little green hill, called the “Island,” which rises above and partly shelters the town, you look out upon the wide Atlantic, the sea that has always a trouble on it and that cannot be quiet; and standing there with the great waves breaking on the black granite rocks at your feet, they will tell you that there is no land between you and America. Nevertheless, after London, I wanted no better climate; for though it rained heavily on many days in December and the wind blew with tremendous force, the temperature was singularly mild, with an agreeable softness in the air and sunshine breaking out on the cloudiest days. The weather could be described as “delicate” with tempestuous intervals. On bright, windless days I saw the peacock butterfly abroad and heard that idle song of the corn bunting, associated in our minds with green or yellow fields and sultry weather. I was still more surprised one day late in December at meeting with a lively wheatear, flitting from stone to stone near the Land’s End. This one had discovered that it was not necessary to fly all the way to North Africa to find a place to winter in. Early in February I found the adder abroad.
The town, viewed from the outside-the old fishing town, which does not include the numerous villas, terraces, and other modern erections on the neighbouring heights-appears very small indeed. It is small, for when you once master its intricacies you can walk through from end to end in about five or six minutes. But the houses are closely packed, or rather jumbled together with the narrowest and crookedest streets and courts in which to get about or up and down. They have a look of individuality, like a crowd of big rough men pushing and elbowing one another for room, and you can see how this haphazard condition has come about when you stumble by chance on a huge mass of rock thrusting up out of the earth among the houses. There was, in fact, just this little sheltered depression in a stony place to build upon, and the first settlers, no doubt, set their houses just where and how they could among the rocks, and when more room was wanted more rocks were broken down and other houses added until the town as we find it resulted. It is all rude and irregular, as if produced by chance or nature, and altogether reminds one of a rabbit warren or the interior of an ants’ nest.
It cannot be nice to live in such a warren or rookery, except to those who were born in it; nevertheless it is curiously attractive, and I, although a disliker of towns or congeries of houses, found a novel pleasure in poking about it, getting into doorways and chance openings to be out of the way of a passing cart which as a rule would take up the whole width of the street. Outside the houses hung the wet oilskins and big sea-boots to dry, and at the doors women with shawls over their heads stand gossiping. When the men are asleep or away and the children at school these appear to be the only inhabitants, except the cats. You find one at every few yards usually occupied with the head of a mackerel or herring. The appearance was perhaps even better by night when the narrow crooked ways are very dark except at some rare spot where a lamp casts a mysterious light on some quaint old corner building and affords a glimpse into a dimly-seen street beyond ending in deep gloom.
In this nest or hive are packed about eight hundred fishermen with their wives and children, their old fathers and mothers, and other members of the community who do not go in the boats. The fishermen are the most interesting in appearance; it is a relief, a positive pleasure to see in England a people clothed not in that ugly dress which is now so universal, but in one suitable to their own life and work—their ponderous sea-boots and short shirt-shaped oilies of many shades of colour from dirty white and pale yellow to deep reds and maroons. In speech and manners they are rough and brusque, and this, too, like their dress and lurching gait, comes, as it were, by nature; for of all occupations, this of wresting a poor and precarious livelihood from the wind-vexed seas under the black night skies in their open boats is assuredly the hardest and most trying to a man’s temper. The navvy and the quarryman, the labourer on the land, here where the land is half rock, even the tin-miner deep down in the bowels of the earth, have a less discomfortable and anxious life. That they are not satisfied with it one soon discovers; Canada calls them, and Africa, and other distant lands, and unhappily, as in most places, it is always the best men that go. Possibly this accounts for the change for the worse in the people which some have noted in recent years. Nevertheless they are a good people still, righteous in their own peculiar way, and so independent that in bad times, as when the fishing fails, hunger and cold are more endurable to them than charity. They are a clannish people, and it is consequently not to be wondered at that they have no subscription clubs or friendly societies of any kind to aid them in times of want and sickness such as are now almost universal among the working classes. These benefits of our civilisation will doubtless come to them in time: then their clannishness-the old “One and All” spirit of Cornishmen generally-being no longer needed, will decay. It is after all but another word for solidarity, the strong, natural, or family bond which unites the members of a community which was once, in ruder ages, everywhere, to make social life possible, and has survived here solely because of Cornwall’s isolated position. Unfortunately we cannot make any advance-cannot gain anything anywhere without a corresponding loss somewhere. Will it be better for this people when the change comes-when the machine we call “civilisation” has taken the place of the spirit of mutual help in the members of the community? ‘Tis an idle question, since we cannot have two systems of life. At present, in our “backward” districts, we have two, but they are in perpetual conflict, and one must overcome the other; and if there be any beautiful growths in the old and unfit, which is passing away, they must undoubtedly perish with it.
One of the most pleasing traits of the Cornish people, which is but one manifestation of the spirit I have been speaking about, is their love for little children. Nowhere in the kingdom, town or country, do you see a brighter, happier, better-dressed company of small children than here in the narrow stony ways of the old fishing town. The rudest men exhibit a strange tenderness towards their little ones; and not only their own, since they regard all children with a kind of parental feeling. An incident which occurred in the early part of December, and its effects on the people, may be given here as an illustration. One morning when the boats came in it was reported that one of the men had been lost. “Poor fellow!” was all that was said about it. And that is how it is all the world over among men who have dangerous occupations: the loss of a comrade is a not uncommon experience, and the shock is very slight and quickly vanishes. But there was no such indifference when, two or three days later, one of the herring-boats brought in the corpse of a small child which had been fished up in the Bay-a pretty little well-nourished boy, decently dressed, aged about two years and a half. Where the child belonged and how it came to be in the sea was not discovered until long afterwards, but the intensity of the feeling displayed was a surprise to me. For several days little else was talked of both in St. Ives and the villages and farms in the neighbourhood, and they talked of it, both men and women, with tears in their voices as though the death of this unknown child had been a personal loss.
This incident served to recall others, of St. Ives children lost and drowned in past years, especially this very pathetic one of three little things who went out to pick flowers one afternoon and were lost.
They were two sisters, aged eight and nine respectively, and their little brother, about six or seven years old. They rambled along the rough heath by Carbis Bay to the Towans, near Lelant, where, climbing about among the sand-hills, they lost all sense of direction. There meeting a man who spoke roughly to them and ordered them home they became terrified and ran away to the sea-front, and, climbing down the cliff, hid themselves in a cave they found there. By and by it began to grow dark, and there were sounds above as of loud talking and shouts and of a galloping horse, all which added to their fear and caused them to go further into their dark wet house of refuge. They did not know, poor children, that the cries were uttered by those who were seeking for them! After dark the tide rose and covered the sandy floor of the cave, and to escape it they climbed on to a rocky shelf where they could keep dry, and there huddled together to keep warm, and being very tired, they eventually fell asleep. In the morning when it grew light the sisters woke, stiff and cold, to find that their poor little brother had fallen from the ledge in his sleep and had been carried out by the sea. His body was recovered later. The two survivors, now middle-aged women, still live in the town.
The most interesting hour of the day at St. Ives was in the afternoon or evening, the time depending on the tide, when the men issued from their houses and came lurching down the little crooked stone streets and courts to the cove or harbour to get the boats out for the night’s fishing. It is a very small harbour in the corner of the bay-a roughly shaped half-moon with two little stone piers for horns, with just room enough inside to accommodate the fleet of about 150 boats. The best spectacle is when they are taken out at or near sunset in fair weather, when the subdued light gives a touch of tenderness and mystery to sea and sky, and the boats, singly, in twos and threes, and in groups of half a dozen, drift out from the harbour and go away in a kind of procession over the sea. The black forms on the moving darkening water and the shapely deep-red sails glowing in the level light have then a beauty, an expression, which comes as a surprise to one unaccustomed to such a scene. The expression is due to association-to vague suggestions of a resemblance in this to other scenes. We may be unable to recall them; the feeling returns but without the mental image of the scene which originally produced it. It was not until I had watched the boats going out on two or three successive evenings that an ancient memory returned to me.
Sitting or walking by the margin of some wide lake or marsh in a distant land, I am watching a company of birds of some large majestic kind-stork, wood-ibis, or flamingo-standing at rest in the shallow water, which reflects their forms. By and by one of the birds steps out of the crowd and moves leisurely away, then, slowly unfolding his broad wings, launches himself on the air and goes off, flying very low over the water. Another follows, then, after an interval, another, then still others, in twos and threes and halfdozens, until the last bird has opened his wings and the entire flock is seen moving away in a loose procession over the lake.
Just in that way did the crowd of boats move by degrees from their resting-place, shake out their wing-like sails, and stream away over the sea.
That was one scene; there were faint suggestions of many others, only a few of which I could recover; one was of large, dark red-winged butterflies, seen at rest with closed wings, congregated on wind-swayed reeds and other slender plants. It was the shape and deep red colour of the sails and the way they hung from the masts and cordage which restored this butterfly picture to my mind. And in every instance in which a resemblance could be traced it turned out to be to some natural and invariably to a beautiful object or scene. The spectacle had, in fact, that charm, which is so rare in man’s work, of something wholly natural, which fits into the scene and is part and parcel with nature itself.
In buildings we get a similar effect at the two extremes-in the humblest and the highest work of man’s hands; in the small old thatched and rose-and creeper-covered cottage in perfect harmony with its surroundings, and in ancient majestic castles and cathedrals, in which the sharp lines and contours have been blurred by decay of the material and the whole surface weathered and stained with lichen and alga and in many cases partially draped with ivy.
It struck me before I had been long in St. Ives that, in spite of the delightful mildness of the climate and the charm of the place, nobody but myself was wintering there. The lodging-houses were quite empty; the people were the natives or else the artists, who form a pretty numerous colony. The few others to be seen were visitors for the day from Penzance, Falmouth, or some other spot in the “Cornish Riviera.” This was not a cause of regret, seeing there were birds for society, especially that old favourite, the jackdaw.
Doubtless he is to be seen there all the year round as he is so common a town bird all over the country, but at St. Ives many of the cliffbreeding daws settle down regularly for the winter and exist very comfortably on the fish and other refuse thrown into the streets. Very soon I established a sort of friendship with a few of these birds; for birds I must have, in town or country-free birds I mean, as the captive bird only makes me melancholy—and in winter I feed them whether they are in want or not. It is an old habit of mine, first practised in early life in June and July, the cold winter months in the southern hemisphere, in a land where the English sparrow was not. Now, unhappily, he is there and a great deal too abundant. I fed a better sparrow in those vanished days, smaller and more prettily shaped than our bird, with a small crest on his head and a sweet delicate little song. But in England one really gets far more pleasure from feeding the birds on account of the number of different species which are willing to be our pensioners. At St. Ives I first stayed at a house in The Terrace facing the sea-front, and there were no gardens there, so that I had to feed them out in the road. First there were only sparrows, then a pair of jackdaws turned up, and soon others joined them until I had about a score of them. By and by a very big shaggy sheep-dog, belonging to a carter, discovered that there was food to be got at eight o’clock at that spot in the road, and he too came very punctually every day and thoughtlessly gobbled it all up himself. After two or three days of this sort of thing, I felt that it ought not to be allowed to continue, and as the daws were of the same mind and loyally seconded my efforts to stop it we were soon successful. My plan was to go out and scatter the scraps and crusts far and wide over the road, and while the greedy dog galloped about from crust to crust the daws, hovering overhead, dropped down and snatched them one by one away before he could reach them.
Later, when leaving St. Ives, I asked the landlady to explain to the birds on the following morning the reason of there being nothing for them, and to request them to go quietly away. They were very intelligent, I said, and would understand; but on my return, a month later, she said they had not understood the message, or had not believed her, as they had continued to come for several mornings, and had seemed very much put out. It was plain they had kept an eye on that house during my absence, for on going out with scraps on the morning after my return they promptly reappeared in full force on the scene.
There are few persons to feed the birds in those parts, and those few, I fancy, are mostly visitors from other counties. It amused me to see how the natives regarded my action; the passer-by would stop and examine the scraps or crusts, then stare at me, and finally depart with a puzzled expression on his countenance, or perhaps smiling at the ridiculous thing he had witnessed.
The following winter (1906-7) I found a lodging in another part of the town, in a terrace rather high up, where I could look from my window at the Bay over the tiled roofs of the old town. Here I had a front garden to feed the birds in, and, better still, the entire jackdaw population of St. Ives, living on the roofs as is their custom, were under my eyes and could be observed very comfortably. I discovered that they filled up a good deal of their vacant time each morning in visiting the chimneys from which smoke issued, just to inform themselves, as it seemed, what was being cooked for breakfast. This was their pastime and watching them was mine. Numbers of daws would be seen, singly, in pairs, and in groups of three or four to half a dozen, sitting on the roofs all over the place. As the morning progressed and more and more chimneys sent out smoke, they would become active visiting the chimneys, where, perching on the rims, they would put their heads down to get the smell rising from the pot or frying-pan on the fire below. If a bird remained long perched on a chimney-pot, his neighbours would quickly conclude that he had come upon a particularly interesting smell and rush off to share it with him. When the birds were too many there would be a struggle for places, and occasionally it happened that a puff of dense black smoke would drive them all off together.
A dozen incidents of this kind could be witnessed any morning, and I was as much entertained as if I had been observing not birds but a lot of lively, tricky little black men with grey pates inhabiting the roofs. One morning when watching a pair perched facing each other on a chimney-top their movements and gestures made me imagine that I knew just what they were saying.
First one leaning over the rim would thrust his head down into the smoke and keep it there some time, the other would follow suit, then pulling themselves up they would stare at each other for half a minute, then poke their heads down again.
“A funny smell that!” one says. “I can’t quite make it out, and yet I seem to know what it is.”
“Red herring,” suggests the other.
“Nonsense! I know that smell well enough. But I grant you it’s just a little like it, only-what shall I say?-this is a thicker sort of smell.”
“I’ll just have another good sniff,” says the second bird. “H’m! I wonder if it’s some very old pilchards they’ve found stowed away in some corner?”
“No,” says the first bird, pulling his head out of the smoke and blinking his wicked little grey eyes. “It isn’t pilchards. Just one more sniff. I’ve got it! A very old piece of dry salted conger they’re broiling on the coals.”
“By Jove, you’re right this time! It is a good thick smell! I only wish I could drop down the flue, snatch up that bit of conger, and get clear away with it.”
“You’d soon have a jolly lot of jacks after you, I fancy. Hullo! what are those fellows making such a to-do about—down there on that chimney-pot? Let’s go and find out.”
And away they fly, to drop down and fight for places among the others.
Categories: English Literature