The first time I went to Cornwall, what I noticed was the light. 2020 had been a year of lockdowns and in between, in a brief lull when things opened tentatively, we came to one of the Southernmost points in England and stayed in a small village. The sun was already setting after our six- hour drive from the city that day and it should have been dark already, only it wasn’t. The light pink and blue over the Atlantic hung like a gossamer cobweb over the landscape of houses and cliffs and the ocean became one with the sky in the horizon. Darkness was coming, I could see that, but in that brief moment between day and dusk I saw what had been missing for me in London. I saw how darkness was not just the absence of light. Dark contained spaces of light unhindered by the shadows of buildings and human endeavor and commercial gains. Where had this dark been my whole life? Here the darkness is not man- made. It feels like the nights of our origin.
For the first time since our arrival to England a year ago, I felt something other than the despair of lockdowns and the anxieties of homeschooling and the logistics of grocery shopping. That “something” is difficult to put into words but it is not hope that I am trying to describe, it is a darkness deeper than light.
In the last year, since our first visit, we have gone again and again. My husband and I sold our home in Seattle, borrowed money from his father and bought a home on auction in a village close to the South West Coast Path. The house is uninhabitable, uninsulated, broken windows, asbestos but the wild space around it holds apples and plums and pears and a promise that if we tilled the earth, we could grow more and perhaps we could wild ourselves.
It is now the end of 2021. We are here again in Cornwall. We leave the city whenever we can. Last week, at about the half way point on our drive over from London, the light changed. I felt it in my body as the buildings of the city fell away one by one, playthings built like lego blocks and the earth opened into the distance. It was the landscape reclaiming itself from us.
The glasshouse on our land is a collection of glass on a steel frame, the narrow entrance difficult to pass through, blocked by the overgrown bushes of grapes and blackberries and bramble. I can see inside a cactus dying in a corner and plants whose names I don’t yet know. I clear the entrance and I pull the weeds. Around us on the land and within the house lie asbestos that we only find later had not been cleared as promised by the contractor. My husband throws away his jacket and jeans and shoes after we realize that he had been cleaning out debris mixed in how much asbestos, we don’t know. But the realization of the harm we have done to the natural world is not a theoretical idea.
Dreaming of a home in nature was an idyllic creation of our imagination spurred by the pandemic that had blocked us in the concrete walls of a rented house in the city. The reality of owning one now is not just about cleaning bramble and getting asbestos properly disposed of. Our contractor has fled with the money he was given. Perhaps the darkness was too much for him. On our own, with the last of our resources gone, we have very little idea or knowledge about how to create that home in the wild. I imagine the green taking over the house, ivy in the gutter, coming out of the rusted taps, windows blown out by storms, wind in the hallways. The edifice crumbling to the forces of nature. Perhaps that is how it should be.
We are back now in London. At nights I wake to the calls of foxes that roam this city at night. I lie awake in bed listening to them until I can’t hear them anymore.
2 thoughts on “Seeking the wild”
I have never commented on a blog before and have no idea what I am doing now but I really needed to reach out to you. I hope this doesn’t get posted anywhere public…but I am so ‘mind blown’ as my children say.
I live in Mullion and have put in an offer on your house just this weekend! I am a writer too – unpublished – but compelled to write. I feel exactly the same as you do about Cornwall. I have lived here for well over thirty years and at the moment we are living in a rented house about 1 minute’s walk from Karuna.
As soon as I put my foot across the threshold of your house I could feel it wrapping me up. It is an extraordinary forgotten place hiding in and behind its enormous hedges and wild garden. Intriguing and very, very still. Waiting. I felt it observing me as much as I was observing it.
I bought a house at auction in 2014 in Penzance. A sad, beautiful but empty, long forgotten house on Chapel Street. It called me in and I was its servant from the first moment. Oh my goodness, it had so many problems. It was quietly collapsing and I could find absolutely no-one to take on the dangerous repairs of a four storey house. I tried and tried to find a builder and finally ended up with two lovely lads who drove 60 miles each day to do the work. I later found out that one had just been released after two years in prison for setting up a weed farm. I loved these two lads for their total dedication to the job – who were being given a second chance by the lads brother who was a builder. They never deserted me and for that I had so much love and respect. I mothered them and we laughed so much each day as the collapsing ‘spine wall’ was very carefully dismantled and methodically rebuilt. I drove away from the house each day on my way back to Mullion wondering if the house would still be standing the next day. As I would arrive in the morning having driven 25 miles after the school run drop off, I would see the single light bulb on in the basement of the house and know the day of rebuilding had already started.
This was the project of a lifetime – my defining achievement I like to think! I learned so much over the two years it took to renovate the house. I loved the house with every scrap of my being no matter what. We too ran out of money and everything fell silent in the house. We couldn’t get a mortgage either as it had no bathroom or kitchen. My children saw the trouble and my sadness and the youngest offered us the use of his legacy from my mother. My daughter bought me some beautiful and expensive wall paper out of her nursing bursary money – wallpaper for me to hang when the house was silent. To cheer me up.
We eventually moved into the house just as Lockdown happened and we got to know the house for the first time as a home. It is the most beautiful Georgian house built in 1734. We swam in the harbour every day throughout Lockdown and thought we were the most fortunate family in the whole world. The weather was a gift, the sea was our friend and the road outside was quiet. And running through all this was my complete love for the house filled with sunlight, that was now happy and well and ready to face anything.
But like you we were living next door to an famous and very old pub.
With the lifting of lockdown everything changed! We had been so used to living in a beautiful, peaceful house in a totally silent town. And before that we had lived out in the wild on the cliffs in a National Trust property that we rented just above Mullion.
The silence was shattered. Everyone came to Penzance and went completely mad. I helped several young people who woke me up with their shouting – some too drunk to remember where they lived. I realized slowly that I was so on edge living in town and I missed the wilds of the cliffs in Mullion so much that we eventually parted with the house.
I love that house beyond compare. It was very hard to leave but I know I have given the house a future and the new owners are absolutely perfect as its new guardians. I have become friends with them and I visit Penzance regularly for swims at Battery Rocks. We meet up and I know the house is in very good hands.
You must feel so sad about your house and the journey you were taken on by your builder. But you won’t ever lose the feeling you had for its beauty, wildness and mystery. Houses are such important vessels – they soak up our joys and our sadness, our secrets and triumphs. They keep us safe and at times drive us to the brink of despair. They weather storms and losses and give us space to be creative…and they are there long after we have gone. You are part of that house without a doubt.
I hope I have not done the wrong thing writing this. I just felt I knew your sadness and wanted to tell you that there is so much ahead for you no matter where you go. You will again find the warm embrace of darkness that you found in Cornwall and the incredible light that makes the spirits soar.
I am so glad I found your blog x
I finally was able to log in to read your beautiful comment. Thank you so much for reading, encouraging, sharing. It lifted me up.