It’s a long way to Cornwall, especially if you have designs on reaching the far end. I broke the journey by staying with my friend in Totnes, and still had over two hours travel the following morning. It gave me a sense of how angry the protagonists of the 1497 Cornish rebellion must have been. Anything less than an all-consuming rage would have mellowed into wondering if the cat had been put out and an overwhelming desire to get on with redecorating the back bedroom long before they’d crossed the Tamar.
The bloody and failed consequences of the rebellion still seem to cast a long shadow. Born of excessive taxation on the tin wealth of the Duchy, one might say nothing has changed. A king’s ransom in metals extracted, and still the poorest county in England, behind only West Wales in Northern Europe. Cornwall is a county that resources leave.
My first destination was Truro. A stunted cathedral city, three grand spires and not much else. The silted up harbour stank of old mud. I parked in a council estate on top of the hill and walked in. The gutters were running with water, but it had been dry. These were waterways, not to simply drain the excess but to carry living streams through town. Cut of solid stones, they were ancient and deep and carried the water past the frontages of what was now Santander and the Co-op. Truro was built for a grandeur that never really materialised. A provincial town that constructed a magnificent cathedral in expectation of success that didn’t come, stuck out on a limb at the end of the country. Truro wasn’t on the way to anywhere.
I busked on the pedestrianised street by the cathedral, opposite ‘Jabba the Cutt’ barbers. It was slow going. A man covered in so many bandages and slings that he could easily pass for a Mr Bump Cosplay made his way up the road, with a sad raise of an eyebrow that said ‘I’d give you a coin or two if only reaching for it didn’t hurt so much’.
An hour later I packed up and counted my meagre takings. Less than a tenner. Cornwall was going to be tough. No point wasting time on a bad pitch, much better to get walking. Another busker was playing classical guitar outside Fatface. He wasn’t doing much better than me. I took stock of the streets.
The city centre was a dense nugget of national chains. Around them, a looser belt of coffee shops, vegetarian coffee shops, vegan coffee shops, vegan cafes, vegetarian sandwich shops. There was a clear theme. On one street a vegetarian cafe faced a vegan cafe. Both were empty and the motionless bearded proprietors stared impotently through their windows at one another. In Burger king, ten doors down, the locals queued out of the door, more than forty of them.
Folks in search of an alternative life away from the maddening crush of the big city had moved West, drawn by the warmer climate, the rural nature of the county, and perhaps just that inevitable Westward drift that eventually seizes all the migratory animals. Cornwall is a big cul-de-sac, a long peninsula, and they’d drifted till they could drift no further, mounding up in the towns and villages like a plague of hairy ladybirds, perpetually in waiting for new lands to form further out, or the fleet to finally arrive and take them away to the undying lands. The poorer ones had soon needed work, and sticking to what they knew, had opened shops in their image. Truro was full of cafes that the locals had no use for, each selling the finest coffee, and each new opening reducing the custom for the others by however many fellow migratory staff they employed. It didn’t look sustainable. Would some shed their surfboards like fallen wings and give it up for the big city again? Truro had two completely parallel communities, utterly immiscible.
Nobody had any money. The wanderers had squandered what little they had on their follies and the natives had nothing to begin with. I tried busking on Lemon quay. It was even worse. An open space where my fiddle should carry well, instead I felt lost and invisible. Truro was never going to be a busker’s town. I crossed the peninsula.
It was no longer the summer season. The kids were back at school. Perhaps St Ives would be quiet. I walked in from the cliff tops and saw the whole town below me, vital and crisp in the famous light, pulsing and energetic with movement. Countless bodies moved on the harbour front with a randomness of direction that felt anarchical. To describe such a sight as like an ant-hill may be a cliché, but nothing else would do.
On the harbour front, there were signs that read ‘Do not feed the gulls, do not teach them’. I bought a sandwich and a sausage roll and sat on a rare free spot on a bench on the sheer wall facing into the harbour. A large grey gull came my way along the pavement and repeatedly squeaked at me for attention, cocking its head. Do not teach them. I aimed a lazy kick at it and my foot caught in the strap of my fiddle case, sending my entire life’s worth sliding towards the Atlantic. I had a moment of utter panic before realising that my kick was too limp to send it tumbling over the edge. The gull had easily sidestepped to the right and remained fixated on my sausage roll, untroubled by my moment of panic. There was a lesson in this, probably.
In common with most seaside towns, the main shopping street is one back from the quay. It writhes, tight sided and narrow, and was extremely busy. The only busking spot I could find was set back slightly in the large blue rear doors of a church. Things were a bit better here and I started to make a few coins. I’d been going half an hour when the shop opposite me suddenly produced an irate baker who ordered me to move on, explaining that the by-laws only permitted 20 minutes in each spot. I searched online and found this to be true.
“I’ve had banjos, saxophones, and ukeleles all bloody day! Please just go away!” she implored, almost in tears.
‘Do not feed the buskers. Do not teach them’ I thought to myself and slunk off without further argument.
I walked round the edge of town searching for a quiet spot to gather my thoughts. On the rocks, above the falling tide, I counted out what I’d made. £15 in half an hour. A good hourly rate, but a terrible overall amount for an afternoon. It was 5pm and St Ives was shutting down for the day.
Feeling unloved, poor, and far from home, I climbed the hill back to my car. A man was restoring a huge marine diesel in his garage, and had run the exhaust pipe 100ft down the drive in a wiggly aluminium tube to the road where the open end ejected cheery clouds of smoke whilst saying ‘Blomp-blomp-blomp-blomp” to anyone passing by.
The town was emptying in a huddle of buses, all vying for slots in the single lane roads. Crowds waited agitatedly at the loading points, tired parents promising fish and chips to unplacated and listless children. A town famous for the light, and the consequent artistic world that had grown beneath this natural lamp, St Ives was now top-heavy with armies of the curious. A place so utterly frenetic and overwhelmed that no artist would find a working peace. There wasn’t a lot to do but walk through quaint but overcrowded streets and consume. It was all so pointlessly nice. It would be fascinating to come back on a wet Tuesday in March. Maybe Berwick was like this now, the town I’d seen in the pouring rain back in March, almost deserted, new spring shoots yet to show through the soil. Maybe not. This Cornwall is a magnet, a county that belongs far more to the incomer and the tourist than the local, little packages of character and quintessence parcelled up and sold for export like the metals of the past, to dress the mantelpieces of England and beyond, to colour the conversations over winter dinner parties, never to return. In the soft light, the colour was being drained out. Tourists acting as sponges, soaking it up drip by drip. St Ives was what the visitors demanded of it.
I got in my car and drove, heading further down the peninsula. The county becomes narrow and squeezed, identical ruined engine houses marking the spots where a lode of tin once burst out into the open and was chased back underground by generations of miners. The engine houses represent pumping and drainage and allowed the mines to extend under the sea, providing access to new and deeper ore. Each ruin stood above miles of tunnels, three-dimensional cobwebs pushing out under the thick blue water. The county’s presence felt so much wider than the land.
The last town in England is St Just, a surprisingly bleak place on a shallow hill with a striking frontier feel to it, like the gallows have only recently and reluctantly been taken down. A small central square with 3 pubs, a couple of takeaways and a few shops was the extent of it. I had no choice but to eat on a budget, and chose the pizza takeaway on the basis of their £6 offer.
My busking coins for the day were few and low value. After my pizza and picking up 3 bottles of beer for a fiver from the St Just Co-op, there was no chance of affording anywhere to stay. I set off through the country lanes of deepest Cornwall in search of a lay-by to park up for the night. By the Sancreed Beacon, a Bronze age settlement overlooking the cleft between Lizard and Land’s End, the two trailing legs of the country, there was a long space off the hollowed out road and I parked up at the back.
I watched the world come to a halt for the day. Staying in one’s car in the countryside is calming. There’s suddenly nothing to do, no more stimulation, no more conversation. I’d become increasingly jealous of the other travel writers I’d been trying to read as I’d travelled round and how they always seem to have so much time to read other people’s writing. Paul Theroux routinely appears to pack an extra suitcase of quality literature to read on his journeys. I suppose if you’re already successful, you don’t need to be earning money as you go, and the time opens up accordingly. Something to aspire to! With an hour of daylight left and my notes all written up, I suddenly had time for a proper read.
I moved to the passenger seat so I wouldn’t get done for drink-driving and cracked open a beer. Paul Theroux was travelling through Malawi in a paddle canoe. I was marooned in Cornwall in a shabby red Volvo with £8 to my name. The light was fading. A car pulled up at the far end of the lay-by. A young couple got out carrying a blanket, full of intent. In the falling dusk, they clearly didn’t see me as they headed excitedly hand in hand towards the wild and ancient unenclosed lands to my left. To quote Blaster Bates, the gentleman definitely did a little pole vault over the style. They moved out of sight and I continued my book. After a disappointingly short time, they were back and moving on. I gave them a thumbs up and a cheery wave as they passed my car. It was not returned.
The light went completely. Funny how the body responds so strongly to these cues when given a blanket of true darkness. It was 9:30pm and everything said bedtime. I bunked down in the back end of my car, and opened the windows a crack. Silence and peace.
I was not fully asleep when a series of noises started. Bassy and coming towards me, like thunder but felt in vibrations. With growing alarm I flicked the internal lights on. There was nothing in sight all round the car through the windows. What the hell? Badgers. Under my car. When you’re in search of the answer, half asleep, and the obvious has been ruled out, a ridiculous answer makes sense. I jumped out with my torch and shone it under the car. There were no badgers. Above me though, the answer loomed in long faces. Horses leaning over the hedge from the much higher field, falsely enormous in the dark were taking an interest in my car, and more were galloping towards the hedge, the hooves on soft soil making the vibrations I’d felt when all else was silent. Silhouetted against the night, they were a peaceful resolution of my situation. I gave the ring-leader an apple from my garden I had been saving for tomorrow. My offering was suitably votive, and I was returned to peace beneath the clear black skies and above the plundered tin lodes. Tomorrow was another day and £8 would buy some sort of breakfast.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!