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England - At The Edge Of The Land

( Originally Published 1910 )[an error occurred while processing this directive]

LESLIE STEPHEN always had one irresistible argument to use when he wanted the companionship of James Russell Lowell at St. Ives. " I argued," Stephen has recorded, " that one main charm of the Land's End to him was that nothing intervened between it and Massachusetts."

Perhaps that did not exhaust the attractiveness of the district for Lowell. " Every year," Stephen wrote, " we paid a visit to Land's End. He confirmed my rooted belief that it is one of the most beautiful headlands in the world. He admitted that our Cornish sea can be as blue as the Mediterranean, to which in other respects it has an obvious superiority." But it was not with the Mediterranean that Lowell's thoughts were most busy ; " Cornwall," he said, " has St. Erth's in it, where sometimes one has beatific visions. I find a strange pleasure in that name too, so homely and motherly, as if some pope had suddenly bethought himself to canonize this dear old Earth of ours so good to us all, and give the body as well as the soul a share in those blessed things."

In that reflection may be found the clue to the fascination which the westmost land of Cornwall has possessed for others than Lowell and Stephen. Hither, to the same ideal head-quarters of St. Ives, years earlier than the visits of those two friends, once came F. Max Miller for an autumnal vacation. The great scholar soon found his ears and eyes assailed by names of fields and lanes and stones and houses and villages such as held rich treasures for his philological imagination. " I wish I could stay here longer," he wrote, " it is a delightful neighbour-hood and full of interest. Now and then one feels very near the old world. How careless people are about Celtic antiquities ; while they sendoff men-of-war to fetch home the lions and bulls of Nineveh, farmers are allowed to pull down cromlechs and caves, and use the stones for pig-styes." Still later in his visit Max Miller confessed that he would " gladly give up Oxford and settle here, in a cottage by the sea shore, and finish my edition and translation of the Veda. . . . The air here is so invigorating and life so easy, natural, and uninterrupted by society, that one feels up to any amount of work."

One feels very near the old world. Such is the secret of the spell cast over all alike at the edge of the land. That nearness to the old world is largely owing to the fact that St. Ives and its vicinity have been brought into touch with the new world only within the last generation. A century and a half ago William Borlase, the Gilbert White of Cornwall, noted that the situation of the county, " secluded in a manner from the rest of Britain, renders it, like all distant objects, less distinctly seen by the polite, learned, and busy world." What was true of Cornwall as a whole a hundred and fifty years ago remained true of St. Ives and its hinterland within recent memory.

Even yet the " polite, learned, and busy world " does not concern itself overmuch with this remote district. The iron road from London bifurcates at that St. Erth of Lowell's " beatific visions," sending out one arm to Penzance on the south coast and another to St. Ives on the north, and in each place its glittering track comes to a definite end. Westward of those termini lies a compact little country where one still " feels very near the old world," where the spirit if not the letter of the Latin poet's ancient lines yet holds good :

Of Titan's monstrous race,
Only some few disturb'd that happy place;
Raw hides they wore for clothes, their drink was blood,
Rocks were their dining-rooms, their prey their food.
Their cups some hollow trunk, their bed a groove,
Murder their sport, and violence their love.

Fortunate, indeed, were Max Miller, and Lowell, and Stephen in their choice of St. Ives for their headquarters at the edge of the land. They might have gone to Penzance instead, Penzance which is new without brightness and old without quaintness. Such buildings as are new at St. Ives have the saving grace of their quality; such as are old — by far the majority --wear their years with archaic charm.

Perhaps that difference explains why the " learned " world finds itself most at home in St. Ives. Even the most inobservant visitor cannot remain many days in this quaint fishing-town without discovering that he is surrounded by authors and artists. Not a few of the most notable writers of the younger generation have made their home here, and novel after novel by Charles Marriott, and Harold Begbie, and Guy Thorne betrays the influence of the environment in which it was penned.

Still larger and more potent in its influence is the artist colony of St. Ives. The painters who have located their studios here number more than half a hundred, but their pupils many of whom come from the United States and Canada swell the colony to several times that total. Various circumstances account for the existence of this large band of painters. Apart from the prime factor that the vicinity provides unlimited wealth of pictorial material in simple landscape or the ever-changing aspect of the sea, the decay of the fishing industry has forced many a sail-loft out of its legitimate business and opened the way for its transformation into an artist's studio at a moderate cost. Consequently almost every alternate rambling shed looking out on the bay of St. Ives no longer hoards the sails and spars of fishing craft, but is given over instead to canvas of another kind and to paints and easels and maul-sticks.

Disused sail-lofts have their natural corollary in deserted fishermen's cottages, and in those humble dwellings the artists find their economical homes for two thirds of the year, renting them for the remaining third to summer visitors. Hence the barb of the local satire : " They call themselves artists, and all they do is to take a house and then let it for double the rent."

Nor does the native point of view stop at a shrewd suspicion that some of the artists find greater profit in their subletting enterprises than in their labours at the easel. Clinging to their Bohemianism in spite of the nearness of " the old world," some of the painters forgot at first to respect the Sabbatarian and other prejudices of their simple neighbours. Out of that forgetfulness grew contempt. Thus one local legend tells of a driver who, when his horse had fallen, after exhausting his usual vocabulary, resorted to, " Get up you d---d artist ! " And another St. Ives anecdote relates how a native questioned a young lady visitor thus : " You're not one of they artists, are you ? " Heedless of the answer, " No ; I wish I was," the native found himself able to reach the comforting conclusion, " Ah, I thought you was a lady."

Models are plentiful for the painters of St. Ives. Toilers of the sea reddened by wind and spray and sun ; anxious wives whose eager faces reflect the weary watchings of stormy nights ; peasants of farm and moor; here and there a wrinkled miner, a survival of an industry almost forgotten ; supple boys and girls fair and swarthy, garbed in the rough but picturesque raiment of fishermen's children. These latter the painters lure into their studios without motherly preparation for formal " sittings," only to provoke the expostulation : " I don't like my children sent dirty all over the world. They ain't always dirty."

British art owes not alone to the St. Ives colony those translucent seascapes which are its most conspicuous product; it is indebted further for many a canvas which seeks to reveal the inner spirit of dissenting religious life. Methodism, and other severely simple forms of Christian faith, can count many adherents in St. Ives, and these pious souls have not been unnoted by the painters who dwell in their midst. There have already passed into the history of British art not a few canvases which have depicted the dissenters of St. Ives at their devotions, and it is the chief merit of those pictures that they have pierced through the homeliness of rude worshippers and glorified the soul of their faith. For all their adoption of an eighteenth-century fashion of the Christian creed, these lowly worshippers preserve the unquestioning assurance of a long-past age, and they as well as their land seem to bring one " very near the old world."

Apart from its church, St. Ives cannot boast any buildings of ornate pretensions. The houses are simple, stone-built structures for the most part, harmonizing faithfully with the remoteness of the town's general atmosphere, and following in irregular lines the abrupt and rapid ascents and descents of the narrow and tortuous streets. Few of those streets have any sidewalks, a deficiency which throws the pedestrian on his resources when meeting a chance vehicle, but they are so rich in delightful nooks and corners that no one would have them other than they are.

And there are other compensations. From the high land at the back of the town, and at each turn in the road on the descent, or through the gaps of the huddled houses, there come ever and anon glimpses of the bay of St. Ives, unrivalled along all the coast of England for its broad curving sweep or its placid aspect. From the Island point on the west to Godrevy on the east is a distance of but three short miles, and the farthest shore of the bay is but a couple of miles from the open sea. A small stage for the pageantry of nature, but sufficient. The scene is hardly for an hour the same. Now it is framed with the verdant ridge of the curving shore ; anon a silver veil obliterates that dividing line and mingles the picture with the illimitable heavens. And the waters beneath are as changeful as the clouds above. This hour they will throw back the deep blue of the upper spaces ; the next they will change chameleon-like to the hue of the sands they lave. And ever, amid all the transitions of light and colour, there is the voice, the caressing voice of the sea.

Yet the harbour is close at hand, the harbour where the labour of man rather than the repose of nature is the dominant note. Save during the calm of the day of rest, here is the centre cf activity in St. Ives. Mounds of baskets and boxes speak of the awaited harvest of the sea, and that is an idle hour when boats are not coming to land with their freights, or carts are not being backed down in the shallow water to the side of some laden craft. Higher up on the beach, strown with the dark wrack of the sea, or littered with cordage and chains and anchors, such of the fishing fleet as need repairs recline at a picturesque angle, the graceful lines of the boats rendered still more attractive by being seen through the smoke ascending from beneath cauldrons of boiling tar.

Fourteen miles westward from St. Ives the last rocks of England drop downward into the wide Atlantic. The country between is mostly moorland, lifting itself now and then into a hilly summit, barren of trees, and fronting the gaze of man with a strangely impassive aspect. The dominant colour is the greyish hue of ancient granite, relieved in patches with the green and gold of gorse or the purple of heather. Odd shaped boulders are scattered everywhere over the landscape, and everything seems to belong to the past. The very stone fences that skirt the roads and divide the landscape into irregular plots are so amorphous in shape and so stained by time that each boulder might challenge belief as a relic of the Druidic age. No wonder Max Müller felt " very near the old world."

Often in roaming through this hinterland the explorer finds the skyline broken by a pertinent reminder of far-off days. It will take the form of a square stone-built structure having at its side a slender, overtopping chimneyshaft, and enquiry will elicit the information that this building is but one of the countless engine-houses which mark the sites of the abandoned mines of Cornwall.

Among the legends of the county is one which offers an ingenious explanation of how tin came to be discovered in Cornwall:

" S. Piran came over from Ireland in a coracle, and, like a prudent man, brought with him a bottle of whisky. On landing on the north coast he found that there was a hermit there named Chigwidden. The latter was quite agreeable to be friends with the new corner, who was full of Irish tales, Irish blarney, and had, to boot, a bottle of Irish whisky. Who would not love a stranger under the circumstances ?

Brothers Chigwidden and Piran drank up the bottle.

" 'By dad,' said Piran, 'bothered if there be another dhrop to be squeezed out ! Never mind, my spiritual brother, I'll show you how to distil the crayture. Pile me up some stones, and we'll get up the devil of a fire, and we shall make enough to expel the deuce out of ould Cornwall.'

" So Chigwidden collected a number of black stones, and the two saints made a fine fire when, lo! out of the black stones thus exposed to the heat ran a stream like liquid silver. Thus was tin discovered."

That picturesque legend would place the discovery of tin in Cornwall somewhere in the fifth century. Unfortunately for the legend, the ancients came to Cornwall for tin many centuries before Piran and Chigwidden celebrated their friendship over a bottle of Irish whisky. Diodorus, who dates back to the closing half of the century before Christ, speaks of the inhabitants of the extremity of Britain who " prepare tin, working very skilfully the earth which produces it." And they continued to work " very skilfully " for many centuries. A hundred years ago the tin and copper mines of Cornwall produced metal to the value of about one million pounds annually. But that is a prosperity of the past. Owing primarily to the discovery of surface tin, which can be more cheaply worked, and to a less degree to rash and dishonest speculation, the mining industry of Cornwall has practically ceased to exist, its only memorials being these silent engine-houses, which, with their vacant windows, have the appearance of stolid giants watching the landscape with eyeless sockets.

But even that calamity is not without its bright side. William Borlase, the devoted county historian already alluded to, had to confess, a century and a half ago, that the air of Cornwall was not all that could be desired. " As there are so many mines in Cornwall," he wrote, " and most of them yield sulphur, vitriol, mundic, and gossan, they cannot but affect the air with their steams in proportion to the quantity yielded by the mine, and the facility with which their parts separate and ascend into the atmosphere." It must have grieved Mr. Borlase to make that confession, especially as he was not ignorant of the fact that an Elizabethan writer had declared that the " ayre " of Cornwall " is cleansed, as with bellowes, by the billows, and flowing and ebbing of the sea, and there through becommeth pure and subtle, and by consequence, healthfull." Well, the faithful shade of Mr. Borlase must rejoice that his own one-time truthful record must now give place to the Elizabethan eulogy owing to the abandonment of those " so many mines."

Turn which way he will, the explorer of this Cornish hinterland finds his feet pressing on ancient landmarks. Among the sand dunes near Godrevy lighthouse he can lay his hands on the stones of the oldest Christian building in England, the oratory of St. Gwithian, one of the numerous Irish saints who sailed into St. Ives' bay in the fifth and sixth centuries. A few miles southward from St. Ives he can climb to the ruins of Castle-an- Dinas and explore the narrow apartments of a stronghold which was a royal residence in the long-dead years when Cornwall was a kingdom in its own right.

Or, if he would delve farther back into the past, and appreciate to the full the sentiment of close contact with Max Miller's " old world," let him seek out Chapel Carn Brea Hill, where the swing of the broad Atlantic against the last iron rocks of England will form no unfitting accompaniment to his meditations. On this hill, the last in all England and a beacon well known to those sailing from the west, he will reach back with more than imagination to the Stone Age. On the crown of the hill are the foundation stones of a Christian edifice, but below that is a dolmen of the Age of Bronze, and beneath that again is a giant's cave of the Age of Stone. Nowhere in all England shall the explorer get nearer the " old world " than that.

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