There is a small traditional fishing town in Cornwall called Mevagissey. I don’t know why but my mind meanders into its narrow steep streets that wrap themselves around tiny old cottages of cob and slate, maybe because it is a lovely sunny day here, and the waters of the Hudson are that calming shade of cerulean that makes you think of all things sprightly. In Mevagissey, Adi and I met a pasty lover. An English Cocker Spaniel who after bathing in the waters on a bright spring day filled with sunshine had pattered in with a pasty in his mouth, looking quite so solemn. He brought humour to that musty shop we were in, brimming with old camping junk and odd ends, old compasses, rusted lanterns, war memorabilia, grouchy old man behind the till.
Mevagissey named after two Irish saints is a modest place where you trudge up a maze of streets that taper up and down, past boutiques, cafés and chip shops. Locals still make their living from fishing, carrying on the legacy of fishing that has been part of its history like Looe which eked out a living from pilchards and smuggling. Pilchard was its backbone to the extent that pilchard oil lent electricity to Mevagissey which happened to be one of the first among the villages in the county to be thus powered up.
The surprise waiting for me in the village was a 18th century building on the harbour that turned out to be a small (and free) museum. A long time ago in that building — the roofs of which were constructed out of beams acquired from smugglers — they would have made boats for smuggling and repaired them. The passage of time has lent it a more sober personality as a museum where it documents life as it would have been in the village in times bygone. You tend to gawp at a different mode of life, a more simplistic one that you would have probably read about or imagined. Great oak beams, a big hearth that would have been warm once, cloam oven and butter churn, barley thresher and cider press. Trappings of another age and time. Oh and how delighted was I to find out that I was in the village that was home to the founder of Pears – you know that oval glycerine soap we all grew up with.
The harbour on which the museum stands is the nerve centre of all action. From it the aforementioned narrow alleys radiate into cliffs hugged by the rows of cosy cottages. Now, drama unrolls with great lucidity before the eyes if you find yourself on the harbour. Courting couples, fathers dealing with tantrums of lads aiming to challenge fearless gulls strutting around for a nibble of your meal please, families sitting along the edges of the harbour with their large polystyrene boxes stuffed with fish and chips, the motley crew of sail boats waiting patiently in the inner harbour.
The end result of the tootling around Mevagissey is that your appetite works itself up, gunning for a huge pasty or fish and chips. You know which it would be. I would peg it on peer pressure (all those people dipping into the contents of their boxes) and a heady mix of aromas wafting out of the doors of the chip shop. For along with the salty smell of the sea hanging thick in the air, you have to cope with those whiffs, or just capitulate. The tang of vinegar and lingering notes of fish frying. Surely you can smell it…
On Sunday afternoons, Mrs Thurlow used to read the newspapers she would collect carefully over the week. It was her way of living other lives. She of the ‘flat heavy feet pounding painfully along under mud-stained skirts, her face and body ugly with lumpy angles of bone’, so much so that she is likened to a ‘beast of burden’ by the writer H.E. Bates in his short story ‘The Ox’. Like Mrs Thurlow, we live other lives and our collective imagination, I would think, goes into a tizzy when we read our instalment of news. Mine is at the end of every day, when I am tucked into the duvet, comfortable and ready to dive into these other worlds. I do not wait till Sunday because the world moves fast. I would be left far behind. Plus there is the habit of reading 20 newspapers ingrained into me by one of my bosses who used to stomp into the newspaper office early in the afternoon and quiz us about the news we had not covered in our paper (because it prided itself on being the best in the city of Delhi) and importantly Why we had missed it. With a fluttering heart, because it was my first job, I would sit and scan each and every news item like my life depended upon it. Now, I like to read only those pieces that make me sit up. The rest are merely headlines to be skimmed.
You must be thinking, ‘What, no more waffling about the autumnal colours of Bayonne?’ I would clobber myself if I bang on about it in one more post. As I was reading the news last night, you know drivel about how Meghan Markle who has just scored a prince may not be so all out there as she seems, I spotted a news item about a historic foundry shutting its doors on Thursday — a couple of days later in fact. The newspaper photos looked familiar. I peered into my phone in the dark of the night and realised, why we had been there earlier this year. I remembered the derelict foundry, careworn and in a shambles. Places that look like they have been left to their own devices tend to excite the imagination, don’t they? To add to which, it had been a rather dramatic walk.
On a brooding English morning in March, we were in the town of Ironbridge in Shropshire, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. As you can imagine, everything in England is antiquated. So is the bridge here from which the town derives its name. Across the muddy River Severn and a deep gorge spans the world’s first iron bridge which was opened to the public in 1781. Naturally it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might possibly like to ink it in if you find yourself romping around the county of Shropshire.
Traditional dark pubs with low-hanging wooden beams, winding roads into the bleak countryside, sepia-tinted churches and hotels, towns and villages built under the aegis of ironworks and coal. A hearty pub lunch after a fight over my insistence upon a walk in the woods, one of the few ideas I had culled from the woman at the old tollhouse in Ironbridge. Smouldering skies and husband. Utter nonchalance on my part. Every walk has to after all begin with a fight. Traditions are not to be scoffed at, after all.
That’s how we sauntered into the village of Coalbrookdale, the home of the British AGA cast iron cooker which is synonymous with country living in the UK. The cast iron for the cookers were so long manufactured in the foundry at Coalbrookdale. Now, it shall be shut forever. The end of an era and of 300 years of ironwork in the village. Actually if I confess, I had already imagined it to be an abandoned factory. Why else would there be cracked and boarded-up windows, gaping holes in the exterior…? A clutch of farmhouses with plots of garden behind them, and a brooding church looming high above the village, line up across the foundry.
Once, it would have been dark and grimy, a place enveloped by the sulfurous fumes of coal released from the ironworks. People in the hamlet of Coalbrookdale would have had great difficulty breathing in its sooty air, I would imagine. And yet there lay the beginnings of a dynasty of ironmasters, the Darby family who owned the foundry. But today it rests quiet and green, a hamlet marked by industrial cottages and elegant country homes where the Quaker Darbys lived. I did find an approximation of how it would have looked – through the painting of a Franco-British painter called Philip James de Loutherbourg. This portly artist toured England and Wales during the Industrial Revolution to capture the misery of the times in his paintings.
Back in the present, we passed by some old women in their wellies caked with mud — this made me look at my polka-dotted trainers in alarm. The unsuitability of my footwear was driven further home when it started pouring and I fell into a smelly bog — Adi laughing helplessly the entire way because the walk had been my idea and he found deep comfort in the retribution that fate holds in its fists. And it was not once that I tumbled into the bog. Yes, it happened again, much to the delight of my husband.
The day somehow (don’t ask me how) brightened, and the skies turned beautifully blue, but the smell, oh that ghastly smell, how it clung to me. That smell came back to me yesterday night, ripe and robust, along with the memories of our rambles around Coalbrookdale.
During an Easter break in 2015, we arrived at a Victorian cottage called Sunnybank, positioned high above the village of Looe, upon a hilly road. It was in the late hours of night when we reached it and yet we were stumped by the quaint prettiness of the village strung together by festive fairy lights, the sound of the sea in the backdrop crashing against the rocks and emphasising upon the solitude of our cottage. In the morning, we found the windows of the living room opening out to views of the sea one side, and on the other, rows of cottages clinging to the sides of cliffs in a higgledy-piggledy manner. The river Looe split the town into East Looe and West Looe, and while it remained dry for the best part of the day, tidal waters would stream in through an inlet and the boats would start bobbing prettily. On the harbour stood the bronze sculpture of a one-eyed seal called Nelson who had adopted it as home for about 25 years. Here Nelson had lived a full life, entertaining locals with his antics and sunning himself upon the rocks, till he died in 2003.
In the village of Nelson the seal, we were in the more bustling quarter of East Looe. Everyday we would trudge up a steep road to our cottage from the network of streets below — where pubs such as Smugglers Cote and Ye Olde Jolly Sailor livened up things with stories of smuggling and privateering. While sitting at the Smugglers’ Cote one morning, we heard about an old tunnel that was discovered there, which lead all the way to the fishing quay.
A story goes that the landlady of Ye Olde Jolly Sailor hid a contraband keg beneath her petticoats during a sudden raid and knitted away with poise as her quarters were searched. Almost 20 per cent of the government’s excise duty was lost through smuggling and yet the Cornish smuggled away with impunity for the simple reason that they knew that the excise men from London were five days away by stagecoach from Cornwall.
There are no smugglers today though – just shark anglers, who operate on a policy of catching and releasing the shark, and avid crabbers. We did not catch shark angling, but we did notice little girls and their fathers crabbing away at the river while we hunted for ice creams and cakes.
To make the stomach rumble, because that is what holidays are meant for, we had a host of pasty shops to choose from. Bacon, cheese and leek; potato and leek; onion and pickle; steak and stilton… Life is pasty-some in Looe. You could lunch like a miner and feel rum about it. There are a smattering of creperies, Thai restaurants, cafés and bakeries too if you overdo the pasty aspect of the holiday. The idea for us was to eat our way through town and if we felt the need for more (which I always do), there was a bookshop up a hill where the books were beautiful, their pages yellowed by time, and the wonderful welcome smell of nostalgia hitting the right notes as you entered the shop. It was a treasure house of tomes — that old shop. The lady who sat at the till always had time for a natter, sharing notes on out-of-the-way authors like Anne Radcliffe who could infuse her tales with the supernatural effortlessly…why Radcliffe you might ask, because she is not quite popular, is she? Jane Austen poked fun at the tenor of Radcliffe’s Gothic novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’, if you remember. But the lady of the shop had written books on Radcliffe, as it turned out, and I was not about to pull an Austen on her. Plus I had found myself engaged by Radcliffe’s brand of electrifying novels which are difficult to lay aside even for a second.
After days of mooching around the narrow alleys of Looe, exploring the other nearby villages of Polperro, Mevagissey and Fowey, solving puzzles lying around at Sunnybank, on our last night in Looe, we spent time on the sandy stretch of beach beneath a sky riddled with stars. Here smugglers would have unloaded their contraband goods decades ago. Off its coast stood the dark outline of Looe Island where goods used to be discreetly dumped too. I could picture it. The silhouette of a ship as it pulled in with 400-500 men on board – but mooring a little away from the shore. Then smaller boats would have been sent out to the beach with booties of brandy, rum and gin, men scurrying nimbly to get their goods under the cover of the night. And to the fervent mind came Rudyard Kipling’s ‘A Smuggler’s Song’:
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.
The Cornish landscape in my mind is branded with swashbuckling smugglers, hidden coves, stormy seas and vast swathes of moors, ever since I got sucked into the vortex of Daphne du Maurier’s world. How tales of smuggling fill the imagination with romantic connotations.
Time has a habit of standing still in England’s south western county of Cornwall. The towns and villages retain a vibe of simplicity. This is how it must have been in the old days, you think, as you hear stories of fishing and smuggling that go hand in hand with the narrow, cobbled lanes of these hilly outposts of the Cornish southeast quarter.
Yet the picture was bleak during the 18th century when an economic crisis had Britain in its grips because it was fighting the American War of Independence, and in the scheme of things, taxes were at an all-time high in the country. Quality salt, key to preserving pilchards in the fishing communities of Cornwall, and which was imported from Brittany and Spain was taxed heavily. Three hundred miles from Westminster, the scene was ripe for smuggling. It turned into a way of life for an entire community — vicars and teachers included.
A sparkling summer’s day of ice cream, coffee and a soul-satisfying breakfast in a café in Fowey was the perfect foil to my daydreams on a bank holiday weekend in 2015. Adi and I were on a four-day break with friends in the traditional fishing town of Looe near Fowey, putting up in a Victorian cottage, which is matter for another post.
Fowey itself is a picture painted with coves, old-fashioned country cottages trailing up and down steep roads, country churches and smart boutiques where prices make the eyebrows touch the scalp. We trawled the length and breadth of it, mooching around bookshops, (me) sighing over pretty ornaments in shops and Adi conveniently turning a deaf ear to those sighs. Nearby is the picturesque Readymoney Cove above which sits a former coach house. Daphne had sought refuge there during WWII to sort out her messed up life. You see, her husband was away at war setting up the country’s first airborne division, while she was taken in by a couple in Hertfordshire. But the fly in the ointment was Daphne herself. She was caught in an embrace with the husband of her hostess. Stories of unbearable loneliness, turbulent emotions, heartache…
Later after we had explored its nook and corners, we sat by the harbour. The waters hypnotised us under the mellow rays of the afternoon sun. Dangling my legs from the brick walls of the old harbour, I watched the machinations of ancient Fowey – bold gulls swooping across the estuary while wailing above our heads – as pretty coloured boats chugged in. And I thought of the young Daphne whose whitewashed cottage stood across the river. The 19-year-old who had noted fervently in her diary: ‘All I want is to be at Fowey. Nothing and no one else.’
The lingering smell of must has to be one of the most ghastly smells out there. I could make a list of the ones that get my goat but here’s one that aces the list. Since morning I have been trying to rid my hands of the must from a malodorous dish scrubber – with generous dabs of lavender soap and cream – yet the whiff of it. As Italians sum up such emotional situations in two voluble words, mamma mia… enough of my diatribes, I should get on with collecting my thoughts and putting them down here before the must of time takes over them.
Like that cold and grey day in early 2013 when we stepped into the fresh market square of Northampton. The prelude to it was a warning from Adi: ‘Northampton does not have much going for it’. Now the joy of my life has a tendency to undersell places. When I went to Lincoln with him, he had warned me similarly. That there was nothing much to it till I chanced upon the cathedral city that can live only in a quaint English dream. The crux of it is that busy as he gets with work, he leaves it to me to be his eyes and ears until he finds time to double up as my fellow explorer.
The wind was whistling in our ears when we saw the rows of stalls in the ancient market square of Northampton with their stripy red and white awnings selling fresh vegetables, aromatic coffee beans, books, antique somethings, sizzling reindeer meat, hot dogs and burgers all coming together to add the perfect sensory touch to that day when we were shivering under the onslaught of an icy wind, the lingering aromas of meat frying luring us for a bite. The butcher on his podium hawked slabs of meat over the microphone.
The beauty of the old square lay in the traditional way of tending to business. The grocers engaging you in banter, my favourite of the lot being the bespectacled grocer with his shock of white hair and hair sprouting out of his ears, going about his job with plain ol’ vocal cords at his disposal, no microphone needed there. ‘Strawberries for 2 pounds, come ladies and gents, come one, come all’… stuff like that. The boom of it reached your ears across the far end of the square. During the course of our many conversations in the future it would turn out that he was a travelling hawker who put up in Travelodge hotels around the various counties. I had never met a travelling grocer before.
Then there was the woman rustling up spicy noodles in a food truck by the square – who eventually became a friend, announcing with pride to her customers – that why ‘here is my writer friend’; the white-haired man with the stoop, one of the noodle guzzlers, executing the funkiest jigs you have seen and appropriately dubbed ‘Dancing Joe’; clumps of teenage boys and girls dressed in Goth make-up, funky hair dos in place and wearing ominously long leather coats, kings and queens of darkness perchance in their own heads; the 18th century Shipman’s Pub in The Drapery famed for its in-house poltergeist; bunches of men holding their pints, spilling out of The Auctioneer pub in the market square. And capping the bustle of it, the small turquoise dome of All Saints’ Church at one end of town.
Northampton on that day was engaging.
I remember turning to Adi and exclaiming, ‘Whatever did you mean?!’ Anyway, we scouted a few beautiful houses and started putting together home in a condominium about five minutes’ walk away from the town centre – the central delight of it was that we could see the spires of four churches from our cosy living room. The one right in front was the spire of the round church, one of the few left in England and a legacy of the first earl of Northampton after he had returned from his crusades in the 1100s. Where I wandered around in the cemetery one evening, a disgruntled Adi in tow because he does not get my fascination for reading epitaphs and found a particular commemoration that made me go misty-eyed.
‘..et a little while and all shall be fu…
And then we shall meet our beloved who is gone before.’
There I became a recluse, learnt to find bliss in my own company and my lover’s, and yet made some unlikely friends. The concierge who sat at the entrance to our building who prompted me to take Adi for a run too because he liked pumping iron himself, the guys at Costa Coffee who along with coffee handed out words of kindness for my changing hair styles (in those days I was experimenting with a pixie look with gusto), the golf shop owner near the park where I jogged and who executed a little salute as I ran past his shop, the joggers with whom I shared the perimeter of the park’s soothing green stretch, irrespective of the season. Soon we had a group of friends with whom we partied in Wetherspoon every weekend almost for a year till we were wrung out of energy and the band gradually dispersed. But oh what stories came out of those nights – the kinds that would make my mother do double flips. If one can execute those out of alarm.
So many memories couched in the town of cobblers. Where I came upon the famed shoe makers and their old factories quite late into our stay. In fact, the first time we set eyes upon the fine leather shoes of Northampton was in the Swedish city of Malmö where we both fell in hopeless love with their expert craftsmanship. It was hopeless because we did not buy them. The price had to match the skill that reflected off the leather pairs – they started somewhere above £800. Yet there it was. A piece of home in Sweden.
And here we are miles and miles across the Atlantic, trying not to be overwhelmed by the preoccupation of fitting in. Not letting the memories of Northampton go because how can you and why should you let go of home, your first home together, quite so easily. It is a cacophony of emotions, you realise, that descend upon you when you travel. As one of the best writer-bloggers I know, Osyth puts it, ‘the world is a double-edged sword for those of us that travel it a little or a lottle’.
As I carry on with the business of life, moulding myself to this environment that slowly grows upon me, I leave you with a few (sometimes grainy) images of Northampton which holds my heart in its clutches.
I have missed out many memories and places and people, and yet there it is, years of our life fitted into a long drawn-out post, as if tucked into one scrapbook for life.
It has been a warm September. Every time that I walked to the nearest stores, which are admittedly 10 blocks away, I felt my pores opening up to the heat, trickles of perspiration coursing down the back. But yesterday, unexpectedly, there was a nip in the air. A beautiful evening had finally arrived. All I could do was bask in its breezy charm, let the breeze ruffle my hair and alongside rush through the rows of trees towering over me as it spoke to my senses in some strange tongue. Psithurism. Sonic and haunting. If there is heaven, it is to be found in the music of nature. In the gushing of that brook, in the breeze that ripples through canopies, in the ebb and tide of the waves…
Houses flanking the blocks with tamed and untamed patches of gardens, the ones matted with tangled ivy catching the eye because there is a certain something about wild overgrown beauty. The occupants of many house fronts: pointy-hatted witches, ghouls and skeletal figures swaying behind fences, a few macabre grins, autumnal wreaths in hues of gold, orange and russet upon doors, porches with autumnal leaves twirled around the balustrades. My kind of porch, I thought.
And then just like that, as I was strolling past an old rundown bakery, peering into windows scrawled with ‘try our cheese and nutella twists’, the feeling clamped down upon me. An intense wave of longing for the autumnal embrace of Northampton. The Racecourse, that sprawling park (you see it in all the shots) where I gathered leaves by the dozen every autumn, watched the seasons change in slow motion, where the trees were my beloved friends, where around this time the fallen leaves gather on the jogging path and trip merrily in the wind like children gone wild on a picnic, where the blustery wind threatens to rip the ponytail off your head as you run the length of its winding paths.
Below are the changes of season in The Racecourse which sprawls sublimely over 118 acres. How the scenes of life play out differently now from what it did centuries ago when cattle grazed upon its green vastness — a bucolic thought given that during the mid-1700s and 1800s it was the chosen spot for public executions. Convicts were brought over to the heath – that is now the park – in carts after they were allowed a last drink at the Bantam Cock pub a few miles off in Abington. In time, the gallows made way for recreational race meets before they were brought to a halt in 1904 after a fatal accident. Its final avataar was that of an army base and barracks during the two world wars before it was transformed into a refuge for pleasure seekers.
You would think that were might be dark memories clinging to the leaves. Yet it does not feel like the kind of place that holds onto disturbing memories. It is the stomping grounds of little girls and boys training in football, families armed with blankets and picnic baskets during summer, teenagers roller skating with abandon, school boys and girls romancing each other under the boughs of those trees, big and small dogs sizing each other up as they patter around with great solemnity, and the ubiquitous cyclists and runners. On the 5th of November, every year, when the Yeomen of the Guard search the Houses of Parliament in London ceremonially for whiffs of gunpowder-laden plots, in Northampton Guy Fawkes night is the occasion for a great bonfire on the green, hot drinks for shivering enthusiastic residents and fireworks beneath a star-laden sky.
There is a dragon too who lies half asleep at one end of the park as if in wait that someone should say those magic words, ‘Dra…’. Shush. Meanwhile if you keep running down the straight path, at the other edge of the park is a disused tram shelter and The White Elephant. From across the road, this pub taunts the hapless jogger with the wondrously warm smell of pizzas baking away in its wood-fired ovens. Now seasons may come and seasons may go, my friend, but that remains a given on Friday nights throughout the year.
Skuyö. A word that the Vikings bequeathed upon Skye as the ‘isle of clouds’. Wreathed in mist. Mystical. The Vikings must have been enchanted by it, you would think, when they invaded it towards the end of the 8th century.
On that isle of black and red Munros, jagged and gentle in parts, rising out of the land itself, an ancient land mired in bog and peat where purple heather thrives and turquoise fairy pools abound, the mist moves in fast. Even as you are exposed to the relentlessness of nature, under leaden skies when mist wraps itself around the peaks and hovers above the lochs, it is easy to be whisked into the kind of land that rests between the foxed pages of dusty tomes.
But the day on which we set off for the peninsula of Sleat (pronounced Slate), the sun was the willing fifth to our party of four. Serpentine A-roads skirted around lochs, the Munros dipped their feet into the waters, salmon farms with circular pens showed up alongside, then suddenly a grinding halt. A two-hour traffic jam, sandwiched between rows of cars, caravans and motorhomes.
Time for some banter with strangers. Nothing alleviates a dull situation better than a smidgen of humour. One of the friends demanded a wee, desperately. Desperate measures in this case meant rolling down into the loch, climbing the grassy slope by the road, or asking the owner of a motorhome to allow a stranger into his loo. There was really but one option if you think of it.
Eventually we were diverted. There had been a fatal accident earlier that morning. A motorcyclist had died. Reminders issued by life, of our mortality, from time to time.
‘His loss is our gain,’ observed one of our group. A chance remark referring to the longer and more scenic drive which we had embarked upon as a result of the diversion. Yet there it was. A remark that did weigh me down. Blinders in place, this is how we humans make our way towards happiness with single-minded determination – so focused that we cannot take a moment to feel the loss of a life.
By the time we reached the Sound of Sleat that flows between the isle and the mainland of Scotland, all Adi wanted was some shut-eye. It can get intensely tiring to chart those narrow roads when you are assisted by three ebullient co-passengers. He took us to the Armadale Castle, the erstwhile country home of the MacDonald clan, where he decided to sleep and get rid of us at the same time (calling it a bonus of sorts). We pottered around the castle.
I walked through a small portion of the 20,000-acre estate, exploring trails which lead into sun-dappled woods that are home to deer and skylarks and gannets and sea eagles. It was silent. Occasionally the chittering of birds yet the kind of silence where you can hear yourself think.
Sleat is the metaphorical lower claw of the isle radiating into the Sea of Hebrides and across the Sound you can see the peninsula of Knoydart on the mainland. There I stood outside the crumbling mock-style castle facade gazing upon the blue waters of the Sound, the hills rambling off unevenly across the horizon. The castle traces its history back to the 1790s when it was built yet it was abandoned by the clan later on. I wonder why. Makes the mind go places. I spent that early evening mooching around the estate on my own letting the mind travel as I came upon a part in its lush garden that made the heart thrill. A belt of daffodils. Sunny, yellow heads nodding away in the breeze that at once made me less forlorn.