My eyes lighted on something dark, in the distance, on the beach. Coming closer, I saw it was a dead porpoise. Mouth frozen in a smile, skin radiating a silvery light, it seemed to be still alive. I would have touched it if not for the warning on the ticket stapled to its tail.
I’d set out feeling lost, searching for cheer on a grey December day. It wasn’t a hopeful start. Winter always brings a lockdown of sorts but last year it was different. Darker. The world appeared lifeless, spring far away.
For a week, the wind had been relentless making me restless. There was no respite at night as it crashed through the darkness making me succumb to doubts and fears and gloom. Even the windows trembled. That morning, however, it had made its peace with the world.
At dawn, I’d looked out at a scene more reminiscent of Rothko than Turner. Rather than slashing red, yellow and orange streaks across the sea, the sun had opted for a subdued pallet of gradated shades of grey. On the roof opposite were cheerier colourists. Nature’s day shift was waking and the pigeons, who had kept me company during lockdown, were stirring, stretching their necks to catch the first warm rays. These avian alchemists were busy transforming their base metal-grey to an iridescent coat of many colours, all tinged with gold. I was grateful for their presence.
Above, herring gulls swayed up and down as if manipulated by an invisible puppeteer. Young ones whinged wheezily, irritably. Some early birds, already cruising by the harbour, were waiting to dive-bomb unwary tourists. Snack thieves, scavengers, theirs is a well-rehearsed routine.
I spied one sitting on a neighbour’s roof, eyes closed, still but not sleeping. Never sleeping. Probably planning its lightning strike, which always comes from behind. Even the wary are caught off guard by these invisible assailants. Predating our predators, these birds have had plenty of time to refine their skills. Humans, new kids on the block geologically speaking, are still catching up. Yet, despite that, there’s a beauty in the flight of gulls: poetry in motion I’ve heard some locals say. They probably hadn’t just had their pasty stolen.
I left them behind and climbed the hill leading to the promontory known as the Island, a little green hill looking out on the Atlantic, ‘the sea that always has trouble on it,’ according to W.H. Hudson. I knew how it felt.
From there, I had a bird’s eye view of the old fishing town with its higgledy-piggledy houses. If you fathom its intricacies, it is possible to walk from end to end in about five or six minutes. However, it’s easy to get lost in its maze-like structure. Because St Ives was once a sheltered little depression in a stony place, the first settlers had to build their houses shoulders against the wind, where and how they could, haphazardly among blocks of blue elvan that regularly thrust themselves up from the earth.
Behind me, the horseshoe bay. Apart from a few local fishing boats the harbour, with its two little stone piers like snail’s horns, was empty. The sailing boats, the motorboats, the rib rides, the gigs were gone, all safely stowed in their winter berths.
I continued along the coastal path, pausing to look down at Porthmeor Beach. The sea was “gloose”, Cornish for grey-green, and unusually calm for the time of year. One of the loveliest stretches of coast in Cornwall, it is framed on one side by the island, with its distinctive silhouette capped by St Nicholas chapel, and on the other by the black granite outcrop known as Man’s Head.
It was a very low tide and I could see the exposed remains of the wreck of the Alba, a Panamanian steamer that ran aground in stormy weather on the last day of January 1938. The story is an important part of the town’s history.
It was nightfall and a heavy Atlantic swell rolled in from the northwest. The steamship, carrying coal to Mussolini’s factories, crashed into rocks off Porthmeor as it mistook the lights of the town for the lights of the harbour. Despite the efforts of the lifeboat, Caroline Parsons, and locals who waded out up to their necks in dark water, five of Alba’s crew were lost. Three were washed up on the beach the next morning, two were never seen again.
Nearly 84 years later, on what is now one of the most popular surfing spots in the country, a hazy graphite smudge of millions of tiny grains of coal still stains the sand.
Alfred Wallis, a Cornish fisherman and late in life a painter, witnessed the event and it had a profound effect on him. His painting, Wreck of the Alba of a ship floundering in turbulent seas, now hangs in Tate St Ives, which itself overlooks the spot in the sea where the tragedy occurred. Although Wallis became one of the most celebrated artists of St Ives, he died in poverty in a local workhouse. But if you meander through the overgrown paths of the town’s cemetery, set on an exposed hillside facing the sea, you will stumble across the most elaborate grave. Decorated by the renowned potter, Bernard Leach, with ceramic tiles depicting a tiny mariner at the foot of a huge lighthouse, it is the final resting place of Alfred Wallis.
I walked on in a landscape washed of colour, lifeblood seeped away, until a punctuation point of pink brought me to a stop. It was a solitary campion, a sunlit straggler left behind in a dream of summer. Its image stuck to my retina like a crimson sunspot.
As if a switch had been flicked, the path came alight with sparkling stars of celandine, bright blue bellflowers, euryops like golden daisies and, not wanting to be outshone, real daisies. In December? Well, it is in the far south-west. This daisy, whose name derives from ‘day’s eye’ because it opens and closes according to the light, was staring unblinkingly at me, challenging me not to smile.
Trimming the rocks were splashes of yellow. “When gorse is in blossom, kissing’s in favour”; this old saying, out of step with current social distancing rules, made me smile as there aren’t many times in the floral calendar when gorse isn’t in flower. Its blooms not only dazzle but their coconut scent hovers around the cliff-top paths in summer. Instead of perfume, it offered me spider webs glazed with pearls of moisture.
Punching a hole in the clouds, the sun made an unexpected entrance spotlighting a circle of razorbill-bobbing sea and fulmars that skimmed the surface like paper planes. ‘Now-you-see-us-now-you-don’t dunlin flashed past and made the land ring with light in their wake.
And gannets. Impersonating shooting stars, they dived from a dizzying height tucking in their black fringed wings only seconds before impact. Vanishing into the depths, they resurfaced moments later to be lifted like snow in the wind.
A wave broke on the boulders below and its flung spray caught a rainbow in cinematic freeze-frame: a lightning sketch by a water-colour specialist.
At the same moment, from somewhere deep inside brambles scribbled across the hillside, I heard the electrifying song of a wren. Its shockwaves stirred and shook the air as it trilled defiantly in its den. Oystercatchers poking about in rockpools paused, listened… and answered with their penny-whistle pipes. The air sparkled with sound.
A noise reminiscent of the gentle ruffle of paper made me glance up at starlings murmuring past. I held them in my sight until they disappeared into a lightning sky indistinguishable from the sea.
On this walk, accompanied by nonhuman friends, I’d found that elusive cheer, and something I thought I’d lost, hope. It is the things with feathers.
Then my eyes lighted on something dark, in the distance, on the water. As it came closer, I saw it was a pod of porpoises. Illuminated by the sun, each radiated a ghostly, silvery light. A fitting finale. Even on dark days – especially on dark days – nature has the power to lift our spirits with its unexpected gifts.
Gayle Wood is a travel and nature writer living in West Penwith. In recent years, she has travelled West to Canada and East to Singapore. At the moment, you’ll usually find her back in Cornwall, on the top of a little green hill looking out at over Atlantic. She believes ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new places but in having new eyes.’