Imagine a small coastal town perched on the edge of an estuary, houses peppering the hills, streets steep and narrow.
This is Polruan …
… known to some as Plyn.
Imagine a church, grey and stern in the manner of Cornish churches, sitting apart with an isolated farmhouse for a neighbour. This is Lanteglos church, the church of St Wyllow. It lies above the peaceful creek of Pont in the harbour of Fowey. Its location places it between the three settlements that it serves: Polruan, Bodinnick and Pont. There is a large and full churchyard around it; families lie here, gravestones tilting and worn, lichen spreading.
Imagine a wedding in October 1831. The wedding is between Christopher Slade and Jane Symons Salt. Christopher is aged 21 and has finally finished his apprenticeship as a shipwright which means he is free to marry his sweetheart, Jane, aged 18. Christopher and Jane’s families have lived in the area for generations. They are property owners and farmers and they have blessed the match. Guests will have walked across the fields to the church as the bells pealed to celebrate the union of the young couple. They will be married for 39 years, until Christopher’s death.
Imagine – a century later – a fictional wedding is conceived. It takes place in the past, in the era that Christopher and Jane would have known. It takes place at the same church. For this wedding the church is known as Lanoc.
She knelt by the window and looked across the harbour. In her heart were many strange unaccountable feelings, and she could name none of them. She loved Thomas dearly, but she knew in her soul there was something waiting for her greater than this love for Thomas. Something strong and primitive, lit with everlasting beauty.
One day it would come, but not yet.
Softly the bells pealed over the hill from Lanoc Church, then louder; ringing through the air.
“Janie – where are you to?”
She rose from the window and went away down where the wedding guests were waiting.
(The Loving Spirit p. 11)
Christopher and Janet will be married, in their fictional world, for 33 years. It will be Janet’s death which parts them, although always a piece of her heart had belonged to another.
Imagine a dashing young major – having read the book which opens with that wedding – sailing his boat back and forth in Fowey harbour hoping to meet the young author who had captured his imagination. They meet in the spring; they marry in the summer. With a flash of bravado, her independent spirit flaring, it is the woman who proposes.
Imagine a wedding in July 1932. Very early in the morning, in order to catch the tide, a small party leave Bodinnick and arrive at Pont Bridge by boat and make the climb up the dark narrow path from the water, onto the steep lane which leads to the church of St Wyllow. The lane is bordered by high hedges replete with honeysuckle and dog roses. Daphne du Maurier marries Major Tommy ‘Boy’ Browning in the church she had called Lanoc when she wrote her first novel. Lanteglos, Lanoc – there were very few guests but the bells pealed that morning for her too. Their marriage also, will last 33 years and perhaps Daphne never gave her heart fully. Perhaps always a part of it pulsed amongst her stories.
Christopher and Jane, Thomas and Janet, Daphne and Tommy: three couples united through years and circumstance by an isolated Cornish church. And by ships.Imagine a boatyard, owned today by another local family but once owned by the young Christopher Slade who worked hard for his family and prospered. Among other vessels, the schooner, The Jane Slade was built here. His fictional counterpart owned it too. Here his family built The Janet Coombe. And in 1943 the yard was bought by Mrs D Browning. It was run for her until 1967.
Imagine a view, sweeping and timeless. There will be different craft on the water; the view will change as the years pass, as the seasons turn. It will change as often as the weather changes mood. And yet it will not change.
On the morning of her wedding, Janet Coombe climbs to the top of Plyn and gazes at the view. Daphne opens her book thus:
Janet Coombe stood high on the hill above Plyn, looking down upon the harbour. Although the sun was already high in the heavens, the little town was still wrapped in an early morning mist. It clung to Plyn like a thin pale blanket, lending to the place a faint whisper of unreality as if the whole had been blessed by the touch of ghostly fingers. The tide was ebbing, the quiet waters escaped silently from the harbour and became one with the sea, unruffled and undisturbed. No straggling cloud, no hollow wind broke the calm beauty of the still white sky…
(The Loving Spirit p. 3)
And this is what I wrote, knowing nothing of The Loving Spirit, knowing nothing of Polruan, when first I saw that same view:
The quality of light on that January afternoon was pure magic: soft and shrouded, yet clear and calm. The gulls were quiet; boats sat motionless at anchor. Nothing moved – apart from the tiny passenger ferry ploughing a gentle furrow from the quay below to the opposite shore. It was timeless; it was beautiful. I felt I was being given access to something very private; I felt I was gazing into a living painting. This, I knew, was a scene oft-repeated; an everyday occurrence that was bathed in tranquil beauty and set entirely apart from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world. It was a domestic scene: a watery passage from A to B with folks going about their business untouched at this time of year by tourists or traffic. And my heart sailed with that ferry. I wish I had thought to take a photo but in truth, a photo could not have done justice to the ineffable peace. The light on that afternoon was infused with peace.
I like to think that if we had stood here together, gazing down from the top of the little town: Jane Slade, Janet Coombe, Daphne du Maurier and I, our hearts would have been stirred alike. There are things which hold true beyond time and circumstance. There is a narrative in the landscape which is universal. It is a narrative which transcends fact and fiction, past and present, lives real and lives imagined. A narrative which speaks to the soul.
A companion piece for Du Maurier Reading Week, hosted by Ali.