At the bottom of the hill sits our nearest neighbour: a run of whitewashed cottages which at first sight appears to be three small farm workers’ homes but is now one large and one smaller dwelling, the latter a more recent addition. These days they form the frontage of a discreet holiday business. Six pleasant wooden chalets lie beyond, out of sight of us or passers-by. The owners are warm and friendly but keep to themselves; the guests are quiet. We couldn’t ask for better neighbours.
From the neighbours we learned that the original building was once a public house and that it was also briefly the home of the writer, Mary Wesley. I read a fair few of her books in the eighties and nineties, which I then passed along to a charity shop. I rather wish I’d kept them now. She is probably best known for her second novel: The Camomile Lawn (1984) which became, as I remember it, a slightly racy tv series.
Her other claim to fame was that her first adult novel, Jumping the Queue, was published when she was aged 71. She epitomised the notion that it’s never too late to start, although she had been writing all her life and had previously written three books for children so perhaps she should be most remembered for her perseverance. Ten further novels for adults were published, the final one in 1997 when she was 84. Asked why she then stopped writing fiction, she answered: “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it”. Indicative perhaps, of her acerbic tongue, and possibly advice I should heed. Mary Wesley lived a life of incident and drama, love and loneliness. She claimed that her books were not autobiographical but having read her authorised biography, it seems clear that she drew on her own experiences.
She produced a final non-fiction volume in 2001 – a celebration of her life in the West Country entitled Part of the Scenery. (Her final novel was called Part of the Furniture. I do wonder if there is a connection between these titles and her state of mind as she aged. I’m also mindful of Daphne du Maurier’s similar paeon: Enchanted Cornwall (1989). Both are described as ‘pictorial memoirs’.)
But I digress.
This was intended as an explanation of why, as I wandered the lanes through May and into June, relishing the unkempt verges, the lush growth and the ascendancy of birds and beasts, my thoughts drifting into a nostalgic reverie as a means of distraction from happenings in the wider world, I found myself thinking about Mary Wesley. What she saw, I thought to myself, when she lived here in the late 1940s, is probably very much like what I’m seeing now.
Part of the Scenery, in conjunction with Patrick Marnham’s authorised biography, Wild Mary, offers a glimpse of Mary’s experiences when she lived here. There are discrepancies between her recollections, written more than fifty years after the event, and Marnham’s account, which takes meticulous account of letters and diaries written at the time. There are also discrepancies between Mary’s opinions and mine. But here are Mary Wesley’s memories of this small corner of Cornwall, with a coy nod to Austen for the sake of privacy because the name of the house she owned has since become the name of the hamlet.
In 1947 when we bought P-, we thought, my husband and I, that we would be settled for ever in this delightful little house writing our novels and living a peaceful productive country life. We had not been able to find a house we could afford in Chagford where we had really wanted to live but P- – which had been, I believe, a country pub in the 18th century – seemed perfect.
It stood facing a lane by a bridge. There was a trout stream for a boundary, a large orchard behind the house and several good-sized fields. It seemed pretty good to us. True, there was no electricity: we bought tilley lamps and candles. We had no water except from a spring, we installed a pump and built a bathroom. The cooker was one of those black iron Victorian jobs you pay the earth for nowadays in junk shops. We put in a Rayburn.
There was no telephone and we had no car but all the tradesmen came in vans. There were some good shops in Lostwithiel and Fowey, we had strong legs and could walk and we shared a bicycle. The sea at Lansallos was within easy walking distance.
No tradesmen have regular rounds now. Just supermarket delivery vans. As the crow flies, the sea at Lansallos is indeed within easy walking distance. Sadly, the footpaths that no doubt proliferated in Mary’s tenure are now almost entirely closed off and the roads are far from direct. To walk there and back would be not far off a ten-mile round trip up hill and down dale. Not my idea of easy walking distance although the walk from what is now the National Trust car park is unchanged. It has been there for centuries – an old smugglers’ path apparently. And it is beautiful.
I retrieved the old pony I had had in Cornwall during the war from where he had been lodging with my sister, and a friend gave me a very old but sprightly Welsh pony who had once won the jumping at Olympia, and for good measure a large unbroken cob.
What she did not tell me was that the Welsh pony was a wanderer who jumped or barged her way out of the stoutest-hedged field, or that the cob still had one testicle and was to all intents and purposes a stallion. I spent many hours that year retrieving my horseflesh in answer to messages saying: “Your horses are in my corn” …
There are no longer wandering horses but certainly roaming dogs. We call the farm to report that we have Mollie/Bruce/Chalky in the garden, or to say we’ve just seen them miles from home. And occasionally we make the same call regarding straying cows … or sheep.
I bought two piglets. As food was still rationed, ham and sides of bacon made sense. Unfortunately before they became old enough to become ham, the pigs became friends who accompanied us for walks, answered to their names, Bentham and Hooker, and considered themselves part of the family. When eventually we ate them it was without joy. “Is this Bentham or Hooker?” a child would ask sadly, laying down his knife and fork. Still on the track of self-sufficiency, I acquired a broody hen and sat her on three goose eggs which, when they hatched, grew to be partly the originals of Gus in ‘Jumping the Queue’. …
Our predecessors here kept pigs for meat. We have no plans to continue this trend. Although I toyed briefly with buying Bernie a kune kune pig for Christmas one year. To remind him of his Kiwi roots. He seemed less than keen. Like most people, I have a hankering to keep chickens. But not geese.
All seemed set for an idyllic if fairly strenuous existence. We were happy. We woke in the mornings almost deafened by the dawn chorus. Thrush, blackbird, robin, tit and warblers – I have never heard better.
Eric worked on his novel, I tinkered with mine. We went for enormous walks inland and by the sea and watched a spring of unrivalled beauty. I have never seen such wildflowers, a mass of daffodils and primrose and later fields of orchids. The children arrived for their school holidays, rode and roamed the countryside and we all swam at Lansallos. Gradually, since no publisher had evinced interest, we ran out of money. Eric was offered a job as the Sunday Times correspondent in Berlin so off he went to Germany and soon I joined him there. From a distance we sold the house; it had been a good try.
From Patrick Marnham’s Wild Mary I can confirm that the property was purchased in spring 1948 (not 1947) and sold a year later. Mary’s husband, Eric, found the neighbours so irritating that he frequently returned to Chagford to write. It was, after all, “where they really wanted to live”. I make no comment. In August 1948 he wrote in reference to the neighbours: “I did not escape an office to be pinpricked by bumpkins”. Again, I make no comment. Although I feel duty bound to point out that there can only have been a maximum of four households within a half-mile radius and that the Cornish accent does not correlate with a lack of intelligence or sophistication.
Again, from Wild Mary, I know that by early 1949 finances compelled Eric to take another office job and he left for Berlin. Mary put the house on the market with an agent in Fowey stating in a letter to Eric: “I am only going to deal with people who know the wants of the upper classes, who are the only people likely to want this house.” I really will refrain from comment this time. It was advertised in The Times as: ‘a recently modernised 18th century house between Fowey and Polperro, 2 miles from the sea, with 5 rooms, a dairy, all modern conveniences such as a WC and hot and cold water in the bathroom and a Rayburn cooker.” It sold with a four-roomed cottage and 10 acres for £4,500.
Mary’s reminiscences continue:
Many years later a friend wanted to see P-. I had forgotten the way, had trouble finding it and when I did, I wished I hadn’t. It had become a caravan site. Caravans stood in rows where my pigs had wandered, where my ponies had grazed. The stream looked sullen and even the ghost of Gus – the goose who had never existed except in my mind – failed to show. The fields which I had seen pink with orchids had been ploughed and sprayed, and few birds sang.
And now I must add a number of comments. I can confirm that there is no caravan park here now and I would be surprised if ever there was one. The land is undulating and wouldn’t lend itself to rows of caravans. Perhaps when Mary made her return visit with her friend, she never did find her old house and was looking at a caravan park somewhere else entirely!
The stream is clear and is home to kingfishers. She must have returned on a bad day because there are always birds singing here now. The fields which belonged to her property are not ploughed and sprayed but are left wild for the enjoyment of the guests. Although I fear that one of the fields she originally described as filled with orchids is where our house now sits. Sadly there are no orchids on our land, although many can be found very close by.
But Mary and I do agree on one thing. She described her solitary spring here, seventy years ago, as “a spring of unrivalled beauty”. I’m sure she was right; I think exactly that every year. But especially so this time, this unforgettable spring of 2020, memorable for so many reasons.
As spring becomes early summer and still I walk, I think of Mary with her bicycle, her runaway horses, her pigs and Gus, the imaginary goose who found his way into her first novel some forty years later. It may take longer to get there but Lansallos Cove is still beautiful, still unspoilt. The lanes are still quiet. The neighbours are delightful. And the dog roses are in bloom.
(i) I have bitten the bullet and embraced Block Editor. With help from Carol, who guided me on how to justify text. I can’t say that I like it but I accept it’s early days. I’m learning…)
(ii) This is the second attempt. Apologies to those who think they’ve seen this once already – you are right. Thanks to Margaret who alerted me to the problems. Hopefully this time around comments will be on and photographs will be visible…