THE ZENNOR ROAD
Inspired by Jon Day’s concept of “cyclogeography”, this mini-series, published to coincide with the 2017 Tour de France, features writing that uses the bike to explore literature, landscape, history, and myth.
By Henry King
Based on a ratio of size to words, the most literary place in Britain may be the Cornish village of Zennor, six miles west of St Ives. D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived there during the First World War; Virginia Woolf visited in 1921, and called it “the loveliest place in the world”; the poet George Barker and a cohort of acolytes stayed shortly after the Second; and their friend W.S. Graham, another poet, borrowed a house there from the painter Bryan Wynter. Helen Dunmore novelised the Lawrences’ stay in Zennor in Darkness, and it has been the subject or setting for poems by Graham, Barker, his nephew John Fairfax, David Wright and John Heath-Stubbs (who all followed Barker there), as well as Vernon Watkins, Charles Causley, and Thomas Blackburn. These associations crowd its three streets of stone cottages, the pub and church at its centre, and the surrounding countryside. Drawn by their cumulative force, I decided to make a kind of pilgrimage there in the first week of my summer break.
The trip involved compromise: I had originally planned to spend a week in London doing research on this group the ordinary way; going to Cornwall would mean less time in the library. But I’ve long been fascinated by what I call poems you can find on maps, and convinced that physically experiencing a place is equally a form of knowledge that complements scholarship. I decided, therefore, to spend two nights in the South-West, and see as much of Zennor and the surrounding county of West Penwith as I could in a day. This also dictated my mode of transport: the fastest way to cover the terrain (for a non-driver like myself) would be by bike. I found somewhere to hire one in Hayle (east of St Ives), booked train tickets and rooms, and packed both shorts and waterproof trousers against the mixed weather forecast for the last week of June. The only other planning I did was to ask the Facebook hive-mind for the addresses of W.S. Graham, who lived in various locations around there from the 1940s to his death in 1986. I figured I would stay in St Ives, set out on Tuesday morning along the northern coast, and at some point cross over to Penzance on the south coast before going back on Wednesday morning.
Even with such an imprecise plan, things didn’t go quite according to it. Our train had just left Totnes in Devon and gotten halfway up a hill when it ran out of power and had to reverse back into the station, whereupon the service was cancelled. We then had to wait an hour on the platform for rescue. (This could be taken as foreboding my own struggles with hills.) Falling further behind schedule, we finally arrived in Hayle just as the bike shop was due to close. I would have to come back the next morning, starting later and further east.
But arriving in St Ives lifted my spirits; in fact I can’t imagine that the sight of the town above the little beach and the quay could feel like anything other than the start of a holiday. The first thing I did after finding my room was to pop into the St Ives Bookseller and buy a copy of Give Me Your Painting Hand: W.S. Graham and Cornwall by David Wittaker, which includes Graham’s elegies for his friends, the painters Roger Hamilton, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter. This guided me to the Sloop and the Castle Inn, the first of two pubs to tick off on my route.
As I live most of the year in Sweden, my cycling experience is quite different from that in the UK. I’m used to a city bike with back-pedal brakes, cycle lanes and traffic on the right; and the Skåne countryside around Malmö is mostly flat farmland. All of which meant that, when I picked up the bike, to find myself riding a mountain bike with manual brakes on the left-hand side up steep inclines required a swift readjustment. The scale of my amateurishness is clear from the fact that I set out in jeans, and had to change into shorts at the side of the road. Once I was underway, though, and up into the little country lanes through the hills, all of that became immaterial. With little traffic passing me, I was free to take the steep sections at my own pace, and look at the sea stretching out below to my right – although I did have to swerve once or twice when the views lulled my attention and I drifted into the path of an oncoming car. The sky was overcast the whole way to the horizon, and the road up Zennor Hill led directly into a cloud. Skirting the summit, I rolled down and into the village at about 11 o’clock.
The first thing to see in Zennor is the symbolic heart of the village: the Mermaid Chair. Inside the church of St Senara is a 400 year-old wooden seat, with the figure of a mermaid carved in its side. The legend is that a mermaid fell in love with a singer in the church choir, and lured him into the sea. John Heath-Stubbs, who stayed in here in 1947, describes her in “To the Mermaid at Zennor,” as “Half fish, half fallen angel”, and imagines monks from Ireland coming to send her
slithering from the chancel steps,
And wriggling back to your sunken paradise
Among the hollow-eyed and the capsized.
But Heath-Stubbs, though not yet thirty when he lived in Zennor, was functionally blind, and the carving is hard to make out in the dark wood. I wonder if, peering in the dim light of the church, he ran his hands over her breasts and scales, meeting her “webbed and skinny fingers” with his own.
Re-emerging, I walked round into the churchyard looking up towards the hill. I was struck, as I stood there, by the quiet: there was no sound but birdsong, not even the shrieking of seagulls that make a din all over St. Ives—without chips to scavenge, they have no reason to come up from the shoreline. (Zennor gulls must have fewer cardiac problems, taking their fish unbattered.) Even with small groups of walkers passing through, the village is extraordinarily peaceful.
George Barker’s biographer (Robert Fraser, The Chameleon Poet) notes that he and his then partner Betty Cass stayed at 1 The Row; but when I set out to find it, I soon realised that that confident assertion doesn’t reflect the reality of a village as small as Zennor. There simply aren’t addresses as codified by a centralised postal system: the streets are unnamed, and the houses have names rather than numbers; but names may change with the owner. Beyond the church, I found a row of terraced cottages, the first of which – much smaller than its neighbours – might plausibly be Barker’s former lodging, but there was nothing to confirm this. When, a little later, I asked in the Tinner’s Arms (where the Lawrences stayed on their arrival), the landlady said she didn’t know which was The Row—in fact, she didn’t even know the street address of the pub! She did suggest the terrace, though, which I took as partial confirmation. The other address I had for Zennor was Carne Cottage, Bryan Wynter’s house that W.S. Graham and his wife Nessie Dunsmuir borrowed, set above the village proper. In his elegy, “Dear Bryan Wynter”, Graham describes how
Foxglove here on the wall
Outside your first house
Leans with me standing
In the Zennor wind.
But that could have been any of the houses I had passed on my way down. It was frustrating not to be able to find the exact location I had come to see; but in Barker’s poem “Zennor Idyl”, he bids the “mackintoshed figures shouldering through clouds / Along a skyline of remembrance” to
Let the clock
Wipe clear the face turned back towards such times
And circumvent regret. Climb the morning hill
Into cold rain, drop the iron chain of flowers,
Leave in the valley those hours that live a fable
Voicing for ever a vocable that cannot die.
So after a cream tea in the rain outside the café (where I explained to a passing Moscow-born woman about the mermaid and the poets) and a half in the pub I got back on the bike.
West of Zennor but still within the parish, the village of Treen sits a little way back from Gurnard’s Head, a rocky promontory that also gives its name to a pub on the main road. I was heading there, but what I really wanted to see was Cove Cottage, which nestles right above the cliffs. In the winter of 1947-8, the poets David Wright and John Fairfax rented the house. Wright, a South African who was totally deaf from the age of seven but nevertheless graduated from Oxford—a rare achievement then—had apprenticed himself to George Barker, and was attempting to move away from the kind of poem he had written as an undergraduate, for instance “Glaucus”:
I the desolate rage of sea
tongue the tin-throated pilot bell:
I see the winds the waves divide,
I urge the loud disastrous swell,
and father the shipwrecking tide[.]
Wright seemed to have had a lucky escape when Tambimuttu, the editor due to publish his first collection, lost the manuscript. His albatross found him again, however, at Cove Cottage: as he remembered it almost thirty years later, “it was on the evening of the shortest day … that an unexpected bundle of copies appeared on my doorstep. I remember deliberating whether to drop them, or myself, or both together, into the Atlantic chumbling a hundred feet below” (To the Gods the Shades, 1976).
Living at close quarters was more than just a convenient arrangement; it was a transformative experience. From that time on, Wright’s work becomes much less about the slippery mutations of the ego and much more focused on communicating something objective in language close to conversational speech. Compare, for instance, the lines from ‘Glaucus’ above with Wright’s later poem of the same name (first published by The Latin Press, St. Ives):
Glaucus, the god of the sea, was once a man
Inhabiting Anthedon in the provinces;
Kept body and soul together netting fish,
Till one unlucky day on a Boeotian
And desert beach he laid, dying by inches,
Nine mackerel, constituting the day’s catch. (“Moral Stories II”)
The later verses are less obviously poetic (though no less metrically skilful), but the idiom enabled Wright to explore the world outside the self, which is ultimately more interesting. The clear syntax, too, assumes that someone is listening to this story and wants to know what is happening, whereas the earlier lines have a self-involved ambiguity (does the I ‘tongue’ the ‘desolate rage of sea’ or the ‘pilot bell’? And if the latter, is ‘sea’ in apposition to the I?) that implies a take-it-or-leave it attitude to the reader. Barker helped Wright and Heath-Stubbs develop in this direction, having travelled the same road.
Their Zennor adventure also affected the poetry business in the rest of Britain. John Fairfax, with John Moat, later set up the Arvon Foundation, which runs retreats for budding writers in rural locations around the country, on the model of the coaching Fairfax received there from his uncle George. Even if they go to Lumb Bank (Ted Hughes’ former house in the Pennines) instead of Cornwall, poets on an Arvon course are following “The Zennor Road”, to borrow the title of a quatrain Fairfax dedicated to Barker:
Late and the getting later moon calls
After a poet who grabs at the sky
And on his knees, stumbling drunk,
Prays for Li Po’s immortal soul.
[Enter a cloud. Between
The head of Zennor and
Gurnard’s Head the long
Marine horizon makes
A blue wall or is it
A distant table-top
Of the far-off simple sea.]
Arriving at The Gurnard’s Head, I left the bike in the car park and began to walk down through the village, taking the footpath through cattle pastures towards the jutting headland. As I approached, the cove appeared to the right, with pale sand and clear blue water, and above it the cottage, painted cream against the dark green grass and grey, almost black rocks. The sun had come out, and I was hot without the cooling drizzle of the morning. I headed back east along the clifftop path, passing an abandoned mineshaft, and fretting a bit about the uneven ground—if I twisted my ankle now I would be in a tricky situation. I came out above another cove on the far side of the cottage. A long driveway, it turned out, connects it to the village; parked up just inside the gate was a shiny four-by-four. Cove Cottage, in fact, is now a luxury B&B. And therein lies the irony of western Cornwall: artists and poets came here in the last century not because it was beautiful, but because it was impoverished. David Wright remembered “Fields cropped by the nightmare” (“Five Postcards: Cornwall”) and Heath-Stubbs described it as
a hideous and a wicked country,
Sloping to hateful sunsets and the end of time,
Hollow with mine-shafts, naked with granite, fanatic
With sorrow. (“To the Mermaid at Zennor”)
But endemic poverty meant life was cheap, and bohemians – given enough strength of purpose – could survive here longer on little money than they could in London. Now people pay good money (the minimum two-night stay at Cove Cottage is £260) to come from London and enjoy the beauty of West Penwith without the squalor. In the case of a cultural tourist like myself, the irony is doubled.
The path actually went a little further below the cottage, where I found the ruins of a large stone building—perhaps another tin mine, or one of the old coastguard houses in which W.S. Graham lived between 1956 and ’62, of which I saw no other sign (but I may have been looking in the wrong direction). After following the driveway back up to the village, I had lunch (actually an £8 starter) and a pint at The Gurnard’s Head, where both Wright and Graham, who were friends from the days of the London Blitz, drank at different times. Graham would henceforward be the main focus of my trip, as Treen was the furthest outpost of Barker’s disciples, all of whom had moved back to London by 1948.
At this point, I had to commit to a route. My lodging for the night was in Penzance; from Treen, I could take the road straight over Gear Hill, but then I would end my trip very early. The longest route would take me through the villages of Morvah, Botallack and St Just, all of which are mentioned in Graham’s great elegies “Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch” and “The Thermal Stair”; but I worried that that might be too much cycling for me. But in this case the via media was not just a compromise but the best option: I would cycle to Morvah, then double back a little and take the road over Lanyon Hill, which would also net me Madron, Graham’s home for the last nineteen years of his life.
As I got underway again, I thought more about the compromise I was making by cycling through this territory—the compromise being that it put me slightly at odds with Graham and the others, who mostly got around it on foot. Graham’s poems, in particular, are marked with footprints, as in “A Walk to the Gulvas”. English verse has, of course, traditionally been measured in feet, and the most common English metre, the iamb (de-dum, de-dum, etc.), has the steady alternation of walking. But there are reasons to think that poets might take cycling as a prosodic model instead. While riding a bike one’s feet still alternate, but without a steady thump; the motion is more fluid, always slowing and speeding up; and with a bit of momentum one can coast along effortlessly. A poet like Graham, who tends to go by feel rather than fixed metrical forms, might find in cycling an analogy for free verse. Whizzing under the cloudy summit of Zennor Hill earlier in the day, I’d thought of his lines in “Dear Bryan Wynter”: “The house and the whole moor / Is flying in the mist.” If anything feels like flying, it’s standing on the pedals and freewheeling down the hill you just spent an hour climbing. (At one point I came even closer to flying, when my brakes locked and I skidded across the wet tarmac.) But the amateur cyclist in West Penwith also knows the iambic slog of pushing a bike up the final yards of a crushing incline, as I’d had to do once in the course of the morning.
On the way to Morvah I stopped at another abandoned mine. The information board by the roadside explained how the Lawrences were expelled from Cornwall when they were founding singing German songs during the First World War (they were already suspected of signalling to U-boats); perhaps this was also the place where W.S. Graham said to
Sit here on the sparstone
In this ruin where
Once the early beam
Engine pounded and broke
The air with industry. (“The Thermal Stair”)
Morvah turned out to be no more than a side-road with a few houses, one of them converted from the local Board School (dated 1882) that must have given the village local importance. After rolling through it for a couple of laps, I doubled back to the turning for the road to Penzance.
At the summit of Lanyon Hill, as Cornwall narrows towards Land’s End, it’s possible to look down the road in one direction and see the northern coast, then turn and see the southern one, with the Atlantic identical yet somehow altered by crashing against different shores. So far as I know, it was by pure coincidence that the painter Peter Lanyon came to live in this vicinity. He died, according to the epigraph of Graham’s elegy “The Thermal Stair”, in a gliding accident. Graham says to his dead friend,
Find me a thermal to speak and soar to you from
Over Lanyon Quoit and the circling stones standing
High on the moor over Gurnard’s Head[.]
Lanyon Quoit is a dolmen made of four stone slabs in a table formation. The sign by the road is almost completely covered by the hedge; if you didn’t know it was there you would never spot the gap in the wall that leads to the long barrow it stands on. When I did, I met an Australian couple—incongruously enough, it might seem, although the man told me he had a Cornish name (without telling me what it was). I asked them what had drawn them here. “We were in Mevagissey,” – a seaside town further east on the south coast, and coincidentally W.S. Graham’s residence while Barker et al. were in Zennor – “along with ten thousand other people. But here, it’s remote; it’s quite; it’s ancient.” They had been to Stonehenge more than once for the summer solstice. They returned the question, so I told them about Graham and Peter Lanyon. “What are you, then,” the man asked, “a university lecturer?”
At that moment a carload of people turned up with a camera and tripod, so I quickly took my own photographs and headed off, flying down towards Penzance through the rain that had started again. Minutes later I passed into Madron, where almost straight away I found Graham’s final house, the first in a terrace—not unlike the one I’d guessed to be Barker’s back in Zennor. It features a little plaque, black against the white-painted wall; cut into it, the words
A few yards down the road is the King William IV, where I stopped for another half, although as there was a funeral party in progress I drank outside; this meant I couldn’t look for the “electric One / Armed Bandit” Graham writes about in “Press Button to Hold Desired Symbol”. By this time, about four o’clock, I’d had a total of two pints: not much, but more than I’d normally have finished by that hour; thankfully they had been at intervals so I wasn’t feeling wobbly. Graham, however, was an alcoholic. In a love-poem to Nessie, he alludes to walking home from the pub after she has gone to bed:
I have come late but I have come before
Later with slaked steps from stone to stone
To hope to find you listening for the door. (“I Leave This at Your Ear”)
One reason for not riding a bicycle might have been that, similarly to the blind Heath-Stubbs, Graham was frequently blind drunk.
When I rolled into Penzance sometime after five o’clock, I was too knackered to reflect on much beyond what I would have for dinner. Looking back from a distance, I feel that by cycling I got closer in a single day to the writers I’d chosen to pursue than I could have done by reading more about them for a week, even if I missed some things while fretting about the time and my stamina. You have to go there not just for what you can see (which is available, to some extent, online) but (something the internet cannot approximate) for what you can hear, and cannot hear. There is a quality of the work that resulted from their Cornish sojourns that can’t be explained in language, because it comes out of the quiet of hilltops without cars and crowds, and the noise of the sea breaking on stones. As Graham writes in “Malcolm Mooney’s Land”:
I have reached the edge of earshot
And by the laws of distance
My words go through the smoking air
Changing their tune on silence.