Sometimes the success or failure of a day out hinges on something essentially random – like finding a shop that sells crystallised angelica. We last bought it in Penzance at least three years ago, and so as we set off up Causeway Head I had little hope of finding the shop, which even then had the air of a pop-up, still in business. But there it was, very much in business and pleased to sell me enough for three Christmas sherry trifles at least. I’d despaired of ever finding it again but somewhere there’s a person with the energy to simmer angelica stalks in increasingly strong sugar solution for days, until the tender stalks are preserved ready to add a touch of green to contrast with the morello cherries floating on whipped cream atop the trifle. The Potwell Inn always produces Christmas puddings as well, but we rarely eat them until well into the year because sherry trifle made according to a recipe given to us by an old friend has become a Christmas fixture. As you can see my thoughts have turned instinctively to Christmas for no better reason that the preserving and pickling are all but finished. Once upon a time, Gill made us the trifle as a gift every year, but when she became too old I took on the task as a tribute. No Christmas could be complete without it, and because she always aded angelica it never looks right without it.
When I think about it, most of the canonical tasks of Christmas involve quite inexplicable feats of endurance. We know perfectly well that the puddings, cakes and treats are ridiculously rich and life-threateningly full of fat and sugar but a good life deserves a bit of occasional feasting as well as fasting. We are far from the mindset of a couple known to Madame whose idea of the perfect Christmas lunch was to warm up an Iceland frozen turkey dinner and eat it on their laps. Somehow the angelica is even worth a trip to Cornwall, and always tastes better as a happy accident.
We grow it on the allotment – it’s a magnificent sight in the summer as it grows to six feet tall – each plant producing enough of the leaf stems to decorate a hundred trifles – but once again this year, we didn’t find time to create our own store in the kitchen. The little shop is, in itself, a model. There is virtually no packaging to be found in it, you could bring your own containers and buy a huge range of ingredients from bulk. How strange that even in cosmopolitan foodie Bath there isn’t an equivalent shop – I’m sure it would do well.
We walked up and down the pedestrianised street and found an excellent bookshop (Barton Books) the contents of whose bookshelves closely resembled our own at home. I think I’d read about a third of the stock, and would happily have read the rest. I joshed the owner a little and asked him if he’d only stocked his favourite books and he responded that good booksops always reflected their owners’ tastes. I couldn’t agree more, and I came out with John Wright’s latest book on foraging which I’ve already started reading.
Penzance is a place of contrasts – three years ago I’d have been glad never to visit again after we watched an unhinged young woman pouring abuse and beating her dog in the street. Today we were in Newlyn buying some fresh fish and the fishmonger said he lived in Penzance but it had become “a hole” over the years. Exactly as if we were at home, we watched a couple selling drugs on the street – both obviously addicts themselves, both hollowed out by drugs and life in general and with no provision for any help out of their mess.
Mousehole, where we’re staying, is stuffed with ludicrously pretty cottages which are all that remains of a once thriving fishing community. Next door in Newlyn there is still a big fishing fleet but Moushole, with its tiny harbour, confines itself to selling souvenirs and doing a bit of occasional crabbing. The purpose has gone out of the place. In Newlyn the fishmonger said he’d voted for Brexit. I sincerely hope for the town’s sake that he doesn’t get his wish. Virtually all the fish we eat as a nation we buy in, and virtually all that’s caught here is sold abroad, overwhelmingly in Europe. If tariffs were applied to the catch, the fishing would become as unprofitable as the tin mining and that would leave tourism – which only really pays for a third of the year – as the principle industry, bringing even more poorly paid jobs, homelessness and unemployment, helplessness, anger, drugs and alcohol abuse.
But the incomers seem to be taking up at least some of the slack by driving up house prices and providing work for an army of builders, painters and plumbers. The landscape and its wonderful light are largely untouched by change and the granite landscape of West Penwith is as magical as ever it was. Am I too hard on this place? We lived in Falmouth for a year as students and were both captivated by it whilst, at the same time, being wary. You’re always an ’emmet’ here, one of the teeming hordes of ant-like tourists who come, as if to a left-luggage office, looking for something you’ve lost but can’t quite describe. The little battery lit serpentine lighthouse you used to be able to buy from the turners’ shacks on the Lizard has come to stand as a lament for that loss.
We walked to Newlyn today and passed the memorial on the original site of the Penlee Lifeboat station from which the Solomon Browne set out in 1981 in a hurricane force storm to try to rescue the crew of the Union Star coaster. Both crews were lost in the 60 foot waves, and the tradition of Christmas lights here must surely reflect and bring to mind that terrible tragedy as the lights shine out across the sea as if to welcome back the men who will never come.
There’s nowhere to park here: the village was fully formed before the car was invented and the old fishermen’s cottages form a maze of narrow alleyways but there’s an excellent bus service back and forth to Penzance and from there onwards to anywhere in the county. On the roadside facing the sea there are allotment gardens, with some sculptural and whimsical scarecrows.
So, as always we celebrate a few days in Cornwall with mixed feelings. Loss and tragedy are never far below the surface and yet there are few places quite so likely to get the creative sap rising. The railway line to Penzance brought with it not just the tourists, but the painters of the Newlyn School, and later the St Ives artists who, for a while, changed the course of art history. It’s a culture that’s never quite at ease with itself, often feeling isolated and angry with the ‘upcountry’ politicians who have served it so badly. If ever a place needed strong regional government this is it. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Wales where the mineral wealth was extracted by a semi colonial economics leaving the place sucked dry. Love it? Hate it? It’ll still be here long after we’re all dead!