There are many childhood events that I don’t remember but, like most memories, certain experiences are still razor-sharp in my mind. One of those is travelling in a bus on a school field trip to west Cornwall. Food played a part. I can’t recall exactly what we ate on the trip but, whatever it was, it tasted far better for being eaten on an outing with my class mates.
Geography was never my favourite subject (I gave it up before O’Level but my eldest daughter took a degree in it – so much for genetics!) The geology that we were presumably meant to be studying pretty much eluded me but I do know that we visited Chysauster and that the rain that day was horizontal. Low cloud and strong wind made a lasting impression too.
Nearly fifty years later I resolved to return – this time in sunshine, not a bag of sweets in sight and without the finer details of rock formations clogging up my brain. There was no giggling or gossip either. Poppy, my Labrador, prefers tail-wagging and rabbit-chasing to furtive conversations about boys.
The quarter of a mile walk uphill from the car park surprised me and the view once I’d reached the remains of the ten houses that made up the settlement was a complete revelation. You can see for miles and there can be few better places to appreciate the magnificence of Mount’s Bay.
Thought to have been built in the Roman period between the first and third centuries AD, there were eight houses in a compact group of two rows of four each, with other outlying homes to the south west. Each of the dwellings has the same kind of basic layout: an entrance leading to an open courtyard and a number of rooms (usually three) branching off it. It’s thought that the community who lived there were farmers and there’s also evidence to suggest that the site was occupied during the Iron Age.
Poppy and I practically had the place to ourselves whilst we wandered around – the only other family were happily clustered round a picnic table enjoying lunch. Maybe I missed my vocation as an archaeologist because standing in the doorways, looking out over a landscape that has changed in terms of cultivation and habitation but is still a great vantage point, I was intrigued by the lives lived there. What did they wear, how did they speak, what adventures did they have, what did they sleep on and what did they eat? At night they would have looked up at the same sky that we do but so much has happened since. Do their spirits still walk Chysauster’s pathways? It’s tempting to think so. Especially when the mist descends.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to Zennor, not even on a school bus. Famous for its mermaid, it’s a ten minute drive from Chysauster and much smaller than I imagined. The ancient church dominates the hamlet and is a must for any visitor. According to the legend, it’s here that the chorister Matthew Trewhella was said to have been singing when a mermaid, attracted by his beautiful voice, came and listened then lured him into the sea at Pendour Cove so he’d be with her forever. A Medieval bench known as the Mermaid’s Chair and carved over 500 years ago can be seen in the side chapel. It’s a fascinating piece of craftsmanship but, as a plaque above it explains, probably more symbolic of the belief that Christ was both man and God than proof that mermaids really do exist.
Zennor is situated on the north coast and the half mile walk to Zennor Head is another must-do. The path is easy and the seascape magnificent. If Matthew Trewhella did follow his mermaid to the cove, it’s not hard to see why he might have been doubly mesmerised.
Like all my ‘never been to’ excursions, my day out in West Cornwall was a revelation. Instead of taking the easy option and visiting old haunts close by, I’d once again got out and explored an unfamiliar area, within my own county.
Geography might not have appealed at school but, in its broadest sense, it certainly does now.
For more information about places to see and things to do in Cornwall, visit We are Cornwall