As we pull up in the van a car is pulling away, the driver still wearing his wetsuit, too cold to take it off outside. The rest of Britain’s snowed under, but in Cornwall, except for the High Moor in the east, we’ve kept clean, the temperature hanging just below freezing, and the air faded like dawn all afternoon.
Two starlings squat angular on the phone line.
‘So where’s it to?’
Stu and I are in the car park below Cubert at Holywell Bay. Some years ago, when we were both at St Austell College, we would take afternoons off like this and drive out to favourite places, Caerhays or Respryn, or spots nearer home, Roche Rock or Mevagissey Woods and the plantations above, Stu with his paints, me with books. Fifteen years later it’s hardly different. Stu’s rolled a cigarette for the slow dune walk, with an eye on the surf he’s missing, and we head up the sandy ridge, little idea of what we’re looking for.
Holywell in the summer drips with tourists, hanging off the dunes and choking the bay. Flat or good, bodyboards coat the sea like scales ridden by ectoparasitic mites on an exotic lizard. But in January it’s almost empty.
Looking over Cornwall’s history can make some long-tired places feel new. Newquay, for example, which can seem like a grubby playground, was expensive and busy even by 1927, when CS Lewis grumbled about the booksellers and price of beer. It is so great a part of the modern map of Cornwall that it’s surprising to look back a few hundred years and find a complete blank where this patch of coast now gloats. Defoe passed in the 1720s, observing ports and prospects of significance in the county, but of this stretch he would only write that from the ‘town and port of St Ives, we have no town of any note on the coast … ‘till we come to Padstow-Haven’. Before Defoe there are few substantial mentions of the area, though on Norden’s early-seventeenth century map of ‘Pyder Hundred’ there is a St Kibberd, which looks to be the same as modern Cubert.
Newquay didn’t really develop from a small fishing village until the 1876 rail line was opened, expecting to aid the export of minerals and the import of tourists. And when Lewis visited, the town was booming and slowly, grindingly swelling.
Being now such a summer draw, it’s hard to imagine that not very long ago this was a bare and wild sweep of land.
From the crest of a dune we catch our breath a second and take photographs of the twin rocks. They’re known as Gull Rocks usually, though also Carter’s Rocks on some maps, presumably after the famous smuggling brothers, Harry, Charles and John Carter, the latter being the so-called ‘King of Prussia’. We watch a surfer pushing a bicycle down to the water, and a couple running their Dalmatians.
Littered across the beach below the tide line are washed up pods, mermaids’ purses, the blackish eggs of skate that look like seaweed. It’s almost low tide, which it needs to be when visiting the cave-well. Neither of us has been to the well before, and we look into every cave for the distinctive formations. Stu says while he was surfing he saw a girl shitting in one of these, so we tread carefully. In some are rocks with thin green and red rusted veins, like oxidised copper and iron. In another the wall is a peculiar ooze like molten toffee.
Further north, a turquoise pool blocking a crag and a handful of ringed plovers chattering in whistles, before the well cave, a deep cleft marked by a green algal pattern at the mouth, shaped like a bird’s eye, and a complex rippling in the granite as though someone had broken the surface with a handful of crumbs.
A little way in and there are smooth crude steps, the wall with pits that work as climbing grips when the steps are slippery. And here is the curious part, crawling to the back in the dark – these bright glittering gem colours, jade green with gold peaks, oozing pale rubellite and kaolin white, deep rust and turquoise, thick layers of glistering damp mineral smears. Fantastic colours boiled and bled out the bowels of the earth into this awkward shaft.
Back over the dunes there is a second well, more typical, somewhere on the golf course. Stu points out stonechats in the scrub to the right, and a timid flock of goldfinches. The light’s failing now, and the map I brought is from 1919 (I couldn’t find my modern OS for Redruth and St Agnes before I left), which doesn’t show the well. It seems it was hidden and derelict until the Old Cornwall Society got a hold in the 1930s. It’s said to be late-medieval, which is juvenile by Cornish well standards, and while this one is closer to Cubert, it is surely the rainbow-rocked cave water that was named for the saint.
As with many Christian symbols in Cornwall, the wells often have stories connected that haze the borders of superstition between Christian miracle and pagan magic realism, and suggest greater age than late dark age and medieval conversion. Cuthbert, whose name is historically associated with this holy well, was a seventh century Northumbrian monk and bishop, about whom Bede wrote a good biography. The story of his unlikely association with the bay is of the late ninth century, long after his death, when the Danes invaded his resting place and monks fled from Lindisfarne, then Durham, carrying Cuthbert’s bits with them. It is said that the monks were on their way to Ireland, having decided to transport the relics there for safety, when they were blown in here. They built a church quickly, and then an oracle told them not to bother with Ireland anymore and to just go back to Durham, which they did. At some point of their visit the relics of Cuthbert grazed the well and transferred their healing powers to the water. In his lifetime Cuthbert healed people of diverse afflictions, from diarrhoea to ‘the plague’, and after his death he was no less impressive, his achievements including curing a boy of madness.
Cuthbert has several associations with animals and birds too, having been able to talk to them, and showing a special fondness for ducks.
But this story of the landing in Holywell Bay does not strike as very convincing. The idea of the monks travelling all the way round to Cornwall, only to turn back again, is odd, and the original source for this information seems missing. It is not in any of the older histories. Quiller-Couch appears to quote Collier and Camden, but is actually quoting the much later Polwhele, a Cornish historian who wrote his entertaining History of Cornwall in the early nineteenth century.
It’s more popular at the moment to say that St Cubert was either the same as Gwbert, or Cybi, these two sometimes being conflated together. Comparatively little is known of this Celtic Cubert, sometimes Welsh, sometimes Cornish, though the prevalence of similar names around Wales and Cornwall does suggest a link.
We are lost in dimming winter light on a golf course. My fault. It seems surreally deserted. There are sounds of men talking just over the next hillock, but no-one when we get there. Now there’s a postapocalyptic, agoraphobic feel about the place. A grotesque sense that this green expanse of utilitarian landscape has become a newly nascent wild.
When we do see a person in the distance, it’s a man jogging circles around a shed.
‘Should we speak to him?’
‘I don’t think we should.’
At the penultimate hole there’s a path of stone steps down through thorny scrub. And it is here we get our first sight of the forgotten fifteenth century well building, restored in 1936. Not surprisingly it is a boggy area, and the enclosure before the well house itself is flooded, with a few stones protruding sufficiently to get to the bank and look inside. There’s graffiti on the ceiling from the twentieth century, when people have sat in the well and are compelled to tell the future where they’re from and whom they are 4.
It’s a relief to have found this attractive granite house, and Stu sketches quickly while I look around, taking photos of snails and reading the graffiti. Votive shells have been left inside, and a tea-light holder. All small things.
Perhaps it is the location and the sense that we shouldn’t really be walking across the golf course (a holey well!), but it doesn’t have the atmosphere of others, like Madron, St Sampson’s, or Altarnun. I don’t know whether Stu has thought this too. He packs away his things and I put away my camera. We go back a similar route, heading for the still circling jogger. Stu asks him how we get to the road. He jogs on the spot a moment, points ahead at a gravelled path, smiles, and runs away.
© Luke Thompson 2013
Both Luke and Stuart are from the St Austell area of mid-Cornwall. Stuart is a painter who works at Imerys. His artwork has appeared in the Chase Art Gallery in Wadebridge, The Arc of Fire Gallery in Falmouth and the Eden Project Cafe. Luke is researching the St Austell poet Jack Clemo for his PhD and co-editing The Clearing, a new magazine for nature and place writing.