I have visited Cornwall several times over the last few months and spent most of my time near the coast. It is a special feeling to be standing on the shore, looking towards the horizon across the endless waters. Like being in between two worlds, neither here, nor there, forgetting yourself. Or the opposite, being invigorated by the energy of the waves, the clash of two elements, water and earth.
In Cornwall, even away from the coast, you’re always mindful of the sea. Local legends, the reflection of the Cornish soul, seem to have been born in the watery depths. When you’re standing on the rocks of Land’s End, your eyes searching for the lost island of Lyonesse, or walking down to Bedruthan Steps, called after the giant who placed the rocks here, or exploring Tintagel, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur - you are crossing the fluid boundary between myth and reality. Pirates, smugglers, mermaids are all part of the Cornish folklore and imagination.
Almost everyone here swims, surfs, dives or sails – the draw of water is irresistible. But not just any water; it is the ocean, an environment rich in surprises and discoveries, a world apart that fascinates people.
The ocean has as many colours as the rainbow and as many moods as it has colours. I am standing in the harbour of St Ives, looking towards Godrevy lighthouse, ignoring the rain. The sun covered by thick, heavy clouds is making the atmosphere hot and humid. It is the middle of summer. The grey sky cover diffuses the light and gives me the hint of colours concealed in this diluted landscape. In the evening the sun breaks the cover and paints the harbour orange and purple – a goodbye gift before its plunge into the sea.
Next day I am walking along the South West Coast Path from Lizard Point to Kynance Cove. The sea is the colour most favoured by bathers: brilliant blue and turquoise. But the cliffs also offer a feast for the eyes. Lizard Peninsula is famous for its flowers: yellow fields of chamomile and daisies, delicate milkwort and harebells, fragrant wild thyme and white-pink yarrow create eye-catching and soft blankets where you can lie down for hours! Kynance Cove is a sheltered paradise, with golden sands, aquamarine waters and little caves sculpted by powerful tides.
Padstow, the fishing town on the north coast of Cornwall at the mouth of the river Camel, is my next stop. The town’s irresistible charm, tiny, narrow streets, pretty houses and flower displays make it a popular tourist destination. Fancy bakeries and gourmet fish restaurants also draw the crowds. I am walking out of the harbour and away along the Camel estuary. A broad, tidal river valley is a picturesque spot favoured by dog walkers and sailing enthusiasts. I sit here for hours, feet in the water, observing the sails and the dogs. Then I continue my walk towards the open sea. Green hills with creamy little houses perched on the edge of a cliff form a tranquil sanctuary, a contrast with the vastness of the ocean. Strong wind is gathering fluffy clouds into a menacing mass and the surface of the disturbed waters darkens.
The ocean is powerful, but so are geological forces that shaped the continents and islands. I am in Millook Heaven, near Bude, and this time I am looking away from the sea and towards the cliffs. The layered rocks of sandstone and shale deformed as a result of a collision of continents over 300 million years ago, form striking zigzag shapes known to geologists as chevron folds. The dark and light stripes across the cliff face can be read like a book, if you know how to decipher them. Before the continents as we recognise them today broke apart and drifted away to their present locations, they formed together one super continent, Pangea. What is known today as the coast of Cornwall, is the result of multiple break ups and collisions of landmasses over the hundreds of millions of years.
On the coast, between the land and the sea, confronted with powerful elements of water and earth, it is easier to put your life into perspective. It is a great feeling after all, to be part of something bigger and more mysterious than we can imagine. The landscape that we believe unmoving and hard as a rock is, as we experience it closer, a shape-shifting, colourful and diverse environment, forever escaping definitions and surprising us with its beauty. It is eternal, but never the same and we can try to define its nature by describing its perpetually changing colours.