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Day 3: The traveller foils a Cornish conspiracy

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

“Go to Land’s End,” said Mrs Downey, who ran the Penzance guest house. “You probably won’t like it. But you’ll be able to say you’ve been.” I sat at the little table in the corner of my pink and blue ruffled bedroom (only the ceiling was painted landlady white) and thought as I ate my full English breakfast, sausage included. I was supposed to be setting off for Wales, having previously decided not to bother with this south- westerly extremity of the British Isles. It was only a bit of cliff like any other, after all.

Everyone was telling me not to go. The woman behind the counter at the railway buffet in Liskeard where I had arrived in Cornwall had said it wasn’t worth the effort. So had the man in the ticket office. “Mind you,” he said somewhat sullenly, “I don’t much like the scenery round here anyway. I wasn’t born here,” he added, as if that explained everything. He was from Devon and had only come here when he was 12. That was over 20 years ago, but he clearly still saw himself as a foreigner. He wasn’t going on holiday this year: he was saving up to go to New England to see the Fall in 1998. Now that was real countryside. “I wouldn’t bother with Land’s End if I were you.”

Colin Lawry had been more than indifferent. “It’s been spoiled,” said Cornwall County Council’s only Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) nationalist. He had two objections – economic and aesthetic. “It’s been turned into a tourist theme park,” he said. Tourism was all well and good in its place but it had serious disadvantages. “It is vulnerable to the weather. It provides jobs which are part-time, low-paid and seasonal. It makes great demands on infrastructure – hospitals, roads and so on – which are funded only on the basis of the resident population without taking account of visitors.” And it distracted policy-makers from better alternatives. “You should go somewhere else,” he said.

With such a united front telling me to avoid the place there was only one thing to do. I set out for Land’s End. It was partly contrariness, partly because giving way to whim is one of the joys of travelling. Changing our plans is part of what creates the sense of freedom which only the most hardened determinist could call an illusion.

But the Cornish conspiracy was formidable. As I left my digs an almost empty bus whizzed by. Land’s End, said the destination board. At the nearby bus-stop the timetable said there was not another for an hour. But just then a taxi approached. I flagged it down. “Follow that bus,” I said to the driver.

The driver was called Big John. Originally from Birmingham, he had come down to Cornwall two decades before and bought a hotel. “The Cornish couldn’t make a go of it, but I did,” said the burly man, lighting up a cigarette. But he had recently sold up and taken to taxiing.

“Where’s the bus going?” he asked. I told him.

“I’ll take you direct for a tenner.”

I looked up. The bus had disappeared from view.


I was going to have a look, because, I told him authoritatively, Land’s End had been spoiled.

“Bollocks,” said Big John. “And you can print that. Do you know how many people worked there, in the car park and pub, in the old days? Ten. Today there’s jobs for 110. These Cornish nationalists are all just wallys.”

It looked like a funfair as we approached. The old white hotel on the cliff edge seemed to have grown unnatural appendages – a fairground tower, a circus big top, a shopping mall, a Disney-style pirate ship and a real life trawler. But the theme-parkery was restricted to a fairly confined area; there was no entry fee, and the car park cost just pounds 2 for the whole day. And only the churlish could object to the sentiment behind the local paper obit-style of the homely legend at the gate:

Take nothing but photographs

Kill nothing but time

Leave nothing but footprints.

For pounds 19.95 you could get a family ticket for entry to everything except the Bash Street Circus. Inside, the families were queueing to enter the Deep Sea Quest submarine experience (not suitable for the under 3s, pregnant ladies or persons with back, neck and heart disorders). I passed by and entered the Smuggler’s Cavern whose only treasure was in its fruit machines. Aimlessly I wasted pounds 1. Opposite, the families were queueing for The Relentless Sea multi-media experience.

I turned my back on the queue and went in search of the real thing. The cliff-top paths were almost deserted. They ran, steep, sandy and slippery to the cliff-edges. Over a rope bridge, past 150ft sheer drops on which kittiwakes could be seen close up, feeding their young, I picked my way amid the pillars of granite. Their vertical faulting had been eroded to look like the ruin of some eerie man-made construct.

Among the crevices, patches of heather were in bloom and flowers clung to the bare rock – tiny saxifrages, pendulous little white campions and the pink thrift beginning to turn to brown. The sea was a heaving restrained swell which broke powerfully, but without violence, on the rocks below where cormorants or shags perched nonchalantly amid the spray.

The height was heady. As I clambered along the ledge to the furthermost rock it felt perilous. It was a real place after all.

And more than that it was a place to start from. Between the hotel and the cliffs is a photographer who for pounds 5 will snap you next to the official Land’s End signpost. Its arms say:

Isles of Scilly 28 miles

John O’Groats 874 miles

New York 3,147 miles

On the fourth arm you can letter in the name of your home town and the appropriate mileages. (The photographer has a comprehensive chart of distances.) Nearby are photos of expeditions setting out from there to Everest or to cross the Sahara. On the fourth arm, as I passed, a man was entering the name Pudsey.

There is something about places where we can start and finish. They have the same attraction as the impulse which creates art. Order shaped from chaos. A beginning and an end fashioned either side of an otherwise random slice of time. They create the sense that human beings can make themselves masters of their own destiny. We can take control of some part of the seamless stream of our lives.

Suddenly, only now, I was seized with the conviction that my tour of these islands had properly begun. I set out to find the double-decker bus to Penzance.


Tomorrow Day 4: Wales: home of the Japanese Boyo

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