Modern life on ancient streets

A few weeks ago, an armored truck parked on one of Launceston’s ancient streets to collect modern money from a store.

To someone born in Britain, Launceston’s streets might not seem ancient, just old. There’s so much older stuff around, it’s easy to get spoiled. Sure, they’re narrow and twisty, and the gatehouse from the old town walls is still standing. I can’t find a date for it, or for when the town walls were either built or torn down, so we’ll  have to settle for knowing that it’s old. The castle was built in 1070 and now a fixer-upper. The church dates to the sixteenth-century but has a tower from the fourteenth century.

But modern life has crept in around all that. Or marched in with hobnailed boots. New buildings have been added to the old, and the stores in old buildings have adapted them to modern uses. It’s easy to walk through and forget everything but the errands that brought you here: a stop at the chain stationery store, the bakery, the antique store (what’s more modern than an antique store?), even the lingerie shop if you have a lingerie kind of disposition.

On the day the armored truck parked, I wasn’t thinking about ancient streets but about the loaf of bread and two scones I was buying, but I gradually became aware of an un-ancient, automated kind of ruckus outside. Wild Thing had stayed outside with the dogs and by the time I joined her a crowd had gathered, not around her but around the armored truck, from which a flat, automated voice was repeating, on a loop, “Help. Help. G4S driver needs assistance. Call the police.”

No one was calling the police. It’s hard to get excited about a looped announcement saying, “Help. Help.” Whoever taped the announcement hadn’t managed to sound like she needed help. She wasn’t real and we all knew it.

Still, she might have done better if she hadn’t mentioned G4S, which is one of those outsourcing companies that does stuff governments no longer want to do themselves. Its focus is on security—something that’s subtly hinted at by its slogan, “Securing your world.” It’s best known for winning the security contract for the London Olympics and then failing to recruit enough staff. It had to be bailed out at the last minute by the army.

I shouldn’t laugh. I know I shouldn’t.

G4S also runs prisons (and “lost control” of one recently: translation, there was a riot), and they a similar company, Serco, had a contract to do electronic monitoring of convicted offenders. As the Telegraph put it, “anomalies were found in the data G4S handed over” to the government and the company had to pay back £109 million. It was all an oversight, I’m sure, and what’s £109 million between friends, but the Serious Fraud Office launched a criminal investigation. I haven’t heard that charges were filed.

What did those bland anomalies consist of? Among other things, they charged the government for monitoring people who either were back in prison or dead.

The dead are so easy to monitor. You can understand the temptation.

So, no, it’s not one of those companies people love, although I probably feel a bit more strongly about it than most of the people clustered around the back of the armored truck.

I asked Wild Thing what was going on and she told me the driver had locked himself inside, but the back door was now open and he was on stage. Which didn’t stop the tape from playing: “Help. Help. G4S driver requires assistance. Call the police.”

What G4S driver really required right then was a bit of privacy to pull himself back together, not to mention a way to stop the damn tape, but he wasn’t getting either of those things. The crowd lingered. And stared. And didn’t call the police. And he couldn’t close the door for fear of locking himself in again.

We left before the tape stopped. For all I know it played for the rest of the day and the driver’s still recovering.

The streets, however, remain as ancient as they were before he locked himself in.

And now a brief aside: When I was looking up dates for the various bits of the town, I consulted Wikipedia. It’s easy, it’s online, and it’s, um, often reliable.

At the end of the entry for Launceston, I found a list of notable residents: a poet, a New Wave guitarist, a sailor, an “antiquary and…oriental traveller,” and at the end of the list, “Emily Lovell, the biological and spiritual successor to Mao Zedong.”

The what?

The link from her name led to a Wikipedia entry on Maoism, where (surprise, surprise) no mention of ol’ Emily jumped out at me. Just to be thorough, I typed her name into Google, which offered to connect me to assorted Emily Lovells via LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, etc. They struck me as unsuitable hangouts for the biological and spiritual heir to Mao Zedong, so I skipped them.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed her at the end of the Launceston entry.

Living with history

Living in Cornwall means living with an awareness of history. It’s one of the things I love about the place. I can leave my house and in less than half an hour drive to (and I’m naming just a few spots) a stone circle, the remains of a medieval field system, the vague hints of a medieval hamlet, the ruin of a 16th century castle, and behind the castle a much older set of foundations that may have been a monastery. At least I think the current theory says it was a monastery.  A more romantic theory holds that King Arthur was conceived in an older castle on the same site and that his final battle was fought a few miles away, at Slaughterbridge.

In November, the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter (just over an hour from here) caught fire, and the news reports said it was the oldest hotel in England. That led the Guardian to run an article on other hotels that are also the oldest in England. It turns out they all have a reasonable claim, because there’s more than one way to define oldest hotel: oldest building now used as a hotel; building used as a hotel for the longest time; oldest building originally used as an inn but now used as a hotel; oldest small piece of a building now used as a hotel but that’s been added on to and changed over the years. The list could go on, I’m sure. Everyplace wants to be the oldest. Because people here value the history. Which, to be crass, means it sells.

Relevant photo: A castle ruin near Edinburgh. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Relevant photo: A castle in the Firth of Forth (don’t you just love saying that?), near Edinburgh. No, it’s not Cornwall, but it’s about as relevant as the pictures here get. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Visiting heritage sites is a national pastime, and in 2015 over 40 million people did exactly that. That’s almost 75% of the adult population of Britain, although some whacking big chunk of the visitors must have been foreign tourists. But never mind, because an even larger chunk weren’t. That’s based on Hawley’s Small and Unscientific survey of the accents I hear when I visit those places myself.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey is never wrong.

Heritage sites include castles, stately homes, and archeological sites but doesn’t seem to include the old ships, churches, mills, factories, and small bits of steam railroad dotted around the country. The steam railroads are lovingly refurbished and run by volunteers. A lot of Wild Thing’s family worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and she grew up around steam trains, so I’m particularly conscious of them. We once drove halfway across Minneapolis to figure out why we were hearing one. It turned out to be a beautifully restored Canadian train that had been brought in for who knows what reason.

Add the people who go to those sites to the heritage site numbers and you can probably bump up the number of visitors by some impressive amount. By my calculations, 136% of the British population has visited one of the sites in the past year.

No, I can’t be trusted around numbers. The point, though, is that history isn’t just a high-end obsession here. The article where I found the number of visitors notes that the participation gap between rich and poor and between white and everybody else had narrowed in five or so years.

I used to wonder what it would be like to grow up surrounded so visibly by history, then I met a kid who told me in all seriousness that he was descended from King Arthur. I didn’t ask how that worked, being descended from a king who may well be mythical, I just took it as a tribute to the power of story and to the way history affects the imagination.

But history’s a tricky thing, and when it collides with imagination it gets even trickier. A lot of us like to imagine knights and lords and ladies and King Arthur and all those Druids, whoever the Druids were and whatever they actually did. We look at the stone circles that haunt the landscape, and because they’re silent we can imagine them to mean anything we want. Someone once told me that at one of them she felt a powerfully female energy. I don’t doubt that she felt it. I do doubt her feelings had anything to do with the stones, the place, or the history.

Popular imagination holds that the bowl-shaped rocks on the moor were used for blood sacrifices, but a geologist neighbor says they were formed by the wind spending eons blowing pebbles around in the hollows. Which is a lot less evocative but more convincing.

As easy as it is to edit in a romantic tale or three, it’s also easy to edit out the conflict and misery behind the archeological sites. The gorgeous hill forts that dot Cornwall stand witness to warfare and the expectation of attack. The field system I mentioned in the first paragraph was originally a common, which means it was owned collectively by a group of people who had the right to use it in certain traditional ways, which would have been spelled out. It continued as a common until at least the seventeenth century. In 1844, fourteen owners were recorded. By 2000, the field had one owner.

I’m inclined to mourn the loss of common land. The families who had a right to it depended on it for food at a time when food was scarce and hunger wasn’t. The loss of commons is commemorated by a folk poem that says, “The law locks up the man or woman / Who steals the goose off the common / But leaves the greater villain loose / Who steals the common from the goose.”

I don’t know how that one particular field changed from common land to owned land. If it had followed the usual pattern, the change would have come earlier and the marks of the medieval system would have disappeared by now. But in general, the change was marked by desperation and the destruction of a way of life. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a good way of life (unless you lived somewhere the top of the class pyramid) or an easy one, but for anyone on the wrong end of the change, what came next was worse.

And the great houses so many visitors admire today? The money to build some of them came from stealing the common from the goose. For others, it came from slave plantations overseas. For the rest, it came from other charming arrangements. But the houses are beautiful. We pay our admission and drift through, admiring whatever we’re inclined to admire—the dishes, the architecture, the clothing, the lush life they housed.

In a great house outside Bodmin, the lady’s parlor is laid out with a permanent afternoon tea and, if I remember right, four chairs. I can’t help imagining myself into one of those chairs, drinking tea, eating scones and little lovely whatevers. Set out food and I’ll imagine myself eating it. Then I imagine doing that every day, and the perfect boredom of a life where that’s pretty much all you can count on to break up the day. Then I remember how many underpaid, overbossed servants it took to keep one lady eating little whatevers at 4 p.m. every day, and the poverty and lack of alternatives that drove them to take those jobs, and  how long the work day was, and how little of that beauty they could claim as their own.

Isn’t it just fun hanging around with me? Don’t you just feel uplifted? I’ll see if I can’t be more fun next week.

Why is Britain called Great Britain?

The question of why Britain’s called Great Britain popped up in a comment thread, and if I were a better person I’d go back and figure out where it was and link to whoever raised it (it was a British reader in case that strikes you as being worth knowing) but I’m crazed lately. I made a note to do sixty seconds of research on the topic, forgot to copy the link into my notes, and here I am, without a clue where we were at the time.

Sorry.

But the question persists. What are we talking about when we say “Great Britain”?

If you wander around London long enough, you’ll eventually stumble into a street called Great Russell Street. It’s not a particularly big street, but I’m assuming it’s bigger than (not great) Russell Street, which you’ll also stumble into if you stumble long enough. (All this stumbling relies on the same principal as those thousand monkey on typewriters who will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, assuming you can convince monkeys to type. And assuming I can get you to wander long enough. You’re welcome to stop for tea as often as you like if that helps. Or a beer.)

Great, my friends, isn’t a value judgment in either context. It means big. Big honkin’ Russell Street, Big honkin’ Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie is growing and would now like to be known as Great Eddie.

The first person to use great in the context of Britain seems to have been Ptolemy, who wasn’t writing in English so we’re fudging our facts here, but it’s interesting anyway. He called what we now know as England, Scotland, and Wales (and Cornish nationalist would add Cornwall)—in other words, the bigger landmass hereabouts—Great Britain, and Ireland—the smaller one—Little Britain.

Then everyone forgot about it for centuries. They had other things on their minds. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth called that bigger landmass Greater Britain to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, which wasn’t Ireland but Brittany. And then they forgot about it all for another long stretch of time.

The phrase pops up again in the fifteenth century in a not very interesting context, then gets serious in the seventeenth century, when James united what were still and continued to be two separate countries, England and Scotland, under a single monarchy—and (although it’s not relevant to our discussion) claimed Ireland and France as well. In the next century, England and Scotland were united into a single country. Wales had been conquered some time before all this and the English had gotten into the habit of thinking it was part of England (the Welsh thought differently), so it didn’t get a separate mention right then.

James, by the way, was either the first or the sixth, depending on whether you’re standing in England or in Scotland when you count. I told you not to trust me with numbers—they go all shifty when I’m in the room. It should also be noted that James couldn’t spell for shit. He called himself the king of “Great Brittaine,”

Well, he was king. He got to spell it any way he wanted. Who was going to tell him he had it wrong? Besides, pretty much everyone did that back then, with pretty much any word they set their feathery pens to.

Fast forward to the days when Britain had an empire. The Great in Great Britain must’ve been handy and did take on the tone of a value judgment. But the origin? Big. Nothing but big.

These days, Great Britain means England, Wales, and Scotland. (The link here is basically a footnote in case you’re seriously interested. I could also link to some kid’s school paper, which for reasons I won’t stop to think about came up at the top of Google’s list, but I won’t.) And Cornwall, as the Cornish nationalists would remind us. Along with some of the surrounding small islands but not others, which are self-governing dependent territories.

Don’t ask.

It doesn’t include Northern Ireland. But in everyday speech, people often use British to cover the entire United Kingdom, which does include Northern Ireland. A website called Know Britain says that from a legal point of view this is inaccurate—and just afterward it notes that the phrase is often used to mean exactly that in legislation, especially in reference to nationality.

So there you go. Are you confused yet? Then my work is done. But because I don’t like to leave a topic until I’ve overdone it, I should add that Know Britain says the British Islands is a political term meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. But the British Isles is a geographical term meaning Great Britain, all of Ireland, and all the smaller islands around them. Don’t you just love this language?

Someday when I’m feeling particularly brave I’ll tackle the question of which categories of people would say, “I’m British,” and which ones would say, for example, “I’m English,” or “I’m Cornish” and so forth, and what all that means. Or may mean.

But for now we’ll end there . It may not all be good, but it’s great, isn’t it?

Walking the Cornish Coast Path

You can’t walk far in the U.K. without stubbing your toe on some bit of history. Today’s bruised toe comes from the Cornwall’s Coast Path between Tintagel and Trebarwith Strand, which Wild Thing and I walked last week, in beautiful, if windy, weather.

Cornwall’s traditional industries were tin mining, slate quarrying, and fishing. The soil here is rocky, so most of the farming involves grazing. Plowing this soil must’ve broken many a heart, not to mention a back.

The tin mines were closed under Maggie Thatcher, and although every so often I read that one or another of them is going to reopen, so far none have. A few boats still fish commercially, but factory fishing has left the seas seriously depleted. And some of the slate quarries still operate, but the primary industry these days is tourism, leaving Cornwall with stunning  views, low-wage, seasonal work, and high house prices.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to brood. We’re taking a walk. The weather’s perfect. Smile, everyone. We’re starting at St.  Materiana church, outside Tintagel.

Spoil from an abandoned slate quarry

An abandoned slate quarry, with a bit of thrift growing on the right

Slate

This is spoil from an abandoned quarry–the rock that wasn’t usable. The Coast Path goes right by it. Note the tilted horizon. That’s my doing. The real horizon is just where it belongs. Work in quarries like this must’ve been hellish at times, out on the cliff edge in the wind and driving rain. From what I’ve been told, young boys were sent over the clliff edges in baskets to blast the rock. They were lighter than grown men.

It’s one thing to mourn a way of life that’s been lost, but let’s not romanticize it.

Dry stone walling

With all that rock in and on the ground, the easiest method of dividing fields is building dry stone walls, and they’re everywhere in Cornwall. The dry in dry stone wall means not that you take them inside to keep them out of the rain but that they’re built without mortar–just stacked perfectly, stone on stone on stone. The way they’re built hasn’t changed over the centuries. I’ve read that the only way to tell the age of a wall is to count the varieties of blackberries growing in it. Blackberries grow wild here. If you’re not careful, they’ll take root in your bed, so change those sheets regularly, folks. The problem with the system is that I can’t tell one variety of blackberry from another. But never mind, because somebody can. And anyway, I’ve never yet needed to know a wall’s age.

Dry stone wall. The pattern's called curzyway in some places and jack and jill in others.

A dry stone wall. The pattern’s called curzyway in some places and jack and jill in others.

A well-built wall can last for centuries. I took a one-day workshop on wall building and then built us a low one around a flower bed. The first stones fell out after a year, and I’ve been putting them back in place ever since. What did I expect from a one-day course? And it doesn’t matter. I’m proud of it anyway, in the way a seven-year-old is proud of an art project: not because it’s good but because it’s hers.

The patterns of an area’s walls depend on the local rock. And yes, that’s obvious once someone says it but until someone does you don’t necessarily think of it. In other parts of the country, hedges serve the purpose that stone walls serve here. You work with what’s at hand.

A bit of stone wall, partially grown over

A bit of stone wall, partially grown over

Not all of Cornwall’s stone walls are visible, because plants take root in between the stones and after a while can hide them completely. Roads often have what look like overgrown earthen banks on both sides, but inside that soft-looking mass may be a spine of stone.

These days some walls are mortared but keep the look of dry stone walls.

But back to our walk. We passed several abandoned quarries and skirted a series of fields, with their stone walls. The Tintagel-Trebarwith path goes into only one field. I’l write about foot paths another time, but they cross private land–usually farm land. That too is history, and deserves its own post. This particular field often holds sheep, but it was empty last week, so I didn’t have to put the dog on a leash. When she was young and impressionable, she looked in the mirror and thought she saw a collie–or what the rest of the world calls a border collie; a sheep-herding dog–and she’s been trying to chase sheep ever since. The farmers do not find this cute.

Stiles 

A stile. With a dog.

A stile. With the dog who thinks she’s a collie.

No, we’re not talking fashion. You don’t want me to talk about fashion. Remember the mankini? This is stile as in “he found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.” For some reason, American kids end up learning that nursery rhyme–or at least I did–in spite of not living within a thousand of miles of a stile. I used to wonder what one was.

They’re ways for a wall to let people but not animals get over. Simple, timeless, and clever. The (I can’t help myself) style of stile varies from place to place. This one let us into the field and has a space underneath that a small-to-medium-size dog can crawl through, as Minnie the Moocher is demonstrating in the photo. In places, paths go through field gates instead of stiles, and most walkers have the sense to close them, but there’s always one, isn’t there? Stiles solve that problem. The walkers get over and the sheep–or cows, or whatever–stay inside. You don’t have to open them and you can’t forget to close them. All you have to do is be able to climb over.

Wildflowers

Wildflower that planted itself in the wall.

Stonecrop, which planted itself between the rocks

Speedwell

Speedwell, growing in the grass

Spring and early summer are the best times for wildflowers. When I first came to Cornwall, I was overwhelmed by the numbers. After Minnesota, it all seemed unbelievably rich. The stonecrop on the right is probably English stonecrop, but I’m not great at identifying wildflowers. If I can identify the family reasonably accurately, I’m happy. I haven’t even taken a guess on the speedwell. It could be field, slender, American, thyme-leaved, wall, heath, pixilated, pontificated, confabulated, etc. The list is as long as my finger, in small type. And yes, I did make up a few of those.

The rest of the walk

After following the cliffs, the path descends into Trebarwith Strand, which is now given over to what everybody but me calls holidaymakers, who are drawn by the wide sand beach that appears at low tide. I’m not sure what called the village into existence originally. I doubt it was fishing, because the beach is covered at high tide and there’s no harbor at all. And it wouldn’t have been farming, because the valley’s too steep for any fields. Possibly the slate quarries. There’s another, also abandoned, in the valley just to the southwest. Today it has a cafe, a few shops, a pub, and a lot of holiday rentals. It’s a great place to get a cup of tea before heading inland to take the short route back to the car, which is what we did.

eddie, trebarwith walk 100On the road, we passed one more bit of history. If you look carefully, you’ll see GR on the front of the mailbox. That shows who was king or queen when the box was put into the wall. In this case, it was George. We met a guy who collects them, by which he means not the mailboxes themselves, just the sight of them. Before we met him, we’d never noticed the initials. Now we look.