What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
– from “Inversnaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
On a recent trip to Cornwall I stopped in at Lamorna, where writer and artist Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) lived, worked and died; with her occult interests in mind, the Summer Solstice seems like a fitting occasion on which to share the images from this brief visit. Not that there is much of summer to be seen. The journey’s ration of warm, sunny days had been exhausted by the time Partner and self made it to the little hamlet between Penzance and Land’s End. Persistent rain and wind accompanied us all the way, a reminder that the sublime abundance of the green landscape doesn’t just happen, that the peninsula’s famed micro-climate comes with a large portion of precipitation.
As we approach Lamorna, rows of trees either side of the road rise out of thick undergrowth to meet in the middle, forming green tunnels. The car’s GPS map goes black for minutes at a time, its sensors imagining the vehicle to have been suddenly engulfed by nighttime. The roads are often precisely one car wide; encountering an oncoming vehicle triggers a complicated procedure by which one or the other backs up to the nearest passing point; the scratched bodywork everywhere in evidence indicates that this operation is not always entirely successful.
But of course we’re doing this all wrong. The woman whose adored landscape we come to fleetingly admire was bitterly opposed to the encroachment of machines and their din in what she had chosen as a pacific idyll. It was more than a passing pet peeve; along with a wide range of occult groupings – including the O.T.O., the Fellowship of Isis and the Druid Order – Colquhoun was also a member of the Noise Abatement Society.
Colquhoun started living here part-time – keeping a place in London – in 1949. She inhabited a hut, little more than a shed which she named Vow Cave, which had a leaking roof and almost no facilities to speak of. It was a difficult existence that Colquhoun happily endured as it brought her closer to the landscape to which she was a supremely eloquent witness. Our guide is Colquhoun’s book The Living Stones, originally published in 1957 and recently reissued by Peter Owen as I mentioned earlier in the year. There is much to learn in this highly recommended book, not least about the author herself. She describes her profound engagement with the terrain and offers a wealth of arcane lore reaching far back into Cornwall’s pre-Christian history in a crisp, authoritative voice. There is no abashment, no false modesty, but no false mysticism either. Colquhoun puts forth her findings in a spirit of self-determination that suggests it would be of little moment to the writer if we credited her more esoteric beliefs or not. This is simply how she sees things.
Lamorna runs along a coiling narrow road that keeps a more or less even elevation with rises and dells either side. Today the higher ground in the distance disappears in misty rain (or rainy mist). There is a little village hall, an old red phone box, a handful of houses and a hotel whose sign suggests an inapt degree of sybaritic luxury for the quiet, shaded settlement. This being campaign season, a number of houses sport modest signs declaring their occupants’ affiliations; the orange of the Liberal Democrats predominates.
We pass a small corrugated iron structure flush with the road that may well have been the artist’s studio. Except it cannot be, if it is true that her studio was destroyed at some point in the 1980s (thanks to Jay for this pointer). Perhaps it is the site, perhaps it doesn’t matter. Behind the shed the land slips down to a rushing stream and forms a valley of such lush, intemperate beauty that I wish I could teleport you all there rather than subject you to the inadequate substitute of amateur photographs.
Leaving the village, the road descends sharply to Lamorna Cove where the waters have reached a pitch of restlessness for which even the rain and wind uphill haven’t prepared us. On a previous visit to Cornwall the relatively calm seas made me wonder at the area’s huge bounty of shipwrecks. But today as the sea churns and bellows and casts its angry spray clear over the high quays it’s difficult to imagine any vessel passing this stretch of coast unscathed. This suitably elemental spot is where Colquhoun’s ashes were cast in 1988.
The Living Stones ends with the writer’s lament for Lamorna, victim not only to vacationers and day trippers and their loud, impractically large vehicles, but also the logging then denuding the hillsides. There is little evidence of any of this today, but we reflect on the final line of Colquhoun’s book (before the Hopkins verse quoted above): “So vanish all who would profane Lamorna’s precincts!”. We take the hint, and the eastbound road.