THE ESSENCE OF CORNWALL

Times Staff Writer

Attend the long express from Waterloo

That takes us down to Cornwall . . .

On Wadebridge station what a breath of sea

Scented the Camel valley! Cornish air,

Soft Cornish rains, and silence after steam . . .

As out of Derry's stable came the brake

To drag us up those long, familiar hills,

Past haunted woods and oil-lit farms and on

To far Trebetherick by the sounding sea . . . --Sir John Betjeman, poet laureate

And when Sir John died in 1984, friends bore him a mile from his whitewashed home here to burial just inside the lich gate at St. Enodoc Church in north Cornwall by that sounding sea. It rained the kind of coastal rain Betjeman had often written about, a defiant downpour that cut tiny torrents into red lanes. It blew his kind of wind, a slashing sou'wester bowing blackthorn hedges backward from the sea.

Mourners' umbrellas thrashed inside out. Pallbearers slipped in mud on the fairway pointing to the 10th green because no roads, only sandy tracks across St. Enodoc golf course, lead to the church. Black, sensible hats bounded to the green: Nineteen under par.

"I've always thought the old boy probably saw the fun in it all," smiled an acquaintance, a neighbor, Neil Painter.

Betjeman, 77, received a simple headstone of Cornish slate. It is carved with wildflowers and his name and dates, but no title nor epitaph to a splendid, arch, beloved British poet. He is buried near his mother and among unknown drowned sailors and generations of villagers with 400-year-old names. When visitors come to remember, they leave sprays in jam jars and hedge-picked bunches of foxglove, wood anemones and the cow wheat with yellow flowers that appear in May.

"All of that was Betjeman," said Painter. "An ordinary bloke, a natural man, someone who really was a part of this area."

And so, posthumously, slowly, deliberately, north Cornwall is becoming known as Betjeman country. Devon and Exmoor belonged to Lorna Doone and R. D. Blackmore. The Bronte sisters owned the Yorkshire moors. Stratford remains Shakespeare . . . and Betjeman is Trebetherick, Tintagel, Polzeath, Padstow, Boscastle and all points delightful.

Betjeman's books (with "Summoned by Bells" the firm favorite) and a 1984 selection of his prose and poetry by John Murray Ltd. ("Betjeman's Cornwall") have become special and popular travel guides to the area. A campaign to build the John Betjeman Center (patron: the Duke of Devonshire) is under way, and it will be built on the site of that old Wadebridge railway station immortalized by his verse.

And within this focus there has stirred fresh public attention on north Cornwall as a hidden holdout of an endangered genre--old seaside England where hotels are family, entertainment is the business of enjoying nature, and nothing seems to have budged since 1905. Lord, in this corner of southwestern England, some roadside mailboxes still bear Queen Victoria's royal crest.

This is where mum and dad and the nippers can rent flint-walled, 17th-Century mill cottages at Lesnewth, near Boscastle. Or rooms at nearby St. Christopher's, a bay-windowed Georgian house that lost none of its history during conversion to white-walled hotel. Or the 14th-Century Trebrea Lodge (get this: dogs are welcome) at Tintagel; the Brea Estate at Trebetherick; the Old School at Port Isaac; Willapark Manor on Bossiney Common; the Farmhouse at Pen Pill Cross.

And don't for one moment presume that any of these hotels once weren't genuine lodges, country estates, schools, farmhouses and manors.

Hotel bed and breakfast: around $25 a day, per person, for the best of the above.

Hotel bed and breakfast and dinner: about $150 a week.

North Cornwall isn't enormous, not much more than a right-angled triangle with its hypotenuse 50 miles of rocky coastline (much of it owned and conserved by the National Trust) wriggling from Padstow to Bude.

Industrially, the entire county (population 400,000) is nothing to write home (nor to the Financial Times) about--market gardening, tin mining, china clay, granite, slate and a fluctuating economy that qualifies for government aid to improve the employment and investment pictures.

Cornwall's past is equally sparse; early dwellers (working the standard correlation between settlement and mineral exploitation) were Bronze and Iron Age people, then Celtic Christians (hence the area's mysterious stone circles, forts and ancient churches dedicated to largely unknown saints) emigrating from Roman and Saxon development in the east. It was isolated, a country apart, with its own language (Celtic) and customs.

Manors Taken Over

After the Norman Conquest (1066) the manors of Cornwall were taken over to form the basis of an earldom, and since 1337 they have belonged traditionally to the eldest son of the English sovereign (Prince Charles now), who acts as Duke of Cornwall--hence the county's standing and official title as the Duchy of Cornwall.

Camelot, the legendary capital for King Arthur's court and Round Table, was supposedly at Tintagel. French brandy smugglers and the wreckers ("look lively, me 'earties, or it'll be dawn afore we see Joss Merlyn and Jamaica Inn") were early cottage industries. Cornishmen left here to set rails across America as gandy dancers, to mine Arizona as Cousin Jacks ("I'll take the job if you've one for me Cousin Jack here") and to die as mercenary defenders at the Alamo.

Although immensely popular with British holiday-makers (maybe too popular, complained Betjeman, who was known to depart the annual fish-and-chip season and spend his summers elsewhere, often in Derbyshire), north Cornwall won't be every American's cup of coffee.

Golf courses in the area are unkempt (by Pebble Beach standards) and at St. Enodoc (where Betjeman, who had lost his hat, once walked with a tea cozy on his head), the rusticity of surrounds suggests the following four might include Bobby Jones in Harris tweed plus fours calling for a hickory-shafted mashie.

Tennis Games Are a Breeze

Tennis anyone? Courts are few and far between (as far as a spoiled Californian was concerned), and if ever converted to parking lots they'd have to be smoothed first. It's routine to hit while the untethered net is being blown horizontal in the wind. And bring your own balls because loaners are multicolored, dead and usually wet.

Surfing's OK but certainly no match, by temperature or temperament, for Maui.

On the other hand, the wind-whipped sailing and windsurfing in these agitated Atlantic shallows might require the skills of a white-water rafter plus a finely developed death wish.

So why on earth come here? Because there are few places on this earth, or vistas of this century, with the simplicity and natural lift of north Cornwall.

"Each spring produces a new beginning for this countryside," believes Don Chapman. He's a salesman, more of a wine counselor, really, for Pennyloaf Wines near London, and he travels this county constantly. "No matter how I leave it one season, it is different, somehow fresher, when I see it the next season."

Chapman is talking of wildflowers, the purslane and seablite that shouldn't survive salt, silt and damp but grow in the salt marshes anyway. He is thinking of Rough Tor and Brown Willy, favorite heights for those hiking lonely Bodmin Moor in search of tingling circulations. "Then there are the people here," he added. "They offer the kind of friendship that one usually associates with one's family."

A Warm Bluster

There's also the weather.

Despite the wind and wet of north Cornwall, it is a warm bluster. That's the bonus from Gulf Stream eddies forming the North Atlantic Current that eventually tickles the foot and toes of western England, ergo north Cornwall.

"Before this warmer Atlantic air becomes weather, it has to hit land first," said Painter. "It hits us and we get this warmer air before it's had a chance to make up its mind and become the bloody awful weather that the rest of England has to put up with."

North Cornwall is cameo communities.

Bude and Widemouth Bay and Summerleaze Beach--a cluster that was a Victorian (watch for those mailboxes) seaside resort. Sandy coves. Hidden valleys. Zigzag cliff walks with three-in-one grades.

Bodmin--gateway, of course, to the wild, open, magnificent moor. But also to Lanhydrock, the great house of Cornwall, now maintained by the National Trust, the ancestral home of all the lords Robartes from the 17th to 20th centuries and now fully open to visitors.

Boscastle--a medieval fishing hamlet with cottages hanging from cliff walls and approached by two-way country lanes that are only one car (and a Ford Escort at that) wide. But every corner of the Boscastle area is stuffed with romance. It was close by here that Thomas Hardy met Emma Gifford and Sir Francis Drake was elected the parliamentary representative for nearby Bossiney.

The Camel coast--named for its river and a huge estuary born to water sportsmen. This area is the market town of Wadebridge (where the new bridge is 15th Century) and the seafaring village of Padstow . . . and if one is ever to know north Cornwall, and best to know it off-season when the fortnight holiday-makers have left, this must be the starting point.

Daily Rite of Walking

Let's follow a daily rite of north Cornwall: walking. The best dress is a Shetland sweater over tattersall check shirt, chukka boots and cavalry twill pants with a Rutland tweed cap. A blackthorn cane, of course. And a golden Labrador whose fun will become the terror of a thousand rabbits.

From across the dewy back lawn of the Bodare Hotel in Trebetherick you hike lanes where banks are sprinkled with wild strawberries and herb Robert. Across the dunes and the feet of Bray Hill, watch out for golfers, hear the robins and chaffinches and use the tilted tip of St. Enodoc's spire as a navigational aid.

Not that the church is far. But it sits in a hole. Locals used to call it "sinkininny church" because they thought it was sinking. Actually, it was slowly being buried by drifting sands and for decades between the 17th and 18th centuries, St. Enodoc's was covered and abandoned.

A quick homage to John Betjeman's plot and remembrance of what he wrote of God who created oceans and these vicious Cornish shores upon which sailors died before being brought to this churchyard:

. . . Now they lie

In centuries of sand beside the church.

Less pitiable are they than the corpse

Of a large golfer, only four weeks dead.

Then over the cliffs and into Daymer Bay, across yellow sand turned brown by the receding tide and up the cliffs again to see it all as the ancient Celts saw.

Waiting Out the Waves

Tide pools with miniature crabs and finger fish waiting out waves that will take them back to the sea. Old wrecks--so old they're only a rib here, a hull plate there, and the rust is black--are among the rocks. So are kids with nets and a fisherman in yellow waders whose spade is no match for the curlew's long beak when it comes to digging the sand for fat lug worms.

Maybe we'll make seven miles and the Cornish Arms at Pendoggett. You have to try their ploughman's lunch--where the pickled onions are crunchier than the bread--and a pint of Butcombe Bitter that's brewed just for this pub. And then, in an inglenook, you will understand; nod toward a doze and smile and know that you have shared a poet's place and the memories of his childhood. And that you're hooked and there must be other years. . . .

Then before breakfast down toward the sea

I ran alone, monarch of miles of sand,

Its shining stretches satin-smooth and vein'd.

The morning tide flowed in to welcome me,

The fan-shaped scallop shells, the backs of crabs,

The bits of driftwood worn to reptile shapes,

The heaps of bladder-wrack the tide had left

(Which, lifted up, sent sandhoppers to leap

In hundreds around me) answered 'Welcome Back!' "

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