The smell of English pubs grabs you at the door. The aroma of stale ale, like in American bars, mixed with the bouquet of pub grub emanating from the kitchen—savory soups, chips bubbling in hot oil, and here, the meaty fillings and buttery dough of the ubiquitous Cornish pasties. When it rains, add whiffs of wet wellies and mackintoshes parked at the door, of soggy dogs as they shake themselves off before settling at their owners’ feet. On a sodden April night, the third day of our week in St. Ives, Don and I leave our cozy suite of rooms in Talland House—Virginia Woolf’s childhood summer home now converted into rental flats—and slosh our way down to the village for Folk Night at the Trevor Arms.
We join the gathering in a room lit by lights cast from the bar and warmed by a fireplace in the adjacent lounge, the walls hung with rustic scenes of local landscape and old-timers in period dress, regional relics and bits of historic hardware. Tables have been pushed to the wall, and the performers sit in an inner circle—Don among them—he lugs his guitar on our travels just for opportunities like this—while I and other lookers-on sit like groupies at the tables in back. A woman with a gravelly voice, chopped gray hair, and a face etched with swirling fine lines like our Ordnance Survey map, picks up a concertina and starts playing an Irish jig. Others join in with fiddles and guitars, recorders and harmonicas; they jangle maracas and castanets, beat bongos and table tops. Fingers are flexed, the mood is primed, everyone’s ready. Someone starts off the round-robin solos, and they continue around the circle—old folk songs, jazz riffs, a capella vocals—anything goes. One man reads a poem by Oscar Wilde. Don twangs Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and flashes a mock-humble “aw-shucks” smile at the enthusiastic reception, the American novelty among the locals. I enjoy the array of entertainment with just a touch of wistfulness, wishing I could pull a thumb piano out of my bag and join in.
A visible peal of pleasure ripples through the room as a latecomer makes a grand entrance, guitar slung over her shoulder in a waterproof traveling case—“Here’s Fiona!” Tall and slim, long chestnut hair pulled back in a barrette, setting off that creamy English complexion, she shrugs off her rain slicker to reveal dark indigo jeans and a long-sleeved, high-necked cobalt blue shirt. She accepts the homage, comfortable in her milieu, and joins the circle. She plays and sings a cute ditty, its witty verses interspersed with a convincingly accented French chorus, her voice a lilting soprano with inflections of Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins. She writes most of her own music, and I later learn that she’s an accomplished painter, too.
When Don says, “Wow, she’s good,” I muster up a grudging agreement, but I can taste the bitter wilted greens of envy. I’m already lamenting my lack of musical ability; now I feel dowdy, too—my chocolate brown sweater, the lush cashmere that I love for its tactile elegance, seems drab, its rich earthy hue muddied like the path we’d mucked through in the downpour.
A pasty (rhymes with nasty) is a filled pastry, made by placing uncooked filling on one-half of a flat pastry circle, folding the other half over the filling, crimping the edge to form a seal, and baking it. The result is a raised semicircular package shaped like a capital “D.” Pasties go back several thousand years. They were made by the wives and mothers of Cornish tin miners. Sometimes known in Cornish dialect as tiddy oggy, it is the food most associated with Cornwall and accounts for six percent of the Cornish food economy.
The English say, dismissively, and the Cornish agree, with pride, that Cornwall isn’t really England. Cornwall is unique, with its own distinct history, landscape, customs, vernacular, food. We met locals, old-timers who bragged that they’d never been to London, others who venture out of the county as seldom as possible. “What for?” they ask. But they welcome—if only for the economic boost—the Londoners and Brits from all over the U.K., as well as foreign visitors, who invade its coastal towns on holidays when long-awaited blue skies and warm days arrive.
St. Ives is an old fishing and mining village on Cornwall’s Land’s End peninsula at the southwestern tip of England, a jagged finger, bent and arthritic-looking, pointing into the Atlantic. It became an artists’ haven in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then a tourist destination, which it remains today. It isn’t a posh town, but there’s an air of refinement, and it has become a low-key alternative for British vacationers and others who shun the carnival appeal of places like Brighton, Blackpool, Whitby, and Folkestone and seek a little culture with their sunbathing. There’s an allure here in the eclectic mix of artistic heritage—D. H. Lawrence and his circle of literati, the esteemed St. Ives Tate and Barbara Hepworth Museums with their showcase of the artists who brought renown to the area—and the tawdry seaside attractions. Visitors must elbow through throngs of humanity and the glut of tacky gift shops, arcades and second-rate galleries, sticky-sweet candy and ice cream stalls to find the charm.
Charm abounds, in concert with the natural beauty and a rugged otherworldliness. It’s in Carbis Bay, a cerulean sea dotted with surfers and sailboats, outlined by coastal paths clinging to saw-toothed cliffs. It’s beyond the town, where it blends into the landscape. We were drawn to it ten years ago, when we spent a week in Penzance, on the other side of the peninsula. We’d hiked over to St. Ives, crossing the history-laden neck of land, Bronze and Iron-age burial mounds sharing the sometimes harsh, sometimes bucolic countryside with the scars left by copper and tin mining. At that time, I paid homage to the setting and the Godrevy Lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Now we’re sleeping under the same roof that used to shelter her family, walking the same paths, seeing the same scenery. We’ve climbed the cliffs and hiked to surrounding villages, had lunch in Zennor, where D. H. and Frieda Lawrence retreated during World War I until her German ancestry—she might be signaling enemy submarines from the coast—raised suspicion and they were banished. Before the week is over we will cross over the peninsula again to revisit Penzance and make our way out to Cape Cornwall near the western tip, but not to Land’s End itself, which we’ve heard has become a theme park. We will pub-hop along the way and become sated with the local fare, indulging Don’s passion for fish and chips, mine for the fish pies and cold smoked mackerel, and of course more pasties.
Traditional Cornish pasty, filled with beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (yellow turnip) and onion, has Protected Geographical Indication status in Europe. Pasties are also made with varied fillings, including pork and apple, Stilton cheese, chicken tikka, vegetarian, chocolate and banana. It is said that pasties used to be made with different fillings at each end, one end with meat and vegetables, the other with a sweet filling. The sweet end would be marked with an initial so the miners knew which side to eat first.
Woolf’s family, her autocratic father Leslie Stephen at the helm, would pack clothing and linens, books and papers, croquet wickets and cricket bats, their family of nine plus staff onto the train at London’s Paddington Station for their annual summer getaway, changing at Penzance to the branch line that would bring them to St. Ives. Toting their household with them, there wasn’t much they got away from except London itself, but that was enough. Life at Talland House, with its spacious grounds and clean air in what was then a small quiet town, gave them the freedom that they didn’t have in the city, room for the children to spread out and cut loose. The summer idylls ended with her mother’s death when Virginia was 13, and the family never returned.
The lighthouse is barely visible now from a corner of what remains of the Talland House property. The direct view that tantalized Woolf as a child and later stirred her writer’s imagination is obscured by new construction along the cliffs and is often shrouded in clouds and mist, but it’s the town’s most notable icon, memorialized on postcards and posters, shot glasses, mugs, stained glass, charm bracelets, earrings, refrigerator magnets, paperweights, baseball caps, t-shirts, baby bibs.
We’re in the smallest flat in the house, a ground floor add-on that may have been a toy shed, a laundry room, servants’ quarters. It’s been done up in nondescript, clean and modern Ikea style in monochromatic shades of peach, salmon and tan. There’s not much sense of its history, its significance, but I know where I am and that’s enough. On the coffee table—no doubt on coffee tables in each flat—is a copy of To the Lighthouse, compliments of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. It doesn’t take long before I’m immersed in it once again, this time seeing its source, seeing it through her eyes.
Sea birds love pasties; they hover overhead and swoop down on an extended hand holding a greasy paper-wrapped pie or one that you’ve entrusted to a table or ledge while you take a swig of your Blackcurrant Tango. On our first day here, eager to sample the local specialty, we waited in line to buy our pies and perched with them on the sea wall. It was cool and breezy, the bright sun bouncing off the choppy water, calming and invigorating at the same time. Awash with contentment, I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sun. My dreamy countenance was a signal to the waiting gull to dive in and take the half-eaten pasty from my hand. I recall the half that I ate—spinach, potato and cheese—and the half that I lost with equal delight.
Back at the Trevor Arms, the atmosphere gets livelier with each round of song and drink, and I’m swept into the merriment. I know, of course, that my sudden attack of angst, like a flurry of indigestion, is not about Fiona; I don’t covet her or anyone’s looks or clothes, accomplishments or abilities (well, maybe now and then)—it’s about youth and opportunity. It’s about time. She has a lot more of it ahead of her than I do. All that potential. And I indulge in occasional flights of fancy, fits of pique. But they’re fleeting, and I whoosh them away like flitting gnats. Or diving gulls.
Chalk it up to too much Virginia Woolf. When I read her works and explore her life, I tend to submerge myself in pools of introspection. Like jumping into a fountain. And—as she and her fictional characters so often did—I ruminate on the directions life takes, whether by our choosing or the vagaries of fortune. On my own choices, which are still abundant. I come out bathed and refreshed, my head clear as I shake off the lingering droplets of doubt.
I have choices tonight. I can choose a meat pasty or Stilton and mushroom. I can dunk my toes into a puddle of self-pity or I can wave it away and revel in this moment. What Woolf calls “moments of being.” The evening is rich with promise, and I bask in the communal warmth, the aura of Virginia Woolf’s ethereal presence, the sea shanties, a couple of pints of Skinner’s Cornish lager, and the savory pie. I hold it out—traditional beef, Don’s favorite—as he takes a big bite, cradling his guitar, and licks the oozing fat off my fingers.
Alice Lowe is a freelance writer in San Diego, California. Her creative nonfiction has appeared this past year or is forthcoming in Hobart, Eclectica, Foliate Oak, r.kv.r.y, Tiny Lights, Prime Number, Jenny and City Works. In addition, she was the winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. She has published essays and reviews on the life and work of Virginia Woolf, including the 2010 monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction.” Virginia Woolf has a way of showing up in her creative nonfiction. Alice blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com and is a regular contributor to www.bloggingwoolf.wordpress.com.