MY OLD friend Charles Causley used to show me “his” Cornwall at Christmastime, when we took the long train journey from Suffolk to Launceston. He taught in a school where he had been a pupil, and was ungrudgingly fixed to this spot all his life, having to look after his invalid mother. It was the home of that engaging lad Timothy Winters.
On Boxing Day, I would escape from the old house for a walk above the crashing Atlantic on a disused path — perhaps the dizziest footpath in England — although not too far, because soon the day could develop into a version of a London pea-souper. But there would be Christmas days of clarity, when Cornwall seemed to put all my confusions to rights.
Our neighbour was an elderly lady who had been sent to Cornwall to die when she was 20, and thought beyond all recovery. Her house had been a home for two wicked brothers straight out of a Daphne du Maurier novel.
Daphne, too, had come to Cornwall for a brief space and never left. We would sometimes talk on the telephone. But, no, Rebecca and Manderley did not begin their existence in Cornwall, but, she told me, somewhere else. I once had a long conversation with her about the folly of renting a house without a properly drawn-up lease. She asked whether I had got a lease, and I said, no.
My Cornish Christmases were spent wandering in Thomas Hardy’s Cornwall, he being a useful architect in the heyday of Victorian church restoration, when, it was said, more damage was done to medieval buildings than during the Reformation. Used to the magnificent East Anglian churches, I was moved by the interiors of Cornish shrines: by their sturdy pillars and barrel roofs. Now and then a whiff of incense as well as a hint of the Wesley brothers was apparent. I was surprised by the Cornish singing. It was loud and glorious. Pubs closed at 8.30 p.m., and young men would sit outside on the window sills singing Wesley hymns.
Cornwall would show its two faces: that of the tin miners, and that of the fishermen. Somewhere in between there was the exciting presence of the artists who had gone there to paint pictures, the Newlyn School. I actually met Lamorna Birch, who was the leading light that helped to found this school, and I once met an elderly lady who, as a little girl, had modelled for these artists.
Padstow was a very different story at Christmas. Its traditions seemed to have escaped the Reformation and the Wesleys, and reached back to some pre-Christian source. I would sit by its harbour, a scene of perfect idleness: the herring boats bumping against each other, and the western sky alternating between dawn and sunset — although it was the middle of the afternoon — with gulls screaming, and, again, that constant sound of a great hymn.
We went year after year, and my friends moved there, and tried to persuade me to move there, but I was very East Anglian. There was, in Cornwall, in Christian terms, at Christmastime, an extraordinary mixture of the long ago, and the presence of the two brothers who went there to convert the people.
It was an extraordinary thing to spend Christmas in another land, as it were, but I did it year after year, bringing a brace of pheasants from Suffolk. Once, on Paddington Station, a little boy saw their beautiful tail feathers, and stroked them, and withdrew with shock because they were dead, and he hadn’t realised.
John Betjeman’s Cornwall was a little place called Daymer Bay, where he had been going since he was a boy, and he was protective about it. My friends were cross because he wouldn’t meet them, but he didn’t want to meet anyone: he just wanted to walk by Daymer Bay and think of his childhood and his Cornwall.