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Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish fishing town, by Lamorna Ash

17 July 2020

This writer was helped by her Cornish name, says Graham James

LAMORNA ASH, a young English graduate with a Master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology, travels from her home in London to Penzance by train on Maundy Thursday. She wants to discover what life is like in a Cornish fishing community, Newlyn.

On Good Friday, she finds herself on the Lamorna Walk: once a family pilgrimage after church or chapel, but now, apparently, without any religious associations. She walks to Lamorna Cove for a drink at its pub, the Lamorna Wink (so called because you could buy smuggled goods there if you gave the landlord the wink). It is a coming home to a place she does not know.

Although Lamorna Ash has had many Cornish holidays, and her mother has Cornish roots — hence her name — her attempt to find out what makes Newlyn tick is fraught with danger. If she is perceived as a literary posh girl from London, she could easily be rejected. But Ash is helped by her name — and her character, too. She makes friends easily, goes out on various vessels, is sometimes seasick for days at a time, and is willing to wield a knife and gut fish on board. She mucks in. Fishermen have a keen nose for insincerity, and declare her OK — although she knows that she will never truly belong.

Ash writes beautifully, too. Some of the characters whom she meets lend themselves to colourful descriptions, but, when she describes gill-netting or hand-lining so vividly, you know that she inhabits Newlyn’s fishing culture. She captures the sense of a place with a long history, solid in its traditions and way of life, and yet very fragile. If Newlyn were a bird, it would be somewhere on the spectrum of an endangered species. That was evident in the recent BBC series This Fishing Life.

At sea, the author learns that a haul of turbot is a big prize, since the top restaurants will pay a high price. Covid-19 has swept that away, and much else, too: it is another blow to a wounded way of life.

Although I am Cornish myself, I learned a lot from this fine book. Some of the Newlyn fishermen seem caught between the land and the sea. On their boats, they look forward to getting home, but, once they return, they long to be at sea again. While there is a profound sense of place and belonging, there is a restlessness, too. The deepest respect is for the power of the ocean, which, as Ash says, inspires “a sense of reverence”.


The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.


Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish fishing town
Lamorna Ash
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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