THE staycation summer meant that a good many friends who would normally have travelled to distant parts have visited Cornwall instead. A favourite walk with some of them has started near Menabilly, the house rented for 20 years by Daphne du Maurier.
Some novelists popular in their lifetime are soon forgotten (Ivy Compton Burnett would be a good example), whereas du Maurier’s fame seems as secure as ever. Fowey has a literary festival in her honour (though not this year, since it has gone the way of so much else during the pandemic). Books including Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek are still read, and stage and film versions of du Maurier’s work are numerous — a new film of Rebecca was released this month.
Walking up the steep headland called the Gribbin, near her old house, it is easy to visualise where the novelist noticed a farmer being dive-bombed by seagulls. It led her to write her short story The Birds, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation. As any Cornish person will tell you, crows may look more evil than seagulls, but they do not steal pasties with quite the same finesse.
Stranger than fiction
ALTHOUGH she was not Cornish herself, Daphne du Maurier loved her adopted county. I have just re-read her book Vanishing Cornwall, published in 1967, with photographs taken by her son. Although a shade nostalgic, it does capture The spirit and history of Cornwall (its subtitle) very well.
I had forgotten how fascinated she was by eccentric clergy. The diocese of Truro has had plenty in its brief history. Du Maurier tells of her visits to Warleggan, where Frederick Densham became the incumbent in 1931, dying in office in 1953. He surrounded the vicarage with barbed wire and kept a pack of dogs; so there was little chance of much pastoral contact. He put cardboard cut-outs of his parishioners in the pews when they ceased to come to church — a strategy more recently adopted by some churches during lockdown, to avoid live-streaming from empty buildings.
His was a sad story. In his service register, he commented one Sunday that there was “no fog, no wind, no rain, no congregation”. Perhaps the author’s sympathy for him was aroused since she, too, could be reclusive. Her own reputation for mild eccentricity was confirmed, for some, when she joined Mebyon Kernow, the political party that seeks self-government for Cornwall.
WHEN I was ordained in Peterborough Cathedral, 45 years ago last month, my bishop solemnly informed people in my title parish that he was sending them a Cornish nationalist. Douglas Feaver was not much like other bishops, even then. He did not normally shake hands with anyone except the Queen, and so would have been perfectly suited to this age of social distancing.
Weekday confirmation services took place at 7 p.m., and the Book of Common Prayer without communion was invariably used; so, even with his address, a service with a dozen candidates would frequently be over in 35 minutes. He did not believe in suffragan bishops, whom he described as “consecrated nannies”, although he did write me a generous letter when I became one.
He was content with incense, but hated smoking. After the parish mass on a Peterborough estate, he found the women who were serving coffee smoking cigarettes as they did so — in itself a sign of a different age. When he remarked that he didn’t “kiss women who smoke”, they retorted that he had given them a good reason to maintain the habit.
He enjoyed such repartee, although it would be unthinkable now. Feaver could be a fine pastor to many clergy, although he mystified most of the laity.
OUR own staycation involved a visit to London to see our adult children. Our son and his partner arranged a new experience for us, which involved solving a mystery in a cross between a treasure hunt and a detective story. All this was enabled by text messages coming through on our phones as we pursued clues on the streets of Marylebone and Mayfair.
It was enjoyable, although we did get hopelessly lost at one point — and I got distracted in Duke Street, Mayfair. Worship was taking place in the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, with much incense, but no sign that I could find of the earlier life of that fine church as a beacon of Congregationalism: the King’s Weigh House Chapel.
If I had been walking past a century earlier, the Sunday liturgy would also have had plenty of incense. It was the highest of high Congregational churches, with a well-attended daily celebration of the eucharist, and even benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The minister, W. E. Orchard, was regarded as eccentric, although also respected as a learned cleric in his own denomination.
The movement called Free Catholicism, in which he was a leading spirit, is a fascinating byway of 20th-century English church history, now too little known. I feel a Church Times article brewing on the subject.
Every crawling thing
ALSO too little known, at least to me before the pandemic, were some of the birds and plants to be seen on our lockdown walks around here. The Benedicite — always a favourite canticle — has come into its own. One day, I even found myself taking photos of a slow worm. I remember slow worms from my childhood, but have hardly noticed any in the intervening years.
Trying to correct my ignorance, I discovered that they are not worms at all, but legless lizards. Then, I was amazed to find that a slow worm will live for 30 years. Perhaps such a significant lifespan is a consequence of doing things slowly.
Slowing down is no bad thing. I am doing my best.
The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.