Cornwall

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My recent addiction to the BBC TV series Poldark made me desperate to go to Cornwall and see the beautiful scenery that forms the background to the characters’ lives for myself. For those of you who don’t know, Poldark is set in the late 18th century, in the tin-mining community of south west Cornwall. This area is now a World Heritage site, thanks to the historical significance of the remaining mine workings, which are scattered along the cliff edges. Into the early 20th century, they provided a livelihood for many locals, and have shaped the landscape, with most of the towns and villages in the region built by tin miners for themselves and their families. When my best friend and I discovered that we could go and visit the mines where they filmed Poldark, we were sold on our summer holiday destination; booking ourselves a lovely airbnb in the old mining town of St Just, we packed up and headed down for a blissful week of exploring. We’d both been to Cornwall frequently as children, but never as adults, and we couldn’t wait to rediscover the dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches and rolling countryside we remembered so fondly.

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It’s a long drive to Cornwall from London: much longer than I had remembered, but we were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day for our journey, and made two lovely stop-offs at National Trust properties in Dorset and Devon on our way, Montacute House and Castle Drogo, which are both fantastic places that deserve posts of their own. We arrived in St Ives in the early evening; this fishing harbour is one of the most popular destinations in Cornwall thanks to its history as an artists’ community, and it’s easy to see why when you arrive. The light there is incredible, and the sea wraps around the town’s sort of H shape formation, giving it two broad, sandy beaches and grassy cliffs to climb for fantastic, far-reaching views. We were too late to visit the St Ives branch of the Tate, but we were definitely right on time for a fish and chip supper on the beach, and we tucked in while watching the sun start to go down on the horizon. It was a perfect start to our holiday, and we thought we couldn’t do any better until we started driving to our cottage, and began spotting the ruins of mines on our way. When we walked into the cottage and looked at the view from the window, we were in heaven; not only could we see the sea, but directly in front of us was the chimney of a mine. We couldn’t have picked a better location!

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Our first day saw us heading straight to explore the mines at Botallack, which is where Poldark was filmed and is now owned by the National Trust. There is a very interesting display in the visitor’s centre to get you acquainted with the history and suggested walking routes, and then you’re free to wander around the cliffs at your leisure. A word of warning – it is wise to have sensible shoes. My friend and I didn’t, and it was a bit tricky negotiating the paths which can be steep and rocky in places, so if you’re planning on going, bear that in mind! We were enchanted by the old mine buildings hugging the cliffs, with the sea pounding so fiercely against the rocks below, and the sheer number of them in such close proximity revealed how busy and thriving this area must once have been. The cliffs would have been swarming with workers and the air filled with the clanging of tools; hard to imagine now when all we could hear were waves and seagulls! The walk along the cliff top to see all of the mine ruins offers truly spectacular views and is worth doing even if you’ve no interest in the history of the area. We loved every minute, and could hardly bear to tear ourselves away. However, we had an itinerary to stick to, and so on we drove to Porthcurno, a beautiful cove just around the coast, which is famous not only for its beauty, but also for the Minack Theatre, which is carved into the cliffs above. The sun was blazing when we arrived, and so we lay on the beach and sunbathed for a while before hiking up the cliff path to the theatre in order to see the beautiful views. It is one of the loveliest places I have ever been to, and I highly recommend it; we were utterly entranced! Later that evening, however, we got a lesson on how unpredictable the Cornish weather can be after checking the news; while we were sunbathing, just a few miles around the coast it was pouring with so much rain that a village experienced a flash flood and its roads got washed away. We couldn’t believe our luck, especially as we had planned on going that way but decided against it as we wanted tea and cake instead!

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Our second day was a little cloudy and cool, and threatened rain, so we decided to opt for an indoor activity. We drove into the middle of Cornwall to visit Lanhydrock, a National Trust property with some fantastic Victorian interiors. Nestled in beautiful gardens and amongst gorgeous countryside, it was a brilliant place to visit and we loved exploring the cosy, welcoming rooms and finding out about the tragic history of the last owners, who saw their prominent heir killed during WWI, another son made so traumatised by what he saw at the Front that he killed himself afterwards, and their daughters remaining unmarried thanks to losing much of their generation in the trenches. We had planned on making it a short visit, but actually spent all day there, as there was so much to see and do, as well as the opportunity for eating plenty of cake!

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Our final day in Cornwall saw us visiting St Michael’s Mount, which is a tiny tidal island joined to the pretty town of Marazion by a causeway that becomes impassable at high tide. Perched atop its rocky tip is a castle, still lived in by the St Aubyn family, who have owned the island since the 17th century. The castle isn’t massively exciting inside, largely because much of it is inhabited by the family and so not on show, but what is worth visiting are the incredible terraced gardens that contain an amazing array of exotic plants, as well as the castle roof, which offers stunning panoramic views. We had a brilliant time wandering around before the weather suddenly changed and the rain came down. The tide being in, we had to take a tiny boat back to the mainland, and then, amidst lowering clouds, we drove out to Gunwalloe beach, which features in Poldark and offers magnificently dramatic views across the cliffs. It was very windy, so we didn’t stay long, and managed to make it back to the cottage before the rain set in. Later that evening, before the sun went down and while it looked dry, we went out for a walk to Cape Cornwall, which is a lovely piece of cliffside by our cottage. The views were amazing, but the heavens opened, and we were drowned rats by the time we made it back to the cottage – the only thing to do was warm up with lots of tea and some Poldark on the laptop! We had such a fantastic time, despite the weather not always being on our side. Cornwall offers so much beauty and history, and yet we only had time to explore a tiny patch – I know I’ll be back again soon to see more!

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Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

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The beautiful, Ravilious-style cover of this debut novel is what initially compelled me to pick it up when I saw it sitting on the shelf in Daunt Books. From the illustration, it looked just my cup of tea; rural setting, vaguely middlebrow in tone  – and when I read the blurb, about two women coming together in unusual circumstances to work on a farm during WWII, I was sold. Last week I read it in two sittings, devouring the unfussily lyrical prose, and finding myself utterly absorbed in the world of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, two unconventional women brought together by the chaos of war and somehow finding within each other the peace that had eluded them all their lives.

Elsie Boston has been left alone to run the family farm, Starlight, after her large family of brothers and sisters has disbanded. Her sisters have gone to live in towns and cities, stultified by the boredom of country life, and her brothers are dead, killed in the first war. An odd fish, uncomfortable in the company of others and unsure how to relate to them, Elsie is considered an eccentric by her neighbours, and largely left to herself. However, the farm is large and help hard to find with a war on, and so pushed to act against her will by sheer necessity, she applies for a Land Girl to come and live with her. Widow Rene Hargreaves signs up to be a Land Girl for a chance to escape her life in Manchester. When she arrives at Starlight, she throws herself into the work on the land, and quickly makes friends in the village with her warm, open and friendly manner. Rene seems to have a way with Elsie, unlocking her from her prison of shyness, and the women quickly form a deep friendship built upon a seemingly innate understanding of the other. They settle into a comfortable domestic routine, relishing their days working in harmony with one another on Elsie’s beloved land, and their cosy evenings listening to plays on the wireless. The war raging in the world outside seems too far away to touch them, and for a while, their friendship seems to have woven a protection about them, giving both the peace and satisfaction they were unknowingly searching for. However, in the background, storm clouds are brewing. Rene is not all she says she is; the past she has left behind in Manchester is far more complex than she had led Elsie to suspect. And a neighbour, keen to take revenge on Elsie for spurning his advances, is looking to get his hands on Starlight and push Elsie and Rene off the land altogether.

I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of ruining it, as there is a surprising twist half way through, but this is a truly wonderful novel that is unexpected in so many ways. There is much left unsaid, and unexplored; glimpses are given of the women’s pasts and their relationship with one another that can be interpreted as the reader wishes. Were Elsie and Rene lovers, or was their contentment grounded in the satisfaction of a deep platonic bond? There is plenty of evidence for both readings, and it is up to us to decide what we feel best fits their characters. The period details are marvellous, and the depictions of countryside life and the characters found there are beautifully and realistically drawn. It is a thoughtful, intriguing and unusual tale of two women who fought against social and moral expectations to live a life that gave them the fulfilment their hearts longed for, carrying the weight of guilt, sorrow and blame along with them as they navigated a path through the barriers that stood in their way. What makes it even more powerful is the knowledge that Rachel Malik based this tale on the story of her own grandmother’s life, which can be read here (warning – this article does provide plot spoilers). It makes you wonder how many more extraordinary stories there are, hidden within families, buried beneath layers of shame and embarrassment. A few newspaper clippings and a clutch of certificates can hint at so much, and yet still tell so little. It’s made me want to go digging into my own family history once more, and I already want to read this remarkable novel all over again. I can’t wait to see what Rachel Malik will write next!

On being wrong

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Eating humble pie is not something I enjoy doing, but when I’m wrong, I’m willing to admit it. As an English teacher, one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most is the opportunity to reread texts and look at them from fresh perspectives as I prepare to teach them to my students. It’s vital that I can put my own personal opinions aside and present the novel as a blank canvas where any interpretations can be valid; I can illuminate the text and offer suggestions, but I strive to never influence students with my own reading of the characters or authors’ intentions. So, when I am reading with a mind to teaching, I force myself to read more carefully, more considerately, more thoughtfully. I immerse myself in the context of the novel’s period, to place the character’s actions and thoughts within the norms of their time. I refrain from judgement and strive to be dispassionate. And when I do that, I start to see things differently than I did before, and the text comes alive in whole new ways.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading Mansfield Park. I have to teach it to my GCSE class next year, and initially, I wasn’t happy about it. As some of you may remember from when I reread it a few years ago, Mansfield Park has always been my least favourite Austen. When I first read it, I couldn’t understand how Jane Austen could have written such an insipid heroine when she had created so many fabulous ones in her other novels. Where was the wit, the sparkiness, the sass? Where was the striding across muddy fields, the arch looks, the independence of spirit? Fanny Price was just pathetic, Edmund Bertram the least romantic hero ever, and Mary and Henry Crawford, who were clearly supposed to be unlikeable, were the best characters in the novel. As well written as Mansfield Park is, I thought it was deeply unsatisfying on many levels, and definitely not a book I could ever love as I do Austen’s others. I knew all of the context, I understood Fanny’s position as a poor dependent, I could see objectively why Fanny was the way she was, but I just couldn’t care less. And, as I knew I wasn’t alone – there have been actual Fanny wars fought (this actually exists! Though it sounds hilariously naughty to an English ear) – I felt totally justified in my negative opinion. Everyone hated Mansfield Park, so I didn’t need to try and like it. That is, until I needed to prepare it to teach.

Well. What a different book I found! Mansfield Park is the poster child for critics countering the claims that Austen ‘merely’ wrote domestic novels (because obviously what happens in the domestic interior is of no importance at all), as the characters live on the proceeds of slavery; Sir Thomas Bertram owns a plantation in Antigua. The luxurious life in the ‘modern’ built mansion of Mansfield Park is only possible thanks to slave labour, and with slavery forming the background of the novel, the fact that the Bertrams have a niece living in the battered former schoolroom in the attics who is told that she needs to remember ‘who and what she is’ at all times makes for uncomfortable reading. As I began to consider that Fanny is, to all intents and purposes, a slave in the Bertram household, I started to see her entirely differently. While not treated unkindly, she is subject to the whims of all around her, and has no control over her own life. She cannot ask for anything, cannot complain, cannot refuse. She is enslaved by the need to show perpetual humility and gratitude, forever aware of the fact that she is only at Mansfield Park thanks to the kindness of her uncle and can quite easily be returned from whence she came should she prove herself to be in any way undesirable, or undeserving. How can she be spunky and sparky and cutting and witty when she has no right to anything or anybody and lives in a house where she has no certainty of being able to remain? How on earth could I have expected her to be anything but meek, and how could I not have recognised her bravery in standing up for herself when pressed to do things against her conscience, knowing that in doing so she risked everything that she held dear? And goodness me – how on earth did I think Mary and Henry Crawford were so wonderful? They are utterly shallow, insensitive, cruel, mercenary – they might be funny and independent and utterly outré, but they are all of those things to the detriment of those around them. They are horrible people. Horrible. The scales have fallen from my eyes.

I am not backing down when it comes to Edmund Bertram – I still think he is totally useless – but I can forgive Austen that. What I can’t do is forgive myself for having been such a blinkered reader. In looking for something in this novel that Austen never wrote into it, I missed its point entirely. Mansfield Park isn’t like Austen’s other novels, but that doesn’t make it any the worse for it. This is a fascinating novel, so rich and complex, so well written and so fantastically characterised. Two hundred years old, its characters and their emotions and motivations still ring absolutely true to a modern day audience. Edmund Bertram’s total inability to see Mary Crawford for who she really is is a brilliant depiction of how blind love can be. Henry Crawford’s callous delight in making women love him, only to blithely discard them when he is bored, is a perfect portrait of narcissism. It’s going to be so much fun to teach this book, bringing the characters and their world alive for my students. I can’t wait to see what they make of it.

So, readers, I was wrong, and I am glad to have been so. This experience has reminded me of what is so amazing about the written word; come at it on a different day, at a different time of life, in a different mood, and you can see something entirely different in the exact same letters that left you cold before. I’m now considering where else I could have gone so spectacularly wrong in my past reading…I feel there’s got to be a lot of literary humble pie out there for me to eat, as there are many classics I’ve hated…Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, Wuthering Heights…the list is endless!

p.s. In preparation for teaching Austen, I’ve been reading a lot about her, as well as her novels, and I very much enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s new biography, Jane Austen at Home, which was an informative as well as entertaining read, with a particular focus on Austen’s relationships with her domestic environments. I highly recommend it!

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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It’s always rather galling when you come across a book that’s exactly the sort of thing you wish you had written yourself. Victorian people who enjoy learning about all of the scientific advances of their age, and spend their time collecting botanical specimens and travelling to exotic, uncivilised climes are definitely Victorian people I want to spend time with, and Gilbert’s huge, sweeping and incredibly ambitious novel certainly had me wishing this was a research project I’d had my teeth stuck into. A fictional tale with enough reference to non fiction to make it feel like I was reading about a living, breathing person, it tells the story of Alma Whittaker, born in Philadelphia in 1820 to a wealthy English botanical importer and his intensely practical, phenomenally intelligent Dutch wife Beatrice. Her father being one of the richest men in America, Alma grows up surrounded by wealth and luxury, but she is no pampered miss. Her mother’s love of intellect and reason ensures that Alma grows up with the most excellent of educations, and she is fluent in several languages, conversant in all of the latest scientific theories, and an expert in botany before she even reaches two figures. For a child who loves nothing more than books and the natural world, Alma’s life could not be more perfect. That is until one night a tragedy occurs on the family estate, and a beautiful little orphaned girl, exactly Alma’s age, suddenly becomes her sister when her parents decide to take her in.

Alma and Prudence, brought up by the emotionally cold Beatrice, their minds focused solely on developing knowledge and reason, have no understanding of how to become sisters, or to make friends. Despite being the daughters of a colossally wealthy man, they are not considered a good catch due to their odd ways, and their world becomes increasingly closeted as they reach marriageable age. Alma, sexually awakened thanks to the discovery of a pornographic book in her father’s library, quivers with sexual desire and longs to marry, but her plainness and terrifying intellect have created a formidable barrier to such emotional fulfilment. She watches as her unfathomable, seemingly emotionless sister inexplicably marries their former tutor, and then her only friend marries the man she has loved from afar for some years, leaving her alone and responsible for the running of her father’s business after the sudden death of her mother. However, Alma, ever rational, does not fall into despair at this disappointment; suppressing her sexuality, she devotes herself to her botanical work, determining on becoming the world’s foremost expert on mosses. She achieves much success at this, and derives great pleasure from it, but when love comes to her once again, much later in life, she finds that suddenly all else pales in comparison, and her emotions will lead her to travel paths she could never have otherwise imagined in the pursuit of trying to understand that most unanswerable of natural mysteries: the vagaries of the human heart.

The Signature of All Things is a fascinating, enormously wide ranging novel, taking in all manner of topics, from natural history to slavery, to the position of women and colonialisation. It is an incredibly ambitious attempt to encompass the nineteenth century spirit, and while it is by no means perfect, and could have done with a little more editing, it is a fantastic story with some brilliant characters, and looks at the nineteenth century from a far different perspective to any other historical novel I’ve read. Alma is a wonderful central force whose struggle to find a place for herself in a world that has not given her what her heart desires is incredibly moving but also very inspiring, and she leaps to life from the pages. I have to say that initially I had low expectations, considering that I had only known Gilbert’s name from her Eat, Pray, Love fame, but she is far more than just a new-age memoir writer, and I would recommend this to anyone who wants to be entirely transported elsewhere for a few days. I was quite bereft when I finished, and have a list as long as my arm of places and people and topics I now want to research – nineteenth century female botanists are about to become my new obsession!

Florence

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I have just spent a lovely four days in Florence, which is a city I have so often heard people gush over that I went with sky-high expectations of being utterly blown away by its beauty and charm. As always, the arrival in any foreign city begins with disorientation, navigation through questionable train/bus/airport neighbourhood surroundings, and regret at having packed so much stuff you probably won’t need as you hulk your suitcase along thronged streets, sweating profusely. However, Florence manages to assuage most of these inconveniences by having a beautiful train station – a lovely piece of modern architecture – and though it’s surrounded by an unpleasant road, within moments you emerge from a small and slightly seedy side street into a spacious, elegant piazza, presided over by the gorgeous church of Santa Maria Novella, which has a small garden to the side with cypress trees, a facade of coloured marble and a general unruffled air of being comfortably and peaceably settled in its own corner of paradise. The piazza is ringed with genteel, shuttered-windowed buildings, and our hotel was one of them. Within moments we had relieved ourselves of our cases and were relaxing in our room, which had a direct view of the church and made us feel very cosmopolitan.

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Once recovered from our journey, we set off to explore, doing a leisurely lap of the city to take in the main sights. We first of all stopped at Santa Maria Novella to take in the gorgeous interior decoration of the church, and enjoy its peaceful, shady cloisters. It’s not on the main tourist trail, but is definitely worth a visit, with some work of significant Renaissance artists to be found inside. Once we had fully drunk in the beauty of the church, we went back out into the ochre coloured streets of the city, which all lead to the Duomo. Its famous dome loomed up before us from unexpected corners until we come out onto its surrounding piazza and had our breath taken away both by its size and its incredible beauty. I had seen pictures of it, of course, but to see it in the flesh is something else entirely. The coloured marble, the red-roofed dome, the slim tower of the campanile and the perfectly preserved carvings are like nothing else I have ever seen, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I can’t even begin to imagine what the travellers of the past must have made of it – no wonder Florence was such a key site on the Grand Tour. Once we’d had a good walk round the Duomo, we went off to see the Signoria, which used to house the government of Florence, and then through the colonnade of the Uffizi Gallery down to the banks of the Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with jewellery shops, which provide fantastic window shopping opportunities – I tried on a beautiful necklace that turned out to be 6,000 euros – obviously I made a hasty exit! – as well as gorgeous views out to the surrounding Tuscan hills. On the other side of the Ponte Vecchio we enjoyed looking in the small independent shops selling handmade marbled papers, before walking up to see the grand Medici palazzo, the Palazzo Pitti. By this time we were starving and tired out, so we headed off to a pizza restaurant to rest our weary feet and fill our stomachs before an early night in preparation for the following day’s adventures!

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We had booked in advance to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi  – this is highly recommended to anyone thinking of taking the trip, as the queues can get very long. Climbing up the Campanile early in the morning afforded us a fantastic view over the city, and the Duomo’s Baptistry is a stunning work of art, with amazing Byzantine style decoration. The Duomo itself was nothing much to look at inside, apparently – I wouldn’t know as I was prevented from entering by a male security guard who decided my knee-length dress was too short – as a man wearing shorts far shorter than my dress was allowed to walk in ahead of me. This made me so furious that I refused to buy a scarf to cover my perfectly decent legs with and instead waited outside while my friend went in to see the church. My feminist anger still seething, we then went off to see the Signoria, which is a beautiful building with fabulous, ornate state rooms and a very nice art collection, as well as a fantastic tower that can be climbed for impressive views of the Duomo. After lunch and a nice relax in our hotel, we went off to the Uffizi to see the many famous works of Renaissance art found inside, such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, before hiking it up the hillside on the other side of the city to enjoy the pretty rose garden and the lovely views of Florence nestled amidst the surrounding Tuscan hills.

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Our final full day in Florence saw us starting early at the Palazzo Pitti, which is beautiful inside, with gorgeous, mainly 18th century interiors, and an impressive artwork collection. However, the main draw of the palazzo (in my opinion) is its extensive gardens, which are a real oasis in the city and offer magnificent views across the countryside. The palazzo was definitely my favourite place we visited, and I could have stayed in its rose garden, looking out at the green expanse of Tuscany all day, but we had much more to see! After lunch and a quick rest stop, we went off to visit the Santa Croce, which is Florence’s Westminster Abbey, housing the tombs of many of Italy’s greatest names, such as Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo, and has gorgeous frescoes by every famous Renaissance painter imaginable. We then went off for a walk and came across the Botanical Gardens, which aren’t extensive but are a nice spot for a stroll, before heading back into town for another rest and then our final dinner.

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I had a wonderful time in Florence – it’s a beautiful city that is small enough to easily walk around, and yet just big enough to keep containing plenty of lovely surprises as you wend your way through its streets. The architecture is certainly not as impressive as that of Rome, but when seen from a height, the red roofs cupped in the verdant palm of the surrounding countryside are a truly magnificent sight. I’m glad I’ve finally seen this little gem, and it’s now made me desperate to see more of Italy!