The 4th November dawned clear and bright. I was in the fields when the sun peeped over the horizon above Hailglower Farm.
The morning was crisp, but the chill of pre-dawn was soon chased away by the sun.
Footpaths were busy with dog walkers and birders. All had a spring in their stride brought on by the promise of a perfect day.
I didn’t know what to expect from the English lockdown, but I certainly didn’t think it would feel as good as this.
Last night in The Star Johnny was clearing beers at £2 a pint in an effort to reduce his lockdown waste. We were happy to help and sank a couple of excellent Tributes before making way for newcomers in the limited seating pub. Paul the Ball talked of his daughter’s new venture while Suzanne and Jonathon’s new puppy Billy laid on the entertainment.
Can it be true that we’ll not be allowed into The Star again for a month? That pub is one of the many reasons for being here.
And stories of other stores.
The Co-operative, now slipping back to The Coop, is closed for another month. The wrecking was over in no time and now the refit is proceeding at a pace.
It’s tempting to ask how a shop refit can crack on so much faster than any work you might have done to your house, but then look at the number of workers on the case. There are half a dozen men, and a young girl, rebuilding the Plên wall.
The daft buggers knocked it down months ago. That wall’s a scheduled ancient monument. Uproar there was, and so there should be!
Inside the store there’s a dozen other workers.
Tomorrow the electrical gang will join in having had an early start in South Wales. The boss is staying in our studio, carrying his key worker pass.
Along the street Premier Stores is busier than ever before, and there are good reasons to visit. Their wine selection is excellent for a small shop, and Minty came across these beers from downalong Ponsanooth. The stout is particularly good. The Commercial Hotel’s chef is knocking out some great quiches, sausage rolls and scones for the shop too. They sell out soon after each batch arrives.
Of time and the land.
The draw of St Just is that it offers so much.
Really. It’s good even without The Star.
The town is a characterful little place that never fails to entertain.
Beyond it countryside stretches in every direction, much of it reaching down to our spectacular coast.
There ancient field systems.
There are tumbling mine buildings.
There are pockets of scrub where the creatures live secret lives.
This landscape has a timeless quality that appears unchanged for millennia.
Though of course it has changed, it has changed dramatically, and it’s changing again now.
It’s a couple of thousand years since this area was densely wooded. Clearing those wild lands led to the earliest sense of property in these parts. Crops were grown for trade, and profit for the first time.
Basic farming led to the building of the fields. Some of the oldest hedges are down around Zennor and just this side of The Gurnard’s Head. Looking at them we realise that even the small fields that surround us in St Just are much bigger than they once were.
By the mid-1800s mining had progressed to an organised industry and the town was at its most populous. It was then a site of dirt, noise, toil and hardship, where just a few made riches from seams of copper and tin. Most died young from relentless work in horrendous conditions.
The memory of those times lives on in the tiny cottages built by those who didn’t gamble and drink every last penny away, although most existed in slum-like makeshift shacks that disintegrated soon after being vacated.
And the memory lives on in the remaining engine houses, leats and shafts that pepper the land.
After all the mines except Geevor went into decline our forefathers turned to farming. “Improving” land, clearing scrub and woodland, reinvigorating land spoilt by mining. Early crops, and many flowers, went from the far west to the cities by train from Penzance.
We have the good fortune to be surrounded by what’s left of those farming communities today. They’re treasures, but they’re disappearing fast.
For now there’s change again.
Global demand for cheap food has all but eliminated the viability of the small scale farming that created this idyll. Those with a passion for slow rearing beef cattle must supplement their income with profitable projects – generally holiday accommodation.
When the old generation of farmers such as our friend Ivan Rowe pass on, who can afford to continue their way of life?
It’s tempting to feel nostalgia for what’s slipping away, but that would be to ignore the relentlessly grinding hard work that this dying breed experienced daily.
Yes, it’s nice to look at the little farms and their pretty cows. But it’s bloody hard work, for very little return.
Sloes. Gin hedging.
We’ve picked a sizeable bucket-load of sloes this year.
There are two litres of purple gin steeping in the cupboard, while on the sunny windowsill a few hundred berries are drying nicely, ready to be scattered in our first attempt at blackthorn hedge creation.
This man who will plant trees hasn’t been slacking either. I’ve chopped a goat willow into over a hundred 18” lengths that I’ve thrust into boggy soil in an attempt to start new woodland. I now have permission to harvest crack willow and dappled willow from the local community farm. It means I can continue my planting efforts in an abandoned field that I know floods from time to time.
If you get the impression from me firing off tree names that I might know what I’m talking about – don’t be fooled!
We’ve both pulled our weight in the weeks since landing back in the best town in the world.
Peggy (mum) came for a 10 day sojourn and was tended hand and foot by the best cooks in Archavon, but Minty didn’t stop there.
The girl has sworn never to go back into corporate life.
The girl has always wanted work in care.
Now she has acted on her desires.
For the umpteenth time Minty went to talk about a job. And walked out with an offer.
Tomorrow she’ll start training. Before Christmas she’ll be part of a hard working homecare team looking after those in need in the area, predominantly the elderly. She’ll be helping people to continue living at home, helping them maintain a degree of dignity and independence.
I’m more proud of her than I can express.
She has also turned her hand to some delicious baking projects. Yay!
A St Just Funeral.
Funerals in this little town are often big events.
Paul Woolcock, landlord of The Commercial Hotel, was the first person to welcome me to St Just. What a fine fellow. He was a mine of information, and loved to talk. Paul introduced us to many other good people when we arrived.
He died during the 2017 Lafrowda Festival at just 54.
At his funeral the church was full, the churchyard was full, there were loudspeakers out on the Market Square, and good job too as the Market Square was full.
Ivan Rowe died shortly after the last time he and I sat and talked. It was Ivan who sold us our fields. We were already a long way south when I learned of his passing and so we missed his funeral, but for someone as important, and loved, as Ivan people would have flocked from miles around to pay their respects.
Robert Matthews was known to me as the St Just Gardener. He led the energetic St Just in Bloom team and would chat about the flowers around the town for as long as you had to listen. Just after we got home I stood for a while with Robert getting an update on the weather and his efforts. He was in his shorts and hi-vis vest as usual, and seemed full of energy. It was such a surprise to hear that he died shortly after.
Yet again the square was full of mourners, although circumstances demanded that no more than 30 were allowed into the church.
Of time and a house.
Time is precious.
When do we learn that? Is it at 40? Or perhaps older still. Probably when you can’t quite manage everything you once could.
On the road, seeing new things, learning, meeting people, time was thick (a Cridish phrase). At the end of a week we’d look back and wonder at all we’d accomplished. For the first time in our lives it felt that we’d managed to arrest the passing of time.
Now, back in a house, with daily chores, work, and the joy of familiar faces, time has sped up to a frightening pace once again. We still achieve, we still pack it in (even in lockdown), we’re certainly not sleep walking through life, but the damned thing is flying along at scary rate.
If long distance slow travel is the answer then we’d better start planning the next trip.
The hedges are busy. You see so much more when the growth is suppressed as it is now.
Jenny Wrens pop about here and there.
Sparrows are making a right racket.
We’ve been treated to more goldfinches than I’ve seen in a long while.
In the verges alexanders thrust upwards already. Often called horse parsley, it precedes the better known cow parsley and apparently every bit of the plant is edible – I’ll let you know. Beyond that though most vegetation relies on a skein of mist to lend it colour.
Lichens caught our eye on Pendeen Moor.
It was an accident. An unconscious learned response.
A friend, a respected elder, passed me on the Plên after the carol singing. We reached out, shook hands, and continued on our way.
Bloody hell I thought. That was my first handshake in eight months. It wasn’t intended.
It felt so good.
Everyone we meet asks how we cope with life back in the house after so long outdoors.
It’s good. Archavon is a magical place (and home of a diminutive giant). Who wouldn’t enjoy living here?
At first we didn’t think too much about the places we’d visited over the past three years. It all felt like a different life. One that was real, but perhaps not ours.
Today though I started reading some of the blogs from Crete, and the yearning kicked in. Hard.
A yearning for that simple life, affordable good food, a genuine welcome, the roguish streak, the generosity, and the frightening Tsiporo that’s poured at every opportunity.
We’ll just have to yearn for a while. The second lockdown has passed.
Now there’s work to be done.