We decided if Prince Charles could find time to visit the Royal Cornwall Show, we should as well. Mind you, we had to pay to get in and I suspect the heir to the throne didn’t. The Wadebridge show ground is massive, the queues equally so and the car parks on fields around the show ground were packed. We’re tough so we persevered, parked our car at the far end of a field and trudged back the equivalent of three postcodes to the entrance where an officious man wearing a bowler hat told us we would have to wait twenty minutes until the ticket office reopened. At that point it began to rain.
We did what any red blooded English people would do in these circumstances.
We gave up.
Back again the next day, we parked in a different field and puffed our way past a few thousand cars to the ticket office. The woman behind the screen said, ‘if you’re expecting to see Prince Charles, he was here yesterday so you’ve missed him.’ We bought our tickets and as we moved in the ticket woman was saying to the people behind us, ‘if you’re expecting to see Prince Charles…’ Marigold said, ‘what a helpful and informative ticket person.’
Through the entrance and the hordes of visitors, every one of them having come to terms with not being able to see Prince Charles today. There was a woman on a stand selling knitted farm animals who we thought looked a bit like Camilla and she was puffing away at a Rothmans King Size, but it was a false alarm.
We wandered past a few hundred or so stands offering us things we didn’t need, or even want, and found the dog show ring. Marigold got talking to one of the dog owners – one second prize for best of breed and one first prize in the obedience category – with a broad Black Country accent who told us she went to school with Frank Skinner. I wonder if Frank Skinner tells people he went to school with a woman who owned a dog awarded a rosette for being obedient. We didn’t find out which of her three dogs had won this accolade, but I suspect the standard was pretty low as she was constantly telling the dogs to SIT and all three ignored her.
One of the judges, regulation bowler hat on his head, said he was originally from Germany (but has lived in Padstow for fifteen years) chose to engage us in conversation on the subject of Brexit negotiations. The gist of his diatribe was that ‘the English’ wanted ‘Kuchen unt essen,’ which roughly translates as ‘cake and eat it.’ We sought escape at the point he forgot to speak English and reverted to speaking German. We like visiting Germany, have several German friends, but I find it the most difficult of all the many languages I have attempted to learn in the past and I was struggling to contribute even the occasional word.
Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free – kept popping into my head, but the slogan attached to the gates of Auschwitz would not be very appropriate so I wisely decided to merely nod and look as if I were taking it all in. I do remember that sign being stolen from the gates of Auschwitz and the letter ‘b’ being deliberately formed upside down as an act of defiance by the prisoners who made it. I don’t imagine a German dog judge, or indeed anyone else, would be very interested in the trivia that infests my brain.
When the conversation (monologue, actually) turned to ontological speculation, Marigold called out ‘coming’ to a non existent friend and we dashed away. Marigold does not have much time for philosophical debate.
Many of the visitors are farmers, described by Marigold as people who looked like they had been dressed by their mum, and there were hordes around the tractor stands. Farm machinery seems to get bigger, flashier and brighter in colour every year and the gleaming behemoths on display were much admired.
We had a few tastings, strawberries and Cornish ice cream for instance, walked the equivalent of a half marathon, saw sheep dog and police dog performances, cheered when a young lad on a quad bike jumped over a pick up truck and a couple of tractors and had several conversations with strangers. A young man from Newquay, a surfer not a farmer but having a day off from the waves to offer round food and drink ‘tastings’ told us he lived in the former home and birthplace of a famous, or infamous judge: Sir Melford Stevenson.
In a former life, or so it seems now after so many years, Marigold worked for several High Court Judges and Melford Stevenson’s name is well known to both of us. I checked surf boy’s claim later and Judge Melford Stevenson was indeed born in Newquay and lived there for many years. Before he became a judge, as a barrister he defended Ruth Ellis against the charge of murdering her lover. He opened the defence by saying: ‘Let me make this abundantly plain: there is no question here but this woman shot this man ... You will not hear one word from me – or from the lady herself – questioning that.’ No wonder the jury took only 23 minutes to find Ellis guilty and she was sentenced to be hanged, the last woman executed for murder in the United Kingdom.
After being appointed as a judge, one of his fellow judges, Sir Robin Dunn, described him as ‘the worst judge since the war.’ I particularly remember Judge Stevenson passing sentence on the Kray twins as in that year (1969) we left the surfing beaches of Newquay and moved to London where the trial was in progress. We were both working in different branches of ‘law’ at that time and I took a particular interest in Judge Melford Stevenson.
He sentenced the Kray twins, Reggie and Ronnie, to a minimum of 30 years in jail each, saying, ‘In my view, society has earned a rest from your activities’ and remarked that the Krays had only told the truth twice during the trial: when Reggie referred to a barrister as ‘a fat slob’ and when Ronnie accused the judge of being biased.
There are so many tales about Stevenson: when trying a manslaughter case in which a man who had run over a child pleaded, in extenuation, that he had thought the child was a dog; the judge, a great spaniel lover, promptly gave him the maximum sentence, him remarking when sentencing some presumed miscreant, ‘I must confess I cannot tell whether you are innocent or guilty. I am giving you three years. If you are guilty you have got off lightly, if innocent let this be a lesson to you’ and made at least two extremely biased remarks of geographic significance: on freeing a man accused of rape, he said ‘I see you come from Slough, it is a terrible place. You can go back there’ and telling a man involved in a divorce case that his decision to live in Manchester was ‘a wholly incomprehensible choice for any free man to make.’
In fairness, those last two comments have a certain veracity about them!
We’ve had a good wander around Cornwall, between the showers, in the last week or so visiting Truro, Wadebridge, St Ives, Charlestown, Newquay, Mevagissey and many other delightful places. We also went to find a beach we last visited way back in 1969, known as either Gwenvor or Gwynver, depending on whether you’re ‘English’ or ‘Cornish.’ However you describe it, it’s the most exposed beach in Cornwall, meaning it’s the best surfing beach in the whole county, therefore the best in Britain. Locals say its name derives from Guinevere, wife of the legendary Cornish King Arthur, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Access is by a steep path from the cliffs above and at low tide it joins up with the neighbouring beach at Sennen.
The very best surfers come here for guaranteed large waves, but it’s no place for a novice. Hard to find too, adding to its appeal as holidaymakers don’t know of its existence. We walked from the car park at Tregiffian Farm and the first glimpse of the sea along the narrow path is spellbinding. Of course, having gone to all this trouble, the sea was flat calm and apart from half a dozen sulking and frustrated surfers the whole beach was deserted.
We went to St Ives on a dull day, thinking this would deter the crowds, but of course St Ives was as busy as ever and it took ages to park the car. The harbour was picturesque as it always is, but we ‘discovered’ a real treat, the Fisherman's Lodge which we must have walked past many times without knowing its significance. It’s a simple little place, just two small rooms with chairs, lots of pictures on the walls and a stove and it’s a sort of sanctuary for the retired fishermen of St Ives directly overlooking the harbour. What an idyllic spot. It almost made me wish I had chosen the life of an offshore fisherman, but on reflection I amended this wish to be able to enjoy the perks of a retired offshore fisherman.
Barnoon Cemetery is another notable spot in St Ives that somehow or other we’ve never visited. Time to rectify that omission. We walked past the Barbara Hepworth museum, didn’t go in, up Barnoon Hill and turned left onto Clodgy View West – wonderful road names – where we found the cemetery.
The cemetery itself has stunning views out to sea; almost but not quite compensating for the draconian entrance requirements for permanent residents. Marigold enjoys old graveyards and we wandered around, pointing out interesting names and exotically carved headstones. There are two small chapels, back to back, each with a single bell. This is such a delightful spot and yet we were the only visitors apart from a very old man and a very old dog.
We said hello to the old man and his dog and he offered to give us a guided tour. ‘I bring this old boy here every day,’ he said. ‘We know the story behind every gravestone.’
I looked around at the hundreds of gravestones and thought that claim was perhaps a little exaggerated, but as we walked, slowly, around it turned out the old man certainly knew a great deal. He took us first to the burial place of Stephen Curnow, aged 32, who was one of the unfortunate victims of that night in 1912 when the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. Another local man who died during that fatal voyage, William Carbines, is also buried here, but our ‘guide’ (Harold) couldn’t quite remember where the grave was situated.
Another stone commemorated the crew of the SS Alba, which capsized and sank off St. Ives in1938 and an equally poignant memorial marked the last resting place of the 7 crew members of the St Ives lifeboat who died in St Ives Bay in 1939 while trying to reach a ship in distress. Two of the men were brothers, while a father and son also lost their lives.
Many artists are associated with St Ives and Harold took us the the grave of Alfred Wallis who died in 1942 and he said this grave is probably the most visited in the whole cemetery as Wallis was one of the most celebrated painters in St Ives history. We both nodded appreciatively, neither of us having any inkling who Alfred Wallis was. Quite shameful, this ignorance, as it turns out as I realised later when I looked up the details of Alfred Wallis.
Wallis was originally a deep-sea fisherman sailing off to Newfoundland to find fish before switching to more local off shore fishing based in Penzance.
The family moved to St. Ives in 1890 where he established himself as a marine stores dealer, buying scrap iron, sails, rope and other items. Following his wife's death Wallis took up painting, "for company". He was self-taught, never had an art lesson, and painted on any scraps of paper or cardboard that were going spare using whatever paint he could find amongst the items in his shop. His art is now considered one of the earliest forms of ‘primitism,’ with scant regard being paid to perspective or scale – child-like would have been my description – but like so many artists he never achieved success in his own lifetime.
Wallis was penniless when he died in a local workhouse, but his friends bought a plot in the cemetery and arranged for a Salvation Army funeral. The grave is decorated in the style of his paintings with ceramic tiles made by Bernard Leach, which again would have meant very little at the time, but at least we both remembered admiring the tiles.
There’s an old well in one corner which Harold said was named after a Saint, but was somewhat vague on detail at this point. Later, I discovered the well is called St La’s Well, named after a 5th-century saint who is said to have arrived here from Ireland borne on a huge leaf. Ah well, maybe the actual detail of the tale is somewhat apocryphal, but there is a well there and it’s evidently been there for many hundreds of year so why worry about details?
As we left Harold he told us he was 86 and his dog was 15. In all honesty, they both looked much, much older! He’s still driving, just to take his neighbours to the shops and back, which prompted a mental note to be wary of cars driven by very old men on our way out of town. An equally old joke came to mind, but I kept it to myself.
I want to die peacefully in my sleep like Grandad. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.
See, there’s a time and a place for jokes.