Albion, Don and Wen, TOLL, travel

A Thousand Miles of History: A toe in the water

The legendary land of Lyonesse lies off the uttermost point of Britain. It is told that the people of that land were tall and fair, beautiful to behold, wise and learned. At the centre of their lands was a wondrous city, with a great place of worship… or a castle… at its heart. No tales survive of why the cataclysm came that drowned the land in a single night, though later, there were the inevitable whispers of wickedness and the wrath of the Christian God.

Only one man of Lyonesse escaped the deluge, a man named Trevelyan. Out hunting near Sennen, his horse cast a shoe and delayed him as night fell. Falling asleep beneath a tree, he was awoken by the roar of the rising sea and, mounting his horse, rode before the crest of the wave to higher ground at Land’s End. Local families still bear the three horseshoes on their crests… and the crest of the Vyvyan family, who claim direct descent from Trevelyan, bears the white horse. No trace of Lyonesse was ever seen again, though sometimes the bells of the great city of Lions can be heard ringing in the mist.

Vyvyan… Viviane… Lady of the Lake, whose Isle of Avalon is lost in the mists… She who helped King Arthur to his throne and was, perhaps, one of the three queens who sailed his dying body into the mists of legend. You can hardly help but wonder at the links between Lyonesse, the Lady from the Arthurian Cycle and the fabled lands of Atlantis.

There is an alternative explanation… a more rational one… there always is, though where truth is concerned, logic and legend need not always be at war. There are the remains of Bronze Age and Neolithic settlements strewn across the area, with evidence of drowned villages below the stretch of sea between Land’s End… the toe on the foot of Britain… and the Scilly Isles. It is probable that these villages were the victim of rising sea levels. Even St Michael’s Mount seems to confirm this, as its name in old Cornish is Karrek Loos y’n Koos … ‘the grey rock in the wood’. The Mount is now a sea-girt isle… but perhaps it was once a hill in a forest.

I am not sure this logical explanation really does what it says on the proverbial tin. It certainly does not dismiss the legend of Lyonesse… all it does, for me at least, is suggest that there really was once an important settlement that was lost to the sea. Perhaps it was the place where a strong leader ruled, or a gathering place for the shamans, or the wise-folk we would eventually come to know as the druids. Or perhaps it was a settlement ruled by a Lady… Whatever the truth of it may be, and I am happy with both truth and legend… something magical passed into the folk memory and remains to this day.

It was to see the sea that covers lost Lyonesse that we made our way to Land’s End, but that was not the only reason for our visit. It had been a busy morning since leaving Penzance. We had seen Newlyn, the fishing village that has inspired so many artists, discovered the wonderful wayside crosses that have guarded the crossroads for a thousand years and more, gone back in time to dance with the Merry Maidens to the tune played by the petrified Pipers in their field, and visited an ancient tomb. So, our second reason for the visit was quite pressing… we were ready for breakfast.

The facilities at Land’s End were closed… it was still way too early… and while we would happily have wandered the cliffs for a while until they opened, the sea mist was so thick around the toe of the land that we would not even have seen the edge of the cliffs, let alone what lies beyond. I bethought myself of the inn just up the road, which, after a few hundred years trading, must surely still be there… the first and the last inn in England, depending on which way you are travelling.

It was indeed still there. It was also closed… there are some drawbacks to getting such an early start, though it is hard to think of many. We drove on, turning down the hill towards Sennen Cove. There really had to be something open there. Or… perhaps not. At least, not for another hour or so.

Not that I cared. I seldom see the sea and I love it, regardless of the weather… and the sea at Sennen was particularly beautiful. Deep turquoise, jade and purple, deepening to the colour of lapis lazuli where it crashed on the distant reef. White-crested waves rolled in from the Atlantic, washing a perfect sandy beach bounded by green and rocky cliffs, all enclosed in the embrace of the sea-mist.

I gazed at the beach. My companion, raised by the sea, still walks its shores often enough not to feel the sea-longing in quite the same way. Me, I still get as excited as I did as a child.
“Is the tide coming in or going out?” I asked.
“Going out,” he assured me, knowing full well what that meant and resigned to the inevitable walk on the chilly beach. As my shoes came off and I felt the sand between my toes, I was in heaven.

We walked along the shore and sat on the rocks watching the waves. I still count for the ‘great seventh’ as my grandfather taught me. I remembered childhood holidays here, long, long ago, and the tales of the Piskies dancing in stone circles. I recalled trawling rock-pools for anemones and crabs, watching the sea for dolphins and learning how to find and identify the fossils and gemstones we found as we walked.

I remembered too collecting seaweed to take home to my great-grandmother. But it had to be the right kind of seaweed.
“To cook?”
“No, to predict the weather.” The crispy strands she hung on the picture frame would soften when rain was due.

So, we sat and watched, marvelling at the jewelled colours, the ancient sea-creatures frozen in the rocks and the timeless beauty of sea. Behind us, a chough watched us… and in these parts they say that King Arthur lives on, his spirit borne in these dark-feathered birds. Above us, on the headland, was Maen Castle, an Iron Age promontory fort. Older still are the legends.

“What was that?” The sound came from the sea… more like a cow than anything that should have been out there in the mists. Perhaps it was the Whooper of Sennen, whose voice was always heard from the mists, warning the fisherfolk of coming storms at sea. It is said that his voice was heard no more after two men ignored the warning and took out their fishing boat, never to return. Or perhaps, no one was listening…

“Are you sure the tide’s going out?” The waves crept ever closer, washing around the rocks at the water’s edge. The mist was beginning to feel more like rain and the wind was getting up.
“Er…” So we strolled back to the car, passing the still-closed café. There was still a good while before it would open…
“There’s another village just up the road…” We took shelter and I knocked the last of the sand from between my toes.
“Lead on…”

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