If I make my way out of the garden, down the badger steps and through the wood, I get to the lane that runs alongside the river. From there it is a short step through the creaky gate and over the single railway line onto the shore of the estuary.
What is it about natural water? It has an instant calming effect on me. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the relentless turning of waves or the persistent flow of a river but I feel my shoulders drop and my pulse settle in the presence of moving water. Rivers in particular are a comfort. They are a reminder that all things will pass, that although the route may be obstructed and the passage difficult, the destination awaits you, if you can just find your way. The language of water is part of our daily vocabulary. We go with the flow, we fight against the current, we change horses in mid stream. I may pour out my troubles, words may flow from my pen or indeed I may dry up.
I love this river and one day, I keep threatening myself, I’ll walk its whole twelve mile length from source to mouth. This morning though, I do what I usually do. I sit on the concrete steps beside the old landing place. It’s the birding season and there are birds everywhere. One of the reasons we bought the house in the wood was because I can hear the curlews from the garden. There is no better bird song. For me, even a blackbird in full throat can’t compare to the ethereal piping of a curlew. But there are no curlews today, just a few nervous widgeon who take flight when they catch sight of me, and a motionless heron that doesn’t even look up as the widgeon fly a few feet over her head. Her eyes fixed beadily on the shallow stream, she’s like some aristocratic dowager refusing to acknowledge the presence of other, lesser, birds.
Rivers flow through time as well as nature. The word ‘heyl’ in the Cornish language means estuary (think Helston, Helford and Heligan) and the anglicised version ‘Hayle’ is used here both for the short river that divides West Penwith from the rest of Cornwall and for the little port that grew up on its easterly bank. They say the Romans sailed up the Hayle River and the discovery of a hoard of Roman coins on the site of the Iron Age fort just behind the town would seem to support that theory. But what I am looking at is not a natural landscape; centuries of tin streaming and and other human intervention has resulted in the silting up of what was once a safe, deep harbour. As early as the 1530s the traveller John Leland said of St. Erth, ‘ Ther cam to this place ons, the haven being onbarrid, and syns chokid with tynne workes, good talle shippes’.
The landing place where I am sitting may even date back to Leland’s time and it marks the end of one of the several tracks that used to cross the estuary. To get from Hayle to Lelant by foot you could walk around by the bridge at St Erth about three miles upstream, you could pay a penny to the ferryman, or at low tide, you could hire a guide to escort you across the treacherous and shifting sands. Striking out on your own could, and often did, prove fatal. A deadly conspiracy between the soft sand and the incoming tide would be the end of you.
The river is quiet these days, but if I were sitting here two centuries ago I would see, hear (and smell) the Cornish industrial revolution in full force. Hayle was a centre for tin and copper smelting and it is where the foundry was. Harvey’s foundry made steam driven pumping machines, not just for Cornish tin mines but for mines all over the world, from Peru to Australia. Tin mining in Cornwall collapsed in the mid nineteenth century and so the wharves and quays fell silent. Now it is the variety of wading birds that draw people here, not the bustle of commerce and industry.
A flock of handsome black backed gulls is hanging about on the sandbank just off shore. This is a wintering flock, they will have bred earlier this year in Norway and as the Arctic winter creeps southward they fly like so many tourists to Cornwall where autumn gradually merges into spring, and winter almost never arrives.
The Cornwall birdwatchers website also tells me that somewhere on the river there is a spoonbill, but it’s nowhere to be seen today. So I take a few photographs and head back up the prosaically named Station Hill, which until the coming of the railway in the 1870s was called Quay Lane, which is also prosaic, but prettier. The low wall that separates the lane from the wood is made of scorrier, a byproduct of the tin and copper smelting process. It was probably made just over the river. It’s black and shiny, like lumps of burnt toffee. I brush my hand over the delicate polypody ferns that have colonised the crevices and sprout bravely between the blocks. The tin mines may be long gone, but this once superfluous material reminds us that nothing in life is ever truly wasted if we have the imagination and will to turn it to good use.
Exactly a hundred years ago Katherine Mansfield lived a few miles down the coast from where I’ve been sitting. She too must have watched gulls on a river. Maybe even this river.
The Awakening River
The gulls are mad-in-love with the river,
And the river unveils her face and smiles.
In her sleep-brooding eyes they mirror their shining wings.
She lies on silver pillows: the sun leans over her.
He warms and warms her, he kisses and kisses her.
There are sparks in her hair and she stirs in laughter.
Be careful, my beautiful waking one! You will catch on fire.
Wheeling and flying with the foam of the sea on their breasts,
The ineffable mists of the sea clinging to their wild wings,
Crying the rapture of the boundless ocean,
The gulls are mad-in-love with the river.
Wake! We are the dream thoughts flying from your heart.
Wake! We are the songs of desire flowing from your bosom.
O, I think the sun will lend her his great wings
And the river will fly to the sea with the mad-in-love birds.