TOAST Magazine

Dark, Salt, Clear | Life in a Cornish Fishing Town

BOOK CLUB

Lamorna Ash spent her many of her childhood holidays on the picturesque Cornish coast. Feeling disconnected living in London she relocates to Newyln, a busy Cornish fishing village not far from Land's End. 

Dark, Salt, Clear is Lamorna's personal and lyrical account of life in a working fishing port. From welcoming local characters and a seven day adventure on a sea trawler to living at the heart of a compassionate community defined by the sea.

The end of the line

‘Do you like cats? Do you mind smoking? And, do you like a drink?...’

It did not feel real at first, to be below the soaring ceilings of the scorched-red British Library, surrounded by thousands of tourists gazing up amazed at towers of books encased in glass, and then suddenly to hear, piped into my headphones, the rhythmic sweet timbre of a West Cornish accent cutting through the din. News had passed around the village of Newlyn that a girl from ‘upcountry’ was seeking lodging, and a couple – Denise and Lofty, who live right by the harbour – had offered their spare room. Before this could happen, Denise had a couple of questions for me. A student at the table next to me was bashing furiously at his keyboard, so I turned up the volume on my phone to hear her better.

‘Could you repeat that?’

Do you like cats? Do you mind smoking? And, do you like a drink?’

Having replied yes, no, and then, very much, yes, it was settled. Denise, a fishmonger, and Lofty, a ship’s chandler, would be greeting their first lodger, a twenty-two-year-old Londoner with a distinctly Cornish name at Penzance station in a month’s time. 

Paddington to Penzance my ticket read: the beginning of the line to its very end. Virginia Woolf described the Great Western Train magicking her ‘to this little corner of England’ as ‘the wizard who was to transport us into another world, almost into another age’. Every summer of her childhood it was this alchemical transformation that took her from the dense streets of London to the sea-edged wildness of north Cornwall. From Talland House, where they stayed each year – a cream building with large bay windows on the outskirts of St Ives – Woolf would have been able to make out the thin outline of Godrevy Lighthouse rising up from a dark mass of rock just off the coast, like a white candle stuck in a slab of cake. The lighthouse held on in her memory, a stubborn after-image that would later become the inspiration for the Scottish lighthouse around which the narrative of To the Lighthouse turns.

I have encountered the same magic Woolf experienced on the Great Western train countless times, shutting the pink-and blue carriage door on bustling Paddington and, five hours later, opening it into the clear, salt-touched air of St Erth, from where my family and I would head on to Lelant for the Easter and summer holidays. All those journeys, my routine so perfected I knew which side of the carriage to sit (always the left, that way you’re close to the sea) and when to eat my sandwiches (if I took the 10.03 train, then at Exeter St David’s just after 12.00), but I’d never taken the Great Western line the whole of its extent before. Though only one stop further, it felt entirely unlike catching the train to St Erth – as if running over every track possible might provide some sense of finality.

As we pull out of Paddington, I look down the carriage which is now crowded with Easter holiday-goers; brightly coloured surfboards and wrapped-up windbreakers sprout out from behind almost every row of seats. Most of these tourists will leave the train long before we reach Penzance, travelling on from Plymouth, Par and Truro to the popular coastal resorts. You can tell instantly those passengers who are in it for the long haul: they have a certain look, with their books, notepads and snacks spread out the furthest from their laps.

I lean my head against the window and stare out at widening plains of unconcreted space. The last few tower blocks marking London’s outskirts fall away. You still feel landscape on a train in a way that you cannot along long, homogenous stretches of motorway broken up by embankments, verges and identical looking service stations.

The line from Paddington to Plymouth was opened in 1849. Back then, fishermen from Newlyn would send their fish in carts down to the station in Plymouth to catch the fast mail train to London. The great channels the Victorian railway engineers tore through the landscape provided nineteenth-century geologists with a view of the earth never seen before. For the first time, they were able to analyse the age lines of rocks long hidden beneath the skin of the land.

By 1859 the tracks the new steam trains travelled along had made it to Truro, crossing the Tamar River on the Cornwall–Devon border via Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge. The bridge is an extraordinary feat of engineering, suspended thirty metres above the Tamar. Its design consists of two lenticular trusses – each an enormous, grey, iron-bound symbol for infinity leaning on its side. Lenticular describes a shape like a stretched oval lens. There are lenticular galaxies, ancient star clusters which have used up almost all of their interstellar matter and are gradually fading out of existence; there are lenticular clouds, too, which, when seen in the dark, look like flying saucers waiting to drop down to earth.

In 1867 the Great Western Railway made it all the way along the ‘Cornish Riviera’ to Penzance, covering a grand total of 79.5 miles. This line breached the ungoverned spaces between Cornwall and the rest of England, and brought some of the earliest tourists to the county. The Cornish called these new, odd-sounding visitors emmets, a term they use for all foreigners – that is, anyone who lives beyond the Tamar. At its opening, Mr G. Smith, chairman of the West Cornwall Railway, declared: ‘From the days of Richard the Third to the present, Cornwall has been presumed to hold a sort of Berwick-on-Tweed position, neither within nor without the borders, but now we are part of England’ – a pronouncement that would probably have caused much jeering amongst a Cornish audience, many of whom remain adamant they will never be a ‘part of England’.

The Easter holiday crowds have thinned out by the time we enter the final, halting stages of our journey, the gaps between stops shrinking to a matter of minutes. When we come to St Erth I notice, as if for the first time, the absence of my family sat around me. I close my eyes and try to forget my nerves about my new home, instead imagining what it would be like to flee the train now – to go where I know, where it is safe and certain. I let my mind blow briefly onto Lelant’s melancholy stretch of sand. Lelant beach is where my mother and I have always got on best. 

Whatever mother–daughter fight we were in the midst of would cease as we launched ourselves through the curtain of marram grass that pulls apart to reveal the beach below the sand dunes. The place where our understandings have met, our lives briefly aligning along the shell line running parallel to the sea, with its long streak of purple and green mussels, cochlea-curled sea-snail homes, and light pink shell halves shaped like fingernails, joined together by a hinge, which she calls fairy wings.

Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash, Bloomsbury Publishing

Images of De Gallant by James Bannister. De Gallant was first launched as a Herring Lugger in 1906 and is used today as a cargo vessel for sustainable foods. Photographed here landing in Penryn, Cornwall.

Keep up to date with our latest articles and news


Sub-Total: USD 0.00

VIEW SHOPPING BAG CHECKOUT
Close

Delivery to your chosen country

Choose your delivery country

Continue

The items in your bag will be transferred to the currency of your selected country. The items that are not available for delivery in your selected country will be removed from your bag.

Close

Welcome to TOAST

Your delivery country is currently

All prices are in
We offer flat rate delivery to your country for TBC

Shop
Continue

The items in your bag will be transferred to the currency of your selected country. The items that are not available for delivery in your selected country will be removed from your bag.

I would like to join the TOAST email newsletter to hear about new collections, offers, events, and editorial.