The Absolute End: tribesmen

BUT something about this place continued to haunt me. Something had been there, but it had eluded me. I thought hard about it as my husband negotiated the car-choked streets of Marazion (we were planning to visit St Michael’s Mount that afternoon) and came to the conclusion that what Land’s End harbours is not so much the Meaning of Life as the ghost of its own long history.

The Land’s End peninsula was formed 270 million years ago when molten granite forced its way up through the Earth’s softer surface. The very notion of it as The End is artificial, a convenient man’s-eye-view. It is merely the second nobble on Cornwall’s rocky backbone, which extends all the way down from Bodmin Moor to the Isles of Scilly. The earliest inhabitants of Cornwall are often referred to as Celts but in fact the Celts arrived only a few hundred years before the Romans. Before this, tribe after ancient tribe must have inhabited the area. They left no monuments, no clues as to their way of life, but were probably wanderers, hunters, gatherers and fishermen. Cornish legends tell of Giants, and it is possible that these really existed – a race of very tall men who lived in the Old Stone Age and hunted the mammoth.

What is known is that later, in the New Stone Age when Britain had been made into an island by the retreating glaciers, settlers arrived from Europe in primitive boats with leather sails, somehow managing to negotiate the treacherous Land’s End peninsula. The flints and tools they used have been found on the cliffs, but they seem to have been a peaceful people, since no weapons have been found. Their religion was the mysterious megalithic cult of the dead and they left, among the many other delights to the archaeologically-minded that pepper the area, ‘quoits – the roofs of megalithic graves – and ‘carns’ – stone burial chambers. These people would have been farmers, makers of tools, pottery and cloth.

Following the gentle Stone Agers, from Europe came wave after wave of Celts; fair- or red-headed, tall, superior in their knowledge of metals, their crafts, their arts and their social organisation – an aristocracy which, by the year 600 BC, had become the dominant race. These men of the early Bronze Age made stone circles, of which there are more than twenty in Cornwall, for use in their gatherings and rituals. Nearly all of them are to be found on either the Land’s End peninsula or Bodmin Moor. One of the peninsula rings at St Buryan – Boscawen Un, or Nine Maidens, may even be a Gorsedd, one of the three main sites of druid worship, along with Stonehenge and Bryn Gwiddon. Perhaps I wasn’t so far wrong about the ancient magic.

The natives of the peninsula were fiercely protective of their Celtic heritage, which included the Cornish language, last spoken in Cornwall in the mid sixteenth century. In 1497 there was a Yorkist plot to install upon the throne of England one Perkin Warbeck, who was actually an imposter masquerading as the younger of the Princes in the Tower. When he landed at Land’s End six thousand Cornishmen decided to march with him to London, but it all went wrong. He deserted his forces at Exeter, and was executed.

There were other rebellions, equally unsuccessful, and ‘the foreigners’, which meant everyone east of the Tamar River, continued to demand higher and higher taxes from what they saw as the ‘barbarians’ in the far west. The people were poor, disaffected and desperate. They took to smuggling and piracy, and to scavenging anything they could lay their hands on from ships wrecked along their coast. Sometimes they would even ‘encourage’ wrecks to take place by lighting lamps on the clifftops, which lured luckless mariners onto the rocks.

Throughout the history of the area runs this thread of expediency, of doing whatever has to be done for survival. Cornwall has never been able to offer its inhabitants a great deal in the way of natural advantages – only tin, which failed to make them rich, and copper, which was destroyed by foreign competition. But it is beautiful and, in spite of increasing commercialisation, continues to attract large numbers of tourists. And it does possess Land’s End – the most south-westerly point in England.

The Cornish know that the average holidaymaker would be disappointed if, having made the longish drive from ‘civilisation’ to this remote and not especially scenic section of clifftop; he was to find – nothing. People have become more and more accustomed to the idea of a tourist attraction as a noisy, crowded place where one can buy souvenirs, eat unhealthy food and take snaps. The Cornish have simply supplied the demand. I for one would rather have seen it as it must once have been, bleak and remote, a home for seabirds and the occasional cottager, blasted by sea winds all winter and parched a delicate brown in summer. But Land’s End itself, I suspect, couldn’t care less.

Perhaps it is one of those odd little bits of Britain where ghosts seem to accumulate. What I think I sensed there was an invisible multitude of mammoth-hunters, berry-gatherers, stone circle-makers, druid priest, fishermen, pirates, smugglers, tin miners and their womenfolk, watching all the razzmatazz in quiet amusement. Just as the land fails to end at Land’s End, merely submerging itself until it’s time to pop up again in the Scillies, so the spirit of Land’s End lives on beneath a crawling carpet of visitors. Eventually, inevitably, these ghosts will be joined by those of the car-park attendants, the ice-cream eaters and the ice-cream vendors, the German band and the makers of leather key-rings. And in the silence, Land’s End will still be there.

The Absolute End: tourists

(First published in The Lady, February 1988)

I ALWAYS wanted to go to Land’s End. Even as a small child I had been fascinated by the name; it had a ring of finality and desolation about it, of the ultimate secret to be disclosed, of ancient magic. Fanciful? Yes of course, but I’m not alone in such fancies. People have been making pilgrimages to Land’s End ever since the seventeenth century, when the round trip of ‘neere six hundred miles’ from London would surely have been as great an adventure as a present-day trek across the Sahara. The Methodist preacher John Wesley went there twice and Turner made a painting of it. With the opening of the London to Penzance railway in 1859 Land’s End became a tourist attraction on a much grander scale. The souvenir guide shows photos of Victorians posing outside the First and Last House, smiling sombrely in black and white, clinging to their parasols – rather hoping, one suspects, that the Ultimate Secret wouldn’t choose to leap out at them.

I must admit it didn’t leap out at us either. Our first encounter was with queues of cars, their occupants sizzling gently in the dry summer heat, with men in dusty blazers demanding money for the car park and coaches decanting wave after wave of Japanese tourists. Still, we were at The End of England, practically.

We bought all the brochures and launched a determined assault upon the various shops and exhibitions. We attempted to be fascinated by fuzzy blown-up pictures of a lifeboat rescue in 1917 but couldn’t help being more taken by those of a nude marathon bicycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1965. We watched a man making glass ornaments, an ex-flower person carving lions and tigers and alphabet letters out of wood, and another making belts, bookmarks and key-rings out of leather.

We browsed around the seashell jewellery, the cane furniture, the wicker birdcages and the dangly stained-glass butterfly sun-catchers, and then decided it was high time for an ice cream.

The couple running the café were arguing in ferocious whispers, between customers, as to whose fault it was that the freezer had ceased to work and whose task it was to be to clear up the mess. Sneaking a look over the counter I saw that the linoleum was awash with ice cream which stuck to the soles of their sandals each time they moved. My heart went out to them.

It was time to go and look for the End – the real end. Perhaps it would be less crowded down there. Perhaps we would be able to recapture what the very first men and women felt as they stood on these same cliffs gazing out at the vast, and at that time nameless, ocean. There were plenty of little rocky prominences, just right for perching on and viewing the Atlantic. Sadly, there were also lots and lots of people perching, and taking photographs of one another pretending to view. Which of the prominences was the End? Perhaps none of them were. Suddenly we were dispirited, and finding that the End did not seem nearly as important as finding some lunch, we went away.