The grass here is sparse. It is not the lush green grass of a farmer’s field nor the tight tidy grass of a football pitch. No, this grass is short and stiff and twisted by the weather, the ground around it full of stones. Despite the odds against it, it grows on this small headland, facing the Atlantic Ocean and the prevailing south westerly gales – gales full of salt air and storm-tossed water. And when the wind stops blowing and the rain stops raining, the sun shines equally fiercely, parching it dry as a bone. Standing here we stand on an apparently unpromising bare patch of ground, but . . .
I came here first as a child on my father’s shoulders. We would climb the narrow path from the valley where we lived, one step at a time, no room for a stumble. On our left side, the higher we rose the steeper the slope, till it fell away altogether to become a vertical cliff dropping to the rocks below. On our right, rocky outcrops allowed little room to lean inwards.
We would reach the headland, him slightly out of breath, me exhilarated by the ride. The view was what we had come to see. Behind us, we could look down to our home in the valley and follow the lane inland until it was lost in deep woods – woods that led our eyes up to the solid church tower marking a village several miles away.
South to our left, we admired a coastline with row upon row of sea-hewn rocks stretching out into the surf. Depending on the weather and the tide, they could be lines of sharp, bare, reptiles teeth, or, in a storm, ragged fangs beneath a constant whirl of spume, broken water flying in the wind.
Straight ahead to the west beyond the horizon was Newfoundland – or so my Dad said. What I saw was sea and the horizon and the sky and “see the ship, Bill?” – occasionally the whole ship on that distant line, more often the smudge of a funnel. This was not a place where ships came close to the shore. It was a wreckers’ coast, where, in the nineteenth century, many sailing ships came to grief. There is a wreck immediately below this headland. I have never been sure of its name but there is an official record of a wreck that may fit: on 29th March 1878, St George, a schooner out of Looe carrying copper ore to Swansea “was lost in a NE force 9 gale accompanied by heavy snow, the crew saving themselves in their own boat after the vessel drove ashore on the rocks near Morwenstowe at 4 am.” The official record continues sparingly: “This schooner was wrecked during a snow storm at Morwenstowe, happily all on board were saved.” – surely an understatement.
If I seem to be talking about the past, I am also talking about the present. This is as much about now as then. The headland, the valley, the cliffs and the rocks are still there. That horizon also remains but now heralds a wider world beyond. My memories of my father and everyone else I have climbed the path with are still there. And those intense moments shared by the crew on that snow-laden night in 1878 still hang in the air. They survived. But there are many others who didn’t and whose spirits still inhabit this coast. They have never left.
And there’s more – another level to this place, a level not grounded in the past but very much delving into the future. Glancing north, we look down into a grey pebbly bay, the very bay where the St George came ashore. Our headland forms the southern end of this bay, the cliffs that back it rising high over where we are standing. If we lift our eyes, we can just see, peering over the cliff edge to our right, the white lips of two giant dishes, two of the many aerials of a large and reputedly vital communications tracking station. Wide and deep are the search capabilities therein. Its satellites span vast tracks of the planet. We are not allowed to know what goes on there. But whether or not we do ever discover what does go on, the fact of its presence and the products of its endeavours will surely affect us and our children and their children. Technology, including the technology I am using here, inevitably governs our future. It has been a long time since I could tell myself this point of land was unspoiled by man.
This place I am writing about, where past and future meet, is Steeple Point.
This is my source. This is Cornwall. This is where I was born.