Salcombe and Fowey


As we entered Salcombe, the harbourmaster greeted us in his launch, escorted us to a mooring and took our line - a pleasant and courteous welcome marred at once when he informed us of the nightly charge - an eye-watering sum for a mere tie-up at a buoy. Salcombe itself is a pleasant enough village to the eye, but its wholesale dedication to serving tourists and the sailing community gives it a dull, monochromatic air. Expensive clothing stores outnumber all others, and the restaurants and pubs all charge the same high prices for the same food. Even the water taxi from boat to shore costs more than elsewhere. Marketing textbooks have it that businesses should charge "what the market will bear"; but in the end we found Salcombe's prices and its brazen appeal to human acquisitiveness disagreeable. Shopping is apparently the Western World's prime leisure activity - but I doubt there is any genuine pleasure available from buying things we neither need nor really want. "Superfluous wealth," Thoreau reminds us, "can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary for the soul."


Because a famous figure was born or lived there, some towns and villages punch well above their weight. Stratford would probably live in relative obscurity were it not for Shakespeare; Haworth owes its fame to the Bronte sisters; and while the Lake District holds it own in any company for its magnificent scenery, the lakeland village of Grasmere has become a place of pilgrimage simply because it hosts Wordsworth's Dove Cottage, which is no longer a dwelling but a shrine specialising in the great man's works and - together with the whole village - in whatever stationery, biscuits, fudge and general bric-a-brac can be associated with his name.

The little town of Fowey on the Cornish coast boasts two distinguished figures. One - Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch - an Oxbridge scholar and writer of the early twentieth century was and remains the most celebrated editor of the Oxford Anthology of English Verse. His edition, first published in 1900, arguably gave light to some hitherto buried treasures of our literary heritage, but more than anything it made him an arbiter of contemporary taste because the lesser poets he allowed to rub shoulders with the likes of Chaucer, Pope, Donne, Shakespeare and the great Romantics entered the canon and became part of the Great Tradition, whilst those he left out suffered a distinct reversal of esteem.

All this may seem remote and irrelevant to the age in which we live. Even in his own day, Quiller-Couch's views on English poetry mattered to no more than a handful of the population, and though his Oxford Anthology sold well, one suspects that far more people bought it than read it, and that many copies - bestowed as presents by well-meaning relatives or received as school prizes - were left to gather dust on unvisited shelves

Nowadays, we like to think ourselves arbiters of our own taste, free to chose our likes and dislikes and impervious to the dictats of those who presume to tell us what and how to be and do. We fool ourselves, of course. Countless Quiller-Couch's of the modern age from film directors, advertisers and marketers, to pop stars, fashion designers, teachers and ministers of state shape our views and choose much of what we see and hear. On the whole, the original Q-C didn't do a bad job - better, I suspect, than most of the literary gurus who've come after him.

Sir Arthur certainly isn't, and probably never was, a household name. Not so Fowey's other famous citizen - Daphe du Maurier. Her novels are not, I admit, to my taste. I'm unable to suspend disbelief in her characters or the situations in which they find themselves, and her style seems to me like a literary form of hyperventilation, a sort of breathless, gothecised romanticism in which people, places and action are all overburdened with feverish meaning.

Of course, she was loaded with literary ability. And knowing how much work, emotion and self-doubt is involved in writing fiction, I am impressed - on visiting the "Daphne du Maurier" shop - at the sheer volume of her output. I can't help but admire her industry and her unquestioned way with words. And who am I to argue with the success of someone who has given pleasure to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of readers?

Still, "her" shop didn't detain us for long, no more than any of the other small manifestations of the Du Maurier industry on display in town; though we noted with amusement that even highway signs include a parenthetical reminder that every direction leads to "Du Maurier country".

Fowey and Polruan on its opposite bank belong to the category of pretty Cornish ports - all hills and narrow winding streets. Fine food, sightseeing cruises, canoes for hire, and dramatic coastline views draw tourists from land and sea. But tourism is one trade among several, for there are fishing and cargo vessels berthed in the harbour, the latter traditionally associated with the export of china clay. The varied working life of the town gives it a quiet dignity, a sense of hardy independence. Visitors, in consequence, receive a friendly welcome but are never oppressed - as is so often the case in vacation resorts (and yacht harbours for that matter) - by constant, garish attempts to lighten their purse.And it's not often you read in a grocer's window an irresistible offer like this:
"Big Bag Carrots, Past Best, Free to a Good Horse."

We climbed to the outskirts of town and then uphill along a muddy path through woods that smelled of must and damp as they usually do in autumn. Many of the trees - birch, alder, beech and sycamore - were ancient, coated in moss at ground level and rising at odd angles in response to the steep, rocky terrain. Alone of its kind, one stately mediterranean pine soared skyward - planted perhaps by a forgotten forefather of the town.

Emerging from the forest, we skirted a field planted with maize and rounded the gardens of a stately Victorian farmhouse before turning into a narrow lane bordered by a hedge on one side and on the other by an old drystone wall overgrown with bushes. Wild flowers in profusion on each side: brilliant golden dandylions, purple thistles, burdock, green ferns, anemones, white bindweed, and occasional sprays of elder and wild honeysuckle.
And then abruptly we found ourselves on a hill-side of open grassland looking down through swathes of mist at the sea and the rocky entrance of the harbour. On the hill to our right, a herd of cattle stood out like smudges of brown and white paint on a green canvas. Ian walked down the hill towards the edge of the cliff and sat on a bench gazing seaward. No one else in sight. Wet grass, a slight chill in the air, and fine raindrops falling lightly on the skin: each of us was alone at that moment with our thoughts for company; and I remembered Shelley's lines:

...........I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.....

A plaque on the brow of the hill informed us that the land had been bestowed on the town "ïn perpetuity" by one of its citizens - and we were to see a couple similar signs both in Fowey and Polruan - gifts from wealthy landowners of panoramic parcels of countryside. Such gestures speak of citizenship and solidarity - qualities that elsewhere too often belong to a long-departed and maybe illusionary past, a time when people left their front doors unlocked, lost wallets and handbags were delivered intact to the local police station, and fortune and misfortune alike were shared.

A late supper at the Ferry Inn in Boddinick afforded us a different view of local life. As closing time approached, three men in their forties sat side-by-side on stools at the bar with pints of ale in front them. Occasionally they would take a brief, mechanical sip - swallowing so little as to barely change the level of liquid in their glass. In so small a community - a mere handful of houses - they can't have been strangers, yet they neither spoke nor even acknowledged each other's presence. Nor did they stir as the proprietor, a beautiful young woman, cleaned and tidied the counter before them. They looked unspeakably and profoundly tired - not with the fatigue that a full working day might bring - but with life itself - as if everything this world might once have offered them, the hopes, ambitions, dreams and joys, had drained away, leaving nothing that might raise a smile or prompt an exchange. We wondered if they sat there in order to escape an unhappy atmosphere at home, or whether they had come simply to be in the presence of the lovely girl who served them - though if the latter they kept their pleasure well hidden. They were still at the bar when we departed, sullen and stolid before their pint glasses, refusing to stir or answer when we bade them good-night.

Perhaps all is not so well in Fowey and Polruan as meets the visitor's eye. No place is without heartache and disappointment. But we found enchantment there, and sailed away with a faint, pleasurably melancholy sense of having seen too little and left too soon.