To have and to hold?

After Disastrous Devon last May (involving an ambulance, a gallbladder and an early return home), we were holding out for Cornwall, in October. We aren’t extravagant vacationers – we’ve had our fair share of adventures (and are planning a few more). But for now, a cottage, a view, a pile of books, is all really. We like exploring parts of our beautiful country we’ve somehow missed over the years. We like to walk; amble through quirky towns; sit on beaches with umbrellas or thermals; sleep.

We had a discussion with my brother and sister-in-law about what we look for in a holiday home. The list was interesting and included: two sofas (them), a power shower (us), on-site parking (them), a coffee machine (us – well, me). What we all agreed on was the absolute necessity of a top notch bed.

As a teenager, I used to go on working holidays with an organisation called the Christian Movement for Peace. We used to do things like build a wall around a village green (Provence) or help with a community farm (Portugal) in exchange for full board, lodging and delicious food cooked by local families. I met some wonderful people, including, memorably, a gorgeous Belgian called Georges who kissed me in a field of sunflowers. Sigh…

Anyway. At that time, I slept on a multitude of surfaces including an elderly mattress, a bear skin rug, the grass. Once, I slept on a cement floor in a disused factory by a snoring dog with fleas. Long story. But now…now I can only sleep in a perfectly sprung, well appointed bed in a very dark room (not too hot, not too cold), with padded pillows and a king-size mattress. Because apparently, in another life, I was a starfish on steroids, with a kickboxing habit. This may seem harsh but it’s true. I’ve seen the bruises. So, one of the most wonderful things about this holiday, was the bed. It. Was. Enormous.

Actually, the whole cottage was a joy, as was the village. And the sea was close by, a smile glimpsed between stones.

What an amazing place Cornwall is, from the scenic stillness of Helford, where Daphne du Maurier set Frenchman’s Creek. to the remote rocks at our island’s end. Land’s End is a curious place, with its theme park and unexpected shopping mall. But to stand there and remember the first time Britain broke away from Europe, physically, thousands of years ago…Well, it’s eerie to say the least.

Then there’s St Michael’s Mount. Who can resist an island castle you can walk to at low tide? We boated across and walked back. I have wanted to visit this place for years and it did not disappoint. Sacred haven for monks and people of faith; site of the legendary Jack the Giant Killer’s success; military stronghold. The Spanish Armada was first spotted here in 1588 and a bonfire lit, which began a series of beacons alerting the country to invasion. Now, part-owned by the National Trust, it has been a family home to the St Levan family since 1659 and the current Lord Levan is closely involved in its day to day management.

The fairy-tale castle perched on its thumb of rock at the tip of Mount Bay, is home to about 30 people. Most live in cottages overlooking the tiny harbour with its gaggle of boats. At least one person from each household works on the island, in the house, gardens or on the water, ferrying visitors back and forth at high tide. I loved a short film in which residents share stories about island life. One of them is married to a boat operator and works as a primary teacher on the mainland. She has to keep a close eye on the tides. Some days she can walk/drive to work. More often she takes the boat. Describing life on the island for her family as magical, my initial thought was: I should have been that teacher.

And that can be the thing with holidays. Joy – at the reprieve from everyday life – can be briefly replaced by longing. If only I lived here! What would it be like, to get up every morning and open your curtains to a circle of sky, boats, light treading on water. Surely, a kind of heaven.

Then you think of reality: the cold and wind in winter, the sea too rough to cross. You couldn’t pop to the corner shop for milk (or chocolate), or go for a drive, or a long walk, spontaneously at least. You might be far from family and friends. You might be lonely. Things change when dreams come true. My novella was begun during a wonderful holiday in Northumberland. Wandering around Alnwick, we saw our handsome Victorian holiday home for sale in an estate agent’s window. What would it be like, I thought, to buy it? It was actually a good price (for a Londoner) but my husband is a realist, so we didn’t. But I wrote about someone who did. (This is part of the joy of writing. You can create your own world, until the characters suddenly refuse to cooperate and do their own thing. Infuriating.)

The people who owned the Cornish cottage lived next door. They were friendly and told me how they’d seen both houses for sale while on holiday 5 years ago. They retired, bought them and did them up. Now, they live in one and rent out the other.

“It’s a stunning place,” she said, motioning towards a rise of houses by the sea, “And a great community. But you have to put in the hours. There’s lots of admin, and you can’t go away in the season. It’s hard work”

A small price to pay perhaps, to live with such beauty. But nevertheless, a price…

So I didn’t google Jobs at St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall and even if I had, I would never have applied for one (there was one going for a castle steward in May of this year btw). I am grateful we live in beautiful East Sussex and that we can afford to go and stay in other places across these islands when we want to.

An old friend once said she thought our yearning to ‘possess’ beautiful places, is a heaven-thing. The trick in life is to enjoy without owning; pass through without possessing; live lightly. If you try to hold tight to a moment or place, you might lose it.

I do believe in heaven and wonder what it’s like. Will there be island castles, the glint of water, firelit cottages filled with books? We are certainly promised peace, and no cancer or dementia, or any of the other horrible things our loved ones suffer. My friend knows, having left us far too early. Rest in peace, Old Pal.

Perhaps Disastrous Devon was a gift in a way. It showed me, no matter how beautiful the place or great the company, a holiday without pain or a 999 call, and with sunshine every day, in October, has an extravagant joy all its own.

You can find out more about visiting St Michael’s Mount, and watch a stunning video about it here.

Thanks for reading this post. You never know, you might enjoy my novella, The Evenness of Things, available as an amazon ebook and now also in paperback. It’s the story of what happens when a woman buys a house without telling her husband.

My full length novel, Braver, will be published by Fairlight Books in the summer of 2022. This tells a tale of unlikely friendships and heart-breaking decisions. With themes around mental health, identity and the need to belong, Braver explores how a local community responds when something threatens its very heart.

This recent press release about the book. from my publisher, was in The Bookseller: –

6 thoughts on “To have and to hold?

  1. This was wonderful, Deborah, especially as Eva and I have been to some of the places you mentioned. We walked part of the SW coast path – Penzance to St Ives in June 2016, and we began our walk at St Michael’s mount. Wonderful memories. Next time you are in Sheffield, and if you have time for a cuppa, we’ll show you our photo book. I too loved ‘a smile between two stones’ what a beautiful way to describe the sea! I loved the way you described Heaven too. And that slight wince when you shared about your friend dying of cancer. You write so beautifully, so I can’t wait for your book. M x

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    1. Thank you so much Martin! That whole area is stunning isn’t it? I would love to pop in and see you in Sheffield though I don’t know when we will next be up there. Thanks for your lovely comment 🙂

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  2. Agreed. Even though I’ve been to Cornwall many times (mostly for work) and lived next door in Devon for years, this made me look at it through new eyes. A smile through stones. Sigh. I love the way you use words.

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  3. Not for the first time do I think you could find work as a travel writer. When you write about places you’ve been to, you always do so beautifully and evocatively.

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