The last full week of January would be busy. On my list I wish to make a visit to Stella in Cornwall. Wrapped into that journey will be an errand to be carried out on the beach at Fistral Bay, an overnight stay with a nephew by marriage who lives close by. I will drive back to my home in Dorset via the village of Hawkchurch on the east margin of Devon to spend a couple of days with my sister.
So I sally forth, as I do, on Monday just before lunchtime. I am rather later than I had intended as I wish to catch a falling tide at Fistral Bay at the end of the afternoon. When I make the long drive to Cornwall on my own I like to take an easy-to-handle sandwich to eat as it helps to break up the monotony. Unfortunately the bread makes me sleepy and I must pull over to rest my bleary eyes. Just under half an hour later I resume the journey and drive to Atlantic Road, Newquay where I leave my car in the first carpark I see. Unfortunately it is not the nearest in terms of access to the shore by a long chalk, and I needs must ask an itinerant who is sloping along the cliff path plugged into ear-phones and his rolling gait, and demeanour when I speak to him, tell me he is within a gnat’s whisker of being spaced out. He is on the way to the Spa to buy some tinnies he tells me. But he is amiable enough and helpful. It takes me a good quarter of an hour to gain the sand dunes which back the wide sandy bay with its rock platform well exposed on the northeastern margin.
I’ve come to collect some Glycymeris shells, Dog Cockles, the large, showy white clam shells with a chestnut-coloured chevron pattern and which were so popular with the ancients. They collected the pleasing round shells as talismans, as pendants to string and probably for a range of other purposes for which we can only guess. In life the robust clams inhabit coarse sand and shelly gravel. The species is edible and is offered for sale in France under the name ‘Amande de Mer’ meaning Sea Almond. ese were not collected for food; their worn, beach-abraded condition sometimes with a natural hole worn at the umbo, as they are excavated at archaeological sites, testifies to the fact that they were picked up as dead shells. Will I find any today?
Right at the top of the beach, in the upper shore sand churned by many footprints and not washed by the tide in recent days, the first shells I find are two Dog Cockles, each holed. I am much relieved. I need these shells to create a figure for one of the chapters I have contributed to a forthcoming box, Molluscs in Archaeology, to be published by Oxbow. The sun has only just set and the light is fading. I give the search a good half hour and collect x whole or nearly whole shells of which y bear a hole at the umbo.
I had arrived on the beach in the late afternoon as the sun was making hste to sink behind the distant Pentire headland. In the twilight I allow myself time to look around and appreciate this place. There are plenty of late afternoon walkers, many with dogs. In the distance I can see lots of figures surfing. A couple of youngsters catch my eye. They are standing on the open wet sands, talking. I love their stance, the body language I imply. I hope they have not a care in the world. The young are our investment for the future. Luckily my mobile phone has charge; I take some photos, they turn out really well.
Clutching my bag of shells I find the track down which I came to access the beach. At the top I have two options. I can retrace my steps across the golf course or I can hang a right and walk along a track at the top of the dunes towards the street-lit headland to the south west. I’ve been walking a while and asked a couple of walkers if I am going the right way. They seem to think I am. Then I spot a chap in a hooded anorak sitting on a bench gazing out to sea. I ask him the way and discover I have chosen to take myself well out of my way and it will be a longish walk back to my car. It’s clear he is not entirely sure which carpark I used. In the end he offers to give me a lift. I don’t hesitate for long, he is pleasant and I see he is a decent and mature man when he takes down his hood and I am going to give good human nature the benefit of doubt. We talk and it turns out he has a daughter in archaeology, he knows about Littorina, he is interested in landscape, the environment.
Gaining my car I phone Richard and Anne Oliver who live in Redruth and tell them I am on my way. They are giving me B&B and I am going to take them to dinner at the Penventon Park Hotel which is some 200 metres from their house. Anne greets me and we get to know more about each other over coffee. I hear about the work she does in social services, she is a jigsaw fan When Richard gets back we go to dinner and have a delicious meal in the spacious and slightly retro dining room of the grandiose hotel. I have a jolt of uncertainty as we are shown to our table. Piano music greets the ear and I see that our entertainer is a woman in a backless and flesh-coloured dress. For a fleeting moment I think she is naked!
The following day I go to see my friend Stella Maris. She lives in one of Cornwall’s Secret Places. She is in her early 90s and her health started declining rapidly about three or four years ago. These last years are years I don’t believe she would have wished for herself. I feel this to be so because we talked often. Now she is bedridden, has dementia and has all her personal needs met by carers who visit several times a day. Her life-time companion, Rose, shares the cottage with Stella and is kind, solicitous and, with the help of carers and friends, keeps their boat afloat. This seems fit because for the majority of their shared life it would be Stella who kept house for them both, who occupied herself with all their day to day routine as well as carrying on with her own work in biological recording. Rose would spend hours in her ivory tower, working on her botanical books. She has several to her credit.
Stella is a star whose light is dimming, slowly and inexorably. Each time I see her she is diminished and I marvel that, given how little she eats, she yet has reserves to hang onto her life. I have brought a book to read to her, Hare by Jim Crumley. Stella says very little these days but I can tell that the reading gives her pleasure. I guess this is the comfort of a human voice, and one, in truth, that she knows well.