To the Edge and Back: A Love Letter to Penzance, Cornwall

St Ives, Cornwall
the coast near St Ives


Let’s call this a love story. Better stilla love letter.  Whatever we call it, it is without a doubt a tale of love, one that could very well turn out to be the greatest of my life.

I arrived in Penzance in late summer 2016, alone, with little hope and no direction. I knew no one save an acquaintance I’d met on the train. I had read almost nothing about the town, carried no map, no guide book. Aside from a few potential articles to pursue, Cornwall offered no occupation for me, professional or otherwise, and more than once in those early days, anxiety and guilt about my seemingly reckless actions would jab at me. I had no plan. Just a primal urge to flee a life that overnight had toppled and nearly taken me down with it. I wandered about Penzance, listless and zombie-like despite an acute ache, getting my bearings and filling my pantry. Eager for distraction, I’d sometimes pause to look in the storefront windows along Market Jew street, only to catch sight of something terrifying reflected in the glass: a spiritless shadow of the woman I had once been. Back in my flat near the harbour, unpacking groceries before my kitchen’s window-framed view of St Michael’s Mount, I’d say to myself, You did it. You landed yourself in Cornwall. Cornwall! Get out and explore! But instead, I’d open a bottle and start in on the considerable day drinking that by my estimation had delivered me thus far from madness.  

A sheet of paper turned things around. While on one of my zombie crawls, I’d seen the plain, unobtrusive notice for The Star Inn’s Open Mic Night. Remembering it later, I decided to break from my usual evening routine of how many tears to fill this wine glass? and I went out. That mild September evening marked the beginning of a shift, a turning point that would prove vital to my survival. Filled with talented, kind people come together for music and camaraderie, The Star managed to draw my thoughts beyond my own pain that night, by simply offering me the chance to make a few friends. In the weeks following, providence continued to toss grace in my path in this manner. Nourished by an unexpected sense of community, my connection with Penzance grew stronger each day, and by degrees the notion of leaving after a mere two months seemed absurd. I recall quite vividly the moment I knew I would extend my stay. During the Guildise harvest festival, there was much talk in the air of the upcoming Montol, a Cornish winter solstice celebration. Intrigued, I listened to my friends’ descriptions of that awesome and curious festivity, which together with a desire to experience a proper Cornish Christmas seemed reason enough to stay through the end of the year.  

Two months became three, then four, then five. Since I had entered the U.K. on an American passport, and thanks to various cursed immigration laws, I knew my allowed time in the country ended on x date, which I marked on the calendar with a weepy emoji then proceeded to banish from my consciousness for the next three months. Meanwhile, I tried to reconnect with things I love and allow myself a dose of contentment each day. I went back to writing.  Not the run-of-the-mill stuff that in the past would have paid the bills. No, nowith quirky Penzance as my muse, surely I could dare beyond the prosaic. So I started a diary, documenting my new life with detail and deliberation. The musical and spoken word performances I’d seen about town compelled me further; I attempted some verse of my own, some of which I shared before a small group at one Tuesday evening open mic, my nerves bolstered by friendly encouragement and sauvignon blanc. Today I’m a little ashamed to admit that my motivation for taking up poetry at that particular moment in my life was hardly nobleI wanted desperately to fit in with that brilliant lot, and lacking musical skills of any kind, I chose the only medium I’ve ever really been comfortable with. The effort though, the process, brought with it an extraordinary side-effect: the reawakening of a past-bound, dormant version of myself, that fearless, starry-eyed young woman who had so loved creative writing at university. And I had achieved something precious and rare for middle age: I’d surprised myself.

A barely-used book of Thai recipes I’d picked up for a pound at a charity shop helped me get back to the thing I love most. I had never made Thai food before. Despite my passable skills and intrepid nature when it comes to cooking, I saw in those gorgeous, glossy pages a potential challenge. Could I really create the complex, nuanced flavors that so distinguish this cuisine? I set about it, making lists and re-adjusting my mindsetyou see, in Tuscany, where I’ve lived for over 15 years, locating so-called ‘ethnic’ ingredients and ‘exotic’ spices can be a frustrating, at times utterly futile, questand hunting down what I needed at the Causeway Head food shops. Fragrant soups, devilish curries, colorful, zingy pad thai…I cooked a Thai dish on average once a week for most of my five-month stay in Penzance, gaining flavor familiarity, taste confidence, and, I can admit, some pride in my results. I kept that cookbook at hand, strategically placed to remind me that no matter how dismal or uncertain my situationjobless, nationless to an extent, my heart in pieces and my savings up in flamesopportunities for fulfillment were still within my grasp. I had only to seize them.

Friends in Penzance contributed to my experience in various wayssharing traditions and recipes, inviting me into their kitchens. I had intentionally delayed trying a Cornish pasty, in part because the pre-made, window-displayed lesser cousins available at chain bakeries had me so dubious. My instincts proved just when a friend brought over a still-warm homemade pasty for dinner and I, adequately famished, tucked in and finally understood all the fuss. At my first Cornish cream tea, having been drawn into that beguilingly droll ‘jam first’ debate, I was so taken with the cream I wondered how jam could figure in the controversy at all. But the event likely to dominate all my food memories is surely this: At the Ship Inn on Tom Bawcock’s Eve, witnessing the making of the stargazy pies and assisting, albeit in a meager way, in the preparation of that peculiar, legendary dish so bound to Mousehole identity.

Friends abroad noticed what was happening to me. Less troubled by my hasty flight to Cornwall, they tested the waters occasionally. You seem…better? Or You’re smiling. And, from a very dear friend: You’re not just surviving there. You’re thriving. It was true. I learned to laugh again in Penzance. I laughed and I cooked and I danced and I played music so loud the neighbors complained. I talked for hours about the personal crisis I was going through, with friends whose patience, wisdom, and support I could never do justice to here. Slowly, gingerly, I took to examining my life, at what I hoped to achieve now and what I knew I no longer wanted. Strangest of all, I began to perceive something rekindling within my heart, a tiny spark that would soon ignite and set me, one unsure, wobbly-toddler step at a time, on a path towards recovery.

And then one morning, I woke up happy. Authentic, unadulterated happiness. Perhaps not definitively, but for that day and more to come, sorrow had given way to joy. It felt like fireworks. But it didn’t stop there. Something else was happening, something I still struggle to define. Call it an unnerving redesign of my personal ideologies. In Penzance, for the first time in over 20 years, I set aside my predominantly skeptical worldview and opened my mind to ideas and beliefs that before would have upset my comfort and even evoked my scorn. The possibility that something beyond my own will and choices was shaping my life demanded consideration. Why had I come to Cornwall with such impulsive, blind determination? What drew me here, unprepared and uninformed as I was, with no plan, no contacts, no sense of where I was going or what would happen to me? After months of reflection, I now believe that Penzance was my beacon, a magnetic pull towards a transformative moment that forced me to look at everything anew. A quote, some lines of verse I couldn’t quite place, had been itching my memory in those days. I tracked the work down, scribbled it out, and adopted it as a kind of lens through which to perceive my entire Penzance experience—

When we get out of the glass bottles of our own ego,
and when we escape like squirrels from turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forest again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.

I had described my own actions many times as an escape. To the recurrent question What are you doing in Cornwall? I would often retort: I’ve run away from home. Accurate enough, at least superficially. The more I reflected on D. H. Lawrence’s Escape, however, the more I saw that my act of running away had meant very little. It was what followed, rather, that signified everything: that cold and frightening unknown, the necessary stripping away of all we think we know about ourselves, without which the subsequent and crucial ‘rushing in’ of life can have no bearing. Without Penzance and all it compelled me to allow for and reassess, I might have remained encased in the glass bottle for a long time, perhaps never changing course, never steering back from the brink of heart-death.

There is so much I miss. A sunny morning view of the Mount. Sidestepping clumps of kelp washed up on the Prom. Newlyn lights in the distance come dusk. Tea at The Front Room. Stopping for fresh eggs at The Cornish Hen. A coffee at The Tube. Wind tunnels ‘round nearly every damn corner. Bathroom graffiti at Studio Bar. The spice rack at The Granary. A pint of Proper Job. A slice of cake and the best table at The Honey Pot. Fresh crab. Wandering the opies. The marvels of Morrab Gardens. The wee-hours walk home via Bread Street. The Farmer’s Arms posters. The buskers. The shoulder-to-shoulder geniality of The Crown on a Monday night. The artists and poets, faces and voices. And certain words whose utterance will always make me feel like the initiate in a mystery: Lafrowda. Hanterhir. Oggy. Hevva. Janner. Montol. Kernow.

Mostly I miss my friends, who gave their time and energy so I might better know and appreciate the beautiful stuff of Cornish life, from Lamorna Cove on a golden winter day to Sennen under a siege of swells, enchanting excursions to holy wells and stone circles, trekking through Penrose woods and past Loe Beach. Godrevy Lighthouse, Porthcurno Beach, Porthleven. The meals and the music, the moments both laughter and tear filled, the jokes, lively debates, and silly sing-alongs. Generosity and kindness enough to take one’s breath away.

Dear Penzance, I know the debt I owe. I knew it the day I left, and I know it as I write these words. You guided me through the darkest of moments and showed me the way back to light. And for that I will carry you in my heart, cherished and remembered, always.  

So I’m off to other forests. May life rush in.

Sennen, Cornwall
Yours truly in Sennen, Cornwall