These downs are a curious place, an old place place. Older than the villages that surround it, untouched and left to be wild. Older than any of the structures and marks left by lives now finished, scattered across the heathland. Perhaps there are reasons why nobody wished to tame this wild place, maybe out of respect, fear or practicality because they go on for seemingly ever.
There are most mysterious tales that surround the downs, local legends that are still as thriving as the unique species of plants that grow on the heath. There aren’t just rare orchids and leeches to be found in these parts, but also derelict cottages belonging to highwaymen hundreds of years ago, abandoned gardens of unmarked graves and stories of ghost sightings along the great stretch of road that passes through.
The paths here wind and snake through thickets and little pockets of woodland and through treacherously boggy parts. We once found a leech when we were wading through the bogs one twilit summer’s eve and that is something I won’t forget in a hurry. It was the night I went looking for the highwayman’s ghost with friends and we found his tumbled stone cottage; now just a bird & bat habitat often observed and cared for by local environmentalists.
The light was pale and lit the faded downs in an ethereal glimmer that winter afternoon. I meandered along the path, not really knowing where I was going. I had that restless feeling in my toes; that feeling when I know that sitting at home will not do. I felt like it had been far too long since I had taken any photographs that reflected my relationship with my beloved home. I sorely missed communicating the enchanting landscape in the way I find stirs the embers of my imagination and truly share my world and the way I see it with other people.
The downs is a living book of layers of many histories, but one of the dearest to my heart will always be the celts. With celtic roots in my heritage, I find myself naturally pulled towards their history, fascinated by the left-behinds of their presence. You can find traces of the celts throughout much of Cornwall and the downs do have their own standing stone named ‘Dry-tree’. I didn’t find it this time but I do have fond memories of going there and watching the shooting stars.
Early in the year, people even came here during the solar storm and were able to view the Aurora Borealis from the downs. I sadly was in Bath at Uni during this time, otherwise I would have joined those out there seeking the lights in a heart beat. Still, despite the presence of the great satellites growing mossy and standing sentinel nearby, the downs are an atmospheric spot for watching the meteor showers throughout the year and a fascinating space for walking, searching for rare species of plant or searching for ghosts… although I wouldn’t recommend coming here in the dark without somebody who knows this place well. There is an atmosphere that is imposing and ancient here and one can’t help but to feel a little celtic while treading these paths.
On a black night, while driving down the large and long stretch of road that reaches across the downs towards St Keverne and Coverack, my friend’s Dad was distracted by the sight of a figure standing at the side of the road. Being the witching hour and pouring with rain, his Dad did what most of the locals of the Lizard do to walkers and stop over to offer them a lift. As he slowed down the car, he approached the figure and was able to make out a heavy black coat and iconic tricorn hat of a highwayman before the mysterious hitchhiker dissolved into the mizzle. Perplexed, he carried on home wondering if he had just witnessed a sighting of the legendary Goonhilly Highwayman.
There have been various locals over the years that claimed to have witnessed the spectre. Even today, you can still see the tree where he was sentenced to death by hanging by the Parishioners all those years ago. I have driven over the downs countless times in storms, mists, thunder and fogs all at various latenesses of the evening and I have never witnessed such a phantasm. Maybe he catches you when you least expect it. Maybe there’s no such thing.
I’d love to believe that the mysteries of the world could remain mysteries of the world, that there was truth in the folklore and tales attached to places and those things would forever remain out of our grasp and understanding. I grew up a firm believer of such tales but these days, I have grown much older and more sceptical, as is the ailment of my ageing… the loss of belief in the extraordinary. But like Wendy in Peter Pan, I will always leave a window open just incase… there will always be an open flung sash, willing to be surprised, willing to accept proof that there is some sort of magic left in the world.
Winter in Cornwall is unique, I suppose it’s the same in any rural coastal place but growing up, our way of winter was very normal to me because I knew nothing else. It wasn’t until moving to Bath that I experienced a whole different type of Christmas – a Christmas that was much more like those portrayed on the television; neat, elegant, twinkling and cosy, filled with wooden chalets and high streets lit up with sumptuous smells wafting out. Situated way out in the sticks, it’s easy to feel cut off from the festivities until you visit places or partake in activities that make you feel in the spirit of the season. We don’t really have any decorations or even a tree yet so at the moment, winter just feels like a beautifully bleak, sleepy, moody and utterly enchanting collection of months where the landscape is transformed; colder than usual, but not cold enough to bring snow. We seldom see snow in these parts.
This is my December. Strolls on the heathland, gazing at the faded heather and the burned bracken as the neatness of summer hibernates, revealing the wolfish wilderness of the thick of winter. A land untameable, paths and trails that challenge you with promise of a sweeter reward, someplace primitive and inhospitable and yet more appealing than ever.