Fragrance in Travel Literature-Cities and sea-coasts and islands (1919) by Arthur Symons

Cities and sea-coasts and islands (1919)
Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945


I came first upon the Lizard across heathery
grass smelling of honey and sea-wind, on a day
towards sunset when the sea lay steel blue to the
immense circle of the horizon; fierce clouds rose
there like barriers of solid smoke, and where the
sun set unseen behind a cloudy darkness, throwing
a broad sheet of shining light across the water, I
could see a long line of land going out towards
Land's End, hardly distinguishable from the spume
and froth of rain-clouds darkening upon it. Un-
limited water, harsh rock, steep precipices going
down sheer into the sea; in the sea, fierce jags of
rock, with birds clustered on them, and httle circles
of white foam around their bases ; the strong air and
stormy light seemed in keeping with this end of
land where England goes farthest south into the sea.

Fortunately Cornwall is a long way
from London, half hidden in the sea, at the very
end of the land, and the poisonous trail of the rail-
way has not yet gone all over it. Here there is
not a railway within ten miles. There is valley,
moorland, and cliff; the smell of heather mingles
with the sea-smell, and the cornfields go down
green and golden to the sea. If one goes inland,
roads wind up and down between deep hedges,
and, as one comes to the top of a hill, in the moment
before one goes down on the other side, there is a
ghmpse of the sea between the branches of trees,
or coming blue and shining into a frame of meadow
and cliffside. Following the whited stones of the
coastguards, one can trace the whole coast-line, on
narrow paths high above the sea and across the sand
or pebbles of coves. And there is not a cliff where
one cannot lie down and be alone, and smell salt
and honey, and watch the flight of the sea-gulls,
and listen to the sea, and be very idly happy.


All that you can see of the church until you are
quite close to it are the four pinnacles of its squat
tower, like the legs and castors of an arm-chair
turned upside down. It is hidden away in its
hollow, out of the wind which is always coming and
going on the wildest cliffs in Cornwall. Boulders
piled with a sort of solid ricketiness on one another's
shoulders (so old and grey and flighty!) climb
the cliffside out of the sea, or stand propped and
buttressed, holding on to the shelving edges of
green land. Some are bare, some clothed with
lichen as with a delicate green fur, and they lie
about in fantastic attitudes, as if they had been flung
together in the games of giants, and then forgotten
for a few centuries. There is, in these clusters of
vast rocks, that "delight in disorder" which
Herrick knew in petty and lovely things; only
here it is on the scale of giants. The pale colours
of the lichen soften what might otherwise be harshly-
jagged, rounding the edges and dressing the naked-
ness of the rocks. And the air, in which the scent
of heather and gorse and thyme mingles with the
salt smell of the sea, is tempered and made more
exquisite by the drifting mists and vapours which
come up out of the sea like a ghostly presence, and
blot out headland after headland, as by a soft
enchantment.

The road goes down a steep hill, and turns sharply,
in the midst of the grey village, with its thatched
and ragged roofs. The doors all stand open, the
upper windows are drawn half down, and from
some of them I see a dishevelled dark head, the
hair and eyes of a gipsy (one could well have fancied),
looking down on the road and the passers-by. As
the road rises again, we see the blue mountains
coming nearer to us, and the place where, one
knows, is Galway Bay, lying too low for any flash
of the waters. Now we are quite near the sea, and
in front of the house we are to visit (you will hear
all about it in M. Bourget's next nouvelle), a brown
mass of colour comes suddenly into the dull green
and grey of the fields, and one smells the seaweed
lying there in the pools.


In the valley, across fields in which rocks like
the rocks on the seashore grow naturally, with ferns
and bramble about them, buried deep among old
trees, murmuring with rooks, there is a decayed
manor-house, now a farm, called Erisey : an
Erisey of Erisey is said to have danced before
James I. The road leads over many Cornish stiles,
and through farmyards where cows wait around
the milking-stool, or hens scratch beside the barn
door, or pigs hurry to a trough. The air is heavy
with scents from the hedges and with the clean,
homely odour of farms ; there is nothing in this
wooded place to remind one that the sea lies on the
other side of a few fields. And yet I have always
felt some obscure, inexplicable, uneasy sense or
suggestion when I come near this old house set
over against a little wood, in which Mehsande
might have walked ; the wood has a solemn entrance,
through curved and pillared stone gateways ; the
grass is vivid green underfoot, and the tree trunks
go up straight in a formal pattern. The old house
at the door of the wood seems to slumber uneasily,
as if secrets were hidden there, somewhere behind
the thick ivy and the decayed stone. The villagers
will not go that way after dark, because of a field
that lies on the road there, which they call Dead-
man's Field.

Then there is that very decorative and in some
ways practical thing, a thatched roof. I have always
wanted to sleep under a thatched roof, but the actual
experience has chilled my enthusiasm. There is
the delight of looking at it from the hill going up
to Ruan Minor, like a corkscrew, on the other side
of the valley ; and there is the delight of sitting
under the eaves and hearing the sudden soft rustle
of wings as the birds fly in and out of their nests
among the thatch. But when you find, on going
to bed, a little red worm sitting on the pillow ; when
black spots of various shapes and sizes begin to
move and crawl on the wall and ceiling; when the
open window, which lets in all the scents and
sounds of the country, lets in also whatever creeps
and flies among the bushes — sleep under a thatched
roof becomes a less desirable thing.

Walking, after the rain, on the cliffs towards
Cadgwith, the air is at once salt and sweet; the
scent of the sea and of the earth mingles in it ; and
it is as if one drank a perfumed wine, in which there
is a sharp and suave intoxication. Overhead the
sea-gulls curve in wide circles ; you see them at
one moment black against the pale sky, then white
against the dark cliffs, then matching the flakes of
foam on the sea as they fly low over it. They poise
in the air, and cry and laugh with their mocking
half-human voices; and are always passing to and
fro in some rhythm or on some business of their
own.

Tidings of the outer world come but rarely into
the valley, except by way of the sky. Once a day
the old postman comes down from Ruan Minor,
and takes the letters back to the post-office. At
times the sound of a siren, like the lowing of a brazen
ox, comes paradoxically into the midst of the hot
inland scents. At times a farm-boy following the
cows, or a man sitting on the shafts of his cart, passes,
whistling; and the tune will be a hymn tune, "Jesu,
lover of my soul," or an air as old as "Rule
Britannia," taken very slowly. If you hear the
people talking to one another in the lane, you will
notice that they speak and reply in phrases out
of the Bible, as in a language of which they can
catch every allusion. They never pass one another
without stopping to talk, and every one of them
greets you with the time of the day as you pass.
All day long the tree before the door of the
cottage is filled with music, and at night, when the
moon is up, the sky before the windows is flooded
with strange shapes and motions of light. I have
never seen the moon's magic so nimbly or so con-
tinuously at work as upon that space of sky where
the higher ridges of the croft ended. Kingdoms
and seas of cloud passed before us under that calm
radiance; they passed, leaving the sky clear for
the stars ; the polar star stood over the cottage,
and the Great Bear flung out his paws at the moon.


It is for its colour, largely, that I love Cornwall,
and wherever you walk, on moorland, croft, meadow,
or cHffside, there is a continual soft insistence and
alternation of colour. On the downs the heather
grows sparely, and is less like a carpet of Eastern
weaving than on the cliffs beyond Kennack, where
one's feet tread upon colours and scents, and all the
ground is in bloom. Grey rocks come up amongst

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Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands.

these soft coverings, and go down, tufted with the
elastic green and faint yellow of samphire into the
sea ; and the rocks are spotted with lichen of violent
gold, which is almost orange. Everywhere there
is the sharp white of cottage walls and the gentle
browns and greys of thatch ; flowers of all colours
swarm against the whitewash, and creepers catch
at the eaves and nod in at the windows — red, white,
purple, and yellow. White sea-gulls with their
brown young ones fly out over the water in circles ;
cormorants sit like black weather-cocks, each on a
solitary point of rock; inland, the crows cut black
patterns on the sky ; the grey sandpipers run over
the grey sand. And there are the many colours
of sand, sulphurous and salmon-coloured rocks,
painted rocks, with all the intricate colourings of
serpentine ; and there is the sea, with its warm blue,
when it seems almost human, and its chill green,
when it seems fairy, and its white foam of delight,
and the misery of its grey dwindling away into mist.
Autumn is beginning : the bracken is shrivelling
brown, and the heather darkening, and the gorse
drying to dust and flowering yellow, and the grasses
withering, and the leaves of the trees yellowing
and falling. The corn has all been carried, and
stands, golden beside the pale hay, in great solemn
ricks in the farmyards. All the green things of
the earth begin to brighten a little before they fade.

The temperament of Cornish landscape has many
moods and will fit into no formula. To-day I have
spent the most flawless day of any summer I can
remember on the sands of Kennack Bay, at the
edge of that valley in Cornwall which I have written
about in these pages. Sea and sky were hke opals,
with something in them of the colour of absinthe;
and there was a bloom like the bloom on grapes
over all the outlines of cliffy and moorland, the steep
rocks glowing in the sunshine with a warm and rich
and soft and coloured darkness. Every outline
was distinct, yet all fell into a sort of harmony,
which was at once voluptuous and reticent. The
air was like incense and the sun like fire, and the
whole atmosphere and aspect of things seemed
to pass into a kind of happy ecstasy. Here all
nature seemed good ; yet, in that other part of
Cornwall from which I have but just come, the
region of the Land's End, I found myself among
formidable and mysterious shapes, in a world of
granite rocks that are fantastic by day, but by
night become ominous and uncouth, like the halls
of giants, with giants sitting in every doorway, erect
and unbowed, watching against the piratical on-
slaughts of the sea.

On that day, the 8th December, I attended Mass
in the Cathedral. The gold and silver plate had
been laid out by the side of the altar, crimson
drapings covered the walls, the priests wore their
terno celeste, blue and gold vestments ; the
Seises, who were to dance later on, were there in
their blue and white costume of the time of Philip
HI. ; the acolytes wore gilt mitres, and carried
silver-topped staves and blue canopies. There
was a procession through the church, the Arch-
bishop and the Alcaldia walking in state, to the
sound of sad voices and hautboys, and amidst clouds
of rolling white incense, and between rows of
women dressed in black, with black mantillas over
their heads. The Mass itself, with its elaborate
ritual, was sung to the very Spanish music of
Eslava : and the Dean's sermon, with its flowery
eloquence, flowers out of the Apocalypse and out
of the fields of la Tierra de Maria Santisimay
was not less typically Spanish.