Fragrance in Travel Literature-The Land's End : a naturalist's impressions in West Cornwall (1908)-William Hudson


Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea, Cornwall
Fragrance in Travel Literature-The Land's End : a naturalist's impressions in West Cornwall (1908)-William Hudson

The rocky forelands I haunted were many, but the
favourite one was Gurnard's Head, situated about
midway between St. Ives and Land's End. It is the
grandest and one of the most marked features of that
bold coast. Seen from a distance, from one point of
view, the promontory suggests the figure of a Sphinx,
the entire body lying out from the cliff, the waves
washing over its huge black outstretched paws and
beating on its breast, its stupendous deformed face
composed of piled masses of granite looking out on
the Atlantic. I was often there afterwards, spending
long hours sitting on the rocks of the great head and
shoulders, watching the sea and the birds that live
in it ; and later, when April set the tiny bell of the
rock pipit tinkling, and the wheatear, hovering over
the crags, dropped his brief delicious warble, and when
the early delicate flowers touched the rocks and turf
with tender, brilliant colour, I was more enamoured
than ever of my lonely castle by the sea. Forced to
leave it I could but chew samphire and fill my pockets
with its clustered green finger-like leaves, so as to
have the wild flavour of that enchanting place as long
as possible in my mouth and its perfume about me.

Now when I first saw the vernal squill, when it had
been nothing in my mind but a little blue flower with
a pretty book name, it captivated me with its delicate
loveliness its little drop of cerulean colour in a
stony desolate place and with its delightful perfume,
but it certainly did not affect me greatly as I have
been affected time and again by other flowers, first
seen in the greatest profusion and in their best aspect.


From the flowers which are greatest only because
of their numbers, seeing that, comparing flower with
flower, they are equalled and surpassed in lustre by
very many other species, it may appear a far descent
to my little inconspicuous lily by the sea. For what
was there beyond the mere fact of its rarity to make
it seem more than many others than herb-robert
in the hedge, for instance, or any small delicate red
geranium or brighter lychnis ; or, to come to its own
colour, veronica with its " darling blue," and, lovelier
still, water forget-me-not, with a yellow pupil to its
turquoise iris ; or the minute bird-shaped blue milk-
wort, and gentian and bluebell and hairbell and borage
and periwinkle and blue geranium, and that delicate
rarity the blue pimpernel, and the still rarer and more
beautiful blue anemone ? Nevertheless, after many
days with this unimportant little flower, one among
many, from its earliest appearance, when it blossomed
sparingly at the foot of the rock, to the time when it
had increased and spread to right and left and formed
that blue-sprinkled band or path by which I walked
daily by the sea, often sitting or lying on the turf the
better to inhale its delicious perfume, it came to be
more to me than all those unimportant ones which I
have named, with many others equally beautiful, and
was at last regarded as among the best in the land.
For it had entered into my soul, and was among
flowers an equal of the briar rose and honeysuckle
in the English hedges and of the pale and vari-
coloured Cornish heath as I saw it in August in
lonely places among the Goonhilly Downs in the
Lizard district, and, like that heath, it had become
for ever associated in my mind with the thought
of Cornwall.

Its charm was due both to its sky-colour and
perfume and its curious habit of growing just so far
and no further from the edge of the cliff, so that
when I walked by the sea I had that blue-flecked path
constantly before me. One day I made the remark
mentally that it appeared as if the sky itself, the genius
or blue lady of the sky, had come down to walk by the
sea and had left that sky-colour on the turf where she
had trailed her robe, and this shade or quality of the
hue set me thinking of a chapter I once wrote on the
" Secret of the Charm of Flowers " (Birds and Man,
pp. 140-62), in which the peculiar pleasure which cer-
tain flowers produce in us was traced to their human
colouring in other words, the expression was due to
human associations. Some of my friends would not
accept this view, and although I still believe it the
right one I became convinced in the course of the
argument of a grave omission in my account of the
blue flower that it was unconsciously associated
with the blue eye in man and received its distinctive
expression from this cause alone. One of my corre-
spondents, anxious to prove me wrong, quoted an
idea expressed by some one that flowers are beautiful
and precious to us because, apart from their intrinsic
charm of colour, fragrance and form, they are abso-
lutely unrelated to our human life with its passions,
sorrows and tragedies ; and, finally, he said of the
blue flower, that if it had any associations at all they
were not human ; the suggestion was of the blue sky,
the open air, of fair weather. It was so in his own
case " I can feel the different blues of skies and air
and distances in flower blue."

There are few things in nature that more delight
the eye than a wild common or other incult place
overgrown with bramble mixed with furze in flower
and bracken in its vivid green, and scattered groups
or thickets of hawthorn and blackthorn, with tangles
and trails of ivy, briony, traveller's joy and honey-
suckle. Yet the loveliness of our plant in such sur-
roundings is to my mind exceeded by the furze when
it possesses the entire ground and you have its splen-
dour in fullest measure. Then, too, you can best
enjoy its fragrance. This has a peculiar richness, and
has been compared with pineapple and cocoanut ; I
should say cocoanut and honey, and we might even
liken it to apple-tart with clove for scent and flavour.
Anyway, there is something fruity and appetising in
the smell ; but this is not all, since along with that
which appeals to the lower sense there is a more subtle
quality, ethereal and soul-penetrating, like the per-
fume of the mignonette, the scented orchis, violet,
bog asphodel, narcissus and vernal squill. It may be
said that flower-scents are of two sorts : those which,
like fruits, suggest flavours, and those which are
wholly unassociated with taste, and are of all odours
the most emotional because of their power of recall-
ing past scenes and events. In the perfume of the
furze both qualities, the sensuous and the spiritual,
are combined : doubtless it was the higher quality
which Swinburne had in his mind when he sang-
The whin was frankincense and flame.

By day I was out of doors, wet or fine, but in the
evening and it was when evenings were longest
I sat with the others and gazed into the cavernous
fireplace and basked and shivered in the alternating
bursts of heat and cold. As a rule, the round baking-
pot was on its polished stone on the hearth, with
smouldering turves built up round it and heaped on
the flat lid. In some parts of Cornwall they have
good peat, called " pudding turves," which makes
a hot and comparatively lasting fire. In the Land's
End district they have only the turf taken from the
surface, which makes the poorest of all fires, but it
has to serve. By and by the big home-made loaf
would be done, and when taken out would fill the
room with its wholesome smell one is almost
tempted to call it fragrance. But to make a blaze
and get any warmth furze was burnt. On the floor
at one side of the hearth there was always a huge pile
of it ; the trouble was that it burnt up too quickly
and took one person's whole time to keep the fire
going.

At Madron, the famous and beautiful old village
on the heights above Penzance, I saw a curious thing
in January, 1907. A great part of the extensive
churchyard is covered with colt's-foot, and after it had
come into bloom the whole of the mass of vivid
green leaves was killed by the great frost I have
described in chapter xv., but strange to say the
flowers were not hurt. The ground was covered
with the upright thick stems, crowned with their pale
purple fragrant flowers, and beneath them, dead and
brown and flat on the earth, lay the leaves that lately
hid them with their multitudinous green discs.

There are
other flowers proper to the early spring which were
a delight to me and which will ever be associated in
my mind with the thoughts of Cornwall.

Curiously enough the one which comes first to my
mind is a plant universally despised and disliked by
the common people and, for all I know to the con-
trary, by the people who are not common : they speak
of it as a "weed" and a "nuisance"; nor is it a
spring or summer flower but blooms in midwinter.
It is already coming out now and before the middle
of January will be in full bloom. This is the sweet-
scented colt's-foot, sometimes called winter heliotrope,
on account both of the purple colour and powerful
scent of the flower. The books say that it smells of
vanilla, also that the plant is an alien, but when
introduced they do not say. The Victorian History
of Cornwall does not mention such a plant. I have
looked at the MS. work of John Rolfe (1878) on the
plants of West Cornwall, in the Penzance Library,
but he does not tell us how long ago it ran wild in
this district. It flourishes greatly at Penzance,
St. Ives and many of the neighbouring villages, root-
ing itself in the stone hedges and covering them
entirely with a marvellously beautiful garment of
round, disc-shaped, flat leaves, of all sizes from that
of a crown piece to that of a dessert plate, all of the
most vivid green in nature. The flowers, of a dim
lilac-purple, are on thick straight stems which spring
directly from the roots, and, like sweet violets, they
are mostly hidden by the luxuriant leaves. The leaves,
which come in winter and spring, last pretty well all
the year round, and the roots, the gardeners say, are
enormous, and as they push through the crevices and
wind themselves about among the stones it is impos-
sible to get rid of the plant.