“Before it’s your favourite place, it’s a place you’ve never been.”
I am lucky to live in Cornwall, England and the photograph above is the place I love more than any other. The thing I particularly love about this place is that it is off the beaten track – others know about it, but it is not a place that fills to the brim even in the height of summer. The first time I went, I was with my partner and nephews and, fully clothed (it was freezing), the boys rolled down the dunes and into the river that meets the sea, surfing the sand like board masters. We came time and again that holiday (we were northern then) and parked high above the cliffs and meandered down to this special place. We’ve been often since – and always, rain or shine, it is a beautiful place. It holds its secrets – that aquamarine sea, its promise always there and sometimes tantalisingly so. I’m not fooled by it. I read it.
I am an enthusiastic sea swimmer and on calm days there is nowhere on earth like this cove but if you dip your head under the water you can see the wreckage of a ship – a cargo ship – which left a mass of stuff on the beach for locals to sweep up and store for future exhibitions. And there it remains as a reminder of the danger that lies on the coast of this part of Cornwall: jagged rocks, hard on the surface of the hull (and on your feet if you’re unlucky enough to kick them). There are secrets on the seabed. If you’re lucky, occasionally, a seal bobs along beside you. The seal knows more than we do and only appears when the waves lap gently on the shore.
The cove is protected when the sun shines, but when the wind whips up, the waves get ever bigger. I have seen people ignore this, allowing their children to wade into the water with a recklessness that beggars belief. I have watched this, and given warning but people don’t believe that the sea can be unforgiving or that it can turn on a sixpence and head back in with an alarming speed. With hideous regularity people get cut off and need to be rescued. In an average year, approximately 7,000 sea rescues take place. Each year about 70 people die off the British coast.
The beach is never exactly the same – storms and spring tides arrive and throw the sand in different formations. That’s the wonder of this cove. It never looks the same way twice. There are no life guards here, and if you go into the water you do so in the knowledge that if you get into trouble you may not come out alive. That’s a fact. With the shift in sands, other people’s stories (and their detritus) come and go. There is rope here, shoes, inevitably plastic and once I found a knife so sharp it could cut a man’s throat. I wondered about that, about that lost knife and who had brought it here, and for what purpose. Other people’s footsteps are sometimes in the sand, often it is clear of human marks. And still it makes my heart race when I get close – my place. A place I’ve been on my own, or with numbers. These words I found here: memories, written in the sand.
In 2004, a boy was swept out to sea at this cove in front of his mother. She dived in along with her friend to try and save him and although the lifeboat pulled him from the sea with some of his breath still in him, he later died in Treliske Hospital, Truro.
Everywhere there are traces of lives lost, even in the places you love the best.
Flowers on a roadside are a frequent occurrence especially here on the lanes in Cornwall where people travel too fast and where fun things to do for young people are far away and must be driven to, meaning occasionally they come back worse for wear and late at night taking a corner too fast…
When I was at school, a group of boys in the year below me went to Greece. It was not an uncommon thing to do, and was fast becoming a rite of passage for 16/17 year olds ready to experience their first taste of freedom. Doubtless they drank too much, doubtless they were lairy and full of laughter, taking more risks than necessary. But that wasn’t why Neil Turgoose died. In the small hours of the night, he sleep-walked off a balcony onto a concrete poolside below, in his somnabulant state taking a non-existent route to a non-existent toilet. I have often thought of the journey of his mother to retrieve his body and bring him home, and of the holiday makers who followed weeks and months later, unknowing, enjoying the very same villa to relax and make a life-time of memories.
I suppose that where there is life, there is death too: in our homes and our streets, in fields and in ditches and every other space between. One time, perhaps 20 years ago, I took a group of writers on a tour of some Manchester University labs. It was a three part tour and the second part was to a small concern: the Unit of Art in Medicine, where three or four individuals were tasked with, at that time, pioneering work in forensic reconstruction. Professor Richard Neave ran the lab, and he was developing work that would enable police officers who had uncovered remains to see again who they might have found and what had happened to them. It was the most extraordinary place, and the professor explained to us how he built on a copy of the skull the muscles and sinews and flesh and skin until a person emerged back into the world. Now this can be done on the computer, but then it was an art. We all stood in a tiny room whilst he talked us through the process. He kept looking at me, and I found this a little disconcerting – but then, I have an interesting face. Few people have cheekbones like mine and I think the professor was looking at my bone construction! He talked of missing people, of a young woman whose remains had been found in a house in London when a bunch of builders were renovating a property, and who had been identified as a 15 year old runaway. Professor Neave’s reconstruction had led directly to finding the girl’s killers.
“Each year about 250,000 people disappear,” he said, “That’s about one person every two minutes, you know.”
I and the writers looked at him. I said, half flippantly, “They can’t all be in London, can they?”
He did not crack a smile. “No,” he said, “No. Of course, many return home but quite a lot will be under people’s floorboards… About 16-20,000 are missing for a year or more and there’s about a 1000 unidentified bodies in the system at anyone time…so….” He shrugged…
And I have often thought about those souls, where they are and what they know. And the traces they’ve left – neither dead or alive but somehow lost. People have a perfect right to go missing if they want to, a perfect right to tell no-one where they are going and never come back but what if they are one of the 1000 in a pauper’s grave or a mortuary never to be identified. What of those?