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The Essence Of Cornwall

March 09, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

TREBETHERICK, England — Attend the long express from Waterloo

That takes us down to Cornwall . . .

On Wadebridge station what a breath of sea

Scented the Camel valley! Cornish air,

Soft Cornish rains, and silence after steam . . .

As out of Derry's stable came the brake

To drag us up those long, familiar hills,

Past haunted woods and oil-lit farms and on

To far Trebetherick by the sounding sea . . . --Sir John Betjeman, poet laureate

And when Sir John died in 1984, friends bore him a mile from his whitewashed home here to burial just inside the lich gate at St. Enodoc Church in north Cornwall by that sounding sea. It rained the kind of coastal rain Betjeman had often written about, a defiant downpour that cut tiny torrents into red lanes. It blew his kind of wind, a slashing sou'wester bowing blackthorn hedges backward from the sea.

Mourners' umbrellas thrashed inside out. Pallbearers slipped in mud on the fairway pointing to the 10th green because no roads, only sandy tracks across St. Enodoc golf course, lead to the church. Black, sensible hats bounded to the green: Nineteen under par.

"I've always thought the old boy probably saw the fun in it all," smiled an acquaintance, a neighbor, Neil Painter.

Betjeman, 77, received a simple headstone of Cornish slate. It is carved with wildflowers and his name and dates, but no title nor epitaph to a splendid, arch, beloved British poet. He is buried near his mother and among unknown drowned sailors and generations of villagers with 400-year-old names. When visitors come to remember, they leave sprays in jam jars and hedge-picked bunches of foxglove, wood anemones and the cow wheat with yellow flowers that appear in May.

"All of that was Betjeman," said Painter. "An ordinary bloke, a natural man, someone who really was a part of this area."

And so, posthumously, slowly, deliberately, north Cornwall is becoming known as Betjeman country. Devon and Exmoor belonged to Lorna Doone and R. D. Blackmore. The Bronte sisters owned the Yorkshire moors. Stratford remains Shakespeare . . . and Betjeman is Trebetherick, Tintagel, Polzeath, Padstow, Boscastle and all points delightful.

Betjeman's books (with "Summoned by Bells" the firm favorite) and a 1984 selection of his prose and poetry by John Murray Ltd. ("Betjeman's Cornwall") have become special and popular travel guides to the area. A campaign to build the John Betjeman Center (patron: the Duke of Devonshire) is under way, and it will be built on the site of that old Wadebridge railway station immortalized by his verse.

And within this focus there has stirred fresh public attention on north Cornwall as a hidden holdout of an endangered genre--old seaside England where hotels are family, entertainment is the business of enjoying nature, and nothing seems to have budged since 1905. Lord, in this corner of southwestern England, some roadside mailboxes still bear Queen Victoria's royal crest.

This is where mum and dad and the nippers can rent flint-walled, 17th-Century mill cottages at Lesnewth, near Boscastle. Or rooms at nearby St. Christopher's, a bay-windowed Georgian house that lost none of its history during conversion to white-walled hotel. Or the 14th-Century Trebrea Lodge (get this: dogs are welcome) at Tintagel; the Brea Estate at Trebetherick; the Old School at Port Isaac; Willapark Manor on Bossiney Common; the Farmhouse at Pen Pill Cross.

And don't for one moment presume that any of these hotels once weren't genuine lodges, country estates, schools, farmhouses and manors.

Hotel bed and breakfast: around $25 a day, per person, for the best of the above.

Hotel bed and breakfast and dinner: about $150 a week.

North Cornwall isn't enormous, not much more than a right-angled triangle with its hypotenuse 50 miles of rocky coastline (much of it owned and conserved by the National Trust) wriggling from Padstow to Bude.

Industrially, the entire county (population 400,000) is nothing to write home (nor to the Financial Times) about--market gardening, tin mining, china clay, granite, slate and a fluctuating economy that qualifies for government aid to improve the employment and investment pictures.

Cornwall's past is equally sparse; early dwellers (working the standard correlation between settlement and mineral exploitation) were Bronze and Iron Age people, then Celtic Christians (hence the area's mysterious stone circles, forts and ancient churches dedicated to largely unknown saints) emigrating from Roman and Saxon development in the east. It was isolated, a country apart, with its own language (Celtic) and customs.

Manors Taken Over

After the Norman Conquest (1066) the manors of Cornwall were taken over to form the basis of an earldom, and since 1337 they have belonged traditionally to the eldest son of the English sovereign (Prince Charles now), who acts as Duke of Cornwall--hence the county's standing and official title as the Duchy of Cornwall.

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