Cowries at Cawsand

DSC_0627.JPGIt used to confuse me  that this little village nestled in the lee of Rame Head and facing the beginnings of Devon from across Plymouth Sound is nominally divided into two. Cawsand and Kingsand. The actual reason is that the border of Devon and Cornwall once ran though the village until they changed it to line up with the Tamar River, benignly showing by way of a small, insignificant coastal village just how arbitrary and ridiculous such things can be.

My Dad, who grew up here, always just called it Cawsand and that would be why I do too. It would also be the reason I feel I know this place ridiculously well.

I have always found places and landscapes to be the most evocative things. The village of Cawsand holds a lot of memory of the nostalgic, happy and sunny kind and through anecdotes, shared memory and genetics it has become a geographical bond between my Dad and I. If Cawsand holds a great deal for me then it holds even more for him.

As a disclaimer, and because she consists one of the 5 people who read this, I do share a geographical bond with my Mother but it applies to Northfield in Birmingham. If you don’t know it then it is not quite as picturesque but perhaps more poetic. Another time for this and besides, Birminghamunbound does not quite have the same ring.

I walk here a fair bit these days. Living in the South East corner as I now do it’s a go to for an easy and meaningful stroll. I also have a strange relationship with the place. I can walk through it like it’s home yet I know no one and, equally, no one knows me which is kinda nice.

Only the oldest of the inhabitants, the Jagos or the Chapples, not yet pushed out by the steadily increasing number of holiday homes, would remember my family being here or indeed remember the stories of them. Stories as ingrained in my memory as if they were my own – which I suppose in a way, they are.

Stories of my second cousin, Nick – a swashbuckling, womanising Marlon Brando lookalike – dashing himself (non-fatally) on the rocks falling from the sea-wall after a daring sea rescue of a beloved parrot, who had perched itself atop a buoy in the bay. He was handed a rotten rope apparently. Possibly proffered by a cuckolded husband.

No doubt that some of the men would remember my Great Aunt Josie, the aforementioned cousin’s Mother who lived fast and cared little.

Oh and this lady, who happens to be my Grandmother, who was not like her Sister in personality but very much admired, as my Dad was assured by an old gent in a cravat a few years ago. She died when I was young. I have an image of her outside our house in Pentewan late in her life. She had a large turquoise ring on tanned, liver-spotted, elegantly shaped hands and a creaky, multi-layered voice. My Grandmother.jpg

I only really remember Betty and Lou from the village itself. None of my family lived there during my lifetime. Old even when I was a boy, they lived behind the sturdy purply-pink Sea Wall at the far end of the village on the Kingsand side. You had to climb a ladder to their patio which overlooked the bay from behind the defenses, I remember being sharply reprimanded by Lou for some reason or another, who was a formidable man. I remember too their Westhighland Terrier and the admiring tones my Dad and my Uncle spoke – and speak – of them in general. Lou died years ago and Betty now lives in an old folks home in Torpoint.

Past Betty and Lou’s there is a large expanse of ragged purple rocks, reaching down to the sound and within these rocks I gained a weirdly lingering love of rockpools. Indeed the aptly named ‘longpool’ – you can’t miss it – contains a good many hours of my childhood.

Further on from longpool, beside the now derelict fishing stores there is a deep steep-sided cove conveniently large enough for a small cutter, evidence of Cawsand’s history of smuggling. Local lore states, this inlet will collect up any body drowned in the bay after the sixth day and is so named ‘Dead Man’s Cove’. I never swam here.

Beyond this is a little stretch which is the only place in Cornwall I have ever seen the classic wooden seaside huts of the English variety. I think they were taken by one of the succession of storms in the Winter of 2014. Either way they are gone and in their place now are temporary tent-like dwellings that are seemingly dismantled for the Winter.

Along from here you will find the small grainy beach of Sandways and from  there, across the purple and red geology (the same as to be found in Talland Bay), the large, imposing crescent of Picklecombe Fort – now41045_exe120122_img_00_0000 converted into a strange and exclusive residential area.

fort_picklecombe
I’m not sure what I find so odd about this. It’s got a weird dystopian, Clockwork Orange/The Shining look to it.. also an element of Trago Mills in there?…Either way it’s not exactly desirable. It looks like somewhere you would find strange and sinister parties.

This area, surrounding the seriously important naval port of Plymouth is littered with Napoleonic Forts and Battery emplacements, some in use still such as the MoD’s Tregantle near Freathy, others now residential like Picklecomb and the dominating Cawsand Fort above the village. Some are abandoned entirely like Bovisand across the Sound.

It is at Sandways I contracted a genetic disorder.

English Cowry shells are small, ridged  and fingerpad-pink. Found at certain specific, mainly east facing, beaches and they are devilishly hard to spot.

There are two types, Dottys and Nots. Representing the Trivia Monacha and Trivia Arctica respectively. Who ever taxonomically named these little beasts was not without a sense of irony, because despite looking a hell of a lot like Cowries (some might say, fucking identical), apparently they are not ‘true’ Cowries.

Cowry 2.jpg
See that Yellow shell? If you see those on a beach, Cowries are near. Not that I want to pass the addiction on or anything.

As any forager of small, rare things will know, once you find one you ‘get your eye in’ and no doubt more will present themselves but often it is a short window. It’s a good indicator of your own personality to note how much time you allow the inevitable obsession of finding more take hold.

I’m not entirely sure what it is about scouring a beach for the elusive Cowry but it’s oddly and powerfully addictive. It is also primarily passed down through families. My Grandmother taught my Dad and my Uncle and they taught me.  These poor people have also been moved to write about it. As have these. It was thanks to these chaps I found out a few years back that our family wasn’t entirely anomalous.

There is something to talk about here with this affliction. Humans seem to have a deep psychological attachment to this peculiar little shell – something about the shape perhaps (one can see why they were considered a fertility symbol), or the scarcity. Neolithic humans – the same who were busy building stone circles –  have been found buried with these particular Cowries. Also, interestingly, the Cowry (probably including the Trivia species of Northwest Europe) has been, and still is, in use as a form of currency. In fact this was a global currency, something that transcended culture, language and history, far older and more universal than coinage.  The only other thing I can think of that has had enjoyed such a widespread level of status, covetousness and fame as an object of tradeable value would be Gold. Which also possesses a weird primordial allure.

Admittedly though, I am no expert on the global history of currency nor Cowries for that matter. I just look for them on beaches. A habit – along with nicotine addiction and a penchant for indolence – picked up from Cawsand and thus from my Father.

Although clearly I was adopted.

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