It has been a peculiar few months eh. Marked by writing other things, or trying to, by painting, by a relationship ending, by a virus and the odd social effects of that. A non-summer really, never really getting off the ground, blunted, pervaded and overshadowed by the confusion and frustration as to why things were not working with the girl that I had come to love.
The Moor hadn’t been calling me to them so much, they don’t tend to in the warmer months, it is the sea that does then, I think this is the same for many. Not for the girl I talk about though, the moor is her siren in all seasons, a land-based creature, and there was an element of aversion to going the landscapes that reminds me of her and our times.
On a less self-indulgent note, you may be thankful to hear, a more practical reason as to why this call may not be as strong in the warmth is the profusion of ticks. The little bastard cunts. I am becoming quite averse to them. Many, too many, walks now I have stopped dead, caught in my tracks by some tick-sense and craned down to inspect my leg to find a disturbing amount of little black arachnids slavering with glee as they hasten towards my goolies. What is going on here? Do I walk more now? Or are they increasing annually? Either way, fuck them. I should stick to paths really, but I hate doing that.
As lockdown 2 started I rolled my beady eyes over the map and settled on Brown Gelly as a target. Its rolling hump of mass guards the blue eye of Dozmary and I’ve thought about getting up here quite often. Various non-reasons stopping me, occasionally clarity comes and you see the excuses as meaningless as they are and they cease to become valid. So I roved up the strange Draynes Valley and back on myself at Bolventor, which is in some ways the heart of the moor but blighted by its weird pseudo-pub-cum-tourist-spot, a little patch of coach stops and mildly, but legitimately, disappointed tourists. The higher parallel road back goes towards Dozmary and the reservoirs of Colliford, and at Dozmary is where I stopped to begin my stomp.
Dozmary is a place of meaning. The only natural inland lake (bar the Loe) in Cornwall, it has attracted people for millennia. A peaty oasis in the ever more barren moor. It attracts legends, as does everywhere that has significance in this county. Said to be bottomless. Said to be shallow enough to walk across. Said to be where Arthur received Excalibur, where the threw Excalibur and the abode of the Lady of the Lake. Said to be where the infernal cad Jan Tregagle is cursed to empty it out with a leaky limpet shell. Said to be devoid of life. Said to be teaming with eels. Said to be a lot of things.
I’m not sure what it is. I do know that it is one of the quietest and most tranquil areas of Cornwall, unflappably placid. It never seems particularly ruffled – nearly eerie in its implacability.
To get to Brown Gelly, you have to circumnavigate Dozmary. So I did just that for the first time. There is a particularly handsome farmstead on the northeastern shores of the pool, and today, a remarkably still and sunny autumn day, an older lady was settling into a chair in her garden, the walls of which almost touch the water. Indeed, they probably do more than that after heavy rainfall.
‘Hello.’ I said sheepishly, the path basically goes through her garden.
‘Do you mind if I ask if I can get to Brown Gelly this way?’
I’m joking of course, she did not say this, she said:
‘Oh yes! That’s Brown Gelly there, you have to go right round the lake and watch the cows.’
‘We often see walkers coming the other way over there… they’re doing the Smugglers Way I think.’ This was the first time I had ever heard of the Smugglers Way – the Saints Way yep, but not this – and made a mental note to look it up. A mental note forgotten until now, basically just a north-south route linking Boscastle to Looe traversing the moor.
‘Oh cool, this is one of the last tors I have to climb’ which is neither entirely true nor entirely untrue.
‘Oh really?’ She looked mildly impressed. Which was of course my intention, presenting myself as an old moor dog and not a mere tourist. I hate that I do this, often turning up my accent a notch or two. Ridiculous behaviour.
A brief pause where neither has anything more to say.
‘Anyway, thank you! You have a beautiful house, have a good day’
‘Thank you! You too! Enjoy the sunshine.’
A dull uneventful conversation between two people, but one I walked away from mildly happier, so that’s nice.
I had made it an ambition to put my hand into the waters here I like to feel the water, the cold – I always half expect a cold white hand to grab mine when I do this. But on this day I experienced something else, I found what I would guess to be the fabled ‘quaking marsh’. Read about the moors long enough and you will hear of these, treacherous quagmires that ensnare unwary people and keep them in a tight, cold mirish clasp until they expire or are rescued. Sabine Baring Gould (1834-1924), an old moor mainstay – and man of fairly prodigious and wide-ranging industry and talent – declared in his 1899, A Book of Cornwall that he almost came a cropper in one sinking ‘above his waist’ and calling out for help in what I imagine to be a forceful but polite manner until his pal helped him out. I had just assumed these were fanciful accounts, but on the shores of Dozmary I encountered them and quite unnerving they are too. Sabine was right.
As I stepped towards the water, the whole ground shifted and rippled. As though you are suddenly standing on a floating patch of turf (do you remember an old 90’s morning show when the weatherperson would jump around a foam map of the UK floating on a pool?). Which essentially exactly is what it is. Handily on this occasion, the ground stayed intact, despite its sudden undulations, and making a quiet, startled ‘eek’ sound I jumped back to terra firma blinking at the patch of grass, which looked completely congruent with the rest of the turf. I inched forward pressing the ground with my boot and after a foot or so, sure enough, the ground sagged slightly and rippled out.
Any more watterlogged, or a more forceful step and I would have gone through, if I were on horseback, the greater weight on narrow horse hoof would have certainly punctured the soft turf-skin, creating havoc for horse and rider. So yes, a new experience and a warning to cement into my mind what I did already know, if near standing water on the moor, tread carefully.
On the whole the walk is an easy one and the summit of Brown Gelly not hard to reach, but there is still a sense of modest accomplishment on getting there. The top is crowned by a series of Cairns. There are five of various sizes, arcing from north to south over the gentle summit-plain.
Cairns are archaelogically mysterious piles of rock, Cornwall has quite the profusion (Cairn-wall?… Maybe.). There are many guesses as to what cairns are and their orignal function, burial mounds is the most common sense I would guess.
They are eminently practical and hardy edifices, the wind and weather won’t move them much, it will whip around and through them, hence why they are markers still in mountainous and coastal areas and they last for millenia with only basic upkeep. Also they are relatively easy to create, heavy work, but little skill compared to a dry-stone hut.
They could well be burial mounds, much of the rich archaelogical grounds of Bodmin Moor are suprisngly unexcavated and unexamined. I suspect the cairns have had many meanings and significances over the centuries and millenia, evolving like the landscape around them. I do have subscribe to a slightly different theory that may not interfere much with other ones. Many on Bodmin Moor are curiously similar shapes to the godly and hallowed tors of Rough and Brown, and nearly always in direct view of them. Perhaps then, as I have hypothesised before (and before I realised other people had thought the same of course), they are also, at least in part, monuments to these venerated hills. Hills crowned by such impossible structures as the granite tors, which would have been assumed (I reckon at least) to be the work of divine, titanic or magical beings predating the first moor folk. Carburrow is the most obvious example of this. So perhaps they are also votive replicas, piled on top of less hallowed tors such as Brown Gelly – which possesses on its eastern slopes remnants of fairly intense habitation over the years; round houses, long houses and the such like.
Today I was pretty content to just stand near the old piles on the stilllest and clearest of autumn days.
I asked permission to whatever might reside up here to climb up the cairn and sit within the hollow atop and felt nothing awry, so I settled there in the still on warmish granite, took my top off and felt the cool air and still-warm sun on my skin. The only sound was a slight east breeze in my ears from Dartmoor and the soft regular rip of cow- tongue tearing grass from the errant herd of Highlands around me.
The girl I spoke of now resides on the woody southern slopes of Dartmoor, and whenever my mind went to her, which is still often, the breeze coming from there seemed to intensify slightly.
After an hour or so of letting my mind wander and clear, looking over all of the county, I returned slowly to my battered via a different path through fields and along the ribbon of moorland road. On the matter of returning…
A welcome sight, comfort in the reliable rhythm of bird wing and migration, in their unchanged ways, or maybe they have changed, we’re just too obtuse and unattunned to see it.