There are various stories of my family’s history in Cornwall. There are of course also stories about my paternal family’s history: almost none from our centuries in Barbados but thick and fast when we get to London in the 1870s (my great uncle’s alleged fraud and imprisonment and the national campaign for his release – but that’s another story). There are my mother’s relations in Devon who slaughtered each other on a remote farm because one of them fell in love and it was necessary to keep the blood pure. All these stories with the exception of the last, about which the facts, though gruesome, are clear and documented in a book (Earth to Earth), are the subject of endless family debate, but since I have just come back from Cornwall, it’s the stories of my family’s history in Cornwall that I am particularly concerned with now. Here is one.
My great uncle, or probably an uncle more remote in time than a mere great uncle, was a sea-faring man. Ancestors get promoted with every generation, so he was a Captain. His name is forgotten.
He may or may not be the same sea-faring man as the one whose name people have also forgotten and who sailed to Mauritius and came back with a Mauritian bride, to the annoyance of the Royal Navy, who thought it would be only proper to return her to Mauritius toot sweet. He and she were the parents of my much-loved Auntie Rene.
Actually there is some doubt on that story too. At the end of her life my mother insisted that the sea-faring man whose name everyone has forgotten met the mother of my Auntie Rene not in Mauritius but St Helena. I think that this must be wrong. There are no native people in St Helena: only temporary clerks and possibly penguins. Furthermore Auntie Rene had the features of someone from the Indian Ocean, not the South Atlantic.
Anyway, the first – the principal – sea-faring uncle fell overboard. This would have been during the Nineteenth Century and I think that he must have fallen from a sailing ship, because if it had been steam he would have been caught up in the screw and killed, wouldn’t he? He didn’t die. He was involuntarily keel-hauled. He went down below the keel and right up the other side, scraping his skin on barnacles as he went, whereupon he was rescued by his shipmates. He survived but unsurprisingly he lost his nerve: he couldn’t bring himself to go to sea again.
The Royal Navy found him a berth within their purview that didn’t involve his sailing any more. He became a Coast Guard. He had a Coast Guard’s hut on the cliffs above Polruan, from which he would gaze. If he saw a ship in trouble or a bank of fog he would communicate this fact to the authorities by pigeon, or, probably by that stage, telegraph. If not, he would just stare at the great waters on which he would never again journey: never in this life anyway.
He died, full of the honours that the Coast Guard service reserves for its best, but it was never enough: he’d thought that an admiralship was there for the taking, and in his lonely hut he’d had long enough to brood. (I’m making that bit up.)
In due course (the story goes) communications between ship, shore and weatherman improved. (They were weather men in those days; female weather-casters had not come onto the scene.) As a result the coast guard hut above Polruan was no longer needed. It fell into disrepair and many years later was leased by Daphne du Maurier, who would go there to write her books in peace and possibly fulfil her Sapphic assignations. I must be careful what I say here. My family never actually speculated that Ms du Maurier used the hut for her Sapphic assignations, because no one yet knew about them. The ground-breaking biography, the name of which I forget, was still to be written. I made that bit up too.
I added a literary note of my own. In Rose Macaulay’s novel Crew Train the heroine, who is in Cornwall in a town not unlike Polruan, escapes her dreary and over-literary companions and makes a refuge for herself in a hut on the cliffs. Clearly, I thought when I read the book, Ms Macaulay didn’t make that up; she got it from Ms du Maurier, possibly at a novelists’ soirée; it’s my uncle’s hut, doubly celebrated in literature.
Anyway, I said to the better half when we visited Polruan that we should climb up to the cliff top where we might find a ruined hut. And so we did and we found not a ruin but a fully-operational Coast Guard unit, with aerials. This surprised me considerably. There was a ruin, but it was a church from the Sixteenth Century or something, and they are two a penny down there. There was a nice man in uniform, who was not immediately engaged in scrutinising sinking ships or ominous cloud formations and was happy to talk to us. I told him the story, though not getting as far as the Rose Macaulay bit, which depends of course on the reliability of the Daphne du Maurier bit.
Oh no, he said. Not at all. This hut and the huts that came before have always been Coast Guard huts. Our eternal vigilance demands it. Better telecommunications: pfui! It’s never been decommissioned, not since it was first built, centuries ago. Daphne du Maurier used to write her books in a house that she rented down by the Bodinnick Ferry, the ferry across the river below.
So where does that leave us? My uncle and his coast-guarding are probably true, and it’s entirely possible that he did go under a ship. But the connection with famous people is just my family’s fantasy. It’s all too easy to do.