A saint, a hermit on high, and a cousin

I HAVE OFTEN VISITED my cousin, Peter, who lives near Bodmin in Cornwall. On my way to see him, I have always noticed signs pointing to roads leading to Roche. It was this year, only on our most recent visit to the area, that we first visited the small village about 6 miles southwest of Bodmin.  Roche, pronounced as in ‘poach’, and is French for ‘rock’, is known as ‘Tregarrek’ in the Cornish language, which means ‘homestead on the rock’, which is a suitable name for the place, as I will explain.

Hermitage at St Roche, Cornwall

Unfortunately, the parish church was closed when we stopped in Roche. It is dedicated to St Gomonda, one of the many saints barely known outside Cornwall. Robert Meller, who is compiling a fascinating multi-volume, encyclopaedic account of Cornwall, wrote of Gomonda:

“Precisely nothing is known about this female-sounding saint and in reality, she might have been Saint Gonand, a male saint.”

Nothing is known about St Gonand. It is also possible that the church was dedicated to Bishop Conan, the first bishop of St Germans, appointed in the 10th century. The church itself has a Norman font (which we were unable to see) and a mediaeval tower (15th century). The rest of the church was rebuilt between 1820 and 1822 in a style typical of older churches in the area.

St Gomonda’s churchyard, which we entered by crossing over a stile made of granite slabs, contains a weathered Cornish cross, a primitive-looking monolith about six feet in height. The stone is covered with man-made indentations or carvings. One of these depicts a sword, which according to Meller, is an unusual image to be found on a Cornish cross. There have been standing stones, menhirs, such as the cross at St Gomonda, since before Christianity arrived in Cornwall. The crosses with Christian symbolism date from the 5th century onwards. It is therefore possible that the one we saw at Roche was pre-Christian with later Christian carvings, but here I am merely guessing.

About 420 yards southeast of the parish church, there is a ruined early 15th century, two-storied hermit’s chapel. Like many holy Hindu shrines in India and the monasteries in Greece’s Meteora district, the chapel perches high above the land around it. It can be seen 60 feet above its surroundings on the top of Roche Rock, whose presence inspired the naming of the village near it. Built in 1409 and dedicated to St Michael, the chapel used to be accessed by an iron ladder. At some stage, the cell beneath the chapel (on the upper floor) was occupied by a leper, expelled from his village because of his illness. He survived because every day, his daughter, Gundred, carried him water from a well about a mile and a half away. For her compassion and kindness, she was sanctified, becoming yet another of the saints of Cornwall.

Roche Rock and its chapel figure in various folk legends, including “Tristan and Isolde”. Meller wrote that when King Mark was chasing the lovers, Tristan and Isolde:

“… they took refuge in Roche Chapel to escape capture …To escape capture from the soldiers, Tristan jumped out of the chapel window – referred to as ‘Tristan’s Leap’”

Putting aside legends, the Roche Rock is an exceptional geological feature. Geologists consider it to be the finest example of quartz-tourmaline rock in Britain. It is composed of quartz and black tourmaline, which is a type of granite also known as ‘schorl’. Schorl is extremely hard and resistant to being worn away by the weather. Over the millions of years since this large lump of stone was formed, the surrounding terrain has been worn away, leaving the prominent rock that we see today.

I doubt that I would have thought twice about visiting the place had my cousin not lived nearby. I first met Peter in the early 1980s or late 1970s. Then, I got to know him and his family as friends. In the late 1990s, I began researching my family history, a process that included filling in gaps on family trees. A relative in New Zealand provided me with much information about a branch of my mother’s extended family. You might be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered from this information what Peter and I never knew before – that we are related; we have a common ancestor. We found out that apart from being friends, we are also members of the same family. Peter and I are doubly related because my mother’s parents were second cousins once removed. Peter and I are not only 4th cousins but also 5th cousins.

Our first visit to Roche proved interesting. Small as it is, Roche contains several things to see, which are some of the many features that help to make Cornwall attractive for visitors. Although one might not want to stay there, it is worth making a small detour from the main A30 road to explore the place briefly.

Scottish reels

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BOXING DAY IS the day after Christmas Day (25th of December), the 26th of December. Traditionally, it is the day on which money or gifts are given to persons in need or those offering services, for example servants.

For many years, I used to spend the Christmas Season with my old (and now sadly deceased) friends Robert and Margaret at their large country home outside London. The first time I was invited to do this, Margaret checked with my mother that she did not mind me being ‘dragged’ away from our family festivities. My mother had no objections because by then, in the late 1970s, we never celebrated Christmas ‘en-famille’.

Robert and Margaret celebrated Boxing Day on the 26th of December, whether it was a weekday or not, in an especially enjoyable way. They invited friends to their home for an evening of Scottish dancing. The living room at their home was large but filled with furniture. Beneath the carpets, there was a wooden parquet floor that my friends laid down as a dance floor when they moved into the house many years before I met them.

After breakfast on the 26th of December, everyone staying with Robert and Margaret over Christmas began working. In the kitchen, vast amounts of food were prepared for the evening:  goulash or curry and accompanying rice and vegetables; meringues; fruit trifles; peppermint creams and homemade fudge; mince pies; a cheese platter etc. Also, Robert spent hours at one of the stoves, stirring ingredients for concocting two different alcoholic punches, guided by the recipes scribbled in his almost illegible handwriting in one of his numerous notebooks. The kitchen was a hive of activity.

A few yards away from the kitchen, heavy physical work was underway. Almost every item of furniture had to be moved from the living room into either a room called ‘the library’ or into the long corridor between it and the living room. We used to shift heavy armchairs and even heavier sofas, smaller chairs (some of them quite fragile), occasional tables, oriental rugs, framed photographs, and ornament cases containing fragile objects including an ostrich egg. Fortunately, we did not have to carry the family’s upright pianoforte or the large decorated Christmas tree out of the room. After almost all the furniture had been removed, the two enormous floor carpets had to be rolled up tightly. One of them had to be carried into the library and the other was rolled up to remain in front of the huge Christmas tree at one end of the room.

With the floor cleared, the beautiful parquet floor became exposed to view. Floor polish was then sprinkled on to the wood and rubbed into it with an electric floor polisher, a job I often performed after helping to shift furniture. The floor had to be polished until it was shiny, which was easy to achieve with the machine.  

The dining room also required preparation. The heavy large antique wooden dining table that had been acquired from University College London when they were discarding it had to be shifted to one side of the room, where it would serve as the place on which the evening buffet was to be laid out. Dining room and other chairs were arranged for those who were sitting out from the dancing and for those who preferred being seated whilst eating. Also, cutlery, plates, various kinds of glasses, and coffee cups with saucers and spoons had to be placed in readiness for the evening.

After lunch, there was a short period of ‘calm before the storm’. Afternoon tea was served as usual in the living room, but we took it seated on the floor instead of on the comfortable furniture which had been moved earlier. Margaret retrieved her two books of dance instructions, one of which made little sense to me. She also made sure that the records with Scottish dance music were near to the gramophone turntable and explained to me which record was suitable for each dance. For, usually I was to be responsible for finding the right tracks on the LPs (including music performed by Jimmy Shand and his band and by Jimmy Mc Cleod) and playing them on the turntable before dashing back to join the dance.

Guests began arriving in the early evening. Everyone was handed a glass of one of Robert’s special warmed punches on arrival and was invited to help themselves to mince pies and other confectionery. When there were sufficient people to perform at least one eightsome, the dancing commenced. The evening’s proceedings continued with dancing the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, a good warm-up routine. It was not that people needed warming up because there would be a good fire burning in the hearth at one end of the living room.

For about an hour and a half, we danced the ‘Eightsome Reel’, The ‘Duke of Perth’, ‘The Reel of The 51st’, ‘Petronella’, and others whose names I cannot recall. The “Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh” was too complicated for us to master. The dancers varied in skill from expert to almost clueless. Margaret issued instructions, other guests contradicted her, but we all had much fun. As for me, I usually knew where I was supposed to be at any instant during a dance and got there, but without being able to execute my dance movements with any degree of elegance.

By 9 pm, everyone, up to thirty people, was exhausted and hungry, but feeling exhilarated. The hot food was brought from the kitchen to the dining room, which in true English tradition was further away from the kitchen than any other room in the house. It was wheeled on a rickety trolley held together in places with string. People helped themselves to servings of the meat dish and accompanying vegetables and washed this down with glasses of the second punch that Robert had mixed earlier. Then fresh plates were supplied for the trifles and pairs of meringues stuck together with whipped cream. Coffee was served.

Then, it was back to the dance floor. You would have thought after such a hearty supper that it would have been impossible to resume dancing, but this was not the case. However, by then the living room was getting quite warm and it was necessary to open a door that led to the draughty conservatory next to the living room. Dancing continued, sometimes as late as midnight. For me, the highlight of the second part of the evening was a riotous dance called ‘Strip the Willow’. Margaret was usually my partner in this potentially energetic dance. To see her in action either in this dance or on a tennis court, one would not be able to believe that she was as old as she was. In fact, until the last few years of her life, she was a perfect example of a ‘live wire’.

All too quickly, the evening drew to an end. The guests stumbled out into the darkness and retrieved their vehicles from the large gravelly car park. We, the house party, breathed a sigh of relief because the party had been successful; it always was. When I first attended these parties, we used to retire to bed and leave rearranging the furniture to the next morning. However, after a few years Margaret’s son-in-law and I agreed that it was dreadful waking up the next morning with the prospect of furniture shifting. So, we agreed that despite being tired, it was best to do this awful job before retiring for the night and while the excess adrenaline we had generated during the dancing was still flowing through our blood vessels. This proved to be a real improvement.

All of this was long ago. The house where it happened has been demolished and Robert and Margaret are no more than wonderfully warm memories. I am eternally grateful that I knew them and was able to partake in their memorable celebrations and other activities. I am pleased that they did not have to experience this covid19 pandemic, which we are enduring this year. I dread to think what their reaction would have been had they been around when the British Government had effectively ‘cancelled Christmas’ this year. Although they were not deeply religious, Christmas and the day following meant a great deal to them, as it does to many of us who have survived them.

I wonder if you know…

I do not know how many millions of people live in Calcutta, but I know it is well in excess of 14 million.

One day, a friend, M, met us in London. He told us that a mutual friend, D, was married to a woman born in Calcutta. As my wife went to school in that city, M said to her: ” You might know D’s wife.”

My wife replied: “Do you realise how many people live in Calcutta, M?”

Then after a moment, she asked; “What is her name?”

M mentioned a name. Hearing this, my wife answered: “She was a year junior to me at school.”

I thought it was amazing how small the world can seem even when a city as huge as Calcutta is being discussed.

Veggie mush

I became such close friends with my former PhD supervisor, ‘Doc’, and his wife ‘Wink’, that I accompanied them on their long summer holidays in Greece.

PLAT 77 Campsite with moon

Camping at Platamon in 1977

Every year they drove down to northern Greece with their caravan, which they towed with their aged Land Rover. I accompanied them on several journeys during the late 1970s. Also, I used to join them at their favourite camping spot, a patch of uncultivated land just south of Platamon in northern Greece. This scrub-covered sandy area is now covered by a village known as Nea Pori.

On one occasion, I arrived at Platamon on a train, which I had boarded in Belgrade. It must have been almost 11 o’ clock at night when I disembarked. I was hoping that I would find my friends camping in their usual spot.

As I walked from the station through the village on my way to the camping spot, I passed the grocery shop that Doc and Wink always used. Its owners were sitting at a small table on the street outside it. They recognised me and invited me to join them in a drink. I was handed a tiny glass, such as one might use for shots of strong spirit, and they filled it with beer. We knocked glasses together and I downed the tiniest portion of beer that I have ever drunk. Then, they told me that my friends had arrived and were camping in their usual place. I walked there through the darkness, and saw them fast asleep under the awning. As silently as possible, I erected my tent and went to sleep. Fortunately, I did not disturb them.  

The railway station was at the north end of the centre of Platamon, well beyond the shops that Doc visited. Whenever we drove into Platamon, Wink would rush to it because there was a small newsagent’s stall near it. She was hoping to find a copy of an English newspaper. She did occasionally but it was always a few days out of date. Apart from her, there were few others in Platamon who would have wanted to read an English paper.

By the time that we returned from Platamon, the sun would have been setting for a while, and it was time for our sundowners and olives. Doc used to prepare supper (dinner, if you prefer). He often fried the fresh fish which we had just bought in Platamon. He was a good cook. The fish or meat, if we were eating that, was often accompanied by a mixture of vegetables that included onions, aubergines, peppers (green or red), and tomatoes. It never contained garlic because he did not like it. These were stirred together in a pot until they were cooked.

Doc referred to this dish as ‘veggie mush’ (pronounced ‘moosh’). When I told him that the dish, which he believed to be his own creation, resembled the classic French dish ratatouille, I could see that he was flattered that his own creation could be compared to something enjoyed by gourmets.  

The sky at Platamon was frequently cloudless. Where we were camping there was little ambient light so that the night sky could be seen easily. We used to stand looking up at the star-filled canopy that covered us. Shooting stars shot over us frequently, momentarily altering the map of celestial objects that twinkled down at us. Doc would stand with me and point out the various constellations.  He showed me how to identify the North Star. We stood in a glorious silence that was only occasionally interrupted on some evenings. Otherwise, we could neither hear the sea, the sound of whose waves were lost in the dunes that were between us and it, nor the trains that ran along the tracks a few hundred yards to the west of us.