From Cornwall to Poland and the Himalayas

THE CORNISH VILLAGE of St Kew, though small, is an extremely attractive place to visit. Its name derives from that of a Welsh saint called ‘Cywa’ who might have been the sister of Docca, who founded a monastery near the present village of St Kew. In the centre of the village, close to a bridge crossing a stream, there is a lovely pub, The St Kew Inn, which was built in the 15th century (www.stkewinn.co.uk/). We stopped there for much-needed liquid refreshment on a hot afternoon in late June 2021. Close to, and on higher ground than, the pub, there is another 15th century edifice, the parish church of St James.

The church contains much to fascinate the visitor including fine stone and wood carvings, remnants of pre-Reformation stained-glass, a carved stone with ancient Ogham script, a carved gravestone bearing the date 1601 and a depiction of a lady in Tudor dress, and wooden barrel-vaulted ceilings. All of this and more makes St James one of the loveliest churches we have seen in Cornwall. Although I was highly enchanted by all this antiquity, it was one modern memorial in the church that intrigued me most.

The monument on the inside of the north wall of the church reads:

“In memory of Alison Chadwick-Onyskiewicz of Skisdon, St Kew. Born May 4th 1942.  Artist and Mountaineer. She made the first ascent of Gasherbrum III. 26090 ft. And died on Mt Annapurna, Nepal, on 17th October 1978.”

Well, I was not expecting to find this when I entered the church at St Kew.

From Alison’s obituary on the alpinejournal.org.uk website, I have extracted the following information about her. She was born in Birmingham but spent her formative years in Cornwall. Whilst studying at the Slade School of Art at University College, London, she became interested in mountaineering. Her climbing experience began in North Wales, before gaining experience in the Alps and rock faces in Devon and Cornwall.

In 1971, she married a well-known Polish mountaineer, Janusz Onyskiewicz, who was also a mathematician and twice Poland’s Minister of National Defence (1992-1993 and 1997-2000). In the 1980s, he was a spokesman for the Solidarity Movement. Alison lived in Poland after she married him in Bodmin, Cornwall. She and Janusz were two of the four members of the Polish expedition that conquered Gasherbrum III, which was at the time the highest yet unclimbed peak. The obituary notes:

“Alison’s climbing ethics were always of the highest standard and on high mountains she wished to compete with men on equal terms with the minimum of oxygen and Sherpa assistance. Perhaps it was for this reason that she chose to accept an invitation to join the 1978 American Ladies Expedition to Annapurna rather than accept a place on the more glamorous Franco/Austrian Expedition to Everest. On the Annapurna expedition Alison’s contribution was crucial, leading the ice-arete between camps 1I and III which proved to be the crux of the route. After the summit had been reached on 15 October, Alison and Vera Watson were killed in a fall while making a second summit bid.”

Although Janusz was in the Himalayas 40 miles away from the scene of the fatal accident, news of it took two weeks to reach him.

So, that is, in brief, the story of the lady commemorated by an oval slate memorial in St James Church in St Kew. I have yet to discover where she was buried and who placed the memorial in the church. Discovering this connection between St Kew and the Himalayas was yet another delightful surprise that enhanced my enjoyment of the southwestern county of Cornwall.

DRIVING AROUND DARJEELING

OUR WONDERFUL DRIVER picked us up at 9 am and took us and our new friends from Lincolnshire sightseeing in the area around Darjeeling for over seven hours.

We began at the Japanese Temple and close by Peace Pagoda (a stupa), both Buddhist places of worship set in a well tended garden.

Next, we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the track used by the Toy Train. This road links Siliguri with Kathmandu in Nepal. The Nepalese border is about an hour and a half’s drive from Darjeeling and Kathmandu is about twelve hours away.

We stopped to wander through a park that is laid out around the Batasia Loop which is where the Toy Train loops the loop. The centre of the park contains a monument to Ghurka soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for India since 1947. There were many Indian tourists, who were enjoying dressing up in colourful Nepalese and other local costumes that were available for hire.

Although many people disapprove of zoos, I do not. Some animals, especially the big cats and wild dogs – wolves, jackals, and so on, give the impression of discontent. Other creatures show their unhappiness, if any, more subtly. The highlight of this beautifully laid out zoo was for me seeing the rare red pandas, whose long striped bushy tails and appealing faces make them very attractive. A black panther looked like a very large pussy cat. The clouded leopard has fur colouring that resembles magnified snakeskin markings. We saw many other eye catching creatures.

A visit to a Tibetan Refugee Centre established in the 1960s was moving and fascinating. A large collection of photographs depicted the sad history of Tibet during the twentieth century. We could not see any pictures or even mentions of Heinrich Harrer, who lived in Tibet after escaping from a British POW camp in 1944, and then tutored one of the Dalai Lamas. His book “Seven Years in Tibet” is a good read.

The Refugee Centre contains a children’s home, a souvenir shop, a general store, and a Buddhist monastery. We climbed up to this, passing lines of prayer wheels, and reached a shrine containing a Buddha and religious figurative wall paintings. The shrine abuts a room containing two huge metal prayer wheels, taller than most people. We met an old man, deaf and over 90 years old, who showed us how to rotate the heavy wheels. As they rotate, bells ring.

We stopped to look at a tea garden. The bushes were flowering with small whitish blooms. At a small stall nearby, built with corrugated iron sheets as are so many other structures in the district, we drank delicately flavoured Darjeeling tea.

The large house where Sister Nivedita, an Irish born disciple of Swami Vivekananda, “breathed her last” is called the Roy Villa. It contains the room where Nivedita died and a poorly lit museum.

Tenzing Rock was our final stopping place. This rock and others close to it are used by the Himalayan Mountain Institute to train mountaineers. Enthusiastic visitors can pay to climb the Tenzing Rock which, I guess, is no more than 30 feet high.

I have described the main sights of our excursion, but not the endless series of spectacular vistas and glimpses of aspects of the lives of locals. But, rest assured that even without seeing any of what I have related, the district around Darjeeling is fascinating and photogenic.

All along our route our driver, who speaks his native Nepali as well as Hindi, Bangla, and English, greeted people we passed. He is a very popular person in and around Darjeeling.