October 20, 2022
And the view was spectacular, the hotel looking out over the tidal tree-lined T-shaped confluence of the Truro and Tresillian Rivers, which formed a larger channel that curved out of sight to the south---
--- I had watched this scene change with the passing of winter and the greening of spring, and rain, wind or shine, there was always something different to see.
The River Fal Estuary is one of a number of ‘Rias’ (sunken Ice-Age rivers that have become tidal inlets), that indent the south coast of Devon and Cornwall, from Plymouth to the Lizard Peninsula. Carrick Roads (the world’s third largest natural harbour, as Sangster hears proudly announced on a pleasure steamer's tannoy), is an expanse of water about three miles long and one mile across, and makes up a major part of the estuary, the rest comprising numerous tidal creeks that lead off it.
An embellished chart of the Fal and all it's creeks I drew circa 1982
The estuary has an average eighteen-foot tidal range that results in the exposed mud at low water that Angel encounters in her canoe, and a fast, outgoing tide (often three or four knots) that amongst other things, enables the complex fish catching method known as ‘ebbing’ explained by locals to Sangster (ebbing was once described to me by a local fisherman as so difficult that ‘you're better off going to the f*cking fishmongers for your f*cking seabass’).
The spring tide highwater mark results in the cut off look to the trees growing along the creek sides that Sangster mentions, the branches having been poisoned where they touch the salt water. Some of these creeks are fairly short and shallow (such as the one by St Just). Others are wider and longer but silted up (like the arm of the Fal where Sangster and his wife see the concrete fresh water barges left over from D-Day), and hence are not on the way to anywhere and so largely wild and deserted. The main navigational route however, along the course of the Truro River and then the Fal itself, can carry large ships, and is usually busy with both pleasure and working boats. A journey down this tidal waterway from Truro to Falmouth covers about twelve miles.
The Roseland Peninsular, which occupies the area from the eastern banks of the Fal across to the sea by Portscatho, ends at St Anthony Head, and is topped by the village of Tregony (although there might be some argument as to whether Roseland starts in Tregony or just south of Tregony, a very local dispute). Despite its floral sounding epithet, this peninsula is actually named for the ancient word ‘Ros’ meaning promontory, and not for roses at all. In fact, plants like roses, which require defined seasons, don’t grow well in the area’s year-round mild climate. Roseland does, however, support other plants not commonly found elsewhere in England (like the dracaena palms Sangster sees surrounding the boat house). So, it is generally fair to say (as a long since departed caretaker of Place called Edward Harte does in an interesting pamphlet he wrote about Place Manor in the sixties), that ‘there is no real winter in Roseland’.
Falmouth has always been a working port, but is (and was in 1970), also a pleasant destination for the passenger travelling by steamer from Truro or Malpas. The Fo’c’scle Locker chandlery where Sangster buys his oilskin and is chatted up by the attractive owner (much to Sarah’s chagrin), is based on a shop called The Bosun’s Locker. This famous Falmouth emporium has moved now, but once upon a time sat at the bottom of an ‘Ope’ (a very local word for an alley tucked in between buildings), guarded by a formidable looking ship’s figurehead (from HMS Amazon as Sangster hears, and long since land-mounted), and then again by a smaller and more benevolent looking figurehead nailed over the front door. The Bosun’s Locker was a dark, long, narrow, chaotically arranged shop, and a rather magical place that (as Sangster observes) did indeed seem to offer anything and everything to do with yachts, providing you could find whatever you were looking for.
Camborne, where Sangster visits the mining school, is a town situated on high land to the north of Truro. Sangster was right to go to Camborne for advice on metallurgy, with the town having one of the richest mining traditions to be found anywhere in the world. Camborne's significance is now greatly diminished (it's last working mine closed in 1998), but in its day boasted the deepest mine in the world, and was the brithplace of the railway engine, with the 'Puffing Devil' steam locomotive becoming the world's first self propelled passenger vehicle when it climbed Camborne Hill on Christmas Eve, 1801 (as commemorated in the song 'Going Up Caborne Hill Going Down').
Bodmin Moor, a granite moorland of about eighty sqaure miles, lies to the north east of Cornwall. The moor gives rise to numerous rivers (indeed, it was formerly known as Fowey Moor, named for the Fowey River that has its source there), and contains Cornwall's highest point, Brown Willy, a hill rising to 1,288 feet.
The strangely shaped (but natural) rock pile at the summit of Bodmin Moor's Rough Tor (pronounced 'Row' Tor).
Truro is Cornwall’s county town, and a ‘city’ by virtue of its cathedral rather than size. Since the nineteen eighties Truro has been the location of Cornwall’s main courts (housed in elegant buildings at the top of the steep Pydar Street hill). In Sangster’s time, however, the main Cornish courts were in Launceston, (where DCS Pentreath heads up the county’s CID, and where pronouncements were made about the legitimacy of Jem Treburden’s last night at his pub). So in 1970’s Cornwall, Launceston also largely acted as the county’s administrative capital.
Truro Cathedral can be reached from Boscowen Street (the main shopping street, a broad and cobbled thoroughfare named for the Boscowen family), via the narrow pedestrian Cathedral Lane where Sangster meets Pengelly for coffee. The Boscowens’ family seat is Tregothnan, the three hundred and sixty five windowed ‘calendar house’ that Sarah spies through creekside trees, and where I believe the portrait of Jenny Davies that so disquiets Sangster now hangs. The cathedral itself, a gothic style building completed in the second half of the nineteenth century, is known for its three spires (one big, two smaller), and, as Angel observes, is built ‘cruciform’, to emulate Christ’s head falling sideways on the cross. Why this choice of design was made I do not know, but the building is recent enough that there may be documents to explain it, and such a shape is rare but certainly not unique. Both the cathedral and the church near Place are dedicated to Saint Mary.
A detail from the Fal Chart showing the confluence of the Truro and Tresillin Rivers at Malpas Point
The village where Sangster stays is based on Malpas, situated about two and a half miles out of Truro at the confluence of the Tresillian and Truro rivers. The promontory opposite the hotel, where Pasco has his cottage, is called Malpas Point (the view of which is drawn by Angel Blackwood and can be found in this Beyond the Mystery section), and a hundred years ago even boasted a pub which vied with several other taverns over the water in the village for custom, Malpas then being a thriving small port and ship building centre. Malpas is still the furthest deep-water docking point up-river for larger boats at low tide, such as the Truro to Falmouth steamers.
The name Malpas derives from the French for ‘Bad Crossing’ and is associated with Arthurian Legend (the lovers Tristan and Iseult escaping across the creek there from the pursuing King Mark), although there is a less romantic view (as Sangster hears), that the name actually comes from Anne Boleyn having problems crossing the river.
A local way of saying Malpas is 'Morpus' or ‘Mopus’, with the colourful nineteenth century ferrywoman Jenny Davies getting her nickname Mopus Jenny this way. Looking at her portrait (which Sangster felt was watching his every move in the Watersmeet Tap Room), it’s not hard to imagine Jenny sitting in the stone waiting room listening for the Malpas-side bell to ring (which, last time I looked, was still there on the wall by the public slipway), whilst ruminating on all the people and things she didn’t like. Hers must surely have been a lonely job and not for the faint hearted, so I hope Jenny at least had a dog for company. In any event, it seems she didn’t suffer fools gladly, and on one occasion when asked which passengers gave her the most trouble, Mopus Jenny answered ‘Wemmin and pigs.’
The Watersmeet Hotel is largely based on the Heron Inn (now Malpas’ only pub), a creekside tavern that affords marvellous views across the river to Malpas Point (the trees in the woods opposite the village contain a heronry, hence the pub’s name). The Heron was formerly (and less attractively) called the Park Hotel, and (I believe), in Sangster's time was residential. The name ‘Watersmeet’ refers to the three channel confluence at Malpas, and the concept of a room 12a comes from a practice in hotels (still prevalent in the early nineteen seventies, at least it was in my great aunt’s hotel in Bournemouth), of omitting room number 13 to avoid upsetting superstitious guests. In Angel’s Blade, the Watersmeet is tied to the St Austell Brewery, whose main rival in Cornwall at that time was the now defunct Weymouth based Devenish Brewery. And the Tap Room as described in the book is the Heron’s bar (more or less) as I first saw it in about 1980. That being said, I couldn’t help including elements of another favourite Cornish pub, the Blue Anchor in Helston. In this wonderful and unassuming drinking establishment, apart from being served a superb pint of bitter (brewed on the premises using their own spring water), you can find the two pictures of the gowned bald man reading Emile Zola’s Nana.
The Cassandra Arms is largely based on the Pandora Inn, an ancient pub situated on Restronguet Creek, another inlet off the Carrick Roads, allegedly named from old Cornish words meaning deep valley (although to me the name sounds too French for that, so maybe not?). The Pandora is a white rendered building with a thatched roof and a long mooring pontoon stretching out into the creek (although I used some artistic license in Angel’s Blade as it didn’t have this pontoon in 1970). The inn is named for HMS Pandora, a warship most notably sent to find the mutineers on board HMS Bounty, wrecking on the Great Barrier Reef in the process (a Captain Edwards, commander of HMS Pandora, was reputed to have bought the inn on his return to England). The road down to the Pandora is narrow and steep, with a treacherous right turn at the bottom by the water’s edge that has resulted in more than several unsuspecting and overzealous drivers ending up with a wetting (as Sangster saw happen to the Devenish Brewery officials).
The ‘last night’ of Jem Treburden is based on a real event I witnessed at the pub many years ago. The outgoing landlord (not sure whether he was actually evicted like Jem or just wanted to leave), invited people (‘come one, come all’), to his last night, where it was promised the ale would flow free (although mercifully not with the disastrous consequences described in Angel’s Blade).
The Pandora was, however, devastated by a real fire in 2011, but has now thankfully been fully restored.
A detail from the Fal Chart showing the area around the lower Percuil River
The Granville Academy building is based on Place Manor, a yellow rendered building with a magnificent lawn bordered by a sea wall along an inlet off the Percuil River opposite St Mawes (when canoeing past Place many years ago, I did once see a green helicopter like Sir John’s parked on this lawn). The house was a hotel for a time but has now reverted to private use. Place is certainly very old, and whilst the main house is mostly from the seventeenth century and later, I believe there were buildings in this very tranquil and special spot long before that.
The Church of St Anthony (which is compact but more than just the chapel described in Angel’s Blade), dates from the twelfth century, and as with its parent manor house, sits on the site of doubtlessly much older buildings. Angel is correct to say the stone archway is eleventh century or older though, with this (probably Norman) arch having brought from elsewhere when the church was built.
The settlement of ‘Joseph’s Pill’ is an invention, but buildings such as lime kilns were once dotted along the banks of the Percuil River. The name is based on Frenchman’s Pill, a now overgrown and derelict collection of ruined buildings at the mouth of Frenchman’s Creek, a wooded inlet on the south side of the nearby (to the Fal) Helford River made famous by Daphne Du Maurier through her 1941 novel of the same name.
Bethadew Well mine is also an invention but based on features from several real (and very derelict) stone pump houses or ‘Cornish Castles’. The Bethadew Fogou is similarly an invention, although a number of these ‘fogous’ (ancient rock clad tunnels), can be found intact in Cornwall. As yet however, and despite much debate, nobody has adequately explained their purpose.
The Granville Academy itself (a privately endowed school for excessively gifted children), is entirely an invention. However, the concept does take elements from ideas for selective schools by organisations like the high IQ society Mensa, and free-thinking establishments such as Dartington Hall in Totnes, Devon, an ‘anything goes’ school that survived for some decades in the twentieth century (infamous in its day and even used as a model for a godless school by occult writer Denis Wheatley).
When I was a young teenager, especially on sunlit summer evenings when there were still several hours of homework to complete, I often wished I could have gone to Dartington Hall.