diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 25, 2018

And finally to PORTHCURNO, a seemingly insignificant Cornish village, but absolutely not so. It lies on the coast between Land's End and Penzance, rather closer to the former, and is accessed via a single dead-end road. At the height of the summer traffic often struggles to get in and out. But digital traffic is another matter entirely, and the data you're now reading may well have passed through Porthcurno on its way to your screen.

Electric telegraphy transformed cross-country communications in the Victorian era, but global communication had to wait for the advent of the undersea cable. Porthcurno was selected as the British end thanks to its location at the tip of Cornwall, a gentle sheltered beach to draw the cables up, and a complete lack of fishing boats whose anchors could do damage. The first cable (from Portugal) landed in 1870, with subsequent connections made to Gibraltar, Madeira and the Azores, then extended to the Americas, India and Australia. A team of signallers was established onshore, their job to despatch important messages to the Empire and to transcribe those coming the other way.

The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum tells their story, and that of the associated technology, in some of the surviving buildings. Chief amongst these is Eastern House, once a key international hub, then a training centre for Cable & Wireless, now a two-storey exhibition space. Head upstairs for a pleasingly-modern take on international communications, and a selection of equipment and memorabilia from the time. Some is technical, even accessibly educational, while other exhibits investigate the social aspects of being billeted to a barely populated cove. Tennis was the favoured outdoor sport, for example, because there weren't enough staff for football or cricket.

All this was very good, but not alas as good as it should have been. A key part of the museum is the Wartime Tunnels, burrowed into the hillside at the start of World War Two to protect strategically crucial equipment behind huge bomb-proof doors. These days they contain additional exhibition space, housing an authentic telegrapher's workshop, a fully working automated relay station and a replica wireless room, as well as showcasing more recent fibre optic technology which enables the World Wide Web. Unfortunately I turned up while the tunnels were being internally revamped, so were closed to all visitors (supposedly until this weekend). On the plus side that meant mid-March admission to the museum was free, but on the minus side I never saw the half of it.

Instead I headed down to the beach, where cables can apparently sometimes be seen after a particularly violent storm, uncovered from beneath the sand. Not on this occasion. Nor was it especially busy, which might be deemed odd for a beach once described as one of the world's most beautiful. I shared the sands with only a young couple sheltering from the rain behind a rock and a hardy-looking old lady wielding an energetic dog. Twitter now tells me the waves had been stunningly turquoise the day before, and the sands glistened two days later, but for me it was not be. Ah well, I had my luck with the weather elsewhere.

To end my visit I trekked up to the top of the headland to view Porthcurno's other gem, which I've been longing to visit ever since Anneka Rice dropped in for Treasure Hunt in 1987. The Minack Theatre is an astonishing auditorium built on the side of a headland, clinging to the Cornish granite above an exposed gully. It was started by an extraordinary woman, Rowena Cade, who in 1932 decided to stage a small play on a grass terrace at the bottom of her garden. Over the next 50 years she, and a handful of stalwart volunteers, gradually built up the facilities until the Minack became a fully-fledged maze of turf-topped seats and winding paths dropping down to the most-open-air of open air stages.

Outdoor performances start up again this week, warm waterproof clothing recommended, but the Minack is open daily for those who want to explore. For £5 you get to walk through an exhibition devoted to the redoubtable Rowena, who was still hauling sand and scenery around into her eighties. And then you get to walk out onto the uppermost 'balcony', and gasp at quite how far down it is to 'stalls' and stage. Pick your route and weave down between precariously-ramped terraces and subtropical infill, past carefully hidden dressing rooms and lighting boxes, and perhaps imagine you're hunting your ticketed seat for Hamlet.

As the freezing rain drove down I was glad I hadn't booked for a performance, but there was one bonus which was that all the other visitors were cowering upstairs in the cafe so I had the Minack to myself. I made my way down to the stage, emerging via the hidden backstage steps, then delivered a short soliloquy to test out the acoustics. It's quite an experience, delivering Shakespeare while craning your head up towards more rows of seats than seems feasible, with the sea thwacking against the rocks somewhere behind. It was at this point that a craftswoman wandered out of the tent alongside, where she'd been knocking up something for the new season, thankfully without saying a word. I took a curtainless call and exited stage left.

The bus to Porthcurno, and to Land's End, is the A1 from Penzance. At this time of year it runs every two hours (less frequently on Sundays), increasing to hourly from the end of May. It's quite a ride. I was lucky enough to get an unnecessary double decker, and enjoyed the view from the top deck as the driver took us on a tour of frequently inadvisable roads. We can't be going up here, I thought, as we turned off up a single track lane with passing places on the way to St Buryan, but we were, and we did. And then we took another one out of the village, past fields of daffodils yet to be cut and delivered to a supermarket near you.

I also got to look down on the Merry Maidens stone circle (it has its own bus stop, but I wasn't willing to wait two hours in the middle of nowhere for the next service), and various unlabelled communications stations bristling with masts and dishes. To reach Sennen Cove the bus descends a long steep hill, probably to pick up nobody, then reverses and crawls back up again with its engine struggling. I suspect the dip into Treen is much worse, but the A1 alternates round its coastal loop at the Land's End end so I never got to ride that section. And the cost? Penzance to Land's End is barely nine miles as the seagull flies but a single fare currently costs £6.80, so best get the £12 all day ticket, and do your best to stop off at Porthcurno as well on the way round.
[10 photos]

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