Last week I wrote about moving to Cornwall and being an emmet – an incomer, or “ant”. I know now that this is not a slur but rather a state of mind, which is ignorance. I know this because, since writing that last column, I broke my ankle walking on a cliff.
On Wednesday evening I walked from the top of Sennen Cove towards Land’s End. The weather was that wondrous Cornish dissonance: dark rain clouds and deep golden sunlight, both in the same sky. The Romans called Land’s End Bolerium, or “the seat of storms”.
I know enough about Cornwall to know that Land’s End, with its theme park and car park, is not, spiritually, Land’s End any more. What you seek at Land’s End you will find at Cape Cornwall, five miles up the coast. What I didn’t know is that you shouldn’t walk on the cliffs in flip-flops after a storm.
I wanted to see the wreck of the German cargo ship RMS Mülheim, which crashed into Castle Zawn on 22 March 2003 after the chief officer lost consciousness. The crew survived but the ship is still there, staining the granite red. To see it, you must scramble down a hill, and I did.
When I moved to Cornwall, I joined the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). As a Londoner, I find the idea that complete strangers will risk their lives to save yours (and for no payment, as volunteers) exotic and incredibly moving.
I read the RNLI literature, smugly, and repeated it to visitors: do not swim outside the red and yellow flags on the beach; do not swim when there is a red flag, or no flag (I was surprised to find I could not even move in the swell at Porthgwarra and had to let the waves carry me in); do not attempt to retrieve an inflatable dolphin in an offshore wind; and always let a rip tide take you, for it will take you anyway.
They wrapped me in blankets, they laughed at the flip-flops, they gave me Entonox for the pain, they hugged me
Two years ago, I put my toddler into an inflatable fire engine at Sennen Cove while local men giggled at my foolishness, even as they prepared to extract him from the sea. I will never be able to spot a shoal of pilchards from the top of the cliffs, as some can, but I wouldn’t launch an inflatable fire engine at Sennen now.
I read the accounts of the Sennen lifeboat’s voyages with awe: for the stupidity of the rescued (a group of kayakers only agreed to get into the lifeboat in deadly seas if their kayaks were also rescued) and the patience of the rescuers. In that case, they called the Penlee lifeboat to pick up the sodding kayaks.
I am learning to respect the sea, but I am still stupid: I forgot to respect the land. I slipped down the hill. My ankle twisted, snapped, and collapsed like a cream cake under a boot. I screamed, but I was not really frightened. There is no real wilderness in Britain any more. In almost any other century, I would have lost the leg.
Even so, what to do? I crawled up to the coast path on my hands and knees. The mud smelled fresh; even then I admired Penwith, wanted to crawl inside it, to die happy here. (This is my ultimate plan). But I could not walk the half mile to Sennen, and I would not crawl. Not in the iPhone age.
My sister walked to Sennen to telephone the coastguard. The sky blackened, the sun failed and it was a different land. Soon, six – or perhaps eight, I am not sure – kind faces surrounded me. “How are you feeling?” a beaming girl said. I stared and she asked, “Rubbish?” and laughed.
They were the coastguard search and rescue team and they had been alerted via pager. They had been on a training exercise that day. One man left the pub mid-pint, he said, laughing. They were jolly indeed, so much so they seemed magical – and I did not think Penwith could be more magical.
They wrapped me in blankets, they laughed at the flip-flops, they gave me Entonox for the pain, they hugged me. Then they strapped me to a stretcher and carried me off the cliff on their waists and shoulders, scrambling over rocks and mud.
I looked at the Longships lighthouse and thought: it’s still my favourite view. They loaded me into an ambulance and waved goodbye, as one.
The paramedic said: “Are you on holiday?” “No,” I preened. “I live here.” He looked askance at the flip-flops; I do not know if he believed me. I was, he said, the second broken ankle on the cliff that day.