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It’s 1989, my brother’s fourth birthday. We all huddle together on Towan Beach, our backs against the autumn sea-gusts, and anoint him with headphones and a wired-up beeping stick. His present is a metal detector and we’re here to seek our fortune.
We’ve not long moved to Newquay, a gaudy town of surfers, seagulls, stripclubs, and arcades. We have only moved from a Northamptonshire steel town, but Cornwall might as well be a different country. We recognise nothing. We do not fit in. Our cranky neighbour calls us “foreigners” in a thick old curdled accent. We get place names wrong when we ask for directions: you say “Gunarven” though it’s spelt Goonhaven, Lanson not Launceston. Mousehole is not pronounced like a rodent’s abode. Place names twisted on purpose to make emmets or blow-ins like us feel stupid.
“Turn it on then. Does it work? I hope it works, the man in the shop said —”
The twitchety air of please-don’t-hate-me optimism still hangs over Mum, who needs the detector to be ok, because this birthday has to be ok, because this life-change has to be ok, and we all have to be ok. Any crack in our okay-ness is hastily plastered with Cornwall PR — King Arthur, shipwrecks, treasure, etc. We’ve been whisked off to Tintagel (“But this doesn’t look like a palace…”), to smuggling museums, to dank fishy caves. And here we are now, seeking treasure ourselves, just like the centuries of people who crossed the Tamar before us.
The detector flashes on. Everyone’s relieved. We slowly pace the sand. The sea, raging with the tail-end of October hurricanes is right out, exposing a long tongue of sand between the mainland cliff and a detached high stack called The Island. On top of The Island nestles a pink-roofed house, half-hidden by trees, joined to the mainland by a private suspension bridge.
We’re baffled by that house; how it can be there, who’s inside? Our Cornish neighbour tells us that the Island was once a potato patch. There were chickens, she said, and the children would go there on Sunday afternoons. They got up by climbing the rock face then, though once Percy and Claude went across in a bucket each on the end of a rope. The bridge was built later. The house was a hermitage for eccentric well-to-dos, a Canadian doctor who played the organ at night; the chap who invented the sparkplug. Conan Doyle often dropped by.
Not that you’d know any of that from looking. There’s no guidebook here, no pamphlet or sign. Cornish stories are always under the surface. You have to do some digging.
My brother and I imagine those rich Victorians crossing the bridge and we know someone must have dropped something, an earring, a coin, a watch. So that’s where we head first, shivering in forced jollity, waiting for the shiny new detector to tell us we have discovered a thing we can hold in our hands, to make up for the thing we moved 300 miles for, but may never find.
Cornwall is synonymous with treasure. Wild land, wild seas, the people streaked with a wild, independent spirit (no ruler ever lived here to govern them), and the watery cloak around it, revealing and concealing. With its double-pincer claw and tumultuous weather, fierce winds unimpeded the whole stretch of Atlantic from the Americas, the Cornish peninsula wrecked countless galleons and cargo-rich vessels, the loot scavenged by gangs of wreckers on shore. Those ships that made it safely to land found an unparalleled wealth of hiding places for contraband and riches. The 17th century brought the great Cornish treasure-hunting boom, as technologies such as diving bells allowed risk-takers to plunder deep wrecks. Investors funded the dives and bought shares in diving tech start-ups. A micro-economy emerged around treasure. Cornwall’s reputation was made.
The seeking never stopped, because the stories never stopped. Everyone knew a man who knew a man who knew a place. Treasure fever gripped the nation, piqued every so often by a find. As recently as 2007, the most valuable shipwreck ever discovered was found off The Lizard: a vast trove of gold, silver, coins, and jewels from the sunken Merchant Royal, undisturbed since 1641. American divers recovered £300 million of treasure. Much more remains.
The knowledge is passed down, the excitement never lost. Take Gunwalloe, a place famous for its wrecks. In 1780, a Spanish galleon struck the cliffs by Church Cove, breaking in two, spilling bullion into a gulley. Nobody forgot. In 1845, a company was formed to dam the gully and pump the seawater out, but the night before the operation, a gale ruined two months’ of preparations. But nobody forgot. Two years later, miners sank a shaft 25 feet into the rock and 40 feet under the gully. They thought the coins would fall into the tunnel. They didn’t. Still nobody forgot. In 1877, engineers tried pumping the mineshaft again, to no avail. The bullion still lies there, waiting to be found.
If the whispers of a vast complex of tunnels in the Gunwalloe cliffs are to be believed, perhaps the treasure has fallen into one of those. Tunnels from caves on the beach are said to connect to the belfry of a church, to the Halzephron Inn, to the home of a smuggler called Henry Cuttance. Treasure changes geology. Geology seizes treasure.
It also changes place names. Dollar Cove was christened by the San Salvador wreck of 1669. She was carrying two tonnes of silver dollars from Spain to the Bank of England, for safekeeping while Spain fought France. In 1845, a “dollar mine” was built to extract the coin-haul from the sand, but rough seas swept it away. Silver coins are still discovered by beachcombers today.
My brother’s metal detector beeps and we all go crazy. We crouch on the sand and dig with plastic neon spades. Mum grabs a scallop shell and scoops out damp gold clods.
“I see something!”
“What is it?!”
It’s never the thing we seek. A bottle top, a drinks pull, a crippled spoon, a franc. As we dig, we also bury — rocks, old crisp packets, our shoes, our hopes, a penny dropped from a hole in our own threadbare pockets.
I’m 33 now and visiting Cornwall. I have children of my own, two boys gripped by treasure, smugglers, pirates and kings. Every time I return to Cornwall, it’s never what I need it to be. Like Towan Island before the bridge, there’s an unbreachable gap between the idealised, much-missed Cornwall in my head, and the Cornwall of my experience. It’s common among the Cornish diaspora – to not know what you’re looking for there, but to feel that it still evades you. Maybe if we found it, we ex-pats would all move back. Perhaps the searching keeps us estranged. Maybe we’re not digging hard enough.
This time I’m determined to re-ignite my Cornishness. I arrive armed with Daphne du Maurier’s compellingly personal 1966 book, Vanishing Cornwall. She evokes the chronology of treasure buried deep: Crete blue beads and golden circlets from the first raven-haired Mediterranean settlers; ornate coiled buckles from Iron Age hill-rings; a Celtic priest’s burial; a golden broach in a clifftop barrow; a figure of the snake goddess in a moorland bog; a goblet from an Arthurian Great Hall. Beneath the surface, so many histories jostle with one another.
She describes the earth’s assets as treasure, too – tin, copper, china clay – and its seekers and extractors as treasure-hunters. “The tinners of the past were an essential part of Cornwall, hunters, seekers, spending themselves in the unending quest for treasure underground. Cornishmen, from the beginning, have always dug for wealth… an earthy people with an earthy knowledge, the word earthy used not as a slight but a salutation.”
I used to find the moorland bleak, the ruined tin mines woeful. I found pity in these structures as symbols of what was lost. Du Maurier reminds me that above-ground we find mere shells; the soul and secrets of these places still lives on deep underground. I start to see Cornwall with my imagination, magical and knowing — a subterranean supermarket of stories and riches.
She evokes the “palaces and cities lying buried beneath Cornish soil”:
“Who is to say there is no miniature Mycenae, lain for over 3,000 years beneath the granite of West Penwith? No Minoan vessels sunk under the sands in Hayle estuary? Treasure still lies beneath the Cornish soil awaiting harvest…something remains, particles unfelt, unseen, coursing through the blood, directing impulse.”
An unashamed romantic, du Maurier also acknowledges that treasure is not always the glittering kind. Exploring Malpas — the “Mal Pas” in Beroul’s poem — where Tristan and Isolde tumble on mud flats to fleetingly feel each other’s touch, Du Maurier remembers she spent a night of her honeymoon here in a boat and that “beneath the mud lay, not the traces of Tristan and Iseult, but a beloved little dish-mop that had been on board since the boat was launched, which [her husband] had missed and sighed for during five-and-twenty-years.”
She sees no difference between hunting for actual treasure, and hunting more figuratively for the past. I circle this quote in my book: “There is no fever like the quest for the past, as warming to the blood as a dig for hidden treasure. Those who participate are lost to present ills.” And so I find myself on this trip now, feverishly seeking out the past of my country, of myself, my family.
I devour my way through museums and castle, making copious notes. I read every book I can. I gorge on the story of my adopted homeland, to make it part of my story too.
In Launceston, the last official town in Cornwall, under threat of being subsumed into Devon, there’s a second hand shop called Tis What Tis. It’s a curious shop that started for charity but the charity sign has rubbed off and its purpose is now ambiguous. Inside, vintage gems are hidden beneath useless cassette tapes, dirty baby toys, and questionable plastic ornaments. My brother and I hunt there for kooky autrefois finds, the perfect old leather jacket, brogues, a fringed tight scarlet dress. It smells of perfume and ashtrays. You hold your breath as you search. The lady watching TV quizzes behind the counter dresses like a fortune-teller and has different coloured eyes.
The shop represents both our modern treasure-hunting (vintage is our du Maurier dish-mop) and also the general approach to Cornish treasure — Tis what tis. Any other county sitting on countless ancient hoards, hiding a wealth of historical riches, would be excavating like billy-o. There’d be archaeologists crawling all over it, neon cordons on every cliff top. Then plaques, museums, gift shops, charges. But in Cornwall? Tis what tis. There’s a feeling of “We know it’s there. That’s where it should stay. Why should you be worrying yourself any about it?”
I take my boys to Launceston Museum, where there’s a display of coins found locally. I am amazed to see a gleamingly preserved coin from 1066. “Oh yes,” says the lovely volunteer, hovering nearby. “There’s a mint up there, behind St Stephens Church, dating back to the Norman Conquest. There was a Saxon coin found too, but the museum couldn’t afford it.” I ask if the Mint has been excavated, if we can visit. “No it’s just a field,” she replies. “They’re not allowed to build on it, mind. But I guess there’s no money to start digging it up.”
Between this, and the stories of trapped bullion and thwarting seas, there’s a sense that the Earth Mother the first settlers worshipped is still in charge. We don’t dig up these hoards because they don’t belong to us. The superstitious Cornish have always respected the elements that take as they give: fishermen and sailors owned by the sea; miners inland owned by the rock; farmers in the dunes owned by sand; and everyone everywhere owned by the weather. The sea doesn’t want you to find a wreck; the granite won’t crack open and spill out its riches; the moors won’t reveal their darkest secrets. Those who try to force it will perish.
As the elements conceal things, so they can reveal: in 1650 a farmstead at Upton Barton was buried overnight by a dune, only to be suddenly revealed 200 years later, when a storm blew the sand away. The place was perfectly preserved, attracting visitors from all over. Then just as the wind revealed it, it covered it back over with sand.
Maybe the county’s so seeped in treasure, it ends up being taken for granted. You become apathetic to whether it comes out the ground or not. The centuries of myths and stories become more valuable than coins and crowns. It strikes me the best thing is to it be. How awful it would be to dig for the thing that makes you special, only to discover you were never special at all.
We stay out on leave Towan Beach until our little fingers are cold and the detector becomes too unwieldy in our hands. We discovered the beach was riddled with underground pipes that sent us beeping up and down in lines, our anticipation waning. We didn’t really go detecting again. We discovered it wasn’t cool. To integrate ourselves, we showed ambivalence about the beach. To disguise ourselves as Cornish, we had to take the beach for granted. Be less tourist. Leave the talk of treasure behind.
As I hunt for my own Cornwall now, I have let that awe back in. I have let myself be a tourist; to be open to wonder and surprise. I carry an inner metal detector that is beeping all the time, because now I know the secret – it’s not the treasure itself that’s valuable, it’s the magical belief that it exists. It’s the stories that glimmer for me, not jewels. So listen. Lean in closer. I’ll whisper where the treasure lies…
It’s the secret unadvertised path through the mystical Rocky Valley, where quiet ghosts of wandering hermits lead you past waterfalls, caves of lush mossed velvet, the ruins of a stone mill that you will want to get candlelit married in, soaring cliffs of gorse and heather, and two Bronze Age labyrinth symbols, perfectly preserved, there without ceremony waiting to casually blow your mind.
It’s the slit in the rock on Holywell Bay, tucked under the Kelsey Head cliffs, where at special low tides you can slip through the crack into tunnels and caves painted by the water-minerals to dazzle you in Technicolor pink, red, and blue.
It’s realising that the raised grassy ring in the field you just drove past, with no signs or entrance gates, was once the mightiest castle in the land. Castle Dore, “Castle of Gold”, the home of treacherous King Mark, the so-called “Hound of the Sea”, during the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It was also later a key site for the English Civil War. Deep in the soil beneath you, knights’ helmets and ornate swords, maybe even a jewel from Queen Iseult herself, mingle with shot from Royalist muskets.
It’s the fogous, or caves, like Treveneague, Pendeen, Boleigh, built in 500 BC and found nonchalantly in back gardens or unmown fields, with a chamber and a “creep” passage, astronomically aligned. They are said to be the homes of malevolent spirits guarding treasure. Visitors inside experience remarkable visions, migraines, dizziness and a sense of unending vastness despite the cramped dark space. There are spirals drawn on the walls inside and long-haired armed men depicted on the outside.
It’s the cave on Crantock Beach, where a lady riding her horse one night drowned, and her distraught lover carved a poem into the rock, declaring: “Mar not my face but let me be, Secure in this lone cave by the sea, Let the wild waves around me roar, Kissing my lips for evermore.” He drew her picture, riding forever along in the rock. There’s a little silversmith on the path near the beach and she loves that poem and will engrave it on silver for you.
It’s the eccentric house on the sandy path winding down to Porthcothan Beach, where Nick Darke the late Cornish playwright was born, and where his wife Jane still lives, the house adorned with all the beachcombing treasures they spent a lifetime hoarding. They found shiny sea-beans from the Amazon and cultivated them to grow. The Darkes are true treasure-hunters, of both bounty and story, devoting their lives to combing the beaches and documenting their finds, but also seeking out Cornish stories and presenting them in plays, books and films.
It’s trying to find the grave of Kernowphile Sir John Betjeman, buried at St Enodoc Church on the cliff above Daymer Bay, and having to ask directions because the roads are impossible to follow, and the lady in the petrol station drawing you a map in the air with her arms. Then parking, walking, ducking from golf balls, breathing in the salt air and seeing the tiny church nestled in gorse. As you approach, Sunday Evensong drifts on the sea winds to your ears.
It’s the shiver you get when stumbling across the burial stone of doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde, unceremoniously sticking out the grass on the outskirts of Fowey, not far from Castle Dore. A tall granite pillar, crumbling 15 centuries later, with the inscription: “Drustans Hic Iacit / Cvnomori Filius”, and the missing third line: “Cvm Domina Ousilla”. It translates as: “Tristan lies here, son of Mark, with the lady Isolde.”
I shouldn’t tell you all this. These places are treasures because they are secrets. I know them from the sketch on a back of an envelope, or a friend’s handwriting, or a place a lover recalled to me from his childhood, or a cranky old xenophobe neighbour. You have to dig to find them.
I shouldn’t put their crosses on your map. But that’s the thing with treasure, when you find it, it should be shared, or you’ll sink from the weight of it all stashed up in your creaking hold.