“Life Sucks”, “Life’s a bitch”……on and on it goes! Every day, endless negativity, stoked by dismal, panic-mongering media channels, fanning the flames of alarm. Without doubt, life for many is bleak. Long Covid isn’t as simple as a medical condition; it’s more complex than that and has left a lasting legacy. Along with the rest of the nation, Cornwall has altered so much because of economic pressures and social mobility.

Years ago, I was enchanted by the magic of Cornwall;', more recently, the spell has broken; it was notional. Winter darkness was endless, rain fell, my spirit and motivation trodden into the ruts of Cornish mud; I’d become more introspective, avoiding crowded places and aware of playing Russian roulette with my health, spinning the barrel to dodge the bullet between having a normal social life or the safety of being reclusive. And then, one mizzly afternoon, while walking my dog, something so funny, so wacky, so uplifting happened that the future beyond post pandemic paranoia became brighter.

I met a woman along a woodland track. I’ll call her Elowen, the Cornish word for the elm, for the sake of anonymity; not just because it’s a pretty word, but suits her. I knew her vaguely, but hadn’t spoken at any length. As she walked alongside me, we fell into step. I couldn’t not notice that she had a lump of grey clay in her hands and was gently kneading and moulding it into a wonky bowl shape.. I’ve known a number of ‘alternative’ women…the kind that would have been burnt at the stake back-along, but never a wandering potter.

We chatted; well, she talked and I listened; her life wasn’t easy; a messy divorce, difficult teenage daughters, little money; she spoke about herself and why she’d given up conventional nursing and trained as a phytotherapist, a medical herbalist. Her theory is that by an holistic approach to medical conditions and using the traditional, healing power of plants, complementary to scientifically developed drugs, the whole body can heal rather than targeted medicines.

As we continued, I had to ask the obvious question, ‘Why are you kneading a lump of clay?’. I thought it might be some kind of anti- stress therapy. “It’s Gabbro. I dug it out of the ground up at Crouza Down”. She explained that in making her tinctures, balms and syrups, she wants to be as physically close to the source of the plants she uses and incorporate the essence of the very soil in which native flora grew to make her medicines, and by crafting pots from the local clay in which to blend the plants that she’d foraged, there would be more authenticity to her remedies.

She asked if I knew about the unique Gabbroic clay, found within an area of a few miles, near St.Keverne on the Lizard Peninsula. Telling me that the clay was used by prehistoric people and that she’s picked up sherds of pottery where the local farmer had ploughed the clifftop fields. Apparently, a feature of the Gabbroic clay is that it contains felspars, olivine and augite; the felspars wouldn’t have melted on bonfire firings at 900c, and would have needed a heat of 1400C from a modern kiln firing. The crystals are found in pieces of pot as old as 4,000 years and is solid evidence that people living on the Lizard made pots from this local clay. 

I did know a little of this. I had a friend, Margaret Hunt, who invited me to a ‘dig’ at Poldowrian, a farm on the east side of the Lizard, where there is a multi -age site from the late Mesolithic to the Bronze Age; a range of around 5,500 - 200 BC  In 1967, Mr. Peter Hadley, the land owner, made remarkable discoveries; evidence of an Iron Age fort, close to Lankidden, built on a rocky promontory, called Carrag Luz, high above craggy cliffs. A year later remains of a prehistoric round house, thousands of worked flint tools and pottery sherds were unearthed from the surrounding small fields, which are enclosed by protective granite ‘hedges’. These ancient field systems, evident in remote areas of Cornwall, eluded the ripping out of hedges throughout the Agricultural Revolution and remain today.

I asked Elowen about the plants she gathered for her remedies; the bark of the elm is made into a salve for treating wounds and skin infections, feverfew to help migraine and arthritis, St. John’s wort for depression, valerian to aid sleep. She explained that the flowers of camomile contain a chemical compound, Apigenin, that has a sedative effect. She was waiting for summer and the camomile to bloom along the path we were walking, as she liked to practice her yoga exercises in the open air as the crushed fruity, slightly minty fragrance enhanced her calming, meditative state of mind. At this point, my innate scepticism is nudging; but then I thought, I drink camomile tea at bedtime and who doesn’t rub a dock leaf on a nettle sting. And research has proven that turmeric and black pepper added to food can help inflammatory conditions…. oh, and by the way, what was she wearing..a jumper made from the fleece of her Merino sheep!

Being realistic, I have no illusions Cornish labour has been exploited for centuries and not being able to afford to live here isn’t new; the famines of 1800’s and decline in mining drove starving families to seek lives in gold fields across the world, and today the cost of living is beyond the means of young families who have to move away just to be able to make ends meet as Cornwall has a huge differential between wages and property prices. The health service is stretched to its limit, the little cottage I had In Mousehole fifty years ago and sold for £5,000, is on the market for £500K; our villages communities are dying as cottages are being bought up by second home owners and investors, who think Cornwall is a pretty playground, but have no intention of living here and augmenting the traditional way of life. I read a ridiculous article that Truro doesn’t have enough charging points for Teslas… that truly an indicator of Cornwall’s future?

We reached the end of our walk and went our separate ways. Elowen had no idea that she’s woken me up from my gloomy frame of mind and reminded me of what I already knew - that we can step outside the world of spinning turbulence we’ve been plunged into and live life at our own pace, dancing to the rhythm of a different beat ….. it was as if I’d stepped through a gap in the hedge…and whoosh..time- shifted thousands of years into the past; two women, comfortable in each others company, taking a potage of barley and beef, flavoured with wild herbs, cooked in clay pots to their men, protecting the land from the ramparts of the cliff fort. They would have taken the path from the round house, through the wooded valley along the track, now the coastal footpath, leading out to the headland, picking herbs and flowers along the way; looking to the horizon across a platinum-silver sea for ships sailing from the Mediterranean to trade oil and wine for tin……fanciful maybe…but the magic is still there if we take time to look in the right places…

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