The Shop of Whispers – a Christmas tale

Two days before Christmas I decided I needed a new bowsaw blade and axe handle. Confident neither would turn up in my stocking the decision was made to go to Camelford, a few miles away from where I now live here in Cornwall. Late afternoon rain was blurring the windscreen as I dove along the darkening lanes, avoiding all but the biggest puddled tongues of water lapping out from the verges. A rising wind dragged ragged through the hedges, shuffling the over-arching branches in the valley woods. The old car splashed along roads made river, pushing a cone of yellow light through the fading twilight.

The street was empty of pedestrians as I rumbled down the hill into the small market town. Garlands of coloured lights overstrung the road and danced in the gale, reflecting coloured blurs in the wet tarmac and streaming shop-fronts. They tried, bless them, to spatter some seasonal cheer on the blue-grey evening. Steamed up windows and streaming gutters. Drenched plastic snowmen forcing festive grins at passing traffic.

Tightening my collar and pulling down the peak of my cap, I keyed the car door and walked quickly through the car park. The tool shop and farm supplies across the road was bright and warm inside. I swapped seasonal greetings with a farmer waiting at the counter and we made the customary comments about the weather. I emerged a few minutes later into the wind and wet with a smile. You wouldn’t believe how hard it had been this past few weeks to find a 30 inch bowsaw blade; I now had two. The axe handles would be in stock in a couple of weeks.

The river gushed white under the bridge in the town centre, rushing briefly into the light from the darkland beyond the park then flooding back into darkness on its continued way to the sea. I paused for a look then hurried on up the hill to the small CoOp where I bought bread flour.

On my way back I nearly walked past the junk shop. I was looking more at the Darlington Inn across the road, an old coach-house that shoulders a confident corner into the line of the road and is said to be rather persistently haunted. But as I passed, the shop window caught my eye. The display, if you could call it that, was an intriguing stack of shelves packed with things I recognised and things I didn’t. Most of it was old, much of it was a quiet mystery, some of it was made up of obsolete curiosities with no modern value to anyone other than the curious and collectors.

Despite the winter weather, a rack of old clothing wrapped in flapping plastic was still on display in the street. I looked beyond it and through the damp glass at a cluster of dusty old torches, a rusty model racing car and some other things which I just can’t remember. The contents of this old shop, glimmering with a low golden glow through rain-streaked windows, could not be classified or described. It would be virtually pointless to go in looking for ‘something in particular’. It was late – nearly five o’clock now. The shop would probably soon be shut. I walked on past the door and managed another few steps before stopping. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the unknown, it’s that you never know what it might give you. I turned back and walked in.

You couldn’t really describe them as ‘aisles’ between the towering racks and shelves; more like gaps between the goods where you could just about see what was there. The room was rammed and the contents spilled on into the next room which was, if anything, even more densely packed. I sidled in, trying not to bump anything with my shopping bag. Climbing a few steps, body-swerving around another display cabinet, I found myself in the company of a pretty young woman sitting quietly behind the counter reading a book. Cocooned in a hollow among penknives, model aircraft, corkscrews and jewellery, she was the only other person on the premises. She welcomed me with a cheerful smile and asked if she could help with anything. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be ‘helped’ through this mixed and disparate selection of wares, but I asked if she was about to shut. She explained I still had half an hour so I launched into my own exploration and gave her leave to return to her reading.

Outside, the wind tugged at the street decorations and rushed around the doorway. Rain spattered among the lurching shadows on the window but it was warm and dry inside as I turned my attention to the displays.

There’s an indescribable scent to shops like this, a scent which is probably the closest thing a sense of smell has to white noise. The essence of everything is crowding into the same space, swirling and mixing in a background grey but with some discernible ‘pigments’ emerging in kaleidoscopic confusion around the occasional large item or box of similar things. It’s the scent of overlaid history, the perfume of nostalgia, the smell of ghosts.

Rustling in my wet coat, I first plucked a dim-lit search through trays of toy cars and lorries, recognising some as like those from my own childhood. All were battered and chipped like they’d been played to death by generations of tiny hands. Some had missing wheels or bent axle wires.

Suddenly aware it would take an entire day to explore at this rate I picked up the pace a little. In the yellow electric light, carved Maori figures squinted out at me as I shuffled and squirmed along canyons of coats, leafed through LPs, rummaged through wooden crates of hand-tools. Model trains in model sidings, sat side by side with shoe-shine kits and 1940s gun polish. Military uniforms paraded with fur coats, art-deco ornaments swept elegant lines among garage signs, pots and kitchenware shared space with lamps and lighters, a box of old Georgian and Victorian pennies on the floor gave a rattle when I accidentally nudged it with my toe. Some of the objects were absolute mysteries and explanations demanded recourse to the brown paper labels; strange electrical goods with leads and buttons, combination pocket tools with puzzling attachments, a thing that looked like a large hip-flask with a landing-light attached to it.

The truth is that my descriptions are a distillation of my memory of what was there. Even though it was just a few days ago, I wish I had taken notes to be more accurate about the associations and placings. The whole eclectic mix made up a spinning galaxy of experience which was dizzyingly confusing. Trying to grasp any sense or theme was futile. All I could do was muddle on through as if I was exploring a forest, fuelled by curiosity, happy to delight in what I found but knowing with frustration that there were many fascinating things I had blindly blundered past.

The most valuable thing I found in the shop was the experience. I had wandered in with a vague idea I might find something useful but it now felt like I was in the opening chapters of a child’s adventure book. Two days before Christmas, I had been drawn by a random urge to set foot inside this mysterious, magical old shop. Every one of the items around me was whispering a history to me. Every toy had the prints of tiny hands, every tool the story of use and selection, every piece of clothing had been draped round the warm bodies of living breathing people, every ornament had gazed on the intimacies of lives and relationships, each penny coin smooth-worn by countless transactions with long-dead traders. And here, among the spiralling motes of time, surrounded by the quiet hush of sifting history, sat that beautiful young woman reading quietly to herself, lost in her own world.

Camelford, on the fringe of Bodmin Moor, is an old town that carries a thin mist of mystery draped around it. It’s surrounded by ancient stone circles, Bronze Age burial mounds and it even has mythical links with the magical world of King Arthur. Shuffling around this shop in a half-dream I half expected adventure to call; a voice from the deep basement salerooms which I knew were waiting below but for which I had run out of time. But the call never came and the magic was, if not broken, at least dented when someone else came into the shop as I was about to leave. Maybe they were the ones who heard the historic call of the king, found the way to Narnia, or unearthed the Box of Delights. I cannot say.

What I can say is that I found my own little scrap of magic on the shelves of that shop. Ever since I moved back to Cornwall I’d been quietly searching for an old single-ended spanner to work the griddle on the stove in my living room. I had been using a small double-ended 12mm wrench for the job but it was short, uncomfortable to use and kept slipping off. But among the tools at the back of the shop I found the very thing with a square slot and a £1 price tag. It was an unusual shape, made of black metal and hand-stamped as being a 7/16 inch wrench. I thought it was pretty close to what I needed and laid down my coin for the girl. We spoke pleasantly for a few minutes before I took my leave, turned my collar up and stumbled back out into the fairy-lit street.

Shops were shutting up but lights were still on in most. The wind-blown strings of coloured bulbs still struggled on their tethers over the town. Lights reflected off the trembling wetness on everything. Rain swept in twisting veils through the square. Gutters gushed. The shopping bag squirmed in my hand. My hat was near tugged from my head on the river bridge. But I made it to the car without losing anything, bundled in out of the rain and settled into the calm for the run home. 

Later, feet stretched to a roaring stove, a mug of rum-lace coffee steaming in one hand and mobile phone in the other, I did some online research into the markings on my newly acquired spanner. I was delighted to discover that it too had a history. I believe it was forged in Chicago, USA, some time between 1890 and 1910 and possibly made as a specialist tool for a lathe or a textile machine. I spent some time turning it over in my hand, dreaming into the fire about the places it had been and the things it could have seen and done. It will outlive me by many generations I’m sure but its journey is halted for now beside the stove in my Victorian cottage. You couldn’t say it ‘just about’ fits the griddle-bar, because it absolutely fits perfectly.

Finding it was a very minor miracle but the question now is, did I find it… or did it find me?

Bodmin Moor – Hiding in Plain Sight

by Mike Grundon

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Sitting under the summer stars on top of Garrow Tor is a good way to immediately understand what Bodmin Moor truly is.

With a soft and scented summer breeze sifting up through the bracken on its way in from the North Atlantic, I’m sitting in the heart of a relatively populous Cornwall, but surrounded by darkness. Out there in the night is a necklace of distant market towns and villages, shimmering around my horizon, but the moor inside that loose ring is an empty black that’s rustling with wildlife.

A pair of tawny owls hoot and screech to each other in the dark smudge of trees down to the left of my rocky ledge. Small bats, probably common pipistrelles, are flitting at the moths in the open column of air a few feet in front of me. Something is shouldering its way through the bracken about 30 feet below my perch. I can’t tell if it’s a badger or a sheep.

Looking at the Ordnance Survey map, this rugged 100 square mile plateau of granite bulges up out of the surrounding farmland just north of the geographical centre of the county which forms the south-west extremity of Britain. Behind where I’m sitting now looms the highest point in Cornwall, Brown Willy tor, at 1378 feet above sea level. Beside it crouches the silhouette of the second highest ridge, Rough Tor which is correctly pronounced “Rowter”.

From up there on a clear day you can see for 30 miles to the north east, into the county of Devon. This is where Bodmin Moor’s much bigger and more famous neighbour, Dartmoor, wrinkles the distant horizon. Fame and tourist facilities bring 2.5 million visitors to Dartmoor every year. Bodmin Moor is often overlooked. It has no formal attractions so its visitors remain uncounted.

Up on its tors are heaped great, naturally occurring, slabs of granite. Their seams and fault lines have been scoured out over millennia by wind, rain and ice to leave them deeply sculpted into smooth, rounded shapes resembling delicately balanced piles of enormous pancakes or cheeses.

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In the bracken and gorse between its hills and crags, there are prehistoric standing stones which long lost communities deliberately planted upright or arranged into loose structures and geometric shapes. They were placed so long ago that their meaning and use are lost to memory and lore. Some are estimated to have been there for over 6000 years.

This habitat is a rare haven for some of the best of British wildlife. Apart from the few public footpaths that ribbon across the landscape, much of the moor is such a tangle of thorns, boulders and bogs that it’s only rarely disturbed by the occasional rough-grazing cattle, horses and sheep that seem to wander the hills at will.

In a few days walking I have watched a pond full of thumbnail sized common frogs squirming out of the water for their first experience of raw sunlight, roe deer browsing on the scrub trees at the rim of a disused quarry, kestrels and buzzards scoping the ground for prey or carrion, a fat female adder hunting through the grass in the full blaze of the day, vivid metallic dragonflies skimming the pools in a moorland stream, a family of foxes playing in the sunset glow through a system of prehistoric field boundaries, and a small cete of badgers truffling under a dead tree for food in the late twilight.

Although great swathes of the moor are devoid of human habitation, that hasn’t always been the case. Utterly empty now and a steep hike from the nearest access road, Rough Tor has the remains of around a hundred prehistoric homes on its flanks. Garrow Tor has almost as many, dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, through to Mediaeval times.

According to Historic England, “the multi-period agricultural and industrial landscape at Garrow Tor survives very well and is recognised as one of the most important archaeological landscapes in Cornwall, which itself is seen as a county that has a particularly rich historic environment”.

The public agency concludes that, “the upstanding remains of dwellings and fields of prehistoric and historic date provide an important insight into the communities that lived and worked here for millennia”.

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Despite its relatively diminutive scale, Bodmin Moor is so highly valued by the authorities for its historic remains and natural history that its future appears to be well protected. It’s officially recognised as a Site of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the most important sections of the moor have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and farming on the high tops is controlled and governed by commons grazing legislation.

According to local man Alistair Philp, one of the few threats to the area is confusion between various authorities and landowners over the best way to protect the historic sites. Alistair’s grandmother was born and raised in what’s now a deserted cottage in the lee of Garrow Tor. He is one of those who believe that recent attempts to protect the old settlements by fencing them off have led to them becoming overgrown, damaged by plants, and effectively buried from view.

Today, apart from the rough grazing and the low intensity, mixed agriculture around its fringes, there is very little industry that remains on Bodmin Moor. However, it has been exploited in the past.

Granite in various forms has been the main natural resource taken from here. Top quality building stone and ornamental slabs are still hewn in small amounts from the specialist quarry at De Lank. Back in the 1880s blocks were extracted from here to build the famous Eddystone Rock lighthouse and stone was taken to London to build Tower Bridge and the Thames Embankment.

Kaolin, better known as china clay, comes from granite which has decayed so much that it can be pressure hosed from the ground and settled out in ponds. There is a handful of deep, pastel blue lakes associated with almost 150 years of clay extraction dotted around the fringes of the moor but none has been quarried here since 2001.

The clay industry’s lakes and surrounding spoil heaps have been effectively handed back to nature through landscape restoration projects carried out by the mining company Imerys Minerals, formerly English China Clays. The company got help from local councils, the Forestry Commission, English Nature, and the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Millions of pounds have had to be spent across Cornwall reshaping and planting redundant spoil heaps because for every tonne of clay there is around nine tonnes of spoil.

Copper and tin were mined in small amounts on the moor in the 1800s, but neither metal was found in commercially viable amounts so the work has left almost no lasting impact on the landscape we see today.

A hike across the northern half of Bodmin Moor in full summer sunlight is an uplifting walk under breezy skies that are trilled with skylarks and scraped by ravens. But when the cloud and mist bank in from the sea, the landscape takes on a dark and mysterious atmosphere. Alongside its substantial substantiated history, this timeless landscape is also home to legend and superstition.

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When the chilling tendrils of mist work their way between the rocks and the darkening shadows, my sense of direction is dulled and my sense of position in the landscape fades to memory. It’s then that the deep rock starts to seep old magic.

There are so many standing monoliths, stone circles, quoits, barrows and cairns on Bodmin Moor that it’s possible to get dismissive of all but the most dramatic, but less than a mile from Garrow Tor is an exceptional enigma known as King Arthur’s Hall.

Fifty-six standing stones are arranged inside a rectangular earthwork, aligned lengthways north to south. They surround a patch of cotton grass growing in a boggy plot of ground that is said to stay wet even through the heart of the driest summer. No one knows for sure how old it is nor what it was for. Historic Cornwall says, “many suggestions have been put forward for its origin and function” but, “the date and purpose of the site remain obscure”. Historic England speculates that, “the effort required to both excavate or import material for a bank of such proportions, and to erect the slabs suggest that it had a more important function than just an animal pound.”

Only two other structures similar to King Arthur’s Hall have ever been recorded. One is in Ireland, and the other in Brittany. Whether it or the surrounding King Arthur’s Downs have any tangible connection with the mythical king of the Britons can only be guessed at. The names were first recorded in documents in 1584 but, according to Historic Cornwall, by then the area already had a long tradition of association with Arthurian legend. Speculation that the court of Camelot may have been near this spot is bolstered for some by the fact that the River Camel arcs closely around the north-west perimeter of the moor only a couple of miles from here. It’s also fewer than ten miles from Tintagel.

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Local tales speak of melancholy ghosts that drift across the moonlit heath, and a mysterious black cat known as the Beast of Bodmin Moor that’s said to prowl the deep bracken and granite gulleys in search of prey. A display at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in nearby Boscastle tells of two elderly women who maintained a pagan shrine on the flank of Rough Tor that was only dismantled when the last of them died just a few decades ago.

It’s an overcast and wet morning as I come down from my night spent sleeping under the vast skies of Bodmin Moor. I’d been tapped awake by the first spots of rain on my face shortly after 6am.

Pushing damp-kneed through the bracken to rejoin the main path at the bottom of the hill, I can understand why some locals have told me that this oasis of wilderness is being protected by its relative obscurity and lack of amenities.

Cornwall is internationally famous for its sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs and picturesque fishing villages, and as an increasing amount of money is invested in improving the transport links to the region, those attractions are getting increasingly busy.

Visit Cornwall says 4.3 million tourists came to stay in the county during the summer and autumn of 2016, but even on a sunny afternoon in the holiday season visitors can still go walking on Bodmin Moor and, beyond the immediate area of a car park, they might only meet around a dozen people.

It seems that as the tide of tourism rises all around it, this quiet granite upland with its untroubled wildlife and prehistoric remains, is still high and dry.

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