(Don’t) Rock the Boat in Cornwall

by Elyn Aviva

The sound woke me up. It was the end of our first night and the beginning of our first morning in the charming, whitewashed, thick-stone-walled, self-catering flat (that’s British English for “apartment with kitchen”) we had rented for a month in Penzance, Cornwall. Home of nefarious pirates, at least according to Gilbert and Sullivan and the local tourism board. And maybe it was. But I digress.

The sound woke me up. A sound like distant thunder, an erratic rumbling that repeated itself with slight variations. It woke up my husband, Gary, as well. He thought for a moment, reconstructed where we were—on a narrow, slanting slipway lane heading down to the picturesque Penzance harbor—and he said, “I think it’s the sound of the Scillonian ferry rubbing against the dock.” 

I knew what he meant. I’d seen it pull in the night before, a huge white behemoth of a ferry that transports hundreds of people back and forth from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly, a group of five inhabited tiny islands and numerous islets 30-some miles to the southwest across the Atlantic. The Isles of Scilly are connected to the mainland by a rugged granite backbone, but rising sea levels thousands of years ago submerged the land route, leaving only the sea or the sky for transport. We’d flown in a six-seater Skybus to the Isles two years ago—but I digress.

It was comforting to think of the tide rhythmically rocking the ferry against the dock. I went back to sleep, lulled by the endlessly repeating nature of natural things. That was something that could be counted on: time and tide, which wait for no one. The first appears to go forward relentlessly, but the other cycles back and forth, back and forth, like the gentle, reassuring rocking of a cradle.
Gary had never spent time next to the sea, and he was surprised to see how it influenced so many facets of daily life. Not just the fishermen, who went out early and returned with the catch to auction off at the neighboring town of Newlyn. Or the Slipway lane itself, partly submerged during high seasonal tides. Or the nearby St Michael’s Mount, a tidal island just offshore, which we could walk to when the tide was out but had to take a boat to reach when the tide was in. Time and tide, the repetitive flow of huge bodies of water, life having a rhythm intimately, unmistakably associated with our rotating planet and the waxing and waning moon. Gary grew up in Kansas farmland, where some farmers still planted by the moon, but they (and he) had no experience of high and low tides. Except in metaphor. But I digress.

We had come to Penzance for a restful vacation, renting an attractive self-catering apartment (not that it catered itself, of course, but we could do our own cooking) on a narrow lane angling down to the harbor. The view was pretty—sailboats and yachts bobbing up and down in the bay. St Michael’s Mount with its fairytale castle perched on top, rising like a mirage out of the water. The Lizard Peninsula, a distant smudge barely visible beyond.

Although we were looking forward to a quiet and peaceful vacation, we arrived just in time for the culmination of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) or to stay (RemaIN). Brexit won, and emotional and political chaos ensued. 

We also arrived just in time for Penzance’s ten-day-long Golowan Midsummer Festival, complete with a nighttime torch-lit procession and a spooky, black-cloaked, horse-skull-headed creature called the Penglaze galloping through the crowds, and daylight parades with floats and marching bands and school children, and a fireworks display over the harbor. 

We knew we would have a perfect view of the show, so just before the fireworks began we stepped out our front door—only to discover the growing murmur we had been hearing was the sound of a flash mob descending on the street in front of our charming little cottage. Hundreds of enthusiastic people, overflowing plastic cups of hard cider in hand, were blocking our doorway. We managed to get out and watch the spectacular show of colorful lights blossoming like flowers and bursting exuberantly in the night air. But I digress.

And through it all, the gentle rocking of the Scillonian Ferry as it rubbed its large white metal body against the dock.

Our apartment, we soon realized, was on a busy one-lane side street leading down to the harbor and the train station. The only spot wide enough for two cars to pass was in front of our doorway. Which was directly on the street, since there was no space for something as frivolous as a sidewalk. Because it was a two-way, one-lane-wide street at a rather steep pitch, cars and delivery vans and service trucks heading down to the harbor paused in front of our door and negotiated (or, more often, confronted) cars and minivans and delivery trucks heading up the slipway. Inevitably, somebody had to back up. If there was room. Which there might not be, if someone else had decided to park in the wide spot in front of our door and make a delivery, or simply to pull over and make a cellphone call. 

Sometimes we heard an engine being turned off, as the patient driver decided to just sit there, in front of our door, while the traffic sorted itself out. Or possibly the driver was not patient but stubborn, refusing to budge. All of this was accomplished without verbal communication but with much mechanical noise, including automatic back-up beeps and manual, hand-facilitated honking. But I digress.

We also realized that we were staying in a tourist magnet. Our first day there, we were surprised to hear a lecture in front of our cottage. It was in a foreign language. German, we figured out. Peering out our bedroom window, we saw a dozen tourists blocking the street while their guide gestured at St Michael’s Mount across the bay and then back to our cozy quiet restful scenic little white-washed cottage. Soon they were taking photos of each other, posing in front of our window. We considered waving at them but instead we closed the curtain.

Numerous Chinese tourists were also visiting scenic Penzance. It turned out a Chinese blogger had written a piece extolling the clean air of this distant town, and so Chinese tourists had begun flocking like seagulls to this place so far (both culturally and geographically) from their homeland, this place on the boot-tip of the UK, this place at the end of the train line that runs from London across the Midlands down through Devon and into Cornwall. Penzance. The end of the line.

I had about reached the end of my line, as well, since peace and quiet were so hard to come by. But I held like a lifeline onto the idea that the erratic rumbling sound I heard was the Scillonian ferry, rocking gently against the dock. I held onto the idea—until I realized that the sound continued, even after the Scillonian had loaded up and departed from the harbor.
“Gary,” I exclaimed, “That sound can’t be the Scillonian! It’s sailed out to sea!”

He reconsidered, observing the traffic flow on the street below that ran alongside the harbor. He noticed the dry dock between the bay and the harbor, and a large ship, its dark blue underbelly exposed as it sat high and dry. He noticed what we hadn’t noticed before: the harbor road included a small bridge. A bridge that split in two so it could rise up to permit ships to sail in and out of the dry dock. He noticed the cars driving over the drawbridge and the irregular rumbling as their wheels rolled over the articulated metal planks.

“You’re right. It isn’t the ferry. It’s the traffic crossing the drawbridge.”

Suddenly the lulling, soothing sound of the Scillonian rocking in the tide morphed into a cacophony of irritating, discordant noise. I exploded in frustration. “All I wanted was a quiet, peaceful vacation! And THIS is what we get instead! Noise, traffic, no privacy! I’ve had it! I want to go home!”

And then—I took a deep breath and sighed. After all, the sound was exactly the same. It was just a sound. It hadn’t changed. The only difference was the meaning I gave to it. The only way to find real peace and quiet was not by changing where I was, but by changing how I thought about it. How I experienced it. And that’s not a digression.

That night, I closed my eyes and listened to the noise that I now knew was generated by cars driving over loose metal plates. I remembered how I felt when I thought it was the Scillonian rocking gently against the dock. I fell asleep with a smile on my face, listening to the ferry in my mind.

Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com. Gary’s blog about their expat life is www.fandangolife.com.

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