Friday, 19 August 2011

DH Lawrence and The Count House

At one point on the walk, Lawrence's friend, Koteliansky,who was a Russian Jew,had learnt back against a drystone wall and sung in Hebrew the 23rd Psalm. Half remembering a word from that song,Lawrence took the name 'Ramanim' for his colony of like minded souls with whom he would withdraw from materialstic society destroying itself and create a new life which Lawrence described as 'Communism'. Ramanim became the cottages at High Tregwerthan midway between Gurnard's Head and St Ives, until the Lawrences were expelled from Cornwall soon after a police raid on the Count House-now a Climber's Club hut.

It was the month of January 1916 when DH Lawrence moved to Cornwall. A month when an increasing number of modern climbers are discovering there can be still, mild periods between wild winds: There have been great winds, and the sea has been smoking white above the cliffs. Now it is still again, and the evening is very yellow. Climbs had already been recorded on the rocks below Lawrence's house by the father of Cornish sea cliff climbing, A. W Andrews.

Lawrence and Frieda swam in the cove below High Tregerthen called Wicca Pool.
In 1902 A. W Andrews and his sister made a number of routes on Wicca Pillar, which is approached down the Lawrences' lane. It was here that in 1912 Professor Noel Odell was shown by Andrews the advantages of 'tennis shoe' climbing, which Odell was later to apply on the Idwal Slabs. Also in 1902 Andrews climbed Bosigran Ridge, which makes a 700ft Alpine ridge type challenge across the gully from the Count House. Just four years before Lawrence came to Cornwall, Geoffrey Winthrop Young with George Mallory had made the first ascent of the ridge of Carn Les Boel of which Young wrote: 'It was a rock surface of volatile changes, from chimney or column, crystallised, friable and prickly, to the sea and the time-smoothed perpendicular or overhang.'

Lawrence immediately found in North Cornwall what he needed: 'It has never taken the Anglo-Saxon civilisation, the Anglo-Saxon sort of Christianity. One can feel free here, for that reason – feel the world as it was in that flicker of pre Christian Celtic civilisation, when humanity was really young.' He drew this sense of Celtic life directly from the landscape. Writing of a cove near Padstow, Lawrence said: 'It is a cove like Tristan sailed into, from Lyonesse – just the same. It belongs to 2,000 years back – that pre-Arthurian Celtic flicker of being which disappeared so entirely. The landscape is bare, yellow-green and brown, dropping always down to black rocks.'

In fact, it is Bosigran Farm that W G. Hoskins names in The Making of the English Landscape as the classic surviving example of a Celtic farmstead: 'the network of small, irregular fields bounded by miles of granite-boulder walls was almost impossible to change once the pattern was laid down.' Perhaps Lawrence was told later by local people that the name Bosigran means 'Dwelling of Ygrain' who was, in legend, the mother of King Arthur. I can remember a fog-bound night in the Count House in' 1968 when only the four of us were crouched round a huge fire listening to the Pendeen fog horn and the rats running round the skirting board, telling ourselves that the mother of giants was dead.

Lawrence embraced her spirit and despite the prosecution of The Rainbow for obscenity and the burning of remaining copies by the common hangman. Lawrence pressed on with the original core of the project of which The Rainbow was only the prelude. Women in Love was written at High Tregerthen and all but finished. Meanwhile Rananim remained a lonely idea as Lawrence fell out with potential colonists, starting with Bertrand Russell and ending with Cecil Grey, the young musician who rented the Count House. Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield did move into High Tregerthen in April, but had left by June..

By November 1916 Lawrence was writing to Koteliansky that 'the people were wrong.' Those who visited High Tregerthen at this time tend to have been more or less struck by the pans flying between Lawrence and Frieda during their violent rows.

But another war was going on within their hearing. The next time you're looking out over the sea from the sentry box stance of Doorpost, imagine the view in August 1917 when destroyers and seaplanes accompanied by an airship were hunting a German submarine. The noise of exploding depth charges was terrific even at Tregerthen Farm, where Lawrence taught young Stanley Hocking how to play chess. In a BBC interview years later, Stanley remembered Frieda saying to him: 'What an awful thing war is. In that submarine may be some of the boys I went to school with.' Huge patches of oil remained on the sea for several days after that particular hunt.

Frieda was, in fact, a cousin of the Red Baron who was destroying British aircraft so famously; she was German and wrote to her relations regularly through Switzerland. One day Lawrence was walking home from Zennor when a policeman jumped out from behind a hedge and demanded to see the contents of Lawrence's rucksack. It contained nothing more incriminating than loaves of bread, but the suspicions were growing that Frieda was passing bread and information about British shipping movements to German submarines down at the coves at night.

The local people who held these suspicions knew the traditional uses of their coves for illicit activities. 'Owlers', as smugglers were known from medieval times, had been so active in these coves in the 18th century that Customs and Excise Preventative Boats were stationed at Sennen, Pendeen and St Ives. But everyone was at it, including the Mayor of St Ives, John Knill, who also happened to be Collector of Customs for the 20 years from 1762. He is said to have helpfully erected a steeple on Worras Hill as a landmark for smuggling craft. One such boat caught in a storm discharged its cargo of `double-headed cod' (code-name for spirit kegs with handling loops at each end) which came ashore at night near St Ives. A crowd gathered and dispersed before the Excise men arrived. The Vest Briton of 25th November 1814 reported, 'Not a single ray of moonshine was to be seen. The boat reached shore safely, but the crew were in a dispirited state'.

In fact it was believed that Lawrence, Frieda and Cecil Gray at the Count House, were the ringleaders of an elaborate spy network. Local feeling ran so high that one day locals armed with scythes and pitchforks set out for the Count House to murder Gray and throw his body down Suicide Wall. In his autobiography Gray wrote: 'I was only saved, in fact, through the fortunate circumstance that the malevolence of the Cornish was only exceeded by their cowardice'. The Cornish people might have been amused to know that Gray was himself being scared by the Count House 'Knocker' — Bosigran's poltergeist that emerges from the disused mine to plague the inhabitants of the Count House.

More serious was an event which Lawrence described in Chapter Ten of Kangeroo. After supper at the Count House, German folk-songs were in full swing when a hammering at the door was followed by the appearance of half-a-dozen men with loaded rifles who searched the house. Lights had been seen flashing out to sea from the windows. A drawing pin had worked loose from the black-out curtains in the westerly gale and allowed an insidious flickering which on this coast could only mean one thing: more nocturnal signals of `owlers'. Gray received a heavy fine, but a few days later High Tregerthen was searched, papers taken and the Lawrences given three days to leave Cornwall. Gray had to give them the money to get to London where they were to report to the police.

Lawrence next settled at Mountain Cottage, Middleton, above Cromford in Derbyshire, and almost within sight of Black Rocks. Rananim died, although the house where Lawrence wrote Women in Love can still be seen with its square tower jutting above the bank of the lane. This tower where Lawrence worked had been built for a previous writer, the best selling novelist Guy Thorne, who had never occupied it. From it, Lawrence reported in a letter, the death of a local boy of 16, one May Sunday, whilst collecting gulls' eggs on the cliffs. These primeval origins of climbing were still alive in the Cornwall of 1917, as was much else that still appeals to the modern climber exploring its cliffs, coves and zawns.

'This Cornwall,'wrote Lawrence, 'is very primeval: great, black jutting cliffs and rocks, like the original darkness, and a pale sea breaking in like dawn. It is like the beginning of the world, wonderful: and so free and strong'.

The classic Commando Ridge just below The Count House

Terry Gifford: The Joy of Climbing: Whittles Publishing 2004