I escaped to Cornwall yesterday. Just for the day but I had a longstanding lunch date with Polly Tatum and had to visit the Camelford Gallery to collect the painting I bought last month. After endless days of rain, the sun came out and Polly and I sat in the garden that she and her husband have created, an oasis close to the busy centre of Bodmin. The conversation flowed and I was struck by the capacity we have for making new friends - who feel like old friends - throughout our lives, and how important these friendships are. It was something I learned from my mother and I see this capacity in my daughter too. Discovering all these new and like-minded friends, irrespective of whether we manage to meet in the flesh, is one of the great pleasures of writing this blog.
My journey home took me back along the coast of North Cornwall, via Tintagel; a different quality of light from my last visit: silver-blue, shimmering:
through Boscastle and with a short detour to the church of St Juliot.
This was the church that Thomas Hardy, then an architect, visited in 1870, to work on plans for its restoration. And it was at St Juliot that he met Emma Lavinia Gifford, who was to become the first Mrs Hardy. It's also the setting for his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes.
St Juliot is just a mile or so inland and the surrounding fields are gentler and more undulating than those on the coast:
It's more than 25 years since I was last here and, since then, the Thomas Hardy memorial window has been installed, the gift of the Thomas Hardy Society.
It is quite magical; sunlight floods in through the clear glass and is reflected on the memorial tablets to Emma and Thomas on the wall opposite.
It reminded me of the world-famous, engraved glass windows at the church in Moreton, near Dorchester, where T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) is buried.:
Later, when I was back at home, I read the society's leaflet on the Thomas Hardy window and understood the resonance. The Hardy window was created by glass engraver and designer, Simon Whistler, the son of Sir Laurence Whistler, who designed the windows at Moreton. Simon Whistler discussed the project with his father, during the latter's last days in hospital. (Sir Laurence was the brother of the gifted painter and illustrator, Rex Whistler - an immensely talented family.)
Composed of five lights, the window depicts Hardy's first journey to Cornwall, the waterfalls where he and Emma picnicked, and Emma riding her pony on Beeny Cliff. There are references to Hardy's work as a writer and as an architect, to the church itself and to the sun, moon and stars.
I suppose that most people's introduction to Hardy is through one or other of the novels, which have frequently overshadowed his poetry. But he was a very fine poet and my own introduction to Hardy was at 15, when I read Beeny Cliff, with its haunting opening stanza:
O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free -
The woman whom I loved so and who loyally loved me.
The eventual unhappiness of the marriage and the fact that after Emma's death, Hardy was haunted by these early memories, give St Juliot a bitter-sweet poignancy. (I recommend Claire Tomalin's excellent biography, Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man for anyone who wants to know more.)
No writer has, I think, captured the essence of North Cornwall in quite the same way as Hardy. Drawing on earlier myths and legends, he called it Lyonesse and that's how I always think of it. It's a place quite unlike any other and very, very special.
The musical equivalent would have to be Arnold Bax's symphonic poem, Tintagel, arguably the composer's best-known work. My mother once told me that we were distantly related to Bax; I've never managed to work out the connection, but if it is true, then perhaps this North Cornwall thing is in the genes . . .