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Keeping a weather eye on the changing shades of landscape

By Cornish Guardian  |  Posted: October 26, 2012

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IT IS a brilliant October morning, sunlight bringing out the shades in the countryside: the greens and the coppers, the golds and, above, a pale blue sky.

And the clarity of the day gives the grey shape of St Teath Church a distinctive personality.

This week we take a look at the impact of light and weather in Guardian Country.

More than 40 years ago I interviewed the painter Lionel Miskin, at Mevagissey, a man who talked as well as he painted.

In some ways, he resembled DH Lawrence who, of course, had a spell in Guardian territory at Porthcothan. They both had impressive beards but Lionel was kinder about the Cornish people.

On that quiet Sunday morning I asked him: "You've been called a painter of the China Clay Country. Is that a fair description?"

"In a way, yes," he replied. "But I've done a lot of things other than that."

"What appeals to you in that area?"

There was silence for about half a minute – it seemed longer.

"The clay pits above St Austell and Bodmin moors … this high ground, they both offer an austere landscape and wonderful light, and because the hacks prefer to look away from anything that is real and uncompromising to what nearest approximates to Cornish Riviera posters, I had these landscapes to myself.

"Clay Country is unique in the whole of the British Isles. The white cones and pyramids of sand and the deep workings and lakes interspersed with moor are described, once and for all, by the poet Jack Clemo, born and bred in this landscape.

"From a distance, the whole plateau can appear to be part of the sky, the white clay tips transforming in colour and even in size according to the different effects of light, cloud and atmosphere.

"But, if you're up among them, the effect is then quite different. They are a miniature Alps, they loom through low cloud like high mountain ranges."

He added: "The light of wild, wet weather far excels fine sunshine and duster blue clouds."

It was Derek Tangye who encouraged me to weave weather into my writing. Derek was a good, powerful influence on a young man making his way.

And when I went to London to meet Clifford Makins, the sports editor of The Observer, he advised: "Make reference to the weather and the conditions when they are a factor in the play and pattern of a rugby match." Another important guideline.

Derek was a master of weather and atmosphere. Here is an extract from A Cornish Summer:

"Soft-scented days when the wood pigeons clapped their wings in courtship, when a raven grunted overhead, when green woodpeckers called to each other in the wood, they belong to one summer … still nights when the voices of fishermen, a mile or so out to sea, sounded so loud that they were like ghosts talking."

I remain at my desk overlooking the same North Cornwall terrain. Now heavy rain is obliterating St Teath and water is pouring across the yard.

Earlier this year I was commissioned to write an article on Marilyn Monroe for a journal especially published for her fan club.

I was attempting to answer the complex question: "Why does Marilyn look so different in so many different photographs?"

Around that time Nikki Boundy, who has appeared in numerous paintings by Nicholas St John Rosse, of Trethevy, was having afternoon tea with Sonia and me in the cottage.

I asked her about the fact that she, too, can look very contrasting when posing.

Nikki, who lives at Delabole, smiled and explained: "Maybe it's the expression or the mood I'm in and sometimes the light or the lighting has an effect."

Nikki's vitality and sheer body language are great motivation for any artist.

The moorland, of course, often looks wonderful in winter sunlight, the grasses taking on an almost unearthly greenness.

On such days, towering heights like Roughtor and Brown Willy somehow have a magnetic something.

On top of Roughtor you have the distinct impression you're standing at the heart of all Cornwall – and in a way you're doing just that.

November, as I write, is fast approaching and there is often a curious stillness about many of these darkening days.

I remember Lady Clara Vyvyan saying: "I love November because the stream of tourists has dried up."

Now there are rather more visitors coming to Cornwall "out of season", as Clara might have put it. That, at least, is good for the local economy.

Harvey Kendall, of Bude, who has been writing weather reports for this newspaper for 43 years, says: "Weather can be very local, exceptionally so.

"Time was when I had weather stations at Stratton, where I was teaching, and Bude. They were only two miles apart yet there could be very significant differences in things like rainfall and temperature."

Harvey is also a knowledgeable man on bird life and I asked: "Is there any reason why our wild bird population in the garden has dropped to just about three or four birds when generally there are about 30?"

He said: "Don't worry. It's an interesting phenomenon that birds find plenty of food in the hedgerows around this time of the year. When the weather gets colder and harder, they'll be back in your garden."

That is heartening news and we take comfort in a solitary robin who still feeds here and will frequently come close to the office window indicating he's ready to be fed.

We will be pleased to see more birds back in the garden because they bring a sense of theatre to the place.

On many nights we are lucky enough to hear a pair of owls hooting in trees not far away, their presence adding a supernatural quality to the darkness. I was interested to learn recently that wise women of the moor rated an owl's feather a powerful charm and advised anyone who found one to keep it carefully.

This then has been a discursive Guardian tour, and perhaps we should go back to Lionel Miskin reflecting on Cornwall's powerful influence on his life and his painting.

"Yes, the light, of course, and the underlying bony structure of the Cornish landscape, and the astonishing range of colours you find in the clay pits, where the vegetation, trees, flowers give leaf against the pervading white.

"I can't imagine what I would have been like had I not seen all this."

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