Despite all my travel planning, itineraries and intentions, there are times when a deviation from those best-laid plans is a pleasant surprise leading to heart-warming experiences in off-the-beaten tracks and unknown places. There was one such example in the quiet corners and nooks of Cornwall.
It was a sunny June morning – prime time for an adventure. I had all intentions of returning to a lovely little seaport village nearby called Port Isaac. I had visited the quaint town the day before because my mother and I enjoyed watching the television show, Doc Martin. Port Isaac serves as the fictitious town of Port When where the drama/comedy series is filmed. We had watched so many episodes I felt like I knew the place before I arrived.
It was an absolutely beautiful setting which certainly didn’t disappoint. I had every intention of returning the following day to see if I could catch some scenes being filmed, but when I got in the car and began to set my course, I had a “hunch” as I neared the main road. Something told me to take a right turn instead of a left at the next stop, which would have taken me to my intended destination, Port Isaac. I’ve learned to trust my intuition, listen to the hunches and just ‘follow my nose.’ It usually leads me to very intriguing experiences and some very interesting people.
I turned right, heading due south. I drove along enjoying the view, keeping my eyes open and paying close attention. Boy oh boy did I ever get rewarded for doing so!
It was such a gorgeous day for a leisurely drive along the shoreline on the west coast of Cornwall. I discovered delightful coves of blue-green water, snug harbors and picturesque beaches.
Nearing the turn off for the coastal village of Perranporth, the car crested a hill. I spotted a church tower poking its spires high above the tree tops just off to the right near the bottom of the hill. Once again, something told me the church would be a perfect place to take a break; a chance to stretch my legs and imagination. I pulled up along the churchyard wall, got out of the car and entered the quaint churchyard through the garden gate. It was blissful. Wildflowers everywhere, a gardener’s delight!
Just inside the gate I spied one of my favorite sites – a wheelbarrow! I love to see fellow gardeners’ tools hanging about. I was looking around the landscape beyond when a sweet gentleman approached from the gate.
“Indeed it is!” he replied and promptly put his cap back upon his head and introduced himself, Ashley Jose (pronounced Josey), allowing me to take his picture.
He started telling me about the church and its yard and then proceeded to apologize for the lawns not being cut and mowed around the stones yet.
“Actually I prefer it this way with all the wild flowers blooming. It’s beautiful. Why would you want to mow that gorgeous beauty away?” I exclaimed.
We conversed for a little while and spent time getting to know each other a little as we soaked up the abundant sunshine and fragrance of the flowers. I could tell he was quite proud of his surroundings. I asked about the church and he began to tell me about its origins but then stated, “Unfortunately, it is locked.”
I reassured him because I thought he felt bad. “That’s alright, I don’t mind.” I replied. “It’s such a beautiful day and besides this is such a wonderful churchyard to explore! Churchyards are my favorite part anyway.”
“You like grave yards then? They don’t spook you?” he asked.
“No, I find them to be rather peaceful and a wonderful place for reflection and thought. They don’t spook me at all. I am not superstitious.”
“Well, if you like graveyards then you might like to visit another one that is close by. It’s rather special. Just follow that trail over there on the left. It will take you out to a walled graveyard out in the pastures. You can’t miss it!”
“Is it more of this graveyard then?” I asked.
“No, years ago, during World War II, there was a group of soldiers camped out in that field just above the bluff. The young men in the unit naturally had wanted to see some action and felt it certainly wasn’t there out in the middle of a pasture far from the front line. Their unit stayed put.” He explained. “If you like graveyards, it’s very unusual and is something else – really.” I thanked him for the suggestion and walked off in the direction he had pointed me. It was a lovely hike and just like he said it would be – there it was!
In this empty field on a bright and sunny day like today were a bunch of soldiers sunbathing and relaxing with not much else to do on such a fine morning. All of a sudden out of nowhere a couple of low flying German bombers crested over the bluff’s edge from the ocean surprising the young soldiers. The Germans mowed them down with machine guns killing them where they lay soaking up the rays. Each one of them is buried in this field without gravestones. The villagers buried them wherever they had fallen.
All along the rock wall, wild foxglove bloom surrounding all the graves. It was a very moving experience to stand there imagining that scene and how those young men must have felt.
He started telling me more. Although he was too young to serve in the war (16 years) he shared some memories with me about his experiences in his village on Victory Day when the end of the war was declared.
We actually talked for quite some time. I told him about my mother who had been close to his age, about taking care of her for the past 4 years before she passed, about the road trip I took with her last year at this time. We really enjoyed ourselves; had great conversations and laughs in the warm, sunny churchyard, as if we were old friends.
I was just about to tell him goodbye, get back in my car and prepare to leave when to my surprise, he asked, “Would like to see the inside of the church?”
“Sure, but you told me a little while ago that it’s locked.”
“Well, yes, I did. What I didn’t tell you is that I just happen to have the keys in my pocket and I could let you in!” he grinned.
I chided him, “You tease you!” and then told him, “Nothing would please me more!”
It is a complete list of the names of the young men who died and are buried out in the field.
He took me through the entire church proudly sharing its treasures and providing me a private and intimate guided tour.
Notice the list of vicars of St. Piran below. This church began in the year 500-530 AD!
Also, note the grey slab hanging on the wall behind Ashley and the baptismal font; a picture below is a close up of that stone slab. During an archaeology dig in 1910, when they first uncovered the first church in the sand dunes, this flat stone was discovered on the floor inside the buried church!
Now that’s an old, old, old stone!
While I took this picture of the window I noticed the little models in the window sill and asked about their significance.
He explained that this church was actually the third one built and that the first two church sites are further down the hill toward the ocean. He told me enough about their history to pique my interest and provided directions so I could go and find them on my own later that afternoon.
I thought the tour was about to end when Ashley asked, “Would you like to see something special?”
I nodded yes!
He reached into his pocket again, pulling out his ring of keys and proceeded to unlock yet another door and encouraged me to follow!
The wooden door opened into a beautiful room inside the towers’ square base. Hanging from on-high were all the bell ringing ropes dangling through an opening in the ceiling of the tower above. Upon the walls hung photographs of the men in the parish who have served as bell ringers over the years. Come to find out, our very own Ashley has been the Captain of that group for 60 years! He’s not just the gardener but the Master Bell Ringer as well! Imagine that!
He stood in front of another smaller and narrower door motioning me to follow him and asking if I would like to climb up the spiral staircase to the rafters where the bells are mounted. I just nodded and grinned while I followed along as he led me to the next level. There they were hanging right in front of me where I could touch them – the huge bells of St. Piran church.
Ashley rocked one of the bells just enough so it would ring a few times as I stood in very close proximity. They were very loud and very exhilarating to be next to as they rang out. He proudly told me all about the bells, how they are rocked and played, tuned, etc. I could tell he was very proud and happily delighted to tell me all about them.
As we headed for the door to begin our descent, he nodded in another direction indicating there was yet one more door to one more level – the tower roof! A short climb later and I was standing high above the churchyard and surrounding landscape up on the roof of the tower. The view was unbelievable. I could easily see the soldier’s field on the bluff and the ocean beyond on that clear, crisp sunny afternoon. It was amazing and quite memorable.
What a delightful tour he treated me to. We made our way down and outside once again. I thanked him profusely for being so generous and sharing his memories and stories with me. He brought his hand out from behind his back handing me a nice card with a picture of his church on its face. He wanted me to have it as a keepsake of my adventure with its bell ringer and gardener. It was such a sweet and kind gesture of friendship.
As I was preparing to take my leave he said to me, “I have one more very special thing I’d like to show you; it’s just around the corner here.”
As we walked along the pebbly path skirting the backside of the church he explained to me that like my mother, his wife had also recently passed. He beamed when he told me they have been married for over 61 years.
I asked him, “Do you miss her?”
“Yes – terribly so…: he answered.
“What was your wife’s name, Ashley?”
“Oh my gosh, that was my mother’s name too!” I exclaimed. “That’s an unusual name. What are the odds that they would have the same name?”
“And now, look, you’re making me cry!” I added wiping a tear from my cheek.
“Well, look there, I am crying too!” he said.
I looked at him as we approached his wife’s grave and sure enough the both of us were so touched we both had tears running down each of our cheeks and yet smiling and having such a wonderful time together.
As I said my final thank you and goodbye he reached out and gave me the biggest hug and kissed both my cheeks affectionately. I’ll never forget him; nor the special time spent with him (the Master, the Captain of the Bell Ringers) at the church St. Piran in Perranporth, Cornwall.
Following his directions I made my way down to the village to find out more about the history of the church I had just visited.
Just outside the village on a sandy bluff above the ocean, I found the site of the first two churches of St. Piran. I parked my car and found a gate in the fence. Following the well-worn track I traversed the grass covered sand dunes and found both of the sites of the earlier churches.
This is the first church that was built. There is the alter at the front of the church. This is the second time archaeologists have excavated the first church out of the sand and it still fills up with water!!! There is another spring just below the first church.
These are the ruins of the second church site built after the first church filled up with water and eventually got covered by sand dunes over the passage of time.
My picnic lunch; which I ate inside the ruins of the second church. One pint of milk and one traditional Cornish steak and onion pasty equals a tasty and satisfying meal.
The smaller of the pasties is pork and apple. Yum!
Cornwall is traditionally tin mining country. Pasties are what miners ate for dinner underground in the mines and have been popular with both locals and newcomers alike ever since.
St. Piran’s Cross. It stands near the second church site on the dunes; a beautiful, ancient, stone Celtic cross.
As I sat out on the dunes enjoying my Cornish picnic I reflected on the days’ serendipitous events. I once again felt overwhelmingly grateful that I followed my nose, a hunch which brought Ashley and I together to share with one another and touch each other’s hearts.
Making a connection with him, taking the time to talk, get to know a local like him, is usually the best part of traveling. I was thankful for getting to go where few tourists ever have the opportunity to go. It was quite the experience.
Throughout history so many others have gone before us; like the ancient monks from Ireland and the soldiers in the field. I enjoy making the connections with them, learning their stories and meeting the people who carry them on. Another amazing example of what happens when we take the time to just smile, talk with one another and give each other the gift of our presence and complete and undivided attention. So simple – but oh-so-rewarding.
Thank you Ashley Jose! I will always remember you, my friend and our wonderful time together on that sunny, warm day in June!