This is Mounts Bay, in Cornwall; picture-postcard pretty as rainbows light up the sky and the sea ripples around St Michael’s Mount, just off Marazion.
In the summer, the landscape sparkles blue and green; in the winter, chocolate and silver — it’s always red at dawn, often reflected pink in the evenings, and rainbows sail by as often as it rains. The light in Cornwall has inspired schools of art for centuries. Beautiful doesn’t, however, mean safe.
Mounts Bay has long been a trap for seafaring vessels, a granite cup facing straight into the prevailing southwesterly winds — or in winter, southwesterly gales. The seabed is peppered with shipwrecks and their scattered remains, while local divers hoard old musket balls on their mantelpieces.
During this last week or two, we’ve been hit by repeated gales and occasional hurricane force winds which have torn up our coastline, smashing up our shores, and flooding homes, businesses, and the surrounding land. Then the storms receded, and the bay went back to how it ever was; lapping seas and soft beaches. A place where we take the sea for granted.
Except, not so much — Cornwall is flooded with new pools, enveloped in mould, strewn with rocks, and a lot of the sand has been washed from the beaches, replaced instead with smashed kelp, debris from the sea-bed, and reshaped contours.
One of the most striking things to come from this, aside from the terrible damage, has been the realisation that this familiar seascape was not always there. We knew, of course; it’s been known for centuries — but didn’t expect to see it. Walking along the beach, we see the torn kelp and fishing nets, jumbles of twisted metal, broken rocks and shredded rope — and also logs. Black, dense logs that don’t float. Looking closer, these logs are rooted… they HAVE roots — they’re not logs.
They’re the 4,000-year-old trees that used to form the forest that covered these lands when sea levels were lower, when St Michael’s Mount (which in Cornish is Karrek Loos yn Koos, or “grey rock in the woods”) was a rocky outcrop in the middle of a forest — back in the time before the bay, when people would have crossed on foot or horseback, where now they would need a trawler or yacht.
I met a local photographer on the beach, and what he said concurred with what others are saying — the forests stretched across the land that is now Mounts Bay. The wood beside him was 4,000-year-old pine, preserved in peat and then buried beneath the sands, to be raised again only in the fiercer storms.
The wood is sodden, dense, and pitted with worm holes where molluscs have burrowed deep into its surface. Some of the wood has been cut, but whether by locals seeking samples now, or by folk in ancient times, it’s hard to tell because the wood has a slippery, spongy quality, and is peat-stained all the way through.
The trees, or parts thereof, are scattered around. Some still show their roots and branches, and one patch of beach has a rough circle of the wood with a large gap — perhaps three feet wide — across the middle, while what looks to be a root system stretches out around it; was this an old, hollow tree of some kind?
Some people found ancient pine cones, others claim to have seen acorns from ancient oaks. Biologists and photographers scour the beaches for samples to ‘send off’ — and they’re hurrying, because any minute, the wind will blow, the seas will rise, and the sand will be sent back up the beaches, to lie over the forest, hiding it again for another fifty years, or at least until the next time a hurricane hits that particular spot, at the right tide, to uncover it again. And maybe not even then.
If we look for ‘Mounts Bay’, ‘history’, or ‘lost lands’ online, we find tantalising snippets of what might have been here, in the times before us. Did we just walk on the lost land of Lethowsow, the land that once linked mainland Cornwall with The Scillies, and some argue the basis of the legends of Lyonesse? As we touch the wood and feel its cool solidity, we can wonder, has it been touched by human hand before? Who might have walked here last, and what were their lives like? It’s tempting to think of earlier lives being markedly different; blighted by winter starvation, with animal hides for clothes and disease unchecked by modern medication, but then again… the people here would have still have had granite under their feet, rain dripping from their hair, and the smell of the sea never far away.
This is Cornwall, after all.