Sitting in a café in Truro, looking out at the rain, we wondered how we might fill the day. The weather had let us down and our next stop was at a bed and breakfast which would have our room ready by five. The intent had been to explore Falmouth, but the unreliable British summer had let us down and it was miserable and wet; the kind of light mizzle falling from a leaden sky that soaks you through and leaves you chilled to the bone.
We drank two cups of coffee as slowly as we could but it was still only 10 am. What to do? Back in the car, we got out our time worn road map of the British Isles to consider our options. Looking at the corrugated coastline of Cornwall, a name jumped out at me. Mousehole, pronounced Mowzel. I was transported back twenty-five years.
My grandmother had given our eldest son a copy of The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley. The pictures and narrative had delighted us all. It tells the story of an old fisherman called Tom who lives alone with his cat Mowzer. Barber’s narrative is lyrical,
“Mowzer, my handsome, it will soon be Christmas, and no man can stand by at Christmas and see the children starve. Someone must go fishing come what may, and I think it must be me. It cannot be the young men for they have wives and children and mothers to weep for them if they do not return. But my wife and parents are dead long since and my children are grown and gone.”
Maybe this story touches me so very deeply because my husband is a mariner. We also both had grandfathers who served on ships in the First World War and who lost many friends. As a family we have the greatest respect for the might of the sea.
The story is based on the Cornish legend of Tom Bawcock. The images are beautiful, Bayley has drawn the storm as a cat in shades of turquoise, blue and black. Whenever I read it I feel very emotional.
“Can we go to Mousehole?” I said.
It was my turn to drive. With the heating on, windscreen wipers sweeping steadily and the de-mister going full tilt we set out.
By the time you get down into Cornwall, even the A roads have narrowed. A distance that looks quite short on the map can actually turn into a fair hike as the roads clog easily and there aren’t that many of them. We took the A39 driving through dripping countryside, hedges bowed down with the weight of water. Our route took us through Helston, Marazion and Penzance, places that brought back memories of childhood holidays. From Newlyn the road led along the coast. The sky was cobalt streaked grey but the pewter sea on our left was flat calm.
Not knowing the layout of the tiny town, I made the mistake of driving in, ignoring the car park outside. Quickly the road became a single lane, a one-way system jinking around the quaint cottages with shallow front gardens bursting with hydrangeas of every hue. At one point I had to reverse up a steep incline to a passing point because a delivery van needed to get and out there was only one way through for him.
We finally made it back to the car park and pulled on rain macs. Oddly, though I had been reluctant to wander around Falmouth because of the weather, the excitement of finally seeing this place that had featured in our lives through the picture book got me moving.
The breeze off the sea made the drizzling rain freezing, but it couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. We wandered through the narrow lanes, enchanted by the cottages that hunkered down close to the earth as if resisting the weather.
When we arrived at the harbor itself, rather sadly the tide was out. Little boats rested on the weedy sand, dark streaks leading from their sterns where the water had dragged back. If you look at an aerial photo of the harbor it resembles an ear, the tiny gap in the sea walls, a tight passage to the English Channel beyond.
In the story of course, old Tom is successful in his fishing trip. This segment from Barbers story is very emotive,
“For when the people of Mousehole had woken to find old Toms boat missing and a light left in his window, they knew that he had gone tout to find fish for them, or to perish on the deep water…And when night fell, the women went home and set candles in all their windows and every man lit his lantern and went down to the harbor walls.”
This element of the story is celebrated every Christmas. According to “Mousehole Christmas Lights”, the harbor is brilliantly lit with “a fantastic display of sea serpents, fishing boats and whales.” Seasonal food and drinks are also on offer. This festival attracts large numbers of tourists to see the display, which is lit from 5pm to 11 pm between the 17th December and the 6th January.
The townsfolk also celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve on the 23rd December. On this night, star-gazy pie can be sampled at the Ship Inn on the quayside. Star-gazy pie is a traditional Cornish fish pie with the heads and tails of fish sticking out through the pastry crust. In the picture book, Barber suggests that the townsfolk made “half a hundred” when old Tom brought home his catch.
At three o’clock on a wet July afternoon, it didn’t occur to us to go looking for star-gazy pie. We did find a postcard featuring one of Bayley’s illustrations, Tom and Mowzer setting out in the dark and the pouring rain to do battle with the elements beyond the safety of the harbour walls. We wrote it to the boys and bought a stamp, hoping that it would get a Mousehole postmark. We were informed by a very grumpy postmistress, who was undoubtedly sick of hearing peoples’ personal anecdotes of their children in relation to the picture book, that everything these days goes from Truro. Oh well, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Mousehole in the rain. by Penelope Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License