Poldark, Mad Mike and Pilchards, Winston Graham

Penberth Cove, Cornwall

As he leaves the fictional Cornish village of Sawle with his wife Demelza, Ross Poldark has the realisation that all the threads of his past life have brought him to a point of deep happiness.

Someone--a Latin poet--had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come. He thought: if we could only stop here. Not when we get home, not leaving Trenwith, but here, here reaching the top of the hill out of Sawle, dusk wiping out the edges of the land and Demelza walking and humming at my side.
- Ross Poldark

For five years from March 2015 to August 2019, the BBC’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s 19th Century Cornish saga Poldark  has been enormously succesful both in Britain and beyond. Aidan Turner’s smouldering Poldark has stolen countless hearts.  Not since Colin Firth’s iconic portrayal of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice has there been such a buzz about a male lead. The sublime land and sea-scapes of Cornwall have also been a star attraction, drawing crowds to this far south west corner of England.

Early in September 2018 while spending some time in the Cornish town of Penzance, I discovered that filming for the final series would take place the very next day. A notice in the local paper warned about early morning roadblocks on St Buryan Hill Road that would bar access to the set at Penberth Cove. That was a tad over eight miles from Penzance. It was way too good an opportunity to miss. I took the punt that the roadblock was not likely to be in place before dawn, and set my alarm for an ungodly hour.

It was an easy drive from the A30 through the little village of St Buryan, then along a narrow road that would lead just a few miles farther on to Land’s End, Cornwall’s most westerly point. Just out from St Buryan I nearly missed the turn off to Penberth Cove, so sharp it required a three-point turn. There were no road-blocks in sight and I nudged the car slowly down the narrow lane that runs for a mile through a hidden valley to the sea. Just before sunrise I arrived at an enchanting fishing cove, with a small river and a huddle of granite cottages.

Standing at the cove was an official looking woman in a flourescent jacket who was talking with an old man dressed in blue. The man walked over and introduced himself as Mike. In his soft Cornish accent he told me he is a member of one of the small number of families who have fished at this cove for generations. Having reached the age of eighty he was retired, but his son had taken over the business.

‘They used to call me Mad Mike’, he said with a grin. I asked him why: ‘Because I used to go out in all weathers’.

And I’ve no doubt that he did. Storms wreaking havoc and disaster along both the north and southern Cornish coasts have caused hundreds, possibly thousands of wrecks, but the Cornish fishermen are a breed apart. Many were known to take crazy risks and they probably still do.

Mike told me more fishermen used to work from the cove but there were now just a handful. He talked about their catches and how they still salted the pilchards (sardines). This I was keen to see. The pilchard industry that had flourished in Cornwall for generations died out with the closure of the last Pilchard factory in nearby Newlyn fifteen years before. The English had lost their taste for salted pilchards it seemed, and only custom from the Mediterranean market had kept the factory going. Yet not too long ago, if the pilchards didn’t come in, nobody ate. It was as simple as that.

I asked Mike about the impact of Poldark here. He said the fishermen were paid to stow their boats away while filming took place, providing them with a greatly appreciated mini break. A number of locals featured as extras – the two girls living in one of the granite houses near the sea had been in every series. I sensed Mike would miss the excitement once the crew packed up and went home for the last time.

After a while Mike offered to show me his boat and the salted pilchards, which were stored away behind the set.

‘Can I show Jo my pilchards?’ he asked the woman in the fluro jacket. It was still a little too dark to see her eyes roll but she did agree, warning us that there was not much time before the crew arrived.

So this is how I came to be clambering over one of the sets of Poldark early one morning, just after sun up, a touch before the cast and crew arrived. Past the beautiful old-style fishing boats we went; past the artfully arranged nets and baskets, the entry to the ‘smithy’ and on to the little stone and wooden house with the brownish tattered curtains, behind which the community’s boats lay hidden. And inside I got to see the big vat with Mike’s sardines packed in salt.

It was a fascinating encounter with another age, but before too long, I was hurried along by the security woman. Giving Mike a hug goodbye, I popped into my car and drove up the narrow lane again. By this time other security people had set up in strategic positions along the route and gave me the thumbs up as I passed, until I reached the main road where a man stood by with barriers to block off the lane. Three days later, the set was packed away for good.

Images taken with the kind permission of the National Trust and big thanks to my guide, Mike.

Music

‘Crazy Man Michael’, Fairport Convention, written by Richard John Thompson and Dan Eric Swarbrick, sung by Sandy Denny

One of the deepest pleasures of a slower life has been the chance to discover music that’s new to me and along the way I’ve discovered the delights of English folk music of the sixties and early seventies. This song by British band Fairport Convention is a favourite and instantly popped into my head when Mike told me his nickname. ‘Crazy Man Michael’ appeared on Liege and Leaf, believed by some to be the most definitive British folk-rock album of all time. The song apparently came to Richard John Thompson in a dream, and when Sandy Denny joined the band, he thought her voice would be perfect for it.

Connection

Penberth has also been used as a film location for television adaptations of novels by Cornish writer Rosamunde Pilcher. The prolific Lelant-born Pilcher set many of her books in Cornwall. They are hugely popular in Germany where her book sales have exceeded 15 million. In 1995 Frankfurter Films used Penberth to shoot scenes from the novels The Empty House, Another View, Voices in Summer and Snow in April. Here is a film clip of the series.

Notes

Penberth Cove’s seclusion made it an ideal location for regular filming for Poldark. It became Sawle, the coastal village that is home to Demelza’s brothers Sam and Drake Carne and has been used in many scenes involving Demelza and Dr Enys.

A large, very old capstan wheel once used for hauling in the boats sits at the top of the cobblestone slipway, although they are now hauled up by an electronic winch. Apart from screening off the five contemporary looking fishing boats, the location needed very little work to send it back in time by more than two hundred years. I will be returning next spring having heard the fields along the sides of the valley fill with daffodils and violets.

Weblinks

An article about the last of the Pilchard factories in Cornwall.

A short film about the Cornish accent, which is subtler and more complex than your average stereotypical versions.

Enough to Fill an Eggcup is a clip from a short film by Cornish director Mark Jenkin. Here you can see one of the modern boats (the fisherman may well be Mike’s son) coming in to Penberth Cove and being hauled up the slipway.

A walk from Porthcurno to Penberth.

Details about the area from Sennen to Penberth on the National Trust website.

The shots of the rock formation in the mist are of Logan Rock https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logan_Rock just up the hill from Penberth Cove, where I headed afterwards.

 

 

Sources:

Graham, Winston. Ross Poldark, Pan Macmillan, 2018

 

 

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  1. Tina on

    Words fail. This is so very very beautiful, so alive. As I walked about in this special place with Mike and as ‘his’ song guided me I felt powerfully as though I had been given the gift of discovering one of the world’s most remarkable secrets before it was gone forever. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Ah Tina, it was so much fun. Glad you listed to ‘his’ song too. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Reply