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THE MYSTIC HEDGE: A PHOTO ESSAY ABOUT ANOTHER QUITE UNSETTLING CORNISH WALK
Winter was finally over, the wild garlic had shot its load, and, although the car boot sale had been rained off, the sun was attempting to prise apart the clouds and just the right amount of refreshing breeze was tickling the infant bluebells in the hedgerows, so it seemed as good a time as any to set out on a long, exhausting walk. As I studied OS Explorer map 107 covering St Austell and Liskeard, something bothered me: one particular patch of land between the strangely soft and forgotten, strangely French-feeling, strangely charity shopless town of Lostwithiel and the sea. A segment I was yet to explore on foot. Rivers, lakes, remote farms. A thing that I was only slightly familiar with called The Giant’s Hedge. Another thing called Boggamill. A field the map said contained a ‘Hydraulic Ram’. So much intrigue. A big oversight on my part. Was it really more than seven months since we signed the tenancy agreement? Clearly I hadn't been on my game of late. Normally I’d be all over this shit within days of living in a place. Distracted by somewhere a few miles to the north called Death Corner, made all the more intriguing by its proximity to somewhere else called Hurtstocks Wood, I momentarily wavered, but then thought again of the hedge that probably reached all the way to the actual clouds, and of the ram. I had met lots of rams in the past and even stroked the chins of a few, but this particular breed was new to me. I wondered if it would turn out to be friendly.
As I set off up the hill, the soundtrack was fairly standard for around here at this time of year: woodpecker, lawn mower, someone telling a dog to get a grip and take a long hard look at itself, someone else in some trees with a rifle murdering something that didn’t deserve it. The death-life symphony faded and I was soon alone in quieter, deeper countryside on a track approaching numerous semi-abandoned farm buildings where what seemed like 94 feral cats scattered upon hearing my footfall, a committee of three community figureheads then returning to monitor and make notes on my progress.
Cats live outside of cat society abiding by their own primitive rules on these deep Cornish farms, even if they look quite posh, as some of these ones did. They are not interested in batting around a catnip cigar or making imaginary baking products out of your tits. They are far too busy keeping their own off-grid cults running smoothly. The only sign, in fact, that they didn’t live in this one entirely without human companionship was an abandoned child’s bike and an uprooted toilet resting against a couple of outbuildings. My assumption was that they’d probably poisoned and done away with the child who owned the bike and, during a recent bathroom renovation project, replaced the toilet with some old sand.
Cats like these tend - along with the occasional scarecrow, household appliance trash mountain and handwritten notice announcing ‘CIDER: ONE MILE’ - to be one of the signs that you have passed the picture postcard shopfront of honeypots such as Lerryn and Fowey and entered the far odder, deeper countryside that resides in the storeroom of this part of Mid Cornwall: a forgotten land that gets overlooked in favour of pretty much every other part of the county, even the parts people are always saying are overlooked. The northern boundary of this place of densely atmospheric otherness is The Giant’s Hedge: a huge stone earthwork, running almost ten miles from Looe to Lerryn, that divided two unrecorded Dark Age kingdoms and which, on a 21st Century spring day following heavy rain, is a mixture of primrose explosion, boggy treachery and tunnelled spectrality. Ultimately it is just a larger than average hedge but, close up, it feels a bit more ancient and spookily loaded than that. You should probably visit it and decide for yourself, though. I have a reputation for being overimaginative.
Of course, the thing about deep countryside is that, if you go deep enough into it, you’re always going to eventually get back into more shallow countryside, or maybe even civilisation itself, but that feels less the case around these parts. Even Stonerush Lakes, a selection of luxury holiday lodges in the middle of it, has the surreal silent feel of a futuristic post-apocalypse community where everyone walks around in slow motion wearing the same make of linen jacket. From there, I clambered via the apex of the Giant’s Hedge to Lanreath, where I was soon greeted by the most staggeringly, instantly terrifying building I have ever seen: The Punch Bowl Inn, dating from the 1600s, where no drink has been served - at least not to or by corporeal beings - since this precise time in 2012. It looked like the pub where a zombie rider and his death stallion go to drink. Legendarily, it is haunted by a murdered vicar posing as a large black cockerel. Peering through its heavily smudged windows, I couldn’t spot the cockerel, but did see what appeared to be the corpse of one of the building’s failed renovators in a hi-vis jacket and hard hat, leaning against the window.
Still yet to see another living human in the village, but getting a definite feeling I was being watched, I spun 180 degrees to be greeted by an even more terrifying sight.
I hurried on, past an inky black church - a building that seemed to be crying out in anguish, possibly for the death metal video that it clearly wished to host - and, finding a footpath that I sensed had been used maybe twice this year in total, I noticed how heavy and dark the sky was, as if the grey grey village of Lanreath itself had its own very powerful weather, and had effectively used it to cancel the concept of hope, worldwide. I progressed slowly across clinging fields past sinister rotting farm machinery on half-signposted routes, some of which had been blocked off. I retraced my steps and, as I did, a black rabbit ran directly into my shin at high speed. I was unnerved but mostly just relieved that it wasn’t a cockerel or a vicar.
The dark hazy sky seemed to have lowered but solidified, as if being held a few feet above me by giant invisible hands. I took a wrong turn into the garden of a b&b, slightly in doubt - as you so often are during the spring months in Cornwall - whether I was about to be shot or offered some organic coffee, then turned to find myself beside what looked like the kind of tiny racist corrugated iron church that films inform you exist in some parts of rural America. At this point I realised I was being stared at by a CCTV camera and was put in mind of a man whose land I used to live on, his bank of CCTV monitors, and the strange feeling I had, once I moved to my next house, that I had my home life fully to myself for the first time in months. I hopped a gate, found the path, lost it, trespassed some more, hopped another gate and hit tarmac, with no small amount of relief.
As someone with a fairly solid internal compass, I am never sure quite which direction I am travelling in on the lanes around here. It’s no doubt the jigsaw puzzle nature of the coast direct behind them that contributes to a feeling that you are heading north when you are heading south, west when you are going east. Somewhere behind the high hedges, near a stream, the hydraulic ram did its thing, unseen, unheard, unpetted. I trusted the map, progressed past barns where cows butted the metal dividers in their stalls, making that unique hot light clang that somebody really should have used to create atmosphere in a rural horror film by now but to my knowledge hasn’t. I tried and failed not to look at a faded lost cat poster on a telegraph pole, read it against my will, forced to do so by the persistent, bullying, perfectionist writer part of me that feels he should take in every detail of the countryside, dark and light, because that is the only way he will be able to write truthfully about the place. I regretted it, as I knew I would, especially when I got to the part about two men emerging from a van and covering a small body with a towel
The sky continued to box me in, without providing air holes. The breeze had gone from pleasant to sharp. On the plus side, I had almost reached Boggamill. He seemed different to how he had seemed in the 1984 film Beverley Hills Cop, mostly because he had been a high ranking Los Angeles-based policeman back then and was now an extremely small hamlet on the South West Peninsula of the UK containing a couple of cottages, four barns and about sixteen cows
I knew the way back from here, just about, was aware of its relative prosaic simplicity, and I was more glad of that than I expected. I could see a lone wind turbine turning under the smeary paused sky, its blades almost touching the bit those giant invisible hands still held. I knew exactly where that turbine was. Nine miles down. Three to go. A big hill to climb for each of them. Three Cornwall miles. Six East Anglian miles, if you wanted to be defeatist about it. Bit of blood in my shoe. Never mind. I was feeling quite happy for a spooked bleeding person and it would be over soon. A lurcher, clocking me as a vulnerable target, arrived in my path and used me for widdershins four times, its teeth grazing the fabric of my trousers the third and fourth time it tracked my circumference. When its owner emerged out of a shepherd’s hut and said hello in the casual manner of someone whose dog wasn’t poised to bite off a stranger’s genitals, I opened my mouth to return the greeting but for a few seconds found only air there instead of words. I realised I was trembling. Over the next hill, another dog came for me, snarling, but was yanked back by the metal chain attached to its collar. The phone mast ahead buzzed and pulsated ominously and a wren kept step with me on the line overhead, yelling its alarm call. “Don’t go any further!” it said. “There’s a dead body leaning against a wall.”
But I knew he’d got it wrong, made the same easy mistake that so many do. It was just a scarecrow: the one with the stained trousers that I’d watched get more soggy and sorry for itself as the winter progressed. I definitely knew the way home from the scarecrow. It was just a matter of walking up two of the biggest hills I’d ever seen. Hills made by giants. It was all going to be ok. But something was out of place. There was an object beneath the scarecrow’s foot that hadn’t been there last time: a chunk of something, covered in dark blue wool. Tentatively, using my shirt cuff for protection, I picked it up. I gazed up and saw an arm severed at the wrist and realised that, in my hand, I held another, small and solitary and gloved against the surprisingly cold encroaching night.
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My latest book is called Villager. You can purchase a copy with free worldwide delivery here. My latest three non-fiction books - 21st-Century Yokel, Ring The Hill and Notebook - are full of country walks, so you might enjoy reading those too, if you liked the above piece.