Life in the Parishes

AN ADVENTURE DOWN THE LIMPOPO: or, a Sunday School Outing in Cornwall

Excerpted from "A Cornish Childhood" by A. L. Rowse
J. Mosman, OPC

In early childhood there was the excitement of Sunday School outings to Pentewan. Not a far cry; three miles down the valley from St. Austell to the little china-clay harbour with its large beach and 'Winnick' - grass-covered towans, a splendid play-place. but the excitement was increased a hundredfold by the fact that we went down the valley, not by road, but by the diminutive railway that carried the china clay to the harbour and coal back to the town. The trucks were cleaned out for this annual event, and filled with Sunday School forms: we were a small, shrieking, gesticulating, singing trainload, children, parents - as child-like as the children - Sunday School teachers very prim and lady-like, for they were under the eye of the dear vicar, complete with curate; I just remember the presence of that formidable black beard on the earliest of these occasions.

But what violent pleasure it was: we couldn't have been more excited and tingling with expectancy if we were making a journey into Darkest Africa. And actually when we left the obviousness of the roadway behind us and the track took us beside the river skirting King's Wood, the river might have been the Limpopo and the wood equatorial forest, it was all so exotic and thrilling. The overhanging vegetation plucked your cap off before you knew where you were; the dragon-flies darted gorgeously by on the wing; the honeysuckles reached their fingers into the truck and tickled your neck; there was a rank vegetation of every sort of flower, yellow and purple and red, alongside the track; there were moorhens flitting in and out the flags of the swamps; and as we arrived at our destination, the little ponds that fed the dock-basin were the splendidest of lakes for me. When we were decanted there were the dangers of the beach with the white river to be warned against; so-and-so had been drowned here so many years before. We paddled; hardly anybody bathed in those days: I wouldn't have bathed for anything. We ran about the Winnick, played games, and quarreled. And then we had tea; each of us an enormous, round, golden saffron bun, corrugated with currants and flavoured with lemon-peel. Never were there such saffron buns as those!

When at the end of a day's racing about on the beach, on the Winnick, we were gathered once more into the trucks. On our return journey through the woods, darkening and mysterious with evening, there was a quieter mood prevailing. We sang. But I for my part remember nothing but a delicious sensation of stupor and tiredness in all my limbs; and I never remember arriving at the other end at all, nor how we got home: I must have slept on my legs. The mood of happy fatigue sometimes communicated itself to the little engine, which came to a dead stop in the middle of Africa. I felt a feeling of alarm: there we were in the middle of the woods, darkness closing in on us - suppose if we couldn't go on? It was a delicious sense of trepidation, dispelled by the amusement caused by my companion, Alec, who declared of the engine: 'She's ferted.' Everybody knew what this good dialect word meant, though none of the grown-ups would have used it for the world on this polite occasion.

I celebrate these outings to Pentewan at length, for they have long since ceased. When the War came (WWI), the little track was taken up - to be laid again in who knows what battlefields of France or Flanders or Palestine - the trucks and engine dispersed. It ended the prosperity of the little harbour, and the ships came there less and less. But, for us, it meant perhaps more: it was the end of an epoch, the end of childhood.

Sunday School outing, 1910


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