James Kearns: Woolf Walks

Whenever we are there, we walk the circumference of these standing stones: The Merry Maidens. We do this each time because we know that Virginia Woolf would have done the same; we touch the top of each of them in turn before walking back down the field to our red Fiesta. Woolf is likely to have come from the other direction, up from The Pipers, which is not the name of a public house, but of two hulking nine-foot granite slabs that stand beyond on Boleigh Farm. These are the distanced musicians to the gay dance taking place – albeit statically – a few fields away. I say still or static, but in Cornwall, as Ithell Colquhoun writes, these are known as the living stones.

Woolf walks where we walk, she lives and breathes where we live and breathe. From a trip to Trevose House, St Ives, in 1908, she writes to Lytton Strachey, letting him know that she spends most of her time alone—“with my God”—on the moors: “I sat for an hour on a rock this afternoon, and considered how I should describe the colour of the Atlantic” (April 22, 1908, 10). She tells of the very structure of the sea in human terms: “It has strange shivers of purple and green, but if you call them blushes, you introduce unpleasant associations of red flesh” (10). Her view of West Cornwall is refreshingly unsentimental because, unlike Strachey, she has a “feeling for nature” (10).

On Gurnard’s Head, I tell the story of another letter to her friend. It is a rare day that I fail to repeat it, come what may. I usually wait until the call of Choughs, their sharp scarlet beaks and legs unseen as they fly above our heads. Each time, I say, they seek us out. That’s my cue: the Choughs that circle us and the notes which name them: “Chee-aw.” That’s the first indication. I begin with the undated letter from March 1921, and “a picture postcard of Gurnard’s head.” Woolf is writing from Penion in Zennor and informs Strachey that “the enclosed card gives you no idea of the place, which is indescribable – far better than the Lizard or the Land’s End, or St Ives, or indeed anywhere” (90). I go through the list, ending, as I always will, on the “or indeed anywhere.”

As we walk across the spine of rocks towards the view of The Carracks to the west, I call out, Watch out for adders! He knows what I am about to say. He waits, patiently: “Two adders curling round my ankles. Gorse, cowries, Cliffs, Choughs, Ravens, Cream, solitude, sublimity and all the rest of it” (90). I paraphrase the words written to her friend, but the two adders curling round her ankles, I recall verbatim. Later, in the same letter, she writes that “these queer fragments” of pendant humanity are worn like the “cryptic ornaments, serpents, you know, swallowing their tails in token of eternity” (91). With much sympathy, she writes: “I can’t see why it’s all wrong.”

Every day, on every walk, we walk with Woolf. Woolf walks, we call them. Each walk begins the same way: Shall we go then, you and I? Each time the same way. Shall we go? I tell my constant companion all the tales of Woolf I know. He listens: She liked to walk, he says. I tell of her heartbreak when she had to leave Cornwall for London. “And now I must take a last look at the country: which will dissolve me in tears” (91). But, as ever, there’s more: not unlike James Ramsay trying to reach the lighthouse, Woolf writes in 1908 of a failed attempt to reach “a place called the Gurnard’s Head”—“and now I look up and behold it pours!” (April 28, 1908, 14). By 1921, the postcard has arrived like a call from the past. That’s more like it, I think, as I read to the end of her formative letter: “I got a stiff neck on the rocks—but it went.”

James Kearns
Newlyn, Cornwall, 25 Jun 2022


[1] Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey: Letters, edited and prefaced by Leonard Woolf and James Strachey, and first published by the Hogarth Press in 1956; p. 21. All of the following citations are taken from this text.

Published by International Virginia Woolf Society

The International Virginia Woolf Society is devoted to encouraging and facilitating the scholarly study of, critical attention to, and general interest in, the work and career of Virginia Woolf, and to facilitate ways in which all people interested in her writings— scholars, critics, teachers, students, artists and general readers—may learn from one another, meet together, contact each other, and help one another. Find out more about our organization, activities, and Virginia Woolf herself by following the links on our home page.

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