A few days ago, I realised it was the third anniversary of mum’s funeral. Oddly, I don’t remember the date she died, but I do remember the date of the funeral. It’s the same for dad, as a matter of fact. Perhaps because funerals are booked and planned whereas death comes unexpectedly. Anyway, on that day I was in Cornwall and I’d set off to walk round the bay from Penzance to St Michael’s Mount.
This is a particularly iconic and mysterious place. I knew, had mum been alive, she would’ve been interested to know what I was doing. They’ve built a new path for walkers and cyclists and, while I was on that path, I was passed by an interesting form of transport. I suppose essentially, it was a rickshaw. One person sits behind and pedals a bike; two people sit on a bench seat in front and look about them. The first one I saw had two very elderly ladies as passengers. What a great idea. I thought Mum would’ve loved to have been transported up and down the seafront on something like that.
Mum was always proud of her Cornish heritage. She must have inherited that pride from her mother, who inherited it from her Cornish grandmother, Mary Rowe. That sense of ancestry has been passed on to me to the extent that, when I’m in Cornwall, I always feel I’m not simply a tourist but have some deeper connection with the land. Call it my matrilineal DNA; call it what you will.
I began my family history research because mum knew very little about her family. She was thrilled when I discovered the farm where Mary Rowe was born. When some friends on a visit to the area, rather cheekily drove down the farm lane and took photos, she was fascinated. But when she died, I put my research to one side. But I still had a yen to visit the farm, if I could work out how to do it. This summer, on my way down to a cat-sitting gig for some friends in the far west of Cornwall, I bit the bullet, and stopped off in Truro – which is a mere 30-minute bus ride from where Mary Rowe was born, just over 200 years ago.
The current landowner, a charming chap, agreed to show me round. When I got lost walking over the fields from the village, he courteously came and found me. When it started to pour with rain, he kindly invited me into his house, gave me a cup of tea and entertained me with interesting tales. It was a lovely place. There were fields planted with crops but around the group of buildings, which included a Georgian manor house, were trees, gardens and rewilded areas. The cottage where my ancestors lived (probably as tenant farmers) is still standing, although a lot of the farm buildings: the barn, the dairy, the piggery – have now been converted into rented accommodation.
Of course, I know that farm life was hard; it was physical labour from morning to night – so perhaps it’s not surprising that Mary Rowe and her younger sister, Johanna, went to London to seek their fortune.
But even so, I felt like I’d entered a sort of haven, outside of time. I’d thought so often about going there, that I couldn’t quite believe I’d actually made it. The whole visit seemed slightly unreal, as if I’d entered a dream, or a different dimension. The charming owner must have thought I was a little dippy, but he did kindly drive me back to the bus stop when I mentioned I had to leave as there was a bus due but the next one was in 2 and ½ hours! He probably thought I might get lost going back across the fields.
But the point of this post is to say that, although I was doing things that would’ve interested mum, I didn’t feel like I was doing them for her, or in her memory, I felt like I was doing them because I wanted to do them. And it occurred to me that I do feel lighter. It might be because I’ll soon be able to move on, but I no longer feel like I’m carrying a burden although what that burden was, I can’t exactly say.