Book Review: The Levelling Sea, by Philip Marsden

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The Levelling Sea tells the history of Falmouth, through its rise in importance as a haven for ships in the Great Age of Sail, fading from glory as steam took its place in the evolution of international travel.  The Levelling Sea takes us through ‘Elizabethan privateers, merchant seamen, naval heroes, religious dissenters and outsiders’ to chart the development of the town through its people.  It is a glorious blend of geography and history, written with conviction, passion and skill.  The book almost reads as a series of short stories, told through different characters, unlike the historical text that you might expect from the book cover.

The Levelling Sea was handed to me shortly after we moved to Falmouth, and I am very grateful it was. It is a truly compelling read, rich in description and fact. Marsden is an anthropologist, and it is with this lens that he brings the past into the present, weaving history with his own exploration of the Carrick Roads in his small sailing boat, Liberty.  There are many ghosts of Falmouth’s past and, by the end of the book, you have an overlaid map of the town that exists now with some key moments from its past: The parade welcoming the railways; the homes of the Packet Captains in Flushing; and, the seat of the Killigrew ‘empire’ along Arwenack Street.

I always had a romantic notion that Cornwall was ungovernable, home of pirates and smugglers, but I had never realised that some were part of the ‘establishment’ of local rule.  The Falmouth of the past was a real melting pot of curious characters, also attracting colonists, Jews and Quakers as well as rogues of the sea.  Within the pages of his book, Marsden introduces some superb people – John Killigrew, Edward Pellew, John Silk Buckingham and Joseph Emidy, each worthy of their own book.  Fortunately Marsden’s chapter notes and extensive bibliography allows for the possibility of further reading.

The Levelling Sea also gives a fascinating insight into the call of the sea to the founding heroes of Falmouth. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, during the age of the great explorers, the trade routes, and naval conquests, ordinary men could become extraordinary because of their affinity for the ocean. Perhaps none better illustrated than Sir Edward Pellew, who rose to become Admiral of the Mediterranean from more humble beginnings.  I could not help but draw comparison to my own experiences on the water – wondering at the brave seamen of the past disappearing into more unchartered waters as compared to my own timid encounters of a very known world.

The Levelling Sea is a thoroughly rich and enjoyable read, bringing Falmouth’s past into my present.  I would highly recommend this book.

 

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