The A39 that runs through Ponsanooth is one of my least favourite roads. People drive too fast and the parked cars are approached like a chicane on a racetrack. It hasn’t been made much better by the introduction of a ‘20’ zone. At the bottom of the hill, a road leads off to the extraordinary Kennall Vale reserve managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust. I’ve visited it many times, but not since before the summer. My dog, Bessie, loves it there. So, today’s dog walk was combined with an idea, a desire, to find amethyst deceiver, a conical-capped mushroom that is an exquisite shade of pale purple that can be found in the fallen leaves of beech trees at this time of year.
When I open the car door to unclip her from her car-harness, her nose is raised, dragging in the air through her nostrils. I clip her lead on and she leaps out of the car tugging at the lead to go up the hill – exactly the right way for Kennall Vale. We haven’t been here since the spring and yet she knows where she wants to go. I wonder if it’s a vague sense, or she knows precisely where she is, as much as I do. All I know is that she has jacked herself low on her legs to maximise her pulling power. Loose-lead work abandoned, again.
The footpath into the vale is past a house, one that I now can’t really recall as it was – except to say that it had a jumbled feeling about it. A tatty yard with planters and kids toys. Perhaps two cars. It has been given the manicured treatment of a second-home with tarmac like black treacle, still glossy in places, and thick pea-shingle laid before the footpath. The windows are grey and lifeless. A grey SOLD sign adds a layer to my story, tell-tale retailer to the wealthy. I feel disappointed.
I let the dog off the lead and she slows to an amble. The woods ahead are dark. The air is still at ground level, yet the easterly wind that has stopped the St Mawes Ferry sailing hisses in the canopy.
Fungus-hunting means that I have invited the idea of meandering through the woods, eyes down. Bessie trailing with her nose, making her own connections in this place, and me scouring for breaks of purple in the burnt orange carpet. It made me think of a different kind of drift, in a psychogeographic kind of way.
At the furthest point from the entrance, amongst the beech trees, we have scrambled to the border of the reserve, high up on the northerly-facing slope. I had lead Bessie this way; usually she’s the one pulling me through the reserve towards the water. It was here I realised that I was in my most colourful coat – an orange raincoat, although there was no rain forecast. I had consciously sought it out from the coats hung on the back of the door. I’d made a deliberate action in response to this place, and yet it wasn’t consciously thought out. I know Kennall Vale is eerie. I know, as in not in my head, but as I experience it, viscerally. I think about this as we wander, and I only realise later that I lost all thought about seeing the amethyst deceiver because I’d become caught up in my experience of this place.
Why am I in orange?
I remembered bringing my friend B here a few years ago and she said that it was a setting she needed for somewhere magical realism novel – it was a portal to her. I remembered another time, when we met two police officers. They told us that a man with a ginger beard was on the run and was hiding up in the woods somewhere. He wasn’t dangerous, they said, but best not to approach him. I think I had deliberately chosen an orange coat so that I didn’t become absorbed by the woods. I wanted to be seen. There is something fundamentally uncanny about this place.
I notice a big old beech tree, thick with moss. I sink my fingers into the emerald green without finding the bark. I think about trying to wrap my arms around it to test out its size, but feel self-conscious. I want to know how it compares to the beech we had to have felled in our garden. That one was 150 years-old but I think this one is older. I look up and can’t see where it ends.
As these thoughts are turning in my mind, the skin around my nose starts to burn. Like it’s been brushed with hot chilis. It must be where I’ve pushed my glasses up my nose. Was that the moss? The woods are trying to consume me, I think.
I let the dog lead me through the rest of the reserve, following every watercourse. We cross the footbridge over the Kennall. She’s down by the water, so I follow her and crouch down. I run my hands in the stream. Is this a good idea, I think. This was the arsenic place, right? No… no. That’s Bissoe. This is Kennall Vale, the gunpowder place. I’m not sure of the wisdom of rinsing my hands, but my skin still tingles, so I risk patting my face with cool water.
She continues to the leats lying in terraces on the steeper side of the valley. The stone channels are leaking creating more waterfalls than I remember. Bessie is ahead, standing in a large puddle, looking back at me. Come on, she’s signalling. I pick my way across boulders, realising that the path is now a new watercourse. Her tail is high, waving in the air, like a tourist guide with a folded umbrella showing the way. A memory of being in another place shifts. Following a guide through the crowds at Agra, me weak after time in the company of Dehli-belly. Here we have our own procession. A family behind us follow, with me trailing Bessie. They turn back. We are intrepid, my dog and I.
I peer into skeletal buildings as I clamber after her. The carcasses of buildings have begun to be overtaken by vegetation – ferns, ivy. Fingers of tree roots reach across a a collapsed wall. A hazy fragment of memory shifts – this is a haunted place, right? Not only because of the traces of buildings but because people, many people, died here. I’m scratching at memories that don’t want to unfold, so I resolve to read the notice board on the way out.
I meet a man walking into the reserve as we leave. In one hand, he has a pug on a rectractable-lead, in the other his smartphone. Lights flicker on his screen; he is watching something. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to him where he is.
I am struck by the light. I can see the sky in all its amorphous grey the colour of ash. The carpet of fallen leaves are vibrant. I swear it was gloomy and oppressive when we came through only an hour ago.
I stop before the gate, the dog-poo bin is frothing with the handles of poo-bags.
The notice board is no longer there.
When I get home I look up Kennall Vale, firstly on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust website. A rather stern notice is asking people not to visit at busy times to preserve the environment and its wildlife. It would seem that it became a lockdown hit. That might explain why their curated information has gone.
I search on, finding the brilliant Cornish Bird’s blog. I almost wish I hadn’t. She says that it is reportedly haunted. She writes about her childhood experiences before the bridges built and the wooden walkways made. She doesn’t find it an eerie place, but says she’s not sure she would feel so comfortable going in the dark. I agree with her totally here, although I don’t share her ease about it in daylight. This makes me think about the impact that places have on us. Or perhaps we project onto places. I decide to follow that thought-train another day.