Saturday, 16 April 2011

A Strange Tale from Cornwall

We (my beloved, child 3 and I) have just returned from a brief trip to Cornwall. My lovely brother in law lives in Penzance with his two boys who are similar ages to my twins so an excellent time has been had by all including much beaching, eating and drinking and even some rather haphazard tennis.

Cornwall is a treasure chest of memories for me as it was where my earliest holidays took place - at a beautiful - and unspoilt, in my day - resort called Carbis Bay. My brother in law was happy to indulge my need to reminisce by taking me there - on the tiny train line that runs from St Erth to St Ives, the idea being to have a morning and hefty lunch in St Ives with a visit to Carbis Bay either on the way or the way back. As chance would have it, the train refused to stop at the Carbis Bay station and so our first attempt at reliving my childhood holidays rather failed to get off the ground.

Our second attempt was an early morning trip there by car, leaving three boys in their beds until a more civilised hour (actually their idea of 'civilised' differed somewhat from ours but anyway they slept on and we were on the beach at Carbis Bay at 7.30am.) The trouble with going back is that often the reality does not live up to the childhood memory. But Carbis Bay beach did not disappoint and it was as long and stunning as I remembered.

My last clear memory of Carbis was March 1967 when we were staying at the hotel (which is considerably larger now and full of Saga residents) when the Torrey Canyon went down on the Cornish reef. We went down to the beach every morning to pick up the dead gulls and guillemots which were washed up on the beach covered in oil. At the time, this was the biggest vessel ever to be shipwrecked on the UK coastline.

I looked up what had happened that fateful day in March and really, you couldn't make it up! The master of the tanker decided to take a shortcut on his route to Milford Haven with 120,000 tons of crude on board. His plan was to cut through between the Cornish coast and the Scilly Isles. When he realised he was too close to the reef, he instructed the helmsman (who was actually the crew's chef) to change course, but the helmsman was very inexperienced (probably better at cooking than steering) and couldn't work out whether the tanker was in its equivalent of manual or automatic. By the time, he had worked it out, the Torrey Canyon was on the reef and leaking its cargo of crude oil into the sea.

The prime minister of the time, Harold Wilson (who had a holiday home on the Isles of Scilly and therefore perhaps a vested interest) decided to call a cabinet meeting at Culdrose, the Royal Naval station in Cornwall, and the decision was taken to bomb the oil in order to set it alight and burn it off. This plan had two fatal flaws - firstly, even though it was bombed with 42 1,000lb bombs, 25% of them missed their target proving that the Armed Forces can't even accurately hit a stationery target, and secondly, the high seas kept putting out the flames. In the end, 120 miles of Cornish coastline were seriously polluted along with 50 miles of French coast.

Some time later, the British government decided to sue the owners of the Torrey Canyon for the desecration of the coastline. The only way they could do this was by serving a writ on the Torrey Canyon's sister ship which happened to be in Singapore. So a British solicitor working in Singapore was instructed to get on the Lake Palourde (the sister ship) and attach a writ to the ship's mast. He was allowed on the ship by the crew because they thought he was a whisky salesman and so the writ was successfully served. The French government tried to do the same thing but only succeeded in chasing the Lake Palourde by speedboat.

Anyway, Cornwall is as wild and beautiful as I remembered and, although it is very different in some ways from my early childhood, it is a most wonderful place and I hope that child 3 has some good memories banked from his first trip.

No comments:

Post a Comment