It was a quick trip, so much driving for just a night away, but my mom was in town, and all she wanted to see was Cornwall, land of ocean and sky and the British drama Poldark.
We left Tuesday morning and drove for hours, through Exeter (where she lost her cell phone at IKEA), through Devon, and finally to Cornwall. England is not large, but Cornwall hangs off the southwest edge of the island like an extended leg, separated from Wales by the Bristol Channel. It has only one major road running through it. The rest, as we quickly realized, is crisscrossed with roads so narrow I thought at times I had mistakenly driven onto a sidewalk. The mirrors were scraping the hedgerows on both sides of the car and these were two-lane roads. There were times I had to reverse a few hundred feet to let cars pass. After the first fews times, I asked Mom not to scream at oncoming traffic. It was terrifying enough already.
We reached Tintagel in late afternoon. The entire town is perched on the cliff overlooking the ocean. The main road is lined with ice cream stores and pasty shops. Cornwall is known for its food. In fact, by law, Cornish pasties must be made in Cornwall, using only local ingredients. The region is also known for its clotted cream, which may be the world’s most perfectly decadent food when paired with scones and jam.
Mom and I were starving. We ducked into a little cafe for hot pasties and Cornish bread pudding, food so rich and fresh that it melted in our mouths.
We had come to see Tintagel Castle, which is a generous name for a pile of rubble built on the outcropping of rock above the sea. What makes Tintagel stunning is its age (built in the 1200s), the setting by the water, and its connection to the legend of King Arthur. It’s said that this is where the famous king might have ruled over Camelot. Below, nestled against the narrow beach, is a deep-cut cavern, known as Merlin’s Cave.
The castle was built in two sections, one on the mainland, and the rest on the peninsula that juts out into the sea. In the 1200s, the two halves were connected by a strip of land, so narrow that it could be defended by only three knights. But sometime in the 1400s, the connecting land crumbled into the water below, leaving the outer castle to deteriorate in the brutal coastal elements.
Interest in the castle was reawakened during Victorian times. Stairs were built down to the beach and up the other side. And just six weeks ago, a suspension bridge was opened between the two halves. The man at the gate told us the bridge cost 4 million pounds and was built, ironically, by the American Bridge Company. It’s a stunning piece of architecture that swayed under our feet as we walked across the chasm. I hope it holds.
We got to the castle just as they were letting in the last entrants. It was cool and windy, the ground steep and rocky. All that’s left of the medieval castle are low-lying foundations, imprints really, that hint at what must have been a vast complex of rooms, a dining hall, kitchens, and a chapel. We could see the coast stretch on for miles in both directions.
We were the last to enter, and the last to leave. We hadn’t booked a hotel for the evening, but found one at dusk right outside Newquay, a newly refurbished bed and breakfast with a full frontal view of the ocean. The owner pointed us down the road for dinner to a cluster of restaurants. One of them, Jamie Oliver’s Seventeen, looked intriguing. We walked down a flight of stairs and found ourselves at a restaurant built over the ocean. It was like nothing I had ever seen. In the dimming light, the rising tide rushed under us. It felt like we would be swept out to sea at any moment.
The restaurant is a non-profit that employs chefs-in-training. Everyone working there looked to be about, well, seventeen. We had fig salad and prosciutto, lentils and roasted corn. Mom ordered partridge and I had farfalle with roasted tomatoes and pesto. It might be the best meal I’ve had thus far in England, and I’ve had some good ones.
Wednesday morning promised to be gorgeous. The sky was blue, the air warm. Cornwall is quiet this time of year, as all the tourists have gone home. There was only one other couple in our entire hotel. We ate breakfast in the sunroom. Mom had the traditional English breakfast and I had avocado toast with poached egg and tomato.
Midway through the meal, I noticed a commotion outside. The hotel fronts the main road through Newquay. Across the street is a slanted football pitch, and beyond that, the ocean. There was a man standing in the road directing traffic. He was telling cars to drive up on the sidewalk and around some obstacle, we couldn’t see what.
“Something’s happening out there,” I told Mom.
Ever inquisitive, she got up to investigate, going to the other room to get a better view.
“Tiffany, come see,” she told me.
I followed her. From the large window on the opposite side of the hotel, we could see directly onto the road. We could see why traffic was being redirected. In the middle of the road, a man was on the ground. He was in an upright position, his head in his hands. He was covered in blood. His head had almost no hair, and was bright pink, as if he had been scalped. He rocked back and forth, and kept touching his head. There was a bright slash of blood running down the road, and a pile of bloody blankets piled on the sidewalk.
There was a cluster of people around him, two men trying to talk to him, comfort him, I’m not sure what. Nearby stood a distraught blond women in her mid-forties. Her face was in her hands. Another woman stood next to her, talking quietly.
We were standing on the balcony, watching all this, trying to piece it all together. Had he been hit by a car? Fallen off a bike? There was no bike in sight, only a car pulled to the side of the road. Had the woman hit him? She wasn’t comforting him, or touching him, so we didn’t think they were connected in any way.
Soon the restaurant cook and hotel owner had joined us to watch. A helicopter circled overhead, then landed on the slanted football pitch. Three men in orange uniforms climbed out and headed toward the scene. They didn’t run. I kept thinking: faster, faster, don’t you understand the urgency of this?
The man kept touching his head, and trying to stand. The ER people reached him and pulled him onto the grass. They began cutting off his clothes, covering him with a blue paper blanket. It took forever. Forever and ever and ever. An ambulance arrived, maybe 20 minutes later. The helicopter lifted off, then landed again below the football pitch, in a parking lot. They were going to life-flight him to the hospital. But still, it all happened so slowly. I kept thinking that in the States it would have happened in minutes, fifteen tops. It took them nearly an hour to get him into the ambulance, and then down the road to the helicopter. The blond woman stood the whole time, visibly distraught but never interacting with the injured man.
We packed up to leave the hotel. Our plan was to take a walk along the beach and enjoy the nearby trails. The police arrived and sectioned off the entire road, shutting it down. The blood was still in the middle of the road, the stained blankets and the man’s cut clothes and shoes in a heap on the grass. There were three police officers with clipboards.
Mom went straight up the nearest officer. “ We saw it happen,” Mom told her.
The woman lowered her clipboard. “You did? Can you tell us about it?”
I explained that we hadn’t actually seen what happened, only the aftermath, but still, she wanted to know what we had seen. What way had the car been facing?
“We’re going to have to use you as a witness,” she told us. “It should only take about an hour.”
An hour! Our whole morning. But no matter, this was important. Mom happily climbed into the police car for questioning. And the remaining officer told me the whole story.
A boyfriend and girlfriend had been fighting. She was driving up the road. He got angry and jumped, right out of the moving car, right onto the road.
And it didn’t look like he was going to survive, she told me. There might have been drugs involved. The man was not in his right mind. The woman didn’t have a license on her. But she had kids, because they removed two carseats from the back of the car.
The questioning didn’t take an hour, only 20 minutes, in which Mom became great friends with the officer. The road was completely shut off. We couldn’t get out, and no one else could get through. An elderly woman was making her way up the road to her apartment. I took her elbow and guided her up the sidewalk until she reached the top of the hill.
A local couple, both in bright yellow rain slickers, stopped to ask us what happened. So did a man with a surfboard. It seemed that we would meet the entire town before we left.
The tide had pulled out almost half a mile. We walked along the beach all the way to the water’s edge, Mom barefoot in the warm sand. When we returned, the road was just being opened. A man stepped out onto his garden balcony, full robe open, with only bright blue underwear on underneath.
He blinked in the sunlight, surveying the scene in front of him. “Whots ‘appenin’?” he said to his girlfriend, who was on the balcony beside him.
She took one look at him and shouted, “Do up your bloody robe!”
We climbed into our car. The streak of blood on the road had been washed clean, the clothes taken away, but the morning scene stayed with us all day, as we squeezed down narrow roads, explored the historic harbor of Charlestown, and walked in Poldark’s footsteps. It was a beautiful, beautiful day. Life felt fragile and precious. We saw someone hurt, and now he might be dead.
When late afternoon came, we were anxious to get home to Oxford, even though the drive was long and arduous. I was glad to get home, to hug my family, to climb into pajamas, to go to sleep with the reminder that we only get one life—just one—and we need to treat it with care.