By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
‘Can you actually go out to the lighthouse?,’ asked My Irish Husband Tony.
‘Well, that’s kind of the point of the book,’ I said. I’d read it about ten years ago. Did they get there? I couldn’t remember.
When planning our holiday, I realized our best route would take us over to Dublin, down the Irish coast, and back into Wales. Then, where?
Cornwall! Never been there. We’d go to St. Ives where Virginia Stephen summered with her family in the 1890s. Take some pictures. Time to re-read To the Lighthouse.
Bought the book, packed it, but didn’t dig it out until we were settled in to our cottage-for-a-week, the Penrose, high above Boscastle, Cornwall, famed for flash flooding a few years before. Over-estimating my speed reading, and underestimating the fascination of Virginia’s prose, I planned to knock it off in a day, biographical preface (a refresher course in Woolf’s life), introduction, detailed footnotes and all.
By the time Tony had our dinner ready on Sunday night I had just finished the description of the Ramseys’ dinner party and was heading towards the end of section one, The Window. I underlined the visual imagery that would make for great photos with our new digital camera. Waves, beaches, flowers. Hmmm. Maybe a calendar.
So yesterday we set off, Tony behind the wheel and me with my eyes closed as we wound up, down and around the B roads of Cornwall. Who thinks these are two lanes wide? What nimnul would actually pass in this passing zone? I tried to stay calm, but at each blind corner I envisaged meeting the tour bus with our number on it.
The wise men and women of St. Ives have arranged a park and ride at the train station outside town. We crawled out of our Vauxhall Vectra and my spirits soared as we strolled through the parking lot to the train platform. A few minutes later Tony and I were taking turns clicking the camera out the window as the Godrevy Lighthouse appeared in the distance.
Off the train we followed the crowd into the town center, slowly inching down the streets, black with tourists, locals, lorries, and cars. Who thinks these are two lanes wide? What nimnul is actually backing up on this bend?
At the tourist office the guide informed us that there is little or no acknowledgement of Virginia’s 13 summers here. Surprisingly, Talland House, which the Stephen family leased each summer until their mother died, still stands and is rented out for self-catering. If only I’d known.
The guide marked the site on the 20p town map, and I searched the postcard racks for a picture of the lighthouse. None. These people are missing out. No ‘Virginia Woolf walks’ in the evenings? No ‘To the Lighthouse Gift Shop’?
We followed the convoluted streets with the help of the guide’s instructions to go up the steps. And up. The hill. The steep, steep hill. With (thankfully) one-way traffic crawling up behind us.
Full buses went by, but how do most people get around here? The driving is impossible, the narrow streets barely navigable for us in sturdy walking shoes. This fault of nature certainly hasn’t diminished the crowds.
The houses clinging to the hill were built for middle class Victorian and Edwardian families escaping summers in London, and are now probably owned by economic refugees from the City with more money than time. At one point I flailed about, exasperated, trying to match the three-dimensional slopes under my feet with the two-dimensional paper representation in my hands. Tony helped.
We found Talland Road. Which one is Talland House? No blue plaques here. Which one has ‘the gate…the carriage drive…the little flight of rough steps…a chink in the escalonia hedge,’ as Virginia described it in her journals? None. One was obviously too modern; the others—maybe. I had arrived unprepared.
‘Which one is it?’ asked Tony.
‘Don’t know,’ I admitted. So I took pictures of all of them, from all angles. I turned around and took pictures of the view. Could you actually see the lighthouse from here? Its beam wouldn’t have shown through the family windows, that’s for sure.
Whichever house it is, the view is spectacular.
But the most striking feature to me was not the lighthouse, nor the view, but getting there and back. How on earth did her mother do this every day? In the novel, Mrs. Ramsay, aged 50, strolls in to town as though it is an easy horizontal. This is a 90 degree hike. My over-50 knees felt it. My arthritic mother, who barely passed 50, could never have visited, let alone lived here, even for a summer.
We walked back down into the town center with the rest of the tourists. Found a pub, the Golden Lion, old enough that Virginia’s dad Leslie Stephen could have stopped in for a pint. Looked as tho it hadn’t been cleaned since then too. Had a diet Coke while we studied the train schedule. Tony risked one pint knowing I would take the first stretch of driving on our way back.
We surrendered to the crowd heading towards the bay. More pictures of the beach, the lighthouse. No shots of local painters that I had hoped would illustrate Lily Briscoe cleaning her brushes. Maybe we could come back another day, by train, instead of risking the treachery of the Cornwall roads.
Back in our Vectra, I took the wheel as planned. It would be a dual carriageway for a while; I can do this.
But as soon as the A road narrowed, we found a parking area so Tony could take over. I crawled into the passenger’s seat, rather than open the door into traffic. Tony got out for a cigarette, and then walked around to the driver’s side as a six-wheeler rolled by. I remembered my mother confiding to me the fear she had experienced one night, stuck on the side of the road in a storm with my dad fixing a flat tire. ‘He scared me half to death, out there in that traffic. My heart was in my mouth,’ she said. ‘Oh, mum,’ I moaned, dripping teen age disgust. Now I felt her paralyzing fear of loss. What if something happened to him? What would I do, trapped, on this height, this hill, without him?
We arrived back safely at the Penrose, the rain just beginning. We transferred the pictures from the digital camera to the laptop, deleting the totally useless. We heated up the chicken, and fell asleep with red wine and BBC.
This morning, while Tony drove to the shops three winding miles away, I stayed in bed with my tea and continued the book. Underlining the imagery in part three, The Lighthouse, I now connected it with my pictures. ‘…like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window…’ ‘…of cliff, sea, clouds and sky brought purposely together…’ ‘…the Lighthouse looked this morning in the haze an enormous distance away…’ Maybe…a calendar.
Tony arrives back, bringing French bread, train times, and cash from the ATM. This is what Virginia referred to as ‘the eruption of Sidney’—the distraction of having anyone around when trying to read, or write, or paint, like Lily Briscoe struggling to finish her painting, despite Mr. Carmichael dozing nearby.
I read through the last few pages quickly. The Ramsays get to the lighthouse, of course, Dad with his two piss-faced teenagers, thinking, ‘I have reached it.’
‘It was done; it was finished,’ thought Lily as she lay down her brush.
They are frozen in time, and on safe ground.