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The Witching Hour (Cornwall edition): Village people

The Witching Hour (Cornwall edition): Village people
The ruins of a gunpowder factory anchor the Kennall Vale Wood, which in turn anchors the village of Ponsanooth.Photo by Tracy Salcedo

By Tracy Salcedo

It’s the middle of the night near the southern tip of Cornwall in Great Britain, and I’m thinking about villages (and fairies). I’m supposed to be sleeping in this quaintly renovated stable called Elowen, which is part of Kennall Farm, but travel has nudged me out of my rhythm. So I’m thinking about the farm, its stable, and the Kennall Mill, Vale, and Wood, which sprawl across the countryside between the villages of Stithians and Ponsanooth. Though Elowen’s address is Ponsanooth, my son says the place fits more into Stithians.

The two villages — my son calls them toy towns — are separated both by geography and identity. To get to either toy town center, you have to walk lanes and public paths through the countryside, climbing rustic stiles over hedgerow fences and crossing green fields cropped by sheep. The lanes and paths leading from Kennall Farm to Ponsanooth pass a stand of giant rhubarb where Thumbelina and her kin live, cross a “weak bridge,” and then thread down through the Kennall Vale Wood, where the ruins of a long-abandoned gunpowder factory rise from the moss and fern and brambles.

The homes in Ponsanooth are stacked on the wooded hillsides, and the village has a new traffic light right “downtown.” It also has a post office, a little grocery, a grammar school and, of course, a pub. It feels very much like a bedroom community for the nearby port town of Falmouth, but the Kennall Vale Wood, with its trails and history, is integral to its identity.

The homes in Stithians form a hub surrounded by farm fields. “Downtown” also has a market, a churchyard, a playground and, of course, a pub. But Stithians is staunchly agricultural. Later, as we drove to the rail station in Truro where I would board a train for the first leg of an interminable journey home, thousands were descending on Stithians’ sprawling fairground, which backs up to Elowen’s peaceful garden. The lanes were clotted with cars seeking to avoid the main twolane roads; those main roads were clotted as well, for miles in either direction. My son bemoaned his own interminable journey home.

Being part of a farm, it makes sense that Elowen is more Stithians than Ponsanooth — not to mention it’s easier to walk to the pub in Stithians than to the pub in Ponsanooth, which is important. But most of the toy towns I visited in the United Kingdom were neatly defined geographically, distinct from each other and from whichever city or large town was closest. I wasn’t there long enough to determine the cultural identity of every village I visited, but for some it was crystal clear. In Wales, Llanberis, at the foot of Yr Wyddfa (Mount Snowdon), is a climbing village. In England’s Lake District, Grasmere is artsy, while Windermere is unabashedly touristy, and Coniston is a mash-up of adventure and thinking. In Cornwall, Tintagel embodies its castle, and Lizard embodies the sea.

Hailing, as I do, from a toy town with a single (relatively new) stoplight and a small “downtown” with, of course, a saloon, I felt at home in all these villages. I was also thankful they were still thriving after unfathomable centuries. They gave me hope for the longevity of my village, which celebrated its 150th birthday while I was overseas, and whose status as a village is in jeopardy.

In Wales and Cornwall, villages are foundational and valued — otherwise, they wouldn’t have survived. The villages I’ve visited in Mexico and Honduras have the same valued feel, places where people know each other and support each other, even if they don’t run in the same social circles. I suspect the same is true in villages in China, Russia, Botswana, Argentina — everywhere. After all, we humans have lived in villages since the beginning of our times. No matter whether we are indigenous or immigrant, we come home to the village. Cities have grown up as well, and some people prefer them to small, secluded villages, but even within cities there are villages — neighborhoods — where folks know the grocer, the bartender, the postmaster, the schoolteacher.

We pick the villages where we live with care, if we are able, and if we aren’t, we do our best to make the place we live our village.

I live in the toy town of my choosing by virtue of good luck. Glen Ellen was one of the only places where my husband and I could afford to buy a home when we returned to California from Colorado in the late 1990s. It reminded me of the toy town where my parents settled when I was young. I quickly embraced the artistic vibe, the live-and-let-live attitude that allowed the writer on the hill to do her thing while the poet on the creek did his, and the cellist in the hollow, and the sculptor up the canyon, and the collector “downtown.” The Sonoma Developmental Center — a village within the village — contributed a subculture of service to the mix, a willingness to embrace and uplift the variety of humanity. These things, to this day, give Glen Ellen its distinctive accent. Glen Ellen is not Kenwood, or Boyes Hot Springs, or Sonoma. They have their own accents.

In the face of California’s housing crunch, every village and neighborhood in the state finds itself facing transformation. Building up, building out, building more is one way to address the crisis, albeit an incomplete solution. Building more makes sense in the city, where the American ideal of “bigger is better” has been heartily embraced. But where the village is intact, its preservation is important.

Equity is important as well. When I rhapsodized the virtues of the Cornish village to a wise friend, she asked if the residents were mostly white. The answer seemed straightforward: Yes. Much of Cornwall, like much of Sonoma County, is wealthy and touristy. Its nickname is Kernowfornia (Kernow is the Cornish name for the place). But I was a tourist, not a resident. I don’t know the details of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divides within villages in Cornwall. My friend’s point is well taken. As perfect as they look, these villages doubtless are blemished.

But do blemishes define the village? Partly, but so does shared identity. The artsy village, the Latino village, the retirement village, the agricultural village. Are these bad things to be? Inequities must be rectified, but must equity translate to vilification of the village? Would it be wrong if California were Kernowfornia (but better) in two hundred years, five hundred years, a thousand years?

I don’t have the answers. The witching hour, whether in California or Cornwall, leads from question to solution to new question endlessly. Still, as dawn lit the window of my bedroom in Elowen, more Stithians than Ponsanooth, I knew these things for certain: I am one of the village people. The toy town is where I feel at home. And I am not alone in this.