Award-winning novelist Xan Brooks has re-imagined Loe Pool in a funny and poignant short story 'Savage Lovely Cornish Homes' published collaboratively by Falmouth University and the National Trust. Here Xan talks about Penrose.
John Adlard Rogers was working as a care home assistant when a DNA test proved he was English aristocracy – the rightful heir to the 1500-acre Penrose estate on the south coast of Cornwall. Earlier this year, the 31-year-old moved into the ancestral grade-two listed manor house, previously the home of his biological father. He’s now rattling around the grounds like a latter-day King Ralph, perhaps struggling to get his bearings and write the next chapter of the Penrose story. In a more modest fashion, I know just how he feels.
As part of my duties as the 2019 writer-in-residence at Falmouth University, I was commissioned to dream up a story about Penrose. The project is a collaboration between the University and the National Trust, illustrated by one of the MA students (in this case the terrific Clementine Neild). The commission was wonderful, a little gift from the gods. And like John Adland Rogers, I felt suddenly, deliriously dropped in at the deep end.
The Penrose estate was gifted to the National Trust by the Rogers family back in 1974, in return for a 999-year lease to remain living in the house. It is a place thick with trees, thick with history; at once welcoming, expansive and deeply mysterious, too. The footpaths lead from lush farmland through dense woodland to the banks of Loe Pool, Cornwall’s largest lake, which in turn sits hard up against the sea. It’s only the thin strip of Loe Bar which protects the freshwater lake from the crashing waves of the North Atlantic.
Legend has it that Loe bar was formed by an ancient hero named Tregeagle, who dropped a bag of sand in the Helston harbour. But then legend has a lot to say about the Penrose estate, so it’s best to take these tales with a pinch of salt. It was on the banks of the Loe, we are told, that a local magistrate (also named Tregeagle) sold his soul to the devil, and where the mortally wounded King Arthur gave the order for his prized sword Excalibur to be thrown into the lake. Other stories, thank heavens, come with a more solid grounding. King Edward I liked to fish on the Loe. Divers recently found the wreck of a crashed Second World War fighter plane. And back in 1881 the entire lake froze. Children from the nearby village of Porthleven hurried across to skate on its surface.
" I kept coming back to the image of the freshwater lake so close to the sea. There seemed something profound about the juxtaposition of this tranquil haven and the raging outside world, something that spoke to the wider role of the National Trust in our lives."
In mapping out a Penrose-themed story, then, the main problem was choosing between an abundance of material, somehow selecting the most promising avenue from a wide range of options. In the end, though, I kept coming back to the image of the freshwater lake so close to the sea. There seemed something profound about the juxtaposition of this tranquil haven and the raging outside world, something that spoke to the wider role of the National Trust in our lives. So I sat and wrote a story about the modern-day Cornwall, full of confusion and doubt and little glimmers of hope.
Penrose, you could say, is the pure place at its centre. And yet properties such as Penrose do not exist in splendid isolation. The waves break on the shore, the wind bends the branches and thousands of visitors blow through and are gone. Penrose, down the years, has played host to angling kings and ice-skating kids; dog-walkers, ramblers and penniless locals with blue blood in their veins. There’s finally something lovely about that sense of movement and flux. It suggests that the place lives and breathes alongside the people who go there. We carry our everyday lives into the Penrose estate. But we then carry a small portion of Penrose back into the world.
Xan Brooks will be talking about 'Savage Lovely Cornish Homes' on Saturday 28 September at the South West Outdoors Festival.