“At the far end of England, a land of rocks and moorland stretches itself out into a blue-green sea. Between its high headlands lies tiny sheltering harbours where the fishing boats hide when the winter storms are blowing.
One of these harbours is so small and the entrance between its great stone breakwaters is so narrow that fishermen call it ‘the Mousehole’.
The people who lived in the cottages around the harbour grew fond of the name and the call their village Mousehole to this day. They say it in the Cornish way, ‘Mowzel’, but you may say it any way you choose.”
Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley: ‘The Mousehole Cat’
These words were recited at least once every night for nearly five years when my son, Toby was small. He was born in Hong Kong, which gives him an air of the exotic to his friends and colleagues in the UK, but to us of course, it was all perfectly normal and by-the-bye for us, except that he developed a fascination for all things connected to our home country of England from a very early age. This book was such a gorgeous picture book that I bought it almost as soon as I saw it, on the strength of the exquisite illustrations by Nicola Bayley, who had illustrated other books of cats that I used to read to my older children. I love her detailed style and clear empathy for feline creatures and was transfixed by the beauty of these images in this new book.
I was completely enraptured by the equally elegant prose that Antonia Barber wrote – such poeticism I had not seen for many years, such wordsmithing with an artistry that belied the fact this was (is) a book for children – with the notable exception of Roald Dahl, many books for children up until that point seemed to be fairly dull, using very simple and repetitive text that might have been very easy to read but lacked any inspirational qualities for sure.
Here was an awe-inspiringly brilliant example of a new kind of book (at least, it was new to me!) for children, one that was not only packed with charming and strikingly detailed, imaginative illustrations but that these were accompanied by such wonderfully chosen words that used a huge variety of quite advanced literary devices – it simply blew my mind. I started reading it with Toby when he was just a tiny babe, showing him the beautiful pictures of cats, which he seemed particularly drawn to, as he lay in his cot preparing for sleep each night.
It wasn’t long before he was asking for the story to be repeated, which then became a nightly occurrence and we soon learned to recite the first three paragraphs (quoted above) as I was settling down and opening the book. It was like entering a whole new world together, one where the weather was personified and a cat was a heroine. It was a very precious and special memory, I think for both of us.
As Toby grew we talked of England and eventually, when he was seven, we finally visited for the first time when he could remember the trip (we’d gone when he was smaller, but of course he had no memory of those trips). We stayed with our daughters who lived in Tiverton in Devon at the time and took a couple of days to visit Cornwall, where Toby was astounded to find that Mousehole was a real place, not just a place from his own imagination.
It was a stunning revelation to him as we wandered around the old harbour area and found a shop that sold ice cream AND a new copy of his favourite storybook. He was inspired by the reality of the place and was delighted to find Old Tom’s house in exactly the spot it was depicted in the book.
Imagine if we found out that the world created by J.K. Rowling was actually real? I know there are snippets here and there, locations that were used in the films or other real places that she set different parts of the action, but on the whole most of it, however vividly described, came entirely from her imagination. This was the antithesis of that… Mousehole was described both in the prose and the pictures so very accurately and we stood in wonder on the harbourside, looking out at the real world, that had lived in our imaginations hitherto.
So, that was our first experience of Mousehole.
A week or two ago, my hubby and I visited Cornwall again – it’s a lovely place to go and we haven’t seen nearly as much of it as we’d like so that was as good a reason as any to go. The weather was perfect – gorgeous golden sunny days and breathtakingly clear night skies that make star-gazing so magical.
I’ve taken many lovely photos because the place is quite astonishingly gorgeous in pretty much any light, but there is a remarkable, very special quality to the light in St Ives, where we had decided to stay – it’s no wonder that so many artists choose to make it their home. I fully intend to post some of those lovely pictures too, but for today I’m concentrating of course on Mousehole because it was wonderful to be able to revisit this enchanting place after fifteen years.
It really hasn’t changed much at all in all that time – perhaps there is less emphasis on the story of the Mousehole Cat than there was then, but mostly everything is very much as it was. It was another lovely sunny day when we stopped by, the tide was further out than it had been before and frankly, I’m a better photographer than I was then, so the photos are perhaps richer and more atmospheric, but the subject remains constant – it is a timeless and almost perfect place that will forever live in my mind as Toby’s place.
We even found a gorgeous ginger cat (Mowzer was black and white) sat on a wall right outside a tiny gallery, aptly named ‘Mowzers’ where I was very tempted to buy some quite lovely art.
I do love Cornwall – there’s so much to see and explore. Next time I’ll tell you about our pre-dawn scramble for a perfect spot to watch the sun rise over St Michael’s Mount, opposite the village of Marazion, which is such a wonderfully Cornish name I can’t resist saying it! It was a lesson in patience that I obviously needed to learn…
Thanks for reading again!