Feeling Unsteady (Public)

Culture shock has set in.


I’ve just arrived on St. Agnes and still can’t really grasp yet that I’m here. Yesterday I took off from the airfield near Land’s End on the southwestern tip of England and about fifteen minutes later I was on St. Marys, Scilly’s main island. During the 45 minutes wait for the ferry to St. Agnes I went grocery shopping, bought socks, inquired about setting up a checking account (at two banks), and lugged my loot back to the quay.

It’s amazing how quickly you can get some things done around here. On the down side my luggage is waiting on the dock in Penzance until the freight boat is repaired and can pass sea trials. My dingy pants, already stained in London, will have to suffice another week.

Upon arrival at the cottage, known as Pengold, Hans (my friend Jon’s dad) went over the essentials: don’t let the electricity timer run out,[1] keep the heating oil tank for the stove topped up, and so on. I put away the groceries and made a pot of tea (when in Rome...) and sat down, feeling unsteady as if the horizon line in my head were swaying to and fro. I’m very much looking forward to everything but reality is like jumping off a bridge, such a change. Here I am on this little island. All of the things I rail against are absent. There’s no McDonalds, no Blockbuster. There’s no trash in the streets. Yet all of these things, dislike them though I do, are familiar. Culture shock has set in.

This morning I took a walk around the island to get my bearings. It’s covered in wet, green grass, compact, springy moss, and purple heather. There is also a tenacious cousin of the fern here, quite fecund. It clings to many a hedgerow and overpopulates many a gully. There are no roads here, only a scant network of paths, each one a Land-Rover’s width wide. It’s a tight fit since the plants and ferns keep trying to reclaim the path for themselves and given that there are only a couple of Land-Rovers and a few tractors on the island my guess is that the odds lie with the plants.

The island is home to, among other things, a 300+-year-old lighthouse that is no longer used, although I have to say it looks so proud and robust, and keeps itself so white and tidy that I can only assume it’s trying to impress everyone into asking it back into service.

There's an old boat shed that used to belong to the coast guard. The barn doors at the back open up to a tremendously long ramp that used to have some type of a track attached to it, a 100-yard run to the sea. In times of emergency men would run from all over the island, throw open the doors, climb into the boat and send it hurtling down the ramp, trying to save whichever unfortunate souls had been dashed upon the rocks. Today it houses Jon's brother’s boat, currently in the process of being reborn from the hull of an older vessel. Walking into the shed and confronted with the bottom of the vessel’s massive bow at eye level, I thought to myself, “Oh my God, it’s Noah’s ark!”

Next to the shed sits an old church and its accompanying graveyard, the final resting place for three or four centuries of Scillonians. Almost every stone bears one of two names “Ross” or “Woodruff” I believe. Jon and his father stem from the Ross line.

Down the road I’m told, there is a dairy where I can order my milk unpasteurized, straight from the cow. This will be a first for me and I’m looking forward to being able to thank the cows personally for their efforts. I have to say I didn’t spot the dairy on my brief round this morning. It’s funny that I wouldn’t be able to spot something as substantial as a dairy on an island that is a mile wide across its longest length.

Behind our cottage stands the old coast guard building, built the wrong way around in the early part of this century. The lookout tower is supposed to face out to sea, but someone laid the plans down wrong and... well, let’s just say the view of the rest of the island is pretty good from up there. Today I believe it houses a bed and breakfast as well as a couple of private residences but no confirmation on that yet.

The house that I’m staying in is easily over two hundred years old (or was it three hundred?) and was built by a shorter generation of islanders. The ceilings, floors and beams all heave and bend showing the elasticity of wood over great periods of time. The walls though are solid, having been built out of jumbo-Igloo-cooler-sized blocks of granite. It’s a house in progress, at one point a section was added, then another, then electricity and most recently phones were installed on our behalf before I arrived.

The other new addition is a 1930s-era Rayburn stove which heats our water, and the cottage itself, by burning white oil fed in from a tank outside (read: sawed off plastic container standing on a rusty barrel with a Tupperware tub and a big rock for a lid). The water in turn is collected from the roof, so the odd bit of moss or stray bug’s legs sometimes makes it through the tap (and into the tea). It has the look of a guesthouse: furniture, rugs and dishes all hand-me-downs from various sources and eras. On the surface it’s not much but it’s home for the winter and we have all that we really need: a roof that works, running water, heat and friendly neighbors all around. It’s really quite civilized.

  1. There's an old, coin-operated timer on the wall that controls the flow of electricity to the cottage. Back in the day, in lieu of a utility bill, putting a one Shilling coin in the slot would get you a day or two’s worth of electricity. Fast forward to today and the timer, and the Schilling, both long defunct, have, like so much in the cottage, not been abandoned. Now putting the Schilling in the timer will keep the lights on and drop the coin into an opening at the bottom of the box, ready for the next time you need it. ↩︎