In January I visted Penryn, the small town on the south coast of Cornwall that I lived in for six months whilst studying my MA. It is situated on the Penryn River and rises up from the harbour. The older parts of Penryn – those little white cottages and winding, narrow lanes we associate with Cornwall – are mainly focused around the lower parts of the town and the town centre. The exception being a few newer apartments built along Budock Creek, which feeds in to the Penryn River. For the main part, though, the newer sections of the town cover the hills that surround the drowned valley. Looking up from my bedroom window the view of those hills always reminded me of an amphitheatre, an impression increased by the presence of the railway viaduct that curves round the town.
It was in one of the new apartments along Budock Creek that I lived and so most of my journey’s home were downhill. Walking downhill always lends a sense of momentum that I still associate in my mind with returning. It was this momentum that carried me from the train station when I arrived in Penryn on an overcast and chilly January afternoon. As I entered the single track road that leads down to the creek the familiar smell of coal fires filled the air. When I lived in Penryn the smell of those fires was a constant presence on my evening walks back from lectures and now, as I breathed in deeply, I could feel a warm buzzing of butterflies in my stomach and one word kept going over in my mind – home.
Still, I did feel a sense of being a tourist in a familiar place – a sense probably exacerbated by my heavy backpack – and it added a slightly bitter twinge to my excitement. I think returning is always like that though. There is the joy of being back in a place one loves and the saddness of knowing it is not really home anymore. It is bittersweet.
As I mentioned in the post A Sense of Place, I want to try and tweeze out what makes a particular place more than just a location and I talked about a sense of place as something subjective. For me then, Penryn is the smell of coal fires and that smell always makes me think of Penryn. It seems fitting that something as fleeting as smoke could define a place because it is this fleeting aspect, this moment of memory or insight that I want to write about. If those cottages suddenly stopped burning coal, Penryn would still be there. The smell of coal fires is not an intrinsic part of the geographic space – though I would be going down a headache of a philosophical road if I started talking about what could be removed before Penryn stopped being Penryn – but for me it would be a different place.
Just knowing that in a few hours men and women 400 miles away will be scrunching up balls of newspaper, bending kindling, and striking matches is comforting. I will think of them and that small town by the sea as I do the same.