Lessons from a Mousehole
Two years ago I moved to the charming fishing village of Mousehole in West Cornwall, England. I knew from the start there was something different, when I was on the bus one day from Penzance. I had miscalculated in that it was the school bus, which I usually avoid wherever I am due to past encounters with feral kids in London and other places. This time, however, I was in for a surprise. The first thing was that the kids were not in cliques, they all talked to each other across the usual divides of age or class. Secondly, they weren’t talking about computers, television or any of the subjects I tend to overhear. They were discussing what time high tide was, what the waves were like, temperature etc. That evening I could hear from my apartment yells and shouts. I went for a walk and there at the harbour mouth, as the sun was setting, I saw loads of kids gathered in their wetsuits, plunging into the water. The youngest were being overseen by the oldest and were leaping into the harbour, but the oldest were climbing onto the tall harbour walls and diving into the sea outside. It was a stunning sight, as they stood silhouetted against the setting sun before braving the waters beneath; and the sense of camaraderie between all of them quite apparent. Walking along the harbour front, I encountered a young girl of about six years old, totally unaccompanied. I had never met her before, but dauntless she looked at me, and said ‘I think I’m going in tonight.’ ‘It’s a bit cold, isn’t it?’ i asked. ‘Yes, but I really want to do it.’ And we walked on in our separate directions.
This latter experience may horrify parents and carers everywhere, that a child can be left alone to wander the village like that; they may even be concerned that the other kids were plunging into the sea unsupervised – what would Health and Safety say? – but it is indicative of the very strength of the community here, that there is such a sense of trust and relaxation – qualities sadly missing in most of the places I find myself working in. So what did Mousehole get right, and how?
A bit of background first. It’s commonly stated that the village’s name comes from the nearby cave or the tiny harbour entrance, so small it’s like a mouse hole; but actually the Cornish pronunciation is ‘Mowzil’, and the older spelling ‘Moeshayle’ means ‘Young Women’s River or Estuary’. It had a strong link with Phoenician traders, whose path between the tin mines and their ships, is still remembered today south of the village. 1595 might be its most famous date, still remembered by ‘Spaniard’s Point’ also south of the village, when four Spanish galleys parked in the bay and fired heated cannonballs into the cottages, razing them to the ground. Two of my neighbours still have the cannonball that originally wrecked their house, as if the walls were rebuilt around it! Centuries later, during the Blitz , children from an East End Jewish school in London were sent to live in Mousehole. One lady actually remembered this from her childhood, and told me they were fascinated as children by these new arrivals, so cocky and self-assured, so different from how they’d been brought up in the West Country. This latter anecdote is significant in that it indicates just how rich in diversity this place can be, which is really the point of this paragraph – the wealth of history and experience exhibited in such a tiny area. Today, fishermen and tradespeople live next door to artists and writers, and there is a constant influx of visitors, adding to the colour.
This latter could be seen as a problem. As impressed as I am now by the community cohesion here, long-time residents tell me it’s nothing compared to what it used to be, as the majority of the houses are now second homes. Families who want to settle here full time can rarely afford to. One woman told me in winter she is surrounded by empty houses. There are other issues. For instance, we are down to only one non-tourist shop which is also the post office – valiantly kept open in all weathers by the owners and supplying all the basic needs that can be crammed into such a small space.
But actually this impresses me even more, that Mousehole is still thriving despite all the challenges of modern society. So I return to my original question: what did it get right? In my work as a community development adviser, I have learnt a lot simply by living here, over and above all the books read and lectures attended. So here, in brief summary lest this blog get overlong, are some of the key positive factors that Mousehole exhibits;
The Taming of Cars: The narrow twisty streets make it not impossible for cars, but very very difficult. You have to be very sure you want to drive here to do so. This means most people – particularly visitors who don’t know the secret parking spaces – will choose to park outside the village or arrive by bus. Those who do venture into the streets have to drive slowly and carefully. This means people are free to walk and converse in the village. Yes, people actually talk to each other! But still, if you really want to bring a vehicle into the village, then you can do it. No banning of vehicles or draconian signage is necessary.
Other Transport: There is a regular bus service to and from Penzance. For those of us who do not have cars, this is a huge plus. The service continues to midnight, so late arrivals in Penzance by train need not be concerned about being stranded. (Interestingly, I’m fairly certain it is the huge popularity of Mousehole with tourists that has kept this service running.) As well as the bus, there is also a designated cycle route that goes all the way to Penzance and beyond. So although there are few shops in the village, a ten minute exhilirating ride by the sea will take you to the next port of Newlyn where they are more numerous.
Diversity; This has already been mentioned, and is a strength in that all needs can be met within a very small area, whether practical, artistic or even mystic! And it makes for a much more interesting life.
Security: People feel safe here, as I hope I’ve illustrated with the opening story. Again this is largely because of the architecture. Not only does the prevalence of people rather than cars mean we all look out for each other, we can’t help it, but there are another two factors in place which sociologists are well aware of: First, the numerous gathering places, not only the pubs and cafes, but the streets themselves, and the harbour. We talk to each other and can’t help being aware, at least to some extent, what is going on around us. Secondly, there are plenty of windows facing into the streets – yes, you are being watched. That little girl wandering by the harbour front earlier, was much safer than was evident – and without the need of CCTV or more police. (For more on ‘natural security’, see the Jane Jacobs book below.)
Nature: I remember in Australia someone saying to me, that it was a country which never let you forget who was in control, and it wasn’t Man. This same attitude is prevalent in Mousehole, where Nature is in your face pretty much all the time. Recently there has been a movement in ecological circles to put a price on the biodiversity and well-being gained from natural areas, and even though those prices are incredibly high, the real truth is that it is incalculable. In cities kids are growing up with the belief that vegetables come from supermarket shelves, there is no such illusion here. Those with gardens often grow their own, otherwise people are still catching fish, and there is a rich variety of seaweed available, rich itself in nutrients. Though only a few of us know how to cook it properly, that might change! So there is some security of food supply here, which is important, but the main point I am making is that closeness to Nature brings about dividends in itself. People here are generally happy. During a wild storm two days ago, i walked into the newsagents which had the door wide open. ‘It’s wonderful even on a day like this,’ I commented. ‘Absolutely,’ was the reply. And that is the common attitude here, that we are living in an incredible place, and we are grateful, even for the storms.
Neighbourliness: That architecture, whether planned or incidental, is important to encourage community cohesion has already been covered. There are more subtle things that can help too. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ is the saying, and by that one can infer that a fence cannot be so weak or non-existent (and I’m talking metaphorically here) that everyone is in each other’s faces; but nor can it be so insurmountable, like a high wall, that you have no contact whatsoever – the balance has to be got right, and here it is mostly right, in that we have our individual spaces and lives, but there is someone there when you need them.
Myth and History: A strong, realised past whether factual or legendary can help bind a community further. In addition to the colourful history already alluded to, there is the famous story of the Mousehole cat that saved the village. Once a year before Christmas the entire village is covered with lights and decorations, celebrating the holiday and the story. In fact, the Mousehole Lights are so famous themselves, even more visitors come to see them – in the dead of winter, the notoriously dead zone for tourism. The streets fill with life, and resemble more a Spanish town (ironically) than any English I can think of; people mingle and chat and a good time is had by all.
Mousehole has survived invasions, storms and recessions. Long may it continue to do so, and perhaps even pass on some of its lessons to those who are willing to learn. For those who are interested in research on social capital, community cohesion etc., all the following books are invaluable. I include also the book, written by his sister, about Jack Pender, one of the many excellent artists this place has produced. The book has a very personal history of Mousehole that is impossible to find anywhere else. Good luck in finding it though! Maybe some elusiveness needs to be retained.
Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg
How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
Jack Pender by Sylvia Pender Johns