In SatNav We Trust
Leaving the museum it was after five PM and I still had to drive the length of Cornwall. After eating a locally sourced Cornish pasty, Kathy suggested it was still an hour and a half to Land’s End. Cornwall doesn’t have any motorways, even if I’d been prepared to use them, however the A30 is as close to a motorway as you will get in the county; I had used the A1, under duress, in Bedfordshire and Northumberland so I thought it was permissible to do so again. I simply couldn't leave Cornwall without going to the end of the land.
At seven pm I arrived at Land’s End car park. I had no trouble finding it; there was nowhere else to go. When I'd come here as a child the whole peninsula had been cut off as a private estate. Regular people simply didn't get to see it, now we can.
From the car park you pass through an entrance declaring itself as the Land’s End Hotel, which I thought was fair enough considering the location. On another day, and feeling a bit more flush, I might even be prepared to stay there. However, beyond, someone seems to have built a theme park. There was a little village (as they called it), shops selling Land's End related bits and pieces, all shut up but you could walk through the village, which seemed considerate of them considering how many places are gated these days. Beyond there were some buildings with what I can only assume were attractions or exhibitions, some dedicated to the air sea rescue service, the lifeboats and other Land’s End type activities. The place was a little desolate, probably helped by the fact that I was the only person there. The whole collection of shops and attractions had a sort of end of the pier feel. If this was the end of the pier, does that make Cornwall the pier, and in that case what is the rest of the country?
Walking between the buildings, past the darkened shops and attractions, closed up bars and snack joints, I found myself on the cliff tops. At this point I wished I'd brought my compass which was safely back in the Truck. The point of Land’s End is that it is the westernmost point, which is a bit odd when you consider that John O’Groats is the northern most point in Britain. I could see where the westernmost point was but having the compass point it out to me, to make that measurement myself, seemed as though it might have been more meaningful.
The actual westernmost point was clear as there was a path along the cliff top to a snack shop perhaps a quarter of a mile further. The sign said that was the actual Land’s End and therefore, presumably, the westernmost point. Not having as compass seemed a disappointment. Is this an instance where a scientific measurement seems more meaningful than anything else? Is there meaning in the accuracy and hard knowledge of measurements? Hard facts (not necessarily Gradgrindian) may seem more meaningful than a vague understanding or even a distinct sign pointing west. From the point of view of a visitor the sign was put there by someone else who might not have been completely reliable (though I’m sure the people who run the Land’s End estate are as reliable as any). But is there something in the direct experience of making that measurement that gives meaning? Is this where science sometimes seems to let us down? We are told that such and such is true but we don’t have a connection to the things science tells us. Science is, in modern terms, distant or too complex, out of our reach, for most of us to experience directly. Do any of us really know what goes on at the Large Hadron Collider or understand the complexities of genetics? Hell, most people don’t even understand evolution and that’s been around for 150 years, what chance do we have with modern physics and genetics? The people in the field in Derbyshire, the guy with the dreamcatcher in Glastonbury, or those generations of people represented by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, are all seeking direct experience of something rather being told that something is the case with no connection to the thing they are told about. The people who actually do the science, who tell us how it works are as much gatekeepers as a priesthood, moderating the experience for the congregation. On the other hand modern people seem to be seeking direct contact with something living in a world of superficiality. To have my compass point to the west would have given me a definitive feeling of having reached a significant point on my journey. (Okay, I know compasses point to the north but you know what I mean.)
Managing to get a signal on my tablet I posted a status on Facebook that said I’d arrived at Land’s End and I started to stroll the last quarter mile along the cliff top path without another soul in sight. The path led to a whitewashed building, some sort of snack bar titled The First and Last Refreshment House in England, all closed up against the elements. I imagined that there could well be plenty of elements to be closed up against. The landscape was rugged, with jagged cliffs and a comfortable breeze blowing in from the Atlantic. The sun was setting in the west beyond Longships Lighthouse about a mile offshore, beyond that there is only America.
My lack of a compass bothered me. I’d thought that learning about the religious persecutions of witches would express meaningful experience. People persecuted for finding meaning in things that were not part of the established worldview seemed about as significant as you might imagine. Yet here I was feeling that the use of a simple scientific instrument, a magnetised needle pointing to the definitive north, showing me I had reached Land’s End, that seemed to be as significant, as meaningful, as anything else might be.
There was a response from a friend on Facebook, ‘You’ve gone as far as you can go, you have to turn around.’