Mevagissey: The Cornish fishing village that I visited on a fantasy fiction pilgrimage is best in winter

The strange white world lay stroked by silence. No birds sang. The garden was no longer there, in this forested land…”

These words, indeed, all the words that British author Susan Cooper wrote in her five-part The Dark Is Rising series, exerted a magical, magnetic pull on my 10-year-old self when I received the boxed set for Christmas.

Growing up in Sydney, I’d never seen snow. The series’ protagonist Will Stanton comes into his powers on his 11th birthday, which falls on midwinter, 21 December, just a day away from mine. Despite the (huge) difference in season and (slight) difference in birthdays, I wished and wished for turning 11 to cloak me in magic.

This year marks 50 years since The Dark Is Rising the second book in the eponymous series – was published. It weaves worlds and words, characters and circumstances, folklore, fantasy and fact in superb ways. Forty years since my first encounter with Cooper’s tales of the ongoing battle between the forces of light and dark, the series still captivates me and has, in turn, been read to, and by, my children.

Cooper’s characters went on a family holiday to Cornwall in Over Sea, Under Stone (Photo: Getty)

Although this second novel garnered the most recognition, there was a precursor. Over Sea, Under Stone was published in 1965 and tells of the Drew children (a girl and two boys, plus a dog), who, while on holiday in Cornwall, find themselves drawn into an age-old feud between good and evil. Alive with Arthurian legend and sibling persiflage, it’s a relatable introduction to fantasy fiction.

The book is set in Trewissick, a fictional fishing village based on Mevagissey, where Cooper spent her childhood holidays. Having sought out other settings from the series since coming to the UK (Snowdonia, Cardigan Bay and the Chiltern Hills), Mevagissey was a must on my literary quest.

Literary tourism draws tourists to the UK. The most recent research Visit Britain has carried out on this topic revealed that five per cent of visitors to the UK are inspired by literary, music, television or film locations.

A spokesperson for Visit Britain said: Literary tourism is a valuable part of our tourism offer for both domestic and international visitors. Books conjure up people and places and they inspire us to explore locations and landscapes associated with our favourite stories”.

I find Mevagissey to be as picture-perfect as Cooper’s Trewissick. Its harbour and narrow lanes promise adventure, and its properties, with names such as Old Harbour Cottage and The Sea ’Oss, could just as easily be The Grey House, in which the Drews spend their summer.

In summer, the seaside crowds would detract from the sense of low-key peril, of something amiss under those postcard scenes, that a Cooper pilgrim will want to evoke. Come instead in the cooler months, when impending bleakness fringes the corners of each day.

I find myself in The Lavender Pillow, a wonderfully witchy shop stuffed with crystals and smudge sticks. Pentagrams adorn lanterns and tarot card bags: not quite the “circle quartered by a cross” of Will Stanton’s quest, or the Grail of the Drews’, but fitting, nonetheless. Wandering by the harbour, the water gleams grey while seagulls hover overhead, and tangles of ropes lie snarled on the decks of colourful fishing boats.

Mevagissey Cornwall England July 14, 2018 View showing the steep sided natural harbour, at high tide.
A boat trip, on calmer days, might feature on an off-season trip to the village (Photo:Adrian Baker/Getty)

I board the jaunty blue and red Diligence and skipper Matt, a long-time Mevagissey resident, takes us to a fishing spot where, kitted up with rods and tackle, we have a crack at catching mackerel, taking home what we hook.

Back on shore, I visit Hurley Books. Taking pride of place on the counter is Anna Penrose’s The Body in Wall, a book about a body found in the wall of a bookshop – although not this one, manager Emma Hunkin assures me. Although set in the fictional Cornish village of Golden, the image on the cover is clearly Mevagissey Harbour.

To my surprise, Cooper’s novels are tucked away in a low corner, under the likes of Harry Potter and Tolkien (the latter of whom, along with C.S.Lewis, was teaching at Oxford when Cooper was a student there). Hunkin tells me I’m not the first Cooper devotee to come in asking after the author and her connection to the fishing village: there was at one time, she says, talk of the creation of a map charting all of Cooper’s magical landscapes.

Certainly, landscape is central to The Dark Is Rising sequence. Take the imposing, moonlit Standing Stones above Trewissick – based on Chapel Point, which I reach on a scenic, mile-long walk from the harbour. Then there are the menacing mists swirling around the mountains of North Wales, embodying the malevolent Brenin Llywd, or The Grey King, the title of the fourth book in the series.

Cooper, who moved to America in the 1970s, has spoken of her homesickness for the UK, and how much her work was influenced was by a longing for familiar landscapes: indeed, Will’s snowy Buckinghamshire is where Cooper grew up, until going to live with her grandmother in Wales.

The making of Greenwitch as an offering to Tethys, the goddess of the deep, in book three, is a fictional event, but it evokes old beliefs in female power and sorcery.

It moves Jane Drew to want to give the Greenwitch, “lost beneath the sea”, a gift, which she throws into waves from below Kemare Head, or Chapel Point as it is in real life.

Perhaps it’s daft, but before turning back to the village, I unclasp my bracelet, and do the same.

Getting there  

St Austell is the closest railway station and is served by Great Western Railway. It is a 17-minute journey on the number 24 bus from St Austell to Mevagissey. 

Staying there 

The Wheelhouse has double rooms with an en suite from £120 a night, wheelhouserestaurant.co.uk

Further information 

visitcornwall.com