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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, January 2021

Catching the Wind: Creativity in Penwith

by: Mark Anthony Wyatt

St Nicholas’ Chapel, St Ives. Albert Romiel is recreating the moment when Donovan was inspired to write ‘Catch the Wind


The roll call of artistic/creative people who hail from Cornwall, or at some time in their lives have felt the call to live and work there, is impressive. Within the last hundred years or so it’s been a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of renowned talent. Off the top of my head, here, in no particular order, are just a random few of those gifted people: D.H. Lawrence; Winston Graham; Daphne Du Maurier; John Betjeman; Bernard Leach; Charles Causley; Rosamunde Pilcher; William Golding; Barbara Hepworth; Colin Wilson; Brian May; Charles Dickens; Denys Val Baker; Ralph Mc Tell; J.M.W. Turner; and Alfred Wallis, the list could go on, and on, and on, but I’ll leave it there. All I’m trying to get over is that Cornwall has always punched well above its weight creatively speaking. Denys Val Baker, in his book, ‘The Sea’s in the Kitchen,’ told us how a simple trip into town, St Ives, would inevitably entail him bumping into sculptors, writers, artists and musicians, many of which would go on to become household names in later years. The Cornish area of Penwith, in particular, always drew these creative talents, just as nectar lures bees. I know other regions of Britain could also lay claim to being a hotbed of talent, but surely Cornwall has the edge per square mile it seems to offer artists an apprenticeship, a rite of passage; so many creatives have done their life’s best work whilst living there.

Donovan is a perfect example of how the Cornish spirit has an influence on creative people. His call to Cornwall, and Penwith in particular, came in 1963. He’d heard on the artistic, beatnik generation grapevine, that Cornwall was the place for young creative people to go, and so, along with his friend ‘Gypsy’ Dave, Scottish born Donovan had hitched a ride, not on the Marrakesh Express, but a slightly less glamorous British version, from St Albans to Cornwall, entailing several lorry, van, and car rides down the old A1, before eventually joining the A303, to head westwards on the ‘Highway to the Sun.’

It was in St Ives, beneath those lofty granite encrusted hills of Trencrom and Rosewall, around the town, the harbour, and on the golden beaches, that Donovan’s gift of finger-picking and storytelling, in that deep, distinctive brogue, were first nurtured. Influenced by American talents such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, but increasingly too, I suspect, by the unique Cornish spirit rising up through the ever present granite. Donovan had strode confidently around the magical coastal town, an impish pied-piper with his acoustic guitar, colourful clothing, beads, bangles and long hair. Donovan may not have been a big man, but he was already, in the early 1960s, like Cornwall itself, punching well above his weight creatively. Gypsy would later remark that his friend had a special magic that seemed to enchant people. Donovan loved his time in St Ives, hanging with his beatnik friends, sleeping rough on Porthminster Beach under the stars, in the coastal beach shelters beneath Pedn Olva Hotel, and occasionally in the dark, creepy woods beneath the Tregenna Castle Hotel. He would return to St Ives three years later, in 1966, having now found fame, if not yet fortune, in London, to star in a documentary for the BBC, ‘A Boy Called Donovan,’ where he re-enacted for the cameras his earlier visit to the small Cornish town. Two of the extras in that film, playing a couple of Donovan’s beatnik mates, were Demelza and Martin Val Baker, and their father, as you may have already guessed, was Denys Val Baker, the prolific and gifted short story writer, who lived in the town at the time.

Donovan’s time in St Ives perhaps ensured he would evolve in to being more than just your average, one hit wonder, passing pop star. He would go on to become part-musician, part-poet, and part-philosophy teacher, writing songs promoting world peace and spiritual truths, and he would work with other great talents of his era, people like the Beatles, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Donovan, in the early days, was in Dylan’s immense creative shadow; one of the drawbacks perhaps of belonging to such an incredibly gifted generation; born out of the chaos of war, the antithesis of destruction. He was even occasionally cruelly cast as a Dylan copyist, but nothing could have been further from the truth; perhaps it was just bad timing. Donovan was influenced by many diverse musical genres, and those influences would all gradually come out in his music as the years rolled by. He was no one trick pony, and not afraid to experiment; Donovan’s musical canon includes jazz; psychedelia; rock; folk; pop; blues; funk; and world music, notably Indian, calypso and latin. The passage of time, and new generations of music lovers, without the prejudices of my own generation and earlier music media, will ensure that his diverse music and legacy will endure in their own right. Donovan’s work has, perhaps only in more recent years, begun to re-emerge from behind Mr Zimmerman’s huge artistic shadow; I hope so, he deserves far wider recognition. Donovan was always very much his own man, travelling on his own road, on a journey that had first begun the day he’d put Kerouack in his rucksack, picked up his guitar, then left St Albans for Cornwall.

In the tradition of the Greek muses, Donovan had been standing on the little wall that surrounds St Nicholas’ Chapel, on the Island at St Ives, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, when he had heard the wind blowing through his acoustic guitar’s strings. Intrigued by the emanating, ethereal sounds, Donovan had lifted his guitar up high over his head, like a sacrificial offering to an ancient pagan deity in the nearby hills, in an attempt to capture the sound of the wind. But Donovan caught more than the wind, he had also captured the elusive spirit of Cornwall. The bewitching melody of ‘Catch the Wind’ is now almost as timeless as Cornwall itself, an example of how the spirit of Cornwall has always influenced creative people, their literature, art and music.

Mark Anthony Wyatt
Carbis Bay, Cornwall

Writer, researcher, lover of Penwith, history, music, the supernatural, Surrey Hills + Tillingbourne, steam engines, and traveling in America

Tuesday, July 16, 2024