By Samantha English '19
Don’t—no matter what anyone tells you—go to St. Ives in a snowstorm.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s beautiful. And, as residents told me, it rarely happens. One woman remarked that I was “lucky” to see snowfall in Cornwall—the westernmost area of Britain. “St. Ives hasn’t had snow since 1984. There are some children who have never seen this,” she added. “They’ll be talking about this for years.”
Storm Emma was certainly something to talk about. A cold front, the “Beast from the East” as it was so lovingly named, collided with storm Emma one Thursday this past February, causing complete mayhem around Britain. Among school closings, fallen trees, a broken seawall, and four inches of snow, the major railways in England saw hundreds of cancelled journeys that weekend, leaving commuters and naïve study abroad students without a way to get home.
I had decided to visit St. Ives in the winter as a sort of literary pilgrimage. In my class on Virginia Woolf, we were reading To the Lighthouse, a novel heavily inspired by Woolf’s childhood summers in Cornwall. Illustrious and beautiful, To the Lighthouse enchanted me when I first read it as a high school senior, resulting in an intense adoration for Woolf long before I read her other novels. I knew I wanted to visit St. Ives when I first made plans to study abroad in England, but I figured that I’d try to go in May or June, as Woolf had. However, I soon learned from my tutors that St. Ives was extremely overcrowded in the summer and that an early spring visit might suit me better. When conducting my own research, I found that the Tate St. Ives, a branch of famous art museums in Britain, was putting on a show inspired by Woolf and her work. However, the exhibition would close in April. While I was on the phone with my mother, who had been thinking for weeks that I was wasting my study abroad experience by not traveling all the time, I impulsively decided to go.
I saw no issue in going to St. Ives for two nights during the first few days in March. I figured it would be romantic. I would see the Woolf exhibition. I would walk the shores of St. Ives, listening to the sound of the waves that influenced so much of Woolf’s work. I would read To the Lighthouse by a fire at a local pub and work on my first Woolf essay at a seaside cafe. Most importantly, I would go to Godrevy Lighthouse, the structural plot point around which To the Lighthouse revolves.
Needless to say, things did not go as planned.
St. Ives, like most of England, was practically a ghost town on Thursday morning. After I walked down hazardous stairs and icy roads, I arrived at the Tate St. Ives to find that it was closed due to the weather, as were many of the cafés and pubs. The coast, of course, was open, but it was frozen, desolate, and foreboding in the dim winter light. Though there were old couples and children, travelers and dogs in winter parkas, I felt cripplingly alone, coughing from a cold I had caught before I arrived. Due to the clouds, I could not see the Lighthouse.
As I walked past abandoned art galleries and dark storefronts to my whitewashed lodgings, I felt like Virginia had cursed me. Where was the happiness in this? Where was the creativity here, in this stark, canvas-like room? In my temporary home, overcome by its strong smell of paint, I found I could not write or read. I was stifled and sick. I stared, in panic, at my computer screen, trying desperately to find an early ride home, only to watch as train after train was cancelled. I was stranded.
Why did I come here, I remarked bitterly, crying. What an idiot American was I, trying to travel to the edge of the country all alone. The blank TV, the clogged toilet, the harsh vibrating of the dehumidifier going swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, seemed to be Virginia screaming from beyond the grave, you don’t belong here.
When I woke up on Friday morning, something had shifted. My train was still cancelled, but it wasn’t snowing outside. In fact, when I opened the door, it was comparatively warm. I no longer felt like I was going to slip as I walked down the stairs and streets of the town. Stores that had been dark the day before had their lights on. Awake from its hibernation, St. Ives was moving again. The Tate St. Ives was open.
As I walked through the Virginia Woolf exhibition, looking at Vanessa Bell’s window still lives and Laura Knight’s watery landscapes, I remembered a visit to a different Land’s End. San Francisco, standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, had been my birthplace. Two years earlier, when I was standing on a cliffside for the first time in years, I had thought about Woolf’s character Cam all grown up, returning to her childhood summer home at the end of the novel. As she approaches the Lighthouse with her father and brother, she reflects on her family’s history. “About here,” she says, dipping her fingers into the Atlantic, “a ship had sunk, and she murmured, dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.”
Each alone, I echoed, knowing then that Virginia hadn’t cursed me. This was her space, but she was dead. Her St. Ives wasn’t my story to tell. I wasn’t about to walk in her literal footsteps. As a significant Modernist novel, To the Lighthouse represents the death of the gloomy past, abandoned for the sake of the future. Of course I couldn’t see the Lighthouse. I wasn’t supposed to.
Should I have gone to St. Ives in a snowstorm? Probably not, but I went, braving the Cornish winter winds, seeing the beaches in a way I’m almost certain Virginia Woolf never saw, hearing the waves as she certainly never heard them. I made my own memories, as beautiful and horrendous as they are, out of St. Ives. I abandoned my own stories on its ghostly shores.
From April 2018 issue