A familiar voice in a strange place can do wonders – each day when walking to or from my flat at Exeter’s Penryn campus a robin trills its waterfall song; cheering me even if I’ve had a packed day where I’ve had to run to every lecture. As a 24 year old fresher, starting university was a scary and exciting opportunity; the chance to live in Cornwall and get to know its wildlife is a reality that can still feel like a dream.
When exploring new wild places it never hurts to have a few wild friends. As a 3rd year at Penryn, Pete Cooper has introduced me to places to visit and re-visit, not to mention one of the best hot chocolates I’ve had. Our first excursion was to Kynance Cove on the Lizard. On this autumn day, the grey heather slopes reflected the sky overhead, while a few bells of pink promised the future spring. Undulating rocky hills hid the coastline while the sea peeked between them – a streamlet forced its way over rocky boulders and under a hobbit-size stone bridge to find it.
When we reached the beach I was swiftly reminded of one of the main reasons I chose to study in Cornwall. The dramatic cliff coastline stretched for miles. The sea crashed between rocks, throwing itself between them as far up the beach as it could reach, before resigning defeat and sliding back down. It brought to mind the geography of Rathlin Island off the Northern Irish coast where I had volunteered over the summer – I couldn’t believe I now lived half an hour from such a coastline. While we sought Cornish choughs, a juvenile kestrel surveyed us from a rock, its bright yellow legs and talons gripping the edge with a force still growing. A gorilla-shaped rock turned its back on the horizon, while a hobby circled and swooped like a swift overhead.
Choughs may have eluded us at Kynance Cove, but at Godrevy Beach the seals delivered. After climbing up a grass-covered hill, we looked down into a sheltered, rocky cove. All you could see were boulders, until you realised some were moving – around fifty of them, lumbering over the sand and each other. The latter caused frissons of energy between individuals, who reared at each other while their next-door-neighbours ignored them and slept on. “Dad they move like giant slugs,” observed the young boy next to us. A raven coasted from rock to rock, taking in all it observed, while meadow pipits hopped from grass stalk to grass stalk, proclaiming their journeys. We ended this windy day in the Godrevy Beach café with the aforementioned hot chocolate, which I will highly recommend due to their generous portions of cream, marshmallows, and chocolate drops – a sea view is also included.
More often, however, university days don’t allow time for excursions, but of course wildness is still needed. On these days I can cross the busy road just beyond the dorms, and slip through a gate into a fragment of wood that might as well lead to Narnia: the change from grey urban to dappled green forest feels like another world. Being alone in nature can allow time to walk slowly, to notice a late solitary bee pleading with an ivy flower to open, while further on a bee fly feasts on a honeysuckle flower confused about the time of year. A log swing lends a childlike air to this slice of forest, which encourages me to scramble up slopes that lead nowhere, collect leaves and dip my hands in the bubbling stream just to feel the water. Further down, this stream turns into a raging grey teenage torrent, before growing up and calming down as it quietly slips into the sea, denying its wild past; however here it is childlike, leaping and gurgling over its stony bed. I still hope to sight the dippers that visit this haunt, but even without them, being surrounded by oaks and beech rather than four walls is more than enough.
However, there is also nothing I love more than sharing nature with others. During Freshers week I joined a walk with the Eco-Society to the nearby Argal and College Lakes; we walked across fields as light fell to look for bats and moths. Arriving at the lakes it looked as if we had walked into a drive-in movie: a spotlighted white sheet had been stretched wide. Yet this was dotted with the Lepidoptera that we came to see – crawling over and hiding in egg cartons were numerous species such as brimstones with their yellow/green colouring of a young leaf, and the setaceous Hebrew characters, which may blend into nature with their brown/black markings, but certainly stand out to us with their name.
People with torches quickly made new friends as we circumnavigated the lake in the pitch black: feet squelched through mud and hands gripped branches. Yet we were more than rewarded. Pausing on either side of the lake, in ones and twos at first bats began to flit past, blocking out the stars overhead. Bat detectors were passed around and the different frequencies enabled us to identify the common pipistrelle and the Daubenton’s bat with its rifle-sounding clicks. A personal highlight was when we discovered a common toad as we started heading back; it scrambled up my arm and over my hands, with legs not at all cold or slimy – in contrast with popular characterisations. We placed it back where it was found, but I was warned to keep my hands away from my face till I washed them, as otherwise the excretion from their skin could give me some Kubla Khan-esque dreams!
Partway through my second term here, I have many wild things to look forward to. I’ve joined the committee for the campus wildlife magazine Life with a wonderful group of young naturalists whom I can’t wait to work with and learn from, alongside gaining a place on a research expedition to Sri Lanka at the Popham Arboretum in Dambulla this summer. The chance to travel to a foreign location and research its wildlife makes me feel I’ve stepped into Lost Land of the Volacano – I can’t wait. However, right now my list of places to visit on my doorstep in Cornwall only grows, alongside my list of hot chocolates to try – I’ve been told there is one in Falmouth with a shot of Baileys …