• AMo

Culm Undone

They say this rock is culm, but that can’t be right. It’s the wrong bit of coast. Have I underestimated the possibilities of culm?


To begin with, culm is not a single type of rock. Culm is the name of a Supergroup, the geological equivalent of The Traveling Wilburys or Audioslave; a meeting of mineral contemporaries in creative and destructive expression. Culm is enigmatic and culm is quite the ensemble, featuring mudstones and siltstones and shales and cherts and limestones and tuffs and lava. Where it folds and collapses under siege by the sea on Devon and Cornwall’s north coast, the monuments of its excess are plain. It cannot last; it doesn’t.


Which of the ensemble would this be? I am no geologist, but I have a pressing interest in understanding. Down below I thought I was getting a clue; it was starting to make sense. Silvery surface like fishskin, balsa wood to the touch. Fine plains in the strata, the disrupted work of some ancient delta. In this crowning tier It goes mad, parading to the ocean a ring of grotesque crenellations, as though Nature took inspiration from Gaudi and by Chinese whispers exaggerated its own weird excess. Its appearance summons the organic, all honeycomb and mushroom. The texture is sugardust and baklava-sticky, and blunted razors stacked in it summon some flagship Gillette product; twenty blades on a single-use handle, for the closest shave a man can get. Whatever it is, how could it be captured by such a small, lumpen word, as culm? It appears to be eroding in the wind, not over geological time, but while I look at it.


The wind is at me as I tiptoe in the eggshells and madness, sure to blow the sounds of me over Tintagel’s bare crown and to kingdom gone should I break a ledge and break myself. I’ve travelled right too soon. I poke tiny cams into rivulets, hanging baubles on a drooping Christmas tree. The tourists have gone home and Ferdia is out of sight and out of knowing in the steepness below. My ropes drop from the edge and trawl the ocean floor, begrudging every upward inch. The ocean booms, swell gaining and tide incoming, harnessing the maelstrom of the air to a loose and liquid bass.

Down there, between the kelpy feet of High Cliff and the climb’s guardian roof, we grabbed and we pulled and we swung, spat at all the while by the rowdy sea, a beast caged and enraged that we’re out of reach, failed by its ally the moon in its hunger to have us. Strength, so necessary for what went on down there, is of no use up here. If wish-thinking that Tintagel is the site of Camelot was true, and the myth origin of the sword in the stone had a basis in fact, then it could be this: that the mark of the king is to extract himself from the rock, effortless where strong men fail. Picture, a Spartanesque coming-of-age, to climb these crumbling walls and live. What irony then in the name, Il Duce, the Leader of Fascism, the strongman immortalised.


Like the climb’s namesake, this leader must not fall. He must maintain four points of contact at all times. Safety beckons, so close and yet quite far, where this bastion of so-called culm relents and clumps of waxy plantlife thrust their knuckles into the crockery shards. The domain of the living. Four points of contact. How do I get there?