Writer: Roanna Davis
Photography: Roger Thorp
the stack of rock
We heard it
I wish you were here
to listen to
the drone note
below the gulling
to tell me again howan island is a thing in the making,
of rock strata
but of dense obsession,
thought layered onto thought, on thought.
“Nissology… the study of islands on their own terms” (Grant McCall)
Surrounded by water only at high tide, the stack of rock at Towan Beach is given island status by an act of collective will. It is almost an island, in the same way that Cornwall itself is almost an island to many who live here. The sentiment can be heard in the use of “mainland” to refer to anywhere over the Cornish border. It appears on Cornwall’s coat of arms, where waves ring a rich island of gold circles that might be bezant coins, or beaches, or people, since the motto reads Onen hag oll: One and all.
I look down from the cliffs and wonder if something of Jago’s “island-ness” lies in its proportions. It is sharp-edged, as if excised. It is bigger than the barren Chapel Rock at Perranporth, with its “standing room only” for four or five people, smaller than the nearby, flat, Porth Island, which could sustain a small community. Jago has a “goldilocks appeal”. The nissologist Godfrey Baldacchino says that to think about an island, is to enter “the realm of ideas”. Jago’s Island is just big enough to hold one person’s single, glorious, shining idea.
The history of this place is a catalogue of shining ideas. It has been a tearoom, an art gallery, home to free-ranging chickens, and the unlikely location of an allotment with a 99-year lease. The bridge, too, has been many things to many people: a romantic place to propose marriage, an opportunistic tollgate, and once, a unique stage for a maritime choir’s performance.
Jago’s past is littered with tales of its vast impracticality being subjugated to single-mindedness of vision. Donkeys were needed to carry the Billings brothers’ heavy agricultural tools to the summit by way of a narrow, zig-zagging path. The iconic bridge arrived flat-packed from Scotland. Its span had been measured using a rock on a string and help from a small boy named Tom Pascoe. Clearly, if Baldacchino is right that islands are, ”a thing in the making,” changing with their changing inhabitants, the process is both triumphant and comical – human nature distilled.
But what of the island’s namesake? Jago is a Cornish version of the names James or Jacob, both from the Latin “Jacobus”, meaning “supplanter”. A fitting name for a lofty, isolated patch that has passed from hand to hand. Though I trawled archives feverishly, Jago remained out of reach, but the search yielded a delightful, shining fact: maps showed that Jago’s name was originally attached to a much smaller rock to the south of the main stack. Not Jago’s Island, then, but Jago’s rock. His own personal landmark. Unlike the main island, which is now unreachable, private land, you can sit and eat your chips on Jago’s rock, or relax there and read a book in the sunshine. You can watch keenly as a toddler scales it or use it to oversee a band of intrepid rock pool explorers. It is property of Onen hag oll: One and all.