Seven hours to Penzance, the end of the line…
The Russell Family House, Porthcurno, Cornwall. Photograph by Héctor Abad.
Near Land’s End in Cornwall, the westernmost point of the island of Great Britain, where the rocks and cliffs of terra firma put up a heroic resistance to the incessant waves of the Atlantic, the landscape ends with some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. To get here you have to take a train from Paddington station in London and travel for seven hours to the ancient market town of Penzance, the end of the line. Up the hill and down a cobbled street called Causewayhead, there is an Oxfam shop selling second-hand books and clothing. And there, behind the counter every Tuesday and Friday, is an eighty-seven-year-old woman—as sharp as a knife and nimble as a cat—Lady Katharine Tait, also known as Kate Russell, the only daughter and last surviving child of writer, mathematician, and philosopher Bertrand Russell: my idol, my god.
I came to Cornwall because I was told that she lived here, in the same house her parents had bought in the spring of 1922. I don’t know if Allah is great or whether fate is. The fact of the matter is that my translator, Anne McLean, lives with one of Lady Katharine’s nephews. Thanks to her, then, rather than to Allah or fate, I was invited by Russell’s daughter to spend a couple of days in the same house where her parents, Bertie and Dora, spent perhaps the happiest and most fruitful years of their lives. And I slept there, in astonished calm, for a couple of nights. The calmness came from the beauty, the tranquility, and the silence of the place; the astonishment at my strange luck: by what miracle was I able to sleep in a room where Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great logician and colleague of Russell’s at Cambridge, had once slept? What mysterious good fortune led me to meet the only daughter of Bertrand Russell, the intellectual who had most influenced my moral and intellectual education? At times the astonishment kept me awake.
Oxfam shop, Penzance
But to begin at the beginning. When Lady Katharine (her title is due to her father having been an earl) finishes her shift at the Oxfam shop, we all take a bus to Porthcurno, a tiny village known to a few specialists in the British Isles for three memorable facts: for the first underwater telegraph cables between England and her colonies (first India, then Australia and the Far East, finally North America), today described as “the Victorian Internet”; for a fantastic open-air theatre called the Minack, built into the cliffs overlooking the ocean; and for a simple house called Carn Voel near the entrance to the village, which was the summer home of Bertrand Russell, his second wife, Dora, and their children. The house was frequented by the family for ten years, until 1932, and later occupied year-round by Dora, who died there in 1986.
View Héctor Abad’s photographs from Cornwall here