This land’s not your land

A fiery, intense take on a Cornish village at war.

A best-yet episode of the documentary series Lives in a Landscape (8 December, 11am) visited the Cornish village of Trevalga. Since the death in 1959 of the last lord of Trevalga Manor, Gerald Curgenven, the land has been held in a philanthropic trust, its farms and houses rented at markedly low rates strictly to local people and any meagre profits going to Marlborough College, where Curgenven was a teacher. But this year the trust's small print was scrutinised, leading the college to assume direct ownership and to insist it has the right to sell the 12,000-acre plot. Now, after taking legal advice of its own, the village is at war with Marlborough. For the residents, it is a terrifying time.

Trevalga is spoken of as a place of warm luminosity beyond whose bounds lie horrors, not least Marlborough: a demon with a face of iron. "As long as you paid your rent and lived harmoniously you were here for life," said a resident, the words "forever" and "eternity" repeatedly adduced. In the churchyard, the gravedigger pointed out the flowers and gifts piled on Curgenven's tomb, as though hoping to lure him back; nothing short of a shrine.

The unusual intensity of the situation was clear. One could imagine people at the graveside, fainting. Crucially, it was strictly "Him" and "He" and "His" when they spoke of Curgenven - a deity.

As for his written will, it was simply the Word Made God, though no one in the village had read or even seen a copy of this document until recently ("I thought nothing would change. The pain of losing things. I don't know. I don't know . . ."). I admire the series presenter, Alan Dein: intimate, insistent, like a warm electric fan. Every now and again he stands back and allows the story to go spinning, producing a kind of kindling effect - I never listen to Lives in a Landscape without feeling a fire in the brain. But tonally, this edition was particularly epic. And it contained a comment that could be the definition of how it feels to belong. One woman said that, up until lately, she had taken no torch when making her way around the fields at night, or down to the sea. No need for light, she insisted, when the terrain is so familiar, when one is armed with a deep certainty. "Here," she said "there was no chance of falling." l

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus