November 21, 2005

Polperro's Harvest of the Sea

(A version of this story was first posted in November 2004.)

Music helped knit our family into the life of Polperro (photo), an ancient town on Cornwall's rugged coast. We’d rented a flat at Brent House, high on Talland Hill above the harbor and the English Channel. The Polperro Fishermen’s Choir was due to sing at the Polperro Methodist Church at 6 p.m. one evening. I pried the family from other pursuits, and we made our way down the steep hill into the village. A young man in black clothes carrying a briefcase ran past us. He greeted us with a smile, then continued his headlong rush. “Think he’s the minister?” I asked Mike. “He looks like he’s late for church...”

He wasn’t the minister, but he was a member of the choir, and he greeted us again in the church’s small forecourt where he stood with the 22 other choir members, all with portfolios or briefcases containing their sheet music. “Go right in!” said a charming lady at the gate. “Hear the fishermen sing! Although they’re not all fishermen," she admitted with a wink.

You could tell which ones were by their sun-reddened faces and their sturdy, muscular bodies. They were a fit, handsome group. Most had hair whitened by wisdom, sea and salt, but some were younger, with, God willing, decades left to fish and sing. We sat upstairs near the choir. The service was a centerpiece of Polperro’s Harvest of the Sea, and the choir had come to sing for God's blessings on all who made their living from the water.

The church was clad in nautical attire. Fishnets full of paper fish cut-outs hung from the balconies. Fat sea ropes festooned the preacher’s pulpit, above which towered a fishing boat’s main mast. Seashells lined the altar, and lifejackets, buoys and a gleaming sextant in a hand-crafted box sat as offerings. The Polperro Fishermen sang eight glorious hymns, most a cappella. They were dressed in black pullovers reminiscent of the roll-necked jerseys that women once knitted for their seagoing men, and their 23 voices filled the church with powerful songs of praise and faith.

Their music at once transported and tethered you. Transported you to a spiritual place where ties bind men to God and to each other. Tethered you to the often harsh realities of Cornish fishing village life. They sang of God as anchor. Of rest, respite, rescue and safe harbors. Their stances and voices were strong and steady, like a good boat’s course. Some sang with eyes closed and arms locked over chests. Their straightforward reverence filled the church in forceful, deeply moving swells.

We put some American dollars in the offertory pouch that one of the choir members had circulated around the upstairs pews. When the last hymn was sung and the benediction delivered, we made our way downstairs to file out with the rest of the congregation. A lady we’d chatted with earlier had gathered a few friends, and they waited for us at the bottom of the stairs. “These people came all the way from Boston!” she told them. The ladies grasped our hands and told us how thrilled they were to have us join their worship and celebration.

Then a voice called out, “Now! To the quay!” The church emptied, and we made our way with the throng of townspeople to the harbor, where the Harvest of the Sea celebration would continue into the night.