Laydeez and gentlemun, welkum to Landan Saaaaaaaaffend, where the temprator is nynedeen digreez innit and the cockles an whelks are fresh from the eshtry mud.
As gateways to Great Britain go, it is a bit different, but Essex is indeed British soil and there is comfort at seeing the red cross of St George adorning the council estates and in smelling the fish and chips on Southend seafront. Should Southend be a little too bedecked with commoners awaiting a summer carnival parade, Leigh-on-Sea is a tad more upmarket with white stiletto undertones. Home to several cosy pubs spilling out onto the mud and water, an ale and hearty burger brings me back to a Britain obsessed with pulled pork and bake offs.
Hertfordshire is the classier cousin to Essex, where inspiring place names like Potters Bar and Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City are linked by motorways and single file country lanes alike. Interspersed within this, offering views of giant pharmaceutical empires and a procession of easyjets bound for Luton, stands Knebworth House. Perhaps best known for Oasis and Robbie Williams mega-concerts it may come as a surprise to hear that Knebworth is rather refined. The archetypal crusty upper class country estate, complete with musty carpets, majestic libraries and derring-do tales of empire building. Gardens with fancy lawns and fancier sculptures, a copse littered with giant fibreglass dinosaurs serving as inspiration for damned colonial upstarts such as Clive Palmer. On an increasingly sunny summer afternoon, as deer graze the meadows and country pubs await, this is England, but not quite my England.
The next day brings the homecoming within a homecoming as I depart London for Plymouth. That’s not before saying farewell to the iconic capital with two friends who I met in Australia and who I can continue to enjoy pizza with – whether on Bondi or near Bankside – to this day. It is a happy conclusion to the English prelude and the level of unhealthy eating signifies the start of many days enduring essential foodstuffs, the real super foods that are far away from a land of quinoa and hipster-nurtured compressed kale shavings.
Gargantuan fish and chips were a starter prior to a night at Home Park, watching a rather lame game of football thankfully enlivened by Guillaume the French nephew shouting ‘come on you greens’ in an adorable accent. It worked, for we managed to scramble a deep into injury time penalty equaliser. More sedate, slightly less greasy but perhaps as equally lardy as those fish and chips was the Devon cream tea; the Devon cream tea that takes place in the same spot on Dartmoor practically every year but is a tradition which never fails to be anything other than marvellous. That first bite of scone and jam and – mostly – rich, buttery, clotted cream is like the feeling from a first sip of morning coffee multiplied ten million times. The river valley setting and surrounding tors amplify it further.
Indeed, becoming as traditional as the cream tea is the slightly guilt-driven walk up Sharpitor, which is still just a gentle and brief jaunt for hilltop views of half of Devon and Cornwall. Traipsing up with family could get a little repetitive if it wasn’t so rewarding, an annual canvas for Facebook photos and Snapchat selfies amongst the clitter and ponies of the high moor.
The Cream Tea on Dartmoor Experience is just one required escapade for the bucket list. The next one to tick off is the Cornish Pasty in Cornwall Adventure. Today this requires a rather trundling and busy train journey all the way down towards the pointy end. St. Ives is not only a reputed haven for artists, but possesses one of the more accessible by public transport shopfronts for Pengenna Pasties, where artists create masterpieces of delicious shortcrust pastry stuffed full of meat and vegetables and seasoning. Eaten on the beach, of course.
I should not neglect here to give a special commendation to Moomaids of Zennor. While their clotted cream vanilla (what else?!) was nothing remarkable, I was hoping that the Cornish sea salt caramel was never going to end. It may feature as a staple of the next Cornish Pasty in Cornwall Adventure (with Bonus Local Ice Cream Discovery).
Away from food (for a little while), it is about time I mentioned the weather. For should I not write about food nor weather, what will I have left?! Temperatures were well below average as the shorts and sandals in my luggage remained largely untouched, while clean jumpers came at a premium. But there was plenty of dry and fine weather. This meant that, on occasion, clean jumpers would need to come off and then quickly returned once the sun disappeared behind the clouds scuttling across the sky on a chilling sea breeze. It was weather not so much for sunbathing but ideal for family fun in West Hoe Park, where nieces and nephews were able to relive one’s own youth by venturing on the iconic – yes, iconic – Gus Honeybun train and bouncy castle, and create their own memories in a pirate ship mini golf water boats gold panning extravaganza.
It was all rather delightful, aided and abetted by bucket list ice cream and raspberries and clotted cream on the foreshore and then, a little later, waterfront dining on the Barbican courtesy of Cap’n Jaspers (so it’s back to the food then already…). A day to remind, as was mentioned several times, that Plymouth finds itself in a quite enviable position compared with – say – Wolverhampton or Corby or Blackburn or pretty much anywhere else not on the sea and in the midst of such coastal and pastoral splendour.
This undeniable splendour provides the context for one essential bucket list item for a perfect southwestern experience. The oft-quoted, oft-photographed, oft-walked South West Coast Path. I figure that maybe by the time I reach old age I may just have covered around 10% of this amazing trail. On a day that started with grey clouds and rain, the train trip to Truro and a tactical delaying coffee enabled the weather to perk up, and by time I reached St. Agnes on the bus, patches of blue sky were promising much. In fact, the sun very much came out when munching on the world’s best sausages rolls from St. Agnes bakery.
Up over St Agnes beacon, the north coast view stretches down to St. Ives and, heading in this direction, I found myself clocking up a new section of path leading towards Porthtowan. The main features along this typically wild and rugged stretch are the old tin workings and mine buildings of Wheal Coates. If North Cornwall can be summed up in one scene it is from here, which probably explains why it featured as the cover image for Ginster’s Pasties. And I had a sausage roll, tut tut!
There was a point into this walk that something quite unexpected happened. I was feeling a little hot. Yes, the sun was well and truly out and I was able to covert my convertible trousers to shorts, roll down my black socks a little, and bare some leggy flesh. I applied sunscreen, wore a hat, and, by time I reached Porthtowan, felt long overdue an ice cream. However, no sufficiently suitable ice cream was readily available near the beach and I settled for a cold beer instead to happily wind down the time until a bus back to Truro.
The North Cornwall Walking Wondrousness Trip pretty much meant that the Westcountry bucket list had been amply satisfied. The final day down there offered a bonus with a family day out on the train to Looe. It’s not so far from Plymouth but the journey provides a reminder of the lovely countryside of southeast Cornwall and on the branch line to Looe it could still easily be the 1950s. Looe itself offered its reliable fill of narrow lanes, fish and chip smells, bucket and spades and, for me, one final and very commendable pasty! Again, there was something approaching heat, meaning that shorts – if I had them with me – would have been more than acceptable in the afternoon.
The train ride back offered that final hurrah and farewell to Cornwall, resplendent and verdant in the late summer sunshine. For once, the same could not be said of Devon, as I departed the following day in a somewhat murky, drizzly air. I missed seeing the white fluffy clouds and whiter fluffier sheep, the glimmering Teign estuary and glass sea of Dawlish. Even so, it was again sad to leave, the murk reflecting a melancholy that drifts along to Exeter. The holiday is not over, the visits and sights await, and there are more cherished friends and family to see. But it does feel that a holiday within a holiday, a homecoming within a homecoming has drawn to a close once again. ‘Til next year.