Cream days at the hotel existence

I had spent almost two weeks overseas before making it officially home. While Bristol Airport provided little pockets of Englishness (M&S pork pie, terrible latte from Costa), and the impressive one pound Falcon Stagecoach crossed borders into luscious Devon, it wasn’t until the Sainsbury sails of Marsh Mills emerged in sight that I truly felt back home. Plymouth.

hm01It’s funny because arriving here doesn’t particularly feel exciting or exotic or out of the ordinary. But it was a moment I had longed for; I suspect precisely because it doesn’t feel exciting or exotic or out of the ordinary. I say this despite a diversion to a new coach station, the inevitable addition of more Greggs in town, and some positive additions to family structure. But at the heart of it, the connection with home yields a familiarity that is the very essence of comfort and, for the most part, happiness.

hm02Happiness is that first bite of scone with jam with clotted cream. OH. MY. GOD. Obviously this happened the day immediately after my arrival at the coach station. And it was in a new location. Cardinham Woods in Cornwall, where there was plenty of wooded green to soothe the mind, Snakes and Owls and Gruffalo to find, and deliciousness of a kind, which is unmatched anywhere on earth.

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hm04Happiness is going to see a Hoe, and a very familiar one at that. That walk that I have walked five hundred times and I will walk five hundred more. Plymouth Sound constant companion by my side, the stripes of Smeaton’s Tower a backdrop to proper footy kick abouts and OAPs parked up, gazing out to ocean as they lick languidly away at their Miss Whippys. For me, it’s coffee in the sun by the Sound; shit coffee but sun and the Sound.

hm06Happiness is going to see Sarah, who is definitely not a hoe, but a very fine woman who I am hugely in love with. I have no idea who Sarah is, but she makes bloody good pasties. So much so that any other pasty is now disappointing. It means a trip to Looe, an adventure in trying to find a car park, an effort of restraining expletives as grockles spill aimlessly over the roads and flock to inferior pasty chain stores. There is achievement to be felt, reward to be had, and attention still needed to protect incredible nuggets of pastry from seagulls as undiscerning as the grockles.

Pasties are Cornwall, but Cornwall is more than pasties, as you can find out here!

hm07Meanwhile, have I mentioned the accessibility of cream teas at home? That makes me happy. Cream teas in Devon that are not Devonshire teas in Cremorne. Another quest, another discovery, this time at the Fox Tor Cafe in Princetown. It’s not much to look at – and weekends bring out an excess of Lycra – but the buttery scones are utterly Devonly divine. And the jam and cream ain’t so bad either.

hm08Happiness is not often a product of the English weather. But expectations are so, so low that you cannot fail to smile when the forecast is for light cloud and a top of nineteen degrees. Get a bank holiday weekend when the temperature builds under blue skies and you’ll find everyone turns mildly, wildly delirious. Blackened charcoal sausage is the staple food source, evenings out are comfortable and you begin to think, hmm maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Followed by the inevitable if only it could be like this all the time. These are the words uttered outside waterside pubs, along the promenades, within the leafy parks and wedged between giant hedges as countryside spills down to coast.

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It has to rain sometime though. To grow grass, to colour those fields the most soothing shade of green. To make the cows happy and produce the very best cream. A landscape you criss-cross all the way to Fingle Bridge on the eastern side of Dartmoor. Where lush wooded riverside offers the picture perfect snap of Devon. Even if the scones turn out a little stale and insipid.

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But Devon is far more then Devonshire Teas or – god forbid – that brand of fatty processed meat that they sell in the deli counter in Coles. Devon is more a fine, aged Serrano in the ham stakes, as you might find out here!

hm11For all its tea-based pleasures and intricacies, Devon and Cornwall – and England and the rest of the UK – is not, it must be oft said with an eye roll thrown in, accomplished in the art of coffee. But there are glimmers of hope; hope that possibly makes you think hmm maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Followed by the inevitable if only it could be like this all the time. These are the words uttered inside my head as I sup on a reasonable flat white among the glistening cobbles and boats of Plymouth’s Barbican.

hm12Happiness is the aspiration pushed by marketers at Morrisons and Sainsburys and Tesco and, yes, Aldi. The Aldi happiness is more a utilitarian, Germanic form of pleasure, and certainly hard to pinpoint at 3:30pm on a Sunday afternoon, before the stores close in a quaint but annoying reminder that Sunday used to be a day of rest. These are the temples of a kid in a candy shop or, um, actually a grown man in a candy shop. For every reliable revisit of a Double Decker there is a new discovery or a forgotten one rediscovered. Like Wispa bites, and Digestive cake bars, and more things contributing to the presence of salted caramel as a major food group. And then I see the dairy aisle and the copious supply of clotted cream, and I feel a bit sad.

Sad that I am leaving tomorrow, sad that I am leaving Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall and – eventually – the UK. Again. More than pasties and green fields and hoes and chavs and freakish warm days and even more than the clotted cream, sad to be leaving behind those who are linked by blood and love and a shared fondness of some plain old cake with a lump of tooth-rotting fruit and heart-shattering congealed cow milk on top.

But let us not dwell on such sadness, because we can squeeze in a little more happy and let that linger in our minds and our hearts. The train isn’t until three and there is a final family visit to the Fox Tor Cafe to be had…

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey

Hope and some glory

And so, over a month since I last had a cream tea I can bring myself to write about pockets of Devon explored and re-explored in 2017. It’s not that I have been avoiding it out of separation anxiety, as such. Just rude work interruptions punctuated by apathy and good sunshine. I love to get outside every day if I can, and being raised in Devon I am pre-programmed to do that whenever it is dry and reasonably pleasant. So writing a blog post in front of a screen in Australia when there are magpies to swoop at me and sunburn to frazzle requires a commitment far beyond my genetic capability.

Now it is gently raining in Canberra, something which it largely failed to do in my first week in Devon. The second spell made up for that a bit, but even then there were suitable gaps to encourage a punt on winning a hole in the cloud.  But that first week, wow. Could Devon look any finer?

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Apart from the blip of Plymouth and a few other towns of much less note, the southern half of Devon is dominated by Dartmoor and the South Hams; one a National Park, the other a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And like an indecisive lump trying to pick between a cream tea and fish and chips I flitted from one to the other at regular intervals. There was plenty, as ever, to savour.

Dartmoor is relatively convenient from the home base in Plymouth. I say that despite seemingly endless road works and traffic lights and, of course, speed bumps and congestion caused by people flocking to superstores and drive throughs on their way to the homeware warehome. But once you’ve got to that last roundabout and whizzed past the Dartmoor Diner, it’s like your inner dog is released; nose through a small gap in the window, full of anticipation and impatience, and – possibly for more deviant types – panting at the prospect of free-roaming sheep.

dv01On the road to Burrator, the sheep are out in force, arse sticking out into the tarmac, head tucked into a giant gorse bush, oblivious to the fact that there are two cars coming at opposite directions on a lane built for one. Further on, a few sheep mill about in the foot of Sheepstor, just so they can pose for clichéd photos and get in the way of cars trying to park. Better to get out on foot though, and take in a stretch of reservoir, country lane, farm and hamlet aesthetic, before climbing the wilder, granite strewn hill itself. It’s a route I’ve taken a few times now and strikes me as a wonderful bona fide welcome back to Devon.

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Journeying into the South Hams also presents traffic perils, often in the form of a grumpy farmer at the helm of a tractor revelling in sticking two proverbial fingers up to everyone else. Peak season for this would be August, when holidaymakers increase traffic by a factor of ten thousand. Add in twelve foot high hedgerows on single track roads down to car parks with a capacity of twenty spaces and you begin to get the picture.

It’s in this mix that a little local knowledge and strategic blue sky thinking can come in handy. For instance, set off later in the day, when the tide happens to be out anyway (as you would have diligently checked on Spotlight the night before). Try to avoid the A379 as much as possible if at all possible. Not very possible, but possibly possible if you consider the A38 and cut down at some point, such as through Ermington. Avoid Modbury and head down to Mothecombe. Where you will have cheaper post-3pm parking and plenty of sand left for everyone.

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dv04It really is in a delightful setting, Mothecombe; the tranquil shallows of the River Erme meandering out to sea, the sandy banks and rock pools revealed at low tide, the sheltered, undeveloped bay with gentle waves and translucent waters. Such appealing waters that people were in there swimming and I got the shock of my life when I put my own feet in. Not the usual, anticipated shock of oh my god what are they doing this is f*****g freezing, but a slight eyebrow raising oh this is actually tolerable for a bit up to ankle height I guess. No wonder the roads are so busy.

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If that was Devon in the joyous throes of summer, my final week (after an interlude in other parts of the UK) was very much an autumn affair. The most overused word of that week was blustery, closely followed by changeable and showery. On Dartmoor, the scene was moodier, more forbidding, occasionally bleak. But Dartmoor does bleakness to such great effect; in fact bleakness really is its preferred state.

dv07Following a day of showers merging into longer spells of rain I was keen to get outdoors when a longer spell of rain appeared to have passed leaving a few showers behind. I was in the habit of checking the weather radar by now, and took a bit of a gamble on a potential gap in the way things were tracking. Out around Sharpitor, as cloudbursts pummelled the Tamar Valley and a black doom sat unyielding beyond Princetown, some late sunshine pierced the skies and set the landscape aglow. Sheltering from the cold wind, I stood insignificant within expansive moorland and raggedy tors, alternately shining golden in sun or darkened by racing clouds. Barring the occasional car on the main road crossing the moor, it was just me and the sheep and a pony or two to witness it. I felt as though I had struck gold.

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There was less good fortune back in the South Hams, where a Harvester I had pictured in my head didn’t exist and lunch ended up somewhere down the road and over the hill and a little further along from the tiny hamlet of traditional dining hours. This wasn’t terrible, for outside the intermittent showers had done their let’s merge into a longer spell of rain thing and ducks revelled in the whole experience. But essentially I am an optimist and British…an entirely contradictory thing I know, apart from when it comes to the weather. There is something in our character that makes us look up at the skies and sigh with a grudging acceptance before donning sexy pac a macs and trudging on regardless. On to the eternal hope that is Noss Mayo.

dv10And you know what? In a turn of events that no good travel writer would ever make up, it pretty much stayed raining albeit with some slight easing off for about five minutes. Thankfully the Ship Inn had some funky outdoor pods to huddle together and drink hot chocolate in – think three quarters hamster ball in Teletubbie land – and with the tide being in (well checked, sir), the scene was not one of stinking tidal sludge. Indeed, it was rather serenely pretty under a comfort blanket of cloud.

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Instead, Hope was on the horizon the next day, my very last day in Devon. Hope, just down the now more placid A379 and a rollercoaster lane of twelve foot high hedgerows. Hope, where there is parking for twenty cars and a few spaces to spare. Hope, set into its namesake cove surrounded by steep wooded cliffs iced with undulating pasture. Hope, sat in warm September sun outside the Hope and Anchor with half a Tribute and in the Salcombe Dairy ice cream taking the bitter edge away. Bittersweet is Hope on days like these. Days when Devon couldn’t – again – look, smell, taste, and feel any finer.

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

The Cornish episode

With access to a car and decent spells of time on my side, the last few years have opened my eyes to parts of Cornwall previously unseen. Or if not unseen, unsighted since I had browner hair, smoother skin, missing teeth, and a squeakier voice. This newfound exploration has frequently left me in admiration, appreciation and exhaustion; admiration over the alternating drama and tranquillity of wild coasts, placid coves, windswept moor and pastoral nooks; appreciation for my roots and the luck of being born and able to revisit this part of the world [1]; and exhaustion from the forty-five degree climbs up the coast path or from eating too many scones back down by the sea.

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For a few weeks this year I had opportunity to enter the Duchy again and – if truth be told – I was struggling a little for new ideas and places to discover. Not that repeat visits are a bad thing; such as the practically annual drive to Boscastle and Tintagel on the far north coast. And while there are some cherished familiarities (say, Granny Wobbly’s Fudge Crumble), just a little more digging can lead to dramatic vistas around Pentargon Falls or across to the island from the exposed positioning of St. Materiana’s Church.

cn06Other repeat visits transpire from convenience and come with pastry-coated benefits that are worth duplicating. Like the relatively short drive from Plymouth to Looe, through the most contented countryside and down towards the south coast. I don’t usually linger around Looe, but it’s a good base for refreshment and with the right light, tidal state and the discovery of a peaceful corner you can value its merits.

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cn09Even closer to home – so much so that just over the hill you will see council blocks, cranes and incinerators – Whitsand Bay is starkly, surprisingly rugged. The eroded, sea-shattered lump of Rame Head is something you’d expect to encounter further west. Bracken and gorse-clad cliffs are punctuated in clusters by cheap fibro shacks with pretty gardens clinging on for dear life. And the waves roll in to the shore in a long translucent line stretching all the way back towards Looe. It is a go-to place for that essential endeavour of ‘blowing away the cobwebs,’ an endeavour far safer in England than Australia.

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But what of new discoveries? Surely the web of country lanes and undulations of the coast mean there is so much more around the next corner? Well, technically Trevone Bay near Padstow isn’t new. But I last came here in October and today it was a startlingly sunny and warm day on the August bank holiday weekend. A different place indeed, and one in which I was not so keen to linger.

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cn04Once again, I turn to the South West Coast Path for solace; a relatively easy walk northwards towards the headland at Stepper Point, taking in some archetypal Cornish scenery with only a smattering of rambling sightseers passing me by. There are rocky coves, clear seas, sandy inlets and windswept green fields to enjoy. A highlight is the chimney stack formation at Gunver Head, resembling an ancient tin mine frozen in time, weathered and beaten by the cruelty of the Atlantic. Climbing up and up and up over this rocky, eroded headland, surely a grumpy and grizzled Luke Skywalker is hiding out here somewhere?

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The miniscule Butterhole Beach offers azure waters lapping at fine golden sand; tempting to visit but near impossible unless equipped with ropes, ladders and a death wish. Instead, you hope for a sign so that you can, er, cover up some of the letters and take a hilarious selfie before heading down to the Camel Estuary. Here the waters and sand are far more accessible, but not too accessible as to be jam packed. Padstein is still a little way away and, with the tide out, there is plenty of room to relax and eat a homemade roll assembled from BBQ leftovers.

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This is another one of those if only it was like this all of the time moments. They don’t last but they stick in the memory. Sometimes it’s a fleeting moment…the sun in your face, sweat on your brow, the sound of gulls and waves and even distant shrieks of joyous infants. Occasionally it’s a series of moments stitched together over the course of a day. Often the final Cornwall day.

If my words cannot convince you of the sheer beauty, the pockets of joy, the drama and blessedness in which Cornwall radiates, then it is probably a fictional romp about smugglers and miners and war and steamy liaisons brought lavishly to TV. I cannot confess to watching much of the most recent dramatisation of Poldark but I am well aware of its presence. Sometimes, on a Sunday night in Canberra I have glanced up from stirring a stew to see some bloke with a fancy hat all brooding and serious on Holywell Bay. Or a corseted wench galloping along some cliffs near St Agnes. It evokes memory and a little longing, but I’ll leave the serious fandom stuff to Mum.

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With Mum joining me for Poldark Day, my last Cornwall day, it was less about Poldark and more about the canvas – a new canvas – in which such contrived intrigue is set. Not that you would think that at Charlestown, in which tall sail ships peacefully wallow and the clutter of woven baskets and bags of fake grain adorn the quay. It turned out that they were filming here the very next day and the waterside itself was out of bounds. Still, turn one eighty degrees and from the fictional eighteenth century you find what seems something like twenty first century Australia. A rather hip, outdoorsy-focused cafe bar, offering a moderate flat white with the air of prawns and Prosecco on the agenda. Not exactly what I was expecting.

Moving westward and traversing the outskirts of Truro, the Poldark express moved on to The Lizard. Now this was an area that had been on the agenda for some time, but I had never quite made it. Today, sheltered from a blustery nor’wester, it proved the perfect spot for sightseeing, lunching, rambling and a final Cornish ice cream.

First stop, Gunwalloe Church Cove, where I applaud the National Trust for offering hourly parking rates instead of the usual all day scam. An hour was sufficient for an amble and lunch on the sandy bay, relatively sparse now that mid-September was upon us. What a difference a few weeks makes.

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Rising up from the beach the links of Mullion Golf Club made me want to grab a club and get swinging again; though some of those holes look like a long slog upwards, and there are other hills to climb. Like in Mullion Cove itself, down from a parking area to the harbour and thus back up again. If there is a piece of flat land in Cornwall I would love to see it. Perhaps at nearby RNAS Culdrose, from where a helicopter did continuous laps of The Lizard all day. They no doubt classified this as ‘training manoeuvres’ but I’m convinced they were out for a sightseeing jolly.

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There was not very much at all at Mullion Cove which is why it was so charming. A few boats, a few cottages, a few lobster pots spilling down onto the cobbled wharf. A smattering of the curious sitting in the sun or watching the waves crash into the cliffs. This is where you could stay a week and get through a good few books without being disappointed that you had ventured no further. We moved on.

cn16More popular, and having risen in stocks dramatically in the last couple of years, is Kynance Cove. To the extent that at 3:30pm in the middle of the week in September the National Trust would like you to pay a bar of gold bullion and hand over your firstborn to park. I blame Poldark, stupid knob end. Of course, being locals (okay, sort of), we’re not having any of that, and parked a little way back along the cliff line at a place only the locals (okay, those who look at the satellite view of Google maps) know. Ha, eat your hat Poldark.

You know what though, this was a better way to approach it, with views across the bay to England’s most southerly point, and a sense of anticipation at what might be over the brow of that hill. And there it was, a clump of weather-beaten rocks, encircled by golden sand becoming exposed as the tide drifted out. Despite the costs, it was a popular spot with many stopping in the cafe for an ice cream or cream tea and venturing onto the grassy banks or exploring the nooks and crannies being revealed. Meanwhile, a helicopter whirred overhead, again and again and again and again…

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It cannot be denied that Kynance Cove is a spectacular sight, an encapsulation of the Cornish coast that makes you feel lucky to exist. But for some reason I felt all the hype was a little overblown, probably because much of the rest of the county does exactly the same. So whether it’s old or new, revisited or discovered, there is admiration, appreciation and exhaustion in every footstep, every mile, every brooding stare ocean bound. An adoration and attachment that means to Cornwall I will always, like that chopper, inevitably return.

 

[1] Okay, technically I was born across the river in Devon but this appreciation stretches across both borders

Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Great British journeys

As per usual around August and September I spent a decent amount of time in the south west of England. A place so dense and diverse in beauty that one blog post, one picture can barely do it justice. More than a place; a feeling so embedded in the depths of my soul that annual departure can feel like heartbreak. It sounds melodramatic, much like the windswept gorse and heather billowing gold and purple down towards a craggy shore bruised by the Atlantic. In which case, more melodrama will be written in coming weeks…

But what of the rest of the UK, or at least select parts of it? A journey connecting friends and family from Devon to Norfolk to Derbyshire to Lancashire to Wiltshire and Dorset? Travel time in which to reflect on those little things about the UK that may have changed in a year, or remind you of what a blessedly peculiar place this is. I made a few observations as I went along. I don’t know if all of these are unique to England or more a result of exposure which is lacking in my life and surrounds in Australia. But let me just say…

British coffee is getting incrementally better. My first Costa latte was dire, but the flat whites improved and the discovery of a place called Boston Tea Party heralds promise. On the downside there are even more Costas springing up (or, in Norfolk, a Coasta), along with about twenty Greggs servicing every small town.

Someone at Heart Radio discovered Spanish and decided they would play two songs over and over again. In between Ed Sheeran, who is rapidly taking his place as an honorary member of the Bus of Doom.

Nineteen degrees Celsius is scientifically warmer in England than Australia. So much so that every beach in Cornwall takes on the appearance of a shanty town. Circular fortresses of windbreaks and folding chairs spring up, even when the only wind is the sound of Brummie accents moaning about the price of a pasty that was made in a warehouse in Solihull.

Stop with the speed bumps for goodness sake! I counted 25 on the two miles or so between my Mum’s and sister’s. It seems needless having bumps every ten metres, especially as the roads are so congested with parked cars and other clutter that you can’t even get above 20 mph. Bloody Tories! Or EU more likely, tsssk. Good job we won’t have to bother ourselves with their trade and human rights and security and status on the world stage for much longer.

British berries are the best. Period. I just had some strawberries in Australia this morning and tasted utter emptiness.

Nobody wants to hear what dreadful videos you are playing on your phone. Especially in the quiet coach. Please just put the phone down for a few minutes. Please!

Nowhere does countryside better. It is mystifying how there can be so much of it in a small jam-packed island. It is an asset greater than pork pies and almost as joyous as clotted cream. Almost. But then perhaps I’m being melodramatic.

Anyway, on with the tour…

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The tractor fanciers express from Devon to Norfolk

Who would have thought a flight on a Thursday from Exeter to Norwich would have been full? It almost had one spare seat due to malfunctioning cars and delayed trains, but a taxi from Exeter St Davids saved the day. I really must spend a few hours in Exeter some time; as much as it begrudges me to say, it looks pleasant and reasonably civilised. But not today, I need to get to the airport.

eng00Reminiscent of Canberra-Sydney flights it was a quick up, get tea trolley out for five minutes and plunge down into Norwich. Views along the south coast of Devon and Dorset disappeared under cloud, only opening up again over the north of London before we descended towards the wind farms of the North Sea. Thankfully we made a few turns and landed in Norwich, where Jill was waiting to pick me up and really excited about the prospect of driving from a new place and avoiding numerous road closures.

We stocked up on curry from the local Indian in Acle that evening, filling us for the next day of vigorous exercise in a kayak. Kayaking was one of those things we did in Australia a few times, achieving sporadic success in getting from A to B in a predominantly straight line. Today, we equipped ourselves well, navigating a section of the Norfolk Broads without crashing into any other barges, being attacked by swans, or falling into the water. Okay, a couple of times we got a bit friendly with the reeds, but surely the purpose of being in a kayak is to get close to nature, right?

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eng02It was a placid foray out onto the water; that is until turning and heading for home which took way longer than expected and I’m sure burnt enough energy to justify a pork pie from Roys. Roys of Wroxham is a bit of a thing it seems, possibly boasting a department store, food hall, toy store, hairdresser and funeral directors. Or something like that.

eng03On reflection – trying to occupy my mind while jetlag keeps me wide awake at three in the morning – this day was definitely in my top five 2017 holiday days. Following the morning’s kayaking adventure a little R&R in the very pleasant garden sunshine preceded a top deck bus ride to Norwich and a pint or three by the river. I should have added above that Britain does pubs and beer better than Australia too. So much so that we had dinner in another before retiring at a very age-appropriate hour.

eng07Having explored a little of the Broads (and I daresay the rest looks exactly the same), the next day was spent on the North Norfolk coast. With the tide out there was ample sand to stroll along before this gave way to a rockier shoreline apparently chock full of fossils. There are more fossils here than caravans. Arguably.

Successfully mounting a rare hill in East Anglia (the Beeston Bump), the reward included fine views of the picturesque town of Sheringham and – more pleasingly – a scrumptious and lovingly recreated version of a bird roll. This was another one of those things we did in Australia from time to time, and it tasted just as good in England. Kudos to Jill for this most excellent and evocative idea. Even Paul Hollywood’s buns were not enough to ruin the experience!

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Sheringham provided all the trappings of the English seaside: rows of people sat on concrete sea defences eating fish and chips, about ten ice cream parlours, gritty sand, colourful beach huts, cunning seagulls, and idiots actually swimming in the perishingly cold water. To round out its slightly dated holiday charm, a steam train terminated here and proved more regular and punctual than the actual proper train that should have taken us back to Cromer.

Cromer offered much of the same, though with a slightly more downmarket feel. Still, the pier is an elegant place for ambling and – for many – crabbing. Elsewhere, the pub beer garden is a good way to kill an hour or two experiencing more local ales before it is acceptable enough a time to grab some fish and chips for dinner. Fish and chips on the pier as the sun goes golden. It feels like the summer is never going to end.

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The Northern Snail to Edale

It ended the next day, something which may or may not correlate with the fact that I was heading definitively into the north. I even reached Yorkshire, changing at Sheffield for a smaller train into the Hope Valley and the station at Edale, Derbyshire. There is not a great deal to Edale – a few holiday homes, a church and, crucially, two pubs. But the station sits in the midst of a slice of delectable England salvaging the grimy post-industry and haphazard gentrification of several northern cities. Indeed, in theory, Manchester should be half an hour away.

You could spend days, weeks even, exploring the Peak District National Park but my time was limited to an overnight stopover en route to the west coast. Such are the restrictions of only a month in England! Still, it was three o’clock in the afternoon upon arrival at Edale International Railway Terminus and despite greying, occasionally drizzly skies, the tops of the hills could be sighted. I struck out, on a gentle country lane, over stiles and gradually upwards through the patchwork fields of sheep contained by crumbling dry stone walls. This can only be England, and it can never fail to induce utter content.

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The climbing got a little more intense up to Hollins Cross, where a view south was becoming increasingly obscured by low cloud and rain, and the wind was a constant companion on a ridge towards the prominence of Mam Tor. Reaching the summit, the summer of yesterday was well and truly finished, and – almost incredulously – I employed my waterproof coat for the first time in two weeks!

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eng10Mustn’t grumble…the weather could have been far worse and it offered the perfect conditions for an Edale pub crawl. Walking up to the Old Nags Head, the first ale flowed quickly down as I rested in a pleasingly darkened nook of creaking wood. And back down in the Rambler Inn, where I was staying for the night, a hefty Sunday roast was well-accompanied by a couple of the local brews. I went to bed slightly aggrieved I wasn’t staying longer.

The take what you can get to Ansdell and Fairhaven

Black pudding. Now there’s something I don’t rush back to England craving.  However, having opted for the Full English and being one of only two diners that morning and being in the north, I felt duty bound to pay it some attention. Beans and HP sauce can help.

Breakfast was made more stressful with the news that conductors were on strike and trains were not bothering to stop at Edale. Alternative options seemed complex and required significant walking and waiting. But the fact that there was very little in Edale was a blessing in disguise, the manager at the Rambler Inn having to make a trip down the hills to the ooh la la sounding Chapel-en-le-Frith to visit the closest post office. Here, apparently, hourly trains to Manchester were in operation.

Indeed that proved to be the case, and from Manchester I was able to connect with reasonable efficiency on to Preston, Lancashire. I never had the ambition to spend two hours in the city centre, but that was the only viable option to kill time until the next connection. It was pretty much like any other city centre in England but at least that was marginally better than what I was expecting. I think it has improved since I was last here, thanks to pedestrianisation and – largely – an absence of unoccupied stores. Still, no offence, but I don’t think Preston would make the ‘I could live here’ list.

eng11Could I live amongst the gentrified avenues and peering from behind net curtain populace of Ansdell and Fairhaven? Possibly. The promenade fringing the estuary is pleasant on rare days when gales don’t blow off the Irish Sea, the town centre of Lytham is tidy and amenable, there are pubs, and I could even go swinging at the golf club. But most of all there are old friends who are a pleasure to see and spend time with, plus new feline ones who would be quite welcome to stow away in my suitcase.

The thing with this area is I am unsure if there are days when it doesn’t actually rain. Maybe I have just been unfortunate lately (I have heard rumours of hot sunny summer days), but the predominance of dankness simply serves to exacerbate my grim up north prejudice. A thought that was on my mind as I headed out in the drizzle to the tiny one platform station once more.

The so over it to Pewsey

It could be worse. You could be stuck in Wolverhampton for an hour, missing a tight connecting train heading further south. Aghast at such a prospect I carried on to Birmingham New Street which, following a grand redevelopment, is all impressive sleekness and luminosity. Still, it remains Birmingham and I was pleased to see a train in half an hour heading to Reading.

At Reading there was more joy in store by waiting around half an hour for a train to Basingstoke where I could wait another half hour for a train to Salisbury where I could then sit in traffic for a while before reaching the final destination of Durrington. Or I could change plans and board that train destined for Pewsey in the next ten minutes. What would Michael Portillo do, I didn’t think?

eng12Wiltshire. A new place to stay with Dad and Sonia and some different parts of the countryside to explore. With names like the Vale of Pewsey, Netheravon, and Honey Street, it could be something straight out of the pages of Tolkien. The comfortable, idyllic bit, with thatched cottages, gardens prospering in shafts of sunlight, cosy pubs and weird looking hobbits. But lurking behind this, the prospect of dark times and conflict as tanks carry out manoeuvres and prepare for the threat of some dark lord thing with a big fiery eye and fondness for Twitter.

At peace, there was much walking to be had in Wiltshire, with a trip along the ridgelines of the Pewsey Downs and through the vale below. Commonplace around here, a white horse had been etched onto the hillside, looking elegant from afar but entirely distorted close up. And a bit less white, as if it could do with a top up of gravel from Bunnings. Anything for an awful sausage sizzle.

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eng14With cloud lifting and just a little sun emerging it was a pleasant walk, a pub beside the Kennet and Avon Canal offering some refreshment but little in the way of good cheer. Better refreshment and more cheer, however, at the Honeystreet Cafe in the form of cake and okay coffee. Alas, I have since heard this spot is going to be closing down, which is a shame since it offers delicious fuel for the trudge back up to the car parked up on the ridge.

The next day was less conducive to walking and so we headed down to Poole where at least the rain was mostly insipid. It’s hard to judge Poole on a grey, damp and cool day. I’m sure on sunny days it would be rather jaunty and the appeal of boat trips and sandy enclaves would emerge. Today, it was an outing, something to do that was better than staying at home.

Back into the Wiltshire countryside, the River Avon provides a ribbon of life and opulence upon which gated estates, woodlands and cosy villages intertwine. Nestled in the middle of southern England, it is a very middle middle England. On an amiable and diverse circular walk with Dad we saw one of Sting’s mansions (unlikely to be at home, busy banishing poverty), passed a very posh lady on a horse, encountered distant views of Stonehenge, walked through a verdant valley, and just about made it back in time before a rain shower.

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After the rain had fallen, we popped off to Salisbury, with its impressive cathedral, medieval buildings and pretty riverside parklands. There were the usual shops too, and the trappings of any English town (which now seem to include the ever-expanding Roly’s Fudge Pantries, hello).

eng17I was kind of surprised – given the general affluence of the area – to observe people milling about the town included an assorted jumble of yoofs, chavs, oddballs and eccentrics. But I suppose that is also reassuring and, in many ways, comforting to know that Salisbury is not much different to anywhere else (and you too can fit in!). England is still England, kind of functioning in its own little way, peculiar but familiar, simultaneously appalling and utterly incredible. And really blessed with the best berries grown in the best countryside in the world.

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Better late than never

Ah live blogging. Tweeting Trump tirades. Instantaneous pictures of food. All the wonders of the 21st century. And here I am stuck in the past, thinking back to early September and a final foray (in 2016 at least) in the southwest of England. Luckily the memories are vivid, and the wonders of the 21st century mean that I can draw on way too many photographs than is healthy.

swlast01I remember arriving back from London in splendid sunshine and almost immediately rushing to the moors. The car had alternate ideas, but some rectification and replacement meant that the day wasn’t totally ruined. In fact the afternoon sky was bluer, the light clearer, the warmth warmer on a rapid trot up from the tinkling cascades around Norsworthy Bridge towards Down Tor. Clearly, so clearly, and happily back in Devon.

And then, crossing counties, there was the day. In other years it has been around Porthcurno or Padstow or Fowey or St Agnes. The Cornwall Day. The day when I venture out into a world set up so perfectly that you start to question why you would even think about going anywhere else. Sure, it was a long trek down to Penzance on the train, and then to Land’s End with its touch of tack and touristification. But head north, mostly along the coast path, and you are transported into a rugged, beautiful, heart-warming world that oozes pasty filling and rich clotted cream.

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swlast03Practically round the corner from Land’s End is Sennen Cove. Though most of the Land’s End crowd have filtered out, the beach remains busy and tiny car parks are amply populated with people eternally waiting for someone else to move. But beyond the main drag the alleys are cosily quiet, and the coast path is trampled in only an infrequent fashion by jolly people with beaming smiles. I may have been one of them.

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swlast05Further along the path the beach empties out, disappearing altogether as a small headland perforates the arc of Whitesand Bay. There are rocks to clamber over and a tightening of the sea against the land. It’s just a small inconvenience when you round a corner and discover another bay, another beach, another dream that you might want to pinch yourself from. If anywhere in the UK is ever going to get close to a rugged beach of southern New South Wales, then maybe Gwynver Beach is the one.

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But unlike the other souls who have found this place, there is little time to linger, other than to eat a somewhat squishy Double Decker on a rock. I have public transport timetables to consider, and there is not very much to consider. It is the bus or bust. So I move promptly northward, following the cliff line towards Cape Cornwall. The sandy beaches have gone and it is all raggedy rocks and windswept heather, brilliant in the afternoon light beamed from the west. It is archetypal Cornwall and it is only right for this particular Cornwall day.

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I never make it to Cape Cornwall, thanks in no small part to bus concerns and the elongated fissure that is Porth Nanven. In true Cornish fashion, the coastline is pierced by a stream, the steep valley it has left in its wake stretching to the suburbs of St Just and requiring a significant detour. With St Just tantalisingly in site and consulting my bus timetable, I instead make a dash for the 1644 to Pendeen.

The bus is – almost inevitably in this part of the world, at this time of year, at this hour in the day – a little late. But it is running and drops me off at The Queens Arms in Botallack. This is a handy place for a bus stop, as I make a mental note of the time back to Penzance and do swift calculations in my head to ensure there is opportunity for a pint. It all depends though on how much I linger around the Botallack mine sites.

There is plenty to linger for here, and with the sun gradually moving lower you know it will probably get even better. At first glance it doesn’t seem the most aesthetically pleasing spot, mining remnants littering the whole coastline, chimney stacks towering above a small gravel car park, wheelhouses crumbling into a pile of rubble. But out on one of the headlands is the iconic site of a mine perched precariously next to the Atlantic Ocean. And another above that. It is a right proper Ginsters Smugglers Pilchard Jamaica Inn Poldark of a sight, and it takes a lot to tear you away.

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swlast08Such as a pint. A pint of Doom Bar in a Doom Bar glass in an independent, old school pub perched on the edge of Cornwall, the edge of England, maybe even the edge of civilisation (though that is debatable more than ever these days). Can there be any better way to toast an exemplary Cornish Day than waiting for the bus like this?

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You know, as well as getting frequently drunk it seems the in thing in England these days is to get bleatingly nostalgic about the supposedly good old days, often while drunk. I was wondering what it would be like after the whole let’s leave Europe and go our own way rah rah rah eff off we’re full thing. Maybe it was a decent summer, maybe it was Olympic glory, and maybe it was the fact that not much had really changed – yet – that doses of an idyllic, untroubled, pacific England were there to be had. Like that final late afternoon upon Brentor, sticking up above the rolling patchwork, dotted with sheep, cows, the odd cosy farmhouse and distant church-steepled villages. I love this spot.

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And with sweeping sentimentality there were also the inevitable farewells to be had on those last few days. A farewell to Plymouth, who’s Hoe I finally got to visit one spontaneous evening. A farewell to proper clotted cream for another year, nurturing and sustaining me through winding lanes and gigantic hedgerows. A farewell to the school summer holidays, mercifully. A farewell to pasties, though with Sarah deciding to close on a Sunday, the last taste was one of bitterness and disenchantment in Looe. Oh, and a farewell to some of these people, once again. People who never fail to entertain, irritate, feed, amuse and always capture my heart.

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Gold at heart

The Olympics! I haven’t mentioned the Olympics and how good it was to see most of it on TV in the UK. Complete with the kind of partisan coverage that I love exemplarily executed by the Beeb. Great Britain, Second, Who needs Europe anyway, rah rah rah, put out the bunting. My how we have grown to love bunting!

And so to the capital of gargantuan bunting, a city that at times was an emotional and physical drain on me but is now an absolute tonic to visit. I swear the underground seems to work better nowadays, everything seems a tad cleaner and a bit less grey, the spirit is more open, eclectic, progressive, and now – as a visitor – I can see that London truly is one of the world’s greatest cities.

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Being the August bank holiday weekend I was flummoxed to find myself in shorts on a balcony in the outer suburbs of London with friends Caroline and Jill (note: above picture is not from that balcony!). With this warmth it could have been Bondi, apart from the lack of sand, good coffee, and film crews desperately waiting for the next hapless backpacker to get caught in a rip. But at least there was cake, no kids for a couple of days, and a generous array of pre-birthday celebration antics mysteriously planned. Wild times ahead!

lon01First up on a perfect day we scaled the heights of 20 Fenchurch Street. By elevator of course, up to the Sky Garden of the building popularly known as the Walkie-Talkie. No bungee jumping, no glass-bottom floor, no zip wire…just astounding views over London, shady ferns, comfy sofas and another predictably poor coffee.

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Back down amongst the hustle and bustle of the streets we grabbed some suitably middle class lunch involving hummus before embarking on a mystery journey on the meandering tentacles of the District Line. One of the fun aspects of this journey was not being told anything about where we were going or what we were doing, apart from dire warnings that I might get wet. All a hilarious ruse to baffle an old man as potential options disappeared with each tube stop, finally dwindling to something in Richmond or Kew Gardens. And at Kew Gardens Station, we abruptly bolted for the exit.

lon05I am wondering if there is any finer place than Kew Gardens on such a beautiful late summer’s day. For not only are there acres of manicured lawn, generous pockets of woodland bursting green, and a profligate array of multihued flowerbeds, but you can also play guess the airline. In the cloudless sky, the parade of jets coming into land at Heathrow provides a distracting guessing game when one finds oneself eating ice cream under the shade of a tree. The funny thing was, we didn’t seem to be the only ones playing it.

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lon06But back to earth. We must have walked a fair few miles around the gardens but at regular intervals there was an opportunity to dwell, a chance to linger. A gallery here, a cafe there, a grand house beyond the trees. Sculptures and water features and artworks to do with bees, in which human drones obediently infiltrate the hive out of nothing more than curiosity.

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Then there are the glasshouses. Today it feels like there is no need for hot, tropical climates, but it’s fair to say that the weather is rarely this good. Orchids, palms, lily pads…climb some stairs and you can even go bananas. This would be a good winter refuge.

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And finally, almost as cavernous is the gift shop. Which in gift shop terms is reasonably respectable, with tasteful botanic tea towel prints and encyclopaedic tomes relating to the history of the fennel seed. It would be a decent place to buy Christmas presents for those people you really have difficulty buying presents for. Adding to its appeal in all seasons, we concurred that buying an annual membership pass for Kew Gardens would be a worthwhile purchase if you didn’t live, say, 12,000 miles away.

One thing is for sure – people living in and around the gardens could no doubt afford it. And should they dare to venture out of their generous and elegantly proportioned homes they could entertain themselves besides the river. The Thames of course, dotted with a pub or two on the Chiswick side. An ale by the water, sat comfortably outside as the daylight faded, all supplemented by a dose of fish and chips. This has been a good, a great, a golden day.

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Such a day set a high bar to live up to and the following proved a quirkier affair. Exploits of yesterday had induced a dash of weariness but we still successfully ate some food, walked in a park, shopped, laid on a picnic blanket, and got House of Love wedged into our brains.

First up was a trip to the palace – Alexandra Palace or Ally Pally as those in the know call it. Views from here reflect back on where we were yesterday. You could see the Walkie-Talkie, but none of us could remember seeing Alexandra Palace when we were up there. I guess because there was so much of distraction in between from the other vantage.

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In the parade of pre-birthday surprises I feared an onset of painful embarrassment upon the ice rink situated in the palace. But I needn’t have feared, because there was a much more suitable food festival nearby. Offering a few free samples, mostly of the alcoholic variety, it was enough to induce a craving for an organic grain fed pork sausage and onion ciabatta. As you do near Muswell Hill.

Alright, alright, everything’s gonna be alright because somehow we ended up at Walthamstow Central, East 17. Mystified as to why, there were claims of passing Bryan Harvey’s house, seeing the place where shell suited fashions were purchased, crossing the road that the group’s dog got run over on. Or something. But it turns out this part of the world is renowned for more than a former greyhound stadium and chavesque low brow Take That. William Morris did some things with design for wallpapers and turned into a raving socialist. And this was all recollected in his once grand house and gardens, way beyond the reach of the plebs.

lon10Another surprise in this area was the presence of something called Walthamstow Village. While no thatched cottage idyll in the South Hams of Devon, it possessed that quiet street, classic brickwork, church green feel of a London village, with some similarity to more celebrated haunts such as Highgate and Hampstead. Plus there was somewhere to buy ice cream, relief on another generously warm day.

And so as in so many a tale of mine it comes back to food. The final evening of this tour – exquisitely planned and executed – encapsulated a picnic within the virtual countryside of Trent Park. And for this the unfurling of a picnic blanket – a feature of so many of these get-togethers. Under planes a little too high to turn into a game, a mixed meze straight outta North London. This was pure gold at heart.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Society & Culture

The other side of the road

For countless miles past I have been chauffeured around the highways and byways of Devon and Cornwall by my brother. Often to head out for a walk, a spot of sightseeing, some lunch. Maybe a round of golf or a special treat to a humungous Tesco. But not until August 2016 did I only partially return the favour (albeit without the Tesco) for him and his son.

Being the midst of summer holidays it was typically overcast on the jaunt through the South Hams to Salcombe. Atypical was the lack of traffic however, and we were in the centre of town foraging for treats before you know it. Fudge, pasties, ice cream, supposedly good coffee. Fodder for a very British lunch in the refreshing drizzle, which naturally timed its arrival to perfection.

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gui03Just a stone’s throw from here – but via tortuously scenic roads hemmed in by a picture postcard of thatched cottages – sit the pebbles of Slapton Sands. Even on dismal days the pebbles lend vibrancy to the air, clarity to the water, and a chance to display consistent inadequacy at skimming. The alternative option of tossing increasingly giant rocks into the sea proved far more accessible and entertaining.

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The stubbornness of cloud to vanish endured the following day driving over the Tamar and towards Holywell Bay, just west of Newquay. Two things appeal here: an array of rides, games, and equipment for child entertainment and the spacious, undeveloped sandy beach. Actually three things: the pitch and putt links. No make that four: Doom Bar on tap in the golf clubhouse.

gui06As the afternoon evolved, summer came back with a bang. Perfect golfing weather and opportunity to get a little burnt. I never get burnt in Australia, only soggy little Britain, quite probably because I never expect to be on the receiving end of such ultraviolet aggression. The golf wasn’t exactly red hot, but we coped around the course sculpted in such a splendid location.

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gui08aHaving abandoned a bunch of wildlings on the beach, it was late afternoon by time my brother and I rejoined the rest of the family, who didn’t seem to miss us one bit. And why would they, frolicking in the sun, attacking one another with water, jumping over surf. It was quite wonderful to see, together in perfect harmony, in amazing weather, in an attractive place. What else do you need? Fish and chips maybe? Okay.

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Lots of families were in various states of disharmony in Looe on what proved to be the warmest day yet. On the coast of South East Cornwall not a million miles from Plymouth, Looe can be quite agreeable. In October or April perhaps. On a hot day in August I would say the only thing going for Looe is the presence of Sarah’s Pasty Shop. I don’t know Sarah but I would marry her tomorrow, no qualms (she also has a divine looking cake shop so there really are no negatives as far as I can see).

gui09The criminal thing – though actually fortuitous for us locals in the know – are the queues of people backing out of Ye Olde Cornish Bakehouse or West Cornwall Pasty Ltd or whatever they are called. Chain stores in mediocrity. Delivering nourishment to hordes of people trying to find a few metres on the grainy beach. This is why Looe on a hot August afternoon is not for me. But I’d go there for Sarah.

Of course, escaping crowds can be achieved by venturing out of the seaside towns and onto the coast path. Lantic Bay made a striking debut in my consciousness last year and – earning a calendar appearance – my brother was keen to soak up the cliff top views and countryside ambience. Hands down this is better than Looe, but then, the beach isn’t as accessible…something which can cause consternation amongst beach-lovers. Back to Looe it is. Hi Sarah!

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gui12In a final hit and miss cloud affair in which there were more misses than hits we returned to the North Cornwall coast the next day. The aim was a last hoped-for paddle in water and delicious cream tea, something that could please everybody. The setting on the River Camel at Daymer Bay was agreeable enough, and could have been quickly heightened with a spot of sun. But it was under a mackerel sky that a few of us tiptoed into the water and clambered over rock pools.

gui13Because I was actually really enjoying driving around blind bends and along single track lanes I decided we could seek out a cream tea further up the coast near Boscastle. For once eschewing the village, we managed to get a parking spot at Boscastle Farm Shop, which hosted not only cream teas but an array of impressive looking cakes and a half decent coffee.

It’s a spot to put on the list for future visits. And with the coast path literally on the doorstep, who’s to say I will reach it by car next time around? Sometimes, passenger or driver, the best of the south west is out there on foot. Overlooking the sea with the allure of cream at the top of a hill. Lovely.

 

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