Counting counties

Did you know, the westernmost county of England has no motorways? In the height of summer, as holidaymakers trawl through Truro, pummel Padstow and flock upon Fowey, this can seem an incredible oversight. But then you encounter Britain’s motorway network and you think thank golly gosh goodness for that. No lorries overtaking lorries overtaking lorries at miniscule increments of speed. No white vans whizzing up slip roads in a traffic jam and appearing again to barge their way in, a whopping gain of ten metres to show for it. No Range Rovers hogging the outside lane forever like this is one’s own private drive. No dreadful Welcome Break Costas.

Alas, while the appalling ubiquity of Costa has not left Cornwall untouched, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the county is often a wild and rugged place, unsuited to motorways and factories and large B&M Bargain warehouse hubs. The pock-marked, rumpled coastline preserves small towns and villages largely the way they have been, barring a Grand Design here and a landslide there. Both of which are inevitable in Boscastle.

There is something ritualistic in heading to Boscastle, an almost-annual feat of figuring out the various B-road junctions around Tintagel, meandering down several hairpins and feeling bitter at the price of parking and the price to pee. But the bitterness fades like jam underneath lashings of cream as you walk past the cottages, above the small harbour and towards the entrance to the Atlantic, often a Hell’s Gate of oceanic torment.

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trip02With its prominent headlands, Boscastle offers a sense of protection from the great expanse beyond. There’s a cosiness to the village, which is a formidable asset in attracting people down its B roads. Nearby Tintagel doesn’t possess as much cosiness but instead relies on tenuous associations with King Arthur, Pengenna Pasties and – until recently – Granny Wobblys Fudge Pantry. Sadly, this year it seems Granny Wobbly has retired, along with her legendary fudge making abilities and fudge crumble ice cream (ice cream + clotted cream + fudge). Suddenly Tintagel seems devoid of purpose and Boscastle wins.

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Navigating B roads and the occasional dual carriageway back to Devon it is not until the east of this county that motorways first appear: the solitary blue line of the M5, commencing at Exeter and happily transporting folk to the alluring attractions of Birmingham. I was only on here for the briefest of spells, turning off towards the town of Seaton on the fringe of the Jurassic Coast.

The first stop on a trip up country, my departure from the south west was accompanied by a determination to take a break from clotted cream. BUT, I was still in Devon and hadn’t reckoned on the temptation fostered by a meet up with my Aussie cousin Fleur and Rob. Indeed, when Rob and I both received our chocolate cake sans clotted, I was the first to pipe up and gesticulate wildly in a state of panic, desperately miming the necessity of cream at the same time my cheeks were stuffed with cake. All class.

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After cake we headed off to the nearby village of Beer on what was a very grey and windy day. The sea churning brown, a row of deckchairs positioned on the pebbly cove appeared a fanciful proposition. But then of course a couple with a dog sat down and you were reminded this was Britain and clearly not Queensland. Some of us were a long way from home.

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From Beer I continued to avoid the motorway network while crisscrossing the Devon-Dorset-Somerset countryside in reaching my destination for the night, Street. It seems the main attraction of Street – its raison d’etre – is Clark’s Village, a conglomeration of ubiquitous high street brands and factory outlets. A town that embodies the Costafication of Great Britain to the Extra-Grande.

What this means is that nearby Glastonbury is refreshingly absent – barring a Boots chemist – of all the trappings of almost every single British town and city. In part, this void is filled by the ‘New Age’ industry: crystals, mindfulness mantras, tie-dye shawls, and all kinds of crazy crap. Unwittingly lured by free Wi-Fi I had possibly the worst coffee of my trip in a spot that was too veganly earnest for its own good. Maybe a Costa would go down well…

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Glastonbury is a pretty place and I suppose its new-age industry is premised on a combination of mythical relics, luscious countryside, and an almost annual music festival somewhere in a muddy field nearby. From these fields, the ancient – indeed mystical – rock of Glastonbury Tor dominates, topped out by St Michael’s Tower. At its base I encountered a small group of people with unwashed hair banging some drums and fluttering some rainbows. All part of the scenery.

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The climb up the tor was steep but short, an ascent rewarded by astounding views over Somerset. Patchwork fields occasionally dotted by sheep would run into farmsteads and small hamlets. To the north, the Mendips framed the horizon while the Somerset Levels stretched to infinity further south and west.  Somewhere out there was perhaps the M5, continuing its journey to Birmingham. Perhaps somewhere, over the rainbow.

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I left Glastonbury around 11am on a trip traversing a parade of other counties towards Lytham in Lancashire. From the south to the north, a journey that shouldn’t really take eight and a half hours. But I hadn’t factored in the motorway network, where almost every junction seems to bring traffic to a halt and this feels like it will continue all the way to the M6. Tuning into BBC Radio 2, every traffic report elevates a sense that this is going to be a long day.

Passing into Gloucestershire and then Worcestershire, I was becoming increasingly bored of the interminable trawl that would re-form every few miles. Just as you were getting up speed, brake lights would synchronise, and once more a car park. White transit vans would disappear up slip roads to emerge again two spots further up. Lorries would attempt to overtake lorries in slow motion. Range Rovers wouldn’t budge from the outside.  And still the radio would report more stuff-ups yet to come.

So I gave up. I turned off. Back onto A-roads through Shropshire, a tiny bit of Wales, Cheshire, and – finally – Lancashire. In the end it was unlikely any quicker, limited dual carriageway and roundabout ring roads making progress slow. But in a way it seemed more pleasing as it wasn’t professing to be an express route. Some of the countryside was nice. And I avoided Birmingham. After all, who needs motorways anyway?

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Seventh Heaven

I experience inevitable pangs of longing as pictures of Floriade, flat whites and thongs in thirty degrees Celsius begin to infiltrate my Instagram feed. Suddenly (and quite dramatically this year it seems) the balance tips and before you know it the people of Canberra will be cycling blissfully along the lake in bushfire smoke. I would be quite happy to throw on some shorts, pedal down to Penny University for a coffee, pop back to Manuka for some takeaway Mees Sushi rolls, have a nap if the squawking birds allow, and then watch the shadows lengthen on Red Hill. Still, I could fairly easily be doing that this time next week if I chose to.

The day will come, but not yet. There have been, and still are, plenty of good reasons to linger in the northern hemisphere. The recent weather has been better than it was in August, though the days shorten and wind now has a bite. As September trickled into October, autumn itself appeared on hold. Seven days with barely a cloud, and even those were as fluffily white as the sheep. Seven days in which I again got distracted. Seriously…

Sunday

A morning walk on the moors, what better way to absorb the clear air and open space? Intending to go to one spot, I ended up at another, but that can often be the way with Dartmoor. Squeezing through Horrabridge and up to Whitchurch Down, the setting looked exquisite enough to not need go any further.

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I think I ended up climbing to a clump of rocks known as Pew Tor but I didn’t know this at the time. It seems apt, since several rows of disorderly granite offered exemplary seating to watch proceedings across to Merivale and Great Mis Tor and down the moor into the Tavy and Tamar Valleys. Brentor was there (again) as were the beacons of Bodmin Moor across the border. A seat for a Sunday morning service I don’t mind attending.

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Monday

I had duties to perform but duties that only served to add an extra layer of holiday feeling not at all conducive to working. The A38 and M5 – often a scene of holiday hell – acted as a gateway to Bristol Airport and temporary disposal of the parents. I could’ve just turned around and come back to revel in my newly found again freedom, but that little stretch of road between the M5 and Bristol Airport is just so lush that it seems a waste to pass it by. Especially when I can zip off my legs, eat ice cream and toil atop Cheddar Gorge.

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mag05Steep climbs made a warm sun feel hot. Only brief glimpses of gorge and harsh but inevitable comparison with the many amazing chasms of Australia put this one close to the wrong side of the effort-reward ratio. Still, the rolling Mendips and glary Somerset levels offered an appealing backdrop, and the effort was ample to justify a wedge of clothbound, cave matured, genuine Cheddar.

mag06Anyway, the weather was of course A-MAZE-BALLS and I may have added to my dirty tan. It certainly did not feel like autumn, despite a few sneaky clues emerging in shadier spots.  Who needs Ibiza? Even the drive back on the M5 and A38 was quite a pleasure, as if one was heading west on holiday oneself. Which one pretty much was.

Such gloriousness spurred me to an impromptu, upwards detour as the sun lowered across Devon. Up to Haytor to see the last, laser hues of sunlight projected Uluru-like on the grey granite. Shorts still on, but not exactly appropriate. Cooler nights ahead, but clear and calm days to linger.

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Tuesday

For balance, I completed some chores and did some work. But by about four o’clock that became tiresome and the sun was still taunting me through the window. So I hopped over on the Torpoint ferry to Whitsand Bay, parked up and walked out to Rame Head.

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mag10What gorgeousness in the shelter of the east wind, the sunlight cast low upon the rugged line of cliffs stretching to Looe. What good fortune to still be able to do this so late in the day, after being unusually productive. And what a nice spot to watch the sun go out again, the end of another year accomplished.

Wednesday

If I was to design my own exemplary birthday present it would probably involve a sparkling drive across the rolling countryside of eastern Cornwall. I would reach the north coast at Boscastle, where I would sip on a reasonable coffee by the water before moving on to Tintagel for a more than reasonable pasty. Crumbly fudge may also be picked up via this route as an optional but inevitable extra. Interspersed between the eating would be cliff top walks under a big blue sky, the sound of ocean waves rising from the caves and coves of the coastline. Yes, the coffee could be still better, and the weather still warmer, but I sense a contentment of such simple things with age. Tintagel Island my cake, a steak and stilton pasty the candle on top.

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Thursday

mag12Older, wiser, even more prone to daytime napping, I again used the day in a semi-productive manner with frequent interruptions. A few spots of cloud came and went and the hours ticked on by to leave me with yet another end of day outing. Somewhere handy and close would do the job, and while the inlets of Plymouth Sound and cars of the city are detrimental to handiness, the views from nearby Jennycliff still manage to do the job. Goodbye sunshine, see you again tomorrow.

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Friday

Having barely ventured outside of the Plymouth city borders yesterday (a few steps on the coast path veering into the South Hams), corrective action was necessary on what was shaping into yet another sunny and mild day. This fine weather is getting tediously predictable, yet I still feel the urge to make as much of it as I can, because surely tomorrow will be worse. And so, ship shape and Bristol fashion, it’s off to Salcombe we go.

mag14I think it’s fair to make a sweeping generalisation and say that Salcombe is in a more upmarket corner of Devon. Upmarket in the ships ahoy, jolly poor showing by the English against those Colonials I say dear boy mode. The Daily Mail is the predominant manifesto of choice amongst a bowls club of stripy sweaters keeping a keen eye on the watery horizon for any unwanted intruders. And, across the river – at East Portlemouth – high fences of hydrangeas protect expensive views and private beaches.

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mag16Thankfully there are access points for commoners who make the effort. The ferry – manned by a servant with pleasingly gruff countenance – bobs back and forth to link town with East Port (as the locals probably call it). The fine, golden sand of Mill Bay is perfectly accessible, as long as you abide by the many rules and regulations set out on the Charter of Public Citizen Access as endorsed by the Board of Her Majesty’s Quarterdecks and Royal Commonwealth Bridge Club. The National Trust – a more agreeable British institution – have usurped some of the land nearby for all to use, and this takes you round to a couple more secluded bays and out back into the wilds.

mag17Now, the clipped hedges and accents fade, paralleled by a spilling out of protected estuary into untamed sea. A yacht bravely ventures out past Bolt Head and into the deep blue. A sea which is looking fairly placid today, reflecting much warmth towards bare cliffs and making me legless for the second time in a week. For some reason I am reminded of a tiny stretch of rare undeveloped Spanish coast between Cartagena and La Manga. Warm, barren, secluded. A palette seemingly burnished by the sun.

There are a few people for company out in the wilds, especially upon reaching Gara Rock Beach. An old man on some rocks seems to glare at me as if I was wearing a fluorescent pink onesie emblazoned with the words ‘LOOK AT ME’ or something. Only when he gets the binoculars out do I realise his penchant for birdlife, and my likely noisy clambering disturbing a pair of superb tits. A scattering of people bathe on the sands, while fellow ramblers wheeze their way up to the cafe seventy five metres above.

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Ah the cafe. I am back in Salcombe, with its crayfish pine nut salads and cedar-pressed Prosecco, served on a deck all wood planks and reinforced glass. Torn between two worlds, I resist and plough on down through woodland with my homemade cheese and ham and – a little in keeping – avocado sandwich. Back in town, an ice cream from Salcombe Dairy perfectly caps it off, a delight that anyone can most definitely enjoy on a day such as this.

Saturday

And so we are back where we began. Or, to be precise, back where I had intended to begin a week ago: at the top of Pork Hill between Tavistock and Merivale and heading into the heart of empty, high Dartmoor. Late day light replaces that of mid morning, but the scene is much the same. Perhaps the grass is a little more yellow and the bogs a little less swampy. The sheep are thirsty and the ponies unfathomably shelter in early October shadows. Small white clouds swiftly pass on the steady breeze, projecting speckles of shadow on a landscape devoid of much at all. One small farmhouse lingers in the fringe lands of the valley. Tors rupture and balance in a haphazard jigsaw of granite. At Roos Tor, there are no roos to be seen, but I am perfectly fine with that. For now, in such magic weather, with such a magic week, there is nowhere better.

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(Sunday: It was cloudy, I napped and had roast dinner)

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Tasty taster

I suppose it is not uncommon to arrive in Plymouth in the midst of summer to find the place bedecked in insipid drizzle. A shroud of gloom so dank that even the statue of Sir Francis Drake stares out blankly, wondering where the rather large body of Plymouth Sound has gone and thus if it has been stolen by the Spanish. It’s a welcome that temporarily makes you question why you bothered, offering reassurance that you are doing the right thing by not living here. And then the weather clears.

swA01In the space of one week, you remember to make the most of drier and clearer slots sparingly scattered across the southwest summer, and race to the moors, the coast, the countryside. Dartmoor is literally on the doorstep: one minute it’s all superstores and industrial units and Wimpey homes, the next rolling farmland and upland tors. Somewhere amongst the wilderness you may have the good fortune to deliberately stumble upon a cream tea. And once more, you are back in Utopia.

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Across the border, a pilgrimage to the North Cornwall coast is a must, unifying the potential for pasties, fudge, and ice cream with rugged scenery and pretty towns. There are so many pretty towns with so many pasty, fudge and ice cream shops that is hard to know which one to raid. Experience proves a good option is to hone in towards Tintagel, and have it all.

swA04First though there is Boscastle which is just simply a delight, no matter the weather (although the deluge causing flash flood variety does tend to put a downer on things). Ducking in to a cute cafe by the water as a shower passes overhead, it is all sunshine and smiles the other side of a typically variable flat white. The summer of sorts reappears, and a sweater can be removed in the sheltered harbour glow.

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swA05Tempting cakes and bakery goodies are purgatory, but you push on in the knowledge that a Pengenna pasty awaits up the road in Tintagel. A meal in itself, today it is the main reason for stopping there. A walk past plastic Arthurian swords and St Austell Ales, it nourishes but is underwhelming. High expectations from past delectations are hard to satisfy, but solace comes from a creamy fudgy pile of ice cream from Granny Wobbly instead.

What better way to burn off just a few of the calories than in Port Isaac? Doc Martin and an array of quirky characters with affected bumpkin accents may have walked these narrow streets, but today it is over to the tourists. Most are taking pictures of the places where Doc Martin and an array of quirky characters have walked the streets, but some – like me – push on through the town. Up onto yet another gargantuan headland with views of the harbour and coastline stretching north to Hartland. Inland, as the rain clouds refuse to budge over Bodmin Moor, patchwork farms go about their business of producing life essentials, many of which I feel I have eaten today.

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So, a cream tea, pasty and fudgy pile of goodness completed in little under 24 hours, ticking off both the wilds of Dartmoor and the coves and crevices of the North Cornish coast. Occasional rain days offer more mundane revisitations around Plymouth, but the foodstuffs continue apace. A roast dinner, proper Cadbury’s, and even a barbecue in a bright and breezy sixteen degrees mate.

swA07All this eating necessitates exercise, I guess. If I was in Canberra I would head up Red Hill but here I can return to Dartmoor. Waking early on a Saturday morning, little traffic on the roads heading gradually up through suburbs and to higher ground, half of Devon and much of Cornwall reveals itself. It is, again, bright and breezy, just the ponies for company in the lee of Sharpitor. Selfies are needed, but the emptiness, the space, the clear air, the expanse is a joy to behold in this sometimes claustrophobic country.

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swA10Sigh…if only you could get a good coffee. Hang on, what’s this? It still requires further validation, but there could be something with potential. A flat white which is flat and white and creamy and not scalding hot with a pile of insipid froth on top. Blended together with a mellow strength. Served in a glass as if a latte but I can forgive that. I will have to come back and reinvestigate.

Fortunately there are fine cakes and pastries on offer even if future coffees end up being awful. And there is always tea. With a scone. And maybe some jam. And a smidgeon of cream. And a landscape which is as delicious in the admittedly intermittent summer sun. It is the Ambrosia, and I will come back to taste it again.

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