Southwest bits blitz (1)

It may be a product of sustained transience but the chance to drop anchor for an undefined period in a familiar place has been of great appeal. And so here I still am – Plymouth, Devon – and only twice so far have I pined for the other side of the world. Once I was in Starbucks and had a drink that had the front to be called coffee. The other time, some dreadful nincompoop and his bumbling mates were taking over Australia, and while I was not missing the crowing and hollering, my inner nerd was bereaved of two party preferred counts, the swings, the coloured maps and the abject head-shaking of democracy where a mandate is claimed when less than half of the population vote for you and, even those who do, probably do not agree with 100% of your policies.

Still, I do intend to return to the country despite a change in the people who nominally run it but don’t really do much at all. You see, at some point here the weather will get continually miserable and the people will get more miserable and I will get miserable with the miserable weather and the miserable people. And then I can return to the land down under which is so fortunate it forgets how fortunate it is. But the people there won’t be miserable because they got what they wanted.

sw02Plymouth can be incredibly miserable but at the moment there is a prolonged ray of sunshine that transforms even the dodgy concrete alleys filled with rubbish bags into an artistic postmodern composition of urban life. The crazy drunks walking the streets become salt of the earth characters and chavved up pram pushers on the bus make for a colourful melee of handbags and hairdos. I’ve heard it said that Australia is just like Britain would be with good weather; not exactly, but the weather can do wonders for a place.

The familiar abounds but every time I return there are incremental changes to the city. Royal William Yard is an obvious one and I have been impressed by the conversion from disused naval quarters to swanky flats and waterside cafes. Devil’s Point provides the picturesque walk to burn off jam and cream filled shortbread from the bakery, and something approaching an alright cappuccino is available on occasion.  On my first visit, in warm Sunday sunshine, I had the momentary feeling that I was back in Australia such was the sparkle, the relaxed buzz, and general air of wellbeing. I even had a flat white, but this was very English.

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sw05Part of the familiarity re-familiarisation process is engaging in the foodstuffs of this part of the world. The issue is, the longer I linger, the less I can justify filling my face. On day 1, cream tea on Dartmoor was ticked off and clotted cream has re-appeared on a number of other opportunities (like when I made treacle tart, yum yum!). But I have also been back to Dartmoor and not eaten cream – something that sounds like progress. Meanwhile Dartmoor continues to captivate through its moods and sweeping vistas.

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sw03The Cornish pasties have bubbled to the surface like oozing hot steak juice through a pastry crust, though only infrequently. Almost every single one I have is a disappointment unless it is from Pengenna Pasties. On which note, I am pleased to have paid a visit to Bude where the queues out of the door and mass munching in the town square are a sure sign of Pengennirvana. This was the undoubted highlight of a bank holiday Monday, which was a reminder of what a bank holiday Monday is all about. Traffic queues, parking hassles, gritty sand packed with feral children and people from Wolverhampton going red in the twenty degree heat. I didn’t really enjoy Bude apart from that pasty.

By contrast another day trip in Cornwall ranks as one of the best I have had this year; a year which, I remind you, has encompassed a tour of New Zealand and a scenic meandering across Australia. A piddly train to Penzance doesn’t rank up there with the journeys but then an open top double-decker through the narrow lanes and warm sunshine of West Penwith brought a sense of adventure to the trip. And this delivered me to Porthcurno and a scene to celebrate, a landscape bejewelled in sand and seas bedecked in a stunning clarity and rare calm.

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sw07This is the pointy end of Cornwall, the pointy end of Britain, and if anyone thinks Britain is a drab, miserable place, well…stick ‘em with the pointy end. This is country best explored on foot, on that magnificent coastal path, a path I followed for seven miles or so around Land’s End and on to Sennen Cove. It is stunning country and every minute was marvellous. Of course, you have to put a little asterisk here and acknowledge that the sun shining makes a world of difference. But even on dank, foggy days or, better still, stormy windswept occasions, it is a natural wonder.

sw08The coast path along here turned out to be pretty good walking too, only dipping down to a cove and climbing arduously up again about four times, which isn’t that bad for Cornwall. A lot of the time you can just follow the cliff line, strolling upon high overlooking clusters of volcanic rock tumbling into clear blue seas, where the occasional trio of seals bob along and seabirds glide on warm air.  Around, the exposed heath is a colour of gorse and heather, a purple and gold that could quite justifiably replace the black and white of the Cornish flag.

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sw11A blip of sorts pops up at Land’s End. While the coastline is appropriately craggy and exposed, the necessary touristification due to popularity takes away a bit from the surrounds. So there are eroded paths down to see grumpy farmyard animals, shops selling fudge made in Wales and tea towels made in China, arcade machines to play and One Direction posters for sale. There are doughnuts and beer and ice cream to buy. Stop. Ice cream. I’ve been walking five and a half miles. Ice cream. It’s mid afternoon. Ice cream. I deserve ice cream.

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Expecting lame, rip-off ice cream I remember it quite fondly as not being particularly lame or too much of a rip off. A popular Cornish brand it had enough creaminess to see me over the last substantial hummock of the path before dropping down to Sennen Cove. I remember coming here about ten years ago, on a mild but foggy old day, the cove sheltering a fine sweep of sand intermingled with cottages and boats. It was deathly quiet then, a sure contrast to today.

Today Sennen was St. Tropez, but thankfully the beach stretches beyond the comfortable confines of the car park. Once over towels and tents and through ball games, the beach widens and empties. The sand is genuinely sandy and the water a clear shade of blue. Surfers attempt to do something in the lumps and bumps of wave that exist on this breathless day while lifesavers watch on. Yes, it is, almost, Australian.

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It’s kind of funny how I look out for a touch of the Australian in Britain and when in Australia the opposite happens. I presume it’s the whole have your cake and eat it syndrome. When both do come together – like in the creamy green hills around Kangaroo Valley or the sunny, civilised sands of Cornwall – it’s something of a marvel. And while misery quotients and government philosophies reach common ground there is little to distinguish one over the other. For now.

Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Cream

I grew up in Devon, England. On paper it may sound idyllic for Devon surely conjures images of rolling green hills and tinkling rivers, bobbling their way down to the sea past thatched cottages and fields of sheep and cow [1]. The image is ingrained on a can of Ambrosia custard, a can which may be spotted overflowing from a pile of black bin bags in a grimy back lane of Plymouth, Devon, as I endeavour to find the shortest route home from school, avoiding the dog mess and scary people hanging around the dreary Thatcher-era jobcentre. The can is eventually collected by a wearily underpaid and grizzled local, transporting it by diesel truck to a stinking pile of garbage, where seagulls scavenge for bits of leftover pastie and people scavenge for usable second hand furniture and car boot trinkets. When it comes to custard cans, what you see is not exactly everything that you get.

That is not to say the custard can is a total fabrication, and the idyllic Devon does exist in spades, particularly once you get out of some of the more run down parts of its towns and cities. Within fifteen minutes of that cobbled back alley I can be on the edge of Dartmoor, with the rolling hills spanning ever higher until they become barren and sparse, topping out with crumbling rocks that eventually give up pushing their way out of the earth and tumble downwards over the steep hillside, like a very very slow moving volcanic eruption of granite. Here lie rocks that I once had the dubious pleasure of measuring for a geography field trip on the kind of day where misty rain sits stagnant in the air and soaks you to the bone. Still, it was so worth it to learn that there was some correlation between the size of the granite rocks and their position on the hillside [2].

By now you may be thinking this is all rather nice but what has any of this got to do with the letter C? It all seems to be a bit D like, rambling on about Devon and Dartmoor. And while there is something to be said for a double D it is not conducive to the order and logic that you have set yourself with this quite possibly pointless time-wasting task of writing something about each bloody letter of the alphabet like you are some magic floating pencil on Sesame Street. However, to you naysayers I pronounce that it is a truth universally acknowledged that when I return to Devon from wherever I have been lately I make a beeline for one thing: cream. Thick, yellow dollops of local clotted cream, with jam and scones and tea, or treacle tart, or ice cream and raspberries, or, well, just about anything. This exercise is not solely restricted to Devon, and the county of Cornwall can also be cleverly incorporated. Cornwall, custard cans, cream, coagulated coronaries. That’s clearly more like it.

Though I could lovingly list out the top ten cream tea moments or some such, I want to first draw out an expanded definition of creaminess, without degenerating into smutty innuendo too much. I think creamy can be appropriately used as an adjective to describe the landscape of Devon and Cornwall as it can nowhere else, in its cosy seaside villages, its wooded river valleys and rolling quilt of comforting green hills. In a Fifty Sheds type way [3], you can definitely have a ‘creamy’ experience, squeezing through tight country lanes to go for an invigorating stride in the countryside, butterflies and bees milling about in the dappled sunlight as tits and warblers penetrate the air. This is a rich and verdant landscape that produces, and is thus encapsulated, in that dollop of smooth, silky heart attack.

Creamy collage

Incidentally, I love how, being at the extremes of the country, Devon and Cornwall have taken cream to the max by making it ‘clotted’ or, if you like, ‘extreme cream’. I think there is an embodiment of local spirit and independence here, the fact that some bumpkins have done something a little against the grain, taking unpasteurised cream and simmering it and skimming the very richest part off the top for themselves. They have undoubtedly created something to be targeted in future obesity campaigns and crackdowns by Brussels Bureaucrats as writers to the Daily Mail letters page would have us get in a flap about. But I don’t think they will get anywhere, for locals will resist in a barrage of fine Westcountry accents: “Arh sod it, a lil bid a cream wownt urt yer now, willett?”

If I was to pick one spot in Devon that is particularly creamy to me (though I should caution, not in a cream my pants sense) it would be the small village of Noss Mayo. It’s only a short jaunt from Plymouth but another world entirely; a cluster of cosy coloured cottages cascading down a narrow wooded valley to meet the gently bobbing boats on Noss Creek. Here lies a starting and finishing point for a fairly easy yet delightful walk that captures an archetypal, timeless Devon. There are country lanes rising past fields of sheep and hay and dotted islands of buttercups. There is the coastal headland, from where you can look far down to splintered rock fingers reaching out at the shimmering blue water. There is the estuary and river, which is fringed with copious, flourishing woodland, and then the creek itself, upon which sits a perfect pub. The only thing lacking – ironically – is a cream tea, which the pub never seems to offer, though a cider is recompense, especially since it too handily begins with a C.

Noss Mayo

For a full on Devon Cream Tea there are some fond memories past, but for a regularly reliable, convenient experience in a still quite blissful setting it would be hard to beat the endeavours of the Badgers Holt Tearooms on Dartmoor. At something of a tourist honeypot on the River Dart, here they simply make the cream the star, with scones and jam mere portals for the thick pale yellow cream piled high in a china bowl. A similar experience more off the beaten track – though I cannot vouch for its reliability having only been there once – was found at the Fingle Bridge Inn, visiting a few years back with my brother and his partner on one of our once regular cream-seeking excursions.  We would go on these day trips for a good walk and some sightseeing, though secretly we all knew it was mostly about the cream tea and the other things were just diverting time-fillers!

Alas such creaminess is rarer these days. Being based in Australia will do that, where a Devonshire Tea frequently comes with squirty cream from a can (I kid you not!), and variations of ‘Australian style’ clotted cream are more milk-like than anything else [4]. The problem is the antipodean distaste for bacteria, by way of unpasteurised milk products, which I assume are considered a risk to the unique flora and fauna of this nation. So, rather than enjoying a fine cream tea and letting microbes run riot through the wild streets of Vaucluse, we destroy the country by pillaging its resources and selling them all on the cheap to China. Times have moved on. It is, after all, the Asian Century.

A redeeming feature of Australia is that they do generally make good use of cream when it comes to a Pavlova. In fact, the Christmas just past provided a perfect example, confirming that you can never have too much cream on a Pavlova because there is fresh fruit involved and that is healthy, right? Other countries too do not fare so badly. In Slovenia, there is Bled cake, which practically involves three inches of whipped cream sandwiched between two light pastry layers. In France there are any number of pastries involving some intricate creamy surprise; or think of Crème de Chantilly atop a Mont Blanc size ice cream. And in Switzerland there is La Crème de Gruyere…

 Gruyere

Gruyere is noted of course for another dairy based product, which itself could form an entirely different and probably more entertaining entry under the letter C. And true to form I will fondly remember the fondue in the immaculate medieval town square and the odd, and thus very Swiss, self-guided tour though the cheese factory [5]. Gruyere feels a bit like a concocted Swiss fantasy, designed atop a hill to lure cheese eating tourists. Surrounding mountains are not as grand as elsewhere, but offer a teaser of what lies beyond, a more manageable scene of hills and lakes, vines and meadows, rather than the eye-goggling and neck bracing spires and hulks of the high Alps. It has its requisite fill of castles and churches, courtyards and window boxes, cafes and gift shops. It is, then, perfect coach tour day trip territory.

It was partly a result of arriving early to miss most of the hordes that my brother and I found ourselves with time to spare before it could be deemed acceptable to eat lunch and drink wine. It must have been before eleven or something. Having explored all that the town had to offer, walking from one end to the other, even down a little out of the way to a church, and climbing town walls, and still with time to kill, we headed to a cafe that looked like it was kind of open maybe; well, at least the waitress let us in though without much of a welcome. A coffee was a good call (now there is another C I could write about with very much less detriment to Australia). This was nothing special in itself, very un-Australian in fact, which makes sense given we are in Switzerland remember. But it did come with a little chocolate cup, filled with this Crème de Gruyere stuff.

At this point the mind plays a trick as it’s naively thinking, hmm, this could taste a little weird, I mean Gruyere cream, Gruyere is a cheese, right, and this is cream from it or something, like the dregs once all the lumpy bits have been squeezed out?! I doubt if this is anywhere near true, but that’s what the mind associates with Gruyere. The stupid mind needs to stop being so lazy in its word association and just think that, well, actually, it’s just another product from those very well cared for, loved and happy cows chewing those lush meadows with the flavours of 31 different grass, herb and flower species or something. It only turns a little cheesy when you buy too much to take home and it gets neglected after a few days because you have been snowed under eating far too many other treats, many of which are also dairy based. Calcium deficiency cannot be a problem here.

Anyway, it was a delightful little nugget in a delightful setting, which is often the case with the best cream based experiences. Perhaps this stems from being able to appreciate a direct link between your surroundings and the produce in front of you; in fact there may even be cows mooing in the background as you collapse with a blocked artery and the ambulance arrives. The cows keep on mooing regardless, continuing to produce a very basic ingredient that is turned by man into all sorts of delight. I think good cream is a result of good country, happy, contented animals and people with respect for traditions and tasty food. Traditions such as jam first then cream, or cream first and…or… well, who cares, just whop it on there and shove it in your mouth me lover. That’s how we do it in the Westcountry.


[1] Lately, some of these tinkling rivers have grown to large brown lakes, cutting off Devon from the rest of the world and, sadly, inundating many homes

[2] Smaller rocks had managed to flee further down the hill. I think. The mist made it hard to tell, not to mention the 25 years that have since passed.

[4] One notable exception is from a small dairy in Tasmania, whose name I am not going to mention for fear of their products always being sold out when I look for them.

[5] Completing the clichés that day were a mountain cog train ride and chocolate factory tour. It was thus an amazing day.

Links

Oo-ar, it’s ambrosia: http://www.ambrosia.co.uk/range/ambrosia-devon-custard/

Dartmoor granite, tors and clitter: http://www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk/learningabout/lab-printableresources/lab-factsheetshome/lab-geologylandforms

The Ship Inn, Noss Mayo: http://www.nossmayo.com/

Badgers Holt: http://www.badgersholtdartmoor.co.uk/

The Fingle Bridge Inn: http://www.finglebridgeinn.com/

La Gruyere: http://www.la-gruyere.ch/en/

Mastering the art of Jannery: http://www.chavtowns.co.uk/2005/02/plymouth-the-janner-textbook/

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