Clotted cream is not the only fruit

On holiday, and at home, food is such a focal point to the activities of the day, whether that be a walk over hills to forage in supermarkets or an outing for coffee and cake for something to do in the rain. There are days where food gives me a sense of structure, particularly given my slavish devotion to the coffee (and biscuit or cake) gods midway through the morning.

Holidaying in Cornwall, the cream tea is often the main agenda item of the day, especially if it’s a bit gloomy, a tad tepid, a little dull. A cream tea is a little taste of solace no matter what the weather. But it turns out there are other foodstuffs which can dial up the sunshine to eleven, whether that be by design or not quite accident.

The St. Agnes Sausage Roll

After several days of dogged white cloud promising both sun and rain but delivering neither, a Sunday suddenly arrived under skies true blue. After a quick check of the Internet to see if certain places were open, I lead-footed it in good time to the North Cornwall coast, parking beside the remnants of Wheal Coates Mine. It was a bit early for lunch, so there was treasure to be discovered traversing the clifftops to Chapel Porth and working up an appetite back up past the mine buildings to the car. Sun out, tide out, T-shirt out, this is what I came for.

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But in nearby St. Agnes there is an enhancement to be had among the narrow yesteryear parade of shops and cottages. Past the pub adorned by people sheltering with a shandy, the bakery in the corner is indeed open. And the big dilemma is whether to have one sausage roll or two. I mean, they are hefty affairs so one would be ample, but when would I be here again? And if I have just the one that means there’s only the single flavour to sample. Valid concerns, after the event. Much to my subsequent regret I opted for one, cognisant of leaving room for any other opportunities that should present themselves later in the day.

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Thus, the quest for a very particular sausage roll had delivered me to one of the most beautiful corners of the country on one of the most beautiful days of the year so far. And it had barely reached lunchtime. It was time to walk it off.

And walk it off I did, on a pleasing circular loop taking in three of the sandiest, sunniest beaches in Britain. Setting off from West Pentire, the route immediately dipped into a sheltered valley of fluttering birdsong, before rising again to the forlorn cries of hacks criss-crossing the mini links of Holywell. One of the trails disappearing into the maze of dunes should eventually lead to the beach, but it would be easy to lose your bearings, like a couple of droids you are not looking for in a galaxy far, far away.

The beach at Holywell Bay was surprisingly underpopulated in light of this being a Bank Holiday weekend and all. The cause: a brisk nor’wester coming directly off the ocean. Even Poldork was in hiding. The dunes were clearly the place to be, strategically sheltered in a hollow hoping some berk with a backpack won’t come traipsing past to ruin the ambience of your romantic picnic.

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Onward and upward the berk heads, overlooking the massive expanse of the bay and the beach now seemingly stretching to America on the low tide. Rounding the next corner, the sands of Poly Joke Beach cluster in the nooks and crevices of the land, as if gold has run off from the verdant pasture above. Mostly a tidal beach, people here create castles and clobber balls for six, reading papers in the sand and letting their dogs do whatever their dogs please, as per usual.

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Walking up from Jolly Poke or whatever it’s called, I continue on the coast path rather than heading directly back to the car park. There is no rush to head home, on a day such as this. And surely I can find some sustenance as reward at the end to keep me going until Plymouth. It’s afternoon tea time after all.

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Well, this is where sausage roll regrets return, for there is no happy ending, despite the blissful site of Crantock Beach sparkling at full reveal. There is a pub overlooking this vista, but I don’t fancy a beer. It. Must. Be. Tea. And. Cake. A nearby hotel offers something, but the last slice of Victoria Sponge looks a bit dry and sad.  I should’ve bought one of the sweet treats from St. Agnes bakery. As well as another sausage roll.

The Bedruthan Spud

Despite the lack of a treat at the end, I was delighted to have done a North Cornwall day in such wonderful conditions. If that was that for this year, then so be it. But, then, my very last day in the southwest heralded a decent dollop of sunshine. And I wasn’t going to let a sore throat, bad back and overindulgence in clotted cream stop me.

These are the days that can simultaneously warm your soul and break your heart. The days when it would be difficult to fathom why you would be anywhere else. Sure, it was cool and blustery but that only made it all the more rewarding. Even the coffee at Mawgan Porth was bearable, which is pretty good going if I’m being honest.

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Whereas I had a sausage roll in St. Agnes all to myself, today was a shared affair with Mum. Not that we were planning on sharing any food of course. No, we are related after all. But we were content to share the sands of Mawgan Porth together, with hardly anyone else in sight, determining to walk to the shoreline even though it never seemed to get any closer. Rockpools will do.

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Now, the Bedruthan Spud – not to be confused with the Australian Minister for Home Affairs – has been a fixture of previous holidays but I wouldn’t call it a requisite. Cream tea: tick. Decent pasty: tick. Mum’s lasagne: tick. Une tartiflette: oui. The Bedruthan Spud today was more a consequence of convenience rather than a destination of desire.

We ventured on a walk just past Bedruthan, out towards Park Head. Accustomed to the postcard views near Spud Café I was keen to get a different perspective, a different angle. And the walk seemed reasonable enough, for both of us. A way to savour the sights and build some hunger before lunch. Wherever that may be.

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Returning from the headland, I outlined the lunch options on offer: somewhere vague and probably owned by Rick in Padstow or even more vaguely anywhere opportune in between. Uncertainty is a risk (see Neil Misses Out on Tea and Cake) and so it took us about half a second to turn back to the National Trust café at Carnewas.

There is, of course, comfort in the familiar, safety in the known. And if you know it is going to be good, going to please, going to make your day and someone else’s, then why not just go ahead and do it. Whether that’s a baked potato with a slab of ham and a bowl of Cheddar or not.

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Go back to the things that bring a smile to your face and warmth to your heart, again and again and again. Like that first sip of good coffee, that view of the ocean, that first family gathering over a trayful of roast potatoes, secretly seething that someone else took the crispiest one but contented with everything that this cacophonous moment brings. Go back to foods that delight, places that charm and people that love. And never ever tire of the same old picture postcard views along the way.

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P.S. A sausage roll in the foreground would just about make this picture perfect.

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The doorstep

A habit of mine is to go for a walk somewhere every day of the week. Or at least try to, even if this is a little amble to the shops or a trudge through puddles in a park. It’s a habit easily fed in Canberra, where leafy suburbia intermingles with random patches of bushland and sprawling hilltop reserves, usually rising under big blue skies. I can walk out of my door and be in any number of spots that hardly feel as though they are in the middle of a city: trees and birds and kangaroos and a horizon of mountain wilderness espied in the west.

This habit bordering on obsession can become a little harder in the UK, which is surprising when you consider all the public footpaths and country lanes and bridleways and muddy fields marked on an Ordnance Survey map. British cities are denser and usually grimier and most definitely wetter, meaning a walk from the doorstep often requires a little deeper investigation, a tad more imagination, and a dose of good luck. Like finding the slightly cottagey lanes of Compton Vale in Plymouth or clumps of woodland on a steep highway embankment, or the spooky cemeteries of Janners past.

Of course, with a car the options open up exponentially, but so too do the speed cameras and the filter lanes and the traffic lights and the roundabouts clogged with cars rarely indicating. It can be a bit of a chore to get out of Plymouth for a walk, but once you make it the world is pretty much your oyster. Until the next village with a parade of speed bumps and cattle grids.

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The roundabout at Roborough is a significant, welcome milestone in the escape from Plymouth; a conduit between giant superstores and industrial estates and the rambling wilds and shady valleys of Dartmoor National Park. This is Plymouth’s backyard and, once you get there, a fairly quiet one away from the usual honeypots and ice cream traps.

Even on a sunny Saturday – admittedly a bracingly cold Saturday for early May – the moor was more than ample to soak up the extra ramblers and cyclists and trippers tripping on cream teas. This includes an additional fellow in young Leo, who was adamant he was coming with us for a walk and, of course, ended up being carried the whole way. Kids, huh?!

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The walk near Princetown felt a far cry from the city, all empty and remote, a desolate bleakness intensified by the icy wind casting sun and cloud patterns upon the barren brown moors. Yet here civilisation creeps in, or at least tries for a while. The solitary austere brick structure of Nun’s Cross Farm stands resolute, providing a little shelter in the lee of the wind to tame Leo’s hair. Rather than a blight on the landscape, it seems to fit, offering as much a representation of life on the moor as ponies and tumbling clusters of granite…

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…And clotted cream teas. After such an frigid walk can there be anything more delightful than a log fire, buttery scones, pots of tea and the usual trimmings? It’s not like I planned the walk around this or anything, it just happened to be nearby, and we were hungry, and well… There is only so much rugged emptiness one can take. What’s the point of walking if you can’t get to enjoy it?!

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Back through that roundabout at Roborough within the city of Plymouth, there is a pocket of countryside on the banks of the Plym, wedged between the Devon Expressway and the South Hams Tractortrack. It’s ideal for a pre-dinner stroll or – better still – post-dinner, when Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders zap the brain cells of millions of devoted followers. Saltram is a gracious property boasting copious, succulent Devonian land, including plenty of woodland pockets in which Mr Darcy can brood.

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Saltram has its trails but is not without its trials. First off, National Trust property, which means the good people of busybody parkingland can’t wait to rob you of gold. For all the wonderful things the National Trust provides, it all seems a little exorbitant to me…I can’t help but feel some of the charges are siphoned off to some sycophantic Daily Telegraph fundraiser to install the natural heir to Churchill as PM. That dog from the TV ads.

The other thing with Saltram is that it takes a circuitous effort to reach by car, navigating a manic roundabout whose lanes disappear into a wormhole, and then a slip lane clogged with cars turning into Lidl for a pint of milk or 60 inch flat screen. Such is the travail of the journey, the prospect of digging into your life savings to park, and – should you mistime – the odorous tidal pong of the River Plym, that Saltram can prove a frustrating affair.

hm06Or it can be wonderful, arriving a little before rush-hour and just after the parking attendant has gone home. This yields a quiet fist pump of glee and a good mood in which to walk the parklands. Along the river, the tide is high and holding on, and clouds part to release the sun. Forget the roar of traffic along the Embankment, and the mould-tinged sails of Sainsburys, and focus instead on the flourishing green of the woods and bounteous swathes of wild garlic. Embrace the chirping birds and walk with the hope of encountering a deer.

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hm08Look down upon manicured fields and be thankful that this is indeed upon your doorstep. A doorstep in which the land and sea meets, producing conditions that are often frustrating but usually fruitful. Beyond the chav-filled potholes of the city, a land of strawberries and cream or raspberries and cream or just cream goddammit.

A daily walk is an obsession not for the air, nor for the nature, nor for the killing of time in a rather pleasant way. A daily walk is the only way I can try to keep that goddam luscious cream off!

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Exhausting

I love how there are so many different roads meandering through the English countryside, linking villages that you never knew existed; undistinguishable places called something like Dompywell Saddlebag or West Northclumptonbrook, typically boasting a new speed bump and a church roof appeal from the 1980s. It’s a situation converse to Australia, where a few main roads emanate from the cities and towns, off which a handful of mysterious dirt tracks disperse into nothing. Setting off from home for a country drive in Australia is exhausted in four or five trips. Whereas in England the possibilities seem infinite.

When I say roads, of course, most are only a little wider than a Nissan Micra, especially in Devon, where they are also frequently clogged with tractors. Farming is still king – I think – in the South Hams, though tourism, teashops and production of Let’s Escape To Buy An Expensive Seaside Residence With Five Bedrooms And A Private Mooring On The Estuary To Get Through Our Retirement In The Sun TV shows prosper.

When the sun does appear, there is hardly anywhere more contented; there must be some primeval appeal in the lusciousness of those voluptuous green hills and snaking river valleys, the sheen of golden sands recently cleansed by the ebb and flow of a shimmering sea.

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Remembering this is England, the sun of course doesn’t always shine and in the spring-like indecision that is early May it can be a fickle environment in which to salivate. At Bigbury-on-Sea, raincoats, fleeces and hot chocolates might be required while waiting for a break in the clouds. Temptation abounds to get back in the car and turn around; but you’ve paid for that parking now and you are British, and you’ll courageously stick it out like MEPs campaigning against their very existence (Customary Brexit Reference: tick). You have to be patient staying in this particular part of the world, but the benefits in doing so are clear and tangible.

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A bit further down the A-road mostly suitable for two cars to pass, the town of Salcombe boasts a rather desirable ambience, even on another cloudy and cool day. Tucked inside the Kingsbridge Estuary it has some of the most golden sand and emerald water around, lapping at elegant houses and dense woodland thickets. There is a palpable sense of envy from the smattering of visitors strolling past the homes and gardens perched with lofty views across the water. I could live here, we all bitterly seethe in our heads.

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sd04No doubt many of the loftier residents of Salcombe were in jovial mood; not only from their elevated perch surveying the ambling peasants seeking a cheap pasty, but with the news of a royal baby to join the ranks. Does it have a name yet? I can’t even remember. Have the Daily Mail criticised the parents yet? Oh probably.

One of the perks of Salcombe are the options for food and drink, many of which come with waterside tables and a brief taste of refinement. Mum and I commenced the day at North Sands and a somewhat quirky café – The Winking Prawn – serving coffee (and for future reference, buffet breakfast). We then did the amble along the water and fancy homes to the town centre, where the usual offerings of pastry products, ice creams, pub food, overpriced crab bits and line caught organic fish goujons with quadruple cooked fondant sweet potato discs were up for grabs. Probably the best looking things were a tray of Chelsea Buns in a bakery, swiftly bagged and taken home for trouncing the Arsenal.

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Really, it should have been a day for a Salcombe Dairy ice cream, the delicious embodiment of the verdant landscape all around. But after a bone-chilling ferry ride to South Sands, the moment had gone. Perhaps for another day.

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Plymouth to Dartmouth is not the quickest affair despite only being around 30 miles apart. One option includes the tortuous A379 through thatched villages that become irretrievably clogged in battles between buses and B&M Bargains trucks – threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a doddle by comparison. Or there is the route via Totnes, which seems a bit too zig-zaggy to appear logical. An alternative cut through just past Avonwick was a new discovery that proved highly effective on the way almost there, and highly ridiculous on the way back.

One of the joys of that cut through, in the morning at least, was finding yet another road that took me through even more unknown villages as pretty as a picture, following river valleys and archetypal ten foot hedgerows and fields of newly minted lambs. The sun was shining too, and my meteorological calculations to head east appeared to be paying off.

It was also joyous to have a functioning car, without an exhaust dangling onto the road and probably projecting sparks onto the windscreen of a doddery couple heading to the post office. This happened later, on the A3122 at Collaton Cross, about a mile after the BP garage and before Woodlands Adventure Park. Details etched into my brain to guide the saviour that was the breakdown truck towards us.

sd07And so, the unexpected and unplanned once again yields some of the most memorable moments. Waiting in a small layby among the gorgeous fields of Devon in the warming sunshine could be worse. Being patched up and guided to Totnes for repairs by endearing locals eager to provide a helping hand (and earn some pennies) proved heart-warming. Spending a few hours in Totnes, charmed and enlightened by good coffee, markets overflowing with abundance and leafy riverside walks. And the satisfaction of rediscovering batter bits with malt vinegar (good work Mum!)

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Killing time in Totnes wasn’t too much of a chore in the end, and it was partway along a path following the River Dart that we got the call that the car was fit and ready. It had been an eventful day covering a lot of ground, but I was determined to head to where I had originally planned, several hours earlier. Another slice of succulent South Devon that oozes curvaceously into the sea.

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sd09Such are the ample proportions of the landscape here that the coast path between Strete and Blackpool Sands struggles to keep to the coast. The barriers are too immense, and the trail cuts inland as it dips down towards the bay. But this too is something of a blessing, for not only do you make it without falling to an inevitable death into the sea, but you become once again immersed into a countryside apparently so  utopian. Farming must still be productive here, despite the temptation to become a campsite or a tearoom or a paddock for some pampered hobby horses.

The coast path comes back to the shore via a row of thatched cottages that could have almost been deliberately placed there to charm dewy-eyed tourists like myself. The fine shingle of Blackpool Sands lends a bright and airy light even through the sunshine of the morning is rare. And down near the shingle, a café, winding down for the day has some Salcombe Dairy on tap.

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After fish and chips and batter bits there is hardly need for additional gluttony. But this is a land of overindulgence, of profligate abundance, blessed with more than its ample share of what makes life good. And I still have one of those gorgeous hills to climb to get back to the car, a climb that is incessant and delightful and my own private nirvana full of ice cream and South Devon. A climb and a day entirely, wonderfully, exhausting.

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The divide

Welcome to Liverpool John Lennon Airport where the time is 10:55 in the morning, the temperature is 10 degrees Celsius and you should watch your bags at all times eh calm down calm down. Imagine. Everybody loves a cliché when they’re not victim to it, so here I was suddenly in the north, a stark, leaden shell suited contrast to the flowery air of France. It is said – mostly by Liverpudlians – that Scouse humour is unparalleled, and you’d need to have a sense of humour to live here. Boom boom.

The north was right proper grim, mostly due to the arrival of Storm Hannah. I have known a few Hannahs in my lifetime and they have all been sweet and agreeable and no offence at all. Storm Hannah, by contrast, was a true harbinger of misery, decimating the promise of spring as quickly and as conclusively as a hi-vis revolution in Queensland.

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The saving grace was that this soggy, cold weekend around Lytham St Annes was perfect for central heating and afternoon naps, for cups of tea and slices of cake, for red wine and takeaway curry with treasured friends and football maniacs. Occasional breaks in the rain allowed for a brisk walk in a brisk breeze beside a sullen waterfront, outings that only really made the arrival back indoors all the more comforting. Cup of tea? Aye.

wilts00aIt was a more placid day departing the north, incrementally brightening on my journey towards London and then onward to Salisbury; the very heart of a conceptual south. Perhaps near here, somewhere within the borderlands of Wiltshire sits that romanticised version of England; of thatched cottages and village greens; of tinkling brooks and sun-dappled woods; of church fetes and coffee and walnut cake. Perhaps, indeed.

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The promising return of spring added to the ambience of a walk in west Wiltshire, footsteps traversing a mixture of quiet villages and busy farms and flourishing woodlands. The woodlands sprouting green and carpeted with bluebells, the farms a hive of rebirth and earnest bustle, the villages cute and clustering around a church and a pub. Church or pub? Hmm, let me see…

wilts02Praise the Lord for a pint outside in the open air, soaking up the sweetly chirping birds and the smell of the country. And thank the almighty for a gentle downhill totter back to the car, parked beside the marquee on the green next to the church in the contented village of East Knoyle. Everywhere around here is easy to suspect as a secret filming location for Bake Off.

[In a Noel Fielding whisper]: In Bake Off this week our contestants go t’mill t’fetch t’grain t’make a barn cake t’take to creecket. Oop ill un darn dale in an accent neither befitting Noel Fielding nor the Wiltshire-Dorset border. Yet it is precisely here, in the affluent southern town of Shaftesbury, that the most revered depiction of life in the north persists in our psyche. That Hovis ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, many of my generation and older see this as The North. Even though – upon deeper inspection – its narrative is delivered in an undefined country twang that could be at home in Dorset. It must be the bloody brass band that does it, for only Northerners trudge up hills to the melancholy parp of a brass band.

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wilts04“When I were a wee lad you didn’t see us lot wasting our time with Instagrams of food and posing for selfies,” Dad clearly didn’t say as I took a photo of some coffee and cake and indulged in a selfie. Because this wasn’t Yorkshire and neither was it the 1940s anymore, though you suspect some in Shaftesbury would be pleased to turn back time. At least to the years before that bloody advert sent people flocking to a hill to take Instagrams and selfies.

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wilts05Back in a more reassuring south, a morning in Salisbury offered increasing photographic opportunities, marvelling at the famous Cathedral with its famous 123-metre spire and its famous clock, a renown reaching as far and wide as Russia. The water meadows glowing under the sunlight, it was briefly warm enough to amble in a T-shirt, a clear signal that things were still on an upward trend. The birds continued to tweet and to chirp and to wade and to pose in such land of growing abundance.

Indeed, it was a day for the birds, a time of year for their lusty antics and devoted nurture. Apart from bluebells and an impending relegation battle for Plymouth Argyle, nothing says spring more than the sight of recently arrived chicks, coddled and cajoled by their stressed-out parents who are quick to snap.

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The new life of spring offers a time for optimism, for hopes and dreams of what lies ahead. It’s an optimism that extends to the many people on narrowboat holidays milling at walking pace through the murky waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal. A holiday at this time of year is a risky proposition (tell me about it!), and it didn’t take long for cloud to build and release its patchy drizzle.

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The rain held off sufficiently to climb Martinsell Hill, which is the third highest point in Wiltshire apparently. And, even with a degree of dreariness, the views were expansive, taking in much of the county, much of the south: clusters of civilisation nestled among a gently undulating patchwork of green and brown and yellow.

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From here, Dad and I headed across a ridge towards Oare, which I hope (but sadly suspect not) is pronounced in a wonderful countrified “Oo-arrrrr.” It would suit, because I am certain the number of tractors per head of population is well above the national average. As are the proportion of bluebells, culminating in a delightful peaceful pocket of woodland on our route towards Oare Hill.

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wilts10Bluebells really were in profusion across England at this time, evident everywhere during this sojourn in the south and among the storm-laden lands of the north. Spreading across the country like the philosophy of Nigel Farage, only exponentially more unifying and much easier on the eye. They would have been a clear highlight, if it were not for that slab of coffee and walnut cake in Honey Street before catching my train west. A very perfect bookend to this haphazard instalment of North and South. And preparation for the tea and scones still to come.

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Getting Shroppy

Very very occasionally, when I find myself inordinately bored – probably a cold, dark night in the midst of a Canberra winter – I might find myself turning to Seven Two and briefly catching a few minutes of Escape to the Country. It could be my imagination, but the show always seems to go something like this…

Malcolm and Felicity are a slightly smug, good-looking couple who are entering early semi-retirement and looking to sell up their mock Tudor detached home in Surrey, which they bought for £50,000 back in 1996. Malcolm has raked in millions from financial practices of dubious morality in the City and Felicity is looking to scale back on her worthy high paid work lobbying government on behalf of an NGO. Looking to escape this stressful, fast-paced life they are now seeking an impossible to find cottage containing five bedrooms for the two of them and a modern country kitchen with unparalleled views close to a village with good transport links but not near a road of any kind whatsoever. In addition, they’d love separate outbuildings for keeping two of their horses and a workshop space for some questionable artistic endeavour involving twigs and mirrors. They are concentrating their search in Shropshire.

Shropshire. Always Shropshire. I never quite knew why…I suspect you could get a bigger mound for your pound before the cameras from Escape to the Country invaded. I feel like it’s a kind of forgotten county of England, almost irrelevant, with nothing significant whatsoever to worry about. I guess, in reality, Birmingham isn’t too far away so whether that’s an asset or not is open to question. And it is practically Wales, but not actually Wales, which means you can get all the benefits of being in Wales without being in Wales.

shrop_1Facing a long drive back from North Wales to Devon, Shropshire happened to be in my way. I approached the county a bit later than anticipated – my increasing and alarming fondness for full English breakfasts causing me to linger in the Welsh border town of Llangollen a little longer than planned. Finally crossing the frontier, the town of Oswestry offered promise, in that it had a Morrison’s petrol station in which to fill up and save a couple of quid. Which was promptly expunged dawdling behind caravans and negotiating street furniture.

Shrewsbury – like all proper English county towns – has a ring road, which means your only impression of Shrewsbury is of Costa drive throughs and B&M Bargains. It doesn’t seem Escape to the Country country but then south of here you enter the Shropshire Hills. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And indeed it is.

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Nestled in the bosom of these hills, the town of Church Stretton possesses enough charm and functionality to impress our friends Malcolm and Felicity. I daresay there are some fine tearooms serving wonderful slabs of Victoria Sponge alongside intricate china teapots, as well as curio shops selling things made from twigs and mirrors. I cannot guarantee this for sure though, in light of my massive breakfast and the pressing imperative of time.

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Having climbed Snowdon the day before I wasn’t overly keen on walking far, but my insatiable instinct to seek a viewpoint and take some happy snaps kicked in. Unfortunately for once my navigation faltered a little, and I ended up trudging through a forest for some time. It was a nice, leafy forest full of green, but you really couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Eventually I was able to climb up, my thighs wailing with every step out onto the heathland hilltops. And what fine country. A very nice place to escape to.

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But now, it was beyond time for my escape, and the prospect of leaving this quiet enclave of England for the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Devon. Counties that you may see on Seven Two sometime soon. If they ever get a look in.

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Driving Great Britain Green Bogey Walking

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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Bolt out of the blue

Britain excels in that insipid low cloud misty drizzle. It lends the country a rather depressing air, accentuating the abundant greyness of post-way concrete city centres and dimming the allure of the countryside. Dampness saturates to the bone, and you can see why comfort is taken in massive cups of abysmal coffee and, at least, sumptuous cake. As a native such conditions provoke familiarity, but as a visitor it’s as frustrating as hell.

Part of the annoyance is you can never tell when and where it will strike, how long it will last, and whether it’s shrouded in gloom five miles down the road. Sometimes the world around you can disappear totally and the futility of a trip out seems complete. Like when driving out of dreary Plymouth, passing through murky Modbury and still wondering where the South Hams has gone. Usually this corner of Devon is better.

But we know that Hope is on the horizon and it comes first with a slightly whiter patch of cloud. Maybe a small sphere of light pierces through, like a torch low on batteries being shone through a winter duvet. Gaps increase and suddenly a pale blue splodge of sky appears overhead. And then it happens oh so quickly, the cloud vanishing without trace. And you stand there bewildered. Bewildered, and deliriously happy.

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More often than not this is not the case, but today delirious happiness ensued. Indeed, for a couple of hours on the South Devon coast I had not seen England with as much clarity this year. Perhaps it is the deep blue of the seas around here, invariably pummelling the fierce outcrops around Bolt Head. Or the generally fine air of Salcombe tucked away inside the estuary.

While the vision was clear and fresh, the smell was far from it. At least not upon parking at East Soar, sited amongst the fertile fields of Devon in September. Cows had clearly been in action and silage was readily ripening, whipped up by the sea breeze.

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There were farms to traverse on this walk towards the coast path but happily the smell had eased by time we reached a pile of barns, sheds and cottages providing a variety of rustic lodging. Within this enclave was The Tea Barn, which looked suitably delightful if only we hadn’t come from Plymouth on the back of an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

And then, the coast, with its deep blue seas, sandy coves and rocky outcrops. Starehole Bottom seems as sumptuously titillating an English place name as you can get, a crevice between two mounds leading down towards the water. With shelter from wind, it was getting warm in this valley and I kind of wished my bottom was clad in shorts rather than jeans. The water too, looking inviting.

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What goes down generally comes up again, and from Starehole Bay we climbed towards Bolt Head itself. The pinnacle so to speak, looking back over the bay and across the estuary all the way along to Start Point. This is the kind of deliriously happy, pinch yourself moment that you get post-murk. One where it is virtually impossible to believe that there was nothing to see an hour before.

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bolt04The scenery and amazement at such scenery being so visible, being so wondrous, continues around the corner as we slowly head back in a loop towards the car park. The last vestiges of heather and sweeping gold of flowering gorse add an extra splash of colour on this most brilliantly saturated afternoon. Leaving the clifftops high above the sea, only bovine-induced pungency can prove more overwhelming.

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bolt07_editedCould I end this day, this once dreary day, any better? This morning – actually even at two o’clock this afternoon – I would have had myself committed if I said I would be bathing in the sun, drinking a cold shandy, lounging in shorts. But with the regular dreariness of Great Britain you need to retain that hope. And in South Devon, we are of course blessed with hope. Hope indeed.

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Sconeage-in-Roseland

One week in to Southwest England and I had not crossed the Tamar. Perhaps I was in the minority in light of Poldark-mania and endless instygrams that all look exactly the same of Pedn Vounder Beach boasting – shock horror – fine golden sands and blue crystal waters. There is a little smug middle-aged part of me that wants to scream out “I WENT TO THESE PLACES BEFORE THEY BECAME ALL THE RAGE ON SOCIAL MEDIA!” (and also, don’t go at high tide and expect to see what was on your smartphone you idiot). But it’s all good for the economy I guess.

Subsequently I have decided to blame any traffic jam, parking difficulty, or disappointment in Cornwall on Poldark. Bloody prat. Though happily – discounting a bit of congestion through St. Austell and around Charlestown harbour – mutterings of his name were at a minimum on a day with Mum around the Roseland Peninsula.

Roseland is so tucked away, so riddled with a network of unfathomable country lanes, so lacking a town of any real size, that even I have rarely visited. So today, beyond Portloe, was all new. And – despite it being a Sunday – reasonably subdued.

First stop, was Carne Beach, down by the water from Veryan-in-Roseland. While lacking the spectacle of places on the north coast (and, of course, Pedn Vounder out west), this offered a rather ambient setting, sheltered by the rolling green hills and lapped gently by the sea. A receding tide provided increasing space for only a handful of people. Poldark wuz not ere.

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With milky sunshine and barely a breath of wind, I decided to do the possibly unthinkable and dip my toes in the water. I’d say it was tolerable for a minute or so, but this was sufficient for walking along the fringe between sand and sea to the end of the beach. A practice I do ad nauseum in Australia and pleasing to know I can repeat here.

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Beyond the beach, the coast path of course winds its way up hill and down dale. Or up mountain and down cove. Mum and I took a wander east towards Nare Head which apparently rises 300 feet above the bay. Navigating cow pats and abundant blackberries (is there a relationship between the two?), we didn’t make the headland but found some suitable scenery that would satisfy Mr Poldark and his legion of fans.

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A limitation – if you can call it that – with Carne Beach is that it lacks a good pub or café for lunch. After a week of taking sandwiches everywhere and being annoyed at coming across rich pastry treats and decadent cakes, the day we come empty-handed, nothing. So we moved onto Portscatho, the big smoke.

Portscatho contained the archetypal Cornish harbour, obligatory abundance of bunting, whitewashed cottages and peppering of well-heeled, boaty types milling around town. The one pub was popular to lounge outside and sup a pint of Tribute, the nearby Spar selling everything from pasties to postcards to peas. We found a café serving sandwiches, jacket potatoes, salads and the like. And with an inevitability matched by that of Pedn Vounder being on Instagram next time I look, we had a cream tea lunch. Naturally-in-Roseland.

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A quick bath

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It is quite possible to cross borders from the kingdom of Wessex, especially given it’s a redundant concept from the middle ages. Among other borderlands, Wiltshire fringes the county of Somerset and immediately after crossing I feel more Westcountry. The hills seem rollier, the hedgerows higher and more frequent, the sheep brighter white against a more vivid green. It’s not quite right for a scone piled with jam and cream but not far off.

Nestled among these hills is the city of Bath and it is a place – apart from pausing for one minute at Bath Spa Station – that I have never visited before. So, thanks to Dad and Sonia for taking me there to experience its elegance and charm, and thanks to Kevin McCloud for sitting down on the table next to me for coffee, a voice that was instantly recognisable…to me at least! How soothing, and seemingly at place in Bath.

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Bath boasts Roman ablutions, Florentine bridges, Royal Crescents and Jane Austen dress-ups, so what’s not to like? Its compact centre has everything in every high street everywhere in Britain, but with slightly less tat and perhaps one Pound shop and Greggs less than others. Even its Wetherspoons seems tucked away, hiding somewhere among its rabbit warren streets.

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Being in Bath reminded me I haven’t actually had a bath for over a year. In my defence, I only have a shower. So here’s to Bath, the home of baths sponsored by Barry Bath of Bath Bath Fittings Ltd. I’d happily go back, bath, shower, or not.

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The only way

What and where is Wessex? It’s a question I recall asking a member of the Wessex Youth Orchestra as we all happened to be squished together in a tiny funicular railway in the watery French town of Evian about a year ago. As you do. Anything for small talk. He mumbled something about being from Eastleigh and not really having a clue or caring about it. A romantic setting for Thomas Hardy I proposed? Or some distant kingdom of peasant clans waving their flint axes from atop their hill forts in an effort to appease invaders? He shrugged with a nonchalance the locals would have admired, and I wandered off to eat crepes.

Fast forward a year and I may or may not have been in Wessex, spending a few days with my Dad and his better half Sonia in and around Wiltshire. It is pleasing country, as reassuringly English as the sound of Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2. A landscape of curved chalk ridges sweeping into abundant valleys, fields criss-crossed by translucent waterways, tractors and tanks. Villages and towns have a well-to-do air, though these are not immune to the pervading obsession to construct new housing as cheaply and as oblivious to surroundings as possible. But there remains a lot of cutesiness, and a lot of money, and a lot of good looking pubs.

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One of the big attractions of this part of Wessex, of this part of England, are a clump of rocks commonly known throughout the world as Stonehenge. It’s little more than a hop in the car, skip over a cowpat and jump over a stile from Dad’s place and can be approached via a walk from Woodhenge via Poophenge, across ancient plains, meandering past burial mounds and alongside the modern pilgrims of the A303. Sat in a tailback, it may well seem easier to move some massive slabs of rock many miles than it is driving to the southwest on a bank holiday weekend.

Stonehenge itself is fenced off to non-fee-paying visitors like myself. But it’s literally a case of standing on the other side of the fence and getting practically the same view. A bonus with being on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence is in observing the parade of tourists who dutifully circumnavigate the rocks, reading the placards, taking their selfies and, mostly, looking a little miffed with the whole costly experience. Impressive as it is in getting these rocks in this position for whatever reason many solstices ago, I struggle to fathom how an experience here can be somehow profound and spiritual.

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Around this part of Wiltshire, Salisbury represents the largest town and its impressive cathedral and medieval centre proves popular with visiting Russian agents among others. On the outskirts of Salisbury, Old Sarum is typical of the many mounds that became hill forts, commanding fine views of the surrounding country. If those iron-age peasants were to walk through this country today, they would find harvest in full swing: crops cropped, fields ploughed, haybales stacked and the green extravagance of summer only slightly on the wane. Only an occasional pocket of sunflowers might just kid them they are in Provence. French marauders.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Wiltshire Wessex countryside are the rivers and streams which shape and colour the landscape. They are tranquil affairs, meandering gracefully at a snail’s pace through verdant woodlands, grand estates, sunny meadows and thatched-roof villages. The River Avon is perhaps a Utopia of Middle Southern England and, apparently, good to fish. I was fortunate to be with a warden of the river, who could guide me along some of its length and check for those fishing licences.

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Wsx04aThe reward for all this toil, traipsing through a sunny late summer in England was ice cream in Salisbury. In a land in which tradition appears widely cherished, what better tradition to uphold?

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Other traditions of Wessex seem to include giant white horses, tea and cake, and naked rambling. On reflection, none of these particularly surprise me, though the sight of a couple walking their dog in the buff on a hill wasn’t exactly on my must-sees. Let’s just say it was a very small dog.

Such delights were the fruits of a lovely walk close to Warminster, taking in more ancient forts and golden fields around Battlesbury and Scratchbury Hills. Somewhere along the way was a perfectly irregular village cricket green, backed by a church and only lacking the crack of willow on leather. Elsewhere colourful blue butterflies vied for attention with languid tractors making hay and naked ramblers making, well…making eye contact awkward. Oh yes, them again. I could cope with the naked ramblers but the yappy chihuahua with a Napoleon complex was a bridge too far.

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Wsx07In times of such frightfulness one is best advised to turn to a cup of tea and slice of cake. Sat in a sunny position next to an orchard, sheep mowing the grass and a garden centre just around the corner, there is enough here to soothe the feet, the stomach, and the eyes. I’ve had better cakes but hardly many better contexts in which to eat them.

With recovery and a little time to spare, the culmination of explorations of possibly a small part of the ancient kingdom of Wessex came up the hill from cake, a hill on which proudly shines the White Horse of Westbury. A hill which – given the day’s exertions – could be climbed by car to reveal ever expanding views. Below, the luxuriant kingdom meeting the frontier of – say – Swindon.

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These white horses (and the odd kiwi) are reasonably frequent features of this landscape. They generally have vague-ish histories involving something done by some god-fearing yokels several centuries ago before becoming overgrown and cleared again and covered up during the war to prevent the Luftwaffe from using them to navigate, only to be restored by a wonderful group of community goodie-two-shoes with names like Gerard and Margot. And thank goodness for that, for they are an impressive sight to behold.

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The horsies tend to look better from a distance; up close all that emerges are slabs of greying concrete perforated by a few weeds and a shape that is mystifying to decipher. Perhaps a birds-eye view would be best, partially explaining the parade of paragliders attempting to jump off the hill and catch some thermals.

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From here, the town of Westbury beckons, and its rail station taking me further west, beyond the borders and into a land of possibly even greater in-breeding. Travels continue, and next time I randomly come across the Wessex Youth Orchestra in an Alpine country I might debate whether their unknown homeland is short for Western Essex. I mean, it might be a billion times more refined, but I certainly came across a couple of exhibitionists ‘avin it large.

 

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London Grammer

There is comfort to be had in the depressing grey shades of Heathrow Airport, a reassuring tinge of concrete and pessimism. But what’s this? People here seem a little perkier than usual, a bit more easy-going. A touch nonchalant perhaps, purposefully blinding themselves as they near the edge of a self-inflicted precipice made worse by those purportedly born to rule. That heatwave they have gone on and on about must have made life bearable again.

LDN01That heatwave was turning into a thing of the past by the time I made it onto England’s shores, and things will be reassuringly back to normal soon. Its legacy will emerge through inflatable pools from Argos gathering cobwebs in sheds up and down the land, frozen Calippo slushes, and a chance for rose-tinted reminiscence of that famous summer before the storm (or sunny skies with fluffy white clouds and unicorns pooing golden trade deals) of Brexit. Plus blackberries, lots of blackberries.

LDN02Regardless of sunshine or headwinds there will always be tea and cake or in this case coffee and cake. You could be forgiven for thinking coffee might be overtaking tea in popularity in the UK given the rampant reproduction of godawful Costa Coffee shops every fifty metres, with their godawful massive mugs and godawful patrons thinking this thing they are drinking is the height of sophistication and really isn’t godawful. Give it a week and I’ll be with them. But today, an independent café in swanky South Kensington and coffee that was not at all deitybad.

Cake commenced a Sunday afternoon that was an absolute delight, sunny skies banishing the grey and encouraging an ambient amble with my friend Caroline through London’s parks and parades. With the warmth building again and many people still in holiday mode, the vibe was convivial and quite un-London like. Almost European, dare I say Nigel and Boris and Jacob et al.

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There was biking and boating and picnicking through Hyde Park, selfies and group gatherings around the Palace and Whitehall, and the languid saunter of families and friends matching the slow march of the ever-brown Thames. That is, until all was disrupted by some kind of urban party boat, the Stormzy Steamer or something. But once that blitzed downstream to pick up Jezza, life was once again grand and London was the finest place in the world for a little bit.

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LDN04One of the pleasures of returning to London goes beyond famous sights, cake, and hearing people speaking with like proper English accents innit. There are the familiarities of place and person, reconnecting with treasured friends, perusing past haunts and – especially fresh off the boat – attempting to retune into the current Britannic zeitgeist. Spending time with Caroline helped a great deal in this regard, and with many steps across London and the Zone 5 countryside, there was much to discover; a veritable bullseye of a weekend, tru dat.

From Zone 5 to Zone 4, and a return to Finchley and a return to a friend I have now known for more than half my life. We graduated twenty years ago goddammit and don’t look a day older. More like years and years. And there was charming Orla, my chess-playing pub lunch pal, who has always been enjoyable company across the parks of North London. I may have a sense of two homes, but they make this feel like coming home.

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Lunch in leafy Highgate while wearing shorts was hard to beat. The heatwave – or at least a minor, cooler version of it – was back. And here, happy with a beer in a pub garden, I could see how easy the grey could fade into the background, and the light, the glorious, English light, could shine through.

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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

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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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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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Over the hills

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It wasn’t so long ago that I spent an awfully long time in the south west of England. Time that was only occasionally awful in the gloomy despair of November; otherwise it was all sunshine and lollipops or – more accurately – white cloud and clotted cream teas. Thus arriving back again on the most sublimely gorgeous of blue sky days proved no big fuss.

clr_00Who am I kidding? It was a sublimely gorgeous blue sky day after all and, following a quick embrace of various family members, I scarpered for the moors, reuniting with narrow lanes, wayward sheep, dry stone walls and a Willy’s ice cream. And on the subject of willies…such was my frantic rush to climb Sheepstor I ripped the trousers I had on while straddling a ditch, leaving me delightfully well ventilated if a little wary of human encounters. The views – from my end at least – were majestic.

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clr_02Ripping trousers so early on are not a good portent for the remainder of a holiday which has historically involved a deluge of high fat dairy products, intense sugar, and hearty stodge. The fact that I was here not so long ago for an awfully long time (acquiring at least one stone in the process), failed to have little impact on my behaviour. Pasty done, cream tea done, massive barbecue meat fest done and 48 hours not yet passed.

Lest things become all a little familiar, a circuit breaker came in the form of a Canadian visitor – Claire –  who I had not seen since 2003 in New Zealand. Visiting the country for a couple of weeks I naturally proceeded to take Claire to some familiar Cornish places and indulge in familiar Westcountry treats. But at least I got to experience them through a new pair of eyes – an experience confirming that jam on cream is definitely wrong and not at all aesthetically pleasing (I mean, what do Canadians know about cream teas anyway?!!)

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clr3Unfortunately it was all a little murky in Boscastle, but at least the descent to the harbour took us out of the clouds and into a flower filled, tourist peppered, boat bobbing idyll. From which we promptly walked up and up (a seemingly recurrent theme all day) along the coast path to the western headland. Here, the clouds skimmed our heads and offered a little pleasant drizzle, obscuring the coastline and patchwork hills inland. While a weather feature atypical of Manitoba, it could only divert for a few minutes at best, and half a cream tea back at sea level felt like a more agreeable option.

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Radically, the cream tea was in a new location for me. And such adventurousness continued when I stopped midway between Boscastle and Tintagel and sought to find Rocky Valley. After a touch of on road uncertainty I found the path (hint: look for the valley with lots of rocks), and it was quite a sight. Of course, walking down into a valley meant going back up again, but what would Cornwall be without all these hills, eh?

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Familiar ground was back on the cards in Tintagel, where we called in for a Cornish pasty, obviously. The pasties here have acquired a legendary status over the years, rivalling those of wizards and knights and horses and pixies and things. But as such legends have become diluted by a parade of tourist tat shops, so too the pasties may well be in decline. They are still more than tolerable, but not on the pedestal they once inhabited. Next year, I will have to check again!

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The Cornish pasty was of course the typical tin and copper miner’s lunch. In fact, it probably features in Poldark, crumbs smeared down the body of that actor dude that everyone seems to think is a bit of crumpet. Well, Poldark lovers, I may have trodden in his footsteps (and pasty crumbs), radically keeping my top on in the process. I cannot be sure of course, for I have never watched the goddam show, but the scenery around St Agnes looks the part. All windswept headlands, precipitous cliffs, thrashing waves, purple heather and golden gorse, with the added decoration of Wheal Coates mine. It is Cornwall in a snapshot, as Cornish as the pasty, and I am pretty sure as pleasing to a Canadian visitor as patchwork fields, jam on cream, Arthurian legends, mist, bobbing boats, and – undoubtedly – the novelty of hills, those inevitable, never-ending, Westcountry hills.

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