The buzz. The excitement. The nerves. The never-in-my-lifetime strangeness underpinned by a back catalogue of disappointment. The sense of hope, exhilaration, and gut-wrenching drama more often than not deflated by events. The inevitable post-mortem punditry and scapegoating and resignation and acceptance. But maybe – just maybe – this time will be different.
If ever there was a weekend to finally come home this would be it. But I’ll be in bed, 12,000 miles away, turning on the bright lights of a laptop at five in the morning. Thinking about Italian coffee and chocolate digestives to perk me up. Minus three degrees in my shirt.
It’s a bed in a home that I haven’t written about for a good half a year, what with other more exciting jaunts. Canberra is still here, still going through its motions, still – touching wood – absent of coronavirus despite the best efforts of our neighbours. Still understated and beguiling, fortunate and free. Offering abundant life and opportunity if only you should look.
Over that time, Canberra has been doing what Canberra does, transitioning slowly but surely through the bursts of colour of autumn towards morning fogs which (usually) lift to reveal brilliant blue afternoons. It’s the time of year when continental superspreading sporting events disrupt sleep and sub-zero mornings add to the challenge of getting out from under the doona. A time when travel bubbles pop and masks finally become a thing. But do not despair. There is always fresh air.
From the reliable vistas atop Red Hill, a quick jaunt up the road once the laptop powers down. Winter light always doing something special just before five in the afternoon. A warm angelic glow spreads over the rising towers of Woden, the hospital and the Pfizer vaccination hub. Kangaroos munch unaware. Some things change and some things don’t.
Rapidly contesting with Red Hill as my favourite nature reserve, Cooleman Ridge offers great reward for minimal effort. Fringing the west of Weston, the reserve boasts fine views back over Canberra but the real splendour is on the other side. Paddock. Hills. Forest. Mountains. A Murrumbidgee Valley creation. With suburban sprawl and hoonish echoes fading behind the ridge, it is a country walk in a city. And because so much of the Australian countryside is shamefully locked behind fence and gate and no trespassing signs, this is a real treasure.
The treasures of Mulligans Flat are perhaps a little less obvious – and much more likely to emerge at night. But this place is a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. It is another place that has grown on me through a pandemic, from the initial Centenary Trail crossing to volunteer tasks hassling echidnas and wallabies and turtles. As is oft-mentioned on a twilight tour, the dams were dry back when we were enshrouded in smoke. Today they come alive.
A bigger dam sits further west, lapping at a much bigger wilderness. When you stop and think about it, it is quite something that you can be picking up a good coffee at the neighbourhood shops and fifteen minutes later staring out towards this. Cotter Dam vistas shrink and stretch as you rise further into the sky, reaching a new summit at Mount McDonald.
Another new summit is added to my life experience when I take the dirt trail up to Mount Jerrabomberra. I have ventured beyond Canberra, though only just, and only before the latest Bondi-fed outbreak (just in case some paramilitary border goon decides this is reason enough to bar me from Western Australia for twenty years). I have come to Queanbeyan for the rare opportunity of coffee and cake at three in the afternoon, discovering a café that actually opens beyond two. Why is this not more of a thing? Especially when you can easily walk a few crumbs off afterwards.
It is becoming harder to discover new things like this in the backyard, but I am not there yet; Coronavirus may have to last another twenty years for that to materialise, something I would dearly love not to happen. I would love instead to walk in the Alps again, to hike along the downs of southern England chasing butterflies, to stroll through the Barbican and up to Plymouth Hoe, snaffling some fudge and an ice cream along the way.
But do not despair. I discover a winter’s walk alongside the clear water of the Tidbinbilla River, striking out through green forest singing in the aromas of fresh peppermint. Occasional early wattle pops golden and soothes like honey. There are views towards rocky crags and precipitous ridges and – down the track – a little home: Nil Desperandum. It has been restored to cuteness and if only they had a kettle with some tea and perhaps freshly baked scones waiting, the walk back wouldn’t have seemed such a chore.
Nil desperandum. Whenever or whatever might come home, do not despair.
Two weeks on holiday normally wouldn’t be such a strange thing. But it seems a pretty big deal these days. In the world BC, holidays would involve a month crisscrossing the UK in search of friends, family, scones and ales. Plus a European side trip featuring alps of snow and mountains of cheese. One day I’ll make it home again.
However, over the years I’ve come to think of home as more than a singular physicality. There are homes and, following the big bike ride, I needed to somehow find my way from Point B – Caloundra in Queensland – to Point A – Home, Canberra.
It had been a hectic holiday really, and I had visions of a couple of days nestled beside the ocean in some mild clime with good coffee. Perhaps a pool to soothe aching muscles. And a regular ice cream jaunt in the afternoon before taking in the final golden light of sundown. Alas, the weather forecast didn’t look especially conducive to this fantasy so – once again – I opted for the John Denver approach to travelling home.
Still, this wasn’t before at least taking in the sand and water on the Sunshine Coast. It was a brief foray, in between heavy showers and ocean chop at Alexandra Headland. Nearby, the Sunshine Plaza didn’t really offer a brighter disposition but eventually I located some much sought after rocky road. For later.
Faring Jason well with the understanding that we will one day again reunite for rail trail cycling magnificence, I fired up the four wheels and headed west. The road home was all smooth to start, taking me back – as it happened – into a land previously criss-crossed on two wheels. The second time around offered an opportunity to right some wrongs.
The first was pausing to marvel at the Kilcoy Yowie, which I had failed to note when we drove through here on the way to start our bike ride. It’s just, well, I cannot really explain. Further on, once more in Blackbutt, I called into the bakery where I scored a coffee and was confronted with the kind of display that causes indecisive cake-lovers like me to break out in a cold sweat. I think I went for sticky date fudge slice when pressed.
After the kilometre zero of Yarraman, the road led on towards Kingaroy. The extent of my knowledge about Kingaroy is absolute peanuts. Which is pretty spot on, given the area is famed for the cultivation of kernels. When in Kingaroy, Go Nuts is not the motto on the town sign, but you should at least stop by the Peanut Van. And if you want a taste of the manic, pop to the local Woolworths.
I was stocking up for the return to camping with a laser-like focus on making it as minimal effort as possible. Banana for breakfast. Packet soup for dinner, with a carrot and five frozen gyoza to add some bulk. Tent popped up, cooking by torchlight would never be so satisfying, and soup proved perfect in the cold.
At altitude in Bunya Mountains National Park it was surprising how cold things were, given I was still in Queensland. The Bunya Mountains rise up distinctly from the surrounding plains, a wild island among the productive downs. It is very much an island of biodiversity, illustrated by the large swathes of unique Bunya Pine. These giant, Monkey Puzzle type trees only grow naturally here and in a few smaller, dispersed pockets further north.
The trees yield massive cones which offered good tucker for Aboriginal Australians. When I see one in the small visitor centre, I am relieved my walking for the day has finished. Not only do you need to be wary of snakes, spiders, ticks, and stinging trees, but giant bloody cones falling on your noggin as well.
I absorbed the Bunya Mountains with a nice loop walk through dense forest, following lush gullies and creeks and occasionally peering out of the woods to see Queensland below. The gentle chirping of birds was a constant, but the dappled light and dark undergrowth made it impossible to sight any of the blighters. The forest had the becalmed air and melody of one of those meditation soundtracks cobbled together on Spotify by a bearded man wearing loose flowery pants.
Not that this led to a relaxing night. While I managed to get fairly snug, gusts of wind provoked regular rattling of canvas. With fitful rest, I rose early the next morning to discover my head in the clouds. With patience, this would rise and fall in swirls, chinks in the gloom revealing a sunny day unfolding for the Darling Downs.
Gravity would propel my car that way, rapidly plunging from the Bunya Mountains towards Dalby, where the day was indeed sunny. Dalby seems every bit a forgettable town, neither obviously appalling nor exceptionally outstanding. This is perfectly encapsulated by the popularity of a Coffee Club and Brumby’s Bakery on the high street.
Out of Dalby, large cotton fields once again spilled out towards the horizon. It is one of the regrets of the trip that I never managed to find a spot where I could brake abruptly and take a photo of them. Instead, here’s a metal yabbie at Moonie next to tennis courts and much sought after public toilets.
Moonie was little more than a junction on the way to Goondiwindi, a border town receiving attention over the past year for its checkpoints ensuring Queenslanders are kept safe from nasty viruses prior to a state election. As a border town it possesses all the essentials, retaining the chain store vibe of Dalby for passers-by who simply yearn for a bit of predictability. For lunch I grabbed some takeaway from Red Rooster, before a fuel stop and then a frozen coke from McDonalds to take me into New South Wales.
Crossing the border, one step closer to home. Yet still a million miles away. It certainly felt that way once my frozen coke had run out and I found myself on a bumpy road through endless fields of grain. The road – between Boggabilla and Warialda – was doing few favours to my left shoulder and arm, which had now developed post-cycling strain and pain.
In my ideal version of today I was reaching Bingara by two, allowing time for a relaxing nap before a potter around. But I’ve continued to underestimate Australia and the quest of driving across it. It was pretty much four when I checked into a motel – cheap, basic but welcoming in a countrified beige blanket kind of way. And not camping. One of the two double beds still looked good for a nap.
I vaguely remember passing through Bingara on another trip back from Queensland, the town now an intersection with the past. That time around I had come through Inverell and Myall Creek on my way to Narrabri and the Warrumbungles. Again attempting to cover a million miles in a day, I didn’t even stop here, but remember it conveyed a surprising rustic charm.
In the remaining light of day I therefore walked down to the Gwydir River and back into town where clusters of tradie and caravanning couples were gathering for Friday night dinner outside the pub. Along the high street, trees turned auburn signalled the passage of time and place that had gone on since I left home. And with the sun dipping over the hills, there was a tangible chill in the air. And plenty of chilli on my pizza.
Bingara enjoys a fine setting, nestled in a valley backed by rolling ranges. It’s technically in New England and feels that little bit closer to civilisation, if civilisation is Tamworth. I took in the surrounds from a lookout high upon one of many hills, wondering if I could see my destination. But that was still a long way off.
The road between Bingara and Narrabri must surely rank as a hidden gem. In between the two towns, the crazy volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar National Park infiltrates, regularly revealing golden panoramas and rugged lumps thrust upward from the horizon. It’s one of those landscapes that makes you want to stop at regular intervals, eating yet again into your estimated journey time.
With a lunch date in the diary, I didn’t really have time to pause. I was in two minds whether to stop at Sawn Rocks, but being only a few hundred metres walk from the car park I figured I could squeeze such spectacle in. This is one of Australia’s best ‘organ-pipe’ rock formations, created in geological tumult and chaos. An experience I’m sure my car was feeling for the rest of the day.
I am not going to profess to taking it any faster than 110kph of course as I progressed towards Narrabri. The sacrifice for Sawn Rocks was no coffee in Narrabri and no wee in Wee Waa. By time I reached the small settlement of Pilliga I was more than ready to pause for some brief relief.
Pilliga is – shock horror – in the heart of The Pilliga, a vast, largely flat plain of sprawling dry forest and sandy soil. At one point – and I may have been hallucinating by that stage – I passed three camels. There was no chance to stop, and I’m not entirely sure if they were on a large farm or simply roaming wild. But the fact that you can easily imagine them roaming wild here says everything about the type of environment you are in.
Talking of wildlife, did I expect to find myself in Coonamble again? Well, yes, but I never expected I would be so ecstatic at reaching the place. Oh, there’s that spot I got chased by rabid dogs. Over there, the only café open on Sunday. There’s the river, languid and brown. The supermarket with the chemical mice killer aroma. The partly constructed public toilets embroiled in drama. And the home just out of town where I can again feel at home.
My plans were vague and uncertain and once pork belly was mentioned for dinner I knew this would be my spot for the night. Before dinner, lunch, a mere 45 minutes out of town. The Armatree Hotel is the best pub in town, the only pub in town, practically the only building in town. It has character and authenticity soaking through the wooden floorboards, corrugated iron bar, and XXXX on tap. Out back, the outback. And a beer garden, lively with get togethers and celebration of another week fulfilled.
I like the fact that I can come away from the Armatree Hotel having chatted to an old codger in a ten gallon cowboy hat while we both emptied the contents of our bladders. “Great place out here, hey”. Sure is mate, sure is.
After a restorative night, it finally was time for a homecoming. Coonamble to Canberra in one hit is a pretty lengthy affair but once through Dubbo (and a much-needed stop for coffee), the drive was pretty enjoyable. The weather had closed in and rain was falling as I reached Molong, giving the place an added autumnal melancholy. All across the Central West, trees were exploding crimson and gold in small towns like Cudal and on toward Cowra.
The rain had stopped and things were brighter by time I reached fairly familiar territory in Cowra. Not so long to go now. Just need a final country coffee to push me on, eclipsed by a delicious treat…because I am still on holiday after all. Just about. Down the road, Boorowa. Then Yass. Murrumbateman. Hall. And at last, home.
It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.
Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.
The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.
Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.
The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.
Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.
We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.
Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.
Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.
From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.
Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.
Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.
I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.
Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.
I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.
Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.
Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.
In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.
Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.
The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.
Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.
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.
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?!
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…
…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?!
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.
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.
Or 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.
Look 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!
With an opportunity to escape the bumbling mediocrity of an Australian election campaign, I touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport nearing five in the evening on the 11 April. The skies blue, the airport efficient, the tube harmonious. Becalmed the very day before the second Brexit non-deadline. As if there was a collective sigh that it has all gone away for a bit. Which to me raises an obvious question, but the advice you get in the street, down the boozer, around the dinner table is don’t go there. Even the BBC News was all quiet that night.
Other than systemic meltdown there is a risk to entering the UK in April rather than August. Spring, when one day can be bathed in an Arctic gloom, the next a moist Atlantic drizzle. Not that different from August really. There can, though, be occasional bright spells such as the one greeting my arrival and – with a stroke of luck – freakish warm air masses from southern Europe. The weather doesn’t heed the advice of 17.4 million.
Apart from questioning the sufficiency of warm tops in my suitcase I felt quite excited about the prospect of budding leaves and blossoms and bluebells. Around Highgate Wood in North London, a break in the cloud. A brief sense of warmth penetrating through the radiant green speckles rapidly installed within an otherwise monotone canopy. A feeling decimated a day later in Devon, bleak and bracing beside the River Plym, though perfect aperitif for a Sunday roast.
Peak wintry spring madness came with a trip to Looe in Cornwall. Strong winds funnelling from the ocean, all grey lumps and foam. Sand blasting shops and bins and the faces of those brave or crazy enough to walk the seafront. Even the seagulls, usually so bold and rapacious, had given up the ghost. For them, and for me, a piping hot pasty can be the only comfort here.
The magic of spring is the randomness of its appearance. Suddenly, the winds calm, the clouds part, the air warms. Somehow, it doesn’t quite seem feasible. Yet it is and – often from sheer exuberance – you strip down to a tee shirt despite it just creeping over 10 degrees. Everything is relative to what has gone before and what might come again tomorrow.
Such as shifting from the misery of Looe to the majesty of Lundy Bay, a spot on the North Cornwall coast that can be categorised into Vistas You May Have Seen From The Television Show Doc Martin. Across the Camel from Scenes In A Rick Stein Series. And down the road from Places In Which Poldork Prances.
Ambling down a lush valley from the road to the ocean, a backdrop of birdlife generates gentle melodies under the sun. The aromas of apple blossoms entice bees newly invigorated by the warmth. Dogs and humans pass and greet in that cheery way that can only come about when everyone is equally delighted about being here now. As if they have discovered some little secret, that even Doc Martin can’t defile.
Nearby, the sleepy hamlet of Port Quin is celebrating in its sheltered spot, nestled between the hills that ooze out along its harbour to suddenly plunge into the Atlantic. A walk out to a headland marking the entrance to this enclave is a touch more blustery; the reward solitude and drama and vistas that make the heart sing and the heart ache. And ice cream that makes the heart say uh-oh we’re in Cornwall again aren’t we, better brace ourselves.
Next in line along this stretch of coast is Port Isaac, the epicentre of Doc Martin mania. Perhaps mania is too strong a word, such is the inoffensive, unassuming charm evoked by the incredulous tales of Portwenn. Yet there has to be something in it, given the rows of coaches and car parking at capacity. This little town in a remote part of the world has, undoubtedly, attained prominence.
And so, with nowhere to park, the best option was to head onward towards Tintagel. Almost. For just before reaching rows of plastic Excaliburs and ridiculous business decisions to switch to suboptimum fudge, a spontaneous side trip led down to Trebarwith Strand. Not just a wonderful Cornish name but wonderful Cornish waves, exploding from a vibrant blue ocean to crash into wonderful Cornish coves.
A little above The Strand, under wonderful, warming sun perched a wonderful pub overlooking the ocean. A pub that served up a local tribute, a tribute to the seas and skies, the clifftops and harbours, the wind and rain and storms and sun. The seasons battering and bathing and cajoling and churning the charisma and spirit into this magical Cornish land. Spring has arrived, and so have I. Cheers.
I am back in Australia, honest! Proof of this are the shorts adorning my waist, the flat white on my desk and the gorgeous melodies of magpies lurking outside ready to peck my eyes out. Yet still the European adventures linger on, and the feeling of being at home away from home away from home.
Plymouth won’t win any prizes for Britain’s most beautiful city, but it is my home town and I’m happy that way. Mostly thanks to its geography and history there is a lot to love about Plymouth, despite clusters of concrete dreariness and chavvy hang outs. Somehow I felt an air of greater positivity in Plymouth this year, which is perplexing given years of council cutbacks and the potential cliff edge that we all know weighs upon the near future. Perhaps this is what a good summer yields.
The Hoe, how I relish seeing Plymouth’s Hoe, especially on fine evenings as families gather for picnics, friends congregate for frisbee, and old fogies stare out to sea behind the protection of their car windscreens. I love the sense of community, the fraternity, this contented coming together in public spaces…from the ridiculous music coming out of the devices of yoof splayed out on the grass to the flasks of tea being enjoyed by elders within the comfort of a Nissan Micra.
Many people are out enjoying Plymouth’s classic circular amble, milling their way through the historic Barbican before rising up along the foreshore and taking in vistas of Plymouth Sound from The Promenade. The Barbican is a reliable go-to to wile away an hour, to seek out food and drink and to perhaps even discover a good coffee…eventually. A salty air of old sea-dogs and staggering drunks, intertwined with fancy foods and crumbly fudge.
And what of the sights and experiences within half an hour or so? Well, on three sides there is Cornwall, Dartmoor, and the South Hams respectively on your doorstep. All national park or areas of outstanding natural beauty, designated or otherwise.
Probably the most pleasing way to cross the frontier west into Cornwall is on the tiny passenger ferry from Cremyll to Mount Edgecumbe. Here, the rather expansive country park offers everything from rampant rhododendrons to tumbledown towers. A shoreline of seaweed and pebbles is fractured by swathes of woodland meandering down to the waterside, while formal lawns and regimented flower beds are dotted with Romanesque statues and Georgian hidey-holes. This is a place of childhood summers, an escape accessible to all Plymothians, as long as the ferry price doesn’t continue to escalate.
Trips to Cornwall require a river crossing of one way or another, producing a deliberate period of transition between the city and its exterior. Travelling to the South Hams provides no such moment; one minute you are navigating parked cars and speed cameras, the next, you are in the rolling green ambrosia characteristic of this part of the world. Longer drives lead to jewels such as Bantham, Hope and Salcombe and, of course, a little closer sits the timeless charm of Noss Mayo. Closer still – practically a Plymouth suburb – is Wembury, where many a local will pop out for a National Trust delicacy and stroll upon the beach. Better still – as I discovered – you can park up towards Wembury Point and head along the coast to Heybrook Bay for a pint.
It’s a blessing to have these places on your doorstep but if there is one clear antidote to the drab post-war concrete jungle, overloaded roads, and profusion of Janners grunting something like “Fook, I’m goowun down Demnport un gonna smassh iz fookin fayce in” it is the rugged expanse of Dartmoor National Park. The higher parts are open and barren, bruised by the weather, the shattered granite tors tumbling down amongst bracken towards fast-flowing streams. But there is also a tamer side to Dartmoor, replete with an abundance of countryside charm, cute villages and human enterprise.
It is from these hills, from this sponge in the middle of Devon, that the waters which give Plymouth its name first spring. The River Plym here is a far cry from the sludgy and stinky tidal estuary meeting Plymouth Sound. Clear and rapid, tumbling over boulders and pooling on bends, the river descends into dense valleys packed green with mosses, ferns and leafy trees. Plymbridge Woods is but a short descent through a dark, narrow lane from industrial estates and Asda superstores, yet it is another world away.
So, to the north, to the east, to the west there are pleasures easy to reach. Should you have a boat or a longing for Brittany, the south also offers much. And slap bang in the middle, Plymouth. My home that still feels mostly like home while existing slightly distant. It’s funny how things you took for granted, things that you didn’t notice when you were younger now trigger a fond, sometimes joyous sensation. And that extends from leafy green woods and cobbled quays to the family comforts of laundry fairies and roast dinners. Home, still.
How had I never heard of Cooper Cronk until the last few months? Cooper Cronk. Every time that name is mentioned on the TV or radio I am convinced this is a guy whose destiny was the very east coast Australian domain of Rugby League (or NRL if you will). With a name like that it was inevitable; young Coop boofing his way to the fifth tackle for the Under 12 Greater Southern Potoroos before being signed up by the West Force Barramundi. An illustrious career ensued, only dented by a minor scandal involving a night out in the Cross, a high tackle and a leery headline in the Daily Telegraph. None of this is – I suspect – true, but there is a real NRL player called Cooper Cronk. That much I do know.
Fast forward a month or two and now we have the prospect of hearing how amazing Nathan Lyon is. Or in the conspicuously lady-free, nasally dominated domain of ex-Australian pom-slayers-turned-commentators, Naaaayfun Lawwwn. Also known as Gary. Every cherry a potential wicket inducing minor orgasms in the eight man wicket-keeping slip and bat pad cordon. Two-nil down already and I haven’t even put up the Christmas decorations. Summer could be long.
It’s taken a while for summer in Canberra to arrive, with the inevitable false starts and the fake summer that usually emerges for a week or so in October before retreating with startling rapidity. The variable weather conditions are largely a boon for nature which bursts into a frenzy of colour and gargantuan jungle of weeds. One minute you have a perfectly respectable outside patio area, the next it’s a (*culture alert*) frenzied sketch from Rousseau. Best to try and ignore the weeding and admire how the professionals manage things at the Botanic Gardens.
There is a point for me in which winter in Canberra is definitely over and summer is certainly on the way. It’s that day when you decide to walk in the shade to cool down and protect, rather than seek out a warming sun and its melanoma vengeance. You know you should get your floppy hat out despite looking like a numpty in it. And largely avoid the midday sun for disproven fear that it is this that is making your hair grey and not the inevitable march of age and genetics.
Anyway, the best times are the day’s extremities as the amount of sunshine increases. Those cool mornings when Wattlebirds wake you up at 5am and you could be tempted to a) get on your bike for a beautiful lakeside ride of virtue or b) turn on the radio in the hope that you will doze back to news of Cooper Cronk being signed by the Northern Beaches Numbats. And, at the other end, there’s those lingering light evenings, in which twilight golf is a possibility and cold beer and barbecues become a more frequent consideration.
Just as things seem to be settling into a predictable pattern of bliss, a customary late spring upper level trough decides to utter from the mouths of weather forecasters everywhere and the climate becomes far more volatile. Clouds bubble up over the mountains, humidity progresses towards the Darwin end of the scale, and intense thunderstorms turn graffiti decorated storm drains into brown river rapids. The temperature drops fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes and suddenly you are having to resort to long trousers again.
All this water, all this sunshine, all this warmth and cool change. A time for shorts and hoodies and rainbows, many rainbows. Rainbows and butterflies as summer seems to assert itself with greater authority. But still Christmas hovers as a lottery between scorching bushfires and mild drizzle; no doubt it will be 35 degrees for a classic roast or a chilly 18 for a poolside barbie with novelty oversized prawns. Only time will tell.
And as we near the longest day in Australia, and news of Cooper Cronk’s feats fade (largely because those leftist latte-lovers of our ABC go on holiday for two months #persecutedmiddleagedangrywhitemales), the sense of a summer upon us is all too clear. There is vibrancy accumulated from all that has gone before and a buzz of preparedness for crackling heat that will come. On Red Hill, the scene is set; cool early mornings in which to forage among the long shadows, and golden glowing evenings turning fiery red. In between, sit back and enjoy – or endure – those whirling cherries.
I had spent almost two weeks overseas before making it officially home. While Bristol Airport provided little pockets of Englishness (M&S pork pie, terrible latte from Costa), and the impressive one pound Falcon Stagecoach crossed borders into luscious Devon, it wasn’t until the Sainsbury sails of Marsh Mills emerged in sight that I truly felt back home. Plymouth.
It’s funny because arriving here doesn’t particularly feel exciting or exotic or out of the ordinary. But it was a moment I had longed for; I suspect precisely because it doesn’t feel exciting or exotic or out of the ordinary. I say this despite a diversion to a new coach station, the inevitable addition of more Greggs in town, and some positive additions to family structure. But at the heart of it, the connection with home yields a familiarity that is the very essence of comfort and, for the most part, happiness.
Happiness is that first bite of scone with jam with clotted cream. OH. MY. GOD. Obviously this happened the day immediately after my arrival at the coach station. And it was in a new location. Cardinham Woods in Cornwall, where there was plenty of wooded green to soothe the mind, Snakes and Owls and Gruffalo to find, and deliciousness of a kind, which is unmatched anywhere on earth.
Happiness is going to see a Hoe, and a very familiar one at that. That walk that I have walked five hundred times and I will walk five hundred more. Plymouth Sound constant companion by my side, the stripes of Smeaton’s Tower a backdrop to proper footy kick abouts and OAPs parked up, gazing out to ocean as they lick languidly away at their Miss Whippys. For me, it’s coffee in the sun by the Sound; shit coffee but sun and the Sound.
Happiness is going to see Sarah, who is definitely not a hoe, but a very fine woman who I am hugely in love with. I have no idea who Sarah is, but she makes bloody good pasties. So much so that any other pasty is now disappointing. It means a trip to Looe, an adventure in trying to find a car park, an effort of restraining expletives as grockles spill aimlessly over the roads and flock to inferior pasty chain stores. There is achievement to be felt, reward to be had, and attention still needed to protect incredible nuggets of pastry from seagulls as undiscerning as the grockles.
Meanwhile, have I mentioned the accessibility of cream teas at home? That makes me happy. Cream teas in Devon that are not Devonshire teas in Cremorne. Another quest, another discovery, this time at the Fox Tor Cafe in Princetown. It’s not much to look at – and weekends bring out an excess of Lycra – but the buttery scones are utterly Devonly divine. And the jam and cream ain’t so bad either.
Happiness is not often a product of the English weather. But expectations are so, so low that you cannot fail to smile when the forecast is for light cloud and a top of nineteen degrees. Get a bank holiday weekend when the temperature builds under blue skies and you’ll find everyone turns mildly, wildly delirious. Blackened charcoal sausage is the staple food source, evenings out are comfortable and you begin to think, hmm maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Followed by the inevitable if only it could be like this all the time. These are the words uttered outside waterside pubs, along the promenades, within the leafy parks and wedged between giant hedges as countryside spills down to coast.
It has to rain sometime though. To grow grass, to colour those fields the most soothing shade of green. To make the cows happy and produce the very best cream. A landscape you criss-cross all the way to Fingle Bridge on the eastern side of Dartmoor. Where lush wooded riverside offers the picture perfect snap of Devon. Even if the scones turn out a little stale and insipid.
But Devon is far more then Devonshire Teas or – god forbid – that brand of fatty processed meat that they sell in the deli counter in Coles. Devon is more a fine, aged Serrano in the ham stakes, as you might find out here!
For all its tea-based pleasures and intricacies, Devon and Cornwall – and England and the rest of the UK – is not, it must be oft said with an eye roll thrown in, accomplished in the art of coffee. But there are glimmers of hope; hope that possibly makes you think hmm maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Followed by the inevitable if only it could be like this all the time. These are the words uttered inside my head as I sup on a reasonable flat white among the glistening cobbles and boats of Plymouth’s Barbican.
Happiness is the aspiration pushed by marketers at Morrisons and Sainsburys and Tesco and, yes, Aldi. The Aldi happiness is more a utilitarian, Germanic form of pleasure, and certainly hard to pinpoint at 3:30pm on a Sunday afternoon, before the stores close in a quaint but annoying reminder that Sunday used to be a day of rest. These are the temples of a kid in a candy shop or, um, actually a grown man in a candy shop. For every reliable revisit of a Double Decker there is a new discovery or a forgotten one rediscovered. Like Wispa bites, and Digestive cake bars, and more things contributing to the presence of salted caramel as a major food group. And then I see the dairy aisle and the copious supply of clotted cream, and I feel a bit sad.
Sad that I am leaving tomorrow, sad that I am leaving Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall and – eventually – the UK. Again. More than pasties and green fields and hoes and chavs and freakish warm days and even more than the clotted cream, sad to be leaving behind those who are linked by blood and love and a shared fondness of some plain old cake with a lump of tooth-rotting fruit and heart-shattering congealed cow milk on top.
But let us not dwell on such sadness, because we can squeeze in a little more happy and let that linger in our minds and our hearts. The train isn’t until three and there is a final family visit to the Fox Tor Cafe to be had…
Ah live blogging. Tweeting Trump tirades. Instantaneous pictures of food. All the wonders of the 21st century. And here I am stuck in the past, thinking back to early September and a final foray (in 2016 at least) in the southwest of England. Luckily the memories are vivid, and the wonders of the 21st century mean that I can draw on way too many photographs than is healthy.
I remember arriving back from London in splendid sunshine and almost immediately rushing to the moors. The car had alternate ideas, but some rectification and replacement meant that the day wasn’t totally ruined. In fact the afternoon sky was bluer, the light clearer, the warmth warmer on a rapid trot up from the tinkling cascades around Norsworthy Bridge towards Down Tor. Clearly, so clearly, and happily back in Devon.
And then, crossing counties, there was the day. In other years it has been around Porthcurno or Padstow or Fowey or St Agnes. The Cornwall Day. The day when I venture out into a world set up so perfectly that you start to question why you would even think about going anywhere else. Sure, it was a long trek down to Penzance on the train, and then to Land’s End with its touch of tack and touristification. But head north, mostly along the coast path, and you are transported into a rugged, beautiful, heart-warming world that oozes pasty filling and rich clotted cream.
Practically round the corner from Land’s End is Sennen Cove. Though most of the Land’s End crowd have filtered out, the beach remains busy and tiny car parks are amply populated with people eternally waiting for someone else to move. But beyond the main drag the alleys are cosily quiet, and the coast path is trampled in only an infrequent fashion by jolly people with beaming smiles. I may have been one of them.
Further along the path the beach empties out, disappearing altogether as a small headland perforates the arc of Whitesand Bay. There are rocks to clamber over and a tightening of the sea against the land. It’s just a small inconvenience when you round a corner and discover another bay, another beach, another dream that you might want to pinch yourself from. If anywhere in the UK is ever going to get close to a rugged beach of southern New South Wales, then maybe Gwynver Beach is the one.
But unlike the other souls who have found this place, there is little time to linger, other than to eat a somewhat squishy Double Decker on a rock. I have public transport timetables to consider, and there is not very much to consider. It is the bus or bust. So I move promptly northward, following the cliff line towards Cape Cornwall. The sandy beaches have gone and it is all raggedy rocks and windswept heather, brilliant in the afternoon light beamed from the west. It is archetypal Cornwall and it is only right for this particular Cornwall day.
I never make it to Cape Cornwall, thanks in no small part to bus concerns and the elongated fissure that is Porth Nanven. In true Cornish fashion, the coastline is pierced by a stream, the steep valley it has left in its wake stretching to the suburbs of St Just and requiring a significant detour. With St Just tantalisingly in site and consulting my bus timetable, I instead make a dash for the 1644 to Pendeen.
The bus is – almost inevitably in this part of the world, at this time of year, at this hour in the day – a little late. But it is running and drops me off at The Queens Arms in Botallack. This is a handy place for a bus stop, as I make a mental note of the time back to Penzance and do swift calculations in my head to ensure there is opportunity for a pint. It all depends though on how much I linger around the Botallack mine sites.
There is plenty to linger for here, and with the sun gradually moving lower you know it will probably get even better. At first glance it doesn’t seem the most aesthetically pleasing spot, mining remnants littering the whole coastline, chimney stacks towering above a small gravel car park, wheelhouses crumbling into a pile of rubble. But out on one of the headlands is the iconic site of a mine perched precariously next to the Atlantic Ocean. And another above that. It is a right proper Ginsters Smugglers Pilchard Jamaica Inn Poldark of a sight, and it takes a lot to tear you away.
Such as a pint. A pint of Doom Bar in a Doom Bar glass in an independent, old school pub perched on the edge of Cornwall, the edge of England, maybe even the edge of civilisation (though that is debatable more than ever these days). Can there be any better way to toast an exemplary Cornish Day than waiting for the bus like this?
You know, as well as getting frequently drunk it seems the in thing in England these days is to get bleatingly nostalgic about the supposedly good old days, often while drunk. I was wondering what it would be like after the whole let’s leave Europe and go our own way rah rah rah eff off we’re full thing. Maybe it was a decent summer, maybe it was Olympic glory, and maybe it was the fact that not much had really changed – yet – that doses of an idyllic, untroubled, pacific England were there to be had. Like that final late afternoon upon Brentor, sticking up above the rolling patchwork, dotted with sheep, cows, the odd cosy farmhouse and distant church-steepled villages. I love this spot.
And with sweeping sentimentality there were also the inevitable farewells to be had on those last few days. A farewell to Plymouth, who’s Hoe I finally got to visit one spontaneous evening. A farewell to proper clotted cream for another year, nurturing and sustaining me through winding lanes and gigantic hedgerows. A farewell to the school summer holidays, mercifully. A farewell to pasties, though with Sarah deciding to close on a Sunday, the last taste was one of bitterness and disenchantment in Looe. Oh, and a farewell to some of these people, once again. People who never fail to entertain, irritate, feed, amuse and always capture my heart.
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.
Just a stone’s throw from here – but via tortuously scenic roads hemmed in by a picture postcard of thatched cottages – sit the pebbles of SlaptonSands. 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.
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.
As 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.
Having 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.
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).
The 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!
In 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.
Because 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.