It’s the final Cornwall

We’re still in November so technically it was only last month that I was finishing up on my latest quest to figure out what the heck is going on in supposedly Great Britain and – as usual – deciding the only way to deal with such complex cognitive conundrums was with a walk in the country and a nice bit of tea and cake. In fact, I’m sure a wedge of Victoria Sponge could prove wonders in finding a way through the impasse of flipstops and backjocks and frictionless pants or whatever else passes for titillating games within the Eton Old Boys Society these days. Just don’t mention ze Pumpernickel.

There’s a kind of car-crash fascination watching from afar as developments in Britain either a) lead to an apocalyptic meltdown in which some Love Island loser eats the bones of leftover pigeons to provide entertainment on the Boris Broadcasting Copulation or b) unicorns glide over abundant fields of plenty showering golden poo onto the NHS. I’m an optimist though…at least in thinking that my occasionally hard-earned Aussie dollar should go a bit further when I next visit.

And when I return will I again find peak brilliance that was my final full day in the southwest of England? One can hope so, as this is a landscape hardy and resistant to change, holding steadfast for now against the Atlantic, even if there are cliff edges around every corner.

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Will the coffee get better? I doubt it. Because, you know, Costa has apparently perfected the flat white so how can you improve upon perfection? Bahahahahahahaha. Seeing masses of everyone gathered within every single Costa (and similar popular coffee-related establishments) provides an indicator of how simple it is for millions of people to be duped. But then if you do not look outward, do not expose yourself to difference, how could you know any better?

Anyway, back to my last day in Cornwall. There was some looking outward wth coffee over Watergate Bay near Newquay. It was an acceptable enough brew, but the main purpose was to get inside the Watergate Bay Hotel and take advantage of the view from the deck. A panorama of sweeping golden sand and crystal blue surf under a wonderful cloudless sky. Why would I ever leave?

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While life was rather fine here, a little up the coast road comes the view to win them all. You know, I was thinking that this spot has got to be up there with some of the world’s greatest reveals. Like that first glimpse of the Opera House or the initial peer down into the Grand Canyon. Okay, maybe one of Britain’s greatest reveals, but I definitely think it’s not out of place in some Lonely Planet list of things for people to put on Instagram that features a glamorous blonde chick who is supposedly a traveller and social media influencer dangling off a cliff in the foreground.

This place is Bedruthan Steps, best Instagrammed (and yes, I did), when the tide is out.

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With waters receding the scale of this magnificent stretch of coast is more pronounced, as various rocky lumps and creviced cliffs tower over tiny human specks milling about in the acres of sand. And from upon high, an appreciation of the clarity of the sea and the lines formed from each set of waves rolling in. Here, the irresistible force of nature is immense.

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For those human specks there is an ankle-sapping plunge to the beach, should you be so inclined. On this occasion, my feet instead turned tail and ended up at the café, a consequence as inevitable as David Cameron hiding in a shed to eat pork scratchings. Famous baked potatoes in the National Trust cottage are worth the trip alone, vying for attention with the inevitable cream tea. I had been in the UK for around eight weeks now and – to be honest – I had probably had enough clotted cream to last a year. So baked potato it was. Followed by a few leftovers from a cream tea.

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I don’t like food waste. Neither does Rick Stein, I imagine, because I’m sure the innards of a red mullet can prove a rather fine base for a Bouillabaisse. Travelling up the coast from Bedruthan there’s a point at which you enter the forcefield of greater Padstow and its outlying villages and bays. That point is literally Trevose Head. It’s a point I have never been to and today was, well, no exception.

It’s always good to have some untouched Cornwall in reserve for next time, but I did get a little closer to that point with a walk out from Harlyn Bay. This presented yet another expanse of sand laid out against a deep blue sea and rolling green fields, largely empty in the second week of October.

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The coastline here is a little less gargantuan than down the road and the walking is pretty simple going, barring a strong headwind from the ocean. It doesn’t take too long to round a headland at the western end of the bay and sight Trevose Head and the Padstow lifeboat station nestled in one of its nooks. The lifeboat station is another common sight on social media, possibly with a blonde chick staring out into the distance as clear waters and golden sands glow in the background. Today it remained a sight from afar, but I was happy to gaze over the beautiful Mother Ivey’s Bay as a culmination for the day.

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Indeed, a culmination for Cornwall and for the Southwest of England again. It took a while to get there but every step, every sight, every word, and every cream tea was worth it. Visions will linger from this last day and the many moments that led up to this point. Simple visions of sun and sand, sea and land, and undying fondness for a jutting out bit of a rocky island askance in a confused ocean.

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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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October, revised

If I had been diligent and conscientious and just a little more bored, I could have written something about the month of October by now (as well as July, August and September). I would probably have discussed the drawing in of the northern hemisphere nights and the first big storms barrelling in from the Atlantic. Meanwhile, down in the southern half of the globe, shorts and bushfires would be a genuine topic for discussion yet again.

octsw05As it happens, October 2015 has been somewhat benign, at least in the southwest corner of England in which I have mostly lingered. And I have been perfectly content to linger there, what with this benign weather and all. I do believe we endured two whole weeks without a single drop of rain, an occurrence putting many outside of their comfort zone. At the start of the month I got away with a few hours in shorts, and the dry weather appeared to encourage farmers to set fire to things. On a beach, near Padstow, in an ashen blue sky air, T-shirt adorned, it could almost have been Australia.

octsw01One day of particular breathlessness spurred me to get on a bike, reassured that I would not face a headwind of Atlantic gale proportions. Hiring two wheels from Wadebridge, I rode much of the Camel Trail, only wishing that I was on my own more comfortable machine which languishes back in Canberra. Breathless from forty kilometres of riding through breathless scenery in breathless air. It was not quite Vancouver high, but the experience provided much to enjoy, including an inevitable stop for Rick’s fish and chips, well-earned.

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octsw04Around the corner from Padstow another day offered something a little more sedate, though with just as much, if not more, breathlessness in the scenery department. A stop for coffee overlooking Watergate Bay (coffee=acceptable and worth revisiting) preceded a jaunt along the cliff line overlooking Bedruthan Steps. Here stands the archetypal grandeur of the North Cornish coast, carved and sculpted by The Atlantic, still relatively benign. And upon these mighty shores, the National Trust serves delectable treats from their cafe…potatoes as giant as the rocks and wedges of ham as thick as the surf.

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octsw07T-shirts and scrumptious food at Bedruthan became a happily common theme for a few days, transferred to settings closer to Plymouth. A visit to Mount Edgecumbe offered discovery of a good lunch spot and welcome to an autumn, though at times it was hard to distinguish this from spring within the formal gardens. A couple of afternoon hours at Wembury proffered sunlit sea, coffee and cake. Meanwhile the steady climb up to the Dewerstone from Shaugh Bridge was sweat-inducing, relieved by a home-made sandwich that hit the mark like only home-made sandwiches sometimes can.

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Plenty of leaves remain on the trees, but despite the best efforts of the weather the signs of autumn ever-so-subtly emerge. No Atlantic storms, but more and more tinges of yellow and gold, fading to dour brown, eventually to carpet the land and decompose into treacherous sludge. Sweeping moors are turned to rust by the bracken which dwindles under a lowering sun. Offers for Roses and Celebrations pepper the shops, a proliferation of karaoke singers and pantomime dancers parade on TV, and Argyle are still top of the league.

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Quite possibly the best thing about this time though is the fact that Devon and Cornwall can return to some kind of quiet normality without flocks of marauding caravans and plagues of Daves from Dudley. The roads are quieter, car parks cheaper, dogs are (alas) allowed back on the beaches, even though it seems they were never off them in the first place. Sometimes you feel you have this land to yourself and it really is a quiet little backwater in our giant world.

octsw11And so, there I was, rarely bumping into anything other than the odd pheasant down in the Roseland Peninsula. A farm track took me out to Dodman Point, high above a placid silver sea pierced by the occasional trawler chugging back towards Mevagissey. Around the headland, Anvil Beach was – this time – peppered only by one or two souls, some inevitably allowing their dogs to run wild.

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The tangle of tiny roads and time of year seems to make this area a backwater amongst backwaters. The seemingly vast Caerhays Estate hosts a few timeless hamlets, invariably reached by a steep decline toward the sea or a severe kink in the wooded lanes. At Portholland, chatter over a cup of tea rises into the gentle afternoon sun, while at Portloe, it is though you are transferred to a Polperro without the masses, sitting quietly content amongst its pockmarked coves. Here, as the afternoon quickly fades there are signs of closure, of people battening down the hatches, of a looming change to be embraced sometime soon. The Atlantic storms will roll in, but perhaps we will just have to wait until November for that.

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Southwest bits blitz (2)

The inevitable happened. It rained. And became a bit cold. On the plus side I think I found a good coffee but cannot be sure because it was a mocha. It helped comfort against the cold, which actually hasn’t been bad at all. Indeed, it is far from doom and gloom (yet), with still warm early autumn days and sunshine enough to counter the occasional days of murk. And such seasonal randomness swings my mood and affection, from absolutely, undoubtedly in love with where I am for a moment, and then still in love with it but begrudgingly so the next.

2sw01In the immediate confines of Plymouth I have taken to short forays to catch the views from the top of the hill nearby, over the Tamar and into Cornwall. In the other direction, enjoyable visits to Devonport Park, starting to brown just a little but doing so in an elegant manner. Mostly these forays are a good escape from soaps on TV, while the weather is still light enough to escape. Family add a welcome, warm distraction, when they are not glued to the soaps.

Escapes further afield have been possible, in a large part made easier by proximity to Devonport railway station. For instance, this at least makes the trip to Padstow slightly easier, connecting from the train onto a bus at Bodmin Parkway. I say connecting, but their timings don’t really connect amazingly well, so you just have to go into the cute cafe on the platform and eat homemade coffee and walnut cake. You just have to.

2sw03Not that you need sustenance to keep you going because Padstow is synonymous with Rick Stein and, apart from being able to eat the man himself, you can pretty much take your pick from his products: fancy seafood, good old fashioned fish ‘n chips, pasties, pies, breads, meringues, tarts, shellfish, ice cream.  Beyond the world of the Steins there are numerous cafes, bakeries, pubs and ice cream vendors in the town. With money, you will never go hungry.

For all the cashing-in it is undoubtedly good for Padstow and the surrounding area. And I’m sure if you asked Rick Stein where his favourite place in the world is, of all the places he has been, from France to Asia to Mollymook, he will say Padstow. And why not, why not at all?

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The Devonport – Bodmin Parkway rail route offers up another lovely option, without a bus connection. This means that it’s hard to justify coffee and walnut cake but you can take solace with a National Trust cafe instead. A walk of a couple of miles, tracing the River Fowey through verdant woodland and leading along a broad tree-lined drive takes you to Lanhydrock House.

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At Lanhydrock there are gardens doing their utmost to remain in summer and a sneaky side gate or too in which you can enter without paying. Well, it’s not like I was deliberately avoiding having to pay for 10 minutes wander around a garden, and I did spend money on a caramel slice and coffee afterwards. So just keep calm and carry on, as they all say in these places I think.

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In these places I have been a while now, which means a clear routine has set in, particularly in the mornings. A folding up of bed and shifting of table is then followed by a cup of tea and a watch of BBC Breakfast News. The weather forecast maintains interest and days and weeks are planned around what the smiley weatherwoman decides is happening. A cool, blustery day means trips to town and hanging out in the library to do some writing of some kind. A sunny day is greeted with the enthusiasm that comes with the expectation of this being the last of the year.

2sw05On what I thought would be the last sunny day of the year I shifted to bus travel and a bumbling ride to Noss Mayo in Devon. This is now just one of those established jaunts that tends to fit into the annual southwest pilgrimage. Not so many miles from Plymouth it nonetheless takes a while to reach, as the bus frequently stops and reverses for other vehicles to squeeze between it and the ten foot high hedgerows. Practically scraping the walls of pastel cottages, the bus arrives beside Noss Creek and a pleasantly varied walk of an hour or so: coast, farms, woods, creek, boats, pub, beer. And then back on the bus through the rabbit warren of the South Hams to Plymouth. Such is the blessing of living in this part of the world.

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2sw10The sun failed to shine on the far west of Cornwall despite it being a day which I thought might be the last sunny one of the year. Quite possibly the lamest high pressure system in the history of the world covered the British Isles and daubed it in low cloud and mist. And so, unlike my last trip down to this pointy end, St Ives was blanketed in a grey melancholy, with a cold wind picking up off the bay, the only comfort coming from a Pengenna pasty and that good mocha I mentioned before.

Things were no better on the southern coastline around Mounts Bay, that is until the train pulled out of Penzance Station at four o’clock and the cloud parted over Marazion and continued on to Truro and such brilliant blue skies as befitting the last sunny day of the year continued all the way into Plymouth. You could say it was frustrating and you would be right, but the train ride back was two hours of blissful enjoyment and appreciation of Cornwall.

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2sw12The next day dawned, well, sunny. Very sunny indeed, and warm despite the end of September creeping ever closer. While the cloud filled in a little the warmth endured and offered up a couple of hours of unbelievable shorts wearing. This was in Calstock, on another train trundling up the Tamar Valley. The main attraction, apart from the snaking tidal river, impressive viaduct and waterside cottages, is Cotehele House and its wooded estate sloping down to the water. It’s a peaceful, sedate corner of the world, again just a stone’s throw – or train ride – from  Devonport.

And so you see, while it did rain and it has been cold, this has generally been the exception rather than the rule. My last day here, before I disappear elsewhere for a while, involved shorts-wearing for goodness sake!  And when shorts can be worn there is no rush to cross continents, not just yet. Not until we have that last sunny day of the year at least.

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