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!

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Mother country

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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ply06It 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.

 

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ply09So, 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.

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey

Cream days at the hotel existence

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.

hm01It’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.

hm02Happiness 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.

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hm04Happiness 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.

hm06Happiness 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.

Pasties are Cornwall, but Cornwall is more than pasties, as you can find out here!

hm07Meanwhile, 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.

hm08Happiness 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.

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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.

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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!

hm11For 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.

hm12Happiness 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…

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey

Changing of the guard

Britain is a pretty unspectacular place. It has no alpine peaks or broad rift valleys, no mighty gorges or thundering cataracts. It is built to really quite a modest scale. And yet with a few unassuming natural endowments, a great deal of time and an unfailing instinct for improvement, the makers of Britain created the most superlatively park-like landscapes, the most orderly cities, the handsomest provincial towns, the jauntiest seaside resorts, the stateliest homes, the most dreamily-spired, cathedral-rich, castle-strewn, abbey-bedecked, folly-scattered, green-wooded, winding-laned, sheep-dotted, plumply hedgerowed, well-tended, sublimely decorated 50,318 square miles the world has ever known – almost none of it undertaken with aesthetics in mind, but all of it adding up to something that is, quite often, perfect. What an achievement that is.

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And if you are thinking that is the most masterful, evocative, and passionate paragraph I have ever written (or, alternatively, overly rose-tinted, nauseating and contentious), then you are just plain wrong. For the always marvellous Bill Bryson had that to say in a Christmas present I bought myself, courtesy of some shady international bank transfer originating in Switzerland. With researcher instinct and the preposterous suggestion that someone might a) read b) notice and c) sue me for breach of copyright, that would be Bryson (2015, p.33).

montage1aNow, back to some original nonsensical drivel, and Christmas in Great Britain finally came and went. Blink and you may have missed it. I think I was part of it – my waistline certainly attests to such – but already it seems a world away. I remember a Christmas jumper and a gargantuan dinner and a predictably endless game of monopoly. I recall a losing battle to eat my way through four types of cheese and multiple slices of ham and final dollops of clotted cream with practically anything. I recollect a Boxing Day trip to Argyle and another success to stay top of the league. This part sounds the most fantastical, and perhaps I really am just dreaming.

montage1bA fond memory persists from Christmas Eve, rain sweeping briskly through to provide a few bright hours pottering in Polperro and tackling a cloying coastal path. Sunlit and sedate, contentedly winding down towards the Christmas weekend, it was all rather lovely. With the addition of a Doom Bar in a low-ceilinged, cosily log-fired, jauntily handsome pub, it delivered a moment to cherish.

I like to think it was quite a feat for me to make it through to Christmas…November and December testing my patience for all things grey and damp. But in reality it was barely a chore. Over almost half a year I came to love the variety, the luxury of choice for walks and wanders near and far. I marvelled in some unseasonable early autumn weather and wallowed in a shifting, fading, tinted landscape. I discovered new wonders like the Jurassic Coast and sublime pockets of South Cornwall and cultural and historical hotspots of London town. I also found comfort in the familiar, the cream teas and BBC and old friends and Plymouth Sound. True, I struggled to adapt to an unending parade of TV soaps (how much Emmerdale does one really need in life?), but became wearily accepting of the indifferent coffee. I adjusted and accepted and it became the norm.

Now things shift back to Australia once more and a counter-adjustment is in flow. No bothersome soaps and plenty of amazing coffee. Warmish temperatures (not that it ever got cold in England), but still some rain. Pitiful ‘Devonshire’ Teas. An absence of a delectable coast path, but a plethora of sweeping bushland trails in its place. Happy reunions proving some compensation for forlorn farewells. A new year commences with a newish start in what feels – at this point – a new place. A novelty that will quell my curiosity for the weeks and months ahead, until England – and its people – comes calling again.

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Reference

Bryson, B. (2015). The Road to Little Dribbling. More Notes From a Small Island. London: Transworld Publishers

Great Britain Green Bogey

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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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Walking

Seventh Heaven

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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Monday

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday

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

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

Wednesday

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

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Thursday

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

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Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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Devon slices

The eternal battle between Devon and Cornwall hinges on the correct approach to bedeck a scone. Cream then jam, jam then cream? Does it really matter when both are so god damn delicious? Well, clearly the answer is yes and, clearly, Cornwall wins.

It may seem a trifling matter, but the fight for sconepremacy reflects something far deeper in the southwest psyche. That is, which is the better county? Unlike the scone debate, this question cannot be so easily resolved. In my mind at least it is on a par with assessing the merits of England and Australia and as complex as Tony Blair being the logical person you’d hire to bring about peace in the Middle East. And you know what, I think the answer to this conundrum may be to appreciate each as equals, and revel in the fact that they are both pretty good anyway, particularly as scones are plentiful in whichever county.

For balance only the leftist BBC conspirators could dream of, let me now present some recent evidence for the case of Devon (given my last entry was Cornish). Specifically, the southern and western part of Devon within reasonable proximity to Plymouth. The other stuff doesn’t really matter, mostly because the pong from Exeter ruins it. And this is the stuff that is close to home.

The best mayo:

dev01Hellmans and Simon despair, for Noss Mayo is the winner and may well take out loveliest village in Devon competition. Just a short run out from Plymouth via a maze of ten foot hedgerows, it’s a place of peace and serenity and that colourful bunting that is just about in every village in the southwest. Cottages with names like Anchor’s Rest and Primrose Lodge scatter haphazardly down to the water, while home grown asparagus sits next to an honesty box and a bowl of water for passing dogs.

dev04An additional perk of Noss Mayo is the perfectly blended walk of seaside cliffs, creamy pastures, flourishing woods and boat-a-bobbing creek. A loop walk that can – should you wish – be completed at a relaxed, ambling pace. Just watch out for frenetic foreigners high on sunshine and the scent of silage.

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dev06Oh, and did I mention there’s a pub? I probably have, several times in the past. It’s positioned perfectly towards the end of that walk, at the heart of the village, jutting out into the water (or…at low tide, the slightly less idyllic mud). The pub is arguably the jewel in the crown of Noss Mayo and I can now recommend the fish and chips as well as the selection of ales. Experience suggests this may not assist the final climb back up to the car, but it will likely have you coming back for more.

A nice set of hams:

Outside of Noss, there could well be many other contenders for Devon’s loveliest village yet to be discovered. It’s a fair bet that a bulk of these will also be in the South Hams, the luscious, rolling countryside tumbling down from the moors and into the glittering ocean. Various rivers cut their course through the hills, passing thatched roofs and church spires on their way out into the sea, itself fringed with shallow sandbanks and undulating dunes.

dev09Of course, the weather cannot always be relied upon to generate the picture postcard that I have so feebly conveyed. And when the sun does shine in summer, the village of Modbury can transform into a car park. Beaches such as South Milton Sands become busily popular, but there is enough room to play cricket and tentatively wade into the inviting but tepid ocean. Escaping humanity remains a possibility, with the ever glorious southwest coast path providing hope to reach Hope. Meanwhile, the increasing proximity to Salcombe means that the ice cream from its dairy becomes commonplace.

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The loveliest village could actually lie along the stretch of road between Kingsbridge and Dartmouth in the South Hams. The problem is that it is difficult to assess, since negotiating each village by car requires a shot in the dark, following by a wait and a reverse, and a punt around the next corner before a tractor bears down on you followed by an unfeasible double decker bus, which is wedged in next to the pub that would be nice to have an ale at if there was somewhere you could park and be able to get out again, without hitting any ramblers lurking in gargantuan hedgerows. Despite its obvious perils, driving on this apparent A road is marvellously endearing.

dev11I think it may be nine miles from Kingsbridge to Torcross but it can feel five hundred, and five hundred more. Torcross sits at the southern end of Slapton Sands, so named because the sands were obviously slapped on a ship and sent miles away, leaving only pebbles and more pebbles. Smooth and colourful and cleansing, they lend the seascape a pristine hue, and – if you don’t look too closely – the beach does appear as though it could pass muster in Australia.

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dev13Like everywhere around this way, there is good walking to be had. Over the hill to Beesands with its less photogenic beach, and on to Hallsands, precariously awaiting the next winter storm. Beyond Hallsands the waters of Start Bay curve their way against precipitous slopes, topped with radio masts, sea mists and happy cows, giving way at Start Point.

I could push on to there today, but the hills get steep, my legs say no, and I still have the potential car parks of Dartmouth and Totnes to negotiate before getting home. One small mercy is that the tide is now out, and the hill between Beesands and Torcross can be circumnavigated via the millions of pebbles. Who needs sand all the time anyway Cornwall? It just ends up in every crack and crevice.

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Moor scones available:

dev15While the South Hams possess the requisite balance of thatched cottage to rolling pasture to pebbly beach, the somewhat tamed landscape eventually gives up and transitions to the wild uplands of Dartmoor National Park. Now this is truly on the doorstep. One minute you are navigating hapless drivers attempting to cross a roundabout to get to Tesco, the next you are passing hapless drivers braking sharply and pulling into the Dartmoor Diner. Civilisation may well linger, but it is quite possible to see nothing or no-one obviously man-made for lengthy periods of time when out on the moor.

For many Dartmoor is Plymouth’s playground, where you can stroll, frolic in a river, cycle, have an ice cream, walk the dogs, and fantasise about hairy hands. For me too it is something of a Red Hill surrogate. Though clearly not quite as close (i.e. 5 minutes), there are hills to climb and views to be had and, if you squint hard enough (very hard), the sheep may take on the resemblance of a grazing kangaroo.

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dev22Just around the corner though (maybe 5 minutes with a good run of lights and a Bugatti Veyron) is the River Plym. Gathering down from the moors, the Plym gently meanders its way through leafy woodlands on its way to Plymouth Sound. One minute you are in an industrial estate, the next the lane narrows into a hobbit hole and you are bathed in shadowy leafiness. Again, children frolic, people cycle and dogs yap. Some (dogs) may even become potential kidnap victims due to ridiculous cuteness.

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Plymbridge offers an easy escape – from Plymouth, from Asda, from endless episodes of Emmerdale. And it reminds you, quite simply and quite easily, how really lovely it can be to be in Devon. In fact, just as lovely as Cornwall.

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Tasty taster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ice cream bucket list challenge

Laydeez and gentlemun, welkum to Landan Saaaaaaaaffend, where the temprator is nynedeen digreez innit and the cockles an whelks are fresh from the eshtry mud.

ukA00As gateways to Great Britain go, it is a bit different, but Essex is indeed British soil and there is comfort at seeing the red cross of St George adorning the council estates and in smelling the fish and chips on Southend seafront. Should Southend be a little too bedecked with commoners awaiting a summer carnival parade, Leigh-on-Sea is a tad more upmarket with white stiletto undertones. Home to several cosy pubs spilling out onto the mud and water, an ale and hearty burger brings me back to a Britain obsessed with pulled pork and bake offs.

Hertfordshire is the classier cousin to Essex, where inspiring place names like Potters Bar and Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City are linked by motorways and single file country lanes alike. Interspersed within this, offering views of giant pharmaceutical empires and a procession of easyjets bound for Luton, stands Knebworth House. Perhaps best known for Oasis and Robbie Williams mega-concerts it may come as a surprise to hear that Knebworth is rather refined. The archetypal crusty upper class country estate, complete with musty carpets, majestic libraries and derring-do tales of empire building. Gardens with fancy lawns and fancier sculptures, a copse littered with giant fibreglass dinosaurs serving as inspiration for damned colonial upstarts such as Clive Palmer. On an increasingly sunny summer afternoon, as deer graze the meadows and country pubs await, this is England, but not quite my England.

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The next day brings the homecoming within a homecoming as I depart London for Plymouth. That’s not before saying farewell to the iconic capital with two friends who I met in Australia and who I can continue to enjoy pizza with – whether on Bondi or near Bankside – to this day. It is a happy conclusion to the English prelude and the level of unhealthy eating signifies the start of many days enduring essential foodstuffs, the real super foods that are far away from a land of quinoa and hipster-nurtured compressed kale shavings.

ukA02Gargantuan fish and chips were a starter prior to a night at Home Park, watching a rather lame game of football thankfully enlivened by Guillaume the French nephew shouting ‘come on you greens’ in an adorable accent. It worked, for we managed to scramble a deep into injury time penalty equaliser. More sedate, slightly less greasy but perhaps as equally lardy as those fish and chips was the Devon cream tea; the Devon cream tea that takes place in the same spot on Dartmoor practically every year but is a tradition which never fails to be anything other than marvellous. That first bite of scone and jam and – mostly – rich, buttery, clotted cream is like the feeling from a first sip of morning coffee multiplied ten million times. The river valley setting and surrounding tors amplify it further.

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ukA04Indeed, becoming as traditional as the cream tea is the slightly guilt-driven walk up Sharpitor, which is still just a gentle and brief jaunt for hilltop views of half of Devon and Cornwall. Traipsing up with family could get a little repetitive if it wasn’t so rewarding, an annual canvas for Facebook photos and Snapchat selfies amongst the clitter and ponies of the high moor.

ukA05The Cream Tea on Dartmoor Experience is just one required escapade for the bucket list. The next one to tick off is the Cornish Pasty in Cornwall Adventure. Today this requires a rather trundling and busy train journey all the way down towards the pointy end. St. Ives is not only a reputed haven for artists, but possesses one of the more accessible by public transport shopfronts for Pengenna Pasties, where artists create masterpieces of delicious shortcrust pastry stuffed full of meat and vegetables and seasoning. Eaten on the beach, of course.

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I should not neglect here to give a special commendation to Moomaids of Zennor. While their clotted cream vanilla (what else?!) was nothing remarkable, I was hoping that the Cornish sea salt caramel was never going to end. It may feature as a staple of the next Cornish Pasty in Cornwall Adventure (with Bonus Local Ice Cream Discovery).

ukA07Away from food (for a little while), it is about time I mentioned the weather. For should I not write about food nor weather, what will I have left?! Temperatures were well below average as the shorts and sandals in my luggage remained largely untouched, while clean jumpers came at a premium. But there was plenty of dry and fine weather. This meant that, on occasion, clean jumpers would need to come off and then quickly returned once the sun disappeared behind the clouds scuttling across the sky on a chilling sea breeze. It was weather not so much for sunbathing but ideal for family fun in West Hoe Park, where nieces and nephews were able to relive one’s own youth by venturing on the iconic – yes, iconic – Gus Honeybun train and bouncy castle, and create their own memories in a pirate ship mini golf water boats gold panning extravaganza.

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ukA09It was all rather delightful, aided and abetted by bucket list ice cream and raspberries and clotted cream on the foreshore and then, a little later, waterfront dining on the Barbican courtesy of Cap’n Jaspers (so it’s back to the food then already…). A day to remind, as was mentioned several times, that Plymouth finds itself in a quite enviable position compared with – say – Wolverhampton or Corby or Blackburn or pretty much anywhere else not on the sea and in the midst of such coastal and pastoral splendour.

ukA10This undeniable splendour provides the context for one essential bucket list item for a perfect southwestern experience. The oft-quoted, oft-photographed, oft-walked South West Coast Path. I figure that maybe by the time I reach old age I may just have covered around 10% of this amazing trail. On a day that started with grey clouds and rain, the train trip to Truro and a tactical delaying coffee enabled the weather to perk up, and by time I reached St. Agnes on the bus, patches of blue sky were promising much. In fact, the sun very much came out when munching on the world’s best sausages rolls from St. Agnes bakery.

Up over St Agnes beacon, the north coast view stretches down to St. Ives and, heading in this direction, I found myself clocking up a new section of path leading towards Porthtowan. The main features along this typically wild and rugged stretch are the old tin workings and mine buildings of Wheal Coates. If North Cornwall can be summed up in one scene it is from here, which probably explains why it featured as the cover image for Ginster’s Pasties. And I had a sausage roll, tut tut!

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ukA12There was a point into this walk that something quite unexpected happened. I was feeling a little hot. Yes, the sun was well and truly out and I was able to covert my convertible trousers to shorts, roll down my black socks a little, and bare some leggy flesh. I applied sunscreen, wore a hat, and, by time I reached Porthtowan, felt long overdue an ice cream. However, no sufficiently suitable ice cream was readily available near the beach and I settled for a cold beer instead to happily wind down the time until a bus back to Truro.

ukA14The North Cornwall Walking Wondrousness Trip pretty much meant that the Westcountry bucket list had been amply satisfied. The final day down there offered a bonus with a family day out on the train to Looe. It’s not so far from Plymouth but the journey provides a reminder of the lovely countryside of southeast Cornwall and on the branch line to Looe it could still easily be the 1950s. Looe itself offered its reliable fill of narrow lanes, fish and chip smells, bucket and spades and, for me, one final and very commendable pasty! Again, there was something approaching heat, meaning that shorts – if I had them with me – would have been more than acceptable in the afternoon.

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ukA13The train ride back offered that final hurrah and farewell to Cornwall, resplendent and verdant in the late summer sunshine. For once, the same could not be said of Devon, as I departed the following day in a somewhat murky, drizzly air. I missed seeing the white fluffy clouds and whiter fluffier sheep, the glimmering Teign estuary and glass sea of Dawlish. Even so, it was again sad to leave, the murk reflecting a melancholy that drifts along to Exeter. The holiday is not over, the visits and sights await, and there are more cherished friends and family to see. But it does feel that a holiday within a holiday, a homecoming within a homecoming has drawn to a close once again. ‘Til next year.

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Zzz…

…and so to bed, a closure of sorts on this long-winded journey that started off so awesome and finishes in a cocoon of fluffy pillows and cosy doonas. Among all the wonderful things seen, the delights tasted, the rants aired, it is sleep that has allowed them to happen, recharging the body and mind just enough to ensure that things can keep on keeping on. Sleep is, well, awesome, and as friends and family surround themselves with young ones, the perplexing question on everyone’s lips is just why wouldn’t you want to go to bed and sleep solidly for eight hours, pesky child?!

Sleep deprivation is, alas, a feature of the lives of many people I know, from eternally exhausted parents to work-bothered stress heads. Occasionally it pops up in my life, but usually as a result of my own endeavours, like sitting cramped on a plane for 24 hours and moving forward in time 11 hours and then stupidly expecting to sleep like a baby that actually sleeps [1]

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Or deciding to stay in a hostel room in a tiny place somewhere in Victoria and finding that the other bunks are occupied by three rather large Germans who have had a hearty dose of ale and chunks of pork and like to sleep on their back. Still, it was a beautiful early dawn ride to Wilsons Prom that morning when no-one else was yet up.

Luckily I am apt to overcome sleep deprivation and early starts with the most blessed event that can befall anyone: the afternoon nap. I think I first fell in love with afternoon naps when it happened to me as a teenager, taking me unawares as I struggled to read a boring book on a grey day in a comfy armchair. Initially it was a bit of a shock to find that I had unintentionally nodded off and drooled a little. But the feeling of contentment and rejuvenation that ebbed into my body earmarked the afternoon nap as something to occasionally strive for.

In 2013 I had a fair few afternoon naps, along with a fair few restless nights and early starts. This was primarily my own doing, attributed to the fact that I ended up staying in 121 different locations across the globe [2]. Such restlessness can induce restlessness…that feeling of being slightly unsettled going to sleep in an unfamiliar spot. Given many of the sleeps were also conducted in a canvas coffin in the middle of nowhere, prone to every possum rustle and pounding wave of the ocean and occasional snoring fit from elsewhere, solid sleep was not always high on the agenda. But then I discovered the calming properties of earplugs and got over it and probably made a bit or noise myself, mouth agape catching flies.

Still, the early starts were common as there is only so much an earplug can do against the cacophonous cackling of a choir of Kookaburras. The compensation from the termination of sleep was the sparkle of being alive and watching the natural world wake up from its shadowy slumber. Like down amongst the spotted gums of Croajingalong National Park, fringing the silver glass of an inlet as it is kissed by the laser red sun of dawn and enlivened by the rousing chimes of bellbirds. Awake is the new sleep.

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A few more sleeps from this spot and I happened to be in Wilsons Prom again, this time without a hostel room of Germans, but struggling to sleep nonetheless. The day had been baking hot, an arid northerly wind blowing dust and flies and smoke and hairdryer vapours to the southern extremities of mainland Australia. Too hot to sleep until – finally in the small hours – the promised cool change, bringing a pitter-patter of rain which turns to a noisy deluge amplified on canvas. Fortunately the next sleep was Melbourne and a roof and a bed and appreciation of a roof and a bed which is so often taken for granted by us first world problem seekers.

There were a few other hot nights but many more cold ones, often surprising in their unpredictability. I expect somewhere called the Grampians to be a wee bit chilly, though in March I never expected it would be cold enough to cause me to hover over a few smouldering twigs, infiltrating smokiness into my hair and stubble and fleece and beanie, awaiting the first warmth from the sun to finally emerge from between the trees. Ironically, later that day it would swelter so much as to cause sweaty backs on a climb to one of the many spectacular overlooks, provoke comfort in a lukewarm home-made shower, and create extreme fondness for a double scooped ice cream back down in Halls Gap.

In this flim-flam wiff-waff Perryinthian volatility of hot and cold, it is perhaps not so much of a surprise that one of the best swag sleeps in the past year was conducted at a very agreeable and comfortable temperature. This in itself was not at all predictable given previous chilly nights despite (or maybe because of) being in the dry, arid South Australian outback. Perhaps it was the shelter of the Cypress pines and their earthy fragrance, or perhaps just the ease of getting to sleep after many miles of quite exemplary walking, but Aroona Valley in the Flinders Ranges provided a chance to not really sleep much like a baby. And with solid sleep, an early start is no problem to appreciate the grandeur of the emerging landscape as the day is welcomed.

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Beyond the swag there have been air mattresses and sofas and fold up beds to enjoy, plus the occasional real bed. I’ve had a close on-off relationship with a certain air mattress for some time now, though this year saw us part company. A little part of me was a bit forlorn when I was kindly provided with my own room and own bed, complete with funky pictures of digger trucks and awesome earthmoving machines. Yet I can still sleep soundly despite stealing the bedroom of a two year old, for I always sleep soundly here. It may come thanks to the wine and fulfilling Mexican food, the equal liveliness and weariness of family life, the penchant for odd movies and cruising around Liberty City late at night. Or the grim up north Lancashire exterior quelled by the warming welcome inside.

Z_devonAnd once more it comes back to that old chestnut roasting on an open fire of comfort and familiarity. Spending such sustained time on a fold up bed in Plymouth that my back no longer hurts. Reconnecting with my eternal homeland, nodding off to the sound of drunken crazies arguing over some munter down the street eating a kebab. Waking to the sound of seagulls and the incessant irritating loop of Bruno Mars and Olly Murs on Heart [3]. Hearing the distant trundle of the railway as it fights its way through millions of leaves and brambles; a trundle that gently lulls you to sleep again later following a majestic day walking the Cornish coast. This is quite possibly the most contented nap there is.

Finally, after all this sleeping around, I again find myself in my own bed, the one I bought at Harvey Norman in Fyshwick seven years ago, before I knew any better [4]. I remember having to catch a bus that dropped me off somewhere between a petrol station and porn shop, walking through some overgrown brown grass dotted with rubble and fast food trash. Making it to the store I then waited ages for any of the dubious sales staff to take any interest in me. I’m sure I purchased the fairly cheap mattress, thinking I was only going to be in Australia for a year. But it endures and it is mine and, as everyone always inevitably says after a bout of travel, ooh it’s always nice to be back in your own bed!

Back on that day, while waiting near the porn store for the hourly bus back to somewhere close to where I was staying, I killed some time by wandering into the p…p….petrol station. I p…p….purchased a map of New South Wales to kill some boredom. This was back in the dark old days of 2006, when maps were unfathomably large and fold out-y. But it was splendid to open it out and start looking at the roads and contours and the places by the sea that were still just names then. And it was daunting to see just how large the place was, where a two hour drive was a couple of fingers width on paper.

When the bed was delivered and assembled it not only became a place of sleep but one in which the mind would formulate plans and trips, making lists in my head and sometimes struggling to nod off with the breathless excitement of it all. I’d try to count sheep, read something dull, do a Sudoku. And then I decided, probably an unwise tactic, to list things off in my head in an A to Z fashion. Like places I have been in the USA, capital cities of the world, or legumes of the Central Asian plateau or some such. Sometimes I would drift off by Crystal River, other times I’d be wide-eyed in Zagreb. But it’s something that has endured for quite a while, until now.

So it would seem, with this particular alphabet closed, I truly can rest easy. Catch a few awesome ZZZs as a chapter closes. That is until I start to toy with the next idea and several others fall open. For now though, read this and sleep.


[1] What a misguided phrase. To sleep like a baby must mean spells of doziness for an hour with six interruptions during the night to eat, and a couple of nappy changes because you have pooped all over the place.

[2] I should point out, not 121 different beds, for many of these sleeps were carried out in a swag that just happened to find itself in a different part of Australia each night.

[3] Seriously, just buy her some frigging flowers and shut the hell up

[4] I quickly decided to deliberately avoid Harvey Norman, mainly because of its very tacky, cheap and incredibly shouty adverts in which they proclaim to be the bedding specialist, or plasma screen specialist or coffee specialist, offering interest free credit until 2023

Links

Croajingalong National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/croajingolong-national-park

Wilsons Promontory National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/wilsons-promontory-national-park

Grampians National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/grampians-national-park

Flinders Ranges National Park:

http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/Flinders_Ranges_and_Outback/Flinders_Ranges_National_Park

They haven’t got much better (or advanced): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3ky9cFQbbM

Back in the bed buying days: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2006/08/artistic-bedroom-furniture-ironing.html

Something else to send you to sleep: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture

Where the grass is always greener

uk01Rain. We give it a bad rap. Wet and splodgy, irritating with its inescapable shroud of damp. An unwanted present from a dreary sky, sent to make boots muddy and ruin plans best laid. A shocking contrast from the sun in Spain that was 20 degrees warmer. But then surely rain is what puts the Great in Britain, our reassuring companion, along with tea and cake.

uk02It is fair to assume that Basingstoke and rain are hardly the most riveting bedfellows, but shops are shops and people are still wearing shorts to go to Tesco. It is hard to let go of the summer and, just for a moment, it returns on a Sunday afternoon at The Vyne. Here, amongst the moist muddy tracks are the autumnal fruits of summer – fungi cascading down mossy brown trunks, spiky green pods spilling out with chestnuts, leaves wafting down onto the ground, coating the forest floor in a layer of browns and yellows. All helped by that cursed rain.

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uk06bRain is no stranger to the southwest of England, as Atlantic fronts begin to form; waiting in the wings to blow in on winds, some strong enough to bring down trees. This is the season where a night can be dramatic, and the next day as placid as a hippy doing yoga on a fluffy white marshmallow. Air blows in clean and fresh and the lowering sun in the southern sky illuminates the greens-turning-brown on magical days.

Magical days are easy to come by in St Agnes, sitting tucked in on the north coast of Cornwall; a prized position to make most of the sun, and the rain, and that wind when it blows on in. Like so many Cornish towns it totters down through a maze of narrow streets to a beach; there are a few pokey shops and – it turns out – a blessed bakery serving the type of sausage rolls I have craved in my mind since seeing one snatched away for someone else’s consumption last year in Hobart. Proper good sausage rolls that are hard to come by in Greggs and Warrens and anywhere in Australia other than one place in Hobart. Possibly.

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uk05Unlike more genteel parts of Cornwall, the landscape here has a raggedy rugged edge to it, peppered with tin mining relics, tinged with a faded glory scoured by eternal weather. The coast path is solid and spectacular, as it always is, heading along to St Agnes Head with views north to Trevose and south along a wave pounded coast towards St Ives. Higher up – atop St Agnes Beacon – an even mightier panorama unfolds, with most of West Cornwall on view, and St Agnes nestled down below, reached by muddy field to complete a memorable circular.

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Magical days are harder to come by holed up in Plymouth library trying to make something up that is of a work-related nature and popping out for mediocre coffee in the hope that just for once it may not be mediocre. Even mediocre coffee can be a welcome distraction though, so when the cloud clears and a sunny afternoon pops up out of the blue the allure to escape is palpable. Luckily there is a very quick escape from the varied charms of Plymouth, by taking a bobbling boat across the Tamar to Mount Edgcumbe.

uk08Here, the meander of autumnal woodlands and fading gardens give way to exposed hilltops, looming high over the Tamar with views spreading out to encompass a Cornish and Devonian sea.  Inland the wide river flows into a border landscape of patchwork fields and secret inlets, punctuated by towns and villages and giving out to rising moorland hills. Herds of deer scarper into nearby woods, aware of your presence and no doubt cognisant of the fact that you would quite like to see some good old fashioned autumnal rutting. Instead, the view will suffice.

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uk07Plonked amongst this idyll is the city of Plymouth, with rows of houses running like dominoes over the lumpy contours of the suburbs, meeting cranes and boats toppling into the river. Its waterfront welcome mat is striking with the Where’s Wally striped beacon of Smeaton’s Tower and a wheel that looks even bigger from afar. Illuminated is a background of moorland, sweeping over the horizon. It is here that you can appreciate the quite blessed setting in which Plymouth sits. Yeah, the city might be a bit crummy and tatty in places, but a turnip growing in a field of flowers is better than a turnip growing in a pile of shit, right?

Another philosophical conclusion I have come to over the last few weeks is, when situated in this part of the world, even when the day is crap, you are having a stinker, work sucks, and other such things, there is the consolation of easy access to clotted cream, jam, scones and tea. This can make a bad day amazing. At Mount Edgcumbe it made a good afternoon sublime.

uk13The hills behind Plymouth spread afar into Dartmoor National Park and this represented what was to become my final outing into the virtual field of flowers surrounding the city. A circular walk from Yelverton offered a perfectly balanced English country composition of riverside woodlands, sheep and cow fields, tumbledown cottages and exposed tors. This amble on the fringe of Plymouth was a pretty decent way to bid it all farewell.

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uk12Spending time here, intermittently from August to November, has obviously allowed me to observe the changing seasons take effect. What once was an uninterrupted blanket of flourishing green is now softening, holes are appearing, and things are shrivelling. A golden brown is slowly but inevitably creeping into the landscape and soon even this will become more spartan and altogether less comforting.

uk14And as the leaves disappear from the trees my southward migration kicks in. It has become a customary route over the last seven years, this time a little later after a little longer than normal. It leaves me with mixed feelings; sad to be leaving one place and excited to be heading to the other. It’s a feeling that comes to life when marvelling in the grand autumnal splendour of Mount Edgcumbe only to come across a couple of Eucalyptus trees shooting up into clear blue sky, aliens in a foreign land. For a moment I am transported, wrapped up against a southwest autumn and looking up at the promise of Australia. The best of both worlds, where leaves do not fall and a cream tea is just around the corner.

Green Bogey Photography Walking

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.

Great Britain Green Bogey

Southwest bits blitz (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Home

Home is where the heart is, only pieces of my heart are scattered in so many places. The largest two chunks are undoubtedly at polar opposites of the planet, making for an interesting tug of the figurative heart strings. Like Beefy v Border and Scones v Lamingtons, it’s an Ashes battle simmering under the surface, slowly plodding away like Geoffrey Boycott completing a 962 ball century. One piece of heart is high with cholesterol, saturated with pasties and clotted cream, the other is growing all the time and falling in and out of love with a feisty sunburnt youngster.

In any discussion of academic stature it is customary to define the matter at hand and, in this case, what we mean of as ‘home’. Often this begins, rather lazily, using an Oxford English Dictionary definition which, since it comes from Oxford, probably describes home as a detached mansion encompassing at least two wings and ample space to shoot peasants. It’s true that a ‘home’ typically does involve some arrangement of bricks and mortar (or for me at the moment swag and car), but I prefer to take my lead from The Castle. An Australian cinematic classic based on a surprisingly true story, this argues the case that a home is not merely a structure but a place embodying love and shared memories, a place where prized personal treasures make it straight to the pool room.

Home is also a marker of identity, and I guess that is why so many people become indebted so that they can live in a desirable postcode, have a double garage, and possess more rooms than they could ever possibly need. The type of people in Escape to the Country who are looking for a detached period property with land for stables and a separate craft studio, six bedrooms and three reception rooms, proximity to the shops and a village pub but not next to anyone or beside any road whatsoever, with views of sheep studded fields and blue skies only. All so that one person can face a two hour commute to London and thus hardly see the house whatsoever because they have to pay off the mortgage, while the other one does a bit of art and can grow some turnips.

I’ve never really got into the whole home is my castle thing or sought to mortgage the rest of my life to pay off a bank for some bricks and mortar. I still don’t know if that’s foolhardy or not. I do occasionally have those ‘if only’ moments that come with the clarity of hindsight and sometimes wish I had made the commitment to buy something before house prices skyrocketed. But I was young and, er, foolhardy. And besides, where would I be right now if I had made such a call. In some overpriced box room flat in a zone 4 suburb of London? Or sitting in a national park in South Australia with swag ownership to boast about?

Regardless of present location there are two cities that I call home if anyone asks: Plymouth, Devon, England and Canberra, the capital city of Australia. I would say I live in Canberra and so my home is there [1], but I was born and raised in Plymouth and that is my home city. I support Plymouth Argyle but keep an eye on the ACT Brumbies and Canberra Raiders. I drift into Westcountry bumpkinism with rising Australian intonation. I think one is captivatingly beautiful while the other is beautifully captivating. Usually I feel like I belong to both, validated by dual citizenship which has me at once a British Plymothian and an Australian Canberran. At other times though it can feel like I am a stranger in both, simply because I cannot commit to one or the other. In Australia there has always been this sense of impermanence, even though I have been there for six years; with England, I am absent and afar, now looking in from the outside.

Reassuringly in spite of this Plymouth will always be home. I was born in Plymouth, in a hospital that no longer exists. I remember little of my childhood outside of Plymouth, even though we moved about a bit when I was very young. From about the time I was five we ended back in Plymouth for good, eventually being granted a council house that was supposedly in the leafy and refined sounding Beacon Park but was practically on the edge of the less salubrious sounding and indeed less salubrious Swilly. I wasn’t out of there until university, but attachments remain strong with the house, the people, the city and the area.

So, what can I tell you about Plymouth that maybe isn’t just about me and my rather uneventful upbringing? It’s a city of over a quarter of a million people, many of whom live in identikit post-war council houses that sweep up and down all of the hills that pop up across the area; hills that make walking to and from school a test of stamina, especially after an afternoon of double history following a lunchtime kick about. The city is historic, although much of this got blitzed by Germans and sadly resulted in a mostly depressing 60s concrete city centre. The Barbican houses ye olde bittes, where seadog scallywags like Drake and Hawkins planned the next places to discover and pillage. Today, the Barbican can be rather fetching on a warm day, boats bobbing on the sun glazed water, the smell of frying onions from Cap’n Jaspers floating on the breeze, and seagulls annoying the hell out of everyone, including the French exchange students looking both perplexed and bored and annoying the hell out of everyone else.

Further around from the Barbican sits Plymouth’s piece de resistance, one of the reasons it exists: Plymouth Sound. I am very likely biased but I think it is hard to come across an aspect more pleasing than that from the Hoe Promenade, a swathe of green, green grass punctuated with memorials and statues and the perfectly red and white striped lighthouse of Smeaton’s Tower. Here you can stand high above the natural harbour which pans out in front, sheltered by the hefty green shoulders of Staddon Heights to one side and the Rame Peninsula to the other. Channelling its way from the Sound, the River Tamar cuts a swathe to the west, lined with the detritus of the naval dockyard and funked up council flats, a reminder that this is a gritty city with its fair share of wonderful city things like declining industry and poverty and indifferent town planning.

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Softening this view, across the other side of the river, is Mount Edgecumbe and its country park, a verdant paradise of manicured gardens and dense woodland clinging to the slopes that rise up and bound forever onwards into Cornwall. I love how you can see Cornwall so easily from here, the juxtaposition from industrial cityscape to idyllic creaminess all so obvious. But it’s there, just across the water and easy to reach [2]. This is illustrative of Plymouth’s natural advantage, with the wondrousness of the Devonian and Cornish landscape just minutes away, from the rickety tors of Dartmoor, to the rolling green fields of the South Hams, across to the snug coves and fishing villages of the South Cornwall coast and up onwards to the pounding seas and plunging coastline of the north. If anyone, wrongly or rightly, ever accuses Plymouth of being a hole there is no escaping from its sublime surroundings.

So this is my home, but I haven’t really mentioned what makes it so homely. For me there is close cherished family in Plymouth and, so far away, I do miss them now and again, though I cannot quite tear myself away from another home to put that right. Like most family relationships there is something to be said for small doses and periodic visits, tending to make these more cherished and enjoyable, without breeding contempt and complacency that so often come with familiarity. Besides, when I pay visits home I get my washing done, all fresh and soft the way only Mum can get it. I doubt if I could bank on that happening if I was there all the time.

Plymouth is also homely because it is so familiar, yet this itself is a double-edged sword. I know how to get the bus into town, I somehow still recognise the face of the woman serving me milk in the corner shop, and I’m savvy enough not to be either excited or offended by someone calling me their lover or handsome. However because I am not there all the time, because I have formed attachment with another home, it also feels that sometimes I am a stranger, spurned for running off with a younger model. I don’t know what’s happening in Eastenders. I never knew that the bus company changed its name. I didn’t hear that the Prime Minister visited, looked like a total knob end and ate a pastie with some of the local chaps.

You see, that’s the price I pay for calling Canberra home as well. You can’t have your cake and eat it, can you? I never really understood that saying. I mean, I buy a cake (quite often in fact) so I have said cake. I then, usually quite quickly, eat aforementioned cake. Sometimes I have a larger cake that I eat just a morsel of, in which case I definitely have some cake in the house at the same time as eating it. Perhaps I should say a rolling stone gathers no moss instead, but is that a good or a bad thing? Okay, cool I’m a rolling stone who gathers no moss, unlike those stupid static stones with all that spongy green stuff around them. But actually are they the lucky ones, with their cosy layer of moss and security of tenure?

Pleasingly Canberra happens to have stones, and some moss, and plenty of places selling cake. I call it home primarily because I have made it so over the past six years or so. Whereas Plymouth is my home by birthright, Canberra is my home by way of where I live, at least until recently. I’m now travelling around Australia a little, but still have possessions and people of note in Canberra and when some grey nomad at a campground asks where I am from I say “Canberra”. They then look at me odd and launch into a tirade about carbon taxis and published servants or something. Nah, not really, they’re usually rather lovely or at worse aloof. Anyway, I am proud to call Canberra my home because I think it’s just a great place to live.

Canberra is rather beautiful in my eyes. I came here from London, another place I would have called home at one stage. Some people, usually Australians not in Canberra, look at me googly eyed when I tell them that. You left London and came to Canberra? Not Sydney or Melbourne, those wannabe global cities of urbane cool that aspire to be London? But it was the contrast from London that Canberra gave me and for which I fell. I could walk to work, with galahs and rosellas lining the streets as the sun hovered above. I could make new friends and acquaintances over sublime coffee (and occasionally cake). I could fall in love with the setting, its bushland hills and big glassy lake and peppering of interesting national institutions befitting a modern capital.

My favourite place here, and almost anywhere at all, is Red Hill Nature Reserve, a swathe of hilly bushland that offers a microcosm of Canberran life: mobs of kangaroos and golden grassland, multicoloured birds and majestic gum trees, a landscape dotted with runners and amblers and dog walkers and occasionally the plain curious tourist who has made it up this way. The views offer the opportunity to grasp the surroundings: a sunset over the rugged Brindabella Ranges shining golden hues over the lake and among the branches of the leafiest suburbs, stretching their way up to the fringes of other, bush clad hills and mountains. This place offers me exercise and solace, escape and invigoration, contentment and photographic opportunities. It is more than just a hill.

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It can become very easy to be drawn in by Canberra. I intended to stay for a year and I’ve made six. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to call Canberra home, but my time there will always be a part of me. It is an easy, comfortable place, perhaps too comfortable, but go around Australia and see the gargantuan caravans being towed by monstrous 4×4 trucks driven by silver haired nomads and you’ll see that comfortable is clearly something to aspire to. And isn’t homeliness all about being in a place in which you feel comfortable?

So, comfort, familiarity, connections and at least some sense of belonging make up a home, as well as a few of those bricks and mortar to be encased in. Plymouth and Canberra both give me that. But regardless of where, I think the individual plays a huge role in making a home what it is – taking the opportunities there, seeing beauty in all its shiny sights and dirty corners, connecting with people when you can. For instance, even my swag is starting to feel homely, the way I slot my water in one corner and a book by the pillow, and the configuration of zips and hooks and pockets. Yes I guess I am a rolling stone, but I’m still picking up bits of moss along the way, moss that accumulates and forms strong and lasting attachment from birth to end. Homes.

 


[1] Or lived. Currently my postal address and electoral registration is in Canberra, but I write this from a car in South Australia!

[2] Actually, unless you get the pedestrian ferry across, this particular piece of Cornwall takes some getting to. Think river crossings, winding roads around winding creeks, single lanes hemmed in by giant hedgerows and perilous descents towards water. Like most of Cornwall then.

Links

Straight to the pool room: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM-GVRvsZrA

Britain’s Ocean City: http://www.visitplymouth.co.uk/

Hearty fare me hearties: http://www.capn-jaspers.co.uk/

The Janner textbook: http://www.chavtowns.co.uk/2005/02/plymouth-the-janner-textbook/

The nation’s capital: http://www.visitcanberra.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture

Dawn

The dark cloak of night was yet to loosen itself from the town of Santander as I crept up from a creaky bed onto the creaky floorboards of a creaky guesthouse. Desperately trying not to disturb sleeping parents next door – clearly not helped by the creakiness of this particular guesthouse – I gathered the only set of keys and my camera and set out to surreptitiously escape the building and head towards the sea. If you cannot sleep, why not watch the world wake up.

Emerging into the refreshingly cool and breezy air – a pleasant change from the pungent heat of a Spanish summer – the sea was barely visible, merely a rhythmic thrash of water hitting the shore somewhere distant. To the east, the sky was only just beginning to soften to indigo, the change marked by the silhouettes of gulls rising in the distance, their shrills increasing in tempo and building in volume. Elsewhere, further occasional signs of life…eager fishermen setting out, unseen shutters rolling up, street sweepers marking a clean slate. The final blinking of a distant lighthouse extinguished as the horizon turns deep blue and a thin strip of orange light flashes across that steadfast line between sea and sky.

Now, a red sidelight flickers across the whitecaps of surf, as rocky outcrops transform from black and white to heavily contrasted greys and greens. With light, sand becomes copper, every little rock and patch of seaweed casting a long shadow across the grainy canvas. Footprints are embossed alongside the water’s edge, as the first joggers, amblers, dog walkers and sleepless tourists break the surface. More gulls gather on the beach, more shutters are heard rising; more vehicles make their way along the coast road in a subdued early morning hush. The sun glides quickly higher into the sky and the moment is gone – for another day.

D_Santander

The world may now be awake but the parents still seem to be snoring. It was a long drive the previous day, from south to north across Spain. Through the dusty nothingness of the interior and over the greener, damper northern ranges, we reached Santander after dark and pretty much flopped out in our hastily picked guesthouse. I was surprised to awaken and watch the light introduce a different Spain, with surf cleansing the broad golden sands and scouring craggy rock platforms in between. A verdant headland of cypress pine and she-oak marked the entrance to a snaking, shallow estuary [1], peppered with sandy coves and treacherous currents. Beyond, the backdrop of forested mountains, lined at their base by popular coastal towns and expensive waterfront properties. For one moment I thought I had woken up on the south coast of New South Wales again.

D_Santander2

I shared some of this world in full daylight with Mum, heading off for a little walk once everyone had arisen and dressed and drunk several cups of tea before checking out. They hadn’t even realised I had been out in the morning, such was my obvious stealth and their obvious talent at sleeping in. Outside, we found that the headland was indeed a pleasant spot, the array of trees now offering useful shade for the sun spanning overhead. In fact it would have been a good spot for a little doze, especially if you happened to have been up and out when it was still dark that morning [2]. However, we had a ferry to queue for to take us through to the following dawn.

In between one whole revolution of the earth there was still some time to fill. This involved a lot of sitting around. First for coffee and some local food that I cannot remember other than it being deep fried and delicious. Then, once over the international barrier and beyond the spell of the salty streets of Santander, the most mind-numbing wait to board the ferry, sat in a car in the heat of the day while the Spanish operators have a siesta or go on strike or something. And further, once finally on the ferry, the futile task of finding something to do, other than sit down and have a drink.

To be fair there were at least, oh, 3o minutes worth of exciting ferry activities: walking the upper deck via a maze of secret stairwells; perusing every item in detail in the gift shop and working out whether it is cheaper to buy in Euros or Pounds; wondering do they actually sell those giant M&M characters and comedy oversize Toblerone bars anywhere else; and, importantly, noting the location of every toilet accessible once rolling about in the Bay of Biscay. So it turns out that the sitting down with a drink option is by far the best, a chance to farewell the Spanish sun that I greeted many, many hours ago.

I should note that, amusement-wise, there was also the excitement of the little cabin we had booked for the overnight trip. Here, an air of childlike wonder in discovering clever folding beds and storage spaces, incredulity at how they managed to fit a toilet and sink and shower in a tiny cupboard, bemusement with ever so miniscule space-saving gadgets and fittings. And, despite effectively being a pimped up prison cell, an astonishing sense of light and space. It’s like the Tardis, only marginally less scientific and with fewer smartass actors and delightfully ridiculous storylines.

To be honest, I could have done with an interruption from Daleks, perhaps emerging literally out of the woodwork, stealthily disguised as the bin and composite parts of the sink unit. At least I think their grating warnings of impending extermination may have woken up Mum and Dad and given me a break from their snoring symphony. So in sync that when one stops the other starts, building to a wave of crescendos where all components of the orchestra are at full blast, ending with a huge crash of drums and cymbals. Then just a brief intermission before the next number. Their melody in tune with the rocking and rolling of the sea, a sea which mercifully calms midway through the night, unlike the music.

With no natural light and a regular swaying movement the cabin proved quite disorientating on the senses but somehow with all this going on I believe I did sleep (and probably bolstered the orchestra in the process). And with that came morning, or at least the clock said it was approaching morning for all that you could tell inside. A trip out on deck confirmed this, while the temperature confirmed that we had definitely left Spain and were approaching England. Another day, another dawn, this one inevitably shrouded in grey on the eastern horizon, but a clear softening in the light marking the transition from one state to the other. The period of transition which makes dawn so special, so magical, so hopeful [3].

With reassuring inevitability the sun eventually emerged above the solid brush of low cloud and timed itself with a majestic arrival into Plymouth Sound. The pleasing site of land, and not just any old land but my land, inching nearer and becoming a reality at Rame Head, its patchwork of bracken and gorse a khaki camouflage rising out of the blue sea. To the east, rays of sun glowing godlike through clouds over Mountbatten, angling towards the west and lighting up the cosy cove of Cawsand. And directly ahead, a glimmer of red and white standing erect on the foreshore, a beacon to Janners worldwide: Smeaton’s Tower.

D_Rame Head D_Plymouth Hoe

A perfect combination of movement and light heralded me into the arms of Plymouth, the ferry gliding serenely through the water, the low projection of light colouring and highlighting the ultimate goal. Rather like some kind of tractor beam from an alien spaceship, dragging me towards it, resistance futile and probing likely. It was the first time I had been back in a little while and arriving by sea in the first sunlight of the day made it seem like some exciting new place, exotic and far away [4]. The anticipation building as the port came closer and closer. The freshness in the air added to a sense of rejuvenation. It truly was a new dawn, a new day, and I was feeling good.

Can there be any better time of the day than dawn? Sunset is an obvious rival, with both dawn and dusk offering subtle changes that equate to a dramatic whole. The inevitability of both being a reminder that humans remain immaterial, the world carries on spinning, regardless of what we do. Wherever you are, whatever you are up to, there will be a dawn and a dusk, in which the skies will transform, clouds will burn like flame, and light will glow and fade on the landscape. Dawn is extra special in that it requires a little extra effort, rising at unnatural hours, skipping breakfast, embracing the cold. Anyone can see a sunset. Only the committed or narcoleptic may see a dawn. And for this effort you will often be rewarded with peace, solitude, tranquility, a calmness which exacerbates the spirit of rejuvenation and hope that emerges with a new dawn.


[1] I may be factually incorrect with the tree types, but don’t quote me on it

[2] I believe, looking back at Google Maps, this headland is the Peninsula y Palacio de La Magdalena

[3] I hope my friend Dawn happens to read this, for surely there are significant brownie points available.

[4] In fact, when ashore I noted the rather peculiar, distinct language of the local population. Then joined in.

Links

Santander Tourist Information: http://www.spain.info/en/ven/otros-destinos/santander.html

Palacio de La Magdalena: http://www.centenariopalaciomagdalena.com/es/

Brittany Ferries: http://www.brittanyferries.com/

Smeaton’s Tower: http://www.plymouth.gov.uk/homepage/creativityandculture/museums/museumsmeatonstower.htm

Driving me in Spain: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2010/10/youre-driving-me-in-spain.html

A to Z Driving Europe Great Britain Photography