Way out west

A sure sign that I had been in the UK for a while was the notion that it was simply ludicrous to expect to explore the far west of Cornwall on a day trip from Plymouth. In Australia, such thoughts would be perfectly acceptable, indeed very much the norm. “Just popping down to the beach” shouts Clint cheerily from the Ute window, as he sets off across the dusty paddock and onward to golden sands some two hundred kilometres distant. People I know have driven from Canberra to Brisbane in a day and back again the day after. Just off for a quiet drive in the country…

It is true that British roads take longer: they are narrower and more disjointed, denoted in miles (which gives an illusion of proximity), and overpopulated by caravans and lorries. In Cornwall, add the probability of tractors on roads which simply run out of space and you can understand the frequent car parks that form in the summer holidays. Even in October it can take longer than you expect, resulting in pasties in Marazion that are a touch on the tepid side because it is so far beyond the normal hours of lunch.

Still, with a few nights in a caravan (a static one I should add) near the town of St. Just there should be opportunity to sample some fresh food. And savour the rugged edge-of-the-world landscape holding steadfast against the Atlantic.  An Atlantic that readily spreads its moisture over Penwith, cloaking in cloud the highest patches of sticky-out Cornwall upon which static caravans perch.


Such was the persistence of this shroud for much of the time it was easy to believe we were the only souls for miles, or kilometres, around. Nothing else in sight, barring a scattering of empty caravans looking jaded after a busy summer season. Finer writers than me would better evoke a mystical mood of ghostly visions, pagan spirits and murderous pirates going “AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”. I just got bored with it and drove down the hill seeking out a break.

In Mousehole, the grey mood dissipated with an amble through the jaunty narrow streets, snooping into the windows of cosy cottages as they wind their way down towards the colourful, cobbled harbour. With calm seas and monotone skies, there was a strong serenity enveloping the village, no doubt amplified by the absence of throngs of tourists. Even the seagulls seemed subdued, fattened from their harvest of summertime chips.



Spirits lifted further following a rather good coffee overlooking the harbour (the use of Rodda’s milk could have been a factor). And in the time it takes to sup a rich creamy latte, the sun broke through to offer a taste of summer revisited. Just where are my shorts now?


A few miles back up the road and the static was still in the clouds. However, the morning below had now delivered hope and – with that – an intent to pop some shorts in the car “just in case”. Such fancies were still feasible over lunch in Trengwainton, a National Trust speciality providing a café within a charming garden setting. Ah, some fresh produce and – not for the first time – a cream tea for lunch. Reflecting now I think this might have been my favourite cream tea of the year. Proper lush.


The prospect of shorts hung in the balance but was soon shot down upon arrival in a murky St. Ives. Unlike Mousehole, St. Ives was typically bursting with visitors pacing in a slow, zombie-like shuffle between crafty art galleries and hearty pasty chains. This dawdling procession seemed to accentuate a sombre air, hardly conducive to lingering. So back along the north coast it was, with a few stops along the way, to the static caravan in the clouds.

The next morning heralded a sense of déjà vu that required a little longer to escape. In fact, it wasn’t until I was haphazardly navigating my way through lanes hopefully heading towards Portreath that the clouds lifted. Once again, I had discovered the sunshine. I was feeling a little smug with myself and taking pride in my sun-seeking skills but of course it was sheer luck. Lucky to be here, under these skies.


Sunlight illuminated much of the north coast heading up towards Newquay and we were right on its edge. A separation as distinct as the line between land and sea, a frontier you don’t want to get too close to at Hell’s Mouth. Here, vertiginous cliffs plummet into pristine ocean, though becalmed in the breathless air of today.


Heading back west, the lightening cloud signified something a little more promising. Driving into the caravan site Mum noticed an old abandoned tin mine which we hadn’t known had existed before then. The expanse of the hill slowly unfolded and, suddenly, you could make out the houses in St. Just. There was even, from one spot, a blue wedge of sea forming on the horizon.

St. Just seemed a jollier place in the sun, the depression lifting in tandem with the weather. At nearby Botallack we headed towards the famous Crown Engine Houses, following a suspicious truck proclaiming to have something to do with film production. I suspect they, like everyone else, were making hay when the sun was shining; finally they could get some panoramic money shot to fill a gap in some tedious dialogue in Poldark. Or perhaps they were just on a holiday.


Now trying to cram literally everything in under clearer air, next up was a trip to Porthcurno. Given this place seems to be the current most Instagrammed memento of Cornwall it was surprisingly quiet. Perhaps all the day-trippers had departed, or else plunged down a cliff trying to get a snap of any sand emerging from a receding tide at Pedn Vounder. With such peace and such beauty, the fruits of staying in a static in the clouds were coming to bear.


And what better than the fruits of the sea, in the golden end-of-day light at Sennen Cove? To me, the beach here is the closest resemblance to Australia of any I have encountered in England. A sweeping arc of sand for the most part untainted by development. Curling waves of surf, with the obligatory dreadlocked shark bait on boards. And a little alfresco waterfront action, though in the very English gorgeousness of a proper pub with proper ale.


And now, finally, before heading back to Plymouth the next day, a chance to watch the sun set into the Atlantic. Almost. For of course this isn’t Australia and there is always a prospect of clouds on the horizon. But at least now they were only on the horizon, rather than atop a static caravan on a hill a long drive from home.


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Better late than never

Ah live blogging. Tweeting Trump tirades. Instantaneous pictures of food. All the wonders of the 21st century. And here I am stuck in the past, thinking back to early September and a final foray (in 2016 at least) in the southwest of England. Luckily the memories are vivid, and the wonders of the 21st century mean that I can draw on way too many photographs than is healthy.

swlast01I remember arriving back from London in splendid sunshine and almost immediately rushing to the moors. The car had alternate ideas, but some rectification and replacement meant that the day wasn’t totally ruined. In fact the afternoon sky was bluer, the light clearer, the warmth warmer on a rapid trot up from the tinkling cascades around Norsworthy Bridge towards Down Tor. Clearly, so clearly, and happily back in Devon.

And then, crossing counties, there was the day. In other years it has been around Porthcurno or Padstow or Fowey or St Agnes. The Cornwall Day. The day when I venture out into a world set up so perfectly that you start to question why you would even think about going anywhere else. Sure, it was a long trek down to Penzance on the train, and then to Land’s End with its touch of tack and touristification. But head north, mostly along the coast path, and you are transported into a rugged, beautiful, heart-warming world that oozes pasty filling and rich clotted cream.


swlast03Practically round the corner from Land’s End is Sennen Cove. Though most of the Land’s End crowd have filtered out, the beach remains busy and tiny car parks are amply populated with people eternally waiting for someone else to move. But beyond the main drag the alleys are cosily quiet, and the coast path is trampled in only an infrequent fashion by jolly people with beaming smiles. I may have been one of them.


swlast05Further along the path the beach empties out, disappearing altogether as a small headland perforates the arc of Whitesand Bay. There are rocks to clamber over and a tightening of the sea against the land. It’s just a small inconvenience when you round a corner and discover another bay, another beach, another dream that you might want to pinch yourself from. If anywhere in the UK is ever going to get close to a rugged beach of southern New South Wales, then maybe Gwynver Beach is the one.


But unlike the other souls who have found this place, there is little time to linger, other than to eat a somewhat squishy Double Decker on a rock. I have public transport timetables to consider, and there is not very much to consider. It is the bus or bust. So I move promptly northward, following the cliff line towards Cape Cornwall. The sandy beaches have gone and it is all raggedy rocks and windswept heather, brilliant in the afternoon light beamed from the west. It is archetypal Cornwall and it is only right for this particular Cornwall day.


I never make it to Cape Cornwall, thanks in no small part to bus concerns and the elongated fissure that is Porth Nanven. In true Cornish fashion, the coastline is pierced by a stream, the steep valley it has left in its wake stretching to the suburbs of St Just and requiring a significant detour. With St Just tantalisingly in site and consulting my bus timetable, I instead make a dash for the 1644 to Pendeen.

The bus is – almost inevitably in this part of the world, at this time of year, at this hour in the day – a little late. But it is running and drops me off at The Queens Arms in Botallack. This is a handy place for a bus stop, as I make a mental note of the time back to Penzance and do swift calculations in my head to ensure there is opportunity for a pint. It all depends though on how much I linger around the Botallack mine sites.

There is plenty to linger for here, and with the sun gradually moving lower you know it will probably get even better. At first glance it doesn’t seem the most aesthetically pleasing spot, mining remnants littering the whole coastline, chimney stacks towering above a small gravel car park, wheelhouses crumbling into a pile of rubble. But out on one of the headlands is the iconic site of a mine perched precariously next to the Atlantic Ocean. And another above that. It is a right proper Ginsters Smugglers Pilchard Jamaica Inn Poldark of a sight, and it takes a lot to tear you away.


swlast08Such as a pint. A pint of Doom Bar in a Doom Bar glass in an independent, old school pub perched on the edge of Cornwall, the edge of England, maybe even the edge of civilisation (though that is debatable more than ever these days). Can there be any better way to toast an exemplary Cornish Day than waiting for the bus like this?


You know, as well as getting frequently drunk it seems the in thing in England these days is to get bleatingly nostalgic about the supposedly good old days, often while drunk. I was wondering what it would be like after the whole let’s leave Europe and go our own way rah rah rah eff off we’re full thing. Maybe it was a decent summer, maybe it was Olympic glory, and maybe it was the fact that not much had really changed – yet – that doses of an idyllic, untroubled, pacific England were there to be had. Like that final late afternoon upon Brentor, sticking up above the rolling patchwork, dotted with sheep, cows, the odd cosy farmhouse and distant church-steepled villages. I love this spot.


And with sweeping sentimentality there were also the inevitable farewells to be had on those last few days. A farewell to Plymouth, who’s Hoe I finally got to visit one spontaneous evening. A farewell to proper clotted cream for another year, nurturing and sustaining me through winding lanes and gigantic hedgerows. A farewell to the school summer holidays, mercifully. A farewell to pasties, though with Sarah deciding to close on a Sunday, the last taste was one of bitterness and disenchantment in Looe. Oh, and a farewell to some of these people, once again. People who never fail to entertain, irritate, feed, amuse and always capture my heart.



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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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