This is a combined post covering our entire Cornwall road trip, previously online as individual day posts.
“We should go on a road trip,” said Madam.
I looked up from my iPad. I had been reading one of the right-leaning newspapers online telling me how, after Brexit, the rainbows would be brighter, we would have zero crime and would start seeing unicorns in our woodlands again.
“Well…” I replied, somewhat hesitatingly.
“We could go out west, maybe even Cornwall.” She said.
“A couple of weeks would be enough.” She said
“I don’t know…”
“Great! I’ll go and pack, you find the maps.” She said.
“Unicorns?” I said to myself.
That would be great, I thought, but I would have to see it on the side of a bus before I believed it.
Bournemouth to Durdle Door
Due to Madam’s impressive driving skills, we arrived in Bournemouth two hours before we could check into the hotel so we found a multi-story car park close to the pier where I parted with £4.50 for two hours parking. We left the car park via an enclosed and gloomy set of concrete stairs which seemed to serve as the local latrine. The pungent smell made my eyes water. This is what happens when you charge people 50p to use the toilet, never mind £2.25 an hour to park. They use whatever doorway or stairwell is available. I was tempted to have a discrete wee in a corner myself to get my money‘s worth but Madam was in a hurry to get lunch.
We had lunch on the upstairs balcony at the Hot Rocks restaurant overlooking the pier and beach. A Dotto land train ran along the seafront below us. A Ferris wheel opposite the pier turned slowly. The beach, packed with families was soft sand from the promenade down to the sea. Couples strolled along the seafront past the pier.
Madam said, “The people are younger here. Younger than in Bexhill.”
There is a belief that people move to Bexhill and wait to die. It isn’t true. They move to Eastbourne. Bexhill is where their parents live.
We checked into the hotel, high on the East Cliff and walked down to the beach. The tide was partly out. Madam took off her shoes and walked along the waterline. As soon as her feet touched the wet sand she jumped up and down with joy and said: “I’m on holiday!”
It’s true. We were.
She continued walking alongside the water towards the pier and picked up a weird looking seashell which we later identified as a slipper snail. It looked like a claw or hand with six fingers. I’ve lived by the sea for many years and seen nothing like it. She put it in her bag to add to her souvenir collection. She walked on past the pier and I suspect she would have carried on until the next town had I not promised her a ride on the Dotto land train that ran along the seafront towards Boscombe. I’d wanted to visit Boscombe because it had a pier. I have a weakness for piers that Madam will never understand.
“What’s the point?” She said. “You are just walking out over the water.”
“That’s exactly the point,” I replied.
We got to the Dotto stop only to find that the last departure was at 15:10. On a Sunday. During the summer. A major tourist attraction stops running at ten past three on a Sunday. Sometimes you wonder who organises these things.
We went into the tourist information office to see about a trip on the open-top bus but found that stopped at 5pm.
Bournemouth is divided neatly into two by a succession of fine parks running from north to south. They were created in the mid-1800’s and remarkably have survived to this day. They were originally known as the Lower Pleasure Gardens, The Central Pleasure Gardens, and Upper Pleasure Gardens. The former name proved too much for the genteel folk of Bournemouth. The combination of both ‘pleasure’ and ‘lower’ in close vicinity to each other was just too much for ladies of a delicate disposition and they are now known simply as the Lower, Central and Upper Gardens.
We walked up through the Lower Pleasure Gardens. Sorry, forget I said that. We walked up through the Lower Gardens. Whoever is in charge of the gardening does a wonderful job. The flower beds were a blaze of colour even at the tail end of summer when you expect things to have died down ready for autumn. Large groups of foreign students and young couples had spread themselves over the grass enjoying the late afternoon sun.
We sat for a while admiring the flowers and watching people strolling through the gardens. It was a lovely setting and even better to find such a large park in the town centre.
The Lower and Central Gardens are separated by an attractive pedestrian square with a restaurant and outdoor seating. We wandered through the square and up into the Central Gardens where they had the largest war memorial I had ever seen. The memorial was built in 1921 to remember the dead of World War I. It features two lions, one asleep and one awake, based on Canova’s tomb of Pope Clement XIII in St Peter’s. This enormous stone and marble memorial is now Grade II listed and was later extended to commemorate the dead of both world wars.
The upper gardens seem to be mostly sports fields so we stopped our journey and, it being a respectable time to start drinking, returned down to the square to find a suitable hostelry. With a combination of random searching and Madam peering into her phone looking at TripAdvisor we found ‘The Moon on the Square’ which turned out to be a Wetherspoons.
There’s a tradition in all Wetherspoons that there has to be a large group of men drinking lager hovering near the bar and having a shouting match. It is invariably regarding which footballer has the most knobbly knees. I think that’s right. Something to do with football anyway. It requires them to wave their arms exuberantly and spill copious amount of beer on the carpet. This pub was no exception.
Still, where else can you get somewhere to sit down, books to read, free WiFi and two drinks for less than a fiver?
In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay for the Evening Standard newspaper describing his perfect pub. He called his pub ‘The Moon Under Water.’ It should have he said, amongst other things, that it be quiet enough to talk; the barmaid should know your name; that it sells cigarettes, aspirin, and stamps; it never serves beer in a handleless glass; and you can get a good lunch for three shillings.
Several Wetherspoons pubs have ‘Moon’ in their name since they feel that is a good link to Orwell’s fictional pub. I’ve never been to a Wetherspoons where the barmaid knew my name, nor have they have ever served me a beer in a glass with a handle. I’m not sure how I feel about them linking to one of my favourite authors for commercial purposes. Maybe I will order lunch one day and proffer three shillings (15p) in payment then ask for an aspirin. I’ll let you know how it goes.
We got back to the hotel and were laying on the bed reading when Madam said, “What was that noise?”
“What noise my sweet?” I asked.
“That noise.” She said.
I listened. I could hear cars outside and a murmur of distant conversation.
I shook my head. Madam sighed. “A sort of slurping noise.”
“It wasn’t me,” I told her.
She looked to the dresser on the far side of the room and shrieked “It’s alive! It moved!”
It turned out that her seashell was still very much in use and the resident mollusc was wondering why the sea was so far away and how come the tide hadn’t risen.
“We have to take it back to the beach.” She said.
“It’s late. We’ll take it tomorrow.” I told her.
She put it in the bottom of the bath lest it develops impressive locomotive powers in the night and crawls into bed with her.
“He needs a name. Think of a name,” she demanded.
“I don’t know,” I said, “Shell? Shelly?”
“Shelly is a girl’s name,” she said.
I went into the bathroom and reached into the bottom of the bath. I carefully turned Shelly upside down.
“Yup, it’s female,” I told her.
I had a look at the Google to see if there was anything else worth doing in Bournemouth and, amongst the dozens of pages of advertisements offering me hotels and tours, was a brief piece from the official tourism website that told me, amongst other things, that it was a prosperous town with a population of almost 200,000 and that tourism remains an important industry.
And boy, does it milk its tourists. Parking for two hours was £4.50. A stroll along the three hundred metre pier is £1.20. An ice cream? That will be £3.70, please. Need a bottle of Coca-Cola with that? Another £2.50. A one-mile taxi ride back to the hotel £6.00.
We had considered staying a couple of nights in Bournemouth, it was nice enough, but we resented the demands for money at every turn. Even the park had signs suggesting you sent them money. Besides, Madam wanted to get to tick another location from her bucket list.
We were packed and on the road by 9am and heading towards Durdle Door. Shelly was safely wrapped in the back seat.
As we drove along the B3070, there was a large sign ‘WARNING Sudden Gunfire!’
Madam glanced at the sign and said, “Just like in Texas.”
I was glad she got to feel at home.
We parked above the footpath down to Durdle Door. £4 for two hours. A sign informed me they had over one million visitors a year. It wasn’t hard to do the maths. Four million pounds for a scree car park and footpath is a nice little earner for somebody as Arthur Daley would have said.
We started down the steep and rough footpath towards the beach. Loose scree made it difficult to avoid slipping and falling.
“Did you remember Shelly?” I asked Madam.
“Oh no! I’m a terrible mother!” She shouted as she ran back towards the car.
She laid Shelly carefully at the water’s edge and starting talking quietly. I’m sure it was something profound but the wind took most of her words away. All I caught was “I’ll miss you so much” and “send me a shelfie.”
We wandered down the beach along the chalk cliffs and water’s edge, stopping to take pictures of the Door and cliffs as we went. Madam was under strict instructions not to touch any shells, dead or alive.
As we started up the long and steep path back to the car Madam said, “Shelly was very lucky really. She can cross Durdle Door off her bucket list. It would have taken her years to crawl here.”
We headed towards Weymouth through the village of Lulworth which had more pretty thatched cottages than you would have thought possible. I’d have liked to stop and take pictures but the roads were narrow and lined with no parking signs.
Weymouth was on an attractive sweeping bay ringed by elegant townhouses, most of them now converted into hotels and guest houses. It is a pleasant old-fashioned seaside resort. The sort of place my grandparents would have visited on holiday. Down on the train for a week in a B&B. Fish and chips for lunch. Sit on the beach and eat ice cream. Rented a deckchair as an extravagance. My grandad would have rolled up his trouser legs and put a knotted handkerchief on his head to keep off the sun. They would have gone home happy and talked about it for months.
Nowadays, people go to Majorca or Magaluf and feel hard done by if they aren’t blind drunk by tea time.
Weymouth has one claim to fame that you’ll not find in many tourist brochures. In 1348 the Black Death entered England in the port of Weymouth, then known as Melcombe Regis. The plague had been spreading from the far east and crept across Europe, reaching France in 1347.
According to a contemporary account:
‘…two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of a terrible pestilence and, through him, the men of that town of Melcombe were the first to be infected.’
The victims would only develop symptoms six days after infection so would often travel some distance unwittingly carrying their infection to new areas.
In case you need to know the symptoms for a future outbreak they include black necrotic pustules on your skin, fever, delirium, and an unbearable headache. If that isn’t bad enough your lymph nodes will swell to the size of an orange. You only have a 70% chance of dying so it’s not all bad.
The Black Death would go on to kill somewhere between 30% and 40% of Britain’s population. The worst of the effects were over by 1351 but occasional resurgences would appear right up to the end of the 17th century, notably in 1665.
We checked into our hotel, Somerset House, which was above a pub and in a bit of a rough area. It was opposite the railway station, just across from “My Amazing Fantasy – Licensed Adult Shop” and just down the road from an off-licence whose main selling point seemed to be the strength of their lager.
Despite some misgivings about the area, the room was lovely. The best we had stayed in for some time. The bathroom was the largest and most elegant I’ve seen in any hotel. It had a massive two-person shower, a bathtub with a TV built into the wall and many strangely coloured unguents lining the shelves. Bathrobes and slippers were hanging on the back of the door. Madam declared she wanted to move in and stay there, or at least take the bathroom home.
“I’m having a bath,” said Madam.
“I thought we might have a look round the town first,” I said.
But she was already tipping random coloured liquids into the running bath. It foamed in an impressive and exuberant manner. She turned on the TV and closed the bathroom door.
We walked down to the seafront, around the sweep of the bay, and along to a building at the end of the promenade optimistically described as the pier bandstand. There was an attractive Art Deco building but no sign of either a pier or a bandstand.
There had been a bandstand on the site, built in 1939 and extending 200 feet out to sea, but it was demolished in 1986 to save a £300,000 repair bill. A competition was held to determine who would press the button to start the destruction. They gave two schoolgirls from Birmingham that dubious honour. The demolition left only the land building which was eventually refurbished and taken over by a Chinese restaurant in 2002.
The 1980s have a lot to answer for.
We sat on a wooden bench, overlooking the sandy beach and watching the seafront strollers. The vibrantly coloured and decorated clock tower was to our right. A man walked past with an owl on his arm. Two heavily tattooed shaven-headed men with a staffie walked past and glared at anybody who looked their way. Older couples walked slowly past, leaning on sticks, watching the sea.
A cruise ship sailed gracefully out of the harbour from around the corner in Portland. We found out later that this was a Disney ship catering mostly to Americans that started in Barcelona and sailed around Spain and Portugal to Dover. They had stopped in Portland for a day trip to Stonehenge. An inside cabin a snip at only £4,592.
Just off the seafront was a large double-fronted fossil shop. I was entranced. I went in and picked up a heavy 68 million-year-old dinosaur bone. Fondled ammonites by the score. Examined echinoderms. Thought about buying a dapedium or maybe a pholidophorus. I’ve seen a lot of fossils over the years but they were all behind glass cases in museums. Here, I get to hold them for free. I would have been happy to stay for hours touching and examining every item in the shop but Madam was bored after a minute and we needed to check the other gift shops for tea towels and Christmas ornaments.
We meandered slowly down the main shopping street. It was pleasant enough and pedestrian friendly but with lots of cash converter style, betting and pound shops. A sign outside one shop offered a Mr Whippy soft ice cream with a flake for £1. Madam was asked a couple of times if she was from the cruise ship. It would be a sad if the cruise passengers had shelled out all that money and Weymouth was all they saw of England.
Like a lot of seaside towns, Weymouth has suffered a reversal of fortunes as people holiday abroad. There were still pockets of the town doing well with some businesses obviously thriving but also with areas of deprivation that gave it a seedy air. I know I’ve probably said enough about the precipitous and seemingly irreversible decline of seaside resorts but it just makes me very sad. I had better stop there as I can feel a moan coming on and Madam will tell me off.
Still, where else can you park your car and get an ice cream with a flake for a pound along the South coast?
Madam looked online and picked the top two restaurants from Trip Advisor and we walked down to look at their menus.
I forget what they were called – I think it was something French and pretentious. Madam pressed her nose against the window of the first and looked at the tablecloths and elaborately laid tables. She looked at me and said, “They are a bit posh. I don’t think we are properly dressed for these places.”
I rolled down my trouser legs and took the hankie off my head and presented myself for inspection. Madam just rolled her eyes and said: “You don’t have a jacket.”
Instead, we went to a cafe bar around the corner and had a nice tapas selection for under a tenner a head. Not having a jacket with me saved me £50. Something to remember for future trips.
I woke up to loud chanting outside the hotel room at 3:30 am.
This wasn’t the calming chant of monks at morning matins or Buddhists preparing for meditation but the tuneless incoherent noise that comes from the strange physiological reaction you get when you mix small brains with strong lager.
“I don’t think I would want to live in Weymouth,” I thought as I lay awake watching stray beams from the street lamp dancing on the ceiling and waiting for the chanting to fade into the distance.
In the morning we got to shower together in the hotel’s fabulous bathroom and I checked Madam carefully for any signs of necrotic pustules or enlarged lymph nodes. There were none so, after only a brief delay, and a lovely breakfast at the hotel we were on our way to look for fossils.
Charmouth and Lyme Regis
We headed to the Charmouth Heritage Centre and had a polite look round at the locally found fossils on display. The centre was set up in 1985 to encourage safe and sustainable collecting of Jurassic fossils from the local beaches. They run guided fossil hunting walks on every day except Tuesday. It was Tuesday.
They had an impressive display of fossils, both in terms of size and quantity. So numerous were the 195 million-year-old belemnites that they were just piled in an apparently haphazard manner in a recreation of the sandy shoreline.
The Jurassic Coast stretches from Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset, a distance of about 96 miles. It spans 185 million years of geological history covering the Triassic and Cretaceous periods as well as the Jurassic. At different times, this area has been desert, shallow tropical sea, and marsh.
The many sedimentary layers on this coastline are rich with fossils which can be found in abundance as sections of the cliff crumble and landslides occur. Fossil groups found here include crustaceans, insects, molluscs, echinoderms, fish, amphibians, reptiles and even a few mammals.
How hard could it be to find fossils, even without a guide? Just pop down to the beach and pick up a few handfuls. A walk in the park. Well, a walk on the beach I guess.
A stiff breeze blew from the sea and waves were crashing on the beach. Small groups of people were spread out along the shoreline looking down at the ground. Some down by the water following the receding tide and some up by the crumbling cliffs.
I had forgotten to bring the hammer from my toolbox and was too cheap to buy a proper geologists hammer for £20, so we walked along the beach, occasionally smashing two rocks together looking for fossils. I walked a long way down by the water in the hope of finding a washed up belemnite or two. I randomly kicked at pebbles and scraped my shoes through the wet sand. All I got was wet feet.
I tried searching up closer to the cliff but discovered that the cliffs are mostly made up of layer upon layer of soft mud, silt and clay. Wet this with a drop of seawater and it makes an astonishingly sticky mud that adheres to shoes in an enthusiastic and expansive manner.
After much walking up and down the beach, we realised we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, so we returned to the car and I spent the next ten minutes scraping the mud from my shoes.
After a brief visit to the facilities, I decided one last time to go fossil hunting while Madam waited in the car. I popped into the gift shop and bought a (very small) 120 million years old ammonite for 50p, which I presented to Madam with a flourish.
Lyme Regis is smaller than I expected. Unless I missed something it consists of one steep hill with the usual chain stores plus a few gift shops and a single fossil shop.
It is more famous than its size indicates. The harbour wall (The Cobb) features in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Persuasion’, and in John Fowles’ novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. The 1981 film of the latter was partly shot in Lyme Regis.
The town is situated at the heart of the Jurassic Coast. It was in the cliffs nearby that an Ichthyosaur was discovered by self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning in 1918. She later found a complete Plesiosaur and the fossilised remains of many other creatures. Anning became known around the world for the important finds she made in the fossil beds in the cliffs along the coast. Her discoveries contributed to important changes in knowledge of prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.
As a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society and she never received full credit for her scientific contributions. The gentlemen geologists who published the scientific descriptions of the specimens she found often neglected to mention her name.
To be fair on the Geological Society, when Anning was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1846, the society raised money from its members to help with her expenses. Did anybody say too little too late?
I popped into the fossil shop at the bottom of the hill to fondle a few more fossils while Madam looked in an outdoor shop at Nordic poles. I keep telling her I will never agree to go skiing or hiking over glaciers but will she listen?
We strolled down to the seafront. Along the front was a combination of small cottages, mostly holiday lets, amusement arcades and tourist restaurants. A stone harbour arm at the end of the bay provided a sheltered anchorage. The tide was out and bilge-keeled sailboats were resting on the mud. Two paddle boarders were trying to get through the shallow surf into deeper water. A narrow street ran behind the harbour with gift shops and fish restaurants. The promenade was crowded with visitors walking in the sunshine.
The possibilities of Lyme Regis were quickly exhausted so we returned to the cart and set the SatNav for Exmouth.
We checked into our room in a chain hotel close to the seafront in Exmouth where we had a lovely view of the car park all the way over to the pub next door.
Exmouth had more than its fair share of charity shops, bargain everything a pound or less, tanning salons and betting shops. The Conservative Club, squashed between ‘Bargains Galore’ and a gift shop selling buckets and spades and children’s fishing nets, was looking tatty with weeds growing from the roof.
To be fair on poor Exmouth, it also had some pleasant pedestrian areas and leafy squares with more upmarket restaurants. It had a compact well-managed park with thriving flower beds and hanging baskets. We walked around the park admiring the flowers and eventually found a wooden bench. We sat and watched a balding man in his 40s feeding squirrels from a Fortnum and Mason bag.
I looked at Madam and she looked at me. “I think he still lives with his parents,” said Madam.
“I was thinking exactly the same thing,” I said.
While we watched the squirrels a young odd looking couple walked by. Possibly the product of multiple generations of distinctly unbiblical sex. They proudly showed us a large bag of nuts they used for feeding squirrels. They told us in great detail where we could purchase our own bag, how much they cost, and what fun it was.
Some towns have cinemas. Some have bowling alleys. Most have pubs and clubs. Exmouth has nuts.
A tea room nearby was selling Devon cream teas. Not just cream teas, but Devon cream teas.
A cream tea, for those of you disadvantaged by geography, consists of a pot of tea together with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. Traditionally a speciality of Devon and Cornwall, cream teas are now offered in most parts of England. If you like to live on the wild side you can have a scone baked with currants or sultanas.
There is a rivalry between Cornwall and Devon as to their cream teas. The Devonshire method is to split the scone in two, cover each half with clotted cream, and then add strawberry jam on top. With the Cornish method, the warm ‘bread split’ or a ‘scone’ is first split in two, then spread with strawberry jam, and finally topped with a spoonful of clotted cream.
Madam insisted we try both as we journey through Devon and into Cornwall. Being partial to a scone or two I quite liked the idea.
A little later that day she told me she didn’t really like cream teas so I wasn’t going to get one.
We left Exmouth soon after 10am and headed towards Dartmoor. When we planned this trip we would travel along the South coast stopping wherever we fancied in seaside towns. Realising that we had seen enough run-down seaside towns, fishing harbours and sandy beaches for the week, pretty as they might be, we craved a change of scenery. And you don’t get much different than a windswept desolate moor.
We were passing Buckfast Abbey so stopped for a quick look round. I was vaguely aware they made tonic wine and things with honey but didn’t know much else.
The abbey forms part of an active Benedictine monastery. They started the current abbey building in 1906 but only finished it in 2013. You need to sell a lot of jars of honey and tonic wine to pay for an abbey.
Having seen a lot of different cathedrals and abbeys over the years I am used to seeing stone steps and floors worn down by thousands of feet over centuries. It was nice to see something that new. The stonework was immaculate. The carvings looked like they were completed yesterday. They were, in cathedral age terms.
There was a small exhibition, nicely done, about the lives of the monks living at the abbey. I got the, probably accurate, impression that it was mostly praying and keeping silent. Since we had no desire to pray and Madam does not have the ability to be silent, we returned to the car and headed to the Dartmoor Visitor Centre.
We climbed winding steep lanes heading inland. The lanes got narrower. One car wide with only occasional passing places. Ferns where whipping against the sides of the car. I tightened my seatbelt. My ears straining, listening for the sound of any car coming the other way. My eyes bulging as I tried to peer around corners. Perspiration glistened on my brow. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and tighter, my knuckles white, my arms shaking.
“Let go of the steering wheel Honey,” said Madam, “I can manage the driving on my own.”
We climbed higher still.
Finally, the road opened up and it presented us with the most amazing views of the moor. Gorse dotted the hillsides with bright yellow flowers. Dry stone walls enclosed neat fields. A few intrepid walkers were silhouetted on top of one peak. Cattle and sheep were wandering unhindered in the road and along the verges.
We parked in a small car park near the top of a hill and stood and gazed out over the moor. Serious looking hikers with Gore-Tex coats, backpacks and poles were heading in all directions. Rocky outcrops were dotted on the hillsides. Craggy granite peaks topped the hills. The hills were green and every shade of gold and brown. It was wild, desolate and jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Madam walked for a while up a steep incline following the hikers while I sat and kept the car company. I was concerned it might be frightened out there all alone.
The visitor centre in Princetown had an exhibition based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story ‘Hound of the Baskervilles.’ The visitor centre was formerly the Old Dutchy Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed and was inspired to write his novel. Many of the locations featured in his book are nearby: Great Grimpen Mire, where the hound was kept; the tomb of Squire Cabell, reputedly the inspiration for Hugo Baskerville; and Hexworthy, the village of Grimpen in the novel.
Dartmoor is the largest area of upland and open space in southern Britain with peaks rising to 2,000 feet. Mostly granite (or more specifically adamellite for any geologists reading) covered by a layer of peat.
Far more interesting is that the area is home to the world’s largest slug, the ash black slug, which grows up to eight inches long. You can only find it in dense woodlands in remote valleys, otherwise, I would have insisted we go search for one to take home as a pet. Much easier to care for than a Norwegian Blue.
Many places we visited on this trip left only vague and hazy memories. Others were just “Bleh,” no need to ever come again. Some, like Dartmoor, left a lasting impression and vivid memories. Definitely a place to re-visit and spend more time. But time was pressing and we had a hotel booking for tonight so we headed to Plymouth.
We had booked into a Premier Inn in Plymouth which turned out to be in a grim semi-industrial area. A tyre and exhaust centre was opposite with a car crushing plant next door. The map showed a long walk via busy roads and roundabouts to the city centre but I noticed on the satellite view of Google Maps there was a cobbled path hugging the side of the docks. After some exploratory wandering in backyards and car parks, vaulting walls and studiously ignoring ‘Private’ signs, we found the path and reached the Pilgrim Steps away from the busy roads.
Madam rushed to the steps which may, or may not, be the departure point of the Mayflower to America.
“Take my picture… take my picture … take my picture,” she shouted as she pushed a couple of Japanese tourists aside.
The steps are commemorated with a stone arch with a Union Flag and USA flag flying either side. There is a small museum above the tourist information office which gave a brief history of the Mayflower and her passengers.
The Mayflower was an English ship that transported the first English Puritans, now known as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to America in 1620. There were 102 passengers, with a crew of about 30.
Some cargo choices were odd. You would think that a ship bound for a colony would focus on seeds, farming and hunting equipment. A few sacks of dried foods. A return ticket in a back pocket. One passenger, William Mullins brought 126 pairs of shoes, 13 pairs of boots, hose, stockings, haberdashery and stuff breeches amongst other items.
It must have been a miserable experience. The cabins were cramped — the total area was only 25 feet by 15 feet. Each person had a space less than the size of a modern single bed. The headroom below decks was less than 5 feet. The cargo included pigs, goats, and poultry. Some passengers brought family pets such as dogs, cats and birds. They were at sea for 65 days, much of it in rough weather, so add in seasickness for extra fun.
After arrival in America, the harsh winter climate and lack of fresh food caused more problems. Several of the colonists developed scurvy and the cramped conditions led to other contagious diseases. Between the landing and the following March, only 47 colonists and half the crew had survived.
Not the best start for a new country.
We wandered around the harbour for a while, had dinner and helped fish the Japanese tourists out of the harbour, then headed back to the hotel for an early night.
It was a bright sunny day as we crossed Brunel’s Tamar Bridge into Cornwall.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel has a lot to answer for. The first tunnel under the Thames, The Clifton Suspension bridge, most of the major bridges and tunnels for the Great Western Railway, The SS Great Britain, the Renkoi hospital amongst other engineering masterpieces. What an amazing list of achievements for one man — many of them were considered impossible at the time. Many of his bridges and tunnels are still in use today, 150 years after their construction.
We parked in the massive car park in Looe and walked down to the harbour. Three people were crabbing from the harbour wall. One man had a bucket almost full with small crabs. We asked him what he did with them as they looked too small for eating. “I just put them back” he replied.
Shops lined the road alongside the harbour. Bakers, chemists, estate agents and banks. Narrow lanes led away from the harbour. Every street away from the harbour had nothing but gift shops and cafes. They were packed with tourists stopping to look in every shop window and at every restaurant menu. Try as I might I could never understand the appeal. Every shop had the same selection of postcards, buckets and spades, t-shirts, sun hats, key rings, ornaments and tea towels. Most of the visitors were elderly. Even older than me. Maybe life gets like that. You reach a certain age and all you want to do is shuffle down crowded streets with other old people buying tea towels and ornaments.
Madam went into a gift shop and bought a tea towel.
Cars were moving through the narrow lanes, some not much wider than a car, forcing pedestrians into doorways. It was crowded and chaotic. We fought our way through the crowds to a small sandy beach, briefly admired the scenery and the packed beach and said, “Let’s go to Polperro.”
We got back to the car and Madam looked at her phone for directions to Polperro. After much sighing and poking at her phone she said, “It looks as though we needed to book a parking space last April. Most of the websites said don’t even think about driving, they say to take a taxi or the bus.”
She poked a bit more and said “There’s a bus next Tuesday I think,”
I looked at an old-fashioned paper map and said: “Let’s go to Fowey instead.”
The only parking in Fowey was at the top of a very steep hill. The town website helpfully told us that it was an easy five-minute walk down to the town and just a little longer back up. Very steep wasn’t an exaggeration. It was ski-jump steep. It was don’t fall over or you will roll 300 yards into the river steep. We staggered crab-like, hanging on to any rail down to the harbour.
It was a lovely setting and worth the walk. Sailboats were bobbing about on the river harbour. Hanging flower baskets and boxes were full of a dazzling profusion of petunias, red, white and purple, reflecting in the water below. Tables outside of the pub and coffee shop were packed with people watching the river and enjoying the September sunshine.
We walked through the town but the crowded narrow streets only had the usual fudge, pasty and gift shops. I wonder where all the locals go for their shopping. There were no grocers, no hardware shop, no regular clothes shops. Unless you live on pasties and wear beach clothes all the time you are pretty much out of luck. When I think about it though, that doesn’t sound such a bad life.
The local council had thoughtfully provided a shuttle bus back up to the main car park so we headed towards the bus stop. Unfortunately, every other tourist had the same idea and the queue for the bus stretched halfway down the street. We didn’t have enough time left on our parking to wait in line for a space on the sixteen-seater bus, so we trudged up the long, steep hill pausing many times to catch our breath and admire the scenery.
We stayed for two nights in St Austell so that we had time to visit both the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. I’d wanted to see the Eden Project since I first heard of it fifteen years ago and Madam had the Lost Gardens on her bucket list.
The only hotel I could find with availability was a budget chain on the main road next to a McDonalds and KFC. The room was hot and without air conditioning, so we had to sleep with the window open and got to listen to the local boy racers showing everybody how fast they could drive until the early hours.
I woke in a state of some anticipation for today as we are going to the Eden Project. I had wanted to visit for several years but due to a certain geographical inconvenience had never managed to get here.
In 1996, about three miles from St Austell, there was once a very large hole in the ground. It was a disused china clay pit that had reached the end of its useful life. It briefly courted fame when it was used by the BBC as the planet surface of Magrathea in the 1981 TV series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but otherwise it just did what holes do and sat there being holey.
Later that year, a chap by the name of Tom Smit came along with a rather grand idea. I should probably call it a Grand Idea.
Fast forward to 2018 and it has two huge enclosures consisting of adjoining biodomes that house thousands of plant species from around the world. The largest of the domes simulates a tropical rainforest and the smaller a Mediterranean climate. It also has an outside botanical garden that is home to plants native to Cornwall and the UK
A young man in the ticket office cheerfully relieved us of £55, gave us a membership card and told us we could come back just anytime we wanted for the next year. He even took our photograph. It was like going through US immigration but without the fingerprints and unbridled hostility and aggression.
There was a long walk down a winding path to the tropical dome. It was hot and humid, not surprisingly in a tropical forest. We wandered happily around the dome looking at the luxuriant foliage, beautiful vibrant flowers, and spotting exotic birds and other wildlife living in the undergrowth. We stopped for a baobab smoothie which tasted a lot like pineapple. We drank from a water fountain where a guide told us we were losing a litre of water an hour in the dome.
I spotted a viewing platform high up in the centre of the dome. At the entrance to the steps leading up to the platform we were presented with a printed sign with a long list of reasons why we shouldn’t even think of climbing to the platform. Were either of us pregnant? Did we suffer from vertigo? Back problems? Mobility issues? Are we prone to sudden heart attacks or strokes? Could we cope with extreme heat? Are our knees a bit creaky? Did we eat breakfast? Remember to clean our teeth? Turn off the gas when we left?
Madam looked at the list of warnings and up at the steep and swaying steps and viewing platform suspended by steel cables and decided she wanted to go to the lower levels and look for a certain frog. I suspect she really snuck in another baobab smoothie.
I climbed up and up with a couple of stops to admire the scenery. The platform hovered just above the tops of the tallest trees, I could have almost reached down and touched them if I hadn’t been gripping the handrail quite so tightly.
The platform was hanging from steel cables and swayed gently which added a certain frisson to the experience. The guide told me that it was 34C on the platform and they closed it when the temperature rose above 37C. She said we were 100 feet above the ground but a normal tropical tree canopy reaches up 150 feet so still had some distance to grow.
I stood for a long time, sweating liberally, and looked down at the trees and the people walking below.
We had a look round the Mediterranean dome and the outside botanical gardens and in at an exhibition hall which had a smoke ring blowing machine. No really, it did. They were all nice and worth a visit but the tropical forest was the big highlight for me.
I’m sure you have already seen (and liked and shared) my pictures on Instagram or Facebook by now.
After another night listening to the boy racers, it was time to head to Heligan gardens.
It was a mild and sunny Saturday and we waited behind a long line of cars to enter the car park. I blinked when I saw that it was going to cost £14.50 each to look around. I blinked again to clear my vision. It was still £14.50.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan were created by members of the Tremayne family from the mid-18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The gardens were neglected after the First World War and restored only in the 1990s. They include aged rhododendrons and camellias, a series of lakes fed by a ram pump, flower and vegetable gardens, an Italian garden, and a wild area filled with subtropical tree ferns called “The Jungle.”
We headed first to the kitchen gardens where they were growing a large quantity of beans, squashes, pumpkins, brassicas and numerous other vegetables that I neglected to note. There were all in very neat rows and well tended and mostly weed free. Far better than my allotment ever looked. Pens held turkeys, geese, chickens and pigs.
We moved on to the flower gardens to find that the flowers were also growing in neat rows.
It was like visiting a well-ordered and especially neat smallholding.
In the hope of finding something more interesting, we headed to the Jungle, a wooded area with subtropical tree ferns and a much-advertised rope walk. The rope walk was, I guess, about 40 yards long and suspended above a small valley. It swayed from side to side in an interesting manner and rather reminded me of a children’s adventure playground. We were a dizzying ten feet above the ground. I stood on the walk and Madam took my photograph.
After the excitement we needed a sit-down, so we sat for a while overlooking a pleasant pond on one side of the valley. Two loud, amply proportioned, older American women on the other side of the valley were discussing their trip to England and Scotland and how wonderful it was.
One confided to the other “The only problem is the size of their seats. Why do the British have to make their chairs so small?”
We reached Penzance and I went up to the hotel reception to check in. We had booked into a more expensive hotel for tonight, mostly due to a lack of availability on a Saturday night rather than a desire for a better hotel. The hotel was probably upmarket fifty years ago. The world has moved on since then but the hotel hasn’t seen the need. The decor was… how can I put this delicately… dated.
The receptionist looked me up and down and said, “We had better put you in the wing… the furthest wing.”
She handed me a large iron key and I fetched the luggage and Madam.
We went slowly up to the first floor in a stuttering and clanking lift. Along a long corridor, around a bend and up a further corridor. Down some steps, around a bend and down some more steps. A short corridor then up some stairs, along a dark corridor and down some stairs. Another long corridor and more steps down. Through a gloomy subterranean tunnel, pushing aside cobwebs. Down alongside the sea, holding the luggage above the fast encroaching tide. Up some slippery stone steps, through a disused garage and along a carpeted corridor. Around another bend and up some steps. The floorboards creaked and sagged. The lights flickered. Water pipes wheezed and groaned. Down at the far end of another corridor was our room.
“How much was this room?” asked Madam.
“£162 a night my sweet.” I replied, “It was a special rate. I got a great deal with a coupon.”
She didn’t look impressed.
“Hello Grandma, we’re home!” she called as she entered the room, brushing off the last of the cobwebs.
It was decorated in the style much favoured by grandparents and furnished with the cheap mass-produced 1970s furniture that Grandma bought after she sold all the old-fashioned quality Victorian stuff that had been passed down from her parents. The bed was probably older than Grandma.
I lay down on the bed and felt like I was sinking into the basement. There was a sudden ‘Twang!’ from a spring in the mattress. I carefully and tentatively felt my nether regions in case their integrity had been breached.
“The ceilings are high,” said Madam, trying to strike a positive note.
I looked up at the cracked ceiling and nodded.
I opened a drawer and found a part used tin of Altoids.
“Isn’t it sad when you look forward to staying in a Premier Inn?” she said.
She opened the wardrobe and found two well-used neck pillows.
I looked out of the window at the access road and bins.
“Time for dinner I think,” I said.
We walked further along the seafront to a fish and chip shop for an early dinner, then for a walk along the promenade. There was a large swimming pool at one end with a solitary swimmer. The water temperature was 16.8C. Notices around the pool were about how they were trying to raise money to heat the pool by geothermal energy which should raise the temperature to 35C. You might even tempt me into the water at those temperatures.
We walked up through a churchyard into the town and back down through Morrab Gardens, a lovely three-acre park featuring palm trees and Mediterranean plants. It is billed a sub-tropical but was distinctly chilly on this September evening.
We went back to the hotel and looked around the reception area. There was a Ladies Cloakroom, a women-only area with comfy chairs where ladies could sit away from coarse men discussing politics and other weighty matters that women were not capable of understanding. I looked in vain for a billiards and smoking room where I might have a glass of port and a cigar away from the chatter of empty-headed women discussing knitting and babies.
Adjacent was a reading room, a large restaurant and separate bar. Incongruously, the bar had a large screen TV with a football match at full volume. A fruit machine sat opposite the bar.
We tried sitting in the bar for a drink but the mindless football chanting from the full volume television and shouting from one individual at the bar drove us out. I don’t follow football so I have no idea who was playing. I think it may have been Germany as the chap at the bar kept shouting the player names Dom Fokker and Fuchen Kant in a simultaneously both strident and dismissive tone.
We wandered the cavernous foyer and found a nice glass enclosed terrace overlooking the sea at the front of the hotel. Madam asked the receptionist if it was okay if we took our drinks out onto the terrace who confirmed that it would be fine. My thoughts were that for £162 I would bloody well sit where I wanted.
I’ve often walked past these old grand but faded seafront hotels and looked in at the old people sitting and eating or drinking on the veranda and thought, “that looks nice, I wonder what it’s like to stay there.”
Now I know.
The sea spray splattered my glasses and the wind tugged at my hair causing it to stick up in an unusually expressive and interesting manner. I looked like a cross between a mad scientist and just plain mad. I zipped up my jacket.
“Amazing! It’s like something from National Geographic!” Madam shouted above the wind.
She was pointing her phone in every direction furiously taking photographs as fast as she could.
“I’m glad I bought my windproof jacket,” I said.
“There’s no internet!” She said as she peered into her phone.
Her selfie would have to wait.
We were at Land’s End. The end of Cornwall and the end of the country. The end of our westward journey. This was as far as we could go. Next stop America, over several thousand miles of ocean.
We had parked the car and walked to the southern side. Steep twisting paths led down towards the cliff edge. We had the area almost to ourselves. It was wild, windswept and desolate, everything we had expected, more than we had hoped.
Sheer craggy cliffs cascaded down to the wild seas below. Waves crashed against the cliffs below, inaudible over the wind. Boulders were balanced so precariously on the side of the cliffs that it looked like the slightest breeze would send them crashing down into the sea. Windswept gorse and heather gripped the thin soil. Lichens and mosses lined the rocky hollows.
“This… this… this…”
I looked at her expectantly. It isn’t often that Madam is lost for words.
“This alone is worth all that driving! Amazing, magnificent, awe-inspiring, breath-taking!”
I think she liked Land’s End.
Small signs reading ‘WARNING – Cliff Edge – Risk of Falling’ were positioned a few yards from the sheer cliff edge.
I don’t know about you but I like to think that any adult allowed out without close supervision would have the sense to not stand on the edge of a cliff, peer over and say “I wonder what will happen if I lean forw…”
Do we really need ugly yellow signs spoiling the view? I may sound callous but I think that we might be doing the gene pool a favour if we let people discover for themselves.
But of course, a trip to any destination wouldn’t be complete without checking the tea towels and Christmas ornaments, so we headed to the northern side, past the Land’s End Hotel. Coaches were disgorging hordes of tourists and a steady stream of cars were pulling in to park.
There was the obligatory gift shop of course, but they have added an entire shopping and entertainment village. You can buy a Land’s End Doughnut, visit a small animal farm, watch a 4D film experience, visit the Wallace and Grommit exhibition and check out Arthur’s Quest which uses ‘the latest interactive technology and special effects to conjure a magically scary world.’ Brian Blessed’s voice was booming from the speakers in the entrance.
It was mind-numbingly awful. It was packed with throngs of visitors who seemed to be enjoying themselves. Their children all had the crazed look that comes from a diet of sugar and E numbers. It seemed that people had driven miles to a setting of natural splendour – probably one of the best in England – and then sat indoors to watch a film, eaten junk food and visited the gift to load up on tacky souvenirs to prove they had been.
I picked up a leaflet from the information centre and it informed me ‘When it comes to retail therapy Land’s End provides a charming shopping experience…’
Even the iconic Land’s End direction signpost was a commercial venture. It was roped off and only available for the official photographer. You want a picture by the sign? £12.50, please.
If we had visited that side first we would have turned tail and given it a miss. What do they think they are doing, and who gave planning permission for this development at such a beautiful site?
Madam rushed to the gift shop. She spent a long time going through the entire shop but managed to restrict herself to two tea towels, both with a map of the shipping forecast areas.
“Um, why are you buying tea towels with shipping forecast areas my sweet?” I asked her.
“I love the shipping forecast!” She said with some vehemence.
You can know somebody for more than twenty years and still discover something new. Isn’t that great?
A small child pointed to my hair and ran crying to his mother.
“Is there anything you need from the gift shop?” Madam asked, eager to check out and do whatever women do with tea towels.
I looked around the shop, ignoring the tea towels, t-shirts and key rings, but was tempted by a snow globe with the Land’s End signpost. I gave it a shake and watched the fake snowfall over the sign. I gave it another shake and watched it again. It was strangely calming. I felt like it was sucking me in, absorbing me. Another shake and I could become one with a snow globe. I looked at the price tag. It cost £7 and I could buy two pints of Doom Bar in Wetherspoons for that.
“No, I’m good. There’s nothing I need,” I replied.
Minack Theatre and St Michael’s Mount
Madam was sitting on Thracian Horses 1969 and I was on King Richard III 1969. I moved to Twelfth Night 1970 for a better view of the practising orchestra and she came to sit beside me on South Pacific 1970.
We had stopped at the Minack Theatre on the way back from Land’s End.
In 1929, a local drama group put on an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a local meadow. It was a great success, and they decided to perform The Tempest a couple of years later.
Rowena Cade decided that the cliffs below her garden would be a perfect setting and over the winter of 1931 she and her gardener moved granite boulders and created a little theatre on the side of the cliff.
There were performances at the Minack every summer pre and post-war, and during the winters Rowena and her gardener and builder continued to extend and improve the theatre.
Fast forward to the present time and the Minack Theatre holds multiple performances every summer, the spectators perched on steep stone and concrete seats overlooking the stage with the crashing seas behind.
You have to be some kind of crazy to even consider building a theatre on the side of a windy cliff on the Cornish coast, but what an achievement. What an amazing legacy to leave. The world truly owes a debt of gratitude to Rowena Cade.
We sat for a long time on the theatre seats watching the rehearsal and gazing out to sea. We moved seats several times for different views of the cliffs, the sea and the theatre. Each seat had the name of a production and year inscribed on the back.
“I could just sit here all day,” said Madam.
I thought so too. Actually, I struggled to think much at all. Such was the marvel of it, I mostly just sat there in open-jawed wonder and admiration.
But we couldn’t dally. Time and tide, especially tide, waits for no man and it was time to head along the coast to St Michael’s Mount.
St Michael’s Mount is a small rocky island a few hundred yards from the mainland. It is crowned by a medieval church and castle with the oldest buildings dating from the 12th century. The island is only accessible by boat or, by an hour or so either side of low tide, by a stone causeway.
It’s an odd mix of National Trust and private enterprise. In 1954, the third Baron gave the mount to the Trust with the family retaining a 999-year lease to inhabit the castle and a licence to manage the public viewing of the historic rooms. As a result, the staff are employed by the family and not the Trust. Due to the association with the Trust, entry was free with our membership which always pleases me out of all proportion to the small amount of money saved.
The tide was too high to walk across the causeway, so we took the short boat ride to the island. There was a long steep and winding path up to the castle, much of it over rocky and uneven ground.
“I need some sticks,” said Madam.
My knees were creaking and my legs ached by the time we reached the summit.
There was a guide at the entrance and she gave us a brief overview of the building and told us that Lord St Levan was away for the weekend. She gave his name in a hushed respectful voice and, I’m sure, gave a small involuntary curtsy. I’ve always astonished that simply being lucky enough to pop out of the right womb at the right time gets that sort of response.
There were a few rooms, a library, a refractory, a smoking room and study. I can’t pretend it was particularly interesting compared to some other National Trust properties.
An exit from the rooms led out to a terrace with lovely views of the terraced gardens and out to sea. I was staring out to sea lost in my own thoughts when I became vaguely aware of a bell ringing somewhere in the building.
“Quick! Hide!” said Madam, “they might not see us.”
I wasn’t quick enough, and the guide ran out and waved us towards a door and said “Fire Alarm! We need to leave immediately!”
The approved fire exit was through the private family residence, down several flights of stairs.
As we walked down the stairs there were bookcases just out of reach along the painting lined corridors. I yearned to stop and see if they were reading the latest torrid potboilers and maybe tilt a few paintings to a slight, but annoying, angle but the guide shooed us on whenever we slowed.
Somebody, somewhere, decided that the fire assembly point was at the bottom of the hill. Down we went, crocodile fashion like a school party of six-year-olds, shepherded by guides at the back and front.
After a few minutes and no sign of smoke, it was declared a false alarm, and they told us we could go back. I looked up at the steep rugged path and down the gentle slope to the cafe and harbour. The tide was heading out and the causeway nearly open. The cafe was serving coffee and tantalisingly close. Several paid ticket holders were grumbling and demanding refunds.
“Are we done?” I asked Madam.
“We haven’t seen all the rooms yet!” she snapped, “I want to get my money’s worth!”
I told her we didn’t have to buy a ticket as it was free, apart from a £2 boat ride but she had already set off up the hill and my words were lost in the wind. I dutifully followed her up the steep path on weary legs.
There were a few more rooms and a small medieval church, vaguely interesting but barely worth the climb.
After our final descent, the causeway was open. It was oddly satisfying to walk along a rough stone road which, only a couple of hours before, was under water. I lingered looking at the rock pools on either side, turning over the odd stone and watching startled baby crabs scuttle away.
When we reached the mainland, I looked back at the path, stretching all the way to the island. “I enjoyed that more than the castle,” I thought.
I was tempted to wander back towards the island to poke around in some more rock pools but Madam was already halfway to the car. She was excited about our next destination…
Padstow and Newquay
Madam had wanted to visit Padstow for some time, mostly because it is the home of a celebrity chef. I couldn’t find a single hotel in Padstow with availability that wouldn’t make my credit card squeal with pain so I booked one in nearby Weybridge for a couple of nights.
After checking in to the hotel, which turned out to be on the edge of town in a dreary industrial estate next to a timber merchants, we were both too tired to travel any further so we ended up having dinner in the attached restaurant, an experience neither of us wishes to repeat.
It was a cloudy but warm day as we drove into Padstow. I had set the SatNav to the postcode of a car park near the town centre. On the way into town, we passed a park and ride offering all-day parking for £5. I wondered why such a small town would even have a large park and ride as we continued into the town. The first two town car parks were full. The third had a narrow space that, after much manoeuvring, we managed to squeeze into. I started to see the wisdom of the park and ride.
Madam told me that the town was often referred to as Padstein due to the presence of the businesses owned by Rick Stein, the aforementioned celebrity chef. We walked from the car park into the centre and passed a restaurant with his name, then a bakery, then another restaurant. Even the tourist information office has a book of his recipes. I checked with the Google later and learned that he owns four restaurants, a cookery school, a patisserie, a hotel and holiday rentals in the town.
The streets were packed with tourists. It was impossible to walk on the crowded pavements, we were forced into the road to make any progress. We had a look around the pretty harbour and I took a few photographs. A fisherman was unloading lobsters from his boat. A light breeze blew from the river. A passenger boat was busy ferrying passengers between Padstow and Rock on the other side of the River Camel.
The streets were well kept and pleasant but I just couldn’t see enough to attract the masses of visitors. A gift shop had a sign in the window that read ‘Anyone who tells you money can’t buy happiness doesn’t know where to shop.’
I stepped over an extending dog lead stretched across the pavement.
“So who is the Stein chap then,” I asked Madam.
“You’ve seen him on TV,” she replied, “he does the seafood dishes.”
I thought for a while. “The one from Essex that whizes and wazzes stuff? I like him.”
“No, that’s Jamie Oliver. Stein does seafood. Travels a lot.”
“Oh, I remember now,” I said, “the one that owns the fat ducks.”
Madam sighed, shook her head and pulled me away from a Spaniel about to use my leg as a lamp post.
“He wrote the ‘How to Cook’ series?” I asked.
Madam sighed. “No, that was Delia Smith. Stein is a really popular chef. He has a seafood restaurant here. Expensive but very good. We should go and look at the menu. It might be a good place for lunch.”
“Expensive you say?” I asked in a small but controlled squeak.
We watched the ferry disgorge more passengers while I thought about our lunch plans. A small fishing boat chugged into the harbour.
“Those £3 pasties in the bakery looked really nice,” I said.
I’ve never seen so many dogs in one town. They were everywhere. Most of them looked stressed and unhappy in the crowds. They were urinating on every available lamp post. Many people had two or three dogs. We passed two specialist dog accessory shops. Even the gift shops were selling dog bandanas.
A dog was leaving a steaming deposit in front of one of Stein’s cafes. We popped into a gift shop nearby as Madam needs more Christmas ornaments, apparently. They didn’t have any but we asked the owner why there were so many dogs.
He hesitated a while then said “I like dogs, I really do…. but it’s just out of hand. Some of the shops started putting up dogs welcome signs. Then they all did it. Word got out and everybody started bringing their dogs here.”
He rearranged a rack of t-shirts and said “I’m fed up with dodging piles of crap on the pavements. One of my friends even calls this place Dogstein.”
He looked at Madam and said, “Would you like a tea towel with a Labrador picture or do you prefer the Scottie?”
We had enough of tripping over dog leads and jumping puddles ourselves and couldn’t see anything in the town to further detain us, so we headed towards Newquay. I was upset at leaving as we still had 45 minutes on our parking.
We stopped off at Mawgan Porth on the way. It was a small sandy cove with a surf shop and a couple of cafes and, more importantly, free parking.
Surfers were fighting the waves to get further out to sea. An RNLI boat was on the beach, close to the water. The wind was picking up and fine sand was blowing in the air. A few people were walking dogs on the beach. The dogs looked happy, running in all directions, tails wagging furiously.
And so on to Newquay. As we passed through the outskirts, signs were advertising cheap wetsuits and slick boards, whatever they are. We drove in along a high cliff road lined with hotels and parked close to the town centre. A man was sitting on a sleeping bag by the car park entrance rolling a cigarette and enjoying a morning aperitif. We walked past pound shops, charity shops, betting shops and an off-licence. Several shops were closed with faded ‘To Let’ or ‘For Sale’ signs.
The attractive and photogenic sandy beach was small and focused on surfing. Two RNLI trucks stood by on the beach. Two men in wetsuits were standing at the waters edge holding boards and looking forlornly at the lack of any surf. There were two surfing shops overlooking the beach, one of them looked as if it had closed down. A bakery-cafe and a fish and chip shop stood alongside them.
Six people were lying on boards on the sand, their instructor standing over them. Their lesson must have been ‘how to fall asleep on a board’ as none of them moved while we were there.
“Look at that sea,” said Madam “It’s so blue.”
“You can go for a swim if you like” I replied.
She looked out at the fast receding tide and said: “Let’s get something to eat.”
I bought my first Cornish pasty of the trip and sat eating it on a wall opposite ‘Rip Curl Surf Threads’. Next door, the library had signs outside in both English and Cornish. A total of 400 people claim to be fluent in Cornish, while another few thousand can speak a little. It isn’t recorded how many of them live in Newquay but I’m guessing they could hold a party in a phone box and still have room for the buffet table.
We added Newquay to the list of places we never needed to visit again.
We were back in the hotel by mid-afternoon and I needed something cold to drink. The vending machine in the lobby of the hotel was empty so I asked the receptionist if there was another machine. She shrugged and said no, implying it wasn’t her problem and why was I bothering her.
I walked into Weybridge along a busy main road in the hope of finding a convenience store or supermarket. It was longer than it looked on the map, about a mile or so. I walked down a long busy main road, over a 15th century stone bridge above a shallow river, and into the town centre.
I was halfway up the pedestrianised main street when I realised there was something different about the town. There was a complete absence of chain stores. No WH Smith, no Boots with their glaring plastic and glass shopfronts. No Starbucks, no Next or New Look. There were independent butchers, stationers, clothes shops, even a locally owned bookshop.
It was like being back in the 1960’s. It was wonderful.
Cheddar and Wells
“It doesn’t taste anything like American cheese!” exclaimed Madam.
We were heading to Wells in Somerset for a couple of days and stopped off at Cheddar on the way and, after a brief look at the end of the gorge, had gone into the only cheese shop to actually make Cheddar cheese in Cheddar.
They had a wide range of samples and we worked our way around them from mild to mature. The first cheese sample was the mild, matured for only a few months. Madam savoured it slowly and said “Mmmm… nice.”
The second was more mature with a stronger taste. Madam’s breath quickened and said, “This is NOTHING like American cheese.”
When the cave-aged Cheddar touched her tongue her breath became heavy and she let out a long soft moan. Several women standing behind looked on with interest. I wasn’t sure if I needed to guide her from the shop for fear of embarrassment or just buy her a wedge of extra-mature and leave her alone in a room.
After much sampling, we settled on a cave-aged mature Cheddar and an oak smoked Cheddar. I’m not big on hard cheeses, preferring a soft French cheese, but even I could see how much better this was that the average supermarket offering. I should hope so for the prices they were charging.
“I’ve eaten Cheddar cheese in Cheddar!” said Madam excitedly as we headed back towards the car.
“I’ve eaten American cheese in America,” I thought. It was bright orange and tasted of nothing much at all. It was weirdly soft and sticky all at the same time.
But I didn’t want to spoil the moment, so I kept the thought to myself.
“I’ve never seen a television that small,” I said as I opened the door.
We had booked a self-catering “cottage” for three nights which was on a caravan park. It was more chalet than cottage.
I opened a cupboard and the knob came off in my hand. The ceiling was Artex. Madam turned on a table lamp. “Let there be light,” she said.
There was darkness.
I pulled on a knob to open the wardrobe. But you know what happened. I put the two spare knobs on a shelf.
It had a tiny lounge with a two-person sofa, a TV just a little larger than my iPad, a two-person dining room, a slide in sideways kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a bedroom just big enough for a bed and a wardrobe.
“It’s better than a hotel room,” said Madam.
Which was true, once you got used to moving sideways. It was clean and comfortable with everything we needed for a few nights.
We drove into Wells for dinner but we ended up passing the cathedral on the way from the car park. We popped in and had a quick look round. The guided tours had finished for the day, so we planned on coming back later this week. We had a really enjoyable tour in Salisbury cathedral and I hoped this would be as good. It was almost deserted, for a cathedral, so I wandered around happily taking a few photographs unobstructed by other visitors. I’m sure you have seen them on Instagram by now.
It was getting late and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we walked down the High Street looking for somewhere to eat. Wells is billed as the UK’s smallest city. It is certainly compact, you could walk across the centre in 20 minutes and still have time to pop into the bank, chat to a friend and change your library books.
Unfortunately, its compact size hasn’t kept the chain stores at bay. All down the High Street was a succession of the likes of W H Smith, New Look, Costa, Nero’s, Vision Express, Carphone Warehouse, Waterstones and Greggs. I’ve nothing against any of these – I can often be found frequenting them myself but it’s sad when you see family-owned businesses, who have probably served the town for years and live locally, closing down to be replaced with yet another identikit store. I just get fed up when almost every town we visit looks the same as all the others.
We popped into Costa for a coffee.
We struggled to find a restaurant serving food at 5pm. They were either lunch cafes that closed at 4pm or pubs serving food from 6pm onwards. Eventually, we wandered down a side street and found a family run Italian restaurant by the name of Da Luciano which was both happy to rustle up a couple of pizzas and excellent. Worth a visit if you find yourself in the area. Madam wanted some weird combination, not on the menu involving artichokes, swede, onion, basil, dandelion, elderberry, porridge, grapes and marmalade. The staff were happy to oblige and Madam said it was the best pizza she had had for years.
I may have got a couple of the ingredients wrong. I was hungry and forgot to make notes.
The next morning found us back in Cheddar for a proper look at the caves, now called Gough’s cave after Richard Gough, the man who found, excavated and opened them to the public.
The cave system stretches for over two miles but only a small section of this is open to the public. During the excavation in the 1800s, a number of human skeletons were found along with human brain cases which appear to have been prepared as drinking cups. DNA taken from a skeleton dated to 7150 BC has been matched to a retired history teacher living locally. Now, that is something to impress people at dinner parties.
The caves were pleasant enough, but once you have seen one limestone cave you have seen them all. They are a constant temperature of 11C which, I am told, is the perfect temperature to mature cheese. Just inside the entrance was a store of cheeses from the factory across the road. The air had a musty unpleasant smell close to the cheese. I don’t know if that was the cheeses or simply because it was the lowest section of the caves. The guide said there was often an unpleasant smell when they opened the doors in the morning.
We stood and looked up at the wire cages, high up on a rocky shelf, containing hundreds of wheels of cheese.
“You ate some of that cheese yesterday, do you want some more?” I asked Madam.
She gave a small shudder of pleasure and said: “I certainly do!”
As we walked further into the cave we climbed higher into the limestone cliffs and the air became fresher. I noticed that there were small pockets of plants growing near to the electric lights. There were hearts tongue ferns, mosses, and lichens wherever there was water and light. The guide told us that spores and seeds were carried in by a colony of a hundred or so resident horseshoe bats.
“This is way more entertaining!” said Madam as the snarling wolf lunged forward.
“This is brilliant!” she continued as the brown bear tore through the rocks into our tiny cave. We were trapped by a rock wall at the back and a cascading waterfall to the side. Luckily the Mesolithic hunters in front had some pointed sticks, so we were saved. You can do a lot with a pointed stick in the right hands.
We were in ‘Dreamhunters – The Adventures of Early Man’ in Cox’s Cave, just down the road from Gough’s Cave. According to their promotional leaflet:
‘This multimedia experience allows guests to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. Discover the ingenuity that saw our forebears master tools, weapons, and fire to overcome fierce predators and a changing climate.’
And very well done it was. The caves were small, we were shuffling sideways through narrow passages, crouching under low overhangs and dipping fingers into pools of freezing water. I was so entranced by the whole experience that I completely forgot to take any pictures so you will just have to go and see it for yourself.
The exit from Cox’s Cave led us to the foot of Jacobs Ladder, a steep set of 274 stone steps that take you directly to the top of the gorge. About halfway up I reached the startling conclusion that I was no longer thirty years old. I stopped, panting and struggling to recover my breath. I took the last section slowly on wobbly legs, listening to creaking knees and complaining muscles.
After the steps was a further long climb along a steep and slippery rocky path. Black and white goats were sitting alongside the path unconcerned by the steady stream of passing walkers. The full trail is three miles but that was more than either of us wanted, so we reached an open point above the gorge and stopped to admire the views.
The view stretched over green fields with compact tidy farms towards the Mendip Hills. Nestled in the valley below was the city of Wells, the cathedral clearly visible. On the far horizon was Glastonbury Tor standing high above the other hills.
“Worth the climb?” I asked Madam, but she was already heading back down the trail to the cheese shop so I never received a reply.
We’ve been lucky with the weather the last two weeks. We have had the odd shower but it has been mostly dry and warm. As we headed into the outskirts of Glastonbury the following morning the rain started. It was a steady light rain that signalled its intention to go nowhere fast.
We parked at one end of the High Street and walked down towards the market and Abbey ruins. A homeless man, dressed in purple, green and orange was sitting on the bench outside the church.
Two girls of about seven or eight were standing in the rain handing out leaflets to Hempfest – Celebrating the Magic and Potential of Hemp.
Walking down the hill we could have shopped at ‘Happy Glastonbury’ for rainbow makers, or maybe ‘Lady of the Silver Wheel’ for sacred symbols. ‘Crystals’ had half price mystical pendants or we could have gone into ‘The Library of Avalon’ for a spot of esoteric learning. Further up the road, we could have picked up some of The Best Quality CBD from the ‘Chocolate Love Temple.’
Unfortunately, it was only ten-thirty in the morning and new agers are not early risers so the shops were all closed. One of them gave their opening time as GMT (Glastonbury Maybe Time).
Had we been staying a bit longer we could have taken a course reclaiming the ancient myths of the Gnostic Goddess for healing, guidance, and devotion. Possible with a quick trip to meet Merlin and the Angels of Awakening. Madam could, I’m sure, have made time for a class of Women’s Womb Wisdom and unlocked the boundless creativity within her womb. Maybe next time.
One website informed me that several Ley lines (lines of power) cross through Glastonbury and if you stand in the right place you will get a ‘balanced energy message from the earth’ due to the higher frequency of energy.
Luckily I was wearing my tinfoil hat so I was completely unaffected.
The Abbey ruins wanted £7.50 each to go in and look at some old walls in the rain, so I just stretched my arm over the spiked gate and took a picture. It seemed to be deserted.
We trudged back up the hill towards the car and debated catching the bus to Glastonbury Tor. A steady rain was falling and the temperature had dropped several degrees overnight so we decided it would be a lot drier and warmer in Wells.
Why oh why cannot those in charge of car parks list their postcode as a street somewhere in the vicinity of the entrance, rather than the street behind or some random road half a mile away? We entered the postcode of the long stay car park and it led us down a residential cul-de-sac. We attempted it from another direction with the same result. In the end, we just gave up and drove at random looking for a large blue “P’ sign. We eventually found a Waitrose car park where we were allowed to park for £5.40.
Our first stop in Wells, right after extending our mortgage to pay for parking, was the Bishops Palace. We purchased our tickets for £16 a little afternoon and were told that the palace was closed from 1pm onwards for a wedding but we were welcome to explore the cafe and gift shop after this time. I was going to hone my sarcasm skills and tell her that my favourite hobby was exploring cafes but Madam was already heading to the palace entrance.
There turned out to be only half a dozen rooms, many of them being prepared for the private wedding, so thirty minutes was more than we needed.
I took a few pictures of the palace and adjoining chapel but neither was of any great interest.
It was still raining but we ventured into the fourteen acres of gardens which were well designed and lovely, even in the rain. Statues were scattered about and the palace walls and building made a fabulous backdrop. It was (almost) worth £16.
We crossed to road to Wells cathedral, had lunch in their cafe and joined a tour group in the cathedral. It was probably informative, inspirational and all round awe-inspiring. Probably. Unfortunately, the guide was mumbling and turning her back on the group and we heard very little.
The tour was hijacked half way round by a prayer group so we made our escape and had a look round at some bits we missed yesterday.
A narrow spiral stone staircase led up to a library containing books from the 18th century, some of them chained to the bookshelves. I found these fascinating, just looking at the spines of the books on the shelves and their chains. How I wanted to jump over the low gate and open a few books but of course I didn’t. Madam would have been cross.
In spite of its quirks and minor maintenance issues, we became quite attached to our little chalet. We weren’t disturbed. It had everything we needed for a few nights. An equipped kitchen. Electric heaters and hot water. Separate rooms so Madam could knit or watch television and I could read or write.
But it was time to head back. A four-hour drive, all on main roads and motorways. It rained intermittently and we were glad when we reached home.
I opened the front door and we carried in the suitcases.
“Hello Alexa, we’re home” called Madam.
“Welcome home. I hope you are having a good day.”
And we were. And we had had a very good two weeks indeed.
We had climbed the equivalent of 410 flights of stairs, walked a total of 63 miles and driven 885 miles. I realise that this is the normal distance that Americans will drive for a decent burrito but it was a long way on English roads.
It was time for a sit-down and a cup of tea. Maybe listen to some music.
“Alexa, play surf sessions from Spotify,” said Madam
“Playing acoustic music from Spotify”
“Alexa play SURF… SESSIONS… from Spotify.”
“Playing songs by the Smurfs from Spotify.”
“Alexa! PLAY… Oh never mind.”
Madam sighed and said, “I think I’ll go and unpack.”
She stopped by the door and turned to look at me. “where are we going next?”
That’s a good question I thought.