© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
For many years, I'd been interested in visiting Cornwall, the southwestern-most county of England, and I finally got to do that in 2012. During that visit, I finished up having several spare days at the end, and when I asked a biking couple where they recommend I go, they immediately said, "Why Devon, of course". So, I went!
[Diary] I checked out [of my London hotel] at 9:15 am and stepped out into an overcast day with heavy cloud cover. There were people everywhere, many of whom were headed to or from the train station or one of several Tube entrances nearby. In the train station, I found a ticket machine that informed me that a regular one-way ticket from Paddington to Penzance was £132. That was a huge shock as I'd been online a few days earlier and found that the cheapest tickets cost £52! So, I went to the ticket office and got at the end of the long line. Fortunately, it moved quite quickly and soon I was talking to a real human, who was very polite and knowledgeable. He quickly ascertained that I'd be returning within 30 days, and sold me a Super Off-Peak return ticket for £97.50. And not only was that cheaper than I'd expected, he told me I could use the return over several days on my way back. The automated ticket machine didn't offer me anything like that; bloody robots!
As I still had 25 minutes before my train departed, I nipped into the Sainsbury's supermarket where I rescued some emergency rations for the 5-hour trip. These consisted of a small block of Cadbury's nut milk chocolate, a pint of whole milk, a bag of Maynard's Wine Gums, and a pack of Roundtree's Fruit Pastilles. This covered the essential food groups.
At 9:50, I went to Platform 8 to board the 10:06 to Penzance. Not having a reserved seat, I had to ride in Carriage E where I found an aisle seat facing forwards, at a table. Apparently, Friday morning was a very busy time on that route, and there were few empty seats and lots of luggage. We headed out on time with the sun threatening to break through the clouds. The main stations on my route, in order, were as follows: Reading, Exeter, Plymouth, Truro, and the end of the line, Penzance.
I chatted with a number of people around me, several of whom were Irish with tick (as in thick) accents. Soon after we started, a man announced in an entertaining way that as the wrong catering carriage had been hooked up, the kitchen was operating with only a small grill, so the choices of cooked food would be limited. The people at my table agreed that would be acceptable so long as the caviar and champagne were cold!
By the time we arrived in Penzance, we'd slipped 10 minutes behind schedule and the weather had deteriorated. There was a slow, but steady drizzle. I stopped in at the Tourist Information office to get some maps and brochures, and I had a very pleasant chat with the two older ladies working there. Although they could arrange accommodation, I declined as I had a list of B&Bs I'd try. After all, it was out of season and raining, so who in their right mind would be coming to Penzance to stay that weekend?
Who indeed! I walked some distance getting wetter by the minute, until I located my Number 1 choice. I was greeted with a response that had the following meaning: "Frightfully sorry old chap, but we're booked out. Lots of people in town for the weekend, don't you know!" Well the six neighboring B&Bs also has "No Vacancy" signs out, and as it was now after closing time at the Tourist Office, I was on my own. So, it was on to Plan B. I decided to walk to another place I'd read about online, but of course that too was full as were its five neighboring B&Bs. I was starting to observe a pattern, so I stopped off at a Guest House only to find it had closed. That was Plan C. However, right next door and directly across the street from the harbor was the swank-looking Beachfield Hotel, and that became Plan D.
As soon as I entered, I knew it would be a budget buster, but I was wet and tired. Yes, the hostess could accommodate me for two nights, but at a price slightly higher than my London hotel. Of course, it would include a full/buffet breakfast and she'd be ever so happy to take a credit card. I asked to look at the room and we ascended several sets of stairs to a very nice room right out the back that just happened to overlook an overgrown block with lots of construction debris and abandoned stuff. Ah, the ambience of England by the sea! Fearing that my choices were lessening, as I got wetter, I signed up for two nights and settled into my room where I used the electric kettle to make a cup of coffee. I ate my left-over breakfast sandwich and a biscuit (cookie that is) while watching some TV. Light rain continued and I was ready for a quiet evening.
I fired up my netbook computer and brought this diary up to date. Although I had free wifi internet access, the signal was blocked by the heavy fire doors leading to my room, so after a nice hot shower I went downstairs to a sitting room where I connected to the outside world. A flood of email arrived of which about half was spam. I took care of the important stuff before visiting a few websites. Then I moved to the formal lounge where I went through the brochures from the tourist office as well as the books and guides at the hotel, to make a plan for the next day.
[Diary] At 8:15 am, I took a seat in the dining room and read a newspaper while toast and tea were served. My custom-made, cooked breakfast consisted of pork sausage, bacon, fried tomato, and scrambled egg topped with a sprig of parsley. It was served on a rather artsy square plate. Presentation really does matter! I am happy to report that it tasted every bit as good as it looked, and there were no leftovers. I took a full hour, and the morning sun shone full on me through the window.
The bad weather had passed and there was plenty of blue sky and sunshine behind the clouds. I walked to the bus terminal where I found the coastal trail. The initial section of the path was anything but interesting. It was concrete with a man-made seawall to one side, and railway tracks and 4-lane highway on the other. Soon after, I caught up with two older men who were hiking with full packs. We walked and talked for some time. They were hiking a 600-mile coastal trail, three days at a time. Quite a few people were out with their dogs.
My destination was the neighboring town Marazion, which according to different sources was 1½, 2½, or 3 miles away. This quaint little market town was chartered in 1257 by Henry III. The reason to be there was the island a half-mile offshore. St. Michael's Mount (a smaller version of Mont Saint Michel
in France, which I had visited several years earlier) consists of a fortress, priory, and harbor, not to mention a stately castle/home on the summit. Unfortunately, I discovered that it was open every day but Saturday, today. As such, no shops or restaurants on the island were open and no ferries ran. Bugger! It wasn't all bad news, however. A hand-laid stone causeway joined the island to the mainland over which vehicles and pedestrians could walk at low tide, which was to happen at 1:30 pm. To pass the time I walked around the town and sat in the sun chatting to a number of retired couples and a Chinese student. Lunch consisted of a cold pint of whole milk, which as the container declared came from "healthy, happy Cornish cows".
As the tide went out more of the causeway appeared and we tourists moved further and further along it until some large waves sent us scurrying back a bit. A few people had wading boots and they walked through a foot of water. A few brave souls took off their shoes and socks, and rolled up their trouser legs and followed. Frankly, there was little to see on the island as everything was behind the fence and required an admission ticket on open days. By the way, the original owners, who donated the island and improvements to the National Trust some 60 years ago, have a 999-year lease to keep living in the castle.
I decided to forego the bus and to walk back to Penzance. Along the way, there was a large marsh, which attracted a large variety of birds. The bird watchers were out in force watching with binoculars and taking photos. Along the banks were many holes near which wascally wabbits sat sunbathing.
I arrived back in Penzance just after 3:30 pm and immediately spied the Iceland Supermarket, which I'd heard sold most things much cheaper than others, so I went in to see what I could rescue. First up, I saw giant packets of Maynard's Wine Gums @ 2 for £4. Sold! A quart of whole milk was only 90p; sold! And then right by the register, yes ladies and gentlemen, they had 6-packs of chocolate Freddo Frogs with or without caramel filling. As I couldn't decide, I got one of each. Outside, I sampled the delicious, cold milk just to be sure it wasn't bad. And right there next to me was a sign for Drecklys Cornish Deli & Steakhouse, which was just a few doors down.
Although it was a bit early for supper, after my long walk I figured that I deserved a treat, so in I went and ordered a traditional steak Cornish pasty, just like Grandma used to make (although she happened to be German). I went upstairs to a table and started on this diary, but before I got very far, my pasty was delivered accompanied by two packets of tomato ketchup (yes, the Brits have finally sold out to the Americans, along with now also having drugstores) and two more of that mystery HP sauce. I used all of the former and none of the latter. The pasty tasted pretty good, but half was enough, and the rest went in my pack for an evening snack.
I strolled through a multistory shopping center on my way up to the high street. Shoppers were out in force and the sun beamed down upon us. I came across a £1 shop where everything cost exactly that. I rescued some blocks of Cadbury's nut milk chocolate. Eventually, I came to Penlee Park, which consisted of many acres of trees, gardens, and playing fields. I walked through that coming out on the street for my hotel.
By 5 pm, I was warming up back in my room. Soon after, I made a cup of coffee and finished off my pasty while listening to some music. Then I filled my big bath tub with very hot water and lay in it for a good long soak. After walking eight miles, various bits of my body were complaining. Not having had my full quota of sleep in recent nights, I very nearly fell asleep in the tub.
Given that accommodation seemed to be in short supply, I thought I'd better go online and find a place to stay in my next stop, St. Ives. Four weeks ago, as I was talking to a couple on a ferry in Croatia, they recommended highly the Sloop Inn as a place to eat and stay. So, I went to its website and just when everything looked fine to book a room there, I noticed the small print: All rooms were double/twin, and single guests had to pay a £20/night supplement. Bugger! So, it was on to Plan B. (Does that sound familiar?) After 30 minutes of searching, I had not come up with any B&B's in the "Rex Budget" range that had rooms available. Of course, being out of season the tourist office was closed on Sunday (my planned arrival day), so they wouldn't be able to help me find a place to stay. Eventually, I settled on a swank hotel on 70 acres with golf course, badminton and squash courts, and heated pools. Interestingly, the rate was about the same as the hotel I had in Penzance, so I booked that.
[Diary] Around 11:30 am, I rugged up and headed out into what seemed remarkably like the setting of "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day". It was overcast. I came upon a couple who were drying themselves off after a swim in the sea. The word daft came to mind.
I rode the 12:05 to the first stop, St. Erth, where I had a 15-minute wait for the connecting train. I chatted with a young family that was having a day outing. The 12:30 stopped at Lelant Saltings, Lelant, and Carbis Bay before arriving in St. Ives. The tourist office was closed as was the train ticket office, and the town map didn't cover the area in which my hotel was located. However, a local woman was ever so helpful, don't you know, and directed me to the shortest walking route.
The website for the Tregenna Castle Hotel said the hotel was a 15-minute walk from the station, but it didn't mention that is was up a very steep hill. The path certainly was scenic and from the top, the view out over the beach and ocean might have been impressive; however, I was too busy putting my heart back in my chest to notice. The hotel looked very much like a castle (surprise!), and the large foyer and lounge overflowed with leather sofas, tables, art, and potted plants. Yes, reception had me in the system, but my room wouldn't be ready for another 45 minutes, don't you know, but if sir would like to have a seat in the lounge and to use the wifi internet service, they'd take care of sir in a little while. Jolly good!
At 2:15 pm, I was in my ever-so-cozy room complete with double bed and view over a garden. I unpacked, boiled water in the electric kettle, and made coffee. There were two packets of biscuits on my tea tray: oat shortcake and Viennese finger. I ate the former. Although I was told the internet signal didn't reach the guestrooms, it reached mine, so that was a bonus, and I sat down to send some mail and to surf the internet.
Soon after 4 o'clock, I decided to go exploring on the hotel's Woodland Walk to see if I could see any of the announced wildlife (as in woodpeckers, rabbits, squirrels, robins, foxes, pheasant, badger, and owl). I opened the front door and it was raining. Bugger! In any event, I rugged up and as the path was under a heavy canopy of trees, I didn't get very wet. Undeterred by the rain the golfers pushed on. Perhaps it helped them excuse their poor scores. Of course, none of the aforementioned critters were silly enough to be out and about. No, they were all inside keeping warm and dry, and sipping cognac!
At 5 pm, I was in athletic mode. First up, it was swimming and although the pool was heated, it took me a bit to immerse myself completely. Next up was the hot tub, which was much warmer, but by no means hot. I tried going back into the pool, but that was way too cold by comparison. Thirdly, I sat in the sauna for a bit to cleanse my pores (not to mention my paws), and finally I had a short session in the steam room. I followed that with a very hot shower. After an hour of mild activity, I felt pretty good.
Back in my room, I made coffee, ate my breakfast leftovers, the other pack of biscuits (which I dipped in a tub of strawberry jam), and some dried fruit. I sent some email, read an old diary from my trip to Belfast and Dublin two years earlier, and faded fast.
[Diary] Breakfast was a buffet affair in a cavernous room. And, don't you know, they had all the windows wide open! Clearly, these people had no idea what nice weather is really like. Tea and a rack of six half-slices of mixed toast arrived soon after I sat down, and I eased into the day with a cup of tea and some buttered toast. I followed that with a full English breakfast, but took more than an hour to finish as I was reading the travel section of the newspaper. [Over the next few days, I discovered that one could ask for any number of half-slices of toast, but one was always served exactly six!]
At 10:30, I arrived at the St. Ives branch of the Tate Gallery. (This 20-year-old gallery is a sibling of the one in Liverpool and the two famous ones in London.) A combined 1-day ticket for two galleries was on offer, so I asked the cashier if I could buy £10's-worth of culture. She just smiled. I spent an hour perusing the halls, which consisted of a variety of art forms. Only one piece really interested me. It was by an African man and was a large sheet of cream-colored paper that had been set on a tabletop, with two teacups placed on it. Hot tea had then been spilled over the paper around the cups but not under them, making an interesting pattern. The artist had then taken different colored ribbons and sewn a border around parts of the edge of the stain. It was such a simple and basic idea yet the result was effective. (Besides, I saw a use for one of my old tablecloths!) At 11:30, I joined the 30-minute guided tour to try and improve my culture quotient. And while the talk was interesting, I'm sure I was no further advanced in the art-appreciation department afterward. One thing I'd glossed over, but which we stopped and looked at in detail, was a long, flowing cape with crocodile-like scales in lines down sections of the back. On closer inspection, the "scales" really were used teabags! I guess that's art.
After several hours, I was ready to move on, and so I walked to the Barbara Hepworth house/studio/gallery. Dame Barbara was a famous sculptor who blazed a trail for women as well as various art forms. She started out using the location as her studio, but eventually renovated several rooms as her living quarters. I was underwhelmed by both the indoor and garden selections although I very much enjoyed the 30-minute video presentation about her life. The highlights of the visit were completely unrelated to the artist. In the garden, numerous spiders were spinning webs, and I watched one from inches away as it went around and around. Further on, a large web was lying horizontal across the top of a shrub and it contained hundreds of tiny water droplets that sparkled in the light. Nearby was a small Catholic Church, and I went inside to see Hepworth's famous Madonna and Child sculpture. At least I could tell what that was.
The day was improving and the sun even came out for a bit. Down at the harbor I stopped at one of the many Cornish pasty shops to rescue a piping-hot sausage roll with dead horse (Aussie rhyming slang for "tomato sauce"), which I washed down with some whole milk. Nearby, a man was selling tickets for a boat tour to a seal colony, and not having anything better to do, I signed up. I took my time walking all the way around the harbor to the tour pickup point. There were 12 of us on the 3 o'clock tour, but as the tide was going out the tour boat couldn't come in to the pickup point, and a young man ferried us out six at a time in a small boat. The large set of rocks on which the seals lived was 3½ miles down the coast, and the ragged cliffs along the way had their tops hidden in fog. Of the 40 seals living there, we saw 10, four of which were in the water. It was a pleasant diversion.
[Diary] After 4 days of Full-English Breakfasts, I needed a change, so I had a large bowl of cereal, toast, and tea, with some grapefruit slices on the side. I planned some train travel and worked on a Sudoku puzzle. After a leisurely hour, I went back to my room.
[Diary] I gave myself plenty of time to walk down to the station. In fact, I made such good time that I caught an earlier train, which took me to St. Erth 30 minutes earlier than I expected. The 14:58 to Plymouth arrived on time. It was like a train only smaller, consisting of two carriages. I faced forward at a table and watched the verdant countryside go by. There were lots of hedgerows.
We arrived in St. Austell and I confirmed my directions with a fellow passenger. On the way to my B&B, I spied a Lidl supermarket, so dropped by for some milk, juice, Camembert cheese, and a BLT sandwich. I was very pleasantly surprised at the reasonable prices, something that hadn't happened much this trip. The walk to Pen Star House was almost a mile with a small hill climb. Hostess Anne welcomed me and I filled out some paperwork and got my keys. My single room with en-suite was up one flight of stairs. It was very nicely appointed. It appeared that I was the only guest.
I stayed in for the evening eating my supplies while watching some television. Then I set up my computer on a table in the breakfast room and connected to the outside world. My main task was to find my next accommodation. I decided to stop at Totnes in Devon, as recommended by the couple I'd met in Penzance. Although there were numerous B&Bs listed, the first six I phoned were full or not answering. However, Number 7 was the winner. And as it was a cash-only place there was no credit card deposit process; it was simply a matter of trust that I'd actually show, a novel idea in these modern times. Soon after, I was back in my room winding down. Lights out around 9:30 after an easy day.
[Diary] After a small bowl of fruit, I had bacon, hog pudding (a type of mild sausage not related to black pudding), a fried egg, tea, and toast. It was a lot of food, so I made a large bacon sandwich for later. I chatted with the host, Gary, who ran a gardening business when the weather permitted.
I headed out at 8:45 in heavy fog and ever so light mist. In 15 minutes, I was at the train/bus station, which was pretty speedy for 1 mile; Senior Olympics, look out! The mist got a little thicker as I neared the station. I had 30 minutes to wait. The 9:30 bus to The Eden Project pulled up and six of us boarded and we were off a minute later. The £5.60 return ticket would get me a £4 discount at the gardens for having gotten there via public transport. As we climbed up above the town, visibility was reduced from 200 yards to 100. The country road was rather narrow and we had to stop several times to let large, on-coming vehicles through.
[The Eden Project was the main reason I'd come to Cornwall. Built in an abandoned china clay pit with construction starting in 1999, and covering 35 acres, it is an experiment in regeneration. It's "an educational charity and social enterprise, creates gardens, exhibitions, events, experiences and projects that explore how people can work together and with nature to change things for the better".]
At the entrance, I paid my admission and bought a detailed guidebook. As there was no rain, I started by walking on some outdoor paths. Apart from the extensive outdoor gardens and plantings, there is an educational center and two huge biomes, each of which is made up of a series of climate-controlled, connected geodesic domes. The themes of those biomes are Rainforest and Mediterranean, respectively, with the former being billed as "the largest rainforest in captivity".
In the rainforest biome, I waited quite a while for the lookout to open. This metal platform was reached by a long and swaying set of metal stairs, and was at the highest point of the largest dome. It certainly was humid up there with all the moist heat rising to that point.
Although I'd eaten a big breakfast, when I came across a pasty stand, the smell of that hot cheese and onion in pastry was too much and I succumbed. It tasted like what Grandma wished she could have made!
As you might imagine, the project is all about sustainability, and signs saying "Reuse. Reduce. Recycle!" were all around. Somewhere along the way, I learned about the Big Lunch, an event that "encourages people across the UK and beyond to get together with their neighbors for a few hours of community, friendship and fun". The idea behind this is that "we are better equipped to tackle challenges when we face them together".
Numerous small signs throughout quoted pieces from well-known people. The following one from Chief Seattle
(in 1854) caught my eye: "Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself."
In the Mediterranean biome, I came across a large garden of hot peppers where I got the following lesson: "The spicy heat of a chili pepper is measured on the Scoville scale named after its creator Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacists working in the 20th century. The number of Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) indicates the amount of capsaicin present in the fruit. Capsaicin is a chemical compound that stimulates nerve endings in the skin, especially in the mouth and eyes. Pure capsaicin measures 15 million SHUs." The hottest pepper growing there was 1.6 million, and if someone ate one of those, they'd need hospitalization. The pepper spray used by various law enforcement agencies around the world is 5 million, which accounts for its effectiveness.
So, was it everything I expected? Yes. It certainly was impressive and just shows what you can do with an idea, some energy, a few friends, and £140 million.
[Diary] I stepped out at 10 am and took my time walking to the station where I arrived well before my 10:35 train. I stood in the sun on Platform 2 being careful not to stand directly underneath the pigeons, when all of a sudden, another heavy sun shower started. The 3-car train was quite busy and after most people got settled, others boarded with reserved seats, and we all played musical chairs. I faced forward and watched the countryside go by. We stopped quite a while in Plymouth. Then we raced into the county of Devon where many dairy cows grazed in green fields making cream for the next day's Devonshire teas!
We arrived in Totnes right on time and I got oriented with the help of a railway employee. I headed out to find my B&B, which, don't you know, took me up the steepest street in the town. Near the top, I stopped to rest in an old bookshop where I bought a collection of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham. Just when I thought I was in a quiet neighborhood, 100 yards further along found me on High Street, the narrow but bustling main street. Soon after, I found my street and my next home-away-from-home. The gentleman of the house was home and expecting me, and he showed me to my room. It was quite small, but adequate with a share bathroom and toilet down the hall. And at £30/night, it was by far the cheapest place of the trip. Frankly, it was what I'd been wanting all along.
I headed back out to High Street, and one of the first shops that I saw was called "Not Made in China". Now a word of explanation: Totnes is an alternative lifestyle town where everything is organic with a capital O! It also has its own Totnes Pound currency to encourage shopping locally. Nearby was a shop that specialized in harps, and being an angel, I stopped to look at all the instruments in the window.
I walked down the very steep main street stopping off to read the menus at the numerous eating-places and teashops. I also went into a large supermarket and spent quite some time browsing, looking at products and prices. I bought some seasoning packets for menus I planned for once I was back home. I finally found the tourist information office where a very pleasant lady gave me a map and guidebook plus suggestions of how to spend my time. On the way back up High Street I stopped off at a butcher's shop to take some photos of his window displays of meat and prepared foods. I stopped by a small deli and ate a hot jumbo sausage roll with ketchup washed down by a way-too-strong latte. I worked on this diary while sitting there.
Next up was the Totnes Museum, a nicely renovated merchant's shop and house that had three floors and a courtyard. The friendly assistant included an audio tour in my ticket price, and I spent the next hour touring all the rooms and listening to details of life in the "good old days". The town goes back to Saxon times, around 900. A large room was dedicated to Totnes' favorite son, the prominent scientist and mathematician Charles Babbage, who made plans for a mechanical calculating machine and an accompanying printer, neither of which was completed until 200 years later, when they were built using only materials and skills known during his time.
I dropped by St. Mary's Church, an impressive edifice built by the Benedictine Monks who lived and prayed there happily ever after, at least, that is, until Henry VIII told them to pack their gear and "Push Off".
My B&B fronted a small square on one corner of which was a pub. As I came up to it, I saw a large, eye-catching sign, which contained the following text: "Is he getting under your feet? Is he moaning about shopping? Would your day be stress-free without him? We have the perfect answer! Drop him off at our HUSBAND CRECHE inside. It's FREE! We'll take good care of him. He is in safe hands and you can enjoy a peaceful afternoon. All you have to do is pick him up when you're done and pay his bar bill. TLC GUARANTEED." Very clever.
[Diary] At 9:45, I stepped out into a clear sky and sunshine. However, after 50 paces, it drizzled lightly. I started my cultural tour with a walk around three small gardens built and maintained as community projects. Then it was on to the Totnes Castle located on a hill overlooking the town. Apparently, it was built around 1100 by some bloke called Norman (who I think was a distant ancestor of Bob the Builder).
I browsed the stalls at the market before strolling down High Street. I stopped to drool over the display of pastries in the window of a bakery, and rescued a large Belgian bun, which the assistant was ever so happy to slice in half and apply butter.
Down by the River Dart I stopped to look at a large monument to native son William Wills. He and his partner, Robert O'Hara Burke, lead the first European crossing of Australia from south to north and back. However, they perished on the return leg. I learned all about them in elementary school in South Australia. (I forgot all about them soon after!)
[Diary] The weather out was nice and I walked the 15 minutes to the train station stopping twice along the way to bond with two very nice dogs, a Border Collie and a black Labrador. Quite a few people were waiting on the platform for an earlier train that was running 30 minutes late. I was quite early for my train, but as I could also ride the delayed one, I was in luck! I boarded Carriage E to find it quite full. However, I did get a seat at a table, facing backwards. The young woman also sitting there was happy to chat and before we knew it, more than three hours had gone by. She had been raised in England by a Portuguese mother, so was bilingual. We made up some time along the way, so I got to Paddington even earlier than I'd expected.
Apart from visiting the Eden Project, the rest of the trip evolved day by day. Certainly, the advice I received to visit Totness proved to be excellent. One lesson I learned is "October is too late in the season to go."