Penzance

Penzance is, of course, the westernmost town in England and thus the commercial centre of Penwith, the far west of Cornwall – while St Ives is the tourism centre. My sister lived for quite a few years in a lovely Georgian villa in Penzance which is now available on AirBnB, so I used to spend quite a bit of time there. After a rough recession when many shops closed, the town is now seeing a bit of a renaissance, with a well-established artistic community being joined by some excellent food outlets, most notably seafood restaurants such as Shore and Harris’s and just west in Newlyn the Tolcarne Inn. There are some lovely delis, cafés and pubs too. Falmouth, which I wrote about recently, now has a branch of Rick Stein’s Padstow seafood empire, but without a university Penzance is not going to see the rapid gentrification that has recently hit Falmouth, alas.

Apart from restaurants and the county council’s shocking decision to close the heliport (a vital link to the Scilly Isles) in 2012 so the town could have another big supermarket, the most exciting thing to happen in Penzance in years has been the rebirth of the Jubilee Pool – saved by being freed from the dead hand of the county council. Opened in 1935 (the year of George V’s Silver Jubilee), it’s a classic Art Deco lido or salt-water pool, with a triangular pool set against gentle curves and Cubist changing rooms. It was badly damaged in the storms of early 2014 and then more or less abandoned by the county council; however a community group raised funds to restore it and it reopened in 2016 to a chorus of acclaim. The café, relaunched as a social enterprise in 2017, is doing well, and now opens on Friday evenings to serve pizza as well as the usual daytime offering. The big news in 2018 is that they’re drilling to find geothermal water, in order to have a naturally warm pool as well as the ‘brisk’ sea-water.

Community groups are also behind much of the town’s artistic activity (so far from London, the Cornish are used to having to do things for themselves), in particular the revival of its pagan festivals. On December 21 last year the ancient Montol festival celebrated its tenth anniversary (yes, I know…), but the midsummer bonfire festival, Golowan, has taken place annually since, oh, 1991. Actually this was a longstanding tradition that was closed down in the 1890s by the town council for the usual bureaucratic reasons of risk and inadequate insurance. In fact they’re both wonderful events, very lively with locals and not tourists (and nothing like the mobs at the bonfires in Lewes).

Not a pub, alas – this is the Egyptian House.
Drinking in Penzance

I was prompted to finally write this post (which has been brewing for a while…) after being given a copy of Brew Britannia, an excellent account of the recovery of real ale in Britain, by (Jessica) Boak and (Ray) Bailey, a pseudonymous pair who I knew from their fabulous blog about drinking in every pub in Penzance. They have done very well and are now known as ‘the beer blogger’s beer bloggers’ and, alas, have moved to Bristol. But the book is great! (even if they barely mention the Blue Anchor in Helston, 20 minutes from Penzance, which has been brewing its own beer for 600 years or more, and where I passed much of the misspent portion of my youth.) And they don’t really have a bad word to say about any of Penzance’s pubs.

My local here has always been the Crown, because it’s handy and friendly and because they brew their own (not at the pub, in fact just around the corner from where my sister now lives); sometimes they do a decent quiz too. Just down the hill is the Lamp and Whistle, a pleasant but slightly odd place – I went in once and they didn’t have any beer on at all, and even normally they prefer so-called craft beers (on gas) rather than proper hand-pumped real ale. But they certainly do like their Belgian beers and Polish vodkas (and the like).  There are other good pubs, such as the Yacht Inn, a striking Deco treasure near the Jubilee Pool, the Alexandra, with a good selection of beers from smaller Cornish breweries, and the Admiral Benbow, which I actually remember above all for its banana splits when I was a kid. Outside Penzance, the Star Inn in Crowlas also brews its own (Potion No.9 is a great golden session beer), and the White Hart in Ludgvan is a splendid gastro-pub (with plenty of vegetarian options).

Of course the Ginaissance is a big deal here too, with local distillers such as Caspyn Gin, St Ives Gin (producing Cornwall’s first cold-compound gin, flavoured with local gorse flowers) and Curio in Mullion, a little further away, making fabulous quadruple-distilled gins flavoured with rock samphire and other local botanicals.

Railway improvements

And finally… I was told that there was no need for my usual coverage of public transport because ‘the railway ends at Penzance and that’s that’. Well, actually… there are some interesting changes coming this year. Penzance was of course the western terminal of the Great Western Railway’s main line, served since 1904 by the legendary Cornish Riviera Express, which reduced the journey time from nine hours to seven when it was introduced; it is currently timetabled to take just over five hours. The train starts off quickly from London’s Paddington station on the most modern railway in Britain, recently rebuilt for Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) services and electrification to Bristol and Cardiff, but after a 125mph sprint to the splendid new station at Reading it turns off onto a less impressive route which gradually gets twistier and slower; there’s a maximum speed of 110mph, then 100, then just 60 over the southern fringes of Dartmoor and not much faster on through Cornwall (but with more frequent stops, so that you lose the will to live west of Truro). In addition, the signalling on the line through Cornwall is ancient and spaced out in long sections, which has made it impossible to schedule a regular hourly service. However, resignalling in 2018 will allow a consistent ten-minute headway along the main line and let two trains an hour run in each direction.

In addition to the London trains (every couple of hours) and Cross-Country trains to Bristol, Birmingham and beyond (generally northbound in the morning, returning in the afternoon), there are local multiple-unit trains to Plymouth and Exeter. As the long-serving High Speed Trains on the London run are replaced by new bi-mode trains in 2018, they are to be re-formed into so-called GTI trains, with two power cars and just three passenger carriages, to give a huge boost to the local services.

In Penzance station, look up at the row of huge paintings hanging on the south side – they’re by Kurt Jackson, West Cornwall’s finest (and now, alas, most expensive) painter, who does amazing things with landscapes, incorporating words and grit and even feathers in his paint. He’s recently opened a gallery in St Just, which really is virtually the last village in England, a windswept place out on the cliffs between Cape Cornwall and Land’s End.

Nottingham – there’s nothing wrong with it

I’ve always been interested by pairs of ‘rival’ cities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne… Usually one has more economic clout while the other has the cultural kudos, but – sorry, Derby – when it comes to the pair in the East Midlands, Nottingham is well ahead on both counts (and it has a whizzy new tram system too, and two good universities). And my friend from Derby even admits that if he had a job there, he’d live in Nottingham! I’m not going to say that it’s anywhere amazing, but still, it’s a decent place to visit or to live in.

The main news from my recent visit is that the Castle and museum are about to close for a huge £30m project to transform them by 2020. At the moment you can’t get beyond the gatehouse without paying, which is a huge waste of a lovely park that gives good views over the city, but a modern visitor centre will be built here and there’ll be free access to some of the park. There’ll also be a new entrance from Brewhouse Yard (seventeenth-century cottages that currently house the Museum of Nottingham Life) at the bottom of the hill – a lift will be built in a cave to reach the castle (these are already the only wheelchair-accessible caves in Britain). Of course there’ll be new galleries too, notably a double-height space in the service yard.

With a great big block of what is now known as Nottingham Sandstone overlooking the River Trent, this was the perfect site for one of the most important castles erected by William the Conqueror to control the Midlands and northern England; it’s also riddled with caves (reminiscent of Saumur, where I was a couple of months before). The wooden motte and bailey castle, begun in 1067, was rebuilt in stone from 1170 by Henry II, and improved from 1220 by Henry III (including building the present gatehouse). Sir Roger de Mortimer (the Earl of March), who may have killed Edward II and then effectively ruled England for three years, was arrested here (in bed with Edward’s widow, Isabella of France) by the young Edward III, who entered the castle by a secret tunnel now known as Mortimer’s Hole. In 1485 Richard III raised his standard here before riding out to defeat at the battle of Bosworth, and likewise in 1642 Charles I raised his standard here (in several places, now marked with plaques, as he was attracting very few volunteers), triggering the civil war which led to his execution.

The victorious parliamentary forces demolished the castle in 1651, but after the Restoration the site was bought by the new Duke of Newcastle, who built a modern Palladian palace in 1672-9. In 1831 this was attacked and burnt down by a mob angered by the fourth Duke’s blocking of the Reform Bill. The Duke took the compensation he was offered but left the palace in ruins, probably as a rebuke to the people of Nottingham; it was eventually converted to a museum, opening in 1878. The city’s history of rebellion, starting with the twelfth-century tales of Robin Hood, is a key theme that will be emphasised in the remodelled museum, as will the city’s proud history of crafts production. This started with Nottingham alabaster (actually mined in Derbyshire and Staffordshire), which was well known across Europe from the late 14th century until the Reformation, and was followed by salt-glazed stoneware in the 17th and 18th centuries and lace-making in the 19th century (later came Raleigh cycles, Players cigarettes and Boots pharmaceuticals). The museum has a good Decorative Arts gallery, with family-friendly educational displays, and also houses the nationally important Ballantyne Collection, with 370 pots by 60 post-war British potters, including all the big names such as Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Michael Cardew, Richard Batterham, David Ballantyne and at least four members of the Leach family.

The museum’s sculptures are poorly presented (with one by Lynn Chadwick wasted on the stairs), but it has an excellent art collection, featuring local artists Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) and Laura and Harold Knight, who I’m familiar with because of their Cornish connections. Otherwise they have a lot of twentieth-century English art, by William Nicholson, his son Ben and Ben’s first wife Winifred Nicholson, George Clausen, Carel Weight, LS Lowry, Lawrence Gowing, Augustus John, William Roberts, Christopher Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Ivon Hitchens, David Bomberg, John Piper and John Nash, as well as a couple of small portraits by Mark Gertler and Mervyn Peake; there are also a couple of earlier works by George Morland and Richard Wilson and an Epstein bust. But the earliest and probably most valuable of their holdings is by Spinelo Aretino (painted in 1380-90); they also have a Susannah and the Elders attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi, a Madonna and Child by a follower of Joos van Cleve, a Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, and other paintings by David Teniers the Younger, Delacroix and Boudin.

There’s also a small gallery on the history of the Mercian Regiment, featuring its most famous member, Private Derby, actually a ram (the first was acquired in India in 1858 but they now come from Chatsworth – they’re currently on Private Derby XXXI). Founded in 1741, the 56th Regiment of Foot later became the Sherwood Foresters and then in 2007 a battalion of the Mercian Regiment; a lot of VCs have been won by its members, notably Captain Albert Ball, who became a fighter pilot and crashed in 1917 chasing von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

Just east of the castle is the Broadmarsh shopping centre, on the site of one of Britain’s foulest slums, which developed when Nottingham’s population increased fivefold in the nineteenth century; just north is the Market Square, the UK’s second largest public square, created in 1928 and nicely remodelled in 2006. The area just to the east is known as the Lace Market, with narrow alleys and striking Victorian warehouses, and lively nightlife; at the southern end of Stoney St you’ll find the fifteenth-century St Mary’s church and the new National Justice Museum (also known as the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law), in the Victorian former courthouse; it has excellent child-friendly displays and is also, for some reason, the base for cave tours beneath the Broadmarsh shopping centre. It’s next to Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery that is highly thought of but was just a bit too, well, contemporary for me.

Immediately east of the Lace Market is the National Ice Centre – it’s worth mentioning Nottingham’s importance in English sporting history, especially as Notts County, founded in 1862, is the world’s oldest professional soccer club. Alas, the johnny-come-latelies of Nottingham Forest, founded in 1865, have been more successful, particularly under the management of the legendary Brian Clough, whose statue stands on the Market Square. There’s also the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont, home to Nottingham Rowing Club (founded in 1869) and the British rowing team, and Trent Bridge, one of the country’s loveliest test cricket grounds.

For a city strategically placed between the different beer cultures of northern and southern England, I didn’t at first find Nottingham’s choice of pubs as good as I’d hoped. The famous Olde Trip to Jerusalem, in caves beneath the castle, is a rather touristy Greene King outlet now, and was a bit too busy midweek when other seemingly attractive places were dead – I wanted to support the Olde Salutation (founded in 1240, so not as old as the Olde Trip, which may have been a meeting point for crusaders in 1189), but the choice of beers was poor. There are a couple of barn-like Wetherspoons pubs, and other new pubs, such as the Roundhouse and Fothergills, which were aimed too much at aspirational diners rather than simple drinkers. However I did eventually find the VAT & Fiddle (named in honour of the nearby headquarters of the Inland Revenue), which was exactly what I was looking for – the brewery tap of the fine Castle Rock brewery, it has a good range of affordable beers, basic pub food (jacket potatoes and pies) and noisy boardgames (or noisy people playing boardgames).

Castle Rock has a couple more pubs in the city, including the Kean’s Head (opposite St Mary’s church), the Barley Twist (near the station) and the Lincolnshire Poacher (half a mile north of the centre on the Mansfield Road); and the bar at the excellent Broadway Cinema is a pleasant refuge when it’s all kicking off outside (as is the similar CAST at the Playhouse). Other local breweries are available, such as Navigation and Totally Brewed. All in all, Nottingham is better served than I initially thought.

King’s Lynn – still a town with potential

It’s easy to think of King’s Lynn simply as a port that has lost much of its trade, and may lose more after Brexit – but it has a wealth of medieval and Georgian architecture and some interesting cultural offerings too. Unlike, say, Boston in Lincolnshire, it seems to have been enhanced by migration from Eastern Europe, with Polish and Lithuanian shops that are not just places for the homesick to buy sausages and pickles, but offer new and interesting products – there’s a really good butchers, apparently, and a bar. The splendid Majestic Cinema, built in 1928, was saved from demolition in 2001 by being listed (after a dogged campaign) and continues to offer interesting films, and the King’s Lynn Festival is excellent and well supported. All in all, the town has some rough edges but plenty of heart.

Its name comes from the Celtic word linn, meaning pool (as in Dublin or black pool), and North, South and West Lena were all salt-making settlements where sand was separated from brine and used to reclaim land, creating three islands between the four fleets or streams running west into what is now the Ouse (until around 1220 this flowed into the Wash just to the west near Wisbech).

In 1101 the first (Norman) Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, laid out a town with a church and priory, and a market held on Saturdays beside it. By 1146 this site was already too constrained, and the third Bishop of Norwich, William de Turbe, extended it to the north beyond the Purfleet, with a new church (technically a chapel) and a huge square for markets on Tuesdays. Bishop’s Lynn was granted a charter by King John in 1204, when it was the fourth biggest port in England; in October 1216 John set out from here and famously lost his baggage train in the Wash, struggling onwards to die in Newark. From around 1270 the port had strong links with the Hanseatic League ports and in particular with Hamburg and Bremen, which led to a trade boom; in the fourteenth century this was England’s main port. (There’s still a Hanse Bulk Terminal in the port, and in 2006 Lynn became the first British member of the new Hanse Network, which now includes 190 cities in 16 countries; appropriately the community organisation, founded in 2013, that works to integrate Eastern Europeans here is called the Hanseatic Union.)

The Trinity Guildhall

By the 1280s the market by the original St Margaret’s church was being held every day except Tuesdays, and the town was extended to the south to the River Nar, beyond what is now the park known as The Walks. As well as two marketplaces, the town also had two guildhalls, and all of them have survived to this day. On the Saturday Market Place, the Trinity Guildhall was built in 1421 and is the largest surviving medieval guildhall in England; its chequered stone and flint flushwork front is very striking, and behind are the assembly rooms, added in 1766. It became the town hall, and now houses the Stories of Lynn museum and café, which allows access on Tuesdays and Sundays to the town hall, where you can see the town’s charters and regalia (notably a fourteenth-century cup of enamelled silver and a sword) as well as ceremonial silver that testifies to the town’s seventeenth-century royalist bias, almost unique among East Anglian towns. The other guildhall, to the north, contains a rare example of an Elizabethan theatre (Shakespeare’s company played here, although there’s no proof that Will himself was in town); owned by the National Trust, it’s now the King’s Lynn Arts Centre. The town actually became Lynn Regis in 1537 when Henry VIII changed its name, as part of his undermining of the Church, and this was soon anglicised as King’s Lynn (the apostrophe can go astray).

Vancouver and the Custom House

The town’s most striking building is the Custom House, built by the Purfleet in 1683, and now housing the tourist information centre. Beside it is a statue of Lynn’s most famous son, Captain George Vancouver (1757-98), who sailed on Cook’s second and third voyages and led his own expedition in 1791-5, most notably surveying every inlet of the Pacific North West coast, including the island and the future city that now bear his name (see these posts), and north past the Lynn Canal as far as what is now Anchorage in Alaska. His father was Deputy Collector of Customs, but the family had arrived from Coevorden (then spelled Coeverden – hence Van Coeverden) in the eastern Netherlands in the late 17th century, following Cornelius Vermuyden, the great Dutch engineer who drained the Fens and straightened their rivers.

Georgian houses stand on land reclaimed from the river (Nelson, King and Queen Streets mark the original waterfront), and some grand Victorian buildings were added, notably the neoclassical Corn Exchange (1854) on Tuesday Market Place. The drainage of the fens led to the growth of agriculture in the area, but Lynn was losing its importance as a port as trade shifted to the west coast, for access to the Atlantic. Modern development began with a Campbells Soup factory in the 1950s, followed by designation as a London overflow in 1962 and predictably unfortunate town centre redevelopment. Trade with the EU picked up in the 1970s, but in the 21st century the best hopes for regeneration seem to be pinned largely on developments by Sainsbury and Tesco.

Some old buildings

St Margaret’s church (which became King’s Lynn Minster in 2011) is superb, but it’s not the town’s oldest building – this title goes to All Saints church, which may have some pre-Norman components, although it was rebuilt in the fifteenth century. The oldest secular buildings are 28-32 King St, where a timber-framed house was built c1300 over the remains of a stone house dating from c1200; the next oldest are the remains of St Margaret’s Priory, built in the fourteenth century and now private houses on the south side of the church. But for me, the town’s most striking building is the Chapel of St Nicholas, bigger than most churches, which was built in 1146 and rebuilt after 1380 in Perpendicular style with huge windows (their stained glass was destroyed in 1941, so the chapel is now very light). It’s known for the memorial slabs (near the font) to a couple of local men called Robinson Cruso, which may have been seen by Daniel Defoe. It became redundant in 1989, but is beautifully maintained and open five days a week.

28-32 King Street

Opposite the Minster is the vicarage, which was home to the organist and historian of English music Dr Charles Burney – his children included the novelist Fanny (born here in 1752), who wrote in her diaries about Lynn life, and James, who also sailed with Captain Cook (and witnessed his death) and became an admiral. Just south is a fine Georgian mansion known as St Margaret’s House, fashioned in 1755 for the brewer and mayor Edward Everard from the rear of the Hanse House; dating from 1475, this is the only surviving hanseatic warehouse building in England, and now houses the Rathskeller restaurant. Just north on the waterfront is Marriott’s Warehouse, built around 1580, which also houses an attractive restaurant, as well as the Green Quay Wash Interpretation Centre, explaining the geography and biology of the estuary/bay between Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

Hanse House
A couple of museums

Just north of the Chapel of St Nicholas (the patron saint of sailors, of course) is True’s Yard, a lovely little museum created out of a couple of fishermen’s cottages, which maintains the memory of the tight little North End community, where almost everyone was known by a nickname; Ralph Vaughan-Williams came here in 1905 and collected various folk songs, the best-known being The Captain’s Apprentice.
The main Lynn Museum is housed in the old Union Chapel next to the bus station; the main hall is full of good local history, but its main claim to fame is the recreation of one half of the so-called Seahenge (obviously it was on dry land when it was erected). Fifteen to 20 oak trees were felled in 2049 BC, yielding 55 oak posts up to 3m high which were raised in a 6.6m-diameter circle around an inverted stump, on which the body of some important figure may have been placed for what the Tibetans call ‘sky burial’.

And the public transport bit

It was a bit of a surprise that the railway north from Cambridge and Ely not only survived the Beeching cuts but was electrified in 1993 – but this was at the cost of reducing some of the line to single track, and providing a strong enough power supply (and long enough platforms) only for four-carriage trains. In our hypermobile present age people are popping up to London all the time and commuting to Cambridge and beyond, so the aim is to double the train service to Kings Cross to two per hour – but this depends on re-doubling the line through Ely North Junction, and the money isn’t currently there. Being Britain, where all rail projects are far more complex and expensive than on the continent, the government has simply commissioned another study.

And finally, North Norfolk

It’s not far (a couple of hours by bike, an hour and 20 minutes by the twice-hourly Coasthopper bus) to Burnham Market, centre of a group of villages on the North Norfolk coast that are all associated with the childhood of Admiral Lord Nelson, and all have pubs named after him (the Nelson, the Hero) or one of his protegés, such as William Hoste. Burnham Market has become known as Chelsea-on-Sea (though it’s not actually on the coast) and is totally clogged with visiting 4X4s in summer; the other Burnhams (Thorpe, Overy etc) are as lovely but don’t have the Humble Pie deli, the Tuscan Farm Shop, Gun Hill Clothing Co. or Gurney’s fish shop. Fortunately, a new 186-space village car park was opened in 2016, which should help. At the attractive little (largely 14th-century) church of St Mary the Virgin I found that Nelson’s daughter Horatia, who lived here with her widowed uncle, was engaged to one curate but ended up marrying his replacement in this church in 1822 – so Jane Austen wasn’t making this stuff up!

Burnham Overy Staithe

The coastal wetlands are very popular with birdwatchers and others who like bracing walks to welcoming pubs, but this area always reminds me of one of my favourite films, Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the equally fab original novel, studied creative writing at UEA in Norwich, and it’s to Cromer that they go on a day trip (though it’s Clevedon pier in the film). At the end the doomed lovers go to a stranded boat, which is on Holkham beach, rather more famous for the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love.