Cornwall – home thoughts from upcountry

I visit my beautiful home county quite often, most recently to lead another hiking group on parts of the wonderful coastal path, so this is written with my tour leader’s hat on rather than the guidebook writer’s. Above all I was struck by what a lousy choice there is of fair-sized hotels, above all in St Ives – we only need eight or ten rooms but, even so, there’s almost nothing available, presumably because the market is dominated by B&Bs and self-catering, and a few boutique hotels. We used to stay at the Harbour Hotel, but gave up due to poor service and their obsession with noisy tacky weddings. We tried the Chy-an-Albany, which was alright but closed suddenly when it was sold to become luxury flats, so the only remaining choice within walking distance of the harbour is the Tregenna Castle, which we all remember as the place sailing clubs and so on used to have their dinner-dances in the winter. It’s large and expensive, but it seems to be aimed at low-budget sales reps and coach tours – the rooms, though big, have tacky flatpack wardrobes and very soft beds, and breakfast is totally self-service, with mass-produced food (here’s an idea, why can’t British hotel staff forget the obsession with taking people’s room numbers and placing them at tables and do something helpful like serving tea and coffee instead?).

the Tregenna Castle Hotel

Also in St Ives, none of the restaurants will take reservations for groups, basically because they don’t need to, but also because their kitchens can’t cope with producing a dozen dishes at once – we’re happy to pre-order, but they’re not interested. In any case, the fine Back Street Bistro has closed – but don’t worry, the owner has moved to the pub in Barripper, just outside Camborne, now trading as the St Michael’s Mount Inn, a free house that offers a fine range of food and beer.

Near Newquay, we always eat at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, which I love – it’s had a revamp, with a new head chef, and there are fewer weird dialect names for dishes specific to one village on the menu, but it’s still a very long way from generic Italian – although I did notice pangratatto (breadcrumbs, basically) on the menu both here and at Rick Stein’s in Padstow – maybe this is set to be the new arancini?

Back in St Ives, the Tate has reopened after a four-year expansion project – so the town will be even more insanely crowded and hard to reach. There’s a busy Park-and-Ride train service from Lelant Saltings station (opened in 1978), and now a huge car park is under construction next to St Erth station, the junction with the main line to Penzance. This was first proposed as a Park-and-Ride site for Penzance, and was then to be the site for a replacement for the Penzance heliport after that was closed in 2012 to make way for a new supermarket. Now it’s being spoken off as a Park-and-Ride for both rail and bus services to St Ives – so it looks as if the County Council basically agreed to buy someone’s fields and then had to find a use for them. It may make sense when the Plymouth-Penzance train services are increased to twice-hourly at the end of the year (although a new station near Marazion would make it more useful). In any case a new helicopter service to the Scilly Isles was started recently from Land’s End Airport (near St Just), already used by the fixed-wing flights to the island – this does nothing about the problem of this airport being closed by fog far too often. A proper new heliport on the edge of Penzance is needed and will with luck be approved very soon, despite the delaying tactics of the company that runs both the ferry and the flights from Land’s End.

 

Cornwall Council really is pretty useless – while the sections of the coast path owned by the National Trust had been strimmed by early June, the rest was overgrown with nettles, causing problems not just for our hikers but also for runners trying to survive the epic race from the Lizard to Land’s End. Talk of waiting until wild flowers had seeded makes sense on road verges but not here, where it’s an obvious ploy to save money. Recycling is also a problem for visitors – there’s a home collection scheme, but there are no visible recycling bins in towns – I try to take mine to the Lost Gardens of Heligan (and the Eden Project, created by some of the same people, is even more eco-aware).

Fowey really is my favourite Cornish town – it’s just as difficult of access as places like Mevagissey, but it avoids the crowds and traffic jams, because somehow it’s managed to project a middle-class image that keeps the shirtless hordes away – it has literary associations (Daphne du Maurier, Quiller-Couch, Kenneth Grahame) rather than artistic (the Lamorna, Newlyn and St Ives Schools) or – the horror! – TV (Poldark, Doc Martin). There’s nothing as nice as sitting on the terrace of the Gin Bar at the Fowey Hotel, watching the early evening light on Polruan and hoping to see a pod of dolphins or a china clay ship slip into the harbour. But this idyll is threatened, because the hotel’s owner, Richardson Hotels, is bankrupt (due to over-spending elsewhere) and is being bought by Harbour Hotels, who are bound to ruin it, given our experience with their St Ives hotel.

Polruan from the Fowey Hotel

Another problem arises with banks and ATMs – there’s one cash machine left in Padstow and one in St Ives, and now the last bank in Fowey has announced that it will close in October, taking the town’s only ATM with it – they and the town council are committed to finding a replacement site for the ATM, but there will doubtless be a gap before it’s available. The bigger towns such as Truro, Bodmin, Falmouth and Penzance are well served, but it’s the tourist towns that are being abandoned.

A final thought – there are defibrillators all over the place now, but I was struck even more by how omnipresent the RNLI has become. When I was a kid we sometimes went out for the day on a former lifeboat, all polished teak and gleaming brass, called the Lizzie Doy – as the Duke of York, she had been the Lizard lifeboat, geddit? Since then the classic lifeboats have been joined by swarms of inshore rescue boats, but the RNLI has also taken over lifeguarding on most beaches (surfing is a much bigger deal here than when I was a kid). I even spotted RNLI lockers for boat-users to leave lifejackets in when going ashore at Polruan – notoriously one of Britain’s best-funded charities, they’re clearly having to find inventive ways to spend all the loot. We have enough trouble with the compulsory cycle helmets lobby, I hope we’re not going to have a compulsory lifejackets lobby too!

The Padstow lifeboat station

‘My’ pubs in Cambridge

I’ve lived in Cambridge for just over twenty years now, and before that ten miles outside the city – I just washed up here because it’s where my last salaried job was. But I was cycling down Marylebone High Street in London one day in about 1999 when a fellow travel writer (working as a cycle courier) saw me, did a swift U-turn, and told me that he was moving to Cambridge because he had identified it as the best place to start a brewery. He then destroyed my electric drill constructing said brewery, but that’s another story. Richard turned out to be a very good brewer and a better businessman, so when in 2001 he suggested investing in a new pub company I was willing. That too was very successful – our first three pubs, in Peterborough and London, have since been profitably disposed of, and we had to wait ten years to see a dividend, but since then it’s ticked over very nicely. We now have three pubs in Cambridge plus the White Lion in Norwich (another city I’ll be writing about before too long).

The first of our Cambridge pubs to open, in 2010, was the Devonshire Arms, which used to be a Jamaican dive, with a massive sound system, sticky floors and no beer other than White Stripe – at that stage we pretty much did all the remodelling ourselves, and the amount needed here was massive! But it’s been a very popular and lively pub ever since reopening (although the clientele has got a bit more alternative) – definitely a real ale venue (mainly Milton ales, of course, but plenty of others too, as well as real cider, a Moravian lager, wines and malt whiskies), but there’s decent food (notably pizza). It’s in the so-called ‘beer quarter’ on either side of Mill Road, with other great pubs such as the Cambridge Blue, Kingston Arms, Alexandra Arms and the Live And let Live, as well as the Salisbury Arms (see below), which is a bit more towards the station.

The Dev was followed by the Haymakers in 2013 and the Queen Edith (the only pub that’s anywhere near the huge hospital complex…) in 2015, both of which have a similar offering.
Actually, I’ve been prompted to finally write this post in part by reading Brew Britannia by Boak and Bailey, which I mentioned in my previous post on Penzance – I wasn’t aware that Cambridge had played such a rôle in the real ale revival, with its first beer festival in 1972 and then annually from 1974 (when they offered 25 beers, including Schumacher Alt from Düsseldorf). I was at the 2018 festival a week or two ago, and I couldn’t begin to count the number of beers on offer, or the number of people attending. It turns out in the book that the Salisbury Arms was one of the first pubs to be run by CAMRA’s business arm, opening in 1976 – it has long since been spun off, and is now a very successful Pizzas Pots and Pints pub (along with the Carpenters Arms on Victoria Road and a few others in neighbouring towns) – this is a new brand developed by the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford, who also own my local, the Red Bull on Barton Road (which does good pizza too, with a very popular two-for-one deal on Mondays). I find it interesting that there are several new mini-chains of largely food-led pubs, such as the City Pub Group (Cambridge Brew House, the Mill, the Old Bicycle Shop, the Waterman and the Petersfield, all pretty decent). The Old Crown in Girton has just re-opened and is along the same lines (though a bit posher) – it’s owned by Greene King, the dominant regional brewery, but is now run by Stuart Inns, who also manage a select number of other posh pubs across East Anglia, such as the Greyhound in Lavenham and the Swan in Long Melford.

Greene King is unpopular, owing to its grasping way of doing business (driving competitors out of business) and the way it squeezes its pub managers and landlords; Suffolk’s splendid Adnams brewery only has one pub in Cambridge, the Castle Inn, which is very popular with all those who have sworn to avoid Greene King. The days when GK otherwise had a quasi-monopoly of Cambridge’s pubs have long gone – in addition to the Milton pubs, there are other Charles Wells places, such as the Elm Tree, which does an amazing line in Belgian beers (with a huge folder of tasting notes to help you choose). In fact the Elm Tree has been leased by Charles Wells to B&T, a smaller brewery in Shefford, Bedfordshire, but it usually has a beer or two from Charles Wells or Young’s (a historic London brewer), which merged in 2006.

The Elm Tree is very close to the Free Press, in an area called the Kite which was once expected to be cleared and replaced by a massive shopping centre; both pubs closed for a while. but the area survived and gentrified and the pubs are both very popular. The Free Press was for a long time Cambridge’s only non-smoking pub (and the best place to find mild), and I regarded it as my local when I was actually living ten miles south of the city. Again, it’s more food-oriented than it used to be, as its URL reveals, but that’s ok. (Actually, now-Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett cooked here way back before I ever came in.)

The other current trend in pub ownership is for them to be closed by the big pub companies and then re-opened in a community buy-out – this is usually because a village is about to lose its last pub (having already lost its shop, post office and bus service) and comes together to save it. Therefore this hasn’t happened in Cambridge itself, but it does apply to the Ancient Shepherds in Fen Ditton, the Hare and Hounds in Harlton and the Green Man in Thriplow, for instance. All well worth supporting.

Other Cambridge pubs worthy of note are the Maypole (known for its great range of beers and for its very affordable cocktails – the only true city-centre pub mentioned here, although the Champion of the Thames is a fine traditional boozer too), the Portland Arms (known for live for music) and the Punter, which doesn’t offer a huge choice of beer but does good food in a pleasant setting, as well as the Blue Ball, the nicest pub in Grantchester and the nearest to Cambridge (my ‘other local’ in a way), which didn’t do food under its previous, rather grumpy, ownership but now offers a few decent dishes. I wanted to like the Thirsty Biergarten, a summer pop-up in a churchyard, but over-priced pasteurised ‘craft beers’ and a food van are really not my thing, though young people seem to like it. Nor am I interested in NOVI, which used to be the Fountain Inn and now is a trendy modern venue serving espresso, craft beer and cocktails. Two pubs have just opened at Cambridge’s main station (yes, we have two stations now, and with luck a third in a few years), but I’m not too bothered. It’s not that I’m dead set against craft beer and keykeg as such, but I can’t see why they cost 20-25% more than cask ale, or why people pay those prices.

2for1 pizza and a pint at the Red Bull, Barton Road (whoops, all gone!)
No comment needed

Georgia – a new edition

This is just to let you know that the sixth edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia is published today – I’m very happy with it, I was able to add all the new material I wanted and generally bring the book up to date (the previous edition felt just a little twentieth century – in a Georgian context – when I used it in the field). The editorial process went remarkably smoothly – I assumed that the fact that tourism was increasing by no less than 20% a year meant that sales of the 5th edition were also up by 20% and that Bradt were happy to cover the cost of extra pages – in fact they used thinner paper which doesn’t look great, but it’s not too awful.

 

The most annoying thing, in fact, was using booking.com, with the meaningless slogan ‘We speak your language!’ and the constant repetition that the most basic guesthouses have a 24-hour front desk and luggage can be left there, not to mention ‘Couples particularly like the location — they rated it 9.7 for a two-person trip’ – all made-up nonsense.

As for recent news – in November 2017 a fire at the Leogrand Hotel and Casino in Batumi (not listed in the book) killed eleven people and shone a powerful light on the downside of the free-for-all policies behind the city’s tourism boom, hinted at on p.286 of the book. It’s obvious that safety standards were ignored by both businesses and local government, and I hope that has changed now!

There are serious proposals from the government to build roads into the mountains of the High Caucasus, past Juta and (via a tunnel) into Tusheti, which everyone who knows anything about sustainable tourism is totally opposed to – on the surface, of course, better access is good for residents trying to get to hospital or the shops, but it will destroy the tranquility of this beautiful area which is becoming more and more popular for long-distance hiking and horse-riding. It reminds me of the sad decline of the Annapurna Circuit, which was one of the world’s great hikes but has now been largely replaced by roads – there’s far more of a population in the Nepali mountains, so there’s more need for roads there, but the Georgian mountains are much emptier.

Finally, having written in the new edition about the liberalisation of social attitudes in Tbilisi, led in particular by nightclubs such as Bassiani (p.124), it’s sad to see that there’s recently been a backlash against these changes, with police raids and public marches. This is also in part a backlash against the increasing numbers of foreigners living in and visiting Tbilisi, which fits into wider narratives about over-tourism and populism. I hope this will calm down quickly, as tourism and western influences have generally brought positive change in Tbilisi.

PS at the moment I’m reading The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (a bit dated in style, but still a classic), which is set in the part of Turkey right by the border with Georgia – which she refers to throughout as Russia. Grrrrr!

PPS As of today, 22 June 2018, Georgia has a new prime minister, after Giorgi Kvirikashvili was pushed to resign due to disagreements with Bidzina Ivanishvili – there had been protests in Tbilisi for a couple of weeks about a poor investigation into a schoolyard fight that left two sixteen-year-olds dead, along with the death of a Pankisi man in an anti-terror raid, both in December 2017. The new man is Mamuka Bakhtadze, who was in charge of Georgian Railways and then Minister of Finance; born in 1982, he’s apparently a friend of Ivanishvili’s son and had been groomed for high office. However the norm is for Ivanishvili’s picks to lose favour and be removed from politics within a couple of years.

Boston and Portland compared (public transport and cycling)

This is an article that I wrote for the Cambridge Cycle Campaign’s newsletter that I thought I should post here (with a few added photos), as I’ve recently posted separate pieces on Boston and Portland – if you’re not interested in public transport and cycling, read no further.

Boston and Portland compared

Editing Tom Culver’s article on San Luis Obispo, I was reminded that I was in North America over the New Year and by chance experienced what seem to be among the best and the worst US cities for cycling. On the cool, liberal West Coast (well, close to it) Portland, Oregon is doing a good job of boosting both cycling and public transport use with a continuing programme of infrastructure improvements. But on the East Coast, Boston, Massachusetts seems stuck in a primitive mindset, not just preferring cars to bikes, but also assuming that public transport users simply want to travel in to the central business district and go home again.

Boston – sticking with the old

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA, known as ‘the T’) transit system looks fairly good on paper, or on a map, with subway and ‘commuter rail’ lines covering a wide area, but timetabling and ticketing are very poor, and the trains are old and unattractive. The subway and buses provide a decent all-day service, but the commuter trains basically run into the city in the mornings and out in the afternoons (although other American cities are far more extreme cases) with virtually no service in the evenings or at weekends. Modern cities need frequent services all day every day, and not just to the central business district. They also need a fare system that encourages multiple trips and off-peak travel – in Boston a single ticket costs $2.25—$2.75 and a day pass costs a stonking $12, which is basically telling people they’re not wanted beyond the basic commute (weekly and monthly passes are a better deal, though). A day pass should cost little more than two singles. In November 2017 a contract was signed with Cubic and John Laing to introduce a new smart fares system, so this may be sorted out in the 2020s. The T does at least carry bikes outside the peak times on most routes, and more secure cycle parking is being provided at stations.

Cycling is more or less invisible in Boston (less so in Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT), and facilities in the city centre are largely limited to white paint on the roads, along with a good riverside route. Notoriously, from 1991 to 2006 Boston spent $24 billion (almost ten times the original budget, and it was eight years late too) on the Big Dig, the project to put I-93 – the Interstate highway through the heart of Boston – into a tunnel and didn’t even manage to put a cycleway on top where the highway used to be. In fact there’s still a dual-carriageway there with a linear park, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, in the middle, i.e. patches of grass and a footpath between the cross-roads, and signs telling cyclists to use the on-road lanes. There’s a bike-sharing scheme but the docking stations seem few and far between, and there’s no dockless sharing scheme yet. Ofo Bikes launched in September 2017 in nearby Worcester and Revere, but can’t operate in Boston or Cambridge because the operator of the bike-sharing scheme there has an exclusive contract until 2022.

Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. [Source: Wikipedia Commons. Author: Hellogrenway. This image file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.]
It’s true that some decent segregated infrastructure is being provided in Cambridge and the suburbs, and the city authorities are beginning to make the right noises, but it’s a dreadfully slow and sclerotic process.

Boston drivers are much pushier than those on the West Coast, honking and cutting up pedestrians on crossings; at these crossings, lights change to Don’t Walk ridiculously early, and change to Walk ridiculously late, legitimising bad behaviour by drivers; the result is that pedestrians tend to ignore them. In central Portland, in contrast, I was impressed by how short the traffic light phases were at intersections, disadvantaging drivers but meaning that pedestrians were happy to wait the relatively short time till the green phase. (This was less the case slightly further from the centre.)

Portland – trying something new

In the 1960s the I-5 Interstate highway was rammed along the east bank of the Willamette River through Portland, but since then Portland has worked consistently to create a sustainable city, and not just in terms of public transport. It had the first electric trolley system in the US which opened in 1907. This closed in 1950, but then in 1986 the first Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail line opened, the first half of what is now a 33-mile east-west route. There are now six routes, including one to the airport, and it’s a popular, modern regional express system (and it carries bikes). In 1975 the Transit Mall was created, two parallel one-way streets in the city centre largely reserved for buses (and from 2009 light rail); also in 1975, the Fareless Square was introduced, a larger downtown area in which travel was free (this was abolished in 2012).

In 2001 the Portland Streetcar system began operation with smaller, lighter cars running on more tightly curved tracks. A north-south line through downtown (parallel to the Transit Mall) was extended in 2005-7 to the South Waterfront regeneration area, and in 2012 the new Loop line was opened. This is a massive extension to the east of the Willamette River that crosses on the modern Tilikum Crossing bridge, opened in 2015, that carries light rail and streetcars as well as pedestrian and cycle paths, but with no access for cars and trucks – a major statement in the USA.

It’s not quite a turn-up-and-go service, with streetcars every 15 minutes, but they’re more frequent on the shared section downtown. The details have been well thought out, with intersections where cars in all directions have red lights so that the streetcars can cut through on the wrong side of the road; in some places doors also open on the ‘wrong’ side. Although MAX and the Streetcar are owned by separate municipal bodies they (and the buses) are operated by TriMet and tickets are valid on all systems. All in all, it’s a good example of how public transport can bring organic growth to the city centre and especially to regeneration districts (even though it’s become hipster central, Portland still has plenty of formerly industrial areas to be developed as residential property).

It’s also worth mentioning the Portland Aerial Tram, a cable-car which opened in 2006 linking two parts of the Oregon Health & Science University (the city’s largest employer) in the South Waterfront district.

In the early 1990s Portland had a Yellow Bike Project, providing free community bikes (just as Cambridge (UK) did around the same time), and it also turned out to be comically disastrous, lasting just three years before the bikes fell apart or were stolen or dumped in the river. However it did, for better or for worse, fix cycling in the Portland mindset, and since 1999 Portland has invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure. By 2009 traffic fatalities in Portland had declined six times faster than the national rate. In 2016 a modern app-powered bikesharing system opened, sponsored by Portland-based Nike – it’s called Biketown, pronounced Bike, not Bikey as in Nike. One interesting aspect is that you can lock bikes for a brief stop and unlock them again with the same PIN.

Another interesting innovation is mini-sharrow markings at traffic lights to show where the magnetic sensors are, so cyclists don’t just sit like lemons until a car arrives. Helmets are only mandatory for under-16s, but there’s strong pressure from the city to wear one.

Traffic on the century-old Hawthorne Bridge increased by 20% between 1991 and 2008 – but only 1% of that was cars, the rest being cycles; the bridge would have had to be replaced otherwise, at great expense. There’s now a cycle counter here, showing that 5,000 cyclists a day cross the bridge on an average weekday, which I think is pretty good, although in London, about 5,000 cyclists cross Blackfriars Bridge in the morning peak alone.

Clearly Portland provides a better model for us in Cambridge to follow, with its cycle-friendly bridges rather than car-clogged tunnels, but I’d hope that Boston is also paying attention and able to move in a more sustainable direction.

The road above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel, with cycle facilities of a sort…
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel – they created a meaningless bit of park and tell cyclists to use the roads.
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, above Boston’s Big Dig tunnel – the sign says that they don’t clear the snow in winter.

 

Sharrow and bike-sharing station, Portland OR.
Cycleway on the Tilikum Crossing, Portland OR.
Cycleway to the Tilikum Crossing, Portland OR.
Cycleway and rapid transit stop, Portland OR.