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

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.

Falmouth is going places

Growing up in West Cornwall, I almost never went to Falmouth; my sister had friends who played in bands in sticky-floored pubs near the docks, but it wasn’t really for me. We’d go to Truro for shopping when our nearest town, Helston, fell short; we sometimes went to Penzance but I really didn’t know Falmouth, which required an awkward journey through the lanes around the Helford river. In those days it seemed thoroughly post-industrial (though admittedly never as run-down as Redruth and Camborne), but it has gentrified and the Sunday Times’ readers recently voted it their favourite town. It’s been hugely boosted by the transformation of the Art College (small but always prestigious enough) into a university (two in fact, as the University of Exeter shares its Tremough campus), so there are cool cafés and plenty of arty students (as boho as any in Dalston) to hang out in them, and the town even has a proper independent bookshop, something which much grander Truro can no longer support. The opening of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in 2003 put Falmouth on all the tourist maps, but the real marker of gentrification was the opening of a seafood restaurant by Rick Stein in 2010. When I was there a few weeks ago the Spring Festival was under way, with Science in the Pub events exactly like those I’d left behind in Cambridge!

There was no town here in medieval times, as the site was too exposed to attack from the sea until Henry VIII built Pendennis and St Mawes castles; it really only came into being after 1688 when the Post Office chose Falmouth as the port for its Packet Service to Spain and Portugal, and later across the empire. In 1805 news arrived here of Nelson’s victory, and death, at Trafalgar, from where it was carried to London (271 miles away) in just 37 hours, with 21 changes of horse (at a cost of £46 19s 1d), and in 1836 the Beagle, with Charles Darwin aboard, arrived here at the end of her voyage of circumnavigation. These are mentioned on various plaques, and in The Levelling Sea, a superb account of Falmouth’s history by Philip Marsden, who lives just a few miles away across the harbour. A couple of weeks after my last visit to Falmouth I was, by chance, in Nelson’s home village, which I will mention in another post.

The port declined in the late twentieth century, but the docks seem livelier these days, repairing ships including the Navy’s Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, and cruise ships now come in to the world’s third largest natural harbour. Admittedly most of them just get on buses to the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but one side effect may be that there’s still a good supply of public toilets, unlike the rest of Cornwall where the gruesomely penny-pinching county council is trying to close them or even to find private concerns willing to try to somehow keep them open.

The Old Custon House, Falmouth

The town centre loosely falls into two parts, the waterfront street from the Maritime Museum past the church, and The Moor, a square on the hillside just above. There are some great cafés and restaurants in the lower area, but the more hipster artisan coffee bars (and barbers) seem to be on The Moor and just above. I always pop in to Falmouth Art Gallery, at the bottom end of The Moor, because it’s free and has both interesting temporary shows and a permanent collection featuring leading Cornish artists (as well as John Singer Sargent and Tilly Kettle), but also because of their weird and wonderful automata. The most popular is the AutoWed, which you really can use for your wedding – it’s a product of Sam Lanyon’s Concept Shed, just a few hundred metres from the museum.

Pubs and restaurants

Falmouth still has plenty of pubs, and a remarkable number of them seem to be free houses, offering a wider choice of beers than those tied to one brewery. On the other hand, they tend not to bother much about food. For me, the best discovery recently in Falmouth has been Beerwolf Books, a pretty unique bookshop-pub in a eighteenth-century sea-captain’s house (I think). Surprisingly, it was once home to the Falmouth Working Men’s Club; it’s totally un-wheelchair accessible, alas. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but on balance you can ignore the bookshop room but you can’t ignore the bar, so it’s essentially a pub, and a very good one too. I was particularly pleased to find organic, vegetarian beer from my favourite Manchester brewery, Marble. They don’t do food, but next door in the same courtyard is the Courtyard Deli & Kitchen, using the finest local produce.

Other good pubs include the Boathouse, with stunning views across to Flushing and great beer, the Seven Stars on The Moor, with a lovely historic interior, and the ‘Front and the Working Boat, both by the harbour. I also hear good things of the HAND Bar; more a bar and bottle shop than a pub, it carries craft beers in bottles and kegs, including from Falmouth’s own Verdant Brewing.

As for food, in addition to Stein’s and the Courtyard, a few other tempting options are Pea Souk, a veggie café tucked away up an alley near Beerwolf (they serve takeaway drinks only if you bring your own cup), Stones Bakery, Fuel, Provedore (which is good for breakfast and lunch, and superb for evening tapas – no bookings, so get there early) and Cribbs, a genuine Caribbean restaurant whose owner came from St Vincent as chef on a cruise liner (he’s also just opened Bahama Mamas, a new café-bar on The Moor).

And of course a few words on public transport – the university campus now seems to attract buses from all over west Cornwall, and the Truro-Falmouth railway now has two trains an hour each way, while the main Plymouth-Truro-Penzance line just has one an hour – although this is soon to be increased to two an hour after signalling improvements.