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.

Liechtenstein – little but quite lovely

Having knocked off a swift post on Davos a couple of months back, I thought I should do something similar on the next place I stopped, Liechtenstein (its capital, Vaduz, is almost an anagram of Davos, but not quite). It’s taken a while, but anyway, here it is. I’ve been there a few times in the past when updating the Switzerland chapter of the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, and always enjoyed it. I used to stay, courtesy of the Swiss youth hostels association, in Schaan, a few kilometres north of Vaduz and rather livelier and less stuffy, I’m told. There is some striking modern architecture in both towns. Vaduz really is tiny and there are only a couple of good hotels and no really cheap ones. The other alternative, apart from Schaan, is the Malbun ski resort (at 1600m), which can be reached all year round by Liechtenstein’s excellent bus system (30 minutes by the hourly bus 21). Most of the principality lies on the flood plain of the Rhine (which forms the border with Switzerland), but on the eastern (Austrian) side there are some seriously impressive mountains and good hiking opportunities.

The only real development since my last visit, in terms of the tourist experience, is the opening in 2015 of the Hilti Art Foundation, essentially an extension of the main art gallery in Vaduz, the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein (they’re linked by a short tunnel). There’s a similar focus on twentieth-century art, largely Germanic (Hodler, Kirchner, Kandinsky, Beckmann and Klee) as well as Léger, Giacometti and Picasso. Kirchner, of course, was the main attraction in Davos. Hilti is Liechtenstein’s only internationally known company, selling its power tools and fasteners worldwide. There’s also an excellent sushi bar at the art museum!

I also visited the Prince’s Kunstkammer or Treasure Chamber (also on Vaduz’s one pedestrian street, Städtle) for the first time. Opened in 2015, it has a pretty rigorous security set-up – you enter one by one through a security gate using tokens sold at the nearby tourist office (CHF8 each; free for under-16s). There’s a replica of the crown, which was made in 1626 and stolen in 1781, lots of Fabergé (etc) eggs, guns and prints – nothing too thrilling. The family’s main collection is in Vienna where they lived until 1938, when they established themselves here and gained credit for shepherding the principality through the Second World War without provoking a German invasion. The princely castle, set dramatically above Vaduz, is not open to visitors, but I do recommend the National Museum, beautifully presented in two historic buildings and a modern extension. The Lichtensteiner Brewery is also not bad, with a fairly decent Weissbier among other beers.

Squeezed between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein has a Customs Union with Switzerland, uses the Swiss Franc as its currency and seems a bit Swiss in terms of its infrastructure and general efficiency; however the railway which runs across the country is operated by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB). This was totally closed for trackwork for the whole of June 2017, and it now takes just five minutes to cover the nine kilometres across the principality. It’s a shame that the hereditary prince or his transport minions didn’t take the opportunity to lengthen the platforms at Schaan and request the ÖBB to stop the Zürich-Wien RailJet trains there – at the moment the only service is a local shuttle between Sargans and Feldkirch which runs nine times a day each way, Mondays to Fridays only. You don’t need to use this – get off at Sargans (Switzerland) or Feldkirch (Austria) and catch bus no.11 which links the two via Vaduz and Schaan.