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).
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.
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.
[August 2021 – Dark, Salt, Clear
When I wrote about Penzance I said very little about its twin town of Newlyn – and now I don’t have to, as Lamorna Ash’s Dark, Salt, Clear has presented a wonderful picture of the town and its fishermen. She skilfully combines accounts of her time spent on various fishing boats with references to writers such as Walter Benjamin, Woolf, Conrad, Elizabeth Bishop (one of whose poems supplies the book’s title) and Barry Lopez, whose writing blew me away when I first moved to Alaska. Also WG Sebald, about whom I wrote here (and even Philip Pullman). Obviously this places her at the literary end of the spectrum of writing about place, or whatever we should call this (it’s not exactly travel writing, I think, nor anthropology), but there’s plenty else to enjoy here.
A twenty-two-year-old Oxford graduate working on a thesis for a masters in anthropology, she did a textbook job of inserting herself into her subjects’ lives. It’s no life for a non-smoking vegetarian like me, but Lamorna seemed to fit in pretty well, despite being ‘a posh girl from London’ (albeit with a Cornish first name). She’s less good on minor technical details, such as not knowing what a winch is, or thinking that fishing boats run on petrol and that the Torrey Canyon was a container ship – and does she really not know what the Red Arrows are? As ever, of course, I blame the editors. I’m not sure about her grasp of geography outside Newlyn – no-one would ever call St Just north Cornwall, and when she writes about Woolf seeing Lelant beach from Talland House in St Ives, I assume she means Gwithian beach.
She did most of her research in 2017, but managed to touch only briefly on the Brexit vote – as she notes, Cornwall received roughly £80m a year in EU funding, but voted decisively to leave largely because of fishing issues. She also played a nice little joke on everyone else who knows West Cornwall by seeming not to know about the Penlee lifeboat disaster, finally covering it in Chapter 22 (although there was the odd subtle hint before then) – as she admits, ‘it comes up in nearly every conversation’.]