Monday, September 24, 2007


Jan and Paul arrived a couple of weeks ago, and we barely let them put their feet on the welcoming soil of Mother England before whisking them off to Cornwall.

We stayed in a very nice B&B in Plymouth. Plymouth is usefully central to Cornwall things generally, but having had the crap bombed out of it in WWII is not so very picturesque for the most part, or rather it features beautiful old buildings with hideous concrete monstrosities next to them. We had a couple of great seafood meals by the harbour there though.

Otherwise we were mostly daytripping. Day 1 was Tintagel, a ruined 12th century castle that actually is very unlikely to have had anything to do with any king called Arthur (who in turn is very unlikely to have existed outside a patchwork of other stories consolidated for propaganda purposes). Originally this straddled the mainland and an island, but is now just bits and pieces. I managed to get to the island section via the suspension bridge and scary steps up the side of the cliff face despite being terrified of heights and it was pretty cool, mostly because of the views of rugged coastline than because of what little was left of the castle complex though. I did get to lean my giant self against an 800 year old wall for a rest - I don't think this was what the builders had in mind. Most importantly, Tintagel is an English Heritage-maintained site which means that as members, Grant and I get to go in free. HA! Excellent.

Day 2 was a masterfully organised circuit of Polperro (old smuggling/fishing village), Castle Pendennis (another 12th century ruined castle, but in rather more sensible a location) and Cotehele (Tudor mansion complex in incredible gardens), then back to Plymouth.

Polperro was something of a tourist trap - you literally ran the gauntlet of Cornish pasty and ice cream shops down very narrow, winding streets - but very pretty, just the same. I suppose some places are tourist traps for a reason. It was quite small so we mostly just had a wander around, a look at the museum and a cup of coffee and then were out of there. We did meet a nice cat, who apparently runs a circuit of all B&Bs and museums and gets fed roughly 50 times a day - and looks it!

Castle Pendennis (also English Heritage = free - HA!) was really quite wonderful, particularly as we were visiting under BRILLIANT blue skies and it has a grand view of the country around Fowey. It is a fairly standard round keep, but well enough preserved that you can climb up around the battlements and see the outline of the inner rooms. Compared to Tintagel, the stairs are very sensible! Pendennis also had quite an impressive moat that is now, like its old walls, chiefly occupied in the sprouting of ferns.

Cotehele is, for a change, neither a ruin nor English Heritage managed (damn - we actually had to pay to get in). It's a grand country house, built between 1485 and 1560 as the main seat of the fabulously wealthy Edcumbes before they moved elsewhere to even fancier accommodations. The house is extraordinary, filled with various Tudor thingamabobs and weaponry, with all the walls bedecked with various priceless antique tapestries that were relocated from elsewhere and CUT TO FIT Cotehele's walls, of all things. But the best part was the garden - formal, informal, and quite jungle-like sections - very wonderful indeed. Case in point: CYCLAMENS WERE GROWING WILD IN THE LAWN. Enough said.

Day 3 we went to the intriguingly named Lost Gardens of Heligan. Part of another grand estate (Tremaynes), they were famous in the 19th century but apparently forgotten in the 20th, with the manor house and property being regularly resumed for military use in the world wars. I don't know that it was ever really "lost" though, as I'm pretty sure people always knew that the several hundred hectares of it were actually there. In any case, the once-elaborate garden had been neglected and left to wrack and ruin when rediscovered in the 1990s (a very capital-R Romantic tale of broken down glasshouses with lone grape vines struggling to survive amidst the brambles), and restoration work has been going on ever since. They specialise in rare breed everything, so in addition to rare plants they have an orchard full of rare chickens and ducks (pecking very happily at the fallen fruit and begging picnickers for scraps), and rare breed goats and cows in the farm paddocks. Quite impressive, and unbelievably huge in scope. In the afternoon we managed a quick trip to St Mawes castle, a military stronghold since Tudor times protecting the south coast and the deepwater harbour of Falmouth, which is, and I speak as a Novocastrian here, a bloody huge harbour, albeit now only hosting cruiseliners from what I could see. This one was a bit of a boy's trip but the castle itself is nice enough. Also I ate some blackberries. Yum. After that we headed to Penzance where we stayed the night in another very nice B&B.

Our final day included ambitious plans to see Bodmin Moor or the Lizard, but instead we only really managed St Michael's Mount before we had to head back to London. St Michael's Mount is an island castle joined at low tide to the mainland near Penzance by a causeway; VERY fast large tides in this part of the world. The castle was rather grand if very uphill; much of it is relatively recent (1850s) so quite liveable. Surrounding the castle is a garden, which I had expected to be miraculous (as it is no doubt, to English eyes - not a rose to be seen) but which was full of the plants typically found in dry coastal Australian gardens - succulents, etc. The overall effect was lovely but really, it is hardly a miracle to manage what every other country with little water and a salt wind has managed for centuries!

Then a LONG drive back to London - 5+ hours, but when you consider that this was to get from the extreme southwest to effectively the other side of the country, not really so bad!

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