A week in Cornwall, September 2-9, 2006
We spent a week in Cornwall in September. I kept a diary during the trip and post it below.
Saturday, Sept 2nd 2006
This week we are in Cornwall. We took the 8:05 a.m. train from Paddington and arrived in Newquay at lunch time. Having refreshed ourselves at a cafe with an “All Day Breakfast (Vegetarian)”, we took a cab to our hotel. This proved to be a little run-down and sporting a large “for Sale” notice. All the hotels along that stretch seem to be closed or closing. The sites are being bought by developers who are putting up blocks of flats on them. Our hotel is doomed.
The room is rather pokey but looks straight out onto the sea. The view is very fine and would be even finer if the weather would cooperate. Since we arrived it has rained but, after all, what can you expect in September? To take a late season holiday is to take pot luck.
Having dumped our suitcase and acquainted ourselves with our room, we went out to explore the town. The first discovery was that the bus service, compared with London, is very infrequent. Have we made a bad mistake taking a hotel outside town?
Newquay proved very lively with plenty of pubs, restaurants, cafes and late-opening shops. It has of course become the centre for surfing so it is a young person’s town. If you are young (or young at heart) and like a happening place, then Newquay is attractive. If you hanker for the quaint, quiet, out-of-the-way little Cornish villages then you may be disappointed.
First impressions: Nice place, shame about the buses.
Sunday, Sept 3rd 2006
Day 2 in Cornwall was a day of confusion and near-depression. Travelling from branch-line Newquay to other destinations and, more importantly, getting back to Newquay, turned out to present problems incomprehensible to a denizen of transport-rich London. This led to us getting stranded in St Austel but it taught us a lesson as a result of which, our journeys for the rest of the stay were more successful.
It is a little known and poorly advertised fact that in many regions of the UK (and abroad) you can buy rover tickets for rail or bus or a combination of both. These are good value and cheaper than buying single or return tickets for each individual journey. We have used these with success in Wales and the Netherlands, to quote but two examples. When we learnt that we could have a day’s unlimited train and bus travel throughout Cornwall and Devon for £11, we gladly stumped up.
Unfortunately things didn’t work out as well as expected. The tickets were valid only on First buses and First Great Western trains. This limited our scope considerably. We did manage to get to Newton Abbot (which after a slip of the tongue on my part shall henceforth be known as Mutant Abbot). We arrived here illegally aboard a Virgin train. Virgin doesn’t accept these tickets but the inspector kindly let us on.
Mutant Abbot could be called Dead City on Sunday: every shop, every cafe, every restaurant displayed a “Closed” sign. We eventually found food in a Wetherspoon’s pub where the service was slow and inefficient.
We thought it best to set out for Newquay straightaway, not realizing this would turn out to be a labour worthy of Hercules. Despite the early hour (fourish) there were no more trains to Newquay. We were advised to take the train to St Austel where, according to our railway employee informant, we were bound to find a bus to take us to Newquay. He was wrong.
Studying bus timetables, we found that the last to Newquay had left some time before. What were our options? We could either cab it to Newquay or stay the night (assuming we could get a room) in St Austel. We scoured the town looking for a cab office and failed to find one. We took a break and had a meal at place called The Station. Slick modern decor, cheerful and efficient service, average food, over-loud music from a live Dave Rich Band.
One of the bouncers gave us the phone number of a cab company who quoted us £22 for the trip to Newquay. We accepted as a room would cost more than double that.
So we are sitting in The Station being deafened by Dave Rich and Co waiting for our cab. I will take up the story tomorrow.
Monday, September 4th 2006
After our confused wanderings to “Mutant Abbot”, it was clear we would have to pay more attention to the bus and train timetables and plan down to the last detail. With this in mind, we undertook a trip to Padstow…
Today started with a white- knuckle ride. We caught the bus that stops outside the hotel and set off to Padstow. The route was beautiful and interesting with many diversions off the beaten track to serve small villages. Much of the journey, as is common in Cornwall, was along narrow winding roads, full of hills and hollows and blind corners, roads only wide enough for one vehicle: hence the white-knuckle nature of the experience to be had from our front seats. The bus was a single-decker: on the way home we were lucky enough to travel part of the way on the upper deck of a double-deck bus, making the experience even more frightening.
On the way back we broke our journey twice, first in Mawgan and then in Watergate Bay where we had our supper in a hotel bar with a beautiful panoramic view of beach and sea. We then caught the bus back to Newquay and wandered about town taking in the lively evening atmosphere.
Then back to the hotel for cups of tea and a leisurely end to the day.
(Another bus driver later told us that he too had been offered bribes to take his bus off-route. Given the patchiness of the services, especially at night, I suppose this is not entirely surprising.)
Tuesday, September 5th 2006
Today’s plan was to go to St Ives, which involves taking the 305 bus to town and there getting another bus that takes us all the way to St Ives. The plan fell at the first fence, however, as the expected 305 failed to materialize in time to meet the connection. So we again bought bus and rail combined tickets and set off bravely for Penzance.
While wating for our train we fell into conversation with an elderly gent, an escapee from a coach party. We chatted about places we had visited and I mentioned Brighton. “Oh, I don’t like Brighton,” he exclaimed with a tone of disgust. “I like Eastbourne, though,” he added. To be polite we joined in his enthusiasm and forebore to mention that Tigger and I habitually refer to Eastbourne as “God’s waiting room” because of the number of elderly folk who retire there. Eastbourne is a pleasant enough town on a sunny day but is rather stuffy and lacks the sparkle and vivacity of Brighton.
The journey to Penzance, or Pensans in Cornish, was uneventful by Cornwall standards. On arrival we had a pleasant lunch at the “Victorian Tea Room” then set out to see the town.
Penzance has a lot to see but we had to proceed at a good pace because our last train was due to leave at 5:05 p.m. Both of us enjoy exploring shops, the weirder the better. Having a few fingers still untenanted I am always on the lookout for “tiger rings”. There are two sorts of object fitting this unofficial jewelry category: sculpted or moulded rings in the form of a tiger; rings with tiger’s eye stones in them. The first are very rare and I have only found one so far; the second are easier to find but getting one with good stone and a handsome setting is still difficult. I was therefore excited to find a jewelry shop that had a ring with both a fine tiger’s eye stone and a very nice silver setting. Unfortunately, it was not big enough for the empty finger I wanted to put it on. The shop is therefore finding out how much it will cost to enlarge the ring. As we are not going back to Penzance this time around, they will have to send the ring to me in London if we agree a price.
Waiting on Penzance station for our train back to Newquay we watched some ants. I always carry a magnifying glass in my rucksack for such eventualities. The ants were on a table exploring an empty Tango can. We tried them with banana smoothie and some seemed to like it. I dubbed these little creatures “Penzants” : not the wittiest pun of the day, I admit, but it will have to do.
We caught the Penzance-Paddington train and disembarked at Par where, after a wait of 40 minutes, we boarded the 2-carriage shuttle to Newquay, rounding off the day with dinner in an Indian restaurant.
Wednesday, September 6th 2006
Today’s expedition was to St Ives and we left immediately after breakfast. There are two breakfasts available at the hotel: the “free” breakfast (i.e. the one included in the cost of the room) and a “full English” breakfast that has to be ordered in advance and paid for. The “free” breakfast is a self-service affair consisting of cereal, fruit juice, toast and tea and coffee. I soon decided that a bowl full of muesli topped with a Weetabix followed by toast and marmalade was the optimum combination.
We then repaired to the bus stop and were amused to be taken aboard a school bus, happily now empty of children, and charged 50p to be taken to “Four Turns”, the junction where we were to board the bus for St Ives. This arrived, a creaky old double decker, and we settled down for the two-hour white-knuckle ride to St Ives.
St Ives is a very pretty seaside town and port. We could have spent longer there than the 4 hours permitted by the last bus being at 4 pm.
I suffered a slight upset by falling down in the street. No, it wasn’t caused by a surfeit of mead or any other form of strong drink as I am tee total. I think I must have tripped on the kerb and a heavy knapsack helped unbalance me.
As I lay on the ground feeling slightly shocked, I heard a patter of running feet and two female voices asking “Are you all right?” (I had left Tigger at the bus station to go off in search of a bottle of water.) Like all cats I hate to admit that I am hurt and try to hide my wounds. I therefore thanked the two young ladies for their concern, and assured them I was fine and would get up just as soon as I had recovered my breath. They politely departed and after a moment or two I struggled to my feet. Fortunately, no harm seems to have been done beyond a few bumps and bruises though I fear my left leg will be painful tomorrow.
By the time our bus arrived, a crowd was waiting to board it. As soon as the door opened, all surged forward anxious to get aboard and find a seat, so a bun fight ensued. I think everyone got a seat aboard the bus but it was a close-run thing. We found ourselves sitting amidst a group on what they said was a works outing. They were certainly very noisy being in alcohol fuelled high spirits. Apart from the din, they were not badly behaved and even provided interesting information about features of the area.
The bus reached Newquay a little ahead of schedule and we went off to look for supper. While at the bus station, we spotted an advert for a coach trip to the Lizard tomorrow and bought tickets for it. We have been to the Lizard before in rather romantic circumstances so are looking forward to renewing our acquaintance with it.
Thursday, September 7th 2006
This episode of the Cornwall trip comes with a touch of embarrassment. As you will see, the highlight of the visit to the Lizard was the spotting of a hummingbird… or so I thought. The photo on the left shows this beautiful creature. They hover and dart about, so are hard to observe closely. Their wings vibrate so fast as to be a mere blur.
On our return to London I checked the “hummingbird” sighting and found out that not only was it not a hummingbird but a Hummingbird Hawk Moth but that every summer, visitors file mistaken reports of “hummingbird” sightings. Possessed of this knowledge, I felt rather foolish for I had already contacted the RSPB who confirmed that what I had seen was a moth. I should have checked before emailing them. I must say that their reply was both courteous and helpful, for which I am grateful.
I was of course tempted to edit the “hummingbird” remarks out of my description of our Lizard visit. In the end I decided to leave it in as the sighting was part – an exciting part – of the total experience and honesty demands that it remain. What’s a little embarrassment among friends?
Today happens to be my birthday and, as noted, we are going to the Lizard. The day is fairly fine with clouds and sun but in Cornwall that can change from one minute to the next.
We met the coach at Four Turns at 10:15 and set off. We had not gone far before my phone rang. It was the Penzance jeweller letting me know that it would cost £23 to alter the ring. This is about the going rate but it would be on top of the price of the ring and the cost of postage. I said I would think about it and call her back.
The day became hot and sunny almost as if summer had returned. The coach stopped off at Coverack where we had an all-day veggie breakfast as lunch. Coverack is a rather dull little town by Cornwall standards which begs the question of why the coach stopped off there.
At last we reached the Lizard, our desired location. In the time available (2 hours 40 minutes) it wasn’t possible to see everything and so it was necessary to choose. I wanted to visit Church Cove so that is what we did. I had been there before and had spent many hours each day over two weeks watching a pair of gulls who frequented a rock in the tiny bay. They were easily recognizable because the male had a stain on his left wing. On my return to London I missed the gulls greatly and I have often thought of them since. Herring gulls live for up to 20 years so it was possible I might see them today, 3 years later.
We went down to Church Cove and though I didn’t see “my” gulls, I was happy to see the cove and the rock again. Cornwall nonetheless reserved a consolatory surprise for me. Tigger, who is an ace at spotting things other people miss, pointed out a strange little creature flying among the flowers and hovering above them, seemingly without touching them. About an inch and a half long, with a red and brown body and fetching black and white stumpy tail, it was an exotic sight. I then saw it exend a long threadlike object into a flower and realized with a jolt that I was looking at a hummingbird!
I had no idea that there were humming birds flying wild in Britain. Or is this an escapee from an aviary or zoo? Up the road from Church Cove is a garden centre advertising plants from all over the world. Could the humming bird have been imported unknowingly in some plants and subsequently released? I dont know but will try to find out more about them. Seeing a humming bird in the wild may just be the highlight of the the trip, an unwitting birthday present.
Opposite our hotel a headland juts into the sea. We had thought to walk along it but not so far found the time. This evening proved the ideal opportunity for the weather was fine and we would be able to watch the sun setting. We walked out along this arm of land reaching into the sea, watching the waves seethe on the rocks and the gulls floating like kites on the gusty updraughts. Then we sat on a grassy bank to watch the orange disc of the sun slide into the western sea.
While watching the gulls, we solved a mystery. We had previously noticed that some gulls in flight appeared to have no legs. In flight, gulls stretch their legs backwards towards the tail and their yellow-orange feet are normally clearly visible but some flying gulls seem to have no feet at all. So intrigued were we by this that Tigger emailed the RSPB to ask bout it. We never received a reply.
This evening as a juvenile gull soared over us, coasting on the updraught, I noticed him jiggling his feet. I thought he was scratching but then realized he was tucking his feet into his feathers! This is the gull’s equivalent of me putting my hands in my pockets to protect them from the cold.
Friday, September 8th 2006
Today’s expedition was to Falmouth. It was another fine sunny day albeit with a chill on the wind. The bus trip to Falmouth was uneventful. The roads were wide and well surfaced so no white-knuckle ride today. In fact, the ride was sufficiently sedate for me to be able to phone the jeweller’s in Penzance.
I told them I had decided not to go ahead with the purchase of the ring. I felt a little sad about that as it was a really pretty ring with a nice sized and unusually fine stone but the need to resize the ring bumped the price up too high. They were so understanding and pleasant about this that I may well visit them again next year in case they have in the meantime acquired something doesn’t need alteration. Part of the fun of collecting rings is this search for an elusive ideal.
As soon as we arrived, about midday, we headed for a handy cafe where they were advertising an all-day veggie breakfast. That was lunch sorted. Falmouth is quite large compared with, say Newquay, and so we spent time exploring the town and then went to the Maritime Museum. This is large and well laid out with lively displays, some of them hands-on or interactive. For example, your Tiger tried sailing a ship into a narrow harbour between green and red buoys with a couple of hazards. He managed to ground or crash the ship 3 times before bringing it safely to port on the fourth try.
There was also an inflatable six-person life raft with a notice inviting us to climb inside as long as we first removed our shoes. So, appropriately shoeless, Tigger and I climbed, or rather, scrambled, aboard. We found it surprisingly comfortable and thought we might like to have one in place of our beach tent. Not a practical proposition, as we are only too aware.
Entry for an adult costs £7, which is perhaps a little on the expensive side for a single visit, but the ticket is valid for a year, making it good value for frequent visitors to Falmouth.
This exploit completed, we went for another wander around town and then decided to take the bus to Truro. We would have an hour there before joining the last bus back to Newquay. It may seem risky planning on catching the last bus all the time – what if you miss it or it’s cancelled? – but in Cornwall there are so few buses on some routes and services often close so early that you have to do so in order to spend a reasonable amount of time at your chosen destination.
At Truro, everything was closed or closing except the pubs and restaurants so we used up our hour having a meal at Pizza Express. The restaurant is in the old town hall, a rather impressive buiding. Then it was off to the bus station to catch the bus back to Newquay.
Less exciting than some of our expeditions, this was nonetheless an enjoyable day. The only shadow is that it is our last full day here this time and we return to London tomorrow. We intend to spend time here again next year and planning for this will begin as soon as get home.
Saturday, September 9th 2006
This is the day we return to London. The train leaves Newquay at 1:22 p.m. so we can afford a leisurely start to the day. Packing is soon done and then it’s off to a late breakfast. We then sit on the hotel porch, watching the sea, the sky, the traffic and a maroon coloured paper serviette dancing around the car park in the breeze, and we wait for the bus to appear – our last ride this year on the famous 305! When it comes, we heave ourselves and our suitcase aboard and buy two tickets to the station.
At the station there is a left-luggage service, much to my surprise, apparently attached to and run by the station cafe. Leaving our suitcase there, we wander into town for a last look around and to buy some last minute gifts. A box of fudge with “Thanks for Looking After the Cat” printed on it seems a good gift for the cattery! We also go into the Cafe Irie and order smoothies. This is a strange little venue with soft seats, books to read and games on the tables – ours had a complete chess set and board.
After a bit more wandering and sitting watching the sea, the sky, the people, the gulls and whatever else comes along to interest and amuse, we go to our usual cafe, the Somer, for two veggie special breakfasts by way of lunch. Which famous writer was it who wrote that to eat well in England you should have three breakfasts a day? I must remember to look him up on the Web. Whoever he was he wasn’t far wrong.
About 70 people get off the train and half that number get on so the train seems nearly empty. I don’t doubt that it will fill up as we stop at the bigger towns. Thus far, though, we can stretch out our legs and enjoy the space.
The train stops at Totnes, Exeter St Davids, Plymouth and Taunton. People get off; people get on; the train remains pleasantly uncrowded. There are spectacular views of sea, estuary, river and green countryside. We try to identify some of the birds we see, looking them up in the Collins Gem “Birds” which Tigger bought me as a birthday present.
We watch out for “wheelbarrow sheep” as they amuse Tigger. I find them endearing. Most sheep graze standing firmly planted on four legs but a few have discovered that it’s easier to get at the grass by kneeling with their front legs. These are what Tigger calls “wheelbarrow sheep” from their resemblance to that contraption. The train passes field after field of normal standing sheep: only occasionally do we spot a “wheelbarrow” or at most two in a field. Do “wheelbarrows” discover the trick independently or from watching others? That is an interesting question but I have no idea how it might be answered.
The afternoon wears on and the light begins to fade. We halt at Reading and half an hour later pull into Paddington. There is a scramble to get off the train and then the crush of the crowds in the station. Welcome back to London!