Men, I ask your absolution in advance. I am about to make a confession that might stir agreement deep in your souls, though most of you will remain silent. What might that declaration be? Simply put, it is this. Sometimes the wife is right. As you might suspect, it took an event of monumental significance for me to make this admission, and just such an event occurred during the last weekend Elizabeth R and I spent in England. The root cause of our divergent views was in how we viewed vacations. In my opinion, when one is on vacation, HE should do AS LITTLE as possible. Elizabeth R, however, believes that when couples vacation in a foreign country, THEY should see AS MUCH as possible. On the last Saturday we would spend in England (this year), Elizabeth R won that debate, which is how we found ourselves at Paddington Station boarding a train for Cornwall. Boy oh boy, did Elizabeth R ever get this one right!
From time to time during his visits home, Ben has mentioned the Cornish coast and an interest in visiting the area. I had very little familiarity with it other than the passing references to the Lizard and Lands End that I read in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels or in the Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester. Still, with Cornwall being located in the far southwestern corner of the country, this presented a fine opportunity for the three of us to observe a great deal of the south of England, all while comfortably seated during a cross-country train journey. It was that combination of curiosity and lack of effort required on my part that tilted my thinking toward acceptance of the venture. Thus, I took my seat adjacent to Ben and across from Elizabeth R actually eager to see what I might see.
My Imagination Was Hazy About St. Ives …
The train left London and soon entered the Royal County of Berkshire, the county within which Windsor is located (hence the “Royal” in the title). In a short time, we passed Maidenhead and Reading and then raced over a flat plain that seemed to invite agricultural pursuits. Berkshire gave way to Wiltshire, which we rolled through without getting a glimpse of either Stonehenge or the Salisbury Cathedral. That was alright with me; Elizabeth R had already been to Stonehenge, and I was all cathedraled-out for this year. (ooh, Salisbury Cathedral! Thanks for reminding me….)
After Wiltshire came Somerset, a place where we had had a less than wonderful experience several years before during a visit to Glastonbury. Fortunately, the train never slowed and kept chugging through the rolling hills until we reached Taunton, where the tower of St. James Church dominated the skyline. Devon followed next, and with it came a turn toward the south through more well kept farmland.
I have to say that I found the landscape in the agricultural areas we passed through both relaxing and reassuring. I enjoyed the evidence of centuries of man’s attempting to instill order on nature by constantly pruning and trimming hedgerows and tree lines so that geometric patterns prevailed where disorder hoped to be. But it was the rivers, the estuaries and the coastline that stirred my spirit of adventure.
East of Plymouth, the train tracks cross the River Plym before running alongside its north riverbank. This river is part of the Plymouth Estuary, though it is not like the estuary with which I am most familiar. This was the first time I had viewed such a significant expanse of what I will refer to as “mad flats” on each side of the channel. You have to realize that I have spent over fifteen years paddling my kayak in the Hudson River, also an estuary. Yet that river/estuary runs straight and deep with only slivers of shallow water along its edges. Now, as we followed first the River Plym, and eventually the Tamar and Lynher Rivers, I was peering at extensive mud flats that in some places far exceeded the width of the channel. I would later get to see the same phenomenon in the Hayle Estuary near St. Erth where, occasionally, the channel was nowhere near the center of the river. I was fascinated by these flats. Oh, to have a kayak and unlimited time for exploration. It would have been a lot of fun to try during the “mini-tsunami” (check out the video for a better view of these flats) that area experienced several years ago.
The train to St. Ives was a speedy local – we’d walked longer distances in London. The St. Ives station itself obviously catered to a humming tourist town – huge parking lot overlooking the blue of the bay, and not much else. Including taxis. Where was the ever present English taxi rank? One cab sped past us, and then there were no more.
I asked at a refreshment stand, and was directed to the taxi office, out of the parking lot, “up there a ways.” Everything in St. Ives turned out to be “up there.” I gave the address of the B&B to the taxi dispatcher, and asked if it was within walking distance.
“Oh, yes,” she replied amiably, “It’s only about a 15 minute walk, But it’s straight uphill all the way.” She called us a cab, and we were there in no time.
Our B&B, Chy Conyn, was a real find. I had been bewildered when making reservations back in August – place after place had nothing available for this weekend. It was for September, past “the season” and St. Ives had an abundance of tourist accommodations. I was beginning to get discouraged when I happened upon Chy Conyn, a tiny B&B of only three rooms. I actually picked up the phone to seal the deal, having a lovely though expensive conversation with Lizzie, one of the owners. And now, here we were – modern, comfortable rooms, charming hosts, and an easy walk (at least the downhill part) to St. Ives proper.
One of the other things I noticed during the train’s journey through Cornwall was that the hills seemed to be very steep, and arrayed endlessly in rows that were very close together. They reminded me of green ribbon candy that had been manufactured with its ridges practically touching each other. My initial conclusion from viewing these hills was that you had to be a hardy soul to live in Cornwall. My opinion did not change in the slightest after our first “stroll” through St. Ives. Some of the streets has stairways built into them, and some of the others could have benefited from a rope tow. Yes sir, you have to come from hardy stock to live in Cornwall.
The walk to the shore area from our B&B was practically straight downhill, which inspired within me a bit of trepidation. We would have to regain all those vertical feet we lost on the way back, but at least we would be fortified first by a much anticipated dinner. It had been a while since I had eaten, and hunger overwhelmed any sense of caution I might have had concerning our return to the B&B.
From the B&B, we walked down Alexandra Road and upon nearing the commercial center, crossed over to Clodgy View. It was half way down Clodgy View where we came upon the Barnoon Cemetery, a picturesque final resting place set on a gentle slope overlooking the ocean. On either side, the adjacent streets dropped off precipitously, and I wondered if a significant portion of the Barnoon residents had ended up there as a result of trying to crest these hills. As I said before, you have to come from sturdy stock to live in Cornwall. Fortunately, when we first encountered Barnoon, we were heading downhill, and momentum propelled us to the waterfront in the hunt for much anticipated food and drink.
Ben had suggested that a pint was the first order of business, and who was I to dispute the family expert on English customs. If we managed to combine a pint with a plate of food, so much the better. We were now standing on the broad pedestrian way abutting the harbor, and the area was packed with shops and restaurants. With so much to choose from, the prospects looked to be very good. After all, how hard could it be to find a place to eat at 6:00 on a Saturday, in St. Ives?
How hard? Try impossible. Remember the aforementioned inexplicable difficulty in finding a place to stay on this September weekend? Turns out we were right in the middle of the St. Ives Arts Festival, an annual event and a very big deal in Cornwall. And all those people in all those rooms had to eat.
Richard, the other of our friendly and helpful hosts, had a number of suggestions for us. Some of them I would have patronized because of their name alone – “The Balancing Eel,” or “Hard Core Prawn.” Alas, half of Cornwall had the same idea, and at these and half a dozen other eateries we were informed that they might be able to seat us at 9 or 9:30. That’s bedtime, not mealtime!
Discouraged and starving, we noticed light emerging from the end of a little alleyway. A sign read “Hobbler’s,” a restaurant not facing the harbor and so perhaps escaping notice of the multitudes. We halfheartedly asked if there was room at the inn, and were stunned and delighted to learn that there was. It was a small table in the cramped downstairs area, a perplexing mixture of a nautical theme with Sinatra music pouring from the speakers. Still, the food was delicious and the service excellent, and at meal’s end, we felt we might even have the strength to climb the Alp back to the B&B and rest up for the next day’s whirlwind tour of Cornwall.
Now for one last observation before getting that much needed rest. I have already observed that one would need to be a pretty hardy individual in order thrive in Cornwall. But, would that same prerequisite apply to leisure activities, such as, say, kayaking? Well, just take a gander at this video I shot alongside the St. Ives Harbor, and you be the judge.