Thursday, 12 September 2013

A holiday on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly

St Agnes, Isles of Scilly
Looking across to the Bar on St Agnes in the Scilly Isles
The Isles of Scilly are made up five main islands and many more of rapidly diminishing size and increasingly odd name. Of the bigger islands, all have their own distinctive character resulting from a mix of geography and history. St Agnes is one of the smaller islands and feels a little more remote, being located on the south western fringes of the Scillies. It is quite rugged around the edges but feels surprisingly cosy in the middle or tucked away in the harbour at Porth Conger.

I've just come back from a week's camping on St Agnes, my first trip to the Scillies. It seems like for everyone else camped there it is an annual pilgrimage with pitches booked a year in advance.
The campsite on St Agnes is Troy Town, named in reference to the nearby turf maze, or the farm on which it resides. The location of this campsite has to be one of the most idyllic anywhere (or on a south-westerly gale, the very worst!). Tents are pitched on fields which slope gently down to the very edge of the sea and the small rock and sand cove of Bergecooth. On an island of beautiful beaches, situated on an archipelago of beautiful beaches, Bergecooth is nothing special. Anywhere else it would be.

Periglis beach, St Agnes
Periglis beach
Just around the corner from the campsite is another beach, Periglis; a coarse sand crescent around a natural harbour in the lee of Burnt Island. At the tip of Burnt Island is what appears to be a building of some description, an old chapel perhaps. Well, it isn't, and Burnt Island isn't an island either. I know as I scrambled over boulders for half an hour to find the building is completely 2 dimensional - a wall for all intents, with a big black stripe painted down it. It is in fact a daymark to inform shipping where it is.

In the other direction is Castella down, guarded by the castle like Carns of Castella. It is on these downs, punctuated by numerous huge granite intrusions that the Troy Town maze can be found. It's one of those things that probably looks interesting from the air, but on the ground it is a little hard to really appreciate. The coast here is a different matter. The rocky coast is similar to the southern side of the Land's End Peninsula in Cornwall, but the rock forms are a bit craggier and frankly weirder. There are numerous rocks on these islands that are named after animals and other things they look like. It seems a fair few of them reside around here.

Giants Punch Bowl, St Agnes
The Giant's Punch Bowl!
One of my first explorations of St Agnes was to head across the island to Beady Pool. This is a small beach set in a semi circular cove backing on to the pleasingly named Wingletang Down. The beach gets its name from the earthenware beads that could be found here at one time, lost when a Dutch trader went down in the 17th century. These days they are not so easily found and the beaches draw is the peace and natural beauty of the place. The beach kind of melts into the heathland with various plants growing in the sand and pebbles near the top of the beach. One of these is the Yellow Horned Poppy which I'm pleased to say I photographed!
Overlooking Wingletang is one of St Agnes' best celebrated rock formations, the (Giant's) Punchbowl. This consists of one enormous rounded rock balanced atop an even bigger rock. I'm not entirely sure why it reminded anyone of a punchbowl to me it looked more like a huge …..

Whilst we're back on the subject of Scillonian rocks that look like things, back up the road is St Agnes' finest example; the Nag's Head. And yes it is a peculiar shaped rock with a protrusion that looks quite a bit like a nag's head - a nag being a bit of a rubbish horse.

Cove Vean beach
The clear waters of Cove Vean
The next beach around the coast is my personal favourite, Cove Vean. Tucked away at the foot of a small wooded valley this beach is sheltered from the wind and ocean swells. The beach is backed by trees and shrubs with fine sand leading down to a rocky shoreline and the usual crystal clear Scilly water. This makes the foreshore a fantastic place for exploring and whilst I was there kids were constantly spotting various sea creatures. The views out are pleasant enough too, with boats moored in the calm waters between St Agnes and Gugh.

By far the most popular beach on St Agnes is the Bar. Whilst it is next to the island's only pub that's not where the name comes from. It is a stretch of fine sand reaching from St Agnes to the small island of Gugh. There are sheltered waters to either side of the Bar making it safe to swim most of the time. However, at high tide the bar may become covered and the currents over the sands are particularly strong.

Back to the subject of pubs, yes there is a pub, and quite a good one; the Turk's Head. Whilst I wouldn't say the food is worth waiting for - and you will have to wait on an August evening - it serves a fine selection of ales and has plenty of outdoor seating overlooking the quay and Bar. Apparently the Turk's Head is so good that islanders from St Mary's have even been known to frequent it!

There are other eateries on the island. The High Tide Seafood restaurant is fairly upmarket affair by any standard and the menu looks great. Lots of local produce and a fusion twist thrown in for good measure.
For example: Cornish Squid noodles, chilli, lime and coriander with lemon oil or Wild Sea Bass fillet, steamed samphire, wild garlic prawns & caper butter to list just a couple. We did try and get a table one night but it was booked up.

Covean cafe
Covevean Cafe - top Cream Teas!
Somewhere we did get a table was the idyllic Covevean Cottage Café. Situated more or less in the centre of St Agnes this is a great spot for the obligatory holiday cream tea. And a lovely Cornish cream tea they do too, or I suppose it could be a Devon cream tea if you like your cream on first?! Food is served in a small garden to the side of the cottage. My knowledge of plants is quite limited but there are some fancy plants in that garden, possibly sub-tropical to use a phrase that is often associated with Scillonian gardens. The café also do some other meals and have regular evening specials. Unfortunately the kebab night was indefinitely postponed as the chef had snapped his Achilles tendon - ouch!

Scilly cow
Scilly Cow - Troy Town Farm
Whilst it would have been nice to eat every single meal out we didn't. Now you may be surprised to hear there is no Tesco on St Agnes, not even a Morrisons. In fact the commercial heart of St Agnes is the Post Office shop. As far as I'm concerned this is more than adequate. They have a surprisingly good range of food and drink and, even more surprising, there doesn't appear to be much of a tourist / remote island premium on the pricing.
The other place to buy food is the Troy Town Farm shop, where you can be fresh dairy and meat produce from the farm. Oh, and ice cream in a variety of wonderful flavours including Madagascar vanilla and rose geranium.

I think that more or less covers my week on St Agnes. I did a lot of island hopping whilst I was there catching the ‘Spirit of St Agnes' from the quay on no less than four occasions. Not having a map or guide book made exploring a little more random but full of unexpected delights. One thing I did remember on the map was an interesting looking lake. I found it too, it's called Big Pool and it is largish, round freshwater pond in a field. Bit of a disappointment, I was expecting something, er, exciting?!

Troy Town Campsite
My home for the week :)
I did plenty of walking, despite St Agnes being hardly a mile across at the widest point. Then again there's not much alternative. I only saw one car, a few tractors and an assortment of quad bikes and buggies that looked like they may have escaped from a golf course.

So, what were my first impressions of St Agnes? Amazing in a word. That said, the weather was pretty perfect whilst I was over and it might have been a little different in driving south westerly rain. But still this is a place of astonishing natural beauty and its own very distinctive character. I don't know if it's because I stayed on St Agnes first, but all the other islands just didn't seem quite as nice (although a pretty good second all the same!)

A quick note on getting to St Agnes. Unless you have your own yacht (lots of people appear to) then you are going to be travelling to St Mary's either by boat (the Scillonian III) from Penzance or small aeroplane from near St Just. The boat takes just over 2.5 hours and the plane around 15 minutes. From St Mary's there is a boat service across to St Agnes that takes a further 20 minutes. If you are planning a day trip flying over is the obvious way, although it is much more expensive than a cheap day return on the Scillonian.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Cornwall Seal Sanctuary visit

Seal Sanctuary
We were almost the first people to arrive at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek, but I think I blew all chance of being there first after I forgot where we were going somewhere around Helston. Once I remembered we had a lovely couple of mile drive around the heavily wooded lanes of the Helford. Not really seal country but very pretty.

I had taken the financial hit for admission the evening before and saved a few quid by buying the tickets online. One thing I like about the tickets here are they are valid for a week, which is ideal if you want to nip out for a spot of lunch or something. After both kids had wrestled the giant seal pup cuddly toys in reception we moved on in search of the real thing.

Seal pools
Pools with a view
To get to the seal pools from the entrance is a pleasant stroll along a wooded lane along the riverside. It was here that we spotted ‘the tree which looks a bit like a lady’ - well it does! Upon cresting the hill the view opens up to reveal a panorama of the Helford River and also the row of pools which are home to the sanctuary’s resident pinnipeds.

Common seal
A cute common seal
The first pools are home to common seals. Despite their name they are not the most common seals in Cornwall, they are however by far the cutest! All these seals are here because they have been rescued and are recovering prior to release. Despite this the seals seemed to relish the limelight and seemed as interested in us as we were in them.

In the next pool are the grey seals. These are very different to their neighbours being far bigger and not quite so pretty. Their scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, means "hooked-nosed sea pig" which I think is a little harsh. I’d say they look a bit more like bull terriers. With their size and appearance they do, on first impression, appear quite menacing. However, after spending a few minutes watching their individual personalities begin to shine through and they appear far less intimidating.
Grey seal
A hook-nosed sea pig!
We arrived at feeding time and along with the seals were a multitude of hopeful seagulls and lone heron who just stood at the end of the pool. In spite of all the swooping and squawking I don’t think a single fish went awry.

Between the seal pools is a little underground room with windows facing into the pools. You get some great views of the seals swimming around and get about as close as you can. The common seals seemed a little more inquisitive coming over to the glass to have a look out at us. Not sure how much they can see through the glass but they seemed remotely interested.

A little way along from the grey seals are the fur seals. These probably get a quiet life being located between the main seal pools and the sea lions. In fact, no offence to fur seals, but they do look a bit like second rate sea lions!

Sea lion
Can't think why they called them sea lions
So on to the sea lions. There is a viewing area into the sea lion tank with 3 huge windows. From here you can watch the underwater antics of these big beasts. They are the aquatic versions of the Red Arrows, swooping and darting past the windows with incredible speed and agility. Out of the water you can see why they are called sea lions and they do actually roar. These are perhaps the most impressive animals at the Seal Sanctuary weighing in at around 350kg and they aren’t even fully grown. For their size they are pretty agile out of the water too and after feeding time they spent a fair bit of time chasing each other around both in and out of the pool.

At this point we took a break for lunch. As the tickets are valid for a week there is no obligation to stay on site, although the café prices aren’t too bad and there are plenty of places to sit if you bring a packed lunch. I read somewhere that you would have trouble amusing yourself here for an hour - maybe if your kids are addicted to their games console or you have the attention span of a gnat this could be true. We had no problem with a 4 and 7 year old in tow.

Penguin watchers
Penguin watching
On returning things were noticeably busier, but by no means too busy. We carried on pretty much where we left off, except this time we got a lift on the safari bus, or whatever it was called, up to the  pools. On to the penguins, Humboldt penguins I believe. As with the sea lions there are underwater viewing windows so you can see these little chaps darting around. Just up from here is the rock pool zone, where a few artificial rock pools have been built and stocked with various indigenous creatures. With the guidance of a friendly staff member we held a hermit crab, learnt about anemones and had our fingers nibbled by blennys - was tempted to put my feet in to see if I could get a free fish pedicure!

We just missed otter feeding time, probably no bad thing as I’ve seen what otters eat! The otter area is located along side a creek at the end of another woodland walk. These little guys seemed fairly friendly and even came to have a look at us through their underwater, human-viewing window.

That was pretty much our day. Spent a bit of time in the children’s play area and watched the sea lions being fed then back on the safari bus to reception. There is a seal hospital near the convalescence pool but we didn’t really have the time or energy to check it out.

All in all I like the Seal Sanctuary. At £35 for four of us it seems a bit expensive, but then it’s a good cause. Something I really like about the Seal Sanctuary is it still has the same feel as it did when I first visited around 30 years ago. It doesn’t try to be something it isn’t and is still all about the seals, with a few penguins and otters thrown in for good measure! Another bonus is it is a dog friendly attraction, not that there are dogs running everywhere.
I think if I had to give a score out of 5 it would be a 4. It kept four of us entertained for most of a day so in my books that’s a result.

Monday, 8 April 2013

North Cornwall - Day 2

After my exertions on the first day of my North Cornwall trip I slept fairly well, even without my own duvet and pillow. I think the bottle of Doom Bar probably didn't do any harm either! I’d set my alarm for 6.45 ready for a day of not stop photographic action. By 7.30 I was out of bed stuffing complimentary biscuits down my mouth whilst trying to pack my camera gear.
Roughtor Road
The road to Roughtor. Possibly the straightest road in Cornwall!
Ten minutes later I was leaving Camelford and heading along Roughtor Road, which would hopefully lead to Roughtor on Bodmin Moor - Cornwall’s second highest point. Those of you familiar with Cornish country lanes will notice Roughtor Road is a little different. Yes, it is completely straight. Well in the horizontal plane at least, it does have a few hairpin ups and downs.
All the time I was driving I could make out the mist enshrouded form of Roughtor a mile or so away. The light was amazing, reminding me why other, proper, landscape photographers get out of bed early.
A disinterested, semi-feral pony on Roughtor

Upon parking the car I was met by a solid wall of moor ahead. This didn’t deter me, what did was the boggy ground ahead. Actually it wasn't too bad and soon I was stomping up to the summit of Roughtor, crunching through icy puddles and getting disdainful looks from sheep. Nothing to do with the sheep noises I was making at them.

Once at the top it was time to scrabble around on the rocks and find some interesting ones to photograph. There were also a few very disinterested ponies up there too. I tried to engage them in conversation but they were not interested at all. The view from here is pretty good, you can see to the coast but the views back to the moor and Brown Willy are the best.

Realising it was almost breakfast time I headed down the slope as fast as I could - more alarmed sheep! At the bottom of Roughtor is the Charlotte Dymond memorial who was murdered here in 1844. Her boyfriend Matthew Weekes was hung for her murder but it is still debated whether he was guilty or not.

After doing the breakfast bit of my B&B I headed off in the other direction to the coast. Boscastle is one of my favourite places up this way. A deep valley cut by the River Valency leading out to sea between two imposing headlands. I've been to Boscastle a few times but never managed to get any good photos because either the sun was in the wrong places, there was no sun at all or the tide was out. However, this time everything was in alignment.
Boscastle harbour
Boscastle Harbour with Penally Point in the backround
It was a particularly lovely morning. From being on Bodmin Moor with frozen puddles here I was in sunny Boscastle in just my woolly jumper (and trousers etc). There were a few other people pottering around the harbour and the day had a nice feel to it. My biggest disappointment was there were no boats in the harbour. I mean, I came here to take scenic photos of Boscastle harbour and no one thought to leave a boat bobbing around for me! Still, I managed to get some very nice shots around the harbour, including one that at a squint looks a bit like a Scottish loch.

Quay at Boscastle
Boscastle pretending to be a loch
After a quick walk up to see the view out between the headlands I realised I was going to have to climb something, for some reason I always have to get to the top of something. Not sure if this is a male thing, but anyways, this time it was Penally Point on the other side of the harbour. Off I set, across the new bridge and along the coast path. It didn’t take long to be near the end of the point when suddenly I realised where I was and that it was a long way down. At this point I started feeling a bit queasy, snapped a couple of quick photos and retreated back to the coast path staying as low to the ground as possible.

With Boscastle “done” I had another place I’d been meaning to tick off the list for a while - Bossiney Cove. I’d had a look the previous day when I was at Rocky Valley, I must have practically tripped over the little cove but still managed to completely miss it. So, today, armed with a crystal clear mental picture of where it was, I jumped in the car.
Gullastem cove, Tintagel
Gullastem, not to be confused with Bossiney
I parked up in the village of Bossiney and headed down a muddy track sing-posted “to the coast path”. A few hundred squelchy meters later I was on the coast path at what I assumed was Bossiney Haven. I did think to myself there wasn’t much of a beach here but decided it must disappear at high tide and began snapping away as it was very pretty. Most impressive were the huge sheer cliffs across the little bay, over 300 feet straight up. Anyway, it turns out this was not Bossiney Cove at all, it was in fact Gullastem. Bossiney Haven actually nestles in the shelter of the far side of those huge cliffs. Mental note to self; buy a proper map.

Raven squawking
A raven. Probably the reincarnation of some Arthurian character!
Where ever I was there were great views back along the coast to Barras Nose in Tintagel. For some reason, my dislike of heights drew me towards those cliffs on the other side of the cove so I stomped along the coast path to Willapark and out onto the headland. The footpath is a good few metres from the cliff edge and I had the odd sensation of being simultaneously drawn and repulsed from the cliff edge. As you would imagine this area is a haven for wildlife and the cliffs are a nesting spot for a host of sea birds. I did hear a bird of prey somewhere down there and guessed it might have been a peregrine falcon as they like the cliffs. What I did see was a raven sat on a dry stone wall making its guttural clicking call.

The views on the walk back along the coast path are equally stunning with the Camelot Castle Hotel in Tintagel acting as a convenient daymark. From this side the small bay at Gullastem can be made to look like a long narrow inlet. Whilst at this point my legs were beginning to feel the strain of many miles on one of the hardest sections of the South West Coast Path I decided to walk to Tintagel, King Arthur’s favourite holiday town…

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

North Cornwall - Day 1

With two days of sunshine forecast I packed my bags and set of for North Cornwall early. Well OK, about 11. After about an hours drive I realised I’d gone the wrong way, not seriously wrong, but a bit wrong so it was time for an impromptu drive across Bodmin Moor. That’s never a problem in my books as Bodmin Moor is one of my favourite spots, appeals to my misanthropic tendencies for a start! Before I knew it I was in the relative civilisation of Blisland, with its village green and well regarded pub. A few miles further and I was in St Tudy.

Lost? Confused? Looking for the toilet?!
I've never stopped off in St Tudy but in the interest of completeness I decided to have a look around. Nice little village so I snapped a few cottages and the church. Next stop was St Teath, again I’ve never looked around this village. It’s a touch bigger than St Tudy and has an interesting clock tower in the middle of the village and an attractive church. St Teath is probably where the folk of St Tudy come for a big night out.

Trebarwith Strand

Still not exactly where I wanted to be I headed for the coast. I’d never really thought about this but there aren't actually that many accessible beaches along this stretch of coast so I went for the nearest, the ever popular Trebarwith Strand. It’s about 20 years since I was last down here and nothing has changed - I made that bit up as I can’t remember anything about the place except they sell beer in the pub overlooking the beach, the Port William!
The beach itself is a mix of rocks and sand with a gert big rock off the coast. For those of you familiar with big rocks just of the coast you’d be right in guessing it’s called Gull Rock. The approach to the beach is very interesting, consisting of a big groove / walkway apparently cut into the slate.

Trebarwith Strand
Trebarwith Strand. Cornwall's dog friendliest beach?
When I arrived the beach was virtually empty so I set up my tripod to take a 360 degree panoramic photo. Within minutes there were dogs running around all over the shop. Seems this is what goes on down on Trebarwith Strand round about lunchtime on a Sunday! So, I moved my set up somewhere I wasn't likely to get flattened by herd of labradors! A few photos later I thought I’d head up the coast path to get a view looking down. Now the mud I can live with but, that path goes up, then up some more and then some. If I’d known this was just a taster of what was coming over the next couple of days I’d have probably gone straight home.

The Strangles and High Cliff

After spending more time and energy that I should have at Trebarwith I headed to the most northerly destination I had planned, The Strangles beach. This was just a name on a map to me so I had no idea what to expect. After a 20 minute drive and increasingly narrow lanes I ended up in a small National Trust car park opposite the footpath down to the beach. Ten minutes later I was looking down on the Strangles. There were only a couple of people on the beach and it’s easy to see why as the scramble down to the beach is hard work and quite a way from the road. The beach is backed by high cliffs with interesting rock formations (Crackington Formation?) and scree sloping down to the beach. The beach itself is sand and shingle with a distinctive rock stack in the middle and a rock arch at the northern end.

Strangles Beach from High Cliff
The Strangles from High Cliff

From here, I figured as I was close I’d nip down the coast to the imaginatively named High Cliff, which is, yes, the highest cliff in Cornwall at 223 metres (732 ft) straight down. It’s only about a mile along the coast path, but as we are in Cornwall the path dips down practically to sea level on the way so it was about has hard going as it sounds.
As I always find when I climb to the top of things (which I always do) the view was fine, but not really any better than 500 feet lower down. Still, that’s ticked off the list and I've got the photos and aching legs to prove it.

Rocky Valley

Rocky Valley - Tintagel
Rocky Valley
It was getting a bit late now and I’d hardly ticked anything off my long list of places to photograph. With this in mind I headed off back towards Boscastle / Tinatgel way but not entirely sure where I was going. I knew I’d wanted to see the waterfall at St Nectan’s Glen and I’d spotted a place to park on the way up the coast. So I parked up in a wooded valley on the road between Boscastle and Tintagel and headed off down the valley towards the coast. I now know this was the wrong direction for the waterfall but was actually a good call. This valley is called Rocky Valley and the river Trevillet cascades down the high sided (rocky) valley before reaching the sea. The sides of the wooded valley reach 70 feet high at some points but it is also known for its rock carvings. Just by the derelict Trevillet Mill buildings are what are thought to be early Bronze Age carvings of circular mazes - obviously being within spitting distance of Tintagel the site is bit of a draw to New age crystal-licking, dolphin hugging types!

Ladies Window
Ladies Window
At the end of the valley I decided to turn right towards Boscastle as there was a photo I wanted to get looking up to the headlands at Boscastle harbour mouth. Like most of the coast path in this part of Cornwall this was hard going, plus I had the return journey to look forward to. It was also getting later so I went as fast as I could. I found the view I was looking for near a spot called Ladies Window. Although not immediately apparent the name comes from a rock arch on the cliffs here. The rock formations round here are generally of interest with huge sea stacks and islands like Firebeacon Hill, Grower Rock and Meachard. Whilst I could have sat here enjoying the view until dark there was still light so I rushed back along the coast path to Rocky Valley.

Back to Tintagel

I was now becoming acutely aware that the sun was setting and I didn't want to taking pictures in a wooded valley at sunset! At this point my legs wanted to go home but all that cycling around West Cornwall has taught me to grit my teeth and get on with it. So with minutes until sunset I jumped in the car and drove the couple of miles to Tintagel, parked up and headed for the cliffs.

Well, as so often happens there wasn't really a sunset - it was more a case of the sun apologetically shuffling off to bed! So there I was, camera in hand on the end of Barras Nose with no sunset. I did take a couple of photos looking up the coast and I’ll see if I can turn up the sunset with Photoshop, but not too hopeful.
On my return to the car I did get a shot I'm quite happy with of the Camelot Castle Hotel (designed by Silvanus Trevail if I'm not mistaken), so not a complete waste of time.

Camelot, Tintagel
Camelot Court Hotel, Tintagel

I was actually quite relieved when the sun disappeared as it meant I was heading 5 miles inland to my B&B in Camelford, ready for another full day’s photographing starting with Roughtor, the second highest point in all Cornwall!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Things to do IN Penzance - 21st Century edit

Whist recently doing a spot of research on things to do in Penzance I was more than a little surprised on how out of date much of the information on the internet was. For example, out of the Lonely Planet Guide’s suggested points of interest no less than 5 had closed down, including Coco’s which ceased to exist about 7 years ago. And this ranks #5 in Google?! For the record the Penzance Maritime Museum, the Trinity House Lighthouse Museum and the Geological Museum have all ceased to exist. I have to say that none of these are a huge loss, but it does reflect a changing holiday market.

Other guides seem to treat Penzance as 10 mile radius around Penzance including everything except the town itself! The number 2 ranking site on Google is very much guilty of this featuring not a single thing to do actually within Penzance itself! The ‘official’ Tourist Board website fares little better.

So what’s wrong with Penzance that these websites can’t provide a half decent list of things to do IN Penzance for someone visiting, possibly on foot? I have to point out here that having lived in Penzance for around 30 years I have managed to keep myself amused most of the time!

Chapel Street

My first suggestion would be to take a stroll down Chapel Street. This is often described as Penzance’s most historic street, and it is. Running from the centre of town to the harbour this is where the town of Penzance began. The headland at the bottom of Chapel Street which is called Battery Rocks was the original Holy Head(land) from which the town gets its name.

Chapel Street, Penzance
Penzance's historic Chapel Street
  Chapel Street is an eclectic and in some cases, unusual mixture of buildings mostly dating back to the 18th century but with some much older. It is an attractive street and contains a range of interesting shops, bars and pubs. Perhaps the most curious building on Chapel Street is the Egyptian House with its lotus columns and sphinx like adornments. Dating back to 1835 it is said to have been inspired by the Temple of Hat-hor in Egypt.

Most of Penzance’s best pubs are located on Chapel Street including the oldest, The Turk’s Head. Just a few doors down is Penzance’s best known pub - the Admiral Benbow. As much a maritime museum as a pub, with décor including cannons, diving finds and ship’s figureheads. If that wasn’t enough there is a smuggler straddling the roof with musket in hand!

The Jubilee Pool

Built in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V this fantastic art deco lido is still worth celebrating. Perched on the rocky headland at the eastern end of Penzance Promenade the Jubilee Pool is a marriage of form and function. Designed to withstand the battering of winter storms yet featuring the elegant sweeping curves you would expect from an art deco structure, the pool does not disappoint. It is both the largest lido and largest seawater pool in Britain too, in case you needed further reason to visit.

Penzance's Jubilee Pool
The Art-Deco Jubilee Pool
The Jubilee Pool is open throughout the summer and is a great spot for soaking up the sun out of the wind. And believe it or not, it’s a great spot for a swim; outside of the school holidays it’s never busy in the water and there is a small, shallow pool for young children too.
If all that isn't enough then there is a fantastically positioned café here overlooking both the pool and promenade. This is without doubt the best spot to enjoy a coffee or lunch on a calm summer’s day.

Art Galleries

Penzance has a rich artistic heritage dating back to the late 19th century when the Newlyn School came into being with artists such as Walter Langley, Stanhope Forbes and Dod Procter to name a few. Since then the area has been draw to artists of all styles and media. The artistic credentials of West Cornwall are further qualified by its proximity to St Ives with its artistic heritage and more recently the Tate St Ives.
Whilst St Ives may get the limelight, Penzance has not only what is probably the oldest established gallery in Cornwall but a host of other nationally and internationally recognised galleries.

The Exchange Gallery, Penzance
The Exchange Gallery
The Newlyn Art Gallery opened in 1895 as a place to exhibit the works of the Newlyn School artists. These were considered the avant-garde of their time and the Newlyn Art Gallery has stuck with its roots continuing to exhibit contemporary art. Many of the works from the Newlyn School are now located in the Penlee House Gallery and Museum including perhaps the best known, Norman Garstin’s “The Rain it Raineth Every Day”.
The newest of Penzance’s big galleries is the Exchange. Built in 2006 this provides what is described as a major contemporary art space. The gallery has allowed larger scale works to be seen in the region that was previously possible. The building itself is a feature; a former telephone exchange, the ground floor external wall has been replaced by a 30 meter long undulating window containing an array of coloured LED lights. So even when the gallery is closed in the evening, it is well worth a visit.

Morrab Gardens

The 3 and a half acre Morrab Gardens stretch from the town centre down to the sea front. The name “Morrab” itself means sea shore. Once the private garden of a local brewer the gardens were bought by the town council in 1889.

Sub-Tropical Morrab Gardens
Penzance's sub-tropical  Morrab Gardens
The gardens are attractively laid out but it is their reputation for being home to a range of sub-tropical species rarely seen in the UK that makes Morrab Gardens worthy of note. There are tree ferns, Japanese bitter orange and even banana plants to name but a few examples. It is the mild West Cornwall microclimate that allows such plants to thrive with their rarely being a frost.

Montol and Golowan

 Over recent years two Penzance traditions have been revived; Montol and Golowan.
Montol translates to ‘winter solstice’ and involves a costumed procession through the town culminating in the ‘Lighting of the Mock’ (a bonfire) on Leskudjack Hill, Penzance’s most ancient site. Whilst I have seen it written that the procession resembles that of the Venetian Masquerade’s ‘Rivers of Fire’ parade I think this is getting a little carried away!

Mazey Day / Golowan
Mazey Day - Part of the Golowan celebrations
Golowan, or the Feast of St John, is a much bigger affair taking place around the opposite solstice in June. Like Montol, Golowan kicks off with a torch lead procession with more than a nod to its pagan roots. At the head of this procession down to the quayside is Penglaz, a sinister looking figure with a horse’s skull for a head.

The main event of Golowan is Mazey Day in which traffic is banned from the town centre and a day of parades, street entertainers and market stalls commences. One of the high points of the day are the processions of local school children accompanied by a spectacular array of giant effigies based on the year’s theme.  If you don’t like crowds then Mazey Day might not be for you as it is pretty busy affair.

Throughout the Golowan period there are a host of activities on the fringe. These range from musicians and entertainers from all over the world to the ‘Mock Mayor’ elections, a celebration of the ridiculous. Other favourites include the Mazey Boats Regatta down at the boating pool in which home made model sailing boats race it out.

So, there we have it. A few suggestions on what to do actually in the town of Penzance, and one that only lists things that are not closed down or 5 years out of date! Even if you do nothing mentioned above it is worth a walk around the town and harbour. Penzance is after all a historic market town with an artistic heritage and strong local community working to keep the town as vibrant as ever.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Eden Project in The Winter

I have to admit the idea of getting up at 7.00 am on a Sunday morning to drive to the Eden Project did not fill me with excitement! I've been there a fair few times before and whilst I wouldn't say the place didn't impress me I wouldn't say it interested me much either. Anyway, this was February and we were heading up with the kids to go ice skating and a Shaun the Sheep modelling work shop - wahoo!

After the delights of driving along the A30 and the highlights of Bugle (sorry anyone from Bugle) we arrived in the Banana car park of the Eden Project - it's sort of banana shaped I suppose. From there we made our way down to the mega gift shop, sorry entrance. That is after stopping off in what were the poshest toilets I've been in for quite some time. Being from round ere we got out our 'Local Pass', which, for £7.50, means I can return for free for the rest of the year. They weren't taking any chances though, proof of address etc...

Eden Project
The Eden Project
 When we had negotiated the steep zig-zagging slope (the kids only fell over twice)  down to the main area I was feeling a little more positive about things. It was a nice day, there weren't too many people around and everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I thought I'd better.
The ice skating area is under a big canvas canopy a little way from the biomes. Inside there is the ice rink and  the Eden Winter Cafe, which actually did make me feel remotely festive, especially after a hot drink. With that we took to the ice.

Eden Winter Cafe
Eden Winter Cafe

Now this wasn't the kind of ice most of you will be familiar with. I.e. it wasn't slippy ice. It kind of had a powdery texture and was about as grippy as carpet. But, there were lots of sledges, plastic dumper trucks and tricycle type things all over the ice and the amazing thing is they did slide! So as you can imagine this combination of slippy and grippy allowed me to run around whilst pulling the kids in a sledge...
...for what felt like hours! I'm sure it did me good and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it. There was also lots of them scooting around on various vehicles and pulling each other around. So, the verdict lots of fun was had by all!

After the kids session a tractor like-machine called the Olympian 2000 or something came and magically transformed the ice back into the slippery sort of ice we are all familiar with.

Eden Ice
Kids Ice Session at Eden Project

My oldest and me were booked into a Shaun the Sheep modelling work shop run by the people from Ardman (Wallace & Grommet etc). The deal was you pay £5 and you get to make your own Shaun the Sheep out of plasticine, sorry, modelling clay. Anyway, we had a bit of time to kill so we had a look in the giant yurt type structure next door where some more sheep related activities were going on. I was a tad apprehensive when we first entered as there was a massive wood burner in the middle with only a rail to prevent careering kids from roasting themselves. None did whilst I was in there so maybe kids are smarter than they look?!
There were a few crafty activities going on and we made a bobble sheep just to get in the mood.

Shaun the Sheep as mad by us!
So, on to the workshop proper. I was very impressed to find that the people running it where actual Ardman modellers - these are the people who actually make Wallace and Grommet! I'm guessing they didn't have kids of their own as when I asked one if they'd met Wallace and Grommet she replied, 'Oh, yes. There's hundreds of them'. I think my 6 year old had probably already figured out they weren't real but...

To cut a long story short we were instructed and given a few pointers on how to make our own Shauns. Amazingly enough it worked, although if you give a 6 year old black and white plasticine much of it ends up a dirty grey.

That was the structured part of the day. We sat on a bench and scoffed our home made sandwiches and headed off to the Eden Project proper. Now, since I had last been things seemed to have grown to fill in the void in front of the biomes. It did in places have the feel of a garden centre but generally it looked nice. There are also lots of sculptures and the likes around the place such as water features. Nearly all of these have clever little features, visual puns, that sort of thing which I have to admit to liking.

Well, here I am at the Eden Project actually thinking this is quite a nice place to spend a bit of time. Admittedly it was quiet and the weather was nice, but this is an improvement on my previous feelings. Now for Eden's raison d'etre - the biomes.

There are two biomes linked by the central cafe area. There is the Tropical Biome and the Mediterranean Biome. I'm assuming you all no what a biome is. Everyone knows what a biome is don't they? OK, for those who don't, imagine and enormous dome shaped green house made up of hexagonal panes of plastic. Somewhat like the molecular structure of Buckminsterfullerene I would guess, if that helps!

Eden Project Biome
The Buckminsterfulerene like qualities of the Eden Project
So off we headed to the tropical rain forest dressed in scarves, hats and winter coats - it turns out there is a cloakroom next door, but anyway. I quite like the heat but my missus was not a happy camper. By the time we had ascended the paths up the biome her hair had gone frizzy, she was developing jungle fever and was getting a touch short tempered! So we headed out.

Tropical biome
Biome was so tropical it steamed up my camera!
On the way out my son spotted the platform at the end of a stairway, suspended from the top of the dome. He wanted to go up there so I think I might have volunteered to take him. At the foot of the stairs there was a lady who told us we would have to wait about 10 minutes and gave me a thing to read. I started reading it, and the warnings about heart conditions and vertigo, and... well it was then that I decided we weren't going up there. This didn't go down very well with the boy, but I had to protect him from seeing his father crawling along on hands and knees whilst sweating profusely and mumbling.

On to the Mediterranean biome. This time we'd found the cloakroom, which made it a lot more pleasant. I have to say this was my favourite bit. Admittedly I didn't look at a single plant but there is a square there. The sort of square you find in Mediterranean villages with tables and chairs. It was sunny outside and the temperature was in the 20s, along with the smell of the plants it actually felt like being on holiday. I think even the kids were convinced for about a minute. I would have been happy sitting there, working on my tan all day, but alas it was time to go.

Eden installation
One of those installations
Back up to the exit / gift shop / cafe / environmental awareness centre for a cuppa before hitting the road. I am slightly cynical about the Eden Project's green credentials, surely the most environmentally friendly thing they could have done was nothing, i.e. not build it. There is also the rumour that they were orginally going to build it in a pristine valley and not a disused quarry. Whether this is true or not I don't know.
That said the kids thoroughly enjoyed watching the installation here. It is an automated puppet show telling of what would happen if there were no plants, with the unfortunate puppets losing everything including their clothes. The kids really revelled in the puppets misfortune, not sure if they got the take home message, but hey!

In conclusion, the family went to the Eden Project and had a nice day out in February. And my opinion of the place has, grudgingly, slightly improved. All it need now is a few wild animals roaming the biomes, tigers and the likes, and I will be completely sold on it.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Padstow - 5 Things to Do on Holiday

The bustling North Cornwall port of Padstow has been a centre for fishing and boat building since mediaeval times and an attractive town has grown around the harbour over the years. Padstow’s former prosperity can be seen in the imposing Georgian (and older) buildings that line the quayside. Whilst once the merchants who owned them traded cargoes from far and wide now-a-days they are home to cafes, holiday accommodation and shops.
Padstow harbour
Although the traditional industries have largely disappeared Padstow has had a renaissance as an upmarket holiday destination, some may say due to the influence of celebrity chef Rick Stein. The harbour is still as thriving as it ever was but now the custom is the holiday trade. Fishing boats have to a large extent been replaced by cruisers and yachts and fisherman’s cottages are now some of the most desirable holiday accommodation in Cornwall. There are still a few fishing boats, but most of their catch is destined for the table of the numerous fine eating establishments.

So, once you have spent a day or so pottering around the harbour, sitting in the cafes and admiring the view from your cottage what next? Well, the list of suggestions below are a few of my favourites and there should be at least one to suit everyone and help get the most out of your holiday in Padstow.

Cycle the Camel Trail

Camel Trail
Cycle the Camel Trail
Whilst you may think this sounds a little energetic it doesn't have to be. The trail follows and old, disused railway line running from Padstow to Bodmin, passing through Wadebridge. As such it is relatively flat, since steam engines weren’t great at pulling loads up steep hills. It is a well maintained route stretching for 11 miles, or 17 if you continue after Bodmin. The trail caters for everyone; walkers, horse riders and birdwatchers but it is best known as a cycle route.

The scenery is some of Cornwall’s finest as the trail follows the route of the River Camel the 11 miles to Bodmin. The surrounds are also a haven for wildlife with many relatively rare water birds such as curlews and egrets to be seen. Whilst most cyclists call it quits at Bodmin there is a further section leading up to the village of Blisland on Bodmin Moor. This steeper wooded section is more demanding but the views and scenery at the top are worth it.

The Camel Trail is traffic free and safe for families. It can also be taken at your own pace with plenty of refreshment spots en route, and a great pub at the end! If you haven’t got a bike with you that’s not a problem as there are plenty of places to hire a bike in Padstow and Wadebridge.

Go to the Beach

Some of the best sandy beaches in Cornwall are within a stone’s throw of Padstow. Just a few hundred metres along the coast path, north of the harbour is a magnificent stretch of sand incorporating Hawker’s Cove, St George’s Cove and Tregirls beach.
Padstow Beaches
St George's to Hawkers Cove
If you don’t mind a short drive then there are a plethora of beaches within range. Head a few miles west to the popular and safe, family friendly beaches of Trevone and Harlyn Bay. Both are lifeguarded and slightly more sheltered than many of the North Coast beaches. Harlyn is also home to one of the areas best regarded surf schools.

Alternatively you can catch the ferry from the harbour over to the super posh village of Rock on the other side of the Camel. There are a few great beaches within walking distance of here starting with Rock beach itself. This dune backed, sandy beach follows the estuary around to the next beach, Daymer Bay, a lovely sheltered beach bordered  by sand dunes. If you really fancy a walk, the next beach around is Polzeath, another great family beach with a reputation as a surfing hotspot.

Dine with Stein!

Rick Stein restaurant
Rick Stein Seafood Restaurant
Whether Padstow’s fortunes are directly to Rick Stein or not there is no way of getting away from him. With an empire comprising of four cafes and restaurants, four shops, a cookery school and several upmarket accommodation options it is no wonder the town has been dubbed Padstein.

The original Rick Stein restaurant is the Seafood restaurant which is generally well regarded if a little pricey. If you want to tick it off the list but save yourself a few quid don’t bank on Stein's Fish and Chips being the answer. Whilst the menu has some slightly more exotic offerings than the average chippy, expect to pay a premium for it. Of the four I think I’d be plumping for tea and cake at the café and leaving my bank balance relatively unscathed!

Go on a boat trip

Boating excursions from Padstow’s harbour are a great way to explore this part of the North Cornish Coast. There are a host of companies running cruises and angling trips with sailing times depending on the tides. Just to the east of Padstow is the striking double headland of the Rumps, with several islands just off the coast including Puffin Island - guess what you can spot here! Head in the opposite direction around Stepper Point and there are numerous points of interest such as Tregudda Gorge and Trevose Head beyond.
Wildlife spotting
Grey Seal

Wildlife spotting trips are popular and there is always something to see at anytime of year. Common sightings include seals, dolphins and a host of sea-birds  If you are lucky and it is the right time of year you may even spot basking sharks and sunfish. Perhaps the most spectacular sighting was a year or 2 ago when a pod of killer whales were spotted of Trevose Head.

Get on yer Obby Oss!

Padstow Obby Oss
Obby Oss catches a maiden
Before there were any celebrity chefs, or tourists for that matter Padstow was known for its May Day celebration, the annual Obby Oss (hobby horse) festival. Derived from some sort of Beltane, pre-Christian fertility rite the custom revolves around the two Obby Osses and their teams gallivanting around town in search of maidens to accost! The two teams are headed by their respective Osses (a sort of one man pantomime horse) and consist mainly of morris dancing types dressed in white and playing accordions / banging drums. They are named the ‘Blue Ribbon’ and the ‘Old’ Osses. Sounds bizarre? Well it kind of is and get there early as it’s busy.

There is a less well known tradition on Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Mumming Day, or Darkie Days as previously known, involves the slightly dubious practice of the townsfolk dressing up and performing as minstrels. It isn't clear what the origin of the custom is and certainly there is no racist intent these days.

So there are a few ideas to get going with, there are plenty of other things to do in and around Padstow such as visiting the National Lobster Hatchery or enjoying a pint in the London Inn. Whatever you decide with such a picturesque town and fantastic surroundings you'll find plenty of things to do on holiday in Padstow.

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