I was intrigued by Nancy E. Anderson’s recent column in which she describes her fixation on Instagram’s “cheap old houses” and dreams of buying one nearby and fixing it up. It probably won’t happen, she admits, but still: what a hoot to imagine!
My wife Ronna and I share a similar fantasy about getting a small second home, except it wouldn’t be here, it would be in Cornwall in the South West of England or the Cotswolds, two of our places favourites.
We vacationed in Cornwall a few years ago, staying in a self catering apartment in the legendary seaside town of St. Ives. One of the charms of England, apart from the fact that the English speak a variant of our mother tongueis that so many real places relate to legendary tales – Loch Ness and Guy of Warwick and Sherwood Forest and the like.
So yes, St. Ives is the same town the nursery rhyme comes from: While I was going to St. Ives, I met a man who had seven wives. Each woman had seven bags, each bag had seven cats, each cat had seven kittens. Kits, cats, bags and wives, How many went to St. Ives? (The answer is stated in the St. Ives problem. I was mistaken.)
To get from London to St. Ives, you take the five-and-a-half-hour Great Western Railway south-west through Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall and disembark in the small village of St. Erth. Here, perhaps due to sleep deprivation and jet lag, I found the journey to take on an almost hallucinogenic quality, as if I had entered the legendary Brigadoon or walked across the 9¾ platform at King’s Cross and boarded the Hogwarts Express. It was, in reality, the charming St. Ives Bay Line, which on its short but scenic journey along the ocean passes through the small towns of Lelant and Carbis Bay before ending in St. Ives.
Our week-long rental apartment was a few hundred yards from St. Ives train station, handy for carrying luggage and taking day trips to other parts of Cornwall. One such trip was to Port Isaac, site of the British TV series “Doc Martin”.
Taking public transit from St. Ives to Port Isaac involved too many tricky transfers for our liking, so we opted to hire a car for the 54-mile journey instead.
The first challenge, after getting behind the wheel and getting used to driving on the “wrong” side of the car on the “wrong” side of the road, was to negotiate the frequent roundabouts, or roundabouts as we let’s call. Almost hit a car traveling in first gear. Then, as things seemed to calm down and we were happily driving north along the A30, the GPS suddenly announced that there were traffic jams ahead of us and told us to take a “shortcut”. Before Ronna could say ‘no’ I said ‘yes’ and we found ourselves directed down narrow country roads barely wide enough for a horse and a carriage, let alone two cars, and then through a village where I managed to wipe off a concrete pole. Ouch!
Luckily Port Isaac was beautiful and fun (“Wow, there’s Doc Martin’s surgery!”) And as I had cautiously taken out collision insurance beforehand, we only had the £100 deductible instead of 1 £000 to replace the smashed door. So, yes, an expensive but wonderful trip.
Each day we hiked considerable distances, sometimes 15 or 20 miles along the 630 mile South West Coast Trail, hiking and eating out being our two favorite activities. One afternoon we decided to take the five mile trip from St. Ives to Lelant on the Interior Walking Trail.
At one point the path ran alongside the railroad tracks, and when a St. Ives Bay Line train rumbled past, I stopped to watch. As a train enthusiast, I was, as Wordsworth said, in heaven.
Then the weather changed, the heavens opened up and it started to rain. The wind whipped the dripping foliage over us like hair-shirts and we were soon soaked. Worse, we managed to get lost and thought we could wander forever, two soggy chunks floating on a fetid stream. Just then, like magic, we came across a local gentleman walking his dog. What about the British? They seem to dress up for even the most mundane of occasions. If I remember correctly, he carried an umbrella and wore a smartly turned jacket, waistcoat and tie under his Macintosh and wore rubber boots and a cheery cap. Perhaps he was returning from a morning at the club to sample kippers and sip whiskey. “Why yes,” he gently assured us, “Lelant is right up front.” We were happy to take the train to St. Ives.
If getting soaked was the low point of the trip – and actually it was kind of fun, after the fact – the highlight was a bus ride. (No more car journeys for us.) We had planned to take the local bus from St. Ives to Penzance, another legendary town thanks to the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
It wasn’t until we arrived at the Tesco station bus stop two blocks from our apartment that we discovered we had just missed No 16, the direct route. The ticket agent suggested we take the next bus, the more leisurely #16A to Penzance which would be arriving soon. He did it and we did it. It turned out to be glorious luck, because #16A was a magical bus, and it took us on the most magical ride ever.
Instead of embracing the bay like No. 16, No. 16A meandered inland through the stunning Cornish countryside, up and down green and rolling landscapes, rugged and beautiful, and is stopped to pick up and discharge passengers at the most amazing places, one more picturesque and fancifully named than the next – the Halsetown Inn, Travalgan Towednack Turn, Zennor Turn, Gurnard’s Head Hotel, Lower Ninnes Newmill, Trevaylor Farm, Heamoor Mounts Bay School and Lower Ninnes Trythall School – before sliding down to Penzance.
Founded in the 16th century, Penzance is a town of 21,000 on the edge of south-west England, made famous by ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ in which burly sailors sing ‘A rambunctious band of pirates, we who we are tired of throwing ourselves on the sea, trying to be a burglar, with sinister and bloody weapons.
After breakfast at a restaurant in pirate-free Penzance, we followed the coastal path and headed a few miles east to the town of Marazion. There, straddling the bay just half a mile offshore (close enough to walk on the paved causeway at low tide), is the 17-acre island known as St. Michael’s Mount, atop which sits are terraced gardens and a magnificent medieval castle.
The island has been in the St. Aubyn family since 1659, we learned, but in 1954 Patriarch Francis St. Aubyn ceded much of it plus an endowment for its upkeep to the National Trust. The family retained a 999-year lease (now AD 931) to remain tenants of the castle. I would have liked to come across one of the St. Aubyns; maybe we did it without knowing it.
After visiting the castle, we crossed the causeway to Marazion and stopped at a restaurant where I took a snapshot of Ronna reading the round table. Long-time readers will recall photos of people reading the paper in exotic locations (at the Great Wall! near the Great Pyramid of Giza! at Mammoth Cave!), which were once a staple photo of the print edition. .
Then it was time to walk the three and a half miles to Penzance and catch the #16 bus back. It was a fun ride, but not as magical as #16A.
All I can say is: Thank you driver for taking us there.