Exploring Britain 2. West Penwith

Wednesday 12th August 2013
Our next foray was south west, down into Cornwall’s far western tip where Land’s End drops off into the Atlantic waters which surge around England’s toe, with the Longships lighthouse and the Scillies lying clearly visible a few miles off shore.

Land’s End with the lighthouse beyond

Cornwall is practically an annual pilgrimage for us. We always stay at the same, rather dilapidated campsite on the cliff tops overlooking the old Levant mining workings dating back to the end of the 18th century when Cornwall was one of the world’s chief sources of tin and copper. The old engine house with its steam powered nodding donkey, used to pump water out from the shafts and tunnels, has been laboriously restored and is open to the public. It is in the care of the English National Trust and is one of its more unusual buildings. The beam engine itself is a wonder of 19th century engineering, a goliath of iron and steel that runs whisper quiet.

The nearby Geevor tin mine is still maintained on a care and maintenance basis and could theoretically reopen if the world market for ore and minerals made it viable. As it is, it is used as a visitor and interpretation centre managed by retired miners who lead parties underground along some of the safe and accessible galleries and adits. In its time it had some shafts that went out beneath the cliffs and the sea bed. I cannot imagine how it must feel to work in dark, wet and dangerous conditions with the sound of boulders rolling on the seabed above my head! In my childhood when we came this way a clifftop walk would sometimes reveal a long slick of red on the surface of the sea as the ore was crushed and washed to extract it from the mud and rock, the waste being washed out into the sea.

We left Exeter in the rain and an hour later we were already in Cornwall. At Camelford we stopped to buy our first real Cornish pasties. They were the Real McCoy, filled with a mouth watering mixture of hot meat, potatoes, carrots, onions and swede and wrapped in a shortcrust pastry with a hand crimped seal. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to visit Cornwall without tasting one. Legend states they were baked by the miners’ wives, carried to the pithead at lunchtime and dropped down the shaft. Thus the pastry is supposed to be firm enough to sustain the impact at the bottom. It is also said that the originals were meat at one end and fruit at the other but I’ve never seen one of these.

Near St. Ives we left the trunk road and took the narrow winding clifftop route that for my money is the most beautiful in England. The road winds and twists between hedges of wild flowers and lichen-covered dry stone walls pierced by wooden gates overgrown with white nettle and pink campion. Over the gates peer the healthy Cornish cattle, roaming in their clifftop pastures and producing the county’s second culinary delight, clotted cream. The road winds around old stone barns, through farmsteads, past old abandoned mine workings overgrown with orange montbretia, and past isolated Wesleyan chapels, frequently enjoying a new lease of life as a holiday home. The open top bus runs this route during the season and inevitably they are encountered at a point where the stone walls almost touch us on either side. Fortunately the cows are good natured about us squeezing up against their gate as the bus noses past us, the top deck filled with happy holiday makers leaning over to see if they really will avoid scraping us! What few trees there may be are in the hollows leading down to the sea or are bent and shaped into exotic shapes by the wind. The sea stretches to the wide horizon with glimpses of the Lands End Lighthouse way in the distance. The coastal footpath hugs the top of the cliff edge, right down there beside the sea.

Passing the Geevor mine we turned off down towards the Levant Count House, once the administrative centre for the mine and the residence of the manager. Today it is at the centre of a deserted campsite which manages, despite itself, to look beautiful, overgrown with wild pink and blue hydrangeas, red fuchsias and clumps of orange montbretia. The owner has tidied it up considerably but it is a daunting task to maintain single handed when her health is not what it once was. She now only accepts people she knows. So while other sites are smart and crowded, apart from a few campers in the field behind the house, we have the grounds to ourselves. Our hostess keeps the facilities spotless though they are undeniably shabby. She provides the best showers I’ve enjoyed anywhere while camping, though I frequently share it with a few large spiders and grasshoppers. She is sometimes glad of friendly company of an evening and may join us for a chat as we wait for Remoska to cook our supper and sit outside with a glass of wine. It’s all quite civilised really.

Levant Count House, Pendeen, Cornwall

Modestine settles for a few days of rest, Pendeen, Cornwall

It was good to be back sleeping in Modestine again with the sound of the wind blowing in from the Atlantic, the distant sound of the waves breaking against the cliffs and the familiar pattering of the rain on the roof during the night.

Next morning the sun was out but a fresh breeze made walking pleasant. We decided to take the bus to Land’s End. It wasn’t due for nearly an hour, leaving us time for a walk through the Levant mine workings following a cliff path through the heather and thrift towards the next village along the route. It lead us past the cottage used in the televised version of the Poldark stories, as lovely today as it looked on the screen. We also skirted the interpretation centre with an exhibition explaining how thermal energy is now produced from deep in the mines by pumping down water through drill holes, deep into the Earth’s crust. Simply stated, it displaces the water table forcing thermally heated waters back to the surface.

Early morning on the cliffs of West Cornwall

Remains of mineworkings on the cliffs of West Cornwall

Old mine workings, Crowns mine, West Cornwall

Interpretation centre for thermal energy, West Cornwall

Nanparra, the fictitious home of Captain Ross Poldark, West Cornwall

On an impulse we got off the bus at Sennan Cove and continues our walk across the cliffs. Sennan is a very agreeable little fishing village but during the summer its main industry is tourism. There are cottages offering teas, coffees and snacks to take out to the sandy beach, or slightly smarter cafes catering for those wanting to sit at a table. The old circular shed that once held the winch for pulling in the fishing boats has now become a very pleasant tourist shop selling locally made crafts ranging from jewellery to ceramics, driftwood mirrors and lamps, stunning framed local photos and prints and of course paintings by local artists.

Once we’d struggled up the steep path from the cove, through a waving hillside of bright orange montbretia the walking was level and easy. We scrambled happily on, looking forward to our strong coffee in the Lands End Hotel lounge overlooking the rocks offshore, crowned by the Longships lighthouse around which the ocean boiled and broke onto the rocks in a spew of white foam. Beyond lay St. Mary’s, the largest of the Scillies and the “capital” of this archipelago of tiny islands. We flew out there once, a present from our children, and stayed in Hugh Town, St. Mary’s capital. It was smaller than many a village and we called it Huge Town!

Looking down onto Sennan Cove, West Cornwall

Between Sennan and Land’s End, West Cornwall

Approaching Land’s End

In my childhood Land’s End was just that. There was just the headland and a cafe. People came simply because it was there. Since then it has been purchased by a company who have developed it as a holiday amusement complex with several small cinemas, lots of restaurants, a ghost train and other fairground activities. There are rope-swinging adventure activities fo the kids and lots of staff wandering around dressed as pirates or 19th century Cornish maidens. You can make your own souvenir coins or be photographed next to a finger post marking the number of miles from Lands End to your home town, be it Adelaide, New York or simply tiny Piddletrenthyde in Dorset. Despite all this the place is fun for an hour or so. We watched the video of the different ways in which eccentric Brits have made the journey between Lands End and John O’Groats at the far tip of Scotland. No wonder the French think we are all bonkers! We do raise lots of money for charity it seems, by being pushed the entire distance in a hospital bed, fitting a motor to a garden shed and driving there or, taking off everything you wear except your hiking boots and walking the distance! That’s quite good as you get free overnight accommodation at police stations along the way!! We left with aspirations of what we might achieve with Modestine!

Welcome to Lands End, the end of the road!

The bus then took us down to Lamorna, a very pretty little fishing cove on the more sheltered south side of the Penwith Peninsula. It is a popular place with summer visitors but apart from the pleasant woodland walk down to the sea, we found little to detain us when we arrived. Our quickest way home was to take another bus into Penzance and from there across the peninsula to our village on the wilder north coast.

Lamorna Cove, West Cornwall

Jill at Lamorna Cove, West Cornwall

That evening the Pendeen Miners Silver Band, which has existed for well over a hundred years, was giving a concert in the parish church. Many of the band members today are the grandchildren of the original miners who started the band back in the days when mining was the main industry in the area. Now they have closed there is almost nothing to replace them and many people are unemployed. Tourism is about all there is, and that mainly along the more sheltered south side of the peninsula. We joined the families and friends of the players and enjoyed a really good evening listening to traditional Cornish songs and hymns played on cornets, bugles and trumpets with the people around us singing along while the vicar beamed from the front row. During the break we drank awful instant coffee at the back of the church, ate rich tea biscuits and chatted with the very friendly natives. The St. Buryan Male Voice Choir joined the band to sing a particularly moving song celebrating the safe return of the local lifeboatmen from a rescue mission to save the lives of fishermen caught in a storm offshore. To hear it sung by fishermen, some lifeboatmen themselves, is a very moving experience. The mood cheered up with the Cornish Floral Dance and of course what is almost the Cornish Nationalists’ anthem, “Shall Trelawney Live?” We walked back to the campsite in the darkness through the falling rain glad we’d remembered to take our torch.

Next day was sunny and warm. An excellent day to take the open top bus back along the winding cliff road to St. Ives. The bus is superb around this area as there are no parking problems in the narrow streets of the coastal towns and villages and their timetable is very accurate. It is a lifeline to much of the community. They are so big, everything must give way to them and this time it was our turn to cheer as we safely negotiated our way past anxious drivers squashing into gateways to let us pass.

St. Ives is fun. It retains its charm despite its overwhelming popularity with visitors captivated by it quaint winding streets of stone cottages, its many little shops, restaurants, pubs and art galleries as well as its sandy beaches, cliff top walks, guest houses and cottages to let, its harbour of fishing boats and opportunities to sail with them; and of course, the Tate Modern gallery with its modern art. This is the artistic zenith of the town, an outreach of the London Tate. Besides the works of modern art it is also a venue for lectures and concerts. We have visited it a few years back, but for us, one visit to any modern art gallery is generally sufficient. Not all may agree but you’ll just have to go there yourselves. We just fail to properly understand it though I admit St. Ives is better than many and certainly colourful.

Tate Modern, St. Ives, Cornwall

What we do appreciate though is the wonderful sculpture displays. They are exhibited in the garden of the renowned sculptor Barbara Hepworth who lived and worked in St. Ives. All the works are by her. It is a delightful place with her stunning sculptures displayed in sylvan settings above the tangle of tiny streets down in the town.

Another great name in British art attracted by the atmosphere of St. Ives is Bernard Leach the potter. He died in 1972 but the Bernard Leach pottery continues to exist high above the town, run by his pupils. There is a museum displaying a number of his works.

At lunchtime we bought our second pasties of the trip and took them on to the beach. Around us dads were building sandcastles while pretending to be helping their offspring. Others were sunbathing, swimming, paddling or catching crabs in little buckets. Along the breakwater a crack squadron of seagulls were lined up ready to take to the air at the first opportunity and carry out a low level raid along the beach, carpet bombing us all with bird poo and flying off with whatever they’d managed to snatch from unsuspecting picnickers hands. They can be a real menace in popular resorts.

Jill relaxing in the sunshine, St. Ives, Cornwall

Holiday makers on the beach at St. Ives, Cornwall

Coastal scenery, St. Ives, Cornwall

We explored the streets around the harbour with difficulty. Just too many people insist on driving through, convinced they will find a parking space. They end up going away disappointed but meanwhile they do make it difficult and dangerous for those on foot, especially children and those with pushchairs.

We climbed to the tiny fishermen’s chapel/shipping aid on the cliffs and walked back down beside the Tate before climbing the steep street up to the bus station above the town to continue round the coast on to Penzance and change on to our bus home. It had been a delightful day.

Part of the Cornwall experience has to include visiting a Cornish Meadery. I don’t think it is a tradition born back in the mists of time, though of course mead itself was. It’s just a rather nice way to use some of the many Wesleyan chapels no longer actively serving the Methodist miners. There is one such chapel in Trewellard and we were too weary from having fun to cook. So we found ourselves seated in the dark candlelit interior of the chapel on one of the old pews while mead was dispensed from the disaffected altar and we were served Chicken in the Rough on a wooden board. Instead of cutlery we were given tiny finger bowls of lemon water to rinse our fingers which we has to use to eat the meal of succulent roast chicken, chips and salad. It’s fun on holiday but I prefer a few more comforts with my meal, especially as it’s not particularly cheap. The mead is wine infused with honey. It is really sweet and I hate sweet drinks. Why do I go? Because it’s there of course!

Our final day on our brilliant and relaxing holiday in Cornwall we spent re-exploring Penzance, where the railway terminates, having nowhere else to go. Once, in fitter days, we walked across the Land’s End Peninsula, across the heather covered moorland with its ancient standing stones and prehistoric burial chambers, following green lanes between hedgerows through the centre of the peninsula, stopping to rest and dry out from the rain in the tiny ancient stone church of Sancreed with its mossy churchyard of ancient gravestones, before emerging, footsore and weary, on the opposite coast somewhere near Newlyn. We walking back to the centre of Penzance congratulating ourselves on walking Britain coast to coast! In fact it was probably less than ten miles all told but we did start on the north coat and finish on the south!

Stouter in stature and weaker in spirit, this time we took the bus into town and set out to rediscover some of the hidden corners of Penzance. Starting at the top of the curiously named Market Jews Street stands the old market hall flanked by the white marble statue of Humphrey Davy, perhaps Penzance’s most famous citizen. A renowned scientist and member of the Royal Institution he specialised in electrochemistry and is best remembered for inventing the miners safety lamp which bears his name. He discovered the anaesthetic properties of laughing gas and gave support and encouragement to the work of Michael Faraday.

Pedestrianised shopping street with 1920s savoy cinema, Penzance, Cornwall

Market Hall and statue of Humphrey Davy, Penzance, Cornwall

Down towards the harbour is a curious building in Egyptian style. Opposite is an hotel existing since Elizabethan times where the news of the Death of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar was first announced in November 1805 when the official courier landed nearby as he rushed to get the news to London. The inn was also the centre of leisure for Penzance in Georgian times with its grand assembly room, now used as the hotel ballroom.

Egyptian style facade, Penzance, Cornwall

Union Hotel, where the news of Nelson’s death was first proclaimed, Penzance, Cornwall

Read all about it! Union Inn, Penzance, Cornwall

Nelson’s portrait in the bar of the Union Inn. If you twist his arm he’ll have a half, (Nelson), Cornwall. (Sorry, it’s a convoluted joke.)

Further along the street we found the Hypatia library, a collection of diaries, books, documents and artefacts relating to women’s history. It also functions as a coffee shop with a delightful pleasant atmosphere, a sunny courtyard with tables and rooms with comfortable armchairs and sofas to relax with a book and a coffee.

We were dead set though on something far less civilised. Down on the harbour, just beyond the bridge and the dry dock stands an unpretentious waterside cafe serving not only good coffee but traditional all day cooked breakfasts. It was now lunch time and we’d skipped breakfast so decided we could indulge in a plate loaded with egg, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushroom, hash brown and baked beans with a slice of toast. The diet starts here! As we ate in blissful enjoyment we watched the fishing boats moored to the harbour wall or chugging out towards the open sea. Cormorants, shags and seagulls settled on the boats’ gunnels, drying their wings, squawking and fluttering or diving into the water when they spotted lunch swimming by.

British breakfast. Penzance, Cornwall

Penzance harbour, Cornwall

Penzance harbour, Cornwall

Next, we jumped aboard a pirate ship and the captain said to me, “we’ve got this thing that thing for’ard and back'ard” and left us to browse the tatty souvenirs aimed to rob little children of their pocket money. We left with a pirate flag for Modestine or one of the grandchildren.

Pirate ship filled with treasure and prisoners at the harbour, Penzance, Cornwall

From here the Scillonian leaves daily in the season for the Scillies. We do wonder what happens to the islanders when the ship either does not run over the winter period or the sea is too rough to reach St. Mary’s. The miniscule planes working with little more than a wind up elastic band to catapult a couple of passengers over from the cliff top near Land’s End cannot possible serve the population. We know, that’s how we went over! And we were then stuck there for four days with the pilot when the weather closed in as we landed on the cliffs of St. Mary’s! So precise is the loading we and our luggage were both weighed before the flight!

Further along the shore towards Newlyn we found the huge and delightful Art Deco swimming pool filled with sea water where hardy local people were diving. Holiday makers were less enthusiastic as the breeze came in from the sea.

Art Deco swimming pool, Penzance, Cornwall

Out to sea the distinctive cone shaped St. Michael’s Mount rose from the water topped by its castle and the old abbey buildings. This makes a very pleasant outing when at low tide it can be reached across the sands where the remains of an ancient forest lie buried. It dates from the time when the mount was still part of the mainland. St. Michael’s mount is similar to Mont St. Michel off the Normandy coast though smaller and less commercialised.

St. Michael’s Mount seen from Penzance, Cornwall

Leaving the harbour we returned up into the town through the really lovely sub tropical Morrab gardens with their palm trees, huge gunnera plants, glorious flower beds, attractive bandstand and numerous green and mossy pools filled with goldfish. The private Morrab library of local history was closed for refurbishment so it will be an excuse for a future visit.

Delightful crescent, Penzance, Cornwall

Local history library, Morrab gardens, Penzance, Cornwall

Bandstand, Morrab Gardens, Penzance, Cornwall

Pond with gunnera, Morrab gardens, Penzance, Cornwall

Finally we went to the Penlee Gardens housing the council offices and the art gallery with its pleasant tea room. The grounds contain an open air theatre and a garden of remembrance.

Art Gallery, Penlee Gardens, Penzance, Cornwall

Back at the bus station we decided to take the bus along to Marazion. This charming village is the nearest point on the mainland for St. Michaels Mount. When we arrived the tide was wrong for walking across though a few visitors were hurrying back to the shore in their swim wear as the tide closed in, returning the mount to an island until the tide changed.

St. Michael’s mount seen from Marazion, Cornwall

St. Michael’s mount showing the castle and landing stage at high tide. Seen from Marazion, Cornwall

We explored some of the little back streets discovering the old well that once provided the village with water. Later we returned to the shore and went for coffee in the main, probably the only, hotel in the village. We had window seats in the old Georgian inn, facing directly across at the mount. It was a pleasant way to round off a hot sunny day on our feet.

Old village pump, Marazion, Cornwall

View from our coffee table towards St Michael’s Mount at high tide, Marazion, Cornwall

We returned home to Exeter the following morning crossing the deserted Bodmin moor and passing near Jamaica Inn, made famous in the novel of the same name by the Cornish writer Daphne du Maurier, where violence, intrigue and deception are played out against a background of bleak, isolated moorland, deep mires to suck down unwary travellers and 19th century Cornish smuggling. It is set in a time when lawlessness and highwaymen were rife in a region of turnpike roads and rough cart tracks, cut off from the rest of the country across the Tamar River, when Cornwall tended to be a law unto itself.

Related links
Oh to be in England 3 - West Cornwall