Tuesday, May 26

Cornish tales

Garry and I are back from our seven day road tour of Devon and Cornwall. We've had an amazing time and seen some truly memorable sights. The image above is just a teaser. Stay tuned for posts on:
I'll endeavour to update these bullets with live links as rapidly as I can over the next few weeks.

UPDATE: May 26
I've completed all of the outstanding links on this post. Now you have the complete story of our road trip to the far corner of England. Enjoy!

Downtown is history

I’m just back from ten days on business in New York. I had a full agenda, which included working most of lastweekend. However I found a moment on Sunday afternoon to break out of my hotel room and wander the streets of Lower Manhattan. I almost felt like a local as I made my way past familiar sights; the distant Statue of Liberty, the battered sculpture rescued from the World Trade Centre plaza and the bronze bull near Wall Street.

I was also keen to stop by the World Trade Centre site as I’d heard that rebuilding was well underway. The site is a hive of construction. In its north-west corner the steel frame of Freedom Tower has already risen more than 30 metres above street level, while the toxic hulk of the Deutsche Bank building is almost completely demolished.

While in New York, I also flew upstate to visit our Rochester office for a day. I’d last been in this city in 1983 as a young exchange student. However, only the distinctive saucer silhouette of the First Federal Building’s former revolving restaurant triggered any memories. Staff tell me the restaurant has long since closed. It seems that, much like my video from the WTC observation deck, my memories are increasingly filled with history rather than present day reality.

The Eden Project

Our first full day in Cornwall saw us visiting The Eden Project near St Austell. This horticultural attraction is most aptly described as a combination of giant plastic dome greenhouses surrounded by agricultural and crop-oriented botanic gardens. Built in the base of a disused quarry, the site was opened to the public in May 2000 and rapidly became Cornwall’s most popular tourist attraction.

The site includes the world’s largest greenhouse which houses a range of tropical plants. Called the Rainforest Biome, it covers 1.5 hectres and rises more than 50-metres at its highest point. Inside you find a fascinating array of mature trees, swamps, waterfalls and other tropical environs. Next door is a smaller glasshouse, known as the Mediterranean Biome. This 35-metre high structure houses plants from the globe’s temperate and arid zones. Both biomes are reached by a winding path that takes you past all manner of crops from around the world including tea bushes and hemp.

Garry and I spent more than three hours touring The Eden Project. We saw many plants we’d never seen before and discovered the origin of several favourite spices. However, much of the novelty was lost on us as we’d already seen many of these plants in the gardens and glasshouses at Kew Gardens. One plant that did catch my eye was the Citron, which is considered the world’s oldest cultivated citrus fruit. It looks like a lemon, except its fruit are the size of watermelons!

Our next stop in Cornwall proved to be a real treat. As we prepared to leave St Austell behind, we made a brief detour to Charlestownon the coast. I’d seen photos of the old stone-walled harbour and had read that traditional tall ships sometimes dock here. Our jaws dropped as we drove up to the waterfront. As luck would have it, there were three splendid tall ships undergoing maintenance. We later heard a local comment that they’d never seen three ships docked at the same time. We stopped to enjoy a late lunch of piping hot Cornish Patties while soaking up this rare scene.

Tin, fish and chips

Tin mining has defined the history of Cornwall almost as much as fishing, smuggling and invading armies. The first evidence of mining in the area dates back to the height of the Bronze Age around 2050 BC. Originally the tin was found in alluvial deposits collected from local stream beds. However, as these sources were exhausted, miners began working the underground lodes that strife the local geology. The first such mines started production in the 16th Century, reaching their commercial peak in the 19th Century.

For almost a century the Cornish Tin Mining industry was one of the most productive tin mining areas in the world. At its height, more than 600 steam engines worked day and night to pump hundreds of mines dry. Water penetration was always a battle as many of the workings plunged to great depths or extended for several kilometres under the seabed. The decaying remains of abandoned pump houses, marked by distinctive brick chimneys, can be found scattered everywhere across the Cornish countryside.

While in Cornwall, Garry and I took time out to tour one of the lasting mines at Geevor. It closed in 1991, just months before the last Cornish mine closed nearby. In the intervening years the site has been transformed into a fascinating museum. We spent several hours wandering through the mine’s processing plants where ore-rich rocks were crushed, sifted, centrifuged and refined into sack of tin granules. We saw the powerful electric cable winders that lifted the miners and ore hundreds of metres below the surface, as well as taking a tour through one of the older, hand-cut mines dug into the rocky coast.

From Geevor we made our way to St Ives, heavily promoted as a picturesque seaside resort. We stopped here for a late lunch of fresh fish and chips, and a brief wander along the harbour front. Unfortunately the weather was against us and our outdoor plans were abandoned when rain began to fall. St Ives definitely had some pleasant scenic spots. Unfortunately we’d already seen other wonderfully preserved coastal villages like Mousehole. St Ives paled in comparison.

Monday, May 25

Lands End (and other coastal adventures)

There’s always something compelling about the most extreme point on map. Lands End is no different. Growing up I would always read of people making the journey from the most south-western point on the British mainland to the most northern point at John O’Groats. I was lucky enough to visit John O’Groats in 1990 while staying at Inverness. Having made it to one extremity, I was keen to complete the picture and visit Lands End. Garry and I finally made on the penultamate day of our Cornwall road trip.

We booked ourselves into the Lands End Hotel for the night. It sits on the edge of a high cliff looking directly out to sea where you can see the Longships, a series of jagged rocks topped by a large lighthouse, a mile offshore. The original lighthouse was built in 1795. However it wasn’t tall enough to be seen in the highest seas and so the current building replaced it in1873. This new lighthouse was then contiually manned until 1988 when an automated system was installed. We had a stunning view of the lighthouse and the Atlantic from our bedroom. Overnight we were able to watch the ocean waves grow noticably in height and witness a truly spectacular sunset.

While the coastal scenery was spectacular, sadly the same cannot be said for the clutter of tourist attractions surrounding the hotel. Why is it that every other nation - except the UK - is satisfied with a simple café and a carpark at such locations. As is the practice of the British, this wonderful coastal spot has been overtaken by tatty amusements.

For an all inclusive ticket we could tour a museum of props from the Dr Who television series or wander through shops filled with t-shirts. In fairness to the owners, it was clear they’d invested in a total make-over of the site so the building were neat and well maintained. Perhaps the most galling bit of commercialisation was the Lands End signpost. Unlike every other such location on earth, here you have to pay to have your picture taken.

From Lands End we made our way north again, stopping briefly at Pendennis Castle on the mouth of Faulmouth Harbour. Henry VIII built the first fortificatoin here in the 16th Century. The round stone Keep has been beautifully preserved, sitting alone in a vast field of vibrant green grass. It was also the stunning location for a wedding on the afternoon we arrived. I was fascinated to learn that Henry built a string of similar fortifications along the south coast after his broke from the Church of Rome. It seems that fear ran high of a invasion from France or Spain designed to restore the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church.

Its role as a defensive fortification continued up until the Second World War. During the war the castle was the Command Centre for Cornwall, protecting not only the Cornish coast and the natural deepwater port of Falmouth but all western approaches to Britain. We took a guided tour through the Battery Observation Post, built in the 19th Century to defend the nation during the Napoleonic Wars in mainland Europe. Its defenses were later modernized during the Second World War. Two large, decommissioned, artillery guns remain on site today.

Our final stop in Cornwall was Newquay. I’d heard of fame as one of the few surf beaches in Britain. However Newquay itself was a huge disappointment. The town is built on the edge of a series of narrow bays surrounded by towering cliffs. Its amenities were tatty and the streets were all but deserted except for dozens of larger louts making their way to seedy bars. In hindsight I wished we’d gone on to Padstow. Everything I’ve heard about this town seems in stark contrast to Newquay.

Our Newquay experience was saved by our hotel. We booked ourselves into the Headland Hotel at Fistal Bay. This is a grand old Victorian complex that’s been carefully restored. It sits alone on a vast sandy beach reserve looking out to sea. The seas were stormy the evening we arrived making for some spectacular scenes as foaming waves dashed themselves on the rocks below. I took a brisk walk out to a nearby headland to experience some of this coastal drama up close. I’m glad I did as the sea was far calmer the following morning and much of the drama has gone.

A picnic in Devon

Our route from Bristol to Cornwall was simple; we’d take a lesuirely drive down the M5 motorway, then turn off the main road south of Exeter where we'd spend an afternoon exploring the country lanes of Devon. However, the morning of our departure dawned rather bleak. It looked as if our plans for a sunny picnic were cancelled.

As we drove south, the weather slowly began to clear. By the time we’d reached the outskirts of Torquay, the clouds had broken and the sun was shining. We were set for a wonderful day. I’d planned a route that took us off the A381, tracing the lower reaches of the Dart river, stopping at Dittisham for lunch and then on into Dartmouth itself.

Garry’s jaw dropped when I finally directed him off the broad, gently curving A-road and on to a narrow, slightly rutted lane. The route I’d chosen was far more exotic than either of us expected. We found ourselves literally weaving down quiet country lanes lined with towering hedges and raised banks, barely a car-width wide. I later learnt that most of the side roads in the area are like this. Our chosen route was the norm.

As we drove, we passed mile after mile of colourful wild flowers on display; red, blue, yellow and white. Occassionally the hedge would part, exposing a stunning vista of rolling paddocks or the meandering Dart river. Each village we ventured into was a postcard delight. Old stone buildings set at random along an equally narrow street. At times, the road would suddenly make a sharp turn at a stone wall, or shop-corner before carrying on through the town.

We eventually reached Dittisham on the upper reaches of Dartmouth harbour. Our friend, Martin, had recommended this spot. We weren’t disappointed. We soon found ourselves on the edge of a grassy reserve bordering the river where only one other couple could be seen. We stopped for a picnic, watching ducks wander the shore and boats traverse the rising tide. It really was an idilic spot.

Dartmouth was our next stop. Dartmouth Castle to be precise. For over six hundred years this stone fortification has guarded the narrow entrance to the Dart Estuary. We stopped briefly for a few photos before taking the coastal road along Slapton Sands beach. It was here that American and British troops once rehearsed beach landings for the D-Day invasion of northern France. This is also where a rather poignant memorial can be found.

On the outskirts of Torcross village rests a black Sherman tank. It was salvaged from the shallow waters nearby. The tank was on board a convey of ships participating in Operation Tiger in the early hours of April 28, 1944. German torpedo boats, alerted by heavy radio traffic, turned on this coast fleet and sunk two landing ships, killing 749 American troops. More Americans died in this event than during the actual landing at Juno beach a few months later. The scars of war can be found everywhere in the South of England.

Our final hour on the road was spent driving to Plymouth, passing by Brunel’s famous Royal Albert rail bridge over the Tamar river, and on into St Austell, Cornwall. We stopped here for the night at Boscundle Manor, a wonderfully maintained stone manor that once housed the local mine supervisor. The owner kindly gave us an upgrade and as a result, we found ourselves booked into a spacious three room suite tucked smartly under the rafters. The restaurant downstairs later served us one of the most memorable meals crafted from a menu of fresh local produce. It was the fitting start to our time in Cornwall.

Sunday, May 24


The tiny fishing village of Mousehole (pronounced "mao-zil") was a truly unexpected delight. Located a few short miles along the coast from bustling Penzance, this sleepy corner of Cornwall has carefully preserved much of its original character. Most of its homes are built from local granite, nestled in a series of narrow, twisting cobblestone lanes that hug the rocky seafront.

In the centre of the town sits a sheltered harbor, protected from the sea by two towering sea walls. Historical records reference a port here as early as 1266. Even today part of the south quay can trace its origin to 1390. In the early years of Christianity in Britian it was the embarkation point for pilgrims heading to Rome. As you’d expect, fishing was Mousehole’s primary industry for centuries. A small fishing fleet still operates today. However, given its picturesque setting, its modern economy thrives more on second home ownership and tourism.

During the winter months, sturdy wooden beams close off the harbour entrance, protecting the village from the worst of the winter storms. However, this is no ordinary port. On the afternoon of our arrival we discovered, much to our surprise, that low tide eventually drains the entire harbour leaving boats stranded on its sandy bottom. Some boats even have special stilts, extended from slots in the hull, to keep them upright until the water returns.

Garry and I stopped for a night, sleeping in an old building that once housed the area’s coastguard quarters. We spent a soul-restoring afternoon wandering Mousehole’s quiet cobbled streets before downing local ale at an old stone pub on the harbourfront. Later I wandered out to the end of the seawall where St Clement's Isle - a small rocky islet – is visible. I've read that an old hermit once made this desolate place his home.

Earlier in day we’d driven south from St Austell, stopping briefly on the shores of Marizon to marvel at St Micheal’s Mount. This iconic island rises gracefully from Penzance Bay, capped by an abbey and castle on it summit. It was originally built as a complimentary site to the tidal island of Le Mont-Saint-Michel, directly across the English Channel in Normandy.

Much like its French counterpart, St Michael’s Mount has been an important pilgrimage destination throughout the ages. Such devotions were encouraged by an indulgence granted by Pope Gregory in the 11th century. From here the first warning beacons were lit in 1588, warning Southern England of the approaching Spanish Armada.

The island is accessible by foot along an old causeway at low tide, or by boat when the tide peaks. I timed our arrival to coincide with high tide. I’d seen images of the island surrounded by water and was keen to capture my own postcard moment. Sadly, the weather was rather bleak, with a bitter wind and heavy cloud. However, as you can see, the island is still mesmerizing.

Friday, May 22

A pub called Afron Gwy

The mouth of the Severn River neatly divides England from Wales. It’s also home to the world’s second largest tidal range where, at its highest point, the river rises 15 metres above the low tide mark. The eastern border of Wales is marked by the River Wye; one of the Severn’s largest tributaries. It’s here that you find the border town of Chepstow, often called “the first town in Wales”.

The name Chepstow comes from the Old English words Chepe and Stowe, which mean marketplace. Its Welsh name, Cas Gwent, means the Port of Gwent. During the 18th and early 19th Century a bustling river port and shipyard dominated the town’s economy. However, its industry was simply the latest in a long history of commerce and settlement. Iron Age settlers once lived in the area five thousand years ago, followed by the Romans, three millennia later. In 1067, the Normans built a grand castle on a cliff overlooking the Wye. Its ruins, the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain, can still be explored today.

A short walk down-river from the castle is an elegant cast iron arch bridge. Built in 1816, it links England and Wales. The bridge’s access road is also home to a small, non-descript pub called Afon Gwy. A pub has survived on this site since 1735. My cousin Caroline recently traced the family’s history on my mother’s side to this quite corner of Wales. Her research found that two female members of the family ran the pub, known as the Full Moon Inn, from 1815 to 1826; and again between 1830 and 1876. It seems that a bankruptcy in 1826 prevented an unbroken period of ownership.

While staying in Bristol, Garry and I took a day trip to Afon Gwy to retrace the steps of my ancestors. I was keen to witness the passage of seven generations. Sadly, the owner of the pub was out when we arrived. I told the owner’s mother of my journey but she seemed disinterested. I was disappointed that such a personal pilgrimage meant so little and didn’t stay long.

Afterwards I walked across the Old Wye Bridge to reflect on my family’s time here. The tide was out, graphically demonstrating the Severn’s dramatic tidal range. The river scene was once the subject of a series of Turner paintings. He depicted Wye, the Afon Gwy and the nearby castle a number of iconic landscapes.

Garry and I then went on to explore Chepstow Castle. The ruins are well preserved. Its construction began less than a year after William the Conqueror was crowned King of England. For another three hundred years, new additions were progressively made until the castle reached its maximum size during the Tudor era. Its final occupants, an army garrison, abandoned the castle in 1690. The ruins then passed into state control in 1953.

Before leaving Chepstow we briefly stopped at the Priory Church of St Mary. My cousin’s research uncovered the story of pew inscribed to the memory of an ancestor in 1827. Unfortunately the church was closed for urgent repairs. It seems that my family history wasn’t a topic of interest to anyone in town. I left without ever truly connecting with my past, that is, until we visited the SS Great Britain.

In preparation for our trip to Bristol, I’d actually considered dropping it from our tourist itinerary. However, a slow morning saw us at a loose end. This grand old ship, was the world’s first ocean-going propeller-driven iron ship. It was built and launched in Bristol by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843. Brunel is considered one of the nation’s foremost engineers.

Abandoned in the Falklands Islands in 1937, the SS Great Britain was salvaged in 1970, towed back to Bristol and restored to its former glory. Today you can visit the ship, sealed in a low-humidity dry dock. It's incredible experience, wandering along the rusty keel, past the ship's giant replica rudder and up to the solid cassion wall holding back the harbour's water.

In 1852, the SS Great Britain made the first of several immigration voyages to Australia. It carried 630 passengers to a new Antipodean future in Melbourne. Here we were more than 150 years later, wandering through its interior, experiencing the daily trials of first class passengers and those in steerage class. It was here, in the bowels of the ship, that I had my seminal family moment.

As I stood looking at the cramped, simple steerage bunks it suddenly dawned on me that this was exactly how my ancestors first ventured from Wales to the shores of a distance New Zealand. For the first time in my life I genuinely connected with my past. How ironic. I’d waited more than a year to visit Afon Gwy and was disappointed. I never expect to finally commune with my heritage on an iron ship I’d dismissed as just another tourist trap.