Cornwall, the Far End of England
As we return to Paddington after a superb dinner at the bar at Le Caprice, flashing lights and fire trucks parked askew give us a sinking feeling in the stomach. Faced again with one night in London arriving from Norway, on this leg we had decided on a late dinner at a favorite restaurant, and a sleeping compartment on the night train to Cornwall as the answer. That solution fell apart while we were dining--when a derailment outside the station cancelled all remaining trains for the day. Near midnight, and no place to stay. Of course the Paddington Hilton was full. Took a half-hour taxi ride to find a room for 6 hours, and a taxi back to the station for the am train, which we booked online. At the ticket office, we were told our overnight compartment tickets were fine for first class, and found two seats. The conductor thought otherwise, and made us pay an additional 200 quid – our only choice, as second class was also overflowing with all the people that had missed trains the night before. So 10 hours or so after our planned departure, we were headed south and west to Cornwall.
Great Western Railway runs from London, through Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, then down the spine of Cornwall to Penzance, putative home of pirates. Three miles south by car we arrive at Mousehole, pronounced Mowzl, a small fishing village with rock-walled harbor and slate-roofed houses of local grey Cornish granite stepping up the hill. The town dates to 1266, and was said by Dylan Thomas to be the loveliest in England. There are three or four small shops, a deli/grocer/wine shop humorously called Hole Foods, a couple of restaurants, the Ship Inn pub, and several galleries around the narrow lanes.
Our tiny one-room-up one-room down-cottage, Harbor Moon, let by an agency cleverly named Beachspoke sits right at the edge overlooking the photo-perfect harbor and a rainbow array of small craft. These alternately sit on the sand or float--tides in Cornwall are 14 feet, low to high, as we near full moon at the solstice.
The lower floor is stone-walled with rough recycled wood planking and limestone floors. A small but well-equipped kitchen, half-bath, fireplace and living area are squeezed into the 12 x 25 foot space. Upper floor is all stonewalls, gray planked ceiling with skylights and old fishing nets draped over the beams. A spacious slate and glass shower with beach pebble floor and open bath area are divided from the queen bed facing the view, with a dramatic glass floor at the bed's foot that let's more light in downstairs. A stage lighting designer must have been involved in the renovation, as there must be at least 20 different dimmers.....overall a comfortable and cozy spot for a few days stay on the coast.
Once settled, we wander the lanes a bit, and after a stop for a pint of St Austel's Best Cornish Bitter in the low-ceilinged bar of the Ship, we head up to the top of Parade Hill to the Old Coastguard Hotel and Gastropub. The restaurants we will sample in the next few days are of the modern British bistro or gastropub sort, where serious chefs honor truly local ingredients.....seafood daily from the fishing docks at nearby Newlyn, kitchen garden vegetables, lamb, pork and beef from from heritage breeds raised within miles, and cheese, butter and cream from nearby Cornish dairies.
At the old coastguard we select from a broad and interesting menu which changes substantially seasonally, and varies weekly——
Pig crackling with mustard/apple dipping sauce
Rabbit rillettes with house made apple onion chutney
Bronze-skinned quail with a tangle of spicy celeriac
Fantastic crispy lemon sole with lime cream sauce on a bed of warm little gem leaves, English peas, pearl onions and house-smoked pancetta
The next morning is bright with a few clouds, and we plan to motor around the peninsula sightseeing and sampling. St Ives on the Atlantic coast twenty minutes from Mousehole features typical grey granite houses terracing up the hill in a horseshoe around the harbor. A lovely town, but it's charm is suffocating it with tourism, and the winding cobbled lanes are filled with galleries and restaurants, but worse with souvenir and bric-à-brac shops, tea rooms, etc. Curiously, there is a branch of the Tate galley in London here, opened in 1993 to honor. St. Ives as the home of post-war Modernism. It’s a striking modern building overlooking broad Porthmeor beach, and a major attraction, and therefore it is undergoing significant expansion to add more gallery and education space—not to reopen until 2017.
Cornwall enjoys a mild sub-tropical climate with the warmth from the Gulf Stream, and palms, figs and dracaenas can be seen peaking over white garden walls. One such walled enclosure houses what is certainly the gem of St Ives, the Barbara Hepworth museum and sculpture garden. Her studio, where she died in a fire in 1975, houses a small historical museum on the ground floor, and a fabulous retrospective of her work on the light filled upper floor. Gravel paths wind through the garden full palms, cordyline, bamboo, schefflera, and various flowering shrubs, throughout which are carefully sited a couple of dozen or more stunning bronze and stone works from most eras of her career. The Hepworth Museum is small and compact, and at the same time grand and awe inspiring....
Five miles south on the B3360, which winds narrowly through spectacular countryside of farms, fields and coastal views is the village of Zennor, in which sits the Tinner's Arms, another ancient country pub which we've heard does a good traditional pub lunch. A cheese ploughman's (pronounced playman's in the deep Cornish accent) has granary bread and local Cornish cheeses. Dorset crab cake turns out to be very different from what we're used to. The local brown crab is quite a bit more strongly flavored.
We head southward, to the village of St Just and towards lands end. These roads are hair-raising--barely one lane in some places, with zero shoulder and hemmed on both sides by stone hedges sometimes five feet tall. Hedges, not hedgerows or walls, in Cornwall are unique. Made by laying two parallel stone walls four feet tall or so, and filled with earth and planted, they are wildflower gardens in themselves, with tall mauve foxglove, yellow toadflax, red campion, bluebells, purple betony, creamy yarrow, and many more….it is said that a mile of Cornish hedge can have 100 or more species. It's difficult enough when two oncoming cars meet in tight spots, but really interesting when the local bus, or worse, enormous tour busses oppose.....much backing up is involved.
We return to Mowzl and mix a cocktail, then sit and watch the harbor slowly fill, and the boats begin to float. We dine at 2 Fore Street, another example of modern British, in this case Cornish, market driven cuisine. Local fields for duck, lamb, beef; vegetables and greens from the various farms we saw driving the back lanes today; bounty of the sea to hand—crab mussels, shrimp, squid, octopus, bream, sole, mackerel, monkfish--all these available on this one menu......far more than we could sample, but we tasted around with--
Red-brown Cornish Crab Soup with Rouille and Parmesan croutons
Courgette, feta, mint arancini on mashed fresh peas and herb salad
Chicken Liver Parfait with Caramelized Shallot/Ale Chutney and Toast points
Pan seared filet of sea bream with melted peppers, cherry tomatoes, olive tapenade, and an interesting vegetable we know as sea bean, and here is called rock samphire
Sunday as expected is foggy, with a drizzle starting. A morning for sitting around with the London Sunday Times—with the meditative backdrop of the constant cry of gulls, clanging of the rigging in sailboats, and the salt tang of the incoming tide. Venturing out, we backtrack to the gallery of noted artist Nigel Hallard, and find a lovely small oil rendering of Mowzl harbor to add to our traveler’s collection of miniature paintings. Sunday lunch is in full swing at the Ship's Inn, and a roast ham sandwich and bowl of cold prawns provides a perfect light meal. We had planned to head up to St. Michaels Mount, so similar to Mont San Michel in France, but Harbor Moon is so cozy on a drizzly day we elect to enjoy an afternoon of reading and watching village life go by near the end of the westerly peninsula of the land that will soon no longer be part of Europe.