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Cornwall

Lostwithiel, Eden Project, Helston, Land's End

semi-overcast 18 °C

The roads of rural France having posed no insurmountable challenges, it was clear that the only effective way of seeing Cornwall would be a self-drive hire car, and so I booked one. Fortunately the computer records of Europcars had retained my details, as I turned up to the counter without my passport in hand. As usual with car hire depots, this one was located in the dirty industrial fringe of town, just around the corner from the sleazy heart of Plymouth's 'Gentlemen's Club' neighbourhood. Tucked away in a one way street behind the kebaberies and grog shops, the cyclone fenced yard of hire cars stood. Also as usual, the make and model ordered on line was not available, but a small automatic just capable of holding two adults and their chunky luggage had 'just come back, and it's a little beauty, really', so it was offered and accepted. Hey, I'm happy not to have to worry about manual gears on strange roads. One less thing to distract the driver intent on complying with the thousand and one stern directives impinging on his brain in this ever so heavily regulated, surveilled, and policed land.

After a few kilometres of driving in the wrong direction opposite to where we wanted to go, as Plymouth offered no turning options right through the main part of town, a roundabout eventually allowed a scary reversal so that we could commence our Cornwall sojourn. Things to get used to in the first few minutes of driving in England include: making decisions on which lane to go in based on a millisecond glimpse of a few contracted and distorted letters painted on the road surface, usually obscured by huge lorries; speed limits so low that one has to virtually ride the brake pedal whenever the road slopes down at all; multi-lane freeways poorly signposted and phrased in bizarre English terminology that leaves you puzzling for kilometers after: what the hell did that one mean?

Victoriously though, we made it across the enormous bridge across the Tamar and to the little village of Liskeard, where morning tea and free internet access were greedily consumed. Wireless security key: goodcoffee. As we progressed through this realm we found that such modern frippery as internet connectivity became scarce, making it difficult to manage forward bookings and general communications.

Surveying the maps, and scanning the available accommodation, we decided to venture to a town named Lostwithiel, whose pronunciation we lisped helplessly over, or else called it Lostwhistle. It's original spelling and Cornish pronunciation being drastically different again, and I won't even attempt to represent it. The Best Western chain had provided us a comfortable night at Bordeaux, giving us some confidence that it's local name bearer couldn't be too bad in this neck of the woods. Finding it, as the afternoon brightness began to fall from the sky, proved somewhat challenging. First we headed up a narrow country lane that ended at the ruins of the huge castle where the Black Prince gathered his army in the thirteenth century, now guarded by two nice ladies who had no idea where our hotel would be, but happily gave us a local map. With this in hand, and an end to end cruise through the town, the hotel suddenly appeared in sight. Characteristically of accommodation in England, the photographs used to promote it are actually of firstly a small area of stonework with what turned out to be the restaurant menus and secondly a closely cropped perspective taken from the rear car park. Once again the camera was used to present a very ordinary premise as one of charm.

A lugubrious youth better suited to the funeral trade than hospitality greeted us feebly, as if we had arrived too late for the funeral and had missed all the action already, and we hauled our cases up a flight of stairs to collapse in our tiny room. Like every hotel room in England, seemingly, this was close and overheated, with bedding more useful to an arctic explorer than intrepid hot blooded Aussies.

Strolling around the town in warm sunshine, we discovered that Lostwithiel was not just any little village. It proudly proclaimed that it used to be the very capital of Cornwall, a seat of power from which princes ruled and fought great battles, and the money from the tin mines was gathered with great enterprises managed from what was now a very sedate and sleepy hollow. The river Fowy that flows through the town was once a mighty artery of shipping; now it runs only deep enough for children and dogs to splash in, knee deep, over a gravelly bed. The old bridge that was first built by the Normans in about 1100 has seen the river itself change course so much that additional arches had to be built in the 1800s to accommodate where the water wanted to run. Some of the original arches then not being needed remain buried under the buildings adjacent, constructed later.

Apart from the bridge and a few fine buildings, ranging from Norman to eighteenth century, Lostwithiel has a tiny museum with many intriguing exhibits, giving a fascinating insight into how the town has declined in importance over the centuries, well worthy of an hour's contemplation. For those currently living, there is less to sustain the urge to hang about. The Food Cooperative appears to be the only source of food and drink, the sandwiches on the very edge of their use-by date, and nutritive substances of any kind in scarce supply. We ventured into the Fish and Chippery, and were greeted with a heaped serving of disdain by the proprietress and her daughter, who rewarded our custom with possibly the most flaccid chips and grease soaked breaded fish known to mankind.

However, the adventurers were not to be put off with such setbacks. The dual purpose of coming to this area was to have a look at the Eden Project, located about an hour's drive from Lostwithiel, and to chase up the location of a hotel further into the heart of Cornwall that some of my ancestors had been involved with, according to genealogy information dredged up on the internet.

The Eden Project presents a fascinating proof of how an exhausted piece of waste land can be rehabilitated and made into a magical wonderland. It started as an abandoned quarry site where clay for porcelain had been extracted for many years. A visionary group determined to build a showcase project for what can be achieved by rebuilding the fertility of the land basically from recycled waste and thoughtful design. Massive amounts of composted waste, gravel and so on were brought to the site and voluntary labour worked together to bring the ecology of the land back to life.

The project has enormous domes - termed Biomes - built on the base of the hexagonal shape seen in honeycomb, giving the lightest, yet strongest structure for the domes. These are covered in what appears to be plastic sheeting similar to agricultural greenhouses, with adjustable ventilation to vary the level of steaminess within the domes. The largest of the domes now has trees of up to fifty metres in height; an impressive forest of tropical vegetation including coffee trees, cocoa, bananas, mangos, all flourishing and dripping with luscious fruit, all in the middle of the blustery chill of southern England.

The largest of the domes explores the vegetation and cultures of each of the tropical regions of the world, giving an insight into both the plants that are important to the people there, and how they interact with the natural world. As well as this enormous wonderland, constantly filled with a queue of sweating visitors astonished at the warmth created by the dome, next door there is a Mediterranean dome where landscapes typical of Tuscany, Southern France and similar areas explores the more closely settled approach to the plant world that works well within that context.

At the core of the Project there is a monolithic sculpture of a seed, hewn from one enormous block of granite, that aptly sums up what the project aspires to be; a seed thought to encourage us all to consider what sustainability means in practise, and what we can do to make it happen. Of all the places we saw during this journey, the Eden Project was undoubtedly the one that left us with some optimism that all is not yet lost.

After recuperating from a long and exhausting day exploring Eden, the next day we set off to drive deeper into Cornwall. The landscape is reminiscent of those rolling hills of Gippsland in the dairying districts mixed with the beachside ambience of North East Tasmania; you can see why people leaving England would have gladly settled into those almost corresponding landscapes. Hitting the coast at the town of Falmouth, we were astonished at how crowded the seafront was, with cars and people heading in all directions, and not a car park to be found. Eventually a small space in a narrow land next to the railway line was found, thanks to some helpful local ladies. Next, the search for toilet facilities became urgent. These were a quintessential English experience in themselves. On the wall was a metal panel with a series of three apertures, each with a button. Press the first button: a dribble of soap falls into the aperture. Press the second: a spurt of water, hands for the washing of; thirdly, press the button and shove your hands in the gap for a blast of hot air to dry off. If the Monty Python crew had a hand in the design of these facilities of public sanitation I would not be surprised in the least.

Venturing into the inevitable Tesco supermarket, our usual lunch of simple sandwiches was procured, and we walked around to find a sunny spot overlooking the harbour with its mix of industrial and pleasure craft. We were stopped by grey haired gentlement with purple sashes draped across their bodies. "Are you here for the Antiques Roadshow," they said, "The queue starts there." indicating a long queue of English folk clutching a range of bags and boxes with their precious items, hoping for a moment of being on the telly. "No, we just want to eat our sandwiches," we replied, and were permitted to pass through to sit on some sunny concrete steps just aside from the excited crowd of grey haired antique bearers happy to queue for hours for the chance of having their goods assessed by the 'experts'.

We walked back to our car in front of the bending seafacing row of identical two story houses sitting edge to edge against each other, varied only in their choice of colour. It seemed you could have lemon, pale blue, wishy washy green, or diluted beige, but certainly nothing that might make a house stand out from its fellows. Many of these appeared to be guest houses, with a sprinkle of student housing and council houses for the poor in the less attractive corners.

Continuing on the road to the west, at length we reached Helston, the town my researches had shown to be where some of my ancestors lived. There was a chap named Richard Trevethan who came to Australia for the gold rush in the 1850s, married Augusta Briggs who was my mother's great grandmother. It is this Trevethan whose ancestors came from Helston. His direct great grandparent Nicholas Trevethan came to be the proprietor of the Angel Tavern when his brother John died, who had inherited the role from his father who was also apparently named John. The Angel Tavern is still in operation today, and was actually on the market for sale just prior to our visit. Not sure if the deal has been done yet... Parts of the tavern are still in the same layout and condition they would have been when these chaps were running the show around 1680, while the property is the very oldest in Helston, being built in about 1551.

When we walked into the bar and I introduced myself to the barmaid, she handed my the multipage history of the place that they keep at the counter. Sure enough, the Trevethan name was prominent in the early history of the place. What was clarified for me was that they didn't own it: they managed it on behalf of the Godolphin family, who had used the property as their town house previously, and for the conduct of their business affairs in connection with the Cornish tin mines. Nicholas Trevethan married one of the Godolphins (one of the main streets in Helston is still named Godolphin St) so it appears I may have a distant connection with that dynasty of Melbourne Cup winning horse owners, not that I have any interest in such matters.)

The Angel Tavern has a fascinating connection with the name of the town itself. The name Helston comes from a legend that in ancient times the archangel Michael had an enormous battle with the Devil in the skies above where the town now sits, and finally hurled a huge stone at the demon, casting him to the ground in defeat. The Hell Stone the archangel threw landed where the back yard of the tavern is, and it lay there prominently for some hundreds of years. Eventually the chap who controlled the property at the time split the rock in several pieces and used it for building material as he extended some walls at the rear of the building. I found a couple of likely candidates for these pieces in the walls that appeared to be a different stone to the rest of the walls. Interesting tales indeed!

After soaking up the atmosphere at the Angel Tavern for a while, we decided to dash down to Land's End just to see what it was like.
Dear reader, don't bother. It is as though all the worst of bad taste, crass exploitation of what could be beautiful and romantic, and determination to extract the maximum number of pounds from every captive tourist wallet has leaked westward to this most westward point of the United Kingdom. Even the holy grail of home cooking in this county, the pasty, is offered as a stale, tasteless travesty packed in plastic. We returned to our car, zoomed back to spend the night at the Lostwithiel Golf and Country Club in an interesting stone cabin, and were ready to move on from the rolling low hills and windswept beaches of Cornwall.

Posted by piepers 26.09.2012 08:35 Archived in United Kingdom

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