Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter camping in Cornwall

Another long weekend and another adventure into the English countryside. Carly and I hired our usual VW Golf from Europcar at Heathrow for 3 days checking out more of south-west England, in particular the Cornish coast which we really enjoyed on our trip to Newquay and St Ives for new years. This time we were camping with Dan and Sophie in a beachside area near Hayle, adjacent to St Ives, so we packed up the car and drove out of town on the M4.

After looking over the detail road map we use on our driving trips (often the centre of many 'navigational' arguments), Carly (the navigator) plotted a course for us to literally veer off the M4 at the turn-off to Bath and head south-west through Somerset to the M5. While bypassing Bath, we managed to get ourselves lost on a detour and ended up going through the tiny village of Batheaston - via what was almost a dirt track through a cow paddock and past a bunch of ramblers who gave us some wierd looks - we were certainly seeing the countryside on this trip!

The real reason we weren't taking the M4 (besides avoiding the woeful holiday traffic around Bristol) was so we could take a look at the small village of Norton-St Phillip, apparently famous from the book Wintercombe. While it certainly was a typically nice English village with an impressive church, we were really only there so that Carly could get a photo in front of the "Welcome to ....." road sign, and then call her sister to brag about getting there first - trust me Kate, you didn't miss much.

This photo cost me an hour of my life that I will never get back

Before we got to Norton-St Phillip we went through the beautiful town of Bradford-apon-avon which is set around the picturesque river (which winds its way down there from Shakespeare's home of Stratford), and has the usual small cobbled laneways and unique buildings seemingly devoid of the usual impacts of the tourist trade. It seems that the more we travel through regional England we seem to find more and more towns, villages, and regions that really stand out as places to visit, and this area is another one that we had some impressive scenery and things to see - if only we had more time we always say to each other.

We also travelled through Glastonbury, previously only famous to us because of the huge music festival held there annually (with the exception of this year). It was lovely enough to see, but you'd have to say it's 'all about the music' when people make the pilgrimage there. Just outside the town atop a large prominent hill called the Tor is the impressive St Michael's tower, but we didn't really have time to stop and visit which was a shame. Reading up about it when we got home, apparently the whole area has strong links to historical artefacts such as nearby Stonehenge and also many facets of medieval Europe. Probably worth a visit another time.

The day's driving was dragging on so we travelled non-stop after a late lunch in Exeter down into Cornwall, past the turn-off to Newquay and onto Hayle and the campsite where we met Dan and Soph. When we arrived we went to set up camp in the tent we'd loaned from Sophie, only to realise that together we'd forgotten to pack the doonah and blankets to keep us warm on the two nights! Disaster was only averted when the campsite owner was kind enough to loan us some blankets for our stay. We had a great first night with Dan and Soph, and Soph's friends Nikki and Tim sitting around the BBQ having some drinks with the waves crashing on the beach nearby. We certainly felt a million miles from the madness of London.

Beers down on the beach, which looks across the bay to St Ives

The next day we had a slow start with a fry-up breakfast, and then got in the car for some sightseeing around the most-westerly tip of mainland England. We travelled to the seaside village of Marazion, and walked out the impressive St. Michael's Mount, which is a hilltop castle/palace perched on a rocky outcrop just off the coast and is joined by a narrow causeway you can take only at low tide. This is the twin to a matching castle called Mont St Michel on a similar outcrop just off the Brittany coast of France. The castle at the top was closed only on Saturday's, so we missed out on going in, but it was impressive to visit nonetheless.

After that we had a Cornish pasty in Marazion (a must-do for me in Cornwall), and then headed through the harbour town of Penzance and out to Sennen Cove, where we parked the car for our hike around the exposed headlands to Lands End - the most westerly point of mainland England. We met friends Pete and Sueanne & dog Bridgette, and their friend Kate there, took a few photos, and took in the view out to sea where there's pretty much nothing but water until you hit the U.S. The whole area has been a bit spoilt by the tourism offerings that have taken over what was probably once a lovely series of headlands, and thankfully we'd avoided having that ruin it for us by walking in from Sennen.

The view to Lands End from the north-east near Sennen

So having been to the Lands End, we walked back along the coast to Sennen Cove where we found ourselves a fantastic B&B tea house, and on work colleague Mark's recommendation got ourselves a Cornish Cream Tea. Carly's fresh scones arrived with the huge dollop of coddled cream, and we sat back and enjoyed the view over the fishing boats out to sea. The scones were fantastic, but the special cream is what makes it special. The proceeding walk had justified it though!

Fishing boats at Sennen Cove

We left Sennen Cove, and unfortunately had to make a nervous drive back to Penzance because we'd left the fuel tank run a bit too low for our intended route - but following a fill-up we headed back into the countryside to continue the drive along the northern coast road, past some amazing villages and the smoke stacks of the old tin mines dotting the country fields of the region.

Winding roads, stone fences, and Cornish countryside - made for driving fast!!

We travelled around St Ives, and headed back to the campsite where we met the others and then headed to the nearby local pub in Phillack.

The pub was called the Bucket of Blood, named after some local legend that we merely speculated about after far too many strong local ciders (9%!).. It was a brilliant traditional locals pub, complete with sagging ceiling beams and original bar, and many of the local St Austell ales which Dan got stuck into. In the end I started falling asleep, and by then it was time to head back to camp and to bed.

Our last day started as slow as the previous one, and with the overcast weather we'd had clearing by the hour, we walked down to the beach where the tide was out for some sun. The weather got so good by then that for the first time this year we both got slightly sunburnt, but by then it was time to get back into the car and begin the long trip back to London, via numerous scenic detours and also some woeful directions by my navigator(?).

Our campsite, Dan's tent, and our VW Golf

Instead of the usual route via the A30, the M5, and the M4, we took off along the southern coast heading for seaside Weymouth. Along the way just near Dorchester we stopped at what we thought would be an impressive castle (according to our road map) - what we found was indeed impressive, but there was no 'castle' there in the true sense of the word.. Maiden Castle is among the oldest iron age hill forts in Europe (the present hill fort formation dates to 300-400BC), and stands high above the surrounding farmlands and covers some 47 acres (I've read up on it on the web since we visited) - while you're standing on the top plataeu area you can really imagine a whole village being up here, protected by the huge ramparts on all sides and its amazing strategic position with views over the whole area and nearby Dorchester. The photos I took in the poor light really don't do it justice. The protective embankments are huge, and when you walk down into them you can tell it must have been an intimidating place for attackers. Click here for a page on the history of it, and click here to see the hill fort on the Google Maps aerial image!

The high fortifications that sill remain around the hillfort

English Heritage who manage the site allow sheep to graze all over the site, and Carly spent her time chasing the very small, fragile spring lambs around the paddock, while I laughed at her and tried to get shots with my camera - no success on patting a lamb, but she did collect some wool from an old one!

We left the fort and headed south from Dorchester and the coastal town of Weymouth and nearby Portland. We headed up the hilltop at Portland to see the views along the Chesil Beach as it stretches to the north, and came across some impressive defensive gun placements on the ocean-side of the hilltop, built in the late 1800's as part of a coastal defense - interesting stuff.

Photos of the gun placements, showing the small train track used to carry the artillery from the nearby bunkers

After taking probably too many photos of the gun placements, Carly dragged me away and we went down to Weymouth and had fish and chips on the beachfront esplanade. As we sat there you got the sense that with its beautiful mile-long beach; fronted by an equally long row of B&B and holiday houses, Amusement Halls, bars and pubs, ice cream stalls, and limited car parking; would be absolute mayhem come the warmer summer months.

The very English seaside esplanade and beach at Weymouth

From there we headed directly back to London, travelling via Sophie's home region around Bournemouth and Wimbourne. Near there we travelled along the outside of a never-ending brick wall which looked like it surrounded a huge deer farm. Each of the gates had these huge arches and massive gates - we assumed it was owned by some Lord or member of the Royalty and kept on driving, but I'll have to find out what it was.. We eventually got onto the M3 and came into West London and home.

Finishing up at the front door at 9:30pm, it had been a busy but worthwhile trip out to the West country - probably for the last time while we are in the UK this time, although i'm sure we'll be back there again eventually.



At Wed Apr 26, 10:20:00 pm GMT+10 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your navigator is excellent. Its the maps that are the problem! Ending up on A roads gives you the chance to use your rally driving skills...


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