From Castle to Mousehole (MOW-zl)

The rain of yesterday vanished overnight, thank heavens, since this is my last day in West Cornwall (aka the Cornish Riviera, according to the train conductor!) and I wanted to be outdoors.

I set off with my daypack after breakfast at the B&B and walked the four miles to the small town of Marazion, most of it along the beach, since it was low tide. In fact, children, dogs and their minders were able to venture quite far out for their shoreline frolics, and it was a treat to see them romping in the sunshine. It was also a joy to take off my shoes and walk in the sand.

I headed to St. Michael’s Mount, a castle built on a rocky offshore island that is only accessible on foot when the tide is out.

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St. Michael’s Mount at low tide, courtesy of Matthew Jessop

It has belonged to the St. Aubyn family for hundreds of years, but they now allow the National Heritage Trust to operate tours there with the proviso that the family can remain. Once upon a time, an entire village of workers lived in island housing and served the castle, but there are only about 30 there now. Only certain rooms are open to the public, of course, but it was still a lovely outing. (Of course, my phone chose today to act up, so the photos I include here are taken from the Visit Cornwall site and credited to others.)

I walked across the cobbled causeway and took a tour of the village at the base of the island, then headed to the café for some lunch before the climb to the castle. (I learned this strategy yesterday when I arrived at the tin mine hungry, but found the café line too long and skipped it. By the time I’d toured the mine and returned to the café, they were out of everything but cakes.)

I ended up sitting and visiting with a couple from California and their three children. They both had English roots; he had grown up in nearby Devon and had visited Cornwall as a child. It was a delightful way to enjoy my real Cornish pasty.

After enjoying the castle, I made my way back to the village and discovered that the tide was in, so it was a boat ride back to Marazion. From there, I caught a bus to Penzance. Just as I hopped off, I saw the bus to Mousehole waiting and climbed aboard for a trip to a locale three or four miles on the other side of Penzance. Mousehole gets its name from its small, circular cove where kids swim and pleasure boats anchor. It’s a charming village with stone buildings climbing the hillside and cute shops that cater to tourists and locals alike. I sat and had my last real Cornish cream tea with local clotted cream and jam as I looked out on the water. Yummy victuals, delicious view.

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Mousehole, courtesy of Adam Gibbard

Fortified, I walked the coastal path back through the fishing hamlet of Newlyn, home to the area’s commercial fishing fleet. It’s always fun to see the activity at a real, working harbour, and as I rounded the corner, refrigerator trucks were waiting to load a fresh catch for distribution elsewhere.

Cornwall has been wonderful. Things I especially enjoyed: the hedgerows bursting with colour; the beaches; the rocky shores reminiscent of British Columbia; the traces of Cornish language (e.g., Penwith Peninsula); and the smuggling history. So much that I didn’t see, but that’s always the case, alas.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the big city and some deadlines that await me.

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A Study in Contrasts

What a difference a day can make! Yesterday, the sun was shining, the air was warm and I was strolling barefoot in the sands of Porthminster Beach in St. Ives. Today, the rain began before breakfast and didn’t let up until afternoon, with fog surrounding Penzance and area villages. Such is coastal weather!

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Porthminster Beach, St. Ives

Sunshine on my shoulder

I set out yesterday by bus in search of the Tate Gallery’s outpost in St. Ives and the studio and garden of the late sculptor, Dame Barbara Hepworth. My seatmate turned out to be an art school graduate who worked at the Tate and lived in nearby Lamorna, so I enjoyed a lively conversation all the way to the oceanside town. As the bus descended into the village from the hillside, I gasped. The view was stunning and completely different than the rocky shoreline at Penzance. Here, I was looking at yellow sand speckled with bathers, dog walkers and beach chairs, plus an expanse of aquamarine ocean sparkling in the sunlight.

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At anchor off Porthminster Beach

Of course, I made sure to wander the beach barefoot and splash along the low tide line while looking for shells. I need a few from both sides of the Penwith Peninsula – can’t play favourites! Interestingly, the beach behind the nearby breakwater was littered with pleasure boats sitting on the sand. (Word has it that they have double keels to keep them upright.)

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Low tide, St. Ives

By the time I returned to the same spot in the afternoon, the tide had come in and they were afloat. A fascinating contrast.

The Tate Gallery with its pristine white stone exterior and its rotunda shape resembles a temple to the gods, in my estimation, and it looks out over rugged Porthmeor Beach, a surfers’ paradise.

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Tate, St. Ives

Lots of wetsuits and boards in evidence, as well as colourful windbreaks so people could sit on the beach without getting blown away. The sunshine brought people out in droves and the sidewalks were venues for numerous pedestrian traffic jams.

The Tate had a few exhibitions, including one focusing on the connection between a St. Ives potter and a Japanese potter during the 1900s that influenced a few generations of their students. As part of a look at British pottery today, one London artist asked others in his studio to create pottery environments for his rare pet lizard-fish. Five ceramicists took part, and the pet has enjoyed each of their creations in his tank on a rotating basis. Crazy and cool – they were all so different, but provided the pet with its necessary shade areas, etc.

Barbara Hepworth, along with Sir Henry Moore, was a pioneer of 20th-century abstract sculpture, although he generally receives more credit and notoriety, even though they attended art school together and worked abstractly during the same period. It’s tough being a woman in a man’s world.

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Hepworth bronze sculpture

Her studio, complete with unfinished models and tools, is on display, and her garden showcases her sculptures beautifully. It was a treat to walk through it and enjoy the sculptures from various angles.

Thanks to the influence of Hepworth and a local potter, as well as the scenery, St. Ives has become a hub for artists and for galleries, so I was able to wander through a number of them and drool over favourites. Luckily, the prices were in pounds, which was enough to prevent me from any impulsive buys!

Afterward, on to a cream tea enjoyed overlooking the sea before catching my bus back home.

That damned drizzle

Today’s plans originally called for a visit to an island castle owned by an earl’s family, but when the rain kept falling and the island wasn’t visible through the mist, I knew it was time for a change in plans. I hastily searched for an indoors idea and decided to visit a coastal tin mine. Tin mining was a mainstay in Cornwall for more than 200 years, dying out in the 1980s.

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Entrance to museum drive. Cornish flag flies on the right.

Of course, getting to the bus depot necessitated a walk across town in the rain, so I was damp when I hopped aboard. Ugh. However, it was a lovely ride overland through small villages, including Botallack, the hamlet where parts of the Poldark BBC series are filmed. Very cool.

The mining exhibits were very interesting. I knew that mining was both dangerous and physically demanding, but I now know more about the actual process. As time progressed, industrial advancements eased some of the miners’ burdens, but it was still hard work. Luckily, tin mines don’t give off noxious gases, so it was healther mining than some.

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Conveyer belt used to separate rocks containing tin from unprofitable stone

One of the retired miners gave a talk about his experiences, which was quite interesting, and there was also the opportunity to walk through some mine tunnels dug – by shovel, not machine! – in the 1700 and 1800s. They are short and close, so giants and claustrophobics need not apply for work.

I was also able to walk toward the coast to see ruins from another area mine. In the mist, the scenery was quite dramatic.

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Crumbling mine buildings along the Cornish coast.

Then, it was back to the road to wait for the bus. Sundays are not exactly ripe with bus traffic, so I stood and stood and stood. … People walking their dogs began joking with me and I wondered if I were growing mould. However, the bus did come and I made it safely back to Penzance, where I had a hot meal in a cheerful family restaurant to perk me up again.

Now, I have my fingers crossed for sunshine tomorrow!

On Beyond Zebra

It’s five hours, give or take, from London to the end of the world – i.e., Land’s End, Cornwall. I’m nearby, in Penzance (as in Pirates of), and I haven’t fallen off, so it seems that the world IS round, and I’m grateful!

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Close to the edge, but not quite there!

Here be dragons, perhaps, since not far away at Tintagel is the reputed home of Merlin, mentor to King Arthur. Here also be Poldark country, he of the smouldering, dark good looks. I’ll be keeping an eye out.

I arrived here this afternoon by train, a conveyance jammed full of people going on holiday. We were half an hour late, delayed first by a broken-down train ahead of us and then because someone tried to jump from the train while it was moving – an unsuccessful maneuver, I’m guessing, or we might still be sitting on the tracks while the police investigated.

The conductor explained this all to us apologetically – so concerned about service and getting us there on time, which was charming. In Toronto, I can’t picture getting the full explanation and the accounting of exactly how many minutes behind schedule we were at each stop.

Despite the delays, the train moved fairly quickly to Plymouth, home to Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, but it soon turned into the Cornwall milk run. As a result, I know the names of more stations in Cornwall than I do outside of London. St. Austell, anyone? St. Erth?

I am staying in a B&B in a room under the eaves. I have a skylight above the head of my bed, and if I lie back, I can see swifts wheeling past and clouds scudding across the blue. Very cool.

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Tremont Guest House, Penzance

Since it stays light late here, I was able to wander the town for a while after settling in and walk the seaside promenade along Mount’s Bay.

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The rocky shore of Mount’s Bay reminds me of the British Columbia coastline

In fact, I ordered fish and chips to eat bayside, watching the gulls, the waves and swimmers in wetsuits – the Caribbean this isn’t. The real thrill was to have the waitress at the Pirate’s Inn wrap my “takeaway” order in paper, a throwback to days gone by.

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Fish and chips, Cornish style

The shoreline here is rocky, but I’ve still managed to find a few shells for my collection on the pebbled beach. We’ll see what else tomorrow brings.

Take it to the (South) Bank

Today, I met up with Christine and Tom, the last of my Ontario connections to visit London during my sojourn. The weather and sightseeing gods were apparently with throughout, because we had a wonderful time, despite having nothing concrete planned other than a meeting place.

We met at Trafalgar Square and decided to wander towards Buckingham Palace to see if we could catch a bit of the Changing of the Guard. On our way down the Mall, we encountered the Horse Guards regiment returning to their barracks. Very cool, and it got better.

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Horse Guards heading home

The crowd near the palace gates was thick as we neared, so we decided to stay along the Mall, where we witnessed Grenadier Guards marching toward the ceremony and back again afterward.

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Grenadier Guards en route to Buckingham Palace.

We moved along and were also lucky enough to see the day’s band, the Coldstream Guards, as they marched out of the palace gates playing martial music, followed by another group of Grenadier Guards. Wonderful to see them all up close – and lucky for them that the weather was cool, since their uniforms are a bit on the heavy side!

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Coldstream Guards band leaving the palace

We walked back through Green Park to Westminster in time to hear Big Ben chime noon – a real treat, since he may be silenced until 2021 while the clock is refurbished. However, the announcement about his silencing brought forth a huge hue and cry from the British public, so there may be some negotiation on when he tolls and when he is silent. The bell tolled all through the London bombings of the Second World War, so people are outraged that he should stop now.

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Big Ben chimes the noon hour

Next, a ride on one of the riverboats that take travellers from pier to pier. We opted to go as far as the Tower of London – St. Katharine’s Pier – and hopped aboard the front of the boat. Our waterman offered to provide commentary, even though it wasn’t really a tour boat, but he was wonderful. We learned that Waterloo Bridge is “The Ladies’ Bridge,” since women built it while men were off fighting during the Second World War, and we discovered that the Millennium Bridge is also called the Wibbly Wobbly Bridge, since it closed down hours after its official opening due to its tendency to sway. (It’s fixed now, never fear!) We heard this commentary delivered in a wonderful “Souf” London accent – I could have listened all day.

After lunch at the Dickens Pub at the nearby marina, we decided upon a walk across Tower Bridge – and what a walk it turned out to be. We were nearly across when we heard a siren, and it turned out that it was the signal that the bridge would be opening, something that happens only about three times a week! We backed into safe territory and watched the show.

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Tower Bridge on the move

The ship coming up the Thames turned out to be a tall ship – a training ship for Naval cadets, and as they passed, the sound system on the ship blared, “Rule Britannina,” and the sailors hanging from the rigging in their spiffy uniforms waved to the crowd. What a sight!

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Naval cadets approaching Tower Bridge

We continued on to the South Bank of the river, and it was a lively, bustling place. There is a promenade all along the waterfront, and there are shops, restaurants, buskers, the National Theatre, the South Bank Centre and more. A stop at Borough Market to look at the gourmet food stalls led to some yummy goat’s milk ice cream and a reminder of the terrorist attack there just months ago when signs thanked us for our support of the market.

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Supporting Borough Market

Our wanderings brought us in touch with all kinds of street theatre: giant bubble wands, teenagers swinging from the underpinnings of the Thames Bridges on ropes (undoubtedly illegal), expert sand sculptures and singers plying their trade.

A wonderful way to spend a (partially) sunny day: exploring the city with friends and finding it full of life.

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Here’s to sharing a lovely day in London with friends!

Tour de Torontonians

It has been quite the week. For some reason, all kinds of people I know decided to converge on London within a few days of each other, making this the most social stretch of time I’ve had all summer. In fact, when I looked back to Monday’s Science Tea, I couldn’t believe it took place this week.

Science Tea? Did I really write those two words together? Indeed! The lovely Ampersand Hotel, right near the bus stop for my Battersea buses in South Kensington, offers a science version of its afternoon tea, designed to entertain the youngsters who visit the nearby Science Museum with their parents. A client of mine, Nicolle, and her family, are science lovers, so I knew this was the perfect way for us to meet. It was a delightful afternoon of great company and fun food: Petri dishes full of jelly, dinosaur-shaped cookies, cheesecake Saturn with white-chocolate rings and dry ice to add some clouds to the sunny atmosphere. What fun!

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Saturns, spacemen and spaceships ensure our tea is out of this world!

On Tuesday, Jemma, Virginia and Sandy arrived from Portugal for a week and settled into a hotel nearby in Battersea. We’ve been to the Tate Modern and a pub dating from 1549 together, and various permutations and combinations of us have met for lunch and dinner.

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Foodie friends

We made a stop at Harrod’s, with its luxurious, deluxe offerings and its shrine to the late Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed. We toured Buckingham Palace and its ornate interiors in the pouring rain and saw some of the gifts the monarchs received from other countries, including Vancouver 2010 Olympic mittens from Canada!

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Royal Carriage

We even helped Sandy locate the hostel where she stayed when she toured Europe at age 21. The fun continues Monday with a visit to the London Eye and a farewell dinner before we go in various directions.

Friday saw me boarding a train for Birmingham for the day to attend the Festival of Quilts, Europe’s largest quilt show. I met my new friend from Surrey, Christina, there for an afternoon of ooh-ing and aah-ing over amazing quilts by incredibly talented people.

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One of the prize-winning quilts at the Festival of Quilts

I took an hour-long workshop to practise paper piecing and I – of course – purchased some fabric. With so many vendors around, how could I fail to support the British economy?

Today, another client, Barb, and a friend met me for an excursion to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, aka Kew Gardens. (It is one of only five Royal Botanical Gardens worldwide, including the one in Hamilton.) We saw a wonderful variety of exhibits: water lilies, orchids, the kitchen garden, cacti, temperate plants and a treetop walk above the fray.

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Colour everywhere!

There was also a sculpture with sound and light that simulated a beehive, an amazing piece of creativity; and a peacock that roams free in the flower gardens. Everywhere we turned there was fascinating plants, lovely vistas and peaceful places to relax.

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Kew Gardens delights visitors.

After all of this fun, I may actually have to sit down and do some work tomorrow. It will undoubtedly be a shock to my system, but I need to clear my calendar before a quilting pal from Waterford, Christine, and her husband blow into town on Tuesday. Never a dull moment, eh?

Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ with the Romans

Today, it was back to being a tourist, rather than a theatre buff, as I took a day tour to Hadrian’s Wall and the Borders.

Of course, it’s hard to beat the Great Wall of China, but the Romans were amazing! Their empire stretched so far and they were so technologically savvy for the time, it’s impressive to walk in their footsteps.

Hadrian’s Wall, named for the emperor under whose reign it was constructed, ran the breadth of northern England, for 73 miles (80 Roman miles; 117.5 kilometres) about an hour south of the Scottish border.

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Hadrian’s Wall crosses hill and dale through the British countryside

It marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire when construction of this stone line of demarcation started in 122 A.D., although later the Romans gained a toehold in Scotland and built a new barrier north of Edinburgh. (The Antonine Wall, as it was called, was built largely of turf. Given that the Romans didn’t control that northern frontier for more than a couple of decades, it’s probably lucky that less work went into it.)

The wall today only exists in sections, since the locals often used its stones for construction of other buildings in the centuries after the Romans left. In places, grass grows atop the wall, as well as wildflowers; in other spots, it’s simply stone.

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Grass grows atop some sections of Hadrian’s Wall

It was built by British regiments of the Roman Legion and allowed the Romans to keep the Picts and other northern tribes out of England. A series of forts built every 13 miles south of the wall housed troops to defend the frontier and made it possible or them to  attend to administrative tasks pertinent to ruling Britannia.

Not only did I get to see the wall, touch the wall and stand on the wall, I was able to visit one of these forts and to enjoy the wonderful rural scenery of the Borderlands on either side of the England-Scotland border.

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A piper marks the border between England and Scotland

It’s green – no surprise, since half of our explorations were done in the rain – and it’s home to more sheep than I’ve ever seen in my life! An added bonus: the heather was in bloom! We could see purplish patches all over the hillsides.

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Heather in bloom near Hadrian’s Wall

Between my visit to Bath and Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve had a bit of a crash course in the Roman Empire, something I don’t think was given much weight during my school years in the “anything goes” years when they did away with mandatory courses about Western Civilization. The more I learn, I find, the more interesting a period of history becomes. Rah, rah Rome!

The tour experience was also great fun. I opted for a van tour with only 16 people and the driver-guide. The latter turned out to be a very sweet, down-to-earth Edinburgh native who loves his city and gave us a real flavour of life there. There was also a family of Canadians from Barrie, north of Toronto, who were lovely, and a friendly Aussie woman. The Canadian kids, 12-year-old twins, were always the first up the hills and through the mud, but I managed to do my bit. (Note to self: staying fit is important for travel.)

It was a wonderful way to end my Edinburgh escape, although I am sad, too. So much more to do and see here. However, London is calling …

All Roads Lead to Rome

When anyone uses the well-known aphorism about roads and Rome, I never think of it in connection with Britain, but I should know better by now. The Romans were here in Londinium, as they called it, and, apparently, they also established a stronghold at Bath.

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The stones beneath the floor of the bath, used to heat the water.

My long-time friend, Ute, and I joined a local meet-up group on Saturday for a day trip to this lovely city, site not only of Roman baths, but of Georgian architecture that earns it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our coach set off early from the centre of London, and by mid-morning, we had crossed serene rural landscape that became hillier the further west we drove and reached Bath, a city of 90,000 just east of coastal Bristol. As our city tour guide noted, Bath is a layer cake: the unearthed Roman ruins, followed by Medieval development, topped by Georgian architecture. Georgian refers to the period that King Georges I through IV ruled England, roughly 1714 to 1830.

We stopped first at the Roman bath, the ruins of which weren’t uncovered until workmen digging in the late 19th century came across some interesting rubble. Even then, it took the city engineer 20 years to obtain permission for a full dig of what is today an amazing Roman temple site. In fact, the ruins were buried so deep in the South Gloucestershire mud that even a garden dug on top of them by Medieval monks didn’t reach the remains.

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Roman bath in — where else? — Bath

Just as interesting is the fact that the spring that fed that ancient mineral bath was celebrated in Georgian times for its curative properties and Bath was a fashionable spa during the 18th century, even though no one knew about the Roman precedent.

Alas, the modern plumbing wasn’t working right on Saturday, so we didn’t get a chance to sample the cleansed mineral waters, but I did dip my fingers into the algae-filled pool to feel the warmth. The spring still feeds spas in the area, and we could see people on balconies in their bathrobes, lounging. Not a bad way to wind down from the week’s stresses.

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The Pump Room, where the fashionable came to drink mineral water in the 1800s.

After absorbing the facts about Roman temples and about bathhouse culture at the time, we had a look at the city’s renowned Georgian architecture, based on classical styles and hewn from golden-toned local stone. For fans of Jane Austen and the Regency period, this is heaven. Austen herself lived in Bath for five years and based two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey here. Janeites among the tour group were pointing out streets that figured in those two books, and we saw one of the houses where she lived during those years, although it’s not the building that now houses the Jane Austen Museum – it’s now home to a law firm instead.

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One of the homes where Jane Austen resided during her time in Bath.

So, we wandered the Royal Crescent and the Circus; saw the Pulteney Bridge, based on Italy’s Ponte Vecchio; and dropped in at the Assembly Rooms, where the town’s emcee, Beau Nash, held sway. Mr. Nash was responsible for making introductions for newcomers to town – if only it were so easy today!

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The Royal Crescent, a popular spot.

Bath offers a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of London and a trip back in time. It’s certainly an escape I’m ready to make again.