May 2014.

I've bought a campervan as a 60th birthday present to myself, made some curtains and a patchwork quilt, waved goodbye to my family, and set off. My aim is to explore the coastline of Britain, anti clockwise, starting in Kent. I have no idea what will happen.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Burgh Island

When Jane left from Plymouth I decided to head for Bigbury-on-Sea. I found the campsite on a hill above the village, looking across the water to Burgh Island. The Burgh Island Hotel, ultra art deco and gleaming white in the late afternoon sun, was built in 1929 and was popular with Agatha Christie and Noel Coward and other such luminaries in the 1930s and 40s. Today (the website tells me) it is popular for weddings and parties and themed events for people who like pearls and cocktails, nostalgia and comfort.
Back to that other iconic, white place to stay .. Baa wasn't in quite such romantic and sophisticated surroundings. The campsite was in a great position and had (very) basic loos and showers. There were three other campervans, and two caravans and I parked next to an elderly combine harvester. There had either been a hell of a party the night before or the dustmen were on strike, but either way the wheelie bins were groaning under the weight of bottles and beercans.
Burgh Island Hotel from the campsite
The charming farmer came in the morning to be paid and said the hotel isn't open to non-residents which was a shame, as I wanted to do a recce for Fiona – and because I'm interested. Fiona sent the hotel an email.
The tide was low and I walked across (when it's higher a tractor with huge wheels takes guests over). I had coffee with four very nice people from Poole Harbour at The Pelican Inn which is owned by the hotel and at the bottom of its drive. We watched black RangeRovers chauffeuring guests to and fro through the electric gates and down across the causeway, and it felt very Dickensian! I got through the gates behind one of the cars and the lobby was full of hung-over thirty-somethings checking out after a wedding the day before, so the fearsome manageress had her hands full. I was just able to ascertain that she hadn't received an email from Fiona, so I got no further and can only say that the lobby is spacious, art deco and has a navy blue carpet.
I drove from Bigbury to Hope Cove along a 'tidal road' which crosses the Avon above Aveton Gifford. The estuary was crowded with birds: Canada Geese, Mallard, Widgeon, gulls and White Egret. I parked to watch them near a man binoculars. He had a mane of unkempt hair and the smiliest brown face with bright blue eyes shining out of it.. and he loves those swans! He said Timothy White and Rosalind had two cygnets (probably the foxes got to the eggs) and how Timothy fought with Toby who, with wife Janet, has five cygnets. He knew most of their names. The biggest hazard is foxes – and mink. Rosalind had a nasty puncture wound where her leg attaches at the back – probably due to a fox - so he made a mash of organic oats, Ribena and vitamin c and she's right as rain now.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

South-east Cornwall

Jane joined me for a sisterly nostalgia trip along 'our patch' of Cornwall, the south-east. She was born in Ivy Cottage, Wilcove next to Torpoint where the chain ferry crosses to Plymouth - you can't get much further east in Cornwall. Our father was a Royal Marine in 42 Commando at Bickleigh Barracks near Plymouth, and our parents bought Ivy Cottage in 1949 from the Antony Estate.
The Gunnera at Trebah
We started at Trebah Gardens on the Helford River which is owned by the Hibbert Family who we were at school with. It is a beautiful garden, sub-tropical and with a private beach on the Helford River. There are magnolias, camellias etc earlier in the year, and we had the hydrangeas and the incredible gunnera. There are spectacular trees whatever time you go, and the garden is open all year round.
It was dark and very foggy by the time we got to Fowey and we couldn't find the campsite we had chosen from my book. Diana, the satnav, took us to a petrol station and the man there said it was always happening, he shared a postcode with the campsite half a mile up the road.
After breakfast we headed for Fowey. This is real Daphne du Maurier country; during the war she rented a house near here called Menabilly which was such an inspiration for her writing. The town is crowded round the most beautiful natural harbour. Among the sailing boats, large ships come up, turn round and are towed to the docks round the bend in the river to collect cargos of china clay. 
Looe Harbour
The Looe Music Festival was in full swing, the streets thronging with people, brightly dressed, pushing buggies and eating – fish and chips, hot dogs and burgers. It was very summery and colourful and it's hard to imagine what these narrow streets were like when Looe was hit by storms and flooding in the winter.
We drove through Downderry and Crafthole towards Whitsand Bay. The roads, and the lanes leading off them, reminded me of my Baa wishlist – 'the van mustn't be too big, and be easy to drive down narrow Cornish lanes'. These roads are so Cornish: wooded either side with oak, beech and hornbeam, curling branches meeting above the road, forming dark, green tunnels, rivers and streams running below. After Crafthole the road to the Rame Peninsular is high and clear with open fields of wheat and pasture.
Whitsand and the chalets at Freathy
We turned right at Tregantle Fort which was built in 1865 to repel the French. There are still firing ranges here which slope sharply down to Whitsand Bay, and then we came round a corner and were suddenly surrounded by handsome young men jogging along the verge and peeling off their wetsuits. Surfers park their cars on the clifftop and climb down to the beach, and we met them as they returned – like Mapp and Lucia suddenly finding themselves on the set of a Rip Curl promotion!
On towards Rame Head, past Freathy, the clifftop is peppered with little cabins with the most stunning views out to sea, which were originally built to house people evacuated from Plymouth during the War. Most of them have been rebuilt and look very chic but planners restricted them to the same footprint and height.
Our home for the night and The View behind
The View, is a wonderful restaurant in something not much bigger than those modest cabins - but the food there is anything but! We first came here last year when the family came to scatter Mummy's ashes at Portwrinkle, and Jane and I decided to treat ourselves again. The joy of Baa is that we parked in a layby hard up against the cliff, and walked to dinner.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Helford to St Mawes

William joined me to explore at a friend, Clare Latimer's house by the Helford River. Clare has lived down here for much of her life and knows all about it. We had lunch in the Shipwright's Arms in Helford and then Will and I set off for Marazion and St Michael's Mount.  The castle is still home to the St Aubyn family but the Mount is owned and run by the National Trust.
St Michael's Mount
We saw it – so beautiful - in the evening light, too late to cross (by foot at low tide and by boat at others times) and I am glad we did see it then because the next day was dull. No matter, we had other fish to fry – pan fry.
Will is a chef and I have to say that the two suppers I had with him surpassed my previous best – crab starter followed by salt marsh lamb in Kent with Fiona. We were too late for the fish stalls so bought dover sole, and wonderful Cornish butter for the beurre blanc sauce, in a supermarket in Penzance.
Will preparing supper
We stayed on a piece of scrub land near Newlyn in a strong wind, with the sea banging and crashing beside us. Expletives from the kitchen (one metre away) from where I sat when chef realised the fish hadn't been scaled, so he went out into the wind with the (only) kitchen knife and transferred the scales from the fish to the back bumper! They and the sauce were utterly delicious.
 Next day we wandered around Newlyn Harbour. Will was intrigued by a decrepit fishing boat lying in the water at a worrying angle beside the harbour wall, its heavy cables now very rusty. A mechanic for Stevensons Fish said the boat had been working 5 years ago but the man who owned it became ill and stopped work, and the boat had sprung a plank and now it was beyond repair... Commercial boats have to work 12m+ out to sea (more often 30 – 100m) out and that the EC can dictate what is being over-fished. Fishermen can't help catching a fish they aren't meant to catch, and have to throw them (dead) back, and aren't allowed to give them away or sell them for charity.. Ridiculous. 

We bought crab for lunch and hake for supper at the Stevensons shop on the quay before our visit to St Michael's Mount. It is a real gem of a place, where a fairytale castle sitting on top of a vast chunk of granite in the bay. Visitors can walk round the castle and the garden and see wonderful views back to Penzance, Newlyn and The Lizard.
I met Phineas on the King Harry Ferry
The King Harry Ferry crosses the River Fal, avoiding driving miles up to Truro and down the other side to St Mawes on the Roseland Peninsular. St Mawes is a dreamy place, once a fishing port, with its castle built in the time of Henry VIII to defend our coast from the French and Spanish. We had tea watching the most lovely boat (I have since heard her name is Agnes, and she's a 46ft Pilot Cutter) sailing in the estuary, and an elderly man swimming strongly against the tide.

Tea at St Mawes
Will's last night in Baa was at a campsite outside Mevagissey. I bet few of the other campers had such good hake with caper sauce!  Will suggested an early morning swim and, having torn his boxers on the door handled, reached the water a bit quicker than me! After our excellent sauces there was just about enough of that Rhodda butter left two pieces of toast.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Tin mines

I stayed at a campsite close to Botallack, west of Pendeen, and walked in the morning to the Botallack Mines - or the Crown Mines as they are sometimes called. These are the most iconic and much photographed Cornish tin mines because they are beautifully poised on the side of the cliff.

Botallack Mines

It was a bright, sunny day and I walked through small fields, all irregular sizes and uneven ground, with coarse thistley grass, and with hefty stone walls wide enough to run along, their sides thick with grass and brambles. The land feels lost in time, remote and poor, even though the odd incomers have done up a few nice old farmhouses.
I walked on about a mile to the east to the Levant Mine, passing the hollowed out brick carcasses of other ruined mines with their tall, round chimneys.
The Levant Mine, opened in 1820, first mined copper, and then tin. It closed in 1930 and is now owned by the National Trust.
The stone steps are just visible on the left
The entry to the mine, when it first opened, was via a cleft in the side of the cliff. The men had to climb down steep, slippery stone steps to get to the face of the mine,1500ft below. It took them an hour and a half to get down there before they could start work, and they'd probably walked 4m from St Just to get there. As the mine developed the face went down to 1800ft, and two miles out to sea. I can't imagine how hard it must have been, hacking into the rock; it's very hot that far under the sea, and the air was very thin. At the end of their shift they had to walk back up those steps, and home again. It isn't surprising that their working lives on the face were short: maybe from age 14 to 30 - but it probably didn't feel so short to them.
After some years the mine owners decided that the walk down the steps wasted too many man hours. Cages pulled up and down the very narrow shaft by steam engines could only carry four men and they were slow. So in the late 1800s the mine owners installed an engine which carried men, two at a time, on narrow platforms. Ledges were set into the side of the shaft at 12ft intervals, and as the engine lifted the men they would step off one platform and on to a ledge; then on to the next platform as it came up. Is that clear?! It meant that when a shift changed men were coming out of the top of the shaft every seven seconds.
Disaster struck on 20 October 1919. Men coming out of the top of the shaft noticed that no one was getting out behind them, so they ran back to see what had happened. The engine had collapsed and fallen half way down the shaft. More than 30 men died and many more were injured. It was the worst Cornish mining disaster in history.

I felt so moved by the whole area – the beauty of it, and the tough life of the people who lived there. I think it was seeing the old mines, once such powerful, busy places employing hundreds of men, that made it so evocative.

Monday, 6 October 2014

St Ives

St Ives Bay is a vast sweep of sand with St Ives at the south end and, on the northern tip the lighthouse at Godrevy Point is said to have been Virginia Woolf's inspiration for her book To The Lighthouse.
Godrevy Point
Hayle sits on the estuary of the Hayle River in the centre of the bay. In the early part of the 19th century Hayle was at the heart of the Cornish mining industry where rail and tramways converged from the outlying mining areas. Two of the largest foundries were here and it was the centre for steam engine engineering. But the tin mining industry declined rapidly between the Wars and Hayle's fortunes  spiralled downwards.
But things are looking up. I talked to the Harbour Master who told me ING Investment bought the Hayle harbour in 2004. The North Quay has been developed and is now used by 30 fishing boats and many leisure craft, though a sandbar at the mouth of the navigable part of the river makes this a tricky place to get in and out of. A protection zone has been established around a patch of a rare weed called Petalwort at Middle Weir, but a large superstore is being built on the South Quay.
I left Baa at St Erth and caught the train that goes around the bay to St Ives. You don't want a car in St Ives and everything is in walking distance. I walked around the narrow streets in the sunshine, along with hundreds of tourists even though it was mid-September. I love the Barbara Hepworth collection of sculptures in her garden in the centre of town and walked from there through the crowds past pretty little lanees and alleyways, the tea shops and pasty shops to the Tate.
Barbara Hepworth's garden
The scenery on the drive west from St Ives changes suddenly to moorland. On the advice of the Harbour Master at Hayle I was heading for the Levant Mine near Pendeen. The road passes brackeny hills with grazing sheep, small farms with pretty stone farmhouses, and the occasional B&B. The vast open expanses that lead to the sea are peppered with the ruins of old tin-mines with their circular chimneys. The beaches are still wonderful but this feels completely different to the holiday and surfing destinations that I have been through.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


I left Baa in a carpark in the middle of Tintagel and set off to see the sites. There is a charming Old Post Office dating back to late 1300s which is owned by the National Trust. It was a Medieval hall house, and then a post office in Victorian times, with low ceilings and narrow stairs, and furniture and chattels dating back to the 16thC. I'm glad I went early because when I walked past a couple of hours later there were Japanese tourists queuing round the block.
I walked a little way out of the village to St Materiana, the parish church of Tintagel, dating back to 1080, though there was something even older there before. It's Grade I listed and utterly beautiful, sitting close to the coast, and another short coastal walk from the medieval Castle, said to be home to King Arthur. Merlin, his mentor, is supposed to have lived in a cave on the beach below. It is a is a real meeting of history and myth - the site of the castle goes back to Roman times, and no one really knows the truth about King Arthur .. or if he was born there.
Tintagel Castle
It's a fascinating place, with different courtyards spreading across part of the mainland, and all over a little island which is reached by a bridge.
When I got back to the village I stopped to eat a pasty for lunch in the sun with my newspaper. The most surreal thing happened... I was reading an article by Janet Street-Porter as I was biting into my pasty, (I quote..) “Last weekend in Cornwall, I stopped at a deli in Tintagel to eat a pasty, and gawped at the procession of fatties, waddling along the main street licking ice creams and gobbling chips...” It was the start of a diatribe about obesity in this country... and she had a point, most people who passed by were overweight, and most of them were eating! I ordered an ice cream and left...
After all the crowds in Tintagel I couldn't bring myself to face more people in Port Isaac. It's a no-car village and I would've like to see where Doc Martin treats the sick, but I decided to move on.
Just along the coast is the charming narrow bay of Port Quin, and I wish I had been organised enough to walk there from Port Isaac... it's only 2 or 3 miles along the cliff path, but there's always the problem of getting back to the van. I sat on the small narrow beach, the tide was out and a couple of people were swimming, and talked to a nice woman from Wadebridge who had moved down from Tunbridge Wells.
Port Quin
Sadly it was a closed day at Prideaux Place a beautiful 17thC house just outside Padstow which I have put on my 'next time' list. It is where a lot of Rosamunde Pilcher's stories have been filmed and, as she is immensely popular in Germany, that's probably another reason why this stretch of coast is so popular with Germans. There are any number of wonderful places to eat in Padstow and it has great charm, sitting on the side of the Camel estuary. It is also home to the National Lobster Hatchery which was also shut when I got there – it was after 6.30pm, that's why. I got poor Baa wedged in a parking space and, after the unfortunate Bude incident, took ages to get her out.