- Strange – 22 Pages –
For my wife and I the county of Cornwall was an ideal holiday location. Situated in the far west of England, its rugged shores and spectacular beaches had always produced the most memorable times for us. Like many other tourists, part of our affection for Cornwall lay in its wild frontier spirit. There was the aire of an outpost here, an atmosphere that reluctant city dwellers found quite irresistible.
The natives here fell into two quite distinct categories. On the coast there existed a colourful mix of entrepreneur, sixth generation fishermen and dropouts. Inland there was an unchanged, indeed an unchangeable and ancient agricultural breed. At a point of about two miles inland was a kind of no-mans land belonging to neither sect.
Being used to the more cosmopolitan and liberal life-style exhibited by the coastal fraternity, it was at locations nearest to the sea that we found our niche when staying here. Occasional sorties into “The Bush” of the interior, whilst not hostile, left us feeling like intruders. In fact the word used here to describe such tourists as us was “Immits”, which translated into ants.
It was impossible to ignore the weight of history bearing down upon this enchanted wilderness. Every event, building or place-name was a part of folklore and seemed predestined to be so. Being here felt like performing in an ever-running and ancient play. There was a timelessness that generated a sensation that the sequence of events could not be altered. Strangely co-existent within this fixed scenario however, remained a feeling of spontaneity.
There were of course imperfections to this paradise. In some ways the adult mind demanded it. The choice for us and for many others as the focus of all displeasure was the weather. To say that conditions here were changeable would be a gross understatement. Indeed the very word “Changeable”, although official English “Speak” for the meteorology hereabouts, was invariably substituted by a string of more colourful and altogether more accurate words.
Another and perhaps more personal drawback to holidays in Cornwall was the distance. For anybody on my salary to even think of embarking on the miles that this journey entailed, and to do so in a vehicle suitably prehistoric and in keeping with that income, was nothing less than foolhardy.
For accommodation in “The Holy-Land” as I affectionately called it, we found caravans the most desirable option. The regimented formalities of hotels mixed in with the presence of other humans, detracted from the Cornish dream as perceived by us. Caravans, or trailers to use the global term, offered the right balance between luxury and roughing it to permit complete integration with the surrounding countryside.
Over the years, and we’d been here for seventeen consecutive seasons, the quality of trailers available here had slowly risen. Whilst at first we were reluctant to sell out by utilising these luxury vans, eventually we were forced to conform. It was in such homely splendour one year that a cost comparison exercise revealed that for an equal sum we could have taken our holidays in the ever-present sun of the Canary Islands.
Tempted by such delights as guaranteed good weather and the charms of a foreign land, our next five holidays were indeed taken in Spain. In fact we caught the Spanish bug so badly as to be actively discussing a permanent move there. We were at the dangerous time in our lives when you’re prepared to risk almost everything you have just for a taste of paradise.
Like all semi intelligent creatures, we detested our jobs. To discuss this philosophy with those who would reply with a suggestion that we change our jobs, was to converse with Satan himself. We did not want jobs. We had many passions and pursuits in life most of which we’d never get time to even begin getting involved with. Work was for those with empty heads who would otherwise die of boredom, it was not for us.
It was hatred of the rat race that had taken us to Cornwall in the beginning. That venom was also to fuel our trips to Spain and discussions of moving to the continent had now widened to include Cornwall as an alternative and less risky solution.
How many years must be spent chasing paradise. And how many hours a day must be sacrificed in pursuit of our company’s interests before we earn a moment to ourselves. The statistical imbalance of the number of walks on a Cornish beach per year, compared to walks too and from work in the city, was clearly ludicrous.
Returning to Cornwall after a five-year break was just like coming home. We’d spent some beautiful times here that ran right back to our first days together. Nothing had changed here to spoil the memories. And each time we came, the gap since our last visit would instantly close as if we’d never left at all.
In very recent years we’d invested in a tent. This we saw as a means to achieving cheap and spontaneous breaks combined with a, “Closer to nature” quality that appealed to us. Originally we’d planned the camping experience to be at sites closer to home and for short breaks only. But having taken so well to life under canvas, it was only a matter of time before we’d find ourselves at it, so to speak, in the West Country.
After weeks of excitement and a course of valium to rectify any mechanical shortcomings of the car; we arrived in Cornwall. It was the most beautiful evening imaginable to greet us and the rather complicated task of erecting the tent passed without incident. The wind so unrelenting in this ocean environment had spared us. Even the sun, less common here than Cape Horn itself, was out and shone warm.
Having then completely unpacked and furnished our temporary homestead, we began our holiday. Sunsets here were magnificent. We had an unbroken view across the ocean towards the deep red horizon, beyond which lay the North American continent some three thousand miles distant. Gulls laughed and cried as they danced in thermal air currents over the cliffs. And shadows lengthened and merged as day gave way to night.
Coming up the hill towards us on the path from the beach I noticed a man. He rode a bicycle behind which he was towing a trailer loaded with a surf canoe. He was neither young or old yet appeared somehow to be both. This vision of a seasoned and single-minded surfer returning alone to his tent, added a surreal quality to an already enchanted evening.
As he approached, our smiles widened to almost painful proportions. Sensing our amusement as he hauled his entire world past us, he returned our smiles with a boyish grin tinged with the pride of his celebrity status of the moment.
Slowly the cooler air of evening drew the day to a close. And being lovers of beer and pubs we were left with no alternative therefore but to seek refuge in The Treyarnon Bay Hotel which rather fortuitously, lay very close-by. So, assisted by the strengthening offshore breeze and the gradient, later to be despised, we headed for the bar.
For us the half-mile or so stroll to the pub was a pilgrimage. Once within this shrine we would experience the perfect backdrop to harmonious conversation, peace, and dare I say “Spiritual” enlightenment. I should point out that as professional customers, our objective was not to become drunk. Nor was our plan to remain sober; ours was the space in between.
En-route we passed trailers that had been our homes on previous trips. Each would represent an entire episode in an accumulative experience that was to become our lives to date. This short walk, especially after a five-year absence, was for us, a living and three-dimensional journey back through time.
We approached the pub with more than a little trepidation. Almost every year it seemed would present the establishment with a new owner along with a new set of ideas as to how it should be run. With the summer seasons being so short here, and businesses all competing for the limited trade available, it was not uncommon to find evermore dramatic changes introduced in the ongoing and relentless search for new customers.
Everybody of course, ourselves included, had a vision of how the bar should be. We preferred the quiet and comfortable appeal of a saloon bar. Others regarded an a la carte restaurant as the perfect solution. Most owners however had gone for the middle ground by having areas designated for both diners and drinkers.
It was to the drinking area that our concerns were directed. Dining out as a social function had never held any interest for us. In fact the unnaturally inflated moods of those about to eat, we found quite disgusting and not conducive to the more intellectually stimulating “Drinkers only” atmosphere.
Stepping in through the front door, it became immediately clear that this was our year. The latest owner had completely dismissed the need for communal mastication, giving over the entire area to a newly built but traditionally styled bar; praise the Lord.
In truth the new layout was a little over spacious. But where it perhaps fell short in the “Cosiness-factor”, there was more then adequate compensation available in the number and choice of seats. Seizing the opportunity therefore, we swiftly laid claim to our chosen spot and settled down for the evening.
From our table we were able to see the last moments of daylight as the full disc of the sun fell below the horizon. To the city dweller this was a spectacular event, and the speed with which it occurred seemed to emphasise the insignificance of the little planet on which we lived.
In addition to the fully restored bar the new owner had tastefully redesigned the beer garden. Whilst at heart I generally preferred things to remain the same, it was impossible to dislike his new layout.
Also, towards the rear of the land purchased with the hotel, a house was under construction that would serve as the new owners personal residence. This structure, whilst only half way to completion, appeared to be in the Spanish villa style and was very striking indeed; perhaps this manager was here to stay.
This pub could be the very best place and the very worst place to relax in. At best, the views here offering a unique mix of wild beauty and complete isolation, formed the perfect backdrop to peace and tranquillity. But the duration and indeed the very existence of that wonderful and timeless quality, lay completely in the unmerciful hands of the local tribe.
In truth it was not the local tribe themselves to blame, it was their offspring. The culprits were the children of parents who’d purchased holiday homes adjoining the nearby golf course. It was during the summer recess that that these kids, released from the kindergarten of the university campus, would swarm, in cars purchased and fuelled by daddy, to infest my adopted holy-land.
The speed at which they could transform heaven into hell was awesome. In one moment we would be bathed in the long amber rays of dusk or submerged in an intimate exchange on the stuff of dreams. And then with the arrival of eight cars, each containing at least twenty sexually charged and intellectually depraved rich kids, came the end of any evening we may have enjoyed.
Propelled by unquestioned and inexhaustible self-confidence, this clan fed on itself. It moved and functioned as one entity. And having adopted the globally transmitted and proven identity of how corporate marketing perceived they should be; they were unstoppable.
I detested every vacant face of this multi-headed monster. Unlike my enemy, being full of a self-analytical and humble disposition, I would try to quantify and understand my hatred. It would be argued by older versions of themselves that their youth was the source of all my resentment. But when my wife and I were both nineteen and were surrounded here by their identically nauseating parents, we felt equally ill at ease. Perhaps it was the human race that we despised.
Fortunately on that first night we were spared. And although weary from the long drive and the fresh air, we fell easily back into the peace and magic of Cornwall’s finest beach.
Next morning we awoke at six a.m. and were up and about by seven. When camping and in close harmony with nature, we generally found that for the first few days we’d rise with the sun. It always took several days to adjust to the brightness of dawn in a tent.
The early morning air was more than a little cool. It was a harsh reminder of why our affections in recent years had strayed to the Canary Islands. But the magic of Cornwall lay not in the warmth of the sun. Nor was it provided by the unquestionable natural beauty of the coastline, it was from within the very soul of the county that the spell was cast. And it was not so much “The magic of Cornwall” that attracted the visitor; it was “The Cornwall of magic” that captured them.
Around us, other campers less recently arrived slept on. An exception though was our surfing neighbour who we’d heard departing for the beach an hour ago. Not only was his bicycle and trailer visually unique, the sounds of its departure were also quite unmistakeable.
Before breakfast having to buy our provisions first, we walked down to the beach shop. This establishment provided everything anybody could ever need in this life. No matter how obscure a requirement you may have, and no matter how irregularly you may have it, this “Trading Post”, for it was little more than a frontier shack, seemed able to supply.
Having arrived late the day before this was our first opportunity to re-discover the beach. And so before becoming laden with bags of shopping we decided to pass by the shop and to walk along the side of the bay.
This particular walk would lead to a bench set in the cliffs some forty feet above the waves. To just sit there and soak in the vibes had become somewhat of a ritual over the years and was now an immediate “Must-do” upon arrival.
On the back of the wooden bench was an inscription. The words disclosed that this chair was donated to visitors of the area by the widow of a man who’d loved this bay for all of his life. The sadness of our own mortality was always heightened here, for as we would share his vision of this place, so must we also share his fate. We hoped and believed that his fate, along with his wife’s and our own, would enable us all to remain here forever.
From our vantage point, the sea below was as beautiful as ever. Unimpaired by the hoards of would-be surfers that later would infest their patch, a handful of professionals showed us how graceful the art could be. This was as close to the beginning of a perfect day as you could get.
Tempted by the surfers enthusiasm and intoxicated by the spell of the surf; we decided to get our feet wet. Five years away from here had not weakened the memory of just how cold the North Atlantic could be. So to ease the mind into preparing for a full immersion might reduce the embarrassment later.
To roll up the trousers, conveniently not having ones swimming gear to hand, was a deception that was both acceptable and commonplace. But to run down the beach like a hero only to scream at the first hint of spray, and then to run back twice as fast “STILL DRY”, was completely out of the question.
Within the bay were a number of small coves. As the tide progressed, so they would disappear below the waves only to re-appear hours later. To sit amidst the spray upon the rocks of a rapidly shrinking cove was unadulterated bliss. To then return to the cliffs and watch that spot finally submerge, was to complete the experience.
Now fully charged, it was time to buy some provisions. The shop, like the bay itself, had remained unchanged. How a wooden shack could survive in this environment was beyond my comprehension. For it to remain in service as a food store with perishable stock was doubly amazing.
Once inside, the most immediate impression upon the memory was the smell of the place. The combination of freshly printed newspapers, fruit and suntan lotion liberally applied, was by its diversity and simplicity, the very epitome of beach life.
Behind the counter, also unchanged, was the manager of the store. His acknowledgement of our return seemed anticipated somehow. Was his easy recollection of ourselves a measure of how short the seasons, and how few faces therefore were to be remembered. Or were our souls by now etched into the very fabric of area itself.
Suitably “Stocked-Up”, we left the shop and began the steady climb back to the campsite. Periodically looking back at the widening view of the beach below, only reinforced and confirmed our decision to have returned here; the view was truly magnificent.
Back at camp things had begun to stir. Some people were packing up to move along the coast or to go home. Others were just arriving and wrestled with acres of unruly canvass in an ever-freshening breeze. One outrageously insensitive individual had blocked our view of the headland with a tent large enough to house a wedding reception in.
As professional drinkers, the ritual of dining al fresco held no magic for us. Regarding mealtimes as a functional necessity left us speedily the other side of breakfast and fully embarked upon the day. For many we’d observed, the primary objective of any holiday was to consume even more food than usual. As intellectual snobs, we could hardly imagine a less heady goal.
Further studies of human behaviour reveal a common denominator behind those who would eat continuously and those who would not. That same driving force also connects those, who like us, could sit on a beach all day, and those who found endless excursions more preferable.
That mysterious link between such divergent tastes, lay in the very human need to reside in the “Alpha-state”. Much of post-industrial revolution life has forced an excessive use of the left hand side of our brains. To be unnaturally imprisoned in the left-brain or “Beta-state”, creates an amplified desire to return to the “Alpha”. As prolonged alpha denial results in both physical and mental side effects, most of us, if we are to survive, will find a way out.
Having understood the alpha craving, it becomes a source of much amusement to observe how varied each individual’s solutions can be. For some it is sex that becomes essential. For others incessant talking does the trick. If for you the answer is peace and quiet, how infuriating it is to encounter and be trapped by one who’s medication is to talk.
After having observed the minimum required period of mourning, I was able to forget the huge tent now blocking our view of the coast. Our immediate agenda for the day ahead, would now be to visit our neighbouring beach at Constantine Bay.
The whole of the North Cornwall coast was famous for its wealth of sandy bays and hidden coves. This particular stretch of coast offered no less than seven breathtaking beaches within a ten-mile radius of the campsite. Constantine, like many of the adjacent bays, was just a pleasant stroll away and we were soon en-route via the coast path to sample its delights.
Although close and providing only modest exercise, the duration of almost any excursion hereabouts seemed longer than the actual distance travelled. The solution to this enigma, if compared to journeys of similar length in the city, lay clearly within the wild diversity of this ocean frontier.
Up ahead the unmistakable shape of Constantine drew closer. Passing the once quaint old fisherman’s house, now an obscene corporate holiday home; we arrived at the beach.
Appearing almost immediately and accompanied by an explosion of boiling surf and body parts was our neighbour from the campsite. This particular spot and particular activity, he revealed, had demanded his presence for the last twenty years or so.
Curious to discover a little more of this character, despite our having a natural indifference to the affairs of others, found us engaged in a rare but brief conversation with him. He said that it was his passion to spend at least one week per year alone here. As his wife detested beach life and its associated activities, this arrangement suited them both.
He further proclaimed that a week of surfing isolation here served as a period of emotional reconstruction for him. His job as a university lecturer in chemistry would not have been his first choice in careers. Indeed, the way his expression altered during the rendition of the word “Career”, suggested that he, just like us, had a natural aversion to the concept.
His taciturn disposition so similar to our own, presented a mutual though unspoken requirement that this, and any subsequent conversation should be brief. This was not disinterest from either party, nor was it the beginnings of any competitive pier scenario; it was merely simple though not entirely idle curiosity.
Leaving him to the mercy of the waves we proceeded along the beach. In the dead centre of the bay was an outcrop of rock that became an island only at high tide. Sitting on those rocks, just as we’d done earlier at Treyarnon, and to experience their transition from mainland to an island, gave rise to an almost primordial experience.
From this position, being geographically as well as spiritually elevated, we could see a number of other surfers amongst the waves. Most employed the use of a shorter board than was the fashion when we first observed the sport. The manoeuvrability of the lighter apparatus, although less stable, had definitely enhanced the level of control available to the skilled user.
To refer to surfing as a sport was blasphemy of course. Surfing was a religion. Certainly the way of life on offer to those following its doctrines appeared infinitely closer to heaven on Earth, than any alternative that I could think of.
In the distance we could still see our rather odd surfing neighbour. His appearance remained distinctly unusual even amongst his kinfolk in the waves. He was the only one using a flat-topped surf canoe with paddles for control. And he was the only one not wearing a wet suit; always regarded as rather effeminate for the would be heroes of latter day surf-lore.
But it was more than the visual impression he gave that created an aire of the unusual. There was an aura about his pleasure and pursuits here that were greater in value than the sum of their component parts. Perhaps it was an accumulated charge generated by his unrelenting passion for this place that produced the electricity. Or could the reality of his ever-present pilgrimage here have forged a permanence of spirit as tangible as the bay itself.
Encouraged by the incoming tide, we were forced to return to the coast path and moved on to the next bay. The unusually and perhaps misleadingly named “Booby’s Bay”, offered none of the delights that its name might suggest.
Unlike its neighbour Constantine, Booby’s Bay was an extremely hostile environment. There was little or no beach exposed here, and the few patches of sand that did exist were invariably surrounded by a tangled mass of shattered rock. I’m convinced that at one point this beach must have doubled as a saturation bombing range for at least one squadron of B52’s.
Recently back in London I’d met a South African student. He like so many of his countrymen habitually took pleasure in taking working holiday tours around the world. I was delighted to learn that one of his favourite weekend pursuits was to go surfing in the West Country. I was horrified however to discover that his choice of location was none other than Booby’s Bay.
How on Earth could anybody survive such a sport in this hellhole? To be at the mercy of the waves was one thing, but to do so in amongst a minefield of submerged rocks seemed, to me at least, to be nothing short of insanity.
The very name “Booby’s Bay” had always puzzled me. Perhaps it was a light-hearted nickname created by macho surfers for those unfortunate comrades who were “Wounded in action” or who “Boobed” here. A more likely explanation for the name though could possibly be linked to the slang for surfboard which in previous decades had been “Boo-Board”.
Moving along the coast path we passed three very isolated and windswept houses. Built in a style fashionable in the nineteen thirties, these homesteads always appeared out of place somehow and clearly represented the skeleton of an early and mercifully failed vision of the bays development.
Making money in Cornwall had always been difficult. And as it was the making of money that attracted the common man, this county was destined to remain for those very uncommon men and women that it always had been. It was for the dreamers alone to reside here, the wealthiest of them all.
An unfortunate though seasonal exception to the rule was the golfer. All golfers were rich in financial terms. The very nature of the beast who needs the distraction of a game to give purpose to the countryside demands it. Companies need workers, and who better to succeed in the eternal treadmill of the business machine than an activity junkie.
Just beyond the three houses our path turned inland. It was at this point that we entered the far from natural habitat of the western worlds equivalent to the African wilder-beast.
At first the telltale signs were the shortness of the grass, occasional sandpits and scraps of disguarded food. Further in and we encountered territorial marker flags and began to hear an intermittent “FOUR” sound believed to be the mating call of the stag of the species.
Still further on and we stumbled upon small groups of the animal itself. Gradually these groups became more numerous until suddenly, with the appearance of “The Clubhouse” or watering hole, we realised ourselves to be right in the heart of “Golfer-Beast” country.
Slowly and with extreme caution we made our way out of the short grass and back to civilisation. Too long a stay could have been very dangerous indeed. Many people, contrary to their belief in having a natural immunity to the “Golfing disease”, have soon found themselves severely handicapped and completely unable to recover.
Glad to be alive, we ambled onwards through the lanes towards the village of St Merryn. En-route and completely immersed in the unique tranquillity of Cornwall, we were able to re-discover just how peaceful a place this was.
Unlike at the coast the further inland we travelled the less wind we had to endure. I could never understand why I should love Cornwall so much and yet detest windy weather; it really was a contradiction in terms.
An unusual feature hereabouts was the extremely narrow roads. Typical also for the West Country was how they seemed always to run at a level lower than that of the adjoining fields.
Perhaps such erosion had occurred in the days prior to the advent of tarmac when constant farm traffic may have caused the effect. However they were produced, the lanes encircled as they were by an unbroken hedgerow, left a distinctly tube-like impression upon the traveller within.
St Merryn itself lay in no-mans land. That is to say its location being neither coastal or truly inland had created an extremely diverse yet polarised society. Within this small community, watching its fads and factions interact, a complete model for the entire human race could be observed.
Like most villages it was entirely self-contained. There was a food store, two pubs, a garage, the post office and a hairdressing salon. Adding to these facilities a measure of seasonal tourist income and a little agricultural activity, completed the finely balanced “Biosphere” that was St Merryn.
Within this infinitely smaller prototype lay an identical skeleton to that of all human communities no matter how large they may be. Although only half a mile across, every element of social segregation that existed in even the largest cities could also be seen here.
One end of town was home to those desirous of all things seedy. Whilst at the other geographic and moral extreme were those seemingly desirous of nothing at all. Found surviving between the two groups were isolated individuals who by feigning allegiance to both camps, were free to enjoy or to ridicule either.
The difference between social misconduct in village as compared to that of a city was that it never threatened the community as a whole. Size it seemed to me was important. For whilst the percentage of offenders was equal in both cases, the larger the town became the closer was their number to an accumulative critical mass.
For the moment at least St Merryn remained unspoilt. At the current rate of expansion it would be at least thirty years before it merged with its neighbours. The tragedy was that all villages were expanding. The time would come when they, as had the hamlets of Steatham and Tooting in Greater London, would simply cease to exist.
Stopping briefly at The Farmers Arms, we then began our journey back to the campsite. Leaving town in a westerly direction and then turning north, would take us through the small hamlet of Towan and so on to where we’d begun. The whole trip was roughly circular in shape and its four miles generally took us a couple of hours at a leisurely pace.
We loved to walk or cycle when on holiday. But this particular route during a previous years visit, had supplied us with a rather unnerving companion.
Leaving The Farmers late on a very dark night, we were soon joined by a fellow cyclist who drew up alongside of us. He was an extremely talkative young boy with a very warm and contagious manner.
Appearing from nowhere, he stayed with us for a mile or so. During this time he’d talked continuously. How he managed to see in these lanes without a light on his bike whilst in full conversational flight was a mystery. The darkness for me, even with a bright light and only having to listen, was causing me serious navigational problems.
Slowly he began to drop further and further back. His voice became faint and difficult to hear until suddenly we realised he’d gone. At what exact point the disappearance had occurred didn’t seem important, at least that is until the following morning.
Haven risen early we’d been busy with breakfast and a few other chores. We both felt pre-occupied and were unusually quiet for such a lovely day. Whilst we had not discussed our cycling encounter at all on the previous night, in the light of day there were certain aspects of it that seemed to demand further explanation.
Why was a boy of fourteen cycling alone at midnight? And how could he see to ride without lights. There was also something odd in his arrival and departure. But it was the things he said that seemed oddest of all. For although his words were captivating and unnaturally mature for his years, we couldn’t recall a single word he’d said.
Our meeting with this “Apparition” for the want of a better word, would be one of those open-ended events that most of us experience at some time or another. For us the chill of the tale was further enhanced two days later when on passing that same place in daylight, we discovered that beyond the hedge at the side of the road lay a graveyard.
Returning to the campsite via this stretch of road always re-kindled the memory of that strange meeting. On this particular day though being so warm and bright, the reality of that night seemed tested somehow.
Arriving back at camp we were greeted by our unusually apprehensive surfing neighbour. Full of apologies he announced that he’d inadvertently reversed his car into ours and had scuffed the paintwork.
Masking my grief, I assured him that the damage was only minimal and that I’d seek a mutually acceptable quote for repairs when I returned to London. This agreement restored his composure allowing us both to get back to appreciating the onset of a wonderful sunset.
Next morning, as the weather seemed unlikely to favour the beach, we decided to visit Padstow. Historically we knew that by the time we arrived in Padstow it would be ninety-five degrees and clear blue skies. We also knew that to turn back and head for the beach would bring rain. The trick in Cornwall was to pretend to the weather to be planning something, and then to do something else.
The small fishing village of Padstow was a place truly frozen in time. Nestling at the base of a sheltered and therefore wooded valley, its welcoming streets were a haven to land and seafarers alike.
The absence of cars gave potency to the spell of this community. It was not forbidden to drive here, but as the streets were so narrow and mostly full of pedestrians, it was convenient to park outside of town. Also of course, the road into Padstow stopping as it did at the harbour carried no through traffic either.
To spend time here was indeed a tonic. Just sitting amongst the seagulls on the quayside admiring the boats and envying their crews was wonderful. And all the neighbouring streets were full of art and craft shops displaying a wide range of local skills and products.
Another superbly exiting thing to do was the Padstow Boat Trip. This excursion took its unsuspecting prey away from the tranquillity of the harbour and straight into the jaws of death that were the Atlantic swells beyond the headland. Survivors of this innocently named activity are unanimous in their quest to enforce a re-naming of the trip to “Round The Horn”.
We’d often considered staying in Padstow itself rather than at the beach. It would of course be an entirely different kind of holiday and one with many attractions that appealed to us. In all such discussions however, the space and isolation of the campsite as our base, always shone through as the best option.
Not having fooled the weather, we arrived in Padstow to find the skies had completely cleared. Leaving our car at the top of the hill, we set off on foot to explore the town.
There were two possible routes we could have taken. The first was a rather sharp decent through a spooky graveyard behind the church. But as my wife was “Shod” in Flip-flops, no farmyard connection intended, we decided to take the gentler option.
This approach provided spectacular views over the entire estuary. It also gave a birds-eye view of the town below. In fact the gradient of even this easier route, when added to its almost vertical visual impression, gave the visitor a feeling of having entered the town via its roof.
Most houses in and around the harbour were of the terraced cottage style. Too small in appearance for the needs of modern families, they collectively resembled a toy-town or model village. This of course in no way devalued their appeal, and I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps the needs of modern families were in fact too large.
If there was any chink in the armour of perfection that Padstow wore, it had to be in their Brass Band. This was a personal view and one that clearly wasn’t shared by their ever-present audience. For me, it wasn’t the musicianship or the choice of tunes that were at fault, but the image of Brass Bands as a whole. How such sounds, normally associated with the bleak and industrial north, could ever be understood or even permitted here, never ceased to amaze me.
Adjacent to the thankfully vacant bandstand was The Strand Book Shop. Unlike its neighbour, the facilities offered therein merged perfectly with the overall feel of Padstow. In these days of frantic communications and information flow, the calm intensity and focus of this establishment were qualities virtually extinct elsewhere.
Further along the quay was a shop specialising in gothic art and jewellery. Run by second-generation hippies, the staff here literally shone with pride and enthusiasm for their products. To me its owners were heroes in the war against the establishment. To be free of the profit driven multi-national whore houses employing most of us, was to be free indeed.
Above and between the shops were even smaller dwellings than we’d seen earlier. Mostly immigrants, the occupants of these one or two person’s apartments fell into two distinct groups. On the one hand were those still un-severed from mainstream society who regarded their homes as a “Downsizing” exercise. On the other hand were those who would openly confess to having “Dropped out”. Oblivious to the needs of any justification, to live with such compact simplicity in this fairy tale world and to do so without ever having to leave, to me seemed the most desirable achievement.
Several uplifting hours later saw us climbing the hill back to the car. With the sun still shining any idea of catching a few hours on the beach would have to be concealed. Our official plan therefore was to return to the beach bar for a couple of beers and then to read at the campsite.
Fifteen minutes later and we pulled up at Treyarnon Beach. The car park itself was bulging at the seams. And the beach although vast, struggled to contain its mass of humanity on the ever-shrinking sands of an incoming tide.
On this occasion, any indication as to our agenda was immediately solved. In fact, just one glance out to sea for the professional sunbather, would reveal the horrid truth. First the horizon would disappear. Next a darkening of the sea would spread towards the shore. Shortly thereafter the entire area would fade to grey as the sea mist arrived.
Abandoning our hidden agenda, we went straight to the pub. Compared to the evening trade lunchtimes here were delightfully quiet. It was on days like this however, that the combined conditions of a packed beach and sudden weather change, could rapidly lead to there being no room at all at the inn. The application therefore of our hard earned meteorological insight, gave us a distinct edge over the novice hereabouts, thus affording us a choice of seats before the crowds arrived.
Having chosen to sit outside we began to enjoy the last of the sun. The latest assessment of the darkening sea would give us perhaps half an hour before the mist arrived. Roasting in eighty degrees Fahrenheit, it was hard to believe in the reality of our forecast. And for those on the beach ignorance was indeed bliss as they carried on oblivious to an impending doom.
Thirty-two minutes later and the mist was upon us. Almost instantly we were plunged into the same eerie twilight as that of a total eclipse. Through a thickening silence the foghorn of the lighthouse at Trevose began its sombre warning. And appearing from the direction of a now invisible beach came half naked refugees shivering and seeking shelter.
Feeling obliged to observe at least another hours mourning for the passing of the sun, we returned to camp suitably fortified for the altered weather. To our surprise and delight though, the climb back to our camp took us through the ceiling of the mist and back into summer. From this elevation, the spectacle of the now mist filled valley below, provided a most surreal backdrop to the end of an altogether perfect day.
The two days that followed the Padstow trip were glorious. Not a single cloud appeared from dawn to dusk and a light breeze, though hell for the surfers, allowed temperatures to soar to a heavenly ninety-one degrees.
Seizing the opportunity, we made full use of the unusually benevolent weather down at the beach. For a complete city detoxification, there was no better remedy than throwing a sun-drenched carcass into the North Atlantic Ocean. Adding to this equation the tropical sounds of crickets at night and the Flamenco guitar, gave the formula for perfection.
To hope for a third consecutive beach day would have been madness. Being completely insane therefore, the next day’s itinerary was planned with complete confidence in our lack of confidence in the weather. Accordingly we enjoyed a longer than usual lay-in and then drove over to the now deserted airfield at St Eval.
The R.A.F. station at ST Eval was an extremely sobering place to visit. Its life began in the middle of the Second World War when it was built to house and despatch aircraft to counter the German U-Boat threat. In the years immediately after the war its duties were moved to nearby R.A.F. St Mawgan. Since then its buildings, runways and marshalling areas, have, along with the memories of those who served here, been allowed to fade onto the past.
The ancient chapel standing on the base perimeter had shared those times. In all of its history those few short years had been witness to greater moments of hope and despair than at any other period. Nowhere better illustrated these events than the adjoining graveyard where modern military inmates easily outnumbered their native rural counterparts.
It was after my first visit here that a chance discussion with a work colleague revealed his having been stationed here during the war. That conversation was twenty years ago and related to times thirty years before that. St Eval’s wartime history seemed so ancient, yet for me to have spoken first hand to a survivor of those campaigns, meant that either I myself had become ancient, or such times were not so distant as memories might insist.
Suitably sobered, we moved on to partially reverse the condition at The Riviera Lodge. This was a favourite pub of ours during the first few years of regular visits to Cornwall. Its appeal, apart from its ludicrously optimistic name, lay in its staging of folk-music evenings. Although long since discontinued, the magic and depth of those nights still drew us here.
Returning to camp it became clear that the weather was deserting us. The duration of our stay had been open ended and always at the mercy of the elements. Checking radio reports confirmed that cold northerly winds would begin to lash the southwest peninsula and would continue to do so for at least a week.
The following morning substantiated our fears. After a sleepless night of continual buffeting, the rain had now joined the assault. Breakfast, albeit heavily diluted, was achieved. Postponing the inevitable “Holiday Abort” moment, we then further threw caution to the wind and embarked upon a coastal walk.
To see Cornwall at its worst was strangely similar to seeing it at its best. Both images were at the extremes of the city dwellers field of experience and lying beyond each end of this spectrum, was a point that evoked the same degree of wonder. It was as if heaven, turning full circle, had revealed hell as being in one and the same place.
Sometime later and looking like two failed air-sea rescue bids, we fell back into the beach bar. Fractionally warmer there with our composure returning, we soon came to face the fact that tomorrow we’d be going home. As always having made the decision, our moods seem to inflate and that last evening was perhaps the best of all.
The next day was a blur. Full of anxiety, I vowed never to travel in such an ancient vehicle again. For my wife, having to look at my white fear stricken face for five and a half hours, the journey was equally stressful; we arrived home exhausted.
Only too soon and I was back at work. After months of looking forward to our holiday, in just the blink of an eye I was looking back, how I dreaded this place.
I was also dreading having to call our holiday surfing acquaintance. He was so apologetic at having damaged our car that to have to inflict him with a large bill was the last thing I needed. It was rare these days to encounter such an honest and humble person so I’d make doubly sure that any quote forwarded to him was a least a fair one.
During the lunchtime of my second day back at work, I returned to the spray shop familiar with our car. Fearing the costs I waited as an expert ran his hands over the scuffmarks along the side.
Without comment he began to lightly sand the damaged area. He then continued with another process known as wet and dry, and finished off with an electric buffer. The whole thing had taken no more than ten minutes and the finish was perfect.
Having attempted the art of body spraying myself, I was amazed at the ease with which a professional could achieve results. I was even more amazed that he wouldn’t accept any money for his labours. To have the car fixed and also to not have to charge the surfer was wonderful.
Eager to make the call, that evening after dinner I raced upstairs to where I’d put the surfers number. Reaching for the phone by the bed I then dialled an awaited an answer.
“Hello”, said a woman who I assumed was his wife.
“Is Peter there”, I inquired.
“Sorry, there’s no Peter here I’m afraid”, she replied.
“I’m sorry I must have dialled the wrong number”. “What is it regarding”, she continued.
“Oh, it’s regarding some car damage that occurred a few weeks ago”, I informed her.
After a moments silence her chilling reply to this was, “I’m asking because whilst my husbands name was Peter, he was drowned in Cornwall twenty two years ago”…………….