(Part two of two parts)
After a week touring the Cotswolds area west of London, we headed south for the city of Penzance at the southwestern tip of England, almost 250 miles away. Britain adopted the metric system when it joined the EU, but it kept its land measurements in miles and miles per hour, which I appreciated.
Back home we drive 350 miles to the Twin Cities at the drop of a hat, but 250 miles in Britain is daunting. I planned to break up our drive with a night in Wells, 80 miles to the south, and another in the village of Chagford in the Dartmoor National Park. We had no firm itinerary other than seeing Port Isaac, home of the famous Doc Martin.
Some friends had taken a bus tour around England and told us Bath was their favorite place. It was also the site of ancient Roman baths. Bath was along our route so we decided to check it out and get some lunch there. With a population of 80,000, Bath was the largest city we had driven in so far. The city had nice wide streets, but was far more hectic than the one-lane villages of the Cotswolds. OK, we'll just park in the big lot downtown, view the baths, have some lunch, and continue on to Wells.
We followed the big blue P signs downtown, but, as so often happened, there was no lot to be seen beyond the last sign. There's never a place to pull over and take a look around. The press of traffic quickly ushers you out of downtown and up the hill and into the bewildering network of narrow streets. At least most of these streets were one way. That was a blessing.
How about we just park up here and walk downtown? I knew we had travelled two or three miles from downtown. That's too far to walk. Let's try to get downtown again. It really is an ingenious maze the people have built over the past 2,000 years. Any invader would just give up and move on to a simpler town.
After driving around on the hillsides for half an hour we found a parking spot across from an elementary school. As we left the car I just chanced to see a sign on the school stating that all cars must be off this street by 3:00 p.m. This was probably to protect the children from confused tourists. That gave us three hours to get downtown and back. We asked a young couple for directions. "Just follow the canal to Sydney Gardens, then turn right to downtown. It'll take you an hour to get downtown from here."
|Down the lazy canal|
The canal walk was beautiful and the stress of the morning drive melted away. At Sydney Gardens there was a big painted map. As we studied our route downtown, a young woman asked us if we knew where the university was. She said she had decided to walk to school today rather than drive for the first time. "No, we don't live around here." She asked where in the States we were from. "My mother was from Minnesota too," she said. I asked her to tell her mother "Uff da" from Minnesota.
Even with the route fixed in our heads, we were soon disoriented. We asked a woman for directions. "Go up there to the big church and take a left, and that street will take you downtown." She had an eastern European accent like so many of the people we asked for directions or who waited on us in cafes.
Speaking of cafes, we needed something to eat. If a café didn't have Wi-Fi, we moved on. We eventually found a place not far from the Roman baths. As we sipped our tea, I downloaded the route to Wells onto Teresa's iPad. It would involve around eight different roads and several small towns. Also, we'd have to pass through downtown Bath at the beginning of rush hour, which appeared to go on all day. By the time I got our route written onto a sheet of paper for Teresa's benefit, it was two o'clock. So much for the Roman baths.
As we walked back I realized the woman who gave us directions earlier had sent us on the simplest route, but not the shortest. "Let's cut over this way," I said to Teresa. A short-cut in England is not a wise idea for a first time visitor. As confusion set in, I asked a man walking his dog if we were on the right track. "Not exactly," he said. "You cut across the park (Sydney Gardens) and you'll come out by the such-and-such museum. I highly recommend a visit to that museum. It's free." Sure. Next time,... when we take the longboat down from Stratford.
It was getting late now. I didn't want our car towed by the school police. If we didn't find that canal soon...By golly! There it is! Saved! We knew now we'd make it. We even took time to chat with a couple on a longboat tied up along the way. They had been on the canal a week. It was slow going because there were lots of locks which you operated yourself. They said their 44' boat slept two comfortably, though you could squeeze another couple in. It didn't sound any more expensive than a B&B, and a car would be redundant.
We returned to our car and girded ourselves for the downtown gauntlet. Though we had our map and written directions, the signs are highly ambiguous and we got to see a couple of back alleys where Roman legionnaires used to take their evening bath. Once out of the city, we only got lost once more on the way to Wells. There was construction on the street where our B&B was located. That was good because it gave us time to spot our lodging as we inched along. Liz, our proprietor, reminded us of Judi Dench, both in looks and manner. Could this be how Judi relaxes between movies? We dared each other to ask, but didn't want to break the spell.
Still waiting to hear back from the Vatican on our application.
We ordered appetizers and saved part of them to eat with our main course. But our main course never arrived. Here we learned another British custom. They don't bring out the entrée until you finish your starter, as they call appetizers. They don't want to rush you. Another six months here and we'd be finding invisible downtown parking lots with the best of them.
There was a Scottish couple at breakfast the next morning. They have narrow roads in Scotland too, but the Scots complained of the hectic pace of the driving here in the south. I felt somewhat vindicated. We read the numerous postcards on the shelf. They all were either from Lands End in Cornwall or John o' Groats in Scotland. Liz's place is a stop for cyclists traversing the entire length of Britain, an 874 mile trip that takes up to two weeks. There's no way either Teresa or I wanted to cycle along these crazy roads. Walking on footpaths is longer, about 1,200 miles, and takes two to three months.
After breakfast we headed for the village of Chagford. Our route passed through Glastonbury and we pulled in to check out the town. There's a ruined monastery there and a mighty natural sandstone tower called the Tor, neither of which we visited. I just wanted a postcard for a friend back home who is fascinated by monasteries. Of course we checked out the local charity store and I found an Afghani hat. It'll go well with my AK. I know the best Afghani hats are made in Pakistan. I checked the label. Sure enough, "Made in Pakistan".
Glastonbury is rife with myths and New Age seekers. King Arthur and Guinevere were buried here the old monks said. Camelot was just up the road say others. There's also proof that Joseph of Arimathea brought the chalice from the last supper here after Jesus' death. He buried the chalice near the Tor. The proof is that the nearby Chalice Well still runs red from the remains of Jesus' blood in the chalice. Many cures are associated with the well. There's a bit of logic in these yarns. Joseph was a dealer in metals and may well have visited the mines of ancient Britain. There's even speculation that Jesus himself traveled with Joseph on an earlier trip. They were related after all, and the Bible says that between the ages of 12 and 30, Jesus was "in the wilderness." You never know.
We continued on to the village of Chagford. A couple we met in a pub back in the Cotswolds had recommended the place and Chagford turned out to be as picturesque as they said it was. I may be romanticizing England in the haze of memory, but this town of 1,500 had no false notes.
I had booked a room in the Globe Inn. This was the first place we stayed that did not have its own parking lot. Their website said there was free parking after five in the city lot two blocks away. Chagford was on the north edge of the Dartmoor National Park. Dartmoor is famous for its moors and free ranging ponies. The Hound of the Baskervilles used to roam these hills. But the area around Chagford itself is wooded and hilly with narrow twisting roads. We missed the main road into Chagford and came in the back way. "Man that was hairy," I said superfluously to Teresa as we eased into the city lot. It was only one o'clock so we'd have to pay to park till five, but parking was much cheaper than in tourist traps like Stratford.
We hauled our bags down to the Globe Inn. Our room was commodious and overlooked ancient St. Michael's Church. There were drawings of nude women on the walls. Teresa thought this odd, but I didn't see a problem. We had lunch at the bar downstairs and asked for tips for a hike. Yes, we could walk down Mill Street, hike along the River Teign for a mile then return to town the back way. I noted how steep and narrow Mill street was. As we hiked along the river we seemed to be headed into a hotel parking lot. We asked a hotel guest we met on the path if this was the right way. "Yes, the path continues just beyond the hotel," he said. We passed the hotel, walked along the top of a wall like in Peter Rabbit, till we ran into a tributary of the Teign. Never trust anyone in pajama bottoms. We retraced our steps, crossed the bridge, and found the true footpath.
Tempus fugit at St. Michael's Church. Seems like only yesterday it was 1200 A.D.
Google maps was starting to irritate me. Google didn't care if it sent you down some medieval cow path. It told us that the steep and narrow Mill Street was the main route out of Chagford. Well, maybe we could dash down the hill before we met anyone. What a joke! It was rush hour in the village, with everyone, young and old, nipping up Mill Street for a spot of tea or a new pair of Wellies. We met half a dozen cars and our collision beeper was going off as though we'd discovered uranium. I even forced one old couple to back up 100 feet to a pull off. They're used to this, I figured. Finally we reached the bridge at the bottom. I had forgotten how narrow it was when we walked over it yesterday. "Caution, six foot bridge," the sign warned. That's six feet wide. We folded in the mirrors and Teresa walked ahead to guide me through. Whew! But around the next corner was another six foot bridge. The other drivers waited patiently as I inched across. The English are so polite.
|The wide part of Mill Street|
|Doc Martin's kipper catcher|
Since it was a Friday, Port Isaac was fully booked, so I had reserved a room at King Arthur's Arms in Tintagel. King Arthur's Castle, just outside the town is truly a mythmaker's dream. There are ruins of a castle from the fifth century that would have belonged to a ruler possibly named Arthur. The story of Arthur has been used over the years to rally the English against invaders. We checked into King Arthur's Arms around three. There was a pub/restaurant downstairs. Friday night...could be noisy. We got to the castle at four. Admission: ten dollars, closing time: in one hour. We decided to come back the next day. We were able to climb up to the courtyard overlooking the spit of land leading to the actual castle. The views to the rocks and sea below were spectacular. On our way back to the inn, we passed Merlin's Cave. At low tide you could walk inside, but now the waves were washing in and out. A couple of guys in wet suits were getting ready to swim over to the cave. We stopped to watch. Why do sportsmen take forever to get ready? Finally one of them set off, but the other was having trouble. He kept looking down into the waist deep water. His friend came back. The guy had lost one of his flippers. As we started to leave I looked back at the cave and saw a wizard at the entrance chewing on something rubbery, until the next wave washed the vision away.
I fell asleep when they pulled the jukebox plug at midnight. No more pub hotels for us. When I looked out the window in the morning, a wild storm was lashing the coast. The castle had disappeared from view. Nevertheless, I saw tourists, British presumably, heading for the castle in their rain gear. Not us though. We settled for a charity shop.
In retrospect, it was fitting to have had one day of really horrible weather on our trip. This was to be a travel day down to Penzance sixty miles away on the tip of Cornwall. Getting from Tintagel back to the A30 on narrow roads with 50' of visibility was not nice, but once on the main road, all was well. There are lots of classic sports cars running around the English countryside and I saw one guy that morning tooling along with the roof down, water streaming off his rain hat. I just shook my head in admiration.
We arrived in Penzance around noon and shoved a bunch of pound coins into the meter in the big downtown lot. The population of Penzance is 16,000. That's nothing for a U.S. town, but because everything is so concentrated, the town feels much bigger than it really is.
We checked out a few charity shops then stopped into the Front Room Café for lunch. I liked this place. There was a fenced in area under the stairs where you could let your kid play while you ate. The men's room had an upside down sink and toilet on the ceiling (in addition to normal ones). I told the owner I liked his sense of humor. He recommended we visit the Admiral Benbow for supper. "Be sure to try the Steak and Ale pie," he said.
We checked into the Rosalie House on a street lined with by B&Bs. We had our afternoon tea, took a nap then headed for the Admiral Benbow. Our route went through a lush park and along a series of footpaths and alleyways, past noisy takeaways and musical pubs, emerging at last at our restaurant. Without our Google maps we might have wandered for hours. The Admiral Benbow is famous for its collection of nautical nick-knacks and curios. The dining room was meant to look like a captain's stateroom on an old sailing ship and it did, but it also included everything from the main deck and crew's quarters. "Over the top," was how the guidebook described it. The close quarters inspired chat with our fellow diners, a pair from Australia and another from Norfolk. The steak and ale pie was delicious. As we left the place, Teresa heard a young man ask his friend if he had read Treasure Island. "It starts at The Admiral Benbow," he said. I looked it up later and he was right. Someone later asked if we had seen the pirate on the roof. We had to walk back the next day to see the pirate shooting at another invisible pirate in the distance. It must be great to live in a country chock full of historical references.
|Waiting on time and tide|
The same family has lived on the island for hundreds of years and we tourists are happy to help them preserve it. After touring the castle we hiked back to town along the causeways. We found a triangle shaped café for lunch, with a view back to the Mount.
|Like ants, oblivious to the rising tide|
We wandered around town and took pictures of the boats and narrow jetty opening to the sea that give Mousehole it's name. We checked out the curio shops, chuckled at the 'Hole' Foods grocery, and headed back to Penzance. Walking is good. You see so much more of an area when you're not behind the wheel trying to avoid the angel of death. There used to be a lot of smuggling in this area, hence the 'pirates' of Penzance. The king used to get a large part of his income on import duties and wherever there's a tax, people will try to avoid it.
|How Mousehole got its name|
The pasty was just as good as those I'd had in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where many Cornwall miners emigrated. We bid Terry farewell and headed over to Geevor. It was a gloomy afternoon and we were one of the few cars in the (free!) lot. Even on a sunny day, the old mine buildings would have had a derelict, forlorn look. If it wasn't for the special lottery that has poured millions into the place, it would look like all the other old mines, marked only by their smokestacks.
We paid our entry fee, donned our hard hats and headed into the museum. The exhibits described how the mine worked and noted that tin was the cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution. Over and over it was stressed just how vital tin was to the IR, because looking at these ramshackle buildings, you'd never guess it. This particular mine opened in the early 1900s and was updating its technology as recently as the late 1950s. The level of activity at the mine was tied directly to the price of tin. At times the mine would shut down, especially during the Great Depression.
You had to use your imagination in the actual tin processing buildings because earlier pieces of machinery had been replaced by newer works. Of course, most of the work took place underground. One display showed the 85 miles of tunnels extending out under the sea, like colored strands on an electrical circuit board.
The most interesting part of the tour was the miners' changing room. I'm sure everyone took his stuff home when the place shut down, but the museum has put things back so it looks like the day the mine closed for good. The boots, the hardhats, the stickers on the lockers...quite touching. There was even a naked mannequin in the shower. Teresa found this first, then set me up. Yes, she got me good. I should have been warned by the sign, "Naked miners only."
|Tinman and Wife|
|Where all the world gets along|