Thursday, 15 July 2010

Cornwall Diary (Part 1)

7 July 2010

We set off from Milton Keynes at about 6.20 and reached Tehidy Country Park just after 1.00 for a picnic. The Tehidy estate was once owned by the Basset family, one of the most powerful western Cornish families and whose family name adorns streets and pubs in the nearby Redruth and Camborne area.

Tehidy Country Park

The park consists of 250 acres of natural woodland and nine miles of paths, and is centred around a serene swan-filled lake, and also has a small café and information centre. We hunted Gruffaloes (we caught six, according to Daughter#1) and befriended at least three pairs of very tame squirrels.

For the second year running, we were staying at Gwel an Mor, a five star collection of wooden lodges just above Portreath, with tranquil views across the sea. We have always struggled to find good quality, child-friendly accommodation in Cornwall and consequently find Gwel an Mor to be a welcome breath of fresh air. This year we stayed in a 'Tregae VIP' lodge which had the upgrades of a wood-burning stove (low likelihood of getting used in the summer), a hot-tub (yes, I am Hugh Heffner) and a midweek maid service; the latter was the clincher for us – with this being ostensibly a self-catered holiday, when we stayed here last year the place really felt like it needed a clean midway through our stay, and given that we were on holiday, we were relatively disinclined to do that much cleaning.

Gwel an Mor lodge

The lodges are quirky yet homely – lots of wood throughout gives the place a cosy Scandinavian feel (the Hemnes bedroom furniture from Ikea also helps), and it doesn't take long to get used to the three bedrooms being downstairs and the lounge / kitchen being upstairs in the roof.

Dinner on the first night came courtesy of the fish and chip takeaway on nearby Portreath beach – they're not the best we've ever tasted, and not even as good as last year, but decent and good value nonetheless.

8 July 2010

This being England, weather is of course distinctly variable – even in usually dependable Cornwall – so when we saw the forecast for sunshine today, we decided to head to the beach; the beach, in this case, was Sennen Cove, near to Land's End and rightly regarded in surveys as one of England's best beaches.

Popular with tanned young surfers, sunbathers and families, Sennen is a truly wonderful place with a wide sweeping sandy beach, dramatic cliffs, good waves (if that's your thing) and, in the Beach one of the best restaurants we've ever been to in Cornwall. The restaurant has a good menu, and an excellent selection of unfussy children's dishes. Daughter#1 enjoyed a perfect soft poached egg with soldiers, while #2 had soul goujons; Mrs S had the same goujons in a wrap while I had roasted Mediterranean vegetables from the grill.

Sennen, like many Cornish towns on the tourist trail, has galleries (for buying, not just viewing); in its case, Sennen has two, both housed in the unusual round, slate-roofed building next to the RNLI station. We visited the upstairs one (the Round House), as we do whenever we visit, and came away with lots of pretty ceramics and pictures by local Cornish artists.

The Round House and Capstan galleries

Heading back to Portreath, we stopped in at Trengwainton for a stroll with my sister and my six-month-old niece. Trengwainton is a serene tropical garden just outside Penzance that's managed by the National Trust. The gardens were given to the Trust in 1961 by the Bolitho family, another of Cornwall's powerful families.

The gardens in Cornwall and manifest, and beautiful, and the tropical climate allows plants unusual to these shores to grow comfortably. My days of being a keen gardener are well and truly over, and I couldn't tell you at all what's growing in our own back garden (apart from weeds), but we love exploring Cornwall's gardens, mainly because they are such fun for kids. At Trengwainton, Daughter#1 hunted for clues as part of a kids trail, which centred mostly around the walled kitchen garden, built to the dimension of Noah's Ark for no discernible reason. Last year we climbed right to the top of the gardens, where the tropical foliage gives way to stunning views across Mount's Bay. My sister often visits the modern tea rooms here, which have an excellent array of lunches and cakes, while the sloping lawn in front contains giant kids games like noughts and crosses; perfect for letting them entertain themselves while grown ups have a natter.

9 July 2010

Ah, St Ives – I'm just not that into you. After a soggy day out there last year, we should've learned our lesson. The place is a tourist Mecca and the narrow main street – Fore Street – should really be pedestrianised. I admit it's not without its charms – much of Fore Street is beautiful, and there are no major high street chains – but it's way too busy for me, and I grew up in a tourist town so I should have a high tolerance. Plus it was drizzling, and I spent most of the morning stood outside congested shops getting wet while trying to deal with a very grumpy Daughter#2 (most shops are pushchair-friendly, but if you have more than one stroller in a shop at any one time it's usually a nightmare). Mrs S hit Cath Kidston and Joule and the unique Chocolat! (chocolate shop) and Fabulous Kids (toy / clothing shop for children) while I had a look around the the Digey's deli section. I looked at some local Cornish liqueurs from a gift shop to make some unusual cocktails. Cornish Smugglers liqueurs are made down near the Lizard and include brandies, fruit cream drinks and other localised variations of popular spirits.

St Ives may be pretty, but it's strangely not blessed with an abundance of places to eat; when we came last year, the rain made the few places that it does have far busier than we'd expected, leaving us eating pasties in the rain while fending off an aggressively insistent seagull on a bench near the Tate. This time we were determined not to endure the same fate, and so we booked a lunchtime table at the Seafood Café before the soggy hordes cottoned on.

Seafood Café is a bright, modern restaurant with an abundance of fish dishes on their menu (and given its location why not?), the waiting staff are nice and friendly and the food is excellent. I ate crab linguine which was delicately flavoured with chilli; Mrs S enjoyed a fish pie while the girls had fish and chips where you could choose from grilled or fried fish.

The best thing about going to St Ives is the journey. Rather than driving and negotiating the paucity of parking, we took the Bay Line train from St Erth which costs £4 per adult. The journey lasts around fifteen minutes and offers stunning cliff-top views of the bay. From 10.00 the train departs at 11 and 41 minutes past the hour, and parking is a very reasonable £1.50 for a full day at St Erth.

After St Ives we headed down to Penzance to hook up with my sister. We had enormous cakes and tea at Penlee House, a white Victorian house which is now the home of an art gallery specialising in the work of the Newlyn school of artists and also the original Penzance market cross, a much-moved historic carved stone cross. We'd intended to have our first cream tea of our stay, but they'd run out of scones; if the enormous doorstep cakes and slices we had were anything to go by, it's not hard to see why.

10 July 2010

We spent most of the day at Trebah Gardens, just outside Mawnan Smith near Falmouth, which is a valley garden designed by Charles Fox. Between the various Fox siblings, the family developed no less than six tropical gardens in the area, their ownership of a international shipping business allowing them to easily transport seedlings and rare plants from around the world in order for them to grow comfortably in the local area's sheltered climes.

Trebah Gardens

Trebah slopes downward to a private beach on the Helford river. The route down takes you through rhododendrons, camellias, giant gunnera, a bamboo maze and all manner of plants and trees you would struggle to imagine growing elsewhere in England. Trebah has endured something of a torrid history following the Fox ownership, including a requisitioning of the Helford beach by the US Navy during the second world war as an embarkation station for the Omaha landings; during their stay, the US concreted the beach and stuck in a new road. Thanks to the work of one owner – Donald Healey, the former racing driver and car designer – the beach is now largely restored to its former pebble-filled glory.

The modern visitor centre and restaurant is excellent; during our stay in Cornwall we ate at the restaurant three times. Their Trebah flan with Mediterranean vegetables and Cornish brie is amazing, while their fish cakes beat anything we've eaten in modern gastro pubs hands down; for kids the selections include fish finger sandwiches, and more unfussy and popular dishes. Even if you can't face the steep walks in the gardens, the food alone is well worth making a visit to Trebah for.

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