From London to Bristol via Cornwall

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
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Trip End May 13, 2009


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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

After another peaceful crossing of the channel I drive up the M20 and arrive in London in the afternoon of 24 December. Apart from luggage my car is loaded with lots of wine - French champagne, Portugese & Spanish sparkling wine, reds and a white from Bordeaux, vintage port, manzanilla sherry, Padre Pepe liqueur, and a dozen oysters, 3 cheeses, fresh foie gras and a fresh truffle. The traffic in London (always very bad at the best of times) is insane - it seems that every Londoner is out in their car buying last minute gifts and provisions for Christmas day.
I ring my cousin Claude and he suggests we meet at St Pauls cathedral and try and get into Christmas Evensong, but that's completely booked out, then he gets a call from a friend called Rahima, inviting us to an impromptu dinner, so we go over there and have a pleasant little party with an assortment of characters - a young Indian guy with a chip on his shoulder, 2 vivacious young Anglo/Indian women, an Australian who has lived in London most of his life (but looks and sounds very British), and us 2 Sicilian/Australian boys (that's not strictly true as we're both over 50 but we're still boys at heart) - and of course Rahima herself, who speaks about 6 languages, including Swahili, if I remember correctly.
My oysters become our entree and I have an interesting time opening them - the choice is between a bread & butter knife or my Swiss Army knife (bought in Zurich), which I decide is the lesser of 2 evils. It's a bit hairy opening the oysters as the blade could have very easily snapped shut on my fingers if I wasn't really careful.
After a pleasant night we piled into a car and went to midnight Mass at Brompton Oratory, which is one of the traditional things that people who never go to church do in London. For some unknown reason, after a couple of hours I became all hot and fevered and nauseaous and felt like I was going to faint (perhaps it was the boring sermon :) but fortunately I managed to last until it finished and recovered quickly once I got out into the fresh air.  

We woke up Christmas day in the afternoon, then went to another party that evening - Claude had been asked to bring some food but when we got there we found a gargantuan amount of food already there (I guess you would call it British party food of the stodgy, stick to your ribs type) and we drank and played party games till late. I had a long conversation with a very nice, if earnest woman, and I happened to mention I felt a little bit guilty about travelling so much and not working or doing something useful, etc, and she became very solicitious and wanted to know how much I felt guilty, and I said a bit, but then she wanted to know in percentage terms so I said 5%, and she seriously and earnestly tried to persuade me that guilt was a negative emotion and and that I shouldn't feel guilty at all. I think it worked because after that I only felt 1% guilty, a 500% improvement.
On Boxing Day, when most Australians go to the beach for a laze in the hot sun and a swim, we (Claude, Kim-Lee and me) hopped in my car on a freezing, icy day and drove to Claude's friend's huge 3-storey house  just outside the village of Much Hadham (near the town of Bishop's Stortford) about an hour out of London, where we were greeted by Ken, another friend of Claude's, who was house-sitting for the owners. The next few days we entertained ourselves by playing billiards, eating & drinking copious amounts of good food and wine from my travelling larder & cellar, long discussions, walking through forests & fields in the mud and cold, sitting by cozy fires in pubs, etc.
Claude had to be back in London early on Dec 30 so we had to get up at 5 am (only got 2 hours sleep as I went to bed at 3 because I played billiards with Ken and talked for hours), then, because I had very little petrol and no petrol stations were open at that time we had to wait until 7, then dropped off Claude at work, had coffee with Kim-Lee at the new King's Cross station which is modern, sterile, freezing cold, and draughty - the cold wind whipped through the cafe we went to while we drank coffee from paper cups in an uncomfortable & unwelcoming. environment. What a contrast with the beautiful old St Pancras station nearby.

London is really a difficult place to go into and leave from and I wasted a couple of hours trying to find the exit that would take me out west on to the M3. I finally made it and visited the 3 famous Cathedral towns of Winchester, Salisbury, and Exeter in the afternoon.
The next day I drove across Dartmoor and it lived up to its reputation - I stopped about half-way across near a place called Two Bridges just to experience the heavy fog, and freezing, strong wind, then down through Plymouth (from which in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to found the settlement that became the US) and on the ferry to Torpoint across Plymouth Sound, and arrived New Year's Eve at the small seaside town of Looe.

The only reason I picked this place to spend New Year's Eve was the cute name, which I saw on the map in my car in the dark while crossing Plymouth Sound. It proved to be a fortuitous choice. I soon found a pretty little bed & breakfast cottage, spruced myself up, and sallied forth for my first New Year ever in Britain. I was well rugged up as it was a bitterly cold night but as I walked I was surrounded by people in all sorts of get-up - pirates, angels, hobbits, girls in singlet tops and micro-mini skirts with no stockings, men in backless outfits in garters and high heels, even one young man with nothing on top at all (the temperature was below freezing). I seemed to be the only person in town who wasn't in fancy dress. I went into a pub and struck up a conversation with revellers and found that Looe is one of the top 5 places in Britain to celebrate New Year. Nearly all pubs had notices saying they weren't serving food tonight - drinks only (so you can imagine what the scene was like by midnight), but I eventually found a place where I had grilled haddock and 9 medium to large sized boiled potatoes. With that ballast in my stomach I spent the rest of the night wandering the streets taking photos, for which many people posed because they thought I was a newspaper photographer on account of my professional-looking Nikon digital SLR.

New Year's day I drove along the Cornish coast to the picturesque town of Polperro, then I turned inland to the Eden Project, a sort of environmental theme park with 2 massive greenhouse domes made of hexagons and pentagons - one emulates a tropical environment and the other a temperate Mediterranean environment, and continued back along the coast to Falmouth - pronounced Fal (as in pal) muth. I stayed at the extremely friendly Grove Hotel at the seafront, and that evening braved the cold windswept streets for a walk and dined at a seafood restaurant where I was the only guest. The proprietor/waitress must have wondered what to make of an Antipodean man turning up late on a windswept night in the low season and merrily chatting away asking for descriptions of all the dishes, scanning the wine list attentively (little of interest), requesting bread and olive oil (both are very rarely provided in British dining establishments and often involve someone scurrying off to get white slliced bread from somewhere and asking the chef for a lend of the olive oil bottle for the troublesome tourist :), but as she had nothing better to do we had a decent chat.   

England has some fascinating place names and the next day, while tootling around the south-west extremities of Cornwall I came across many of them - Gweek, Mousehole, Marazion, Bojewyan, Paul, Zennor (where I had a local cider and a cask-conditioned ale [Sharp's Mermaid] at the Tinner's Arms, the same pub as DH Lawrence while he was writing Women in Love). While there I read in the National Trust magazine that 40% of all pre-prepared meals in Europe are consumed in Britain, and that 1 in 7 of every pound is spent in Tesco. The highlights of the day were Lizard Point (southernmost point of mainland UK), then around to St Michael's Mount (built by the same Benedictine monks that built it's namesake Mont-St-Michel in Normandy just across the Channel), Land's End (westerly-most point of mainland UK), near which is the spectacular Minack Theatre, modelled on the design of an ancient Greek Theatre, and built into the cliff-face, before returning to Falmouth that evening. This is the day that I ate my first genuine Cornish pastie (good but I wouldn't rave over it), and scones with jam and clotted cream (I'm not a Devonshire tea type person normally but but I took every opportunity I could to eat clotted cream). 

My last day in Cornwall I had lunch in Padstow (also called Padstein because Rick Stein, a famous English chef, has several restaurants & hotels there, although I didn't eat at any of them) - Linguine with crab, garlic, chili & parsley (very little of the last 4 ingredients and barely a drop of olive oil to bind them), then very good pan-fried mackerel, stacked on beetroot and fried potatoes, with a sweetish orange sauce daubed around (sweet sauce doesn't go with oily fish, nor with beetroot unfortunately). The 2 dishes I ordered were both main courses, which challenged and flustered the waitress somewhat, then she asked if I wanted the fish first, then the linguine, which gives an inkling about the misunderstanding about pasta. At the next table the couple were drinking large glasses of coloured soft drink with mussels for the lady, and linguine for the gentleman, on which he proceeded to heap chips. Even with Rick Stein, the other celebrity chefs, TV cookery shows, and recipe books I still think there's a long way to go foodwise in the UK. 

Leaving Cornwall I headed across Bodmin Moor and Exmoor to my night's destination of Glastonbury. The drive was quite hairy as the road across the moors had ice and some snow on the ground. At one point I drove through the ford at Exford, which was 30-40cms deep, then as I tried to drive up the slope my tyres couldn't get any grip on the road because of black ice, but somehow I finally managed to get enough traction to make it and arrived on a cold, still night at the "spiritual" town of Glastonbury (overnight temperature around -10).

I had last been to Glastonbury over 30 years ago, and it's now full of every new age/hippie/spiritual thing going. Its claim to fame includes that Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus' uncle, came to live here after the Crucifixion, and it's associated with the Holy Grail and the King Arthur legend, as well as being the centre for several ley lines, along which psychic and spiritual energy flows around the world.
In keeping with the place I dined in a vegetarian/spiritual café that night, which was very entertaining. The funny thing with most of these places is how earnest and unhumorous they are - people dining there are not generally having fun,  licking their lips with satisfaction, conversations are usually muted and it's rare to hear noise and laughter. I ordered from the fairly humdrum menu, avoiding the usual nutmeat sausages, lentil pies, etc that is often their stock in trade, and the wine list was also extremely short and humdrum. I asked if they had any other white wine than the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc on the list and the proprietor asked if I was worried about food miles, and she was a bit taken aback when I said no, it's just that I didn't like Sauvignon Blanc. For a town of less than 10,000 Glastonbury has an inordinate number of magic shops, fairy shops, and spiritual knick-knack shops, as well as a huge variety of psycho/spiritual groups.
So next day I did my spiritual rounds. First was Glastonbury Abbey - the legend is that Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Mary, was a trader who traveled to this area and constructed a small place of worship, which became Britain's largest abbey - it is a beautiful place and is the claimed site of King Arthur's tomb - he was brought here mortally wounded from his last battle. I climbed the Tor (conical hill in Celtic) and is the site of the Isle of Avalon in Arthurian legend. The plains surrounding the Tor are reclaimed marshes and swamps so the Tor would have stood out as an island. When I was there many of the fields roundabout were waterlogged and had frozen over because of the freezing temperatures, so I did get some feeling for what it would have been like in those older times. 
Near the Tor is the Chalice Well, built around a natural, highly ferrous mineral spring. The legend is that the red-stained water represents the blood of Jesus miraculously coming out of the ground where Joseph of Arimathea buried or washed the cup used at the Last Supper. It is full of items of symbolic and spiritual meanings: the Vesica Piscis (the overlapping part of 2 interlocking circles) which has a number of meanings including the fish, symbol of Christianity, the vagina of the goddess, pythagorean geometry, a Masonic symbol, etc); the Holy Thorn Tree said to be a descendant of the Holy Thorn; Healing Pool (which has a sign saying beware of the slippery bottom - but being a healing pool shouldn't you be automatically healed if you fall and hurt yourself?); and the Lion's Head fountain which dispenses Holy Water, with which I filled the official 1 litre Holy Water bottle I bought.

Having topped up my spiritual reserves to overflowing I next decided to engage in the decidedly more material activity of visiting the Cheddar Gorge to partake of some cheese-tasting. Well, in my imagination was the idea there would be a number of small artisan cheese-makers where I could try the different examples of their individual endeavours, but it had all the usual tea houses, take-away food shops, mini-golf, etc but only one place that made cheddar. After tasting a small cube each of the mild, medium and sharp (or something similar to that), which were all pretty bland I climbed a path up the gorge walls and sat daydreaming and watching the sun sink over the gorge walls. I continued up through the gorge to Wells, another Cathedral city, to the beautiful small city of Bath.

That evening I walked around for a long time trying to select where I would dine and settled on the Fishworks restaurant - I ordered 2 dishes, (fried whitebait for entree & grilled bass for main, both of which were excellent), but, as usual, I had to ask for bread and lemon (how can they not serve lemon with fish?), which along with wanting to discuss the winelist, made the waitress think I was a bit of a curious and troublesome customer.
Later I went to the comedy show in the cellar bar called the Porter of the Mole Hotel. After his gig I had a chat and a drink with Stefano Paolini, the main comedian, who was down from London (his parents were from Parma) and he introduced me to 3 girls living in Bristol whose parents migrated from Agrigento in Sicily. It's very surreal sitting in the basement of an English pub with a pint of ale in your hand and chatting to 3 young women alternately in Sicilian and our respective English accents. 
The highlights of my next few days in Bath were: morning tea at Sally Lun's, consisting of a Sally Lunn bun (a brioche, with cinnamon butter and clotted cream) - underneath the dining room you can see the Roman and Medieval foundations, there is a re-creation of the old kitchen, and a cellar which has stalactites and stalagmites; lunch at the demuth vegetarian restaurant, where I had a tagine and they had a huge range of organic drinks: beer, cool blond lager, cannabia (Bavarian hemp lager); wine, port, gin & tonic, amaretto, calvados, sherry, vodka, cognac. It's one of the best vegetarian restaurants I've ever been to - why aren't they all like this? - and yes, people were noisy and laughing; caught a matinee screening of Baz Luhrman's film, Australia, at the lovely Little Theatre Cinema house (the film itself was rather cringe-inducing but my fellow cinema-goers seemed to like it); free music and open mike at Porter's, where I met Ben, a jazz guitarist who was born in London of an English father from Bath, and Italian mother from Verona, but grew up in Italy and was in England to get to know his father who he hadn't seen for years.
A really curious thing was that everywhere I turned in Bath I seemed to run into an Italian connection - apart from the comedian, the 3 girls from Agrigento, the jazz guitarist, even when I had a haircut at Dappa hairdressers, the chap who cut my hair had Italian parents, and outside the market on my last day I heard 3 old men speaking Sicilian so I had a chat with them.
I almost forgot - I also visited the Roman Baths, after which the city is named. They have been expertly renovated and really provide a feeling for what the experience would have been like in Roman times. Last, but not least I found a pub that made their own stout and persuaded the publican to make me up a plate of mixed cheeses and ham for my last meal in Bath. I am rather partial to a good stout but they are not actually very popular in the UK and when you ask for one they nearly all only have Guiness, which I think owns most of the pubs. I have nothing against Guiness but you can get that virtually anywhere in the world, so it became my little Holy Grail quest to find locally produced stout in my travels around the UK.   

My final port of call in south-west England was Bristol. It was a fleeting afternoon visit and I only had time to visit the renovated waterfront area, and the Arnolfini Centre for the Contemporary Arts (the special exhibition was called Supertoys, which included opportunities for visitors to destroy, examine and re-make toys - unfortunately I didn't have time to assist in this process).
 
From Bristol it was a quick trip across the River Severn (the longest in Great Britain) and by evening I was in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.


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