Category Archives: Europe

Cornwall, The Lost Gardens of Heligan

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“Heligan is a modern miracle, once the estate of the Tremayne family, it was definitively scuppered – like so much else – by the First World War. It lost the great bulk of its staff and its thousand acres or more lapsed into almost complete decay.”  – John Fowles

After a couple of days we had exhausted all of the obvious local National Trust options that were close by and with no real appetite to tackle the dreadful A30 again we decided to stay local even though this involved putting hands in pockets and paying an entrance fee.  We chose the ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’ which cost £55 for a family ticket.

Heligan, it turns out is one of the most interesting estates in all of England. Lost to the brambles of time since the outbreak of WW1, this Sleeping Beauty was re-awakened in 1990 to become Europe’s largest garden restoration project. Even without Alan Titchmarsh!

The name says it all I suppose. These gardens on the south coast of Cornwall near Mevagissey had once been a thriving country estate, but went into decline after the First World War and lost to the sands and weeds of time.

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The story of the lost gardens of Heligan is now the stuff of legend. When the ecologist Tim Smit and local builder John Nelson entered the estate sometime in 1990 they made a pivotal discovery – the magnificently named Thunderbox Room, which had been the gardener’s lavatory.

The pair found signatures scribbled on the flaking plaster along with the date August 1914, as they prepared to leave and go to war.  These were the men who had looked after the gardens and the pair resolved to rediscover them.  Twelve left, only three returned and the nine lost their lives on the battlefields of France.

After the war the owner John ‘Jack’ Tremayne declared that ‘he couldn’t live with the ghosts of the place’ and left Heligan for Italy. No Tremayne has lived there since.  With a desperate shortage of labour in the post-war years the gardens were abandoned and left to return to nature.

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In 1990, work began on what is Europe’s largest garden restoration project and now it is possible to get an idea of what a Victorian estate may have looked like.

And what a splendid job they have made of the ambitious restoration and we discovered a lot to see and do in the gardens and surrounding woodland. The northern gardens around the house consist of a productive vegetable and fruit area and some pleasure grounds, which include various aristocratic distractions such as an enclosed Italianate garden and the pineapple pit where the fruit is grown under glass in rotting manure. From the formal gardens the estate slopes south towards Mevagissey and the highlight is the ten acre jungle garden because the combination of a south-facing valley and mild Cornish climate makes this perfect for exotics.

I always worry about taking children to see gardens for fear that they might be bored but there was no chance of that at Heligan.  We walked for almost five miles along the paths, running, skipping, jumping, climbing (the children of course, not me) and after our picnic on the lawn and as we left we declared the day to be a resounding success with no complaints from us about the entrance fee which we all agreed was very good value for money.

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Cornwall, Around Mevagissey Harbour Part 2

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After leaving St Michael’s Mount we had another frustrating drive back to Mevagissey and arrived in the late afternoon.  The sun was shining so I went straight to the harbour with my camera and became fascinated by the boats and the reflections…

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Cornwall, St Michael’s Mount

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“In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to Duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. This he rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the south-western coast of Cornwall which was modelled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.” – Wikipedia

Everyone knows that driving in Cornwall can be a tedious and frustrating affair.  I knew it but didn’t expect it so early in the year as the month of April (even though it was school Easter holiday week).

Today we were driving thirty miles west to the village of Marazion and St. Michaels Mount.  A simple enough matter anyone might think.  Entrance to the castle is restricted by the tide because visitors have to walk across a causeway that becomes submerged twice a day so timing is somewhat critical.  I studied the tide tables and set a departure time which would give us plenty of time to get there for the opening of the causeway and a couple of hours wandering about at the site.

First of all we drove to the town of St Austell which is not a very appealing place I have to say.  It was once the centre of the entire World china clay production and most people will have an item of porcelain in their homes which came from this area but the quarries are all closed down now.  It is estimated that there are fifty years of clay reserves left in the ground but the owners find it more economical to concentrate on operations in Brazil.

Away from the dramatic coast line Cornwall is not an attractive place.  Pause for sharp intake of breath from readers.  Concrete not stone, render not brick.  The rural landscape is rather dull and the towns are depressing, grey and ugly.  Places look better in the sunshine of course but in Cornwall the sun has to try a lot harder than some other places.  I am reminded of the joke, “There was an earthquake in Cornwall last night, it did a million pounds worth of improvements to Cambourne”.  St Austell is surrounded by white peaks of spoil from the quarries but even the optimistic description of the Cornish Alps cannot really hope to make them any more appealing.

Cornish Alps St Austell

North of St Austell we finally reached the A30 and I foolishly looked forward to straight forward effortless motoring for the final twenty miles.  How wrong I was.  The A30 must be one of the worst roads in England.  You cruise along nicely for a couple of miles on a dual carriageway and then every five miles or so the traffic grinds to a standstill at a roundabout and then everyone creeps forwards at increments of about two feet every ten minutes.

The traffic was frequently at a standstill and according to my calculations the tide was coming in at St Michaels Mount and I could feel my normal calm demeanour rapidly evaporating.  I cursed myself for not allowing more time for the journey.

We finally arrived at Marazion and being late for the tide and the foot crossing it was so busy that we had to use an overflow car park which involved an additional fifteen minute hike to the causeway and then inevitably everyone wanted to go to the toilets which added another ten minutes or so and my frustration entered the red zone as I could see our tidal window of opportunity quickly ebbing away.

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Eventually we made the windswept crossing to the castle but we only had a couple of hours now before we would have to return or be cut off by the tide and have to stay there for eight hours or so.

I was keen to see St Michael’s Mount because a couple of years ago I had visited its counterpart in France.  Mont St Michel is a lot bigger and although a magnificent spectacle is disappointingly commercialised so I didn’t know quite what to expect.  It turned out to be quite different without the tacky tourist shops and cheap food outlets which have spoilt the French island castle but really I wouldn’t expect that sort of thing from the National Trust.

Interestingly, despite the tat Mont St Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but St Michael’s Mount is not.  How unfair.

It is one of the iconic landmarks of Cornwall and today it was rather too busy for my liking with thousands of people swarming across the causeway and then making their way to the very top of the rock and visiting the interior.  Inside was hot and cramped so we turned back after the first room and skipped the visit preferring instead to sit outside on the rocks and wait while the family completed the tortuous route through the castle.

From the top we could see the tide beginning to advance so it was time to make our way down and cross back to the mainland before the causeway would be completely submerged.

Despite the crowds this is a place well worth a visit and I enjoyed our short time on the rock with its attractive harbour, medieval cobbles and stone built houses where real people still live.  As it happened there was no real need to rush off because there was a ferry boat service that would have taken us back for only a small charge.

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Just by way of comparison this is Mont St Michel in Brittany in France…

Mont St Michel France

Cornwall, Value For Money with the National Trust

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With the weather much improved, the sun shining and the temperature rapidly rising we could now begin to make plans for the rest of the week with a whole lot more confidence.

We are all members of the National Trust so one of our plans was to take full advantage of this and see how many places we could visit without spending a penny on admission.  The annual cost of a joint membership is £120 and I have discovered before that it is quite easy to get all of that back in only a few days.

First of all we visited nearby Lanhydrock, an aristocratic Victorian country house, an upstairs/downstairs sort of place with a succession of perfectly preserved rooms and exhibits.  I especially liked looking around the kitchens and the food preparation areas probably because in the social hierarchy of the time that is where we would most likely have found ourselves.

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It was a busy place and I was surprised to learn that it is the tenth most visited National Trust property in the UK.  First, by the way, is the overrated Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

We spent an enjoyable afternoon at Lanhydrock exploring the house, a walk in the garden and an Easter Egg hunt for the children.  Without National Trust membership the cost of admission would have been a whopping £53.75 for all of us.

Next up was Trerice close to Newquay, an Elizabethan manor house that was once the home of the powerful Arundell family where little it seems has changed since it was built in 1573.

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It has a nice garden and some interesting rooms and a hands-on dressing up in Tudor clothes rack for the children.  This is a good feature of the National Trust, they know children are going to be bored out of their minds in the house and gardens so they lay on several distractions.  Mine bypassed the clothes and went immediately for the medieval armour helmets.  The poor man on duty nearly had a fit when he saw my three trying them on for size and almost dropping them on the stone floor.  William’s chosen helmet was almost as heavy as he is. The man was greatly relieved when we put them down again and moved on and so was I because I wasn’t looking forward to explaining the damage to the Board of the National Trust.

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Outside in what was once the farmyard there was a barn with more children’s activities, egg painting, brass rubbing and more dressing up.  I left the children to it whilst I explored the gardens and the old orchard outside.  I especially enjoyed this visit.

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Total saving on admission price at Trerice was £47.25 and after only two visits we were almost in credit on our membership fee.

On another day we visited St. Michael’s Mount at Marazion but I am saving that for a full post later because it was an especially good day out.  Total saving on admission prices £56.00.  I was feeling really good about all of this.

On the return journey from the island retreat we stopped over at the country house of Godolphin, once home to the family of the same name who were once the richest landowners in the whole county with an immense and obscene amount of wealth based on exploitation of minerals and mining.

It is a pleasant little house and garden but the house it seems is rarely fully open because it is let out as a holiday home by the National Trust.  It wasn’t open when we visited but the children enjoyed the gardens and the activities that were laid on for them,

I thought that the place was overpriced and our total saving on admission price was £31.50.

On the final day in Cornwall we visited Tintagel.  We wanted to visit the castle (English Heritage, not NT and prepared to pay) but it was closed so instead we went to the National Trust Old Post Office which quite frankly was a bit of a let-down and I would have been very annoyed indeed if we had paid the full adult admission charge of a combined £9 for just a couple of rooms and a tiny garden.

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Adding all of that together that was a total of £197.50 in saved admission charges on the day but of course to keep things in perspective I have to say that if we hadn’t been members then we certainly wouldn’t have gone to all of them!

Within the last year we have visited other places as well…

Hadrian’s Wall and Seaton Delavell in Northumberland (total saving £32.40) and Oxborough Hall, Sutton Hoo and Ickworth House in East Anglia (total saving£59.20) so overall I think membership has provided value for money and I shall be happy to renew without any grumbles when it is due for renewal in June.

Cornwall, Around Mevagissey Harbour Part 1

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After all that walking I slept especially well and when I woke at about eight o’clock and fearing the worst I immediately listened out for the wind and the rain but all was quite calm.  The only sound was the slow and satisfying rhythmic thud, thud, thud of a diesel engine taking a boat out to sea which I took to mean that if a boat was going out to sea then the gale had surely blown itself out.

Sure enough the sun was shining so I immediately took advantage of this unexpected improvement in the weather, pulled on my clothes and immediately went into the village to capture some pictures.

Mevagissey is a delightful place, the streets are narrow and twist like a corkscrew, some lanes are more like staircases than streets, most are too narrow for cars but that doesn’t stop some people trying to drive down them, there are no pavements and double yellow lines to tell people not to park even though this is surely patently obvious.  A hundred years ago or so the designers of the village were more concerned with keeping out the sea than attracting visitors.

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Cornwall, Mevagissey and a Stormy Arrival

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The early Spring weather in the United Kingdom had been especially good, we had been lucky in the Forest of Dean for a couple of days and enjoyed the sunshine and we were hopeful for more as we drove to Cornwall but when we arrived in the port village of Mevagissey our optimism was literally blown away.

There was a howling south-easterly gale that was roaring into the jaws of the sheltered port and sending sea and spray crashing over the protective harbour walls.  We had been advised to park in the harbour car park but as we drove along the narrow road and waves washed over the car this didn’t look very promising.  As we drove out again I spotted a man sheltering in a doorway and sought advice.  I didn’t catch a lot of what he said because like a thief the wind stole the words almost as soon as they passed his lips.  He expressed surprise to see us driving along the harbour wall in such severe conditions and I deduced from his mannerisms that this was not an specially good idea so we set about finding an alternative place to park.

This was about five hundred yards away from our holiday cottage and with the only access up a steep narrow path there was no chance of getting any closer to unload the luggage so we had to make several journeys back and forth to transfer all of the luggage and the shopping bags from the cars.  Once this was achieved there was time to survey the cottage.

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It was named ‘Tranquility’ but standing right at the top of the path and overlooking the turbulent harbour below there was nothing very tranquil about it tonight.  As the gale grew stronger the windows rattled and the lashing rain streamed down the glass as we looked out and debated who should go back into the village to bring back the fish and chips supper that we had promised ourselves.  Naturally it was me that got the most nominations.

The rain continued through most of the night and I was disturbed several times, not only by the gale outside but by nagging thoughts about how we might amuse ourselves in the morning if the weather showed no significant improvement.

Well, by the morning the rain had stopped but the wind was just as fierce so that ruled out the visit to the beach which was what the children wanted so after breakfast we pulled on our rainwater clothing and stepped out for a walk along the coastal footpath south to the village of Portmellon.  Over the headland we battled against the wind and on arrival took shelter in a coffee shop whilst the children played near the sea.  I had almost forgotten that little people barely take notice of the weather and whist we adults complain and grumble they just get on with enjoying themselves regardless.  Later in a sheltered cove I couldn’t even dissuade them from going into the sea!

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Later in the day we ventured outside again and this time walked in the opposite direction on the coastal path.  We had intended to walk as far as the beach village of Pentewan but at just about the half way point it started to gently rain so we abandoned the plan and returned to the cottage.  Just as well that we did because shortly before we arrived back home then it began to rain with fierce intensity and we had to make a dash for shelter right at the end.

No real harm done at this point until I was later persuaded to walk down to the village to visit the free admission aquarium in the harbour.  Later I was told that it was free right enough, free for a reason.  By now it was pouring with rain and the sea was crashing over the harbour walls so we had to pick the right moment to move forward to avoid a real drenching.

When we got there the place was closed with a sign promising ‘Back in Five Minutes’.  I don’t think the staff were anticipating any visitors this afernoon because we waited for ten but no one showed up so thoroughly damp we made our way back stopping on route for some traditional Cornish pasties for our evening meal. I suspect no one ever went back to the aquarium that afternoon.

We hoped the weather would be better the next day but looking out of the window at the squally sea and the towering columns of water and foam I confess that I was not terribly optimistic.

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Lincolnshire to Cornwall, The Wye Valley

River Wye

When I was a young boy we used to go quite regularly to Cornwall on family holidays. I last visited Cornwall for a holiday (I have been there since for work) in 1975 when I stayed in a bed and breakfast at Crantock village near to Fistral Beach at Newquay.  On that occasion to get there I drove a route through the Wye Valley, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and this time I was keen to replicate the journey.

We were staying with Lindsay (my sister) and Mick in Lydney in the Forest of Dean so this made the quest quite easy to achieve.

I especially wanted to visit two places on the route, Symonds Yat in England and Tintern Abbey in Wales.

We started at Symonds Yat and drove to the visitor centre at Symonds Yat Rock which is a high vantage point with wonderful panoramic views of the River Wye.  The river is the fifth longest in the United Kingdom after the Severn, Thames, Trent and Great Ouse and for part of its course provides the natural border between England and Wales.

Two pictures at Symonds Yat Rock, forty-five years apart…

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That black shirt was always one of my favourites but it wouldn’t fit me now that’s for sure!

Symonds Yat Rock and View

From the visitor centre we followed a footpath through the forest and down to the fast flowing river and then took a gentle walk along the English west bank and back to the car park to the car that we had left there earlier.

From there we drove along the side of the river, along the route of ancient Offa’s Dyke, eventually crossing over the river and moving into Wales.

Some things in life stick in the memory like velcro and for me one of these was my first ever visit to Tintern Abbey.  As the road follows a sinuous course from the north it enters the attractive stone built village and after negotiating several turns quite unexpectedly the Abbey comes into view and rises majestically at the side of the river.  I remember it as a wonderfully powerful WOW moment.  This can never be repeated of course and I was ready for it this time but I still found it to be a special moment.

Now, I might be mistaken but I seem to recall that in 1975 you simply parked the car by the side of the road and just walked into the grounds of the ruined Abbey which was in the middle of an empty farmer’s field but you cannot do that anymore.  The Abbey is managed by the Welsh Government, welcomes seventy-thousand visitors a year and has all of the trappings that can be expected at a tourist attraction; a pay and display car park, souvenir shops, a café selling cream teas and a massive pub and restaurant and a forest of invasive signs.

Tintern Abbey

The Abbey cost £8 to go inside which seemed rather expensive so we didn’t bother, we saw what we could from the outside and then went to the pub for lunch instead.

There was more experience that I was hoping for before we left the Forest of Dean and that was to see a wild boar.  These days there are wild boar in several places in England but the Forest of Dean is the easiest and best place to spot them.  They had been extinct in England for four hundred years or so but sometime in the 1990s someone released the boar into the forest and they have flourished in conditions that suit them perfectly (rich, deciduous woodland, agricultural land nearby and the occasional household rubbish bin to raid) and it is estimated that there may now well be almost two-thousand roaming the forest in various sounders, the term for a herd of wild swine.

There is evidence of them everywhere in the forest.  Every few yards, the earth has been gouged up and pushed aside, the undergrowth freshly disturbed. At the base of the beech trees are long, raking scratches where the pigs has ripped over the topsoil, looking for something beneath. Bluebell roots lay limp against the earth where they’ve been pulled up and cut through, and around the base of the larger trees are deep, pale craters, as if the forest had recently been hit by a massive hail storm.

Lindsay is always telling stories of encounters with the animals and we had seen plenty of evidence that they were nearby and all around but so far we had not seen one but then in the evening driving to a pub in a nearby village we spotted a sow with some youngsters quite close to the road and I was happy about that.

And, the following morning as we left the forest on the first leg of our journey to Cornwall we glimpsed sight of a magnificent male beast foraging close to the road.  A lot of people in the forest consider them to be a pest but to be honest we considered ourselves to be very lucky to see them.

Wild Boar Forest of Dean