We’ve been aiming to try and do a little more domestic tourism in and around the United Kingdom, to see the best of our current adopted homeland. So, with a few days off during winter we decided to go on a little road-trip with a couple of mates who had done some research and planned the trip already. Destination: Cornwall and the south west of England.
After picking up a car from Heathrow we headed off to our first stop along the way – Salisbury. You may recognise the name if you’ve been following the news in the UK over recent months, but none of that had happened at the time and we were mostly there to see the cathedral. It’s got the tallest church spire in England, and also the best preserved of the four original surviving copies of the Magna Carta document. We dutifully looked at both, wandered around for a bit and then returned to the comfort of the car and it’s heated seats (it was an arctic morning) to continue on our way.
From Salisbury it was a good four and a half hours of straight driving to get to St. Ives, our stop for the night, and so after another couple of stops along the way it was well into night by the time we arrived. Given the sun sets before 4pm at that time of year I guess that isn’t saying much, but it was also getting late. St. Ives is a lovely little old fishing town set into the sheltered bay, with the old windy-streets part of town down by the water and the newer extensions pushing up the hill. We stayed at a fantastically cosy little place up on the hill, which was one of the better Air BnB experiences we’ve had so far I think. After a wander down the hill and around town we had dinner at some pub down by the water, the highlight of which was the crab burger one of our friends ordered – literally just a whole soft shell crab which had been deep fried and then put in a burger, little legs hanging out the sides and all. It was apparently delicious, despite the fact it looked as though it might wander off the plate.
Next morning we woke up early and went back down into town to check it out properly in daylight before we left. Being the middle of winter it wasn’t too busy, but we were told that over any given weekend in summer St. Ives is always absolutely rammed with tourists. I could definitely see why, though we were only there for a night I marked it down as a place to go back to again should we ever get the chance.
There were two main things we wanted to see along the way that day, the first of which was St. Michael’s Mount. St. Michael’s Mont is a small tidal island (meaning you can walk to it at low tide) with a castle perched on it, due south from St. Ives on the other side of the Cornish peninsula. If, like me, you’d always thought that the name was pronounced Mont Saint-Michel and the location in France, I can now help clarify matters for you: there is an English version and a French version, and they share effectively the same name because at some point in history the English version was gifted to the French version. St Michael’s Mount is a pretty impressive place (no idea how it compares to Mont Saint-Michel though), and by luck we’d timed our arrival with the low tide so we could walk out and have a look around.
The second sightseeing excursion was to a place called the Minack Theatre. I’d actually never heard of the place before we got there, but I think it deserves to be a bit more well-known. Back in the early 1930’s the occupant of Minack House, a Rowena Cade, decided the cliffs below the house would be an ideal setting for a spot of outdoors theatre. For most of us I think the idea would end there, but Rowena, clearly a rather determined woman, along with her gardener Billy Rawlings proceeded over the next couple of years to dig and landscape a spectacular amphitheatre out of the granite cliffs. Its been extended bit by bit over recent years, but it is still amazing to think that the bulk of it was created by hand by just a couple of people. I’d love to get the chance to see something performed there one day, but it’s a pretty cool spot even just for a casual visit.
Just around the corner from Minack Theatre is Land’s End, the most westerly point in mainland England, so we went there next. The coast was very impressive, and the infrastructure there was certainly very ‘British seaside’, which is to say tacky and tired. We had a quick look around, a tea to warm up, and then left.
For lunch we decided to picnic, or at least eat quickly while huddled somewhere out of the freezing wind, at one of the old tin mines all along the Cornish coast, and what better food to take than what the miners themselves may have eaten – the Cornish Pasty. We picked some up from a village, St Just, we passed through, noting as usual how much friendlier everyone is outside of London, and headed to the coast. Again the coast was very impressive, but I couldn’t help imagining it must have been a bit of desolate old place for the poor miners. It was OK on a nice day like we had, but the proper winter storms must have been immense. My pasty was excellent.
The next whistle-stop on a well-stared Google Map of the Cornish coast was Tintagel – the legendary castle above Merlins Cave. Unfortunately, our day had been so packed already that we did not make it there in time to be able to visit the castle or see Merlins Cave as it was about to close. We were able to visit one of the outer walls and still managed to soak up more beautiful vistas.
As it was winter, we were able to enjoy the sunset at 4pm before heading off to our hotel for the night all the way up in Exmoor – The Hunters Inn near Barnstaple.
We arrived well after dark to the Hotel which was already beginning to be shrouded in mist. A welcome sight when we entered was the open fireplaces and ample seating. We enjoyed a delightful dinner in the house restaurant, then retired next to the fireplace for the night.
In the morning, we hit the road again. Our car was unfortunately not built to be able to easily navigate the extremely steep hills we encountered and soon enough, we were smelling overheating breaks. Glad Alex was the one driving and not me – it was fairly high-stress for a while. After a few hours of driving, we reached another star on the map – Glastonbury Tor. There were meant to be spectacular views of the surrounding plains, however even by lunchtime the dense fog had not shifted at all, so at the top all you could see was a wall of white. I think the Tor would be a nice place to stop if you are in the area, but would not recommend driving 2 hours out of your way to see it.
We were off again after that, heading on our way to a city I had been very interested in visiting since we got to the UK – Bath. I had heard very good things about this place, but it did not impress. It might have had something to do with the gloomy, foggy weather meaning the true beauty of the city did not quite shine through as much as it would on a sunny day, or the fact that it was a couple of days after Christmas so the downtown was crammed with people – I just didn’t find it lived up to the hype.
After a pub lunch, we went to the Roman Baths. Both Alex and I stuck to the Bill Bryson audio guide channel, giving up on the regular commentary after it rambled on for far too long. I thought this attraction was a real let down as it has such an interesting history but they failed to convey much of it in an engaging manner. You felt like you were on one of those Disney rides for children where you stopped at certain points, things happened, then you moved slowly on and were yawning by the end of it.
From Bath, we had a fairly easy drive back to London which meant some great banter and music, the road trip essentials.
Until next time,