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What I did on my holidays, pt. 2 - The Lyorn's Den

Sun May. 31st, 2009

09:51 pm - What I did on my holidays, pt. 2

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This is about four times as long as I feel it should be.

Part 1

Second week: Porthleven to St Ives

The rain fell for about a day, and I read Deighton's "Funeral in Berlin", wrote a heap of postcards, ate fudge and awoke in the night from the sound of the wind.

Friday was clear and windy. If I had a slightly higher tolerance for crowds, I'd have stayed another day for Flora day in Helston, but instead I set out for Marazion, a little intimidated by the distance. Turned out there was no reason to worry, it was a fun walk, mostly on cliffs with a view of the sea. The highlight of the day was coming over Cudden Point and see St Michael's Mount in the sea.

St Michael's Mount, like Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, is a hill in the water that can be reached by foot on low tide. It looks stranger than it sounds, especially at high tide.

Other than that, I also saw the remnants of tin mines, chimneys and engine houses and signs in the heather warning walkers of open mine shafts. And that was it. Nothing of whatever else you might associate with mining. I wondered if it had been demolished, or overgrown, or whether it had never been there.

The inexpensive B&B where I had intended to stay had changed into a very expensive one, and the room, for all its poshness did not even have a chair to sit in. The view was nice, though. And in the evening, trying to call ahead for next day's accommodation, I discovered that the weekend had crept up on me, and it was a May weekend with beautiful weather. There was no room to be had, and I did not want to stay another day in a place that cost nearly twice what I was willing to afford.

So the next day I shouldered my backpack and walked into one of those days that occur on every journey: The Day Where Nothing Goes Right. It was less spectacular than the epic example of such a day that R___ and I had suffered through in Sweden: First, it was not raining, and second, there was no mud involved.

But it was hot, it was road walking, there were cars, my knees hated me, I tried to take an amazingly stupid shortcut and can count myself lucky that I did not fall into the water, and when I came to Mousehole, the only accommodation I could have got was the size of the cupboard under the stairs. I gave up and took the bus back to Penzance, planning to head for the Youth Hostel that my guide book recommended. Only, the Youth Hostel was closed for construction work, as I found out when I finally got there. The backpacker hostel down the street had closed until 5 p.m. and did not announce if they had vacancies. I was starting to get into a very bad mood, when finally my luck turned and I happened upon a perfectly nice and inexpensive little B&B with the most comfortable bed I had in three weeks of travelling.

The next day I took a taxi to Mousehole because I did not feel like doing the same 6 km of road a second time. There was still dew on the grass when I finally left the paved roads behind me. The stones changed between Mousehole and Lamorna Cove: In Lamorna Cove the rocks look like building blocks for giants that have been haphazard piled on top of one another and might topple any moment. They also look as if climbing them would be great fun, if one weren't clumsy, that is.

Between Lamorna Cove and the Tater Du lighthouse hordes of people were doing a little Sunday walk, after that, I had the path back to myself. My goal for that day was Porthcurno, with its small but very white beach, and its open air theatre by the sea, where unfortunately the play season begins only late in May. The path to Porthcurno had very high grass and some muddy bits, and a few deep coves, and was all in all a little harder than it looked, so I was in Porthcurno a little later than I thought I would be.

In the B&B I shared a room with about 2000 vinyl records and not much else, but I could sit in the kitchen, drink tea and talk with the owners, which I did. Apart from the theatre and the beach, Porthcurno has a telegraph museum, which I also didn't see. Walking gets into my head, it crowds out other things, until all I want to do is walk further. Stopping to sightsee -- theatres, museums, or hills in the sea -- seems an alien idea. It sounds like a stupid thing to do (or not do), because why are you there when you don't look at what's to see -- but after some days nothing is as beautiful and interesting as the view behind the next bend in the path, or over the ridge of the next hill.

I stayed two nights in Porthcurno: The next day, I switched directions, took the bus to St Just and walked from Cape Cornwall back to Porthcurno. And that was a completely brilliant walk, but also had the most nerve-wrecking moment.

Cape Cornwall is a small, round headland covered with shrubbery, with one lonely chimney at its highest point, which was fenced off for repairs after it had been struck by lightning earlier this year. The cape was believed to be the westernmost point of the English mainland, until they found it was Land's End. In the 80s the place was purchased by Heinz Ketchup and then donated to the National Trust, which is kind of weird.

After the first 500m or so the path was not only easy, but nearly level (compared to previous days). Very nice. And then there were rocks right across it and you were expected to climb over them. Which was a Very Bad Thing, as far as I am concerned, because this is still a cliff path, so all that climbing happens with the sea some dozen metres below you and only one metre or so to your right. Which is not so bad going up, but going down... I'm not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of my own clumsiness. It's a very good thing for those rocks that everyone else walking it is less clumsy than I am. In the end I got down again by sitting on my backside and shoving myself very carefully forwards with my hands. Fortunately no one was around to see it.

Then came the large beach at Sennen Cove, where you can hop from one big round stone to the next with no fear of falling, and a beach café with a giant awning that shook and rattled and tried to fly away, Land's End with all it's touristy stuff that was less annoying than I had expected because it was not noisy, and then more path and wind and sea. A cove so narrow that only from one point you could look through it and out to sea, where the sun had turned west already so that you looked into a silver light. Some buoys lying on land, surrounded by heather and looking ready to blow up any moment. The wind was still strong and made the waves worth watching as the tide was coming in. Here and there the path was only three flowers apart from the edge of the cliff and I checked carefully that my shoelaces were tied and there were no rogue banana peels around before I walked those parts.

Back in Porthcurno, I was pleasantly tired and had chocolate cake in the pub, and then a whole lot of tea in the B&B. And even with those stupid rocks on the path, that was one of the best days I had.

The next morning I took the very same bus as the day before to St Just and walked the very same road down to Cape Cornwall, but turned north this time, to Pendeen.

Between Cape Cornwall and Pendeen are Levant Mine and Geevor Mine: The former a large abandoned mining site, the latter a mining museum. Those are not chimneys-and-engine-houses with nothing around them but were active into the 1980s, and have the buildings and the desolation that one expects to find. I love industrial ruins and wastelands. There is a silence and a sense of lost time in them that I rarely find in the old stones of some castle.

I spent hours there, until the museum closed. Then I tried to put in a few more kilometres, but the sky was overcast and dusk felt ready to come early, so I took some footpath over a cow pasture (after the cows were safely on the next pasture...) and made a complete fool of myself in front of the farmer because I didn't get the gate on the other side of the pasture open. Being somewhere I'm not sure I should be makes me awfully nervous, so I'm never completely happy with footpaths. Too many bad experiences with irate farmers as a kid, I guess.

When I reached the guesthouse in Pendeen, fog had come up and made the area look like an Edgar-Wallace film. The fog smelled of sheep.

And in Pendeen my nerve left me. I could have gone on to Zennor, spent a night there, and then on to St Ives, and finished the two-week-walk as I had planned. But the guidebook had labelled the path between Pendeen and St Ives as "severe", i.e. very hard, and I couldn't help thinking about that big damn rock between Cape Cornwall and Sennen Cove, and see myself on top of some similar rock like a cat that had climbed up a tree and found it impossible to get down again. And the weather was getting worse, which I was grateful for, because it helped me justify being chicken.

So, after walking 140 km, I gave up, spent another day in Pendeen (with a short trip to Penzance to get to a cash point), read "Vagabond" by Bernard Cornwell (about a 14th century archer that everyone expects to search for the grail, though he is not sure he even believes in it), and on Thursday, I took the bus to St Ives.


Third Week I: St Ives

St Ives is another very cute town, with a small harbour, a lighthouse, several beaches, a windy headland, and lots of art galleries and sweet shops. The Tate St Ives gallery was unfortunately closed for re-hanging when I arrived, and wouldn't open again until Sunday, when I planned to be gone again. Even when I'm not walking, moving is habit-forming. It's hard to stop.

It was raining. The tourist information office found me a place to stay, where I had a comfy leather chair by the window that overlooked the town and the beaches. I went to the laundry in the afternoon, discovered that I needed a whole lot of 20p pieces and that the only detergent i could get from the automaton was a "tropical fresh" smell that I distrusted. (I was right, but more of that later.) In the evening, an empty stomach drove me out to look for food, and I barely managed to find some before I became exhausted with the need to make a decision, which would have meant walking through the rain until I was drenched and all the food places had closed.

The next day was dry and I enjoyed walking through the town, looking at pictures in the galleries, trying out the sweets, enjoying lunch at the top of the St Ives Tate, where you could see all the roofs of the town like some mosaic, and doing everything one does in a cute little town, except taking pictures. I also went to the train station and got a ticket to Cardiff, feeling slightly silly because I was such a fangirl. But, I reasoned with myself, it's not as if people could tell it looking at me. It's not even as if I would have especially cared if they could. I also bought one picture, and another batch of postcards.


Third Week II: Cardiff

It was Saturday when I took the train to Cardiff. Three changes of train, about five hours total, not that bad a connection, and with some real highlights for staring out of the window. When I didn't look out of the window, I read a Bill Bryson travelogue about small towns in the US, which was a little bit strange.

Not as strange, though, as getting off the train in Cardiff Central and thinking, "hey, I've seen this before."

It's rare that I get to a place I know from TV or movies. I think Venice was one, San Francisco another. I've never been to New York or Vancouver or Paris, which I might also recognise parts of. And it's a seriously weird feeling. All the more if it's in a town far less famous or iconic than San Francisco and Venice. I felt very silly and a little bit happy. And if that wasn't enough, I had to grin at all the dragons, because I was thinking of R___ and the kindergarten teacher who believes that dragons are a symbol of evil. I had neither her address nor a pretext to send her a postcard, but I would have loved to.

I stayed in a backpacker hostel, partly because I was tired of spending a lot of money, partly because I was tired of talking to people. They had only continental breakfast, but they had something like Nutella. The first evening I went into town to explore bookstores. After all, if I was done walking, it was high time to get books. That evening, there was a party in the public areas of the hostel, including a barbecue which made it look as if the building was on fire.

I had a very good pizza and spend the rest of the evening reading in the communal kitchen, away from the noise, but unfortunately also away from the heating, went to bed when I felt frozen solid, and slept in the next morning.

After breakfast (yeah, Nutella!) I took the water bus from Bute Park to Mermaid Quay. That was even more fun than I had thought, because while the water bus (which has seats like a normal bus inside, not like a vaporetto) chugs along quite placidly on the Taff, as soon as you get into the bay, the driver (?) tells everyone to sit down and grab hold of something, and then shows how fast that boat can go. Which is "fast enough to be fun".

When we were at Mermaid Quay it started raining, and I started looking around and took very bad pictures with the camera in my mobile. My timing on this whole holiday was not as good as it could have been. The last week of May there was a large music festival, and already there were pavilions set up on the Roald Dahl Plass, and the plass itself was closed off. The water tower was not running and even higher than I thought it would be. The Millennium Centre looked exactly as I thought it would.

The rain became a downpour and I fled into the Millennium Centre where a winds orchestra was setting up for a concert in the foyer. My timing might be bad in general, but it's still good in the details. They were playing a bunch of modern pieces of which only one confirmed my deep-seated prejudices against modern music. The others were at least interesting, and some I liked I very much.

Afterwards I walked over to the Red Dragon Centre, where I wanted to see the Doctor Who exhibition and hoped to get tea mugs for Snow, flederkatz and I___. The exhibition was not bad, a lot of New Who stuff, clothes and monsters, to look at closely, but it didn't have the more "DVD extra"-like things that I had hoped for. It was all "in front of the scenes". No local details, either. And, harshest disappointment, the gift shop had no tea mugs, nor anything else to make the fangirls at home happy, but nearly exclusively dolls. Sigh. (And so it happened that only Ceridwen and R___ got something from me when I came back.)

The rain was undecided, and I walked along the bay, visited the Norwegian Church and the Visitor Centre and got the impression that the whole ensemble of buildings on the bay was like a giant attic of "cool stuff". And everything is really new. The history of the place and the sheer scale of that piece of urban renewal is fascinating, but this travelogue has already run a lot longer than I planned, so I won't go into it. I walked out across the barrage and back, and felt as if I had walked twice as far. The water tower was running for a minute or two while I was waiting for a bus to take me back to the hostel.

I spend the evening plotting stories in my head. After two weeks and a few days I was starting to feel creative again. But I didn't write anything as I have got completely out of the habit of handwriting and found my writing far too slow to follow my thoughts.

Next day it was raining again, and I went to see Cardiff Castle.

Years ago, Travelling Utto the Mad and I had toured Ireland and Wales to look at castles. And keeps. And towers. And to trek through soggy cow pastures to determine if some heap of stones in the middle of it had been an authentic Norman tower, or a 17th century fake. Now, the Norman castles in Wales are really something. Architectural genius, walls and towers like mountains, moats and hills, criss-crossing inner walls, shapes optimised for the terrain and for archers -- you can't imagine how those castles could ever have fallen to anything less powerful than a cannon. (The answer to that is that whoever had the castle build was broke afterwards and couldn't really afford to have his expensive castle properly defended.)
Cardiff castle is not one of those. From the perspective of a fan of Norman castles, it's the victim of its success.

The outer wall is a square. A rather large square, formed by a wall that is reasonably high but not that impressive. The shape is easy to recognise as Roman. Then there's a motte with a Norman keep on it. That keep is not in a good shape. It's also rather small and pretty undramatic. Even from its highest accessible point, you do not look over the city, but rather through it. There had been more buildings constructed in the centuries between the Normans and the Civil War in the 17th centuries, but after the Civil War the whole thing was damaged and a century later everything but the outer walls, the motte and the keep were flattened. And then money happened. The owners became filthy rich, and had a Victorian dacha with a medieval theme built along the wall. Including a feast hall, stained glass windows, a clock tower bedecked in heraldry, and central heating. Utto would have hated it. It shows, I think, that history continuing to happen to a place makes it less impressive to hobby historians.

It rained as if it had to fulfil a quota and was way behind it. I tried the museum, but it was closed on Mondays. So I trudged back to the hotel, dried off, got into my warmest clothes, and spend the afternoon on a sofa, reading Charles Stross' "The Family Trade". When I was finished, it had stopped raining and I went for pizza and investigated how long it would take to walk from the hostel to the train station. (Less than 10 minutes.)

Tuesday afternoon my train was leaving, so I had just barely time for the museum (but not for all of it). I enjoyed the "Evolution of Wales" part, which had not only evolution but also lots of geology. I had to skip the dinosaurs because that part was full of small and very enthusiastic kids. The archaeological part was interesting, too, and less noisy. Most of the old art I skipped. The Diane Arbus photograph exhibition was good. And then I just couldn't walk or stand or look anymore, got my backpack from the hostel and went to the train station.


Going home

The train from Cardiff to London takes only two hours. This time I remembered how to navigate the Underground. The train from Liverpool Station to Stanstead ran into some trouble with "something on the rails", and a German businessman standing next to me panicked into his mobile about missing his flight and dreadful consequences. He was still ranting when the train got back into motion.

Stanstead airport was as boring as I remembered. I got a magazine, a book and a bottle of water and waited for my flight. Which was, of course, late.

The flight was as eventless as a good flight should be. I took a taxi from the airport to my place and was home at 1 am. And noticed that my gear was smelling rather strongly of ferret. Which was unexpected, but I left the mystery for the next day (all will become clear in the next part!), took a shower and fell into bed.

I dreamt of travelling and awoke disappointed to find myself home.


Part 3

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