Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What I Did on My Summer Vacation I

To the best of my recollection, I was never tasked with writing the infamous essay referred to in the title of this post. I understand from too many cultural references to count that it is a pillar of the American educational system, so it is likely that if I don't write it right now, the roof of my learning will collapse at any moment (the hyperextended metaphor, on the other hand, is evidently a pillar that I did not miss out on) though the rather large dome at St. Paul's Cathedral has no pillars at all and is supported, so they tell me, by nothing more than the external walls and a chain running along the inside of it, so perhaps writing now what I was never asked to write in third grade is not strictly necessary to prevent me from forgetting my multiplication tables. Still, it is better to be safe than sorry. (In case you're interested, you can actually climb the inside of the dome at St. Paul's and get to the very top and see all of London. I know this because V. actually climbed the more than 500 steps to the top. It is just this sort of predictable insanity that encouraged me to send V. off to see St. Paul's [which, he tells me, was designed by Christopher Wren, who also designed one or more other London churches] while I went to the launderette to do laundry. Sadly, I was not treated to the sight of Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke having a snog, but at least I ended up with clean clothes and didn't have to stand around and ogle yet another cathedral while waiting for V. to make the ascent and descent. Also, not having actually been there enabled me to pretend not to believe that he had climbed to the top, and this pretense caused him no end of aggravation ["No, really, I climbed it!" "Uh huh." "No, really!"] because he is just so easy, but that is, after all, one of the reasons that I love him. I hasten to add that I have nothing against cathedrals, but having already walked through the beautiful examples at Salisbury and Exeter, I decided that I could be sufficiently impressed by the exterior of St. Paul's, which we walked or rode by on several occasions. Also, doing laundry in a foreign country is much more fun than doing it at home, though I don't make any pretense of having a rational basis for that claim.)

Anyway, thanks to the magic of time zones, we left Washington at just after 7 pm Saturday evening and arrived at Heathrow just after 7 am Sunday morning, having had about two hours of sleep each. By the time we had cleared customs, gotten our bags, taken the shuttle to the car rental office, and procured the rental car, it was about 9:30, and we set off.

One hears so many tall tales and rumors about other cultures that one doesn't always know what to believe. I have learned to be very skeptical when people tell me, for example, that the French are rude. I have been to France twice, and no one has ever been rude to me there. And, you know, when I was a child, my parents insisted that the people in Australia walk upside down, but I've seen footage, and it wasn't true. Naturally, then, I was fairly skeptical when people told me that the English drive on the left side of the road. Why, after all, would anyone want to do such a thing? And V. had insisted to me that despite never having driven in Britain, he was sure he'd have no trouble, and surely not even he possesses the necessary combination of insanity and stubbornness that would be required to attempt to drive on the opposite side of the road without any practice.

But it's true! When we got the car, I went to open the front passenger-side door and there was a steering wheel where I wanted to be sitting. V. seemed to take this in stride and assured me that there was no point in demanding a proper car from the rental agency, and I was entirely too tired to put up a fight, so I sat in the driver's seat, and V. took the passenger seat and commenced driving.

I have always maintained that almost any system of belief will work if everyone actually believes and follows it. The Crusades, for example, would have been completely unnecessary if the Pope and his Turkish counterpart had decided to flip a coin (my research, which I admit might not survive a rigorous peer review process, indicates that while both paper and scissors had been invented long before 1096, they had not been combined with rock [which we make so bold as to presume was then widely available, even in Europe] to create the other major modern means of dispute resolution) and have everyone accept the outcome. Alternatively, they could have simply decided to be Muslim in even years and Catholic in odd years, which would at least have given people a lot to talk about.

My point is that when everyone accepts something, it works pretty well, even if that something eventually turns out not to make sense to an impartial observer. The Ptolemaic view of the universe, for example, is out of favor with our scientific community, but if everyone accepted it, it would still work well enough for day-to-day living, and the same holds true for such belief systems as intelligent design and driving on the left-hand side of the road.

V., however, appears to have had some trouble setting his agnosticism aside. I should really not whinge here about the complete and abject terror I felt while being a passenger in a car that he was attempting to drive properly under a new set of assumptions, but I feel that I stored up enough virtue by not complaining (except, you know, when he actually hit the curb or another car, and then I mostly just whimpered) while he was driving that I might be forgiven a medium-sized rant after the fact. There was, after all, no point in complaining to him when I was completely unwilling to drive and we had no other option, having already paid for the car, but I did let him know, once the car had been safely returned to the rental agency, that I would not, could not again sit in a car that he was driving on the left side of the road.

In 'artford, 'erryford, and 'ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen.The Brits (who, I reiterate, are entirely charming people) also have some interesting ideas regarding highway signage. The picture here shows my favorite example. As far as I can determine, it means "Cockneys ahead," but why I need to be warned about the imminent dropping of aitches when I'm on the A303 is an utter mystery to me.

Anyway, with me at the map and V. at the wheel, we managed to make it to Stonehenge intact. The Brits have conveniently located Stonehenge right smack next to the road on the best route between London and Cornwall, and I very much appreciate their forethought in this regard. After Stonehenge (there really isn't all that much that I can say about Stonehenge; it's pretty cool, but who doesn't know that already?), we drove the few miles to Salisbury, where I had my first Sainsbury's experience. (I will talk more about that in another post.) We also wandered through the town to the cathedral, which, while hardly on a par with Sainsbury's, was also worth the trip.

It's almost exactly 200 miles from Salisbury to St. Ives. I dozed through much of the trip (mainly as a defense mechanism to keep from having to witness the horror of V.'s driving; did I mention that they drive on the left side of the road over there?), but I still managed to enjoy the scenery. And you have to give the English credit for scenery, though they might prefer to get credit for "views." (They would also, and sensibly, prefer to see the period on the outside of that last set of quotation marks, but what can one do?) The countryside for most of the drive from London to St. Ives was rolling farmland, complete with small and large bales of hay, lots of sheep, and rectangular, tree-bordered fields. It is just the thing to salve the traveler who has had little sleep and whose partner occasionally runs the car off the road.

It was about 6:30 when we made it to St. Ives, and by 7:15, we'd located the bed and breakfast and checked in. It is best that I don't describe the intervening forty-five minutes. Some memories are simply too painful. Suffice to say that, miraculously, no pedestrians were injured, and we eventually found the place that we'd never been more than a quarter mile from.

I am sure that Cornwall has its bad moments. The winters, I daresay, are harsh, and when it rains, it is probably dreary, and hiking must then be nearly impossible. But the entire time we were there, there was no rain and few clouds, and the temperature never broke 75. (Fahrenheit, that is; a tip for traveler's to the UK: you can multiply by 1.8 by first multiplying by two and then subtracting out ten percent of the result. You will need this skill to convert prices, as the pound is now worth about $1.80. Multiplying by 1.8 is also the first step in the conversion of Celsius to Fahrenheit. Don't forget it!) We had the most gorgeous weather imaginable for what is easily one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen.

I have no faith in the ability of my photographs to do anything like justice to any place, let alone Cornwall, but here are a couple of views of St. Ives, where we stayed for the first night, and where we returned, briefly, on the fourth night to fetch the car from the car park. St. Ives used to be a fishing village, but with looks like this, it's little wonder that its primary industry is now tourism.

We were, after all, on a walking tour, so on Monday morning, we left our very charming B&B, the Chy Roma ("Chy" being Cornish for "house." Cornish is, for all real purposes, a dead language. The last native speaker of Cornwall was Dolly Pentreath, who died near the end of the eighteenth century [you would, of course, be excused for thinking that I am making this up, but I am not making this up; I read it in a guide book, and the host at our second B&B came right out with the exact same information, as if everyone knows it]. They do, however, teach Cornish in some Cornwall schools these days, so that while there is almost no one who can, say, hold a conversation in Cornish, it is at least alive in an academic sense. It is a Celtic language, which, I believe, explains the great superfluity of the letter w throughout Cornwall.) and headed down through the town to the Cornwall Coast Path.

I must here admit that the hiking portion of the vacation did not go exactly as planned. I had purchased new boots for the hiking so that I would have the recommended waterproof hiking boots, and I had ordered them online, at a very good price, and I had, initially, thought that they were the right size. I got them a few months ago so that I could properly break them in, but I didn't really take them for many very long walks because I had a tendency to end up with rather large blisters on my heels when I spent more than an hour or so moving about in them. But I thought it was merely a matter of getting used to them, so I packed large band-aids and gauze pads and thick socks and figured that I'd just suck it up. Given that I still had some blistering left over from wearing them all day the weekend before, I might have been expected to realize that there could be problems. As it happens, the boots required no more breaking in: they were simply a half size too small.

Now imagine, if you will, the combination of boots that are too small and tackling what is probably the very most difficult portion of the Cornish Coastal Path on the very first day of hiking. Once again, I had been warned that the hike might be difficult, but I assumed that words such as "rugged" and "strenuous" were relative terms and that, despite being entirely out of shape, I could easily get by on willpower and knee braces alone. (The knee braces really did work very well; long after my thighs and calves had given up, my knees were still going strong. As were my ankles; the boots do have very good support.) Alas, when the Cornish call that section of the path a "path," they are being either incredibly generous or incredibly optimistic. It is so rocky that there are many places where gaining a sure foothold is impossible, and there are very steep ascents and, more frighteningly, very steep descents.

Everything started out pretty well, though, as the part of the path right after St. Ives is relatively easy. It's even paved for a few hundred yards. But pretty quickly, it gives way to mile after mile (after mile) of cliffs alternating with valleys. The upside is that the views are really unsurpassed. The downside is that what starts out as a hike moving at about 2.5 to 3 miles per hour very quickly turns into a hike of two to three hours per mile. At some point after the hiking had become very difficult, I had gone a bit ahead of V., and I somehow got off the main path and onto a side path that went steeply down to a small cliff twenty feet or so above the sea. Having to retrace my steps and make the steep climb back to the main path took most of the fight that was left in me. After about seven hours, we had gone about seven miles, and when I saw the path leading to Zennor (the very first town after St. Ives), I had never been so happy to see civilization in my life. After a brief stop in the pub there, we caught a bus to Pendeen Watch and checked into the B&B for the second evening.

I knew, before I took my boots off, that my feet had serious problems, and I was right. There were immense, bleeding blisters on the back of each heel, and there was a considerable amount of pain. But I had brought lots of band-aids and Bactine and Alleve, and I knew that I'd be fine if I just didn't try to walk too far the next couple of days. And, really, the views had been so very breathtaking (literally: I would stop and catch my breath, and then I'd look out at the sea, and gasp; I don't know how I'd have survived that hike if I hadn't been able to stop and look at the cliffs and the heather and the blue, blue water; I would sit and rest and be perfectly happy until I had to move again) that I felt that I'd experienced more natural beauty than anyone has a right to expect in a whole month of vacation.
Besides, the bus service in Cornwall is pretty good, and the bus that went around where we were going had an open-air upper level, and the weather was perfect, and there were plenty of pubs along the way. When you're riding along through countryside that looks like this (or, you know, discovering the delights of English cider), how can you have a bad time?

V., of course, was all ready to walk and walk and walk some more. So when we took the bus from Pendeen Watch to St. Just (charming little town, but inland just a bit), he decided to walk on to Land's End, and I decided to try to write some postcards, have a pint, and locate a fish and chips shop. I was successful on all counts, and by the time I caught the bus to Land's End, I was stuffed to the gills with plaice and chips (more about fish and chips in another post; for now, let me just assure you that the shops in St. Just are level; the picture isn't because I took it from the bus; also, I should apologize for not getting a photo of the chalkboard menu from this restaurant: it had the most extensive selection of any fish and chips establishment I saw on my trip).

Land's End itself is very pretty, though the views of the water are no better than any of the views from my first day of hiking, and it suffers from a somewhat lame attempt at turning itself into some sort of amusement park. If you look inland instead of at the sea or the amusements, though, you get a pretty good idea of what inspired Victorian novelists to set their heroes and heroines roaming across the moors.

V. rejoined me at Land's End, and after taking some refreshment, we took the bus on to Porthcurno, a very small town on the southern coast. I did not have my camera with me when we went to the pub in Porthcurno for dinner, so when V. insisted, after dinner, on dragging me down to see the beach, and I saw a beach with beautiful sand set between two steep cliffs, I could not get a picture of it. I considered coming back the next morning, but when I first saw the beach at Porthcurno, the sun had not yet set, but the nearly full moon had risen, and I knew that a picture taken the next morning wouldn't suffice. Besides, it would have meant walking back up a steep hill, and I was trying to pace myself. All of the B&Bs that we stayed at in Cornwall were charming, but the one at Porthcurno was the prettiest. I don't imagine that many Americans consider Britain the ideal location for a beach holiday, but in the unlikely event that I could ever convince V. to go somewhere just to relax and do nothing for a week, Porthcurno would be a good choice.

Anyway, if you got bored there, you could always take a bus, which is what we did (take a bus, that is, not get bored). I wanted a short hike on the third day, and our host suggest taking the bus to Sheffield, hiking down through Paul and into Mousehole. Since it was all downhill, he figured that we'd have no problem. Mousehole itself is something like St. Ives in miniature. It's very pretty, and I understand that at Christmas, it puts on quite a light show, but it struck me as yet another fishing village that had remade itself for tourism, not that there's anything wrong with that.

After Mousehole, V. decided to hike the few miles into Penzance, and I took the bus, getting off in the middle of Penzance, in a street with a decidedly politically incorrect name, where I bought a small book of Cornish recipes and a pasty that advertised itself as being beef and stilton, but which was mainly potato. Still, you know, flaky pastry: how far wrong can you go?

After spending some time in the pub in Penzance (where I, alas, saw no pirates), we set off on another bus (the all day unlimited pass is a good deal) to Marazion, the town which is best known for St. Michael's Mount, an island that can be reached by a causeway at low tide. The tide was in, so we took a boat. St. Michael's Mount looks a whole lot like Mont St. Michel in France, and you can have yourself some great fun if you find a French tourist visiting, assume an English accent, and claim, loudly, that the French version is a copy of the English original. (In fact, the French were first on this one, and an abbot from Mont St. Michel actually came over to England to oversee the building of St. Michael's Mount. I am told, however, that he soon returned to France in a huff when he could not get the English monks to stop overcooking the beef.) While I sat down near sea level and tried my best to spark an international incident, V. climbed to the top of the mount (significantly fewer steps than climbing St. Paul's Cathedral, but still more than I was willing to undertake) and visited the building. It was originally an abbey, but then when Henry VIII brought in the Church of England, the property was given to some noble or other who used it as a residence and then sold it to someone else until it was eventually bought back by the National Trust. (I may have some details wrong here. I must confess that imperial history bores me utterly. I can't be bothered to learn or remember the names of all the decapitated English queens, though if one of the museums had the sense to put on an exhibit about their last meals, I'd certainly queue up.) Now they call it the castle or something like that.

After taking the boat back to Marazion, there was some confusion about which bus we needed to take to St. Ives, but we eventually determined that we had some time to kill, and as it was about 3:30 in the afternoon, we decided to get a Cornish cream tea, so we retired to a very nice outdoor patio where a very nice Englishwoman served us a very nice tea. I later learned that a Cornish cream tea is not significantly different from a Devon cream tea, but at this point I was still wrapped in a cocoon of blissful ignorance. And the scones were pretty good.

After tea, we waited a bit, then caught the bus to St. Ives, fetched the car, and drove back to Penzance where we checked in at the B&B, where the proprietor was so garrulous and friendly that I thought he might be flirting with either V. or me, but later evidence indicated that he was probably just an irredeemable breeder being very friendly to people whom he knows will be asked by a tour company to evaluate him. In any event, he gave us some good recommendations for dinner, and after going down and having a pint in a pub just across the street from the sea wall, we had dinner at a Penzance fish & chips shop and then wandered through the west end of town and back to the inn where we slept well after a very long day.


Anonymous lindy said...

Wow. It looks so beautiful. I've never been to Cornwall. I think I must do something about that.

2:41 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

You are so lucky to be in England I hope that one day I get to visit there the pictures are wonderful.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Sangroncito said...

Cool! A fellow traveler. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

1:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sign you saw and interpreted as meaning 'no dropping of your aitches' actually means 'no picnicing'.

1:20 PM  

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