Sunday, September 21, 2014


  Map of Cornwall and Devon, courtesy of Google Images

“Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen! Isn’t it a glorious day?” beamed Stephen, our guide. “It will be a full day. Today we will see Plymouth Harbor, St. Ives, St. Michael’s Mount, and Bodmin Moor.  And, tonight, we will venture into the brooding and mysterious moors of Devon called Dartmoor! Yais! It is a perfect day!” We quickly caught his excitement, about the events to come and the weather: low to mid 70's and mostly blue skies!

Plymouth Harbor

The day started with a short boat excursion around the famous Plymouth Harbor. I knew that Plymouth is an important ship building and a military port, and that this was where The Mayflower was built, but the surprise and absolute delight that morning came when I realized that we would board our little boat at the exact spot where the Mayflower set sail for the New World in 1620!

To me, this is one of the greatest pleasures of traveling: to have what I’ve learned and seen come around full circle. Two years ago, I visited Plymoth Plantation in Massachusetts and climbed aboard the Mayflower II, which is an exact replica of the first Mayflower. Both the original and the replica were built in the Plymouth ship yards, and both sailed from those small, stone steps. It doesn’t get any more exciting than that.  (Be sure to watch this short video of the steps. It says it all without a word.) Mayflower Steps 

The Mayflower Steps

Scenes of Plymouth Harbor

St. Ives

Located on steep bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, it’s easy going to get to the center of St. Ives, but not so fun getting back. Fortunately, there are shuttles to return people up to the main road or there would be a lot of exhausted tourists!

We didn’t stay long in St. Ives; just enough to grab a quick lunch and take a few photos. Soon, we were back on the road and headed for St. Michael’s Mount which is connected to the town of Marazion, near Penzance.

Christianity thrived in Ireland while it was banned by the Romans in Britannia.
 St. Ives got its name from a female Irish Saint in the 5th century.

St. Michael’s Mount

If St. Michael’s Mount looks eerily familiar with another site you may have seen in Normandy, there is a definite connection. St. Michael’s Mount and Normandy’s Mont Saint-Michel are both built on high granite mounds that become isolated from the mainland in high tide and only become accessible to foot traffic at low tide. Edward the Confessor gave this Cornish site to the Benedictines, the religious order of the Norman Abbey, in the 11th century, perhaps because of their similarities.

 St. Michael’s Mount is connected to the town of Marazion, close to Penazance. 
The wind off the ocean make it an excellent place to wind surf!

Crossing Bodmin Moor

In the past, Cornwall’s income was mostly derived from agriculture, fishing, and, well--smuggling. Dramatized by the likes of “The Pirates of Penzance” and the melodramatic novels of Daphne Du Maurier, smuggling made tax evasion quite profitable due to the accessibility to the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. So, it was only fitting that as we crossed the brooding landscape of Bodmin Moor, Stephen played a recording of “Jamaica Inn” by Du Maurier, turning the ride back to Plymouth into a very entertaining experience. The time flew by as we listened to the dastardly deeds of fictional smugglers and damsels in distress playing out on the same wilderness we saw passing by our bus windows.

Dartmoor, Ancient and Wild

That evening, we dined in the moors of Devon. After traveling for miles across the wide open spaces of the moor, we finally stopped at the only building in sight--the Warren House Inn. Built in the 18th century to serve the local tin miners, its intimate and welcoming atmosphere now serves mostly tourists. We were met by Peter, our local guide, who immediately took us across the road and up a high knoll. There, hidden from view of the road, with only black faced sheep as company, were 6,000 year old Neolithic tombs and standing stones.  We were all delighted by this unexpected surprise! There are many of these ceremonial sites all over the UK, but we felt privileged to see one that I’m sure few people have ever seen.

 The battery on my camera gave out just as I reached this site, so I have to thank Google
Images for these pictures. (Note to self--always carry your spare battery with you!)

Top: Church of St. Michael, close to the prison, was built by both French prisoners from the Napoleonic War and American sailors from the War of 1812 ( and scene of many a ghost story!) Bottom left: entrance to Dartmoor Prison, built in 1806. Right: Warren House Inn

The Hounds of Hell

”I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.”  From “The Hound of the Baskervilles”  by Arthur Conan Doyle.

If Bodmin Moor was known for its smuggling, then Dartmoor was famous for its ghosts. And, ghosts we got that night, by gum, to everyone’s delight! As day darkened into night and the mist descended on the moors, we settled into our seats, our stomachs filled with good pub food, and listened to Peter spin his yarns.

“Aye, there are tales of ghostly monks carryin’ corpses, and the Devil’s own pack of fire-breathin’ hounds roamin’ the bogs and mires, and disembodied hairy hands sendin’ men to their deaths, but there is one tale that will chill the heart of even the strongest among ya….”

With all the mesmerizing charm of an Irish Leprechaun (or, in this case, a Devon Piskey) Peter wove a tale about a handful of Napoleonic prisoners being marched across the moor from the port of Plymoth to Dartmoor Prison in Princetown. As he talked, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up…

“It so happened that a blizzard overcame ‘em and the snow was so thick they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. The guards knew that to survive, they needed to get help. They ordered the prisoners to stay behind, leavin’ ‘em huddlin’ together in a gully, the snow pilin’ higher and higher around ‘em. They left their little drummer boy behind too, to play a tattoo so they could find their way back by the sound of the beatin’ of his drum. But, when they finally returned, they found the prisoners frozen to death and the little boy stiff and icy. The poor lad still held his drumsticks in his tiny, ice-blue hands. 

To this day, farmers, prison guards, and locals alike swear they hear a ghostly rat-a-tat-tat beatin’ out from the gully where the little drummer boy perished, just before snow blankets the moor in a white shroud of silence."

And, with that, we took the long, dark ride back to our hotel….

Next time: Glastonbury Abbey, Wells Cathedral and Cheddar Gorge.

(Some images courtesy of Google Images)


Friday, September 5, 2014


Map of Cornwall, courtesy of Cornwall County Council

The Romantic Cornish Coast of England

When I think of Cornwall, I think of sleepy fishing villages, rugged coastlines, hedgerows and Doc Martin.  OK, I can just hear some of you asking, “Who??” For those of you who haven’t watched “Doc Martin” on your local PBS station, you are missing out. It’s an English comedy about a socially inept doctor who has a general practice in a coastal Cornish town called Port Wenn. (*Port Wenn is the fictional name for the real town of Port Isaac, located halfway between Tintagel and Polzeath.)

From the moment I saw the camera panning across Port Isaac and its achingly sweet  cottages perched on steep and narrow streets that tumbled towards a tiny, crystal blue inlet, I was hooked. I had to see it.  But, I couldn’t find a major tour company that went there!  I was really disappointed because seeing Port Isaac was one of the main reasons I wanted to tour Cornwall! So, I asked Stephen, our guide, if there was any way we could make a side trip to Port Isaac and his answer was, unfortunately, no chance. However, I began to perk up when he told me that the Cornwall coast is peppered with several little “Port Wenns” and our first stop should make me feel better. It was Tintagel, home of King Arthur.

Arthur, Man or Myth

"He was a real king, you know, Arthur--a Celtic King." As we watched the breathtaking Cornwall coast stream by our windows, we listened as Stephen painted a verbal picture of the history of this land and of Arthur. He explained how, in the 12th century BC, a group of people from central Europe, who referred to themselves as Celts, immigrated to the island, living peacefully until 43 AD. It was then that Rome set out to claim the island for itself. However, the Celts proved to be pretty tough cookies and all the Romans could do was to back them into the perimeters of the island now known as Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon (and Ireland). When the Romans withdrew from the island 400 years later, they left a power vacuum which gave the Saxons and Angles (tribes from modern day Germany and Scandinavia) the opportunity to invade.

The Celts were successful in warding off the Saxons until the 6th century when they were again forced back into the outer perimeters. It was at this time Arthur was born. The earliest references to Arthur described him as a fierce warrior and leader, but was he a king? Whatever is true, over the years the real man became the stuff of Celtic legend, a hero whose accomplishments were later romanticized into the King Arthur we know and love today. So to the question, is Arthur a man or myth, the answer seems to be, both.

Tintagel, The Birthplace of King Arthur
Tintagel (tin-TAE-gel), Cornish for “village on a mountain”, certainly lives up to its name. Perched on the perilous edge of a high rocky cliff overlooking the turbulent Atlantic Ocean, it couldn’t be more romantically wild and remote. And, that’s just the village. Clinging dangerously to the very edge of those granite cliffs and crashing waves, are the ruins of a 13th century castle. The castle, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, was constructed long after Arthur was born, but it isn’t hard to imagine Camelot among the ruins. Recent excavations have found much earlier evidence of a monastery there and before that, it was an important Celtic fortification, giving even more credence to the existence of Arthur, the real man.

 Ruins of Tintagel Castle, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall

The village also features the 'Old Post Office" (upper left) which dates from the 14th century. It became a post office during the nineteenth century.

Polperro (pol-PEAR-o)

Like the fictional Port Wenn, Polperro’s steep and narrow streets tumble down towards a crystal blue inlet filled with bobbing, rainbow colored fishing boats. The cobbled lanes are about a donkey cart wide and the cottages are festooned with flowers of every description. It looked like a living postcard! If I was disappointed in not seeing Doc Martin’s digs, Polperro made up for it.

 Scenes of Polperro, located on the southern coast of Cornwall on the English Channel.

We stayed long enough for a little window shopping, lunch and an exhibition of Seagull skullduggery. Making my way back up the main road to the bus, I noticed two couples walking beside me busily licking their newly purchased ice cream cones. All of a sudden, I heard one of the ladies scream, and when I looked to see what happened, I heard her say, “That (blankity-blank) seagull just took my ice cream right out of my hand!”

Now, these seagulls are not small! They are the biggest, fattest seagulls I’ve ever seen. Not too much later, I had a chance to actually see it happen to someone else and I was amazed.  With all the precision of a dive bomber, a seagull swooped down, bumped the person off balance, and then in midair, unceremoniously snatched what he was after faster than you could blink. Before I had a chance to get my camera up to my eye, the cheeky little devil had already chucked it down!
Hedgerows, A Botanical Wonder

After leaving Polperro, we drove through miles and miles of narrow roads lined with spectacular English hedgerows on the way to a local farm. Many times, the bus had to pull over and wait for another car to get around us, and when that happened, I had a chance to get a good look at what made up a hedgerow. There must have been at least 20 different plants in each one: everything from ferns, thistles, climbing roses, berries, and the tallest grasses I’ve ever seen. Honestly, some of those hedges are 10 to 15’ high, and sticking out of the top and waving in the breeze are several different varieties of grasses. Steven told us that at one time, farmers tried to get rid of them, but they found out that the hedgerows prevented erosion. Prince Charles, the champion of the hedgerow, instituted a program to replant them, and now they are back in all their botanical splendor.

 Images of hedgerows, courtesy of Google Images

Trenderway Farms

For a chance to meet a local Cornish family, we stopped for a traditional Cornish Cream Tea at Trenderway Farms. Cornwall is nearly all agricultural farm land, and this was a lovely spot surrounded by nothing but sheep, chickens and hedgerows. It wasn’t as intimate a gathering as I’ve experienced on other tours when we’ve met the locals. Here, we only briefly met the farmer and then tea was served. It was all rather formal and stiff, and unfortunately, not very enjoyable. However, they did have some very handsome chickens. After chasing down a couple of hens to pose for pictures, we soon boarded our bus and headed back through the hedgerows and on to our hotel for the night.

(*Cornish Cream Tea: Cornwall and Devon are famous for making a clotted cream to smear on your scones that’s to die for. Whipped to a creamy goodness, it is a cross between whipped cream and butter. The art is to make a mound about the size of Mt. Vesuvius with the clotted cream on your scone, and then very carefully top it with a heaping helping of jam without it all falling into your lap.)

Trenderway Farm, a beautiful Cornwall farm.

Next Time: Plymouth, St. Ives, St. Michael's Mount, and Dartmoor

(**Picture of Doc Martin and the scones and jam are courtesy of Google Images.)