I’m not much on watching television recently, for reasons that I’m not actually too sure of since there are any number of objectively good shows running these days that I somehow cannot bring myself to watch, but I have seen a couple of episodes of Doc Martin. It’s funny in a very British way, and I know I should watch it more often even though I know I probably won’t because that’s just how it goes.
But we decided that since we were maybe a mile or so from Port Isaac as the crow flies (though rather further on the roads) and since it is indeed a lovely place, we would go and take a look around.
All of us went except Magnus, because he is a teenaged male and getting up in the morning is not something that comes easily to that demographic. I remember that stage of life fondly, and now that I have cruised past the half century mark and can no longer comfortably sleep past about 9am even when the cats allow it I confess that I miss it.
We piled into the cars and headed off toward Port Isaac.
Driving into the village itself is legal but really not something you’d want to do if you had any sense at all, so we found a carpark (which is a much nicer way of putting it than the “parking lot” that is the common term in the US, I think) on the outskirts of town. You have to get there early, because otherwise it fills up and your next option is to go back home and walk from there. Once you park there’s a little trail that goes through some green spaces and then onto the sidewalk by the main road into the village.
Like most places in Cornwall, Port Isaac is built at an angle that you will rarely find in any American city outside of San Francisco. We have enough land in this country that we generally build things elsewhere rather than deal with those kinds of hills. American cities tend to be geographically rather dull that way. Building at that kind of angle does have the advantage that it’s really, really gorgeous when you’re done, though.
You walk into the outskirts of town and take a left at the main intersection and follow the road steeply downhill until you are walking along the side of the harbor.
It’s a narrow street – they all are in Cornwall, really – and you keep going down until you find yourself where there’s a break in the buildings and you can actually get to the salt water without jumping off the cliffside.
This is the touristy area of town, and it’s lined with nice little shops. There’s even one plainly labeled, “May Contain Nuts,” which was a handy way to let us know that we needn’t bother going inside and we could spend our time and money elsewhere. I ended up with another keychain, and Lauren got a wool hat in Cornish black. Hey – we’re tourists, and if we don’t buy these things then the terrorists win, or at least the local economy will be just that much less well off. Either way, we felt kind of virtuous having made our purchases, and we now had nice things we could take back home so it seemed like a win all around.
Once you get to the bottom of the hill you turn right and walk past the entrance to the harbor, and then turn right again to go back up the hill on the other side. You get used to this kind of thing in Cornwall, I found.
And then suddenly, there you are.
It’s not the grandest of houses and if you didn’t know it was Doc Martin’s you’d probably just walk right by it, or you would if you could catch your breath after all those hills. It does have a nice flat area right out front where you could sit and rest a bit so maybe you’d stop there even if you didn’t know about Doc Martin. It’s also apparently a rental property so if you were really a fan of the show you could hire the place for a week or two when they’re not filming and get the Full Doc Martin Experience.
They’re not even paying me for this, folks.
Having made our pilgrimage, we headed back down about halfway toward the waterfront, to a lovely place that not only sold tea towels, clothing, jewelry, and other mementos of your stay in Port Isaac but also – and here was the part we were most looking forward to – served a cream tea.
Cream tea, for those of you not up on your British meals, is not just tea with cream in. It does have tea, and you could in fact put cream in it, but that’s not all. There’s a scone, which is not pronounced the way you think. No two people pronounce it the same, so all you can really be sure of is that you are not pronouncing it correctly. The only person who can isn’t speaking to anyone at the moment so we will just have to wait until that gets resolved to find out how it’s done. But you also get both strawberry jam (or fig preserves, in the “savoury” version) and clotted cream to put on your scone, which makes it tasty no matter how you say it. Most of us went the cream tea route, though Richard and Lauren opted for a Small Cornish Breakfast, which made me really interested in what a Large Cornish Breakfast would be because frankly that was a meal and a half by the looks of it. You start your day off right in Cornwall.
Sated and happy, we headed back the way we came – which was far trickier, since this time it was uphill most of the way. Gravity and all that, you know. Eventually we made our way to the carpark which was now entirely full and infested with latecomers prowling about following people returning to their cars so they could pull into their spots the moment those spots became available. We ended up getting separated by the carpark traffic, but everyone made it back to the cottage safely anyway because we are intrepid drivers yes we are.
We picked up Magnus and headed back toward Port Isaac, though this time instead of parking or turning left at the main intersection we drove in and turned right, toward the neighboring village of Port Gaverne, which is just down the hill from Port Isaac.
Did I mention that the roads in Cornwall are narrow? Because they’re really narrow.
This is actually a pretty good-sized road in Cornwall. There are many others that aren’t this wide yet are also designated for two-way traffic, and the widest road in the entire area – the A39 – is roughly the size of the residential street I live on here in Our Little Town. I thought the roads in Wevelgem were narrow until I got to Cornwall.
Some of this is also the fact that English roads generally have no shoulder. You really notice just how little space you have when the hedges and the stone walls come right down to the asphalt. Sometimes it’s the buildings that narrow things down as well, and sometimes it’s a combination of a lot of things. There’s a town we passed through a couple of times on this trip with the unlikely name of Delabole, and like most small English towns in my admittedly limited experience it’s basically one long street with houses strung tightly along the roadway on both sides. We never stopped there so I can’t really say what attractions Delabole has. It seemed like a decent enough place, anyway. The main thing that sticks with me about it, though, is that the one main road through it was maybe 1.75 cars wide, carried two-way traffic, and had on-street parking, and when you add all that up what you end up with is a mile-long automotive slalom course as cars bob and weave looking for open space or come politely to a halt while oncoming traffic squeezes by.
There are very few minivans in England, I found, and almost no pickup trucks.
All of this means that driving in England is a complicated dance of manners, where you’re constantly on the lookout for a) oncoming traffic and b) anywhere the road widens sufficiently that two cars can actually squeeze by each other while retaining all of their paint. Sometimes – where the hedges or stone walls flare out a bit like a snake’s belly after it has swallowed a pig – that means one or another of the cars will have to back up until you’re at that widening. And sometimes – if there is an actual shoulder or at least some unobstructed ground – one of the cars will simply have to pull over and let the other one try to wiggle by. I can’t imagine anything like this working in the US, where we drive like rutting elephants and every third car has a gun in it. No wonder American civil engineers devote so much space to wide roads.
We were supposed to go ocean kayaking in the little bay by Port Gaverne – or, rather, many of us were supposed to go ocean kayaking, while others were going to sit quietly on the shore and alternate between reading their book and watching them sail by – but the weather forecast for this day had predicted high winds and waves, so the kayaking place canceled those plans. But they substituted other plans that worked out quite well, so it all worked out.
They had us jump in a lake.
There were two guides – Hugo and Anna – and once we had maneuvered our way to the main shop, paid our bills, and then maneuvered our way back out of the bonsai center of Port Gaverne while retaining the full paint jobs on our various automobiles and those around us, we followed them a couple of miles out into the countryside to what had once been an open quarry but was now filled with water. This meant driving along even smaller roads than the one in Delabole or the one that led down from Port Isaac until we got to the little cabin where we could park and get changed into wetsuits (which I came to understand is standard swimming attire in Cornwall, even in mid-August), and then walking down the paths past a campground, carrying our paddleboards and kayaks and first aid supplies and pretty much everything we’d need for a full-scale invasion of the place, until we found the lake.
And then we jumped in, for certain values of “we.”
It has to be said that they didn’t just toss us in the lake and leave us there. For one thing, we’d brought along those paddleboards and kayaks after all.
For another, Hugo and Anna stayed with us the entire time, putting the group through a whole afternoon’s worth of activities. They were really good that way.
Kim and I stayed up on the shore to watch, which was fun in itself. I’m not much for boating really. We found a bench by the dock and kept an eye on things while campers from the campground we’d passed through would come down, swim in the shallows by the dock (or just jump off the dock – the lake got deep quickly once you walked away from shore) and then go back to their camps. None of them had wetsuits and the water was fairly cold, so they didn’t stay long.
At one point Hugo and Anna herded our group over to the end of the lake closest to where Kim and I were and then it was Rope Time. They stretched a good-sized rope across the narrow end of the lake from shore to shore and the goal was simply to inch your way across it. But of course it’s never that simple. If you got sufficiently far without toppling over, Hugo would come down and try to knock you off. It’s a lot like life that way.
They also had our intrepid group climb up the rather steep side of the quarry and jump in. There was a short jump, which you could get to by climbing directly up, and there was a long jump that you had to go around by the trail behind the lake to get to.
Finally they gathered up everyone over by the other shore and had them make a raft of all the kayaks and paddleboards. This seemed to involve a fair amount of pulling people into the lake, and at one point there were multiple people standing on their heads on their paddleboards, which worked about as well as you’d think it would but everyone involved seemed to be enjoying themselves anyway. Somewhere in there Richard ended up with a black eye, and we were all glad for the helmets at that point.
Once rafted, the group paddled over to a small platform where gladiatorial combat took place. There can be only one.
After a couple of hours of this it was time to pack it up and head back to the cabin to change out of our wetsuits. They’re not that easy to remove, it turns out – peeling off wet rubber is a trick! who knew! – so this took some time. Some finished earlier than others, and naturally Lauren found the local chickens while she was waiting. She has natural chicken magnetism.
After some Emergency Snacks we walked up to where we were told was a coffee shop for something to warm up with, but it had just closed. There was a wedding pavilion going up right next to it, though, and they had plenty of wine and other beverages, but we had no luck with them so we went back to the cars and returned to our cottage to hang out for a bit.
A hot shower after a cold lake is a marvelous thing. So are a comfortable chair and a book, a functioning coffee pot and/or tea kettle, and a table full of people companionably playing solitaire together. There were also laundry facilities there in the cottage, so those got a workout as well. Those aren’t as marvelous while you’re doing the laundry, but having clean clothes isn’t too shabby either. And when all is said and done, it’s nice to have some downtime. You shouldn’t need a vacation to recover from your vacation.
After a while we got up a round of Mysterium, which is a discussion-based card game where you try to solve a mystery based on clues and dream images, and it is precisely as bizarre as it sounds and a fine way to spend an evening. We got most of it done before it was time for dinner.
We’d been making our own dinners back at the cottage while we were there, but this night we decided to try dinner at the Longcross Hotel. It was a pleasant walk from St. Endellion on a clear evening, and I just want to point out that yes, that’s a two-way road as well.
Our reservations were fairly late in the evening, which made us feel very elegant even if it was mostly about not being particularly hungry until then. We sat out on the enclosed terrace and were taken good care of by an Italian waiter who seemed to regard us as either part of his family or projects to be improved upon or possibly both. We ate and watched the sun go down over the ocean, and turns out that Tabitha likes venison.
One of the things that I found surprising on this leg of the trip was the popularity and complexity of gin and tonics in England at the moment. G&Ts are not the most complicated drink, really – the name pretty much says it all – but it turns out that not only are there a myriad of possible gins that one can add tonic to, there are also any number of varieties of tonic to be added, many of which have regional appellations as if they were wines. I’ve never been much of a G&T drinker, but I did sample the ones that were at the table and they were surprisingly good.
By the time we were done it was dark, and there are no street lights in Cornwall. The walk back along those narrow roads was therefore a bit more adventurous than the walk to the restaurant, except that we all have phones with flashlight apps so we were clearly visible to the cars that squeezed by us every now and again. It was a good evening to be out for a walk.