Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Our Trip to Europe: We Surf in Cornwall and Visit King Arthur, Not At the Same Time

One of the things we discovered about the cottage during our first night there was that whoever designed the electrical system didn’t really think things all the way through.  Oh, they got most of it right – and when it comes to retrofitting what may well have been a centuries-old stone barn into a comfortable guest cottage that’s a significant achievement indeed – but one thing that escaped their attention is that the bathroom fan came on whenever you turned on the light and then stayed on long after you turned the light off.  It was on some kind of timer that was set for A Very Long Time Indeed.  During the day this wasn’t much of a problem but at night it meant that things got loud if anyone had to visit the facilities.  And since the bathroom itself had no windows you had to turn on the light to see where you were going in the pitch dark, so avoiding the fan was not an option.

We got to know that fan pretty well.  It was our buddy.

Nevertheless, we emerged into the daylight rested and ready, to find Richard and Ginny already up and playing cards.  This, it turned out, was something of a running theme throughout are time there.  Whenever we had a free moment, you could always count on two or three people sitting at the table playing one form or another of solitaire, which can be a very communal game if you let it.

Query: What would you take with you if you were stranded alone on a desert island?

Answer: A deck of cards, because as soon as you lay out a hand of solitaire somebody will materialize as if from nowhere to let you know that yes that black ten can be played on that red jack.

Once we managed to get ourselves ready for the day we piled into the cars and headed down the road to Polzeath (Pol-ZETH), a lovely little town by the sea.  You can tell it’s by the sea because it has the syllable “Pol” in it.  All towns in Cornwall are required to have either Pol, Pen, Tre, or St. in their names somewhere.  Pol means pool or body of water, which the ocean certainly qualifies as one of.  Pen means headland or hill.  Tre means settlement.  And St. just means there’s a church nearby, which is a pretty safe bet anywhere in the UK to be honest.  Surrounding St. Endellion are such places as Treburgett, Tregellist, Trequite, Trewethern, Trelill, Trewetha, Trelights, Tredrizzick, Pentireglaze, Penmayne, Pendoggett, and of course Polzeath.  There’s also a town called Pityme, which we didn’t go through because really who needs that kind of whinging when you’re on vacation?

No, I did not make any of that up.

Polzeath is, as far as we could tell, the surfing capital of the UK.  I am not sure what they had to do to win that title, but whatever it was Polzeath has earned as far as we are concerned.  I found it to be a good place to hang out and just watch people surf, though, because I certainly wasn’t about to do it myself. 

We drove into town, parked the cars in the little lot by the beach, and wandered over to the surf shop to get outfitted.

Well, Ginny and Lauren got outfitted.  The rest of us were not so brave.  For one thing, this is definitely the UK and not Hawaii, which means that the water is rather cold.  Definitely wetsuit territory here, in other words.  Very few people out in bikinis and speedos in the Cornwall surf.

Tabitha and Magnus took the opportunity to retreat to a nearby cafe that offered free wifi and tasty food, while Ginny and Lauren headed into the waves.

Richard and Kim and I watched as they went in and out.

Mostly out, as it happened. 

The tide was heading rapidly away from shore when we got there, and over the hour or so that the girls were surfing it retreated a good hundred yards or so.  Maybe more.  You’d be standing there, watching them scurrying around the waves, in and out, and suddenly it occurred to you that they were a lot, well, smaller than they were before and since they were clearly not shrinking this meant that the perspective had changed which in turn meant you needed to walk a bit forward or lose them in the distance.  It’s like you’re one of those little sea birds that scuttle about in front of the waves, only with a camera.

Eventually they got cold, and out they came.

At this point we all went to the little cafe to warm up a bit, even though it was pretty open to the street.  One of the things we liked about the place is that not only did they have wifi and reasonably good food, but they were also pretty calm about letting you bring food into the place as long as you’d ordered something from them too.  So I headed up the street and found a place that sold pasties, because I figured as long as I was in Cornwall I should get a pasty.  It was good, and eventually both Lauren and Kim headed over there as well.  If you’ve not had a pasty, well, you should fix that.

There was also a little grocery store next to the pasty place and we had a good time there as well.  I like grocery shopping in foreign countries, seeing the things that people eat.  We had some shopping to do for dinner that night, and we spent some time just picking out random tasties for snacking on.  It was here that we found the only chocolate in Europe that does not contain nuts – a brand called Kernow, which is apparently Cornish for “Cornwall.”  It was good chocolate.  We brought our stuff up to the little checkout counter and presented it for the cashier who turned to me and said, “He puts all the cold stuff together!  He's good at this!”  So there you go – I am a grocery pro.

We went back to the cottage and let Ginny and Lauren shower off the salt water before climbing back into the cars and heading in the other direction toward Tintagel.

We’d been to Tintagel before, when we visited in 2012, but it’s such a lovely place and so close to St. Endellion that we decided we wanted to see it again.  And you know what?  It was worth it!  Yes!  You can repeat yourself and still have a grand time!  Who knew?

We parked on the outskirts of town, in a big grassy field that, like everything else in Cornwall that is not actually covered in water, was pitched at a surprisingly steep angle.  From there we could walk through town – which is how we got to the ruins of the old castle last time – or we could head out through the pastures and come at the ruins from above.  That sounded much nicer.

Take a good look at the second photo.  See those little white clumps in the grass?  That’s wool.  England, for all that it is an amazingly gorgeous place, is basically an agglomeration of stonewalled sheep enclosures, one after another until you hit salt water or London, and everywhere we looked on that walk there were tufts of wool just laying about.  Kim thought this was marvelous, pulled out a white plastic bag, and stuffed it full of wool.  On the one hand, this prompted much disbelief among the assembled crowd.  On the other hand, that bag of wool has sat in our living room for the last month since we got back.  It is Midgie’s favorite toy.  She sleeps on it.  She scrabbles at it and pulls the wool out.  We put it back in and the process repeats.  We can never get rid of that white plastic bag full of wool now, or there will be feline rebellion.  Sometimes you just have to wonder how you end up in places, and here we are.

We continued walking through the sheep pastures until we came upon an old church.  This is the thing about Europe – you find these amazing little places just on the way to the place you were headed! They’re not even the main goal!  For the historian, it is a target-rich environment full of things you didn’t even know you wanted to see until you see them. 

Eventually we came up to Tintagel from the back side.

There have been people at what is now Tintagel (Tin-TAH-jul) for millennia, and it is the place where the 11th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth insisted that King Arthur was conceived, although how he came to that knowledge is not really clear and this is probably for the best.  The ruins that currently occupy the site date from the 13th century, when Richard, Earl of Cornwall, put up a castle here.  It’s a great place for a castle, really – isolated, easily defended, and basically impregnable.  It juts out into the sea, and you can only get to it with some bobbing and weaving.

Just for scale, please note that there are people winding their way up the trail on the right side of that photo above.

We walked past the little English Heritage booth where you buy your admission tickets, and then headed down the trail toward the ruins.

And then back up again.

And eventually, there we were.  Again, note the people for scale.  It’s an impressive place.

The first thing you come to when you finally make your way up to the top of the promontory is the castle itself, or what’s left of it – piles and piles of flat grey stones, still giving you the rough outlines of the structure and providing you with some really beautiful views of the coast.

By this point we’d gotten widely separated – we all walk at different speeds, and really where were we going to go?  There’s only one way in or out.  It’s not like we wouldn’t find each other again.  And everyone is now old enough that we didn’t have to worry too much about the strange but pronounced English aversion to handrails or safety barriers of any kind, way up there on the top of the big open rock while the wind blasted us at pretty much gale force.  Really, it was astonishingly windy that day, and perhaps we should have worried but we didn’t, so there.

We wandered around for some time, looking at all the remnants there.  There’s a lot of them, some of them medieval and some of them Dark Ages.  Sometimes we just walked.

 And sometimes we just took shelter.

One of the really impressive things that they have added since the last time we were there is a new statue of King Arthur (all grown up – I’m not sure I’d want to see a statue of him at the moment of conception).  It’s way up at the highest point of the whole place and thus buffeted by the winds and weather, but you can go right up to it and get your picture taken and, being tourists, we did just that.

Eventually the winds got to us though and we headed down, down, down to the beach.  It’s not the sort of beach where one goes swimming, but it’s a great place to walk around, hang out by the waterfall, and see the ruins from below.

That big hole at the bottom of the rock is Merlin’s Cave.  I’m not sure why it’s called that – perhaps that’s where Merlin lived, though it seems rather damp for that.  At any rate it’s a fascinating place to wander inside and look around, and unlike when we were there in 2012 there was no New Age Drum Corps banging away inside of it to make you realize just how much better it must have been to live back in the Dark Ages when all you had to worry about was infectious disease, starvation, random violence, and dying before you turned 14.  When it’s just the cave, it’s actually really nice.

We made our way back up to the gift shop level where we found the little cafe and had a very nice meal, though not a cream tea as we had hoped.  One of the things that I most enjoy about Europe in general and the UK in particular is that it is full to the brim with hard cider – really, really good hard cider – and you can get it pretty much anywhere.  It made my meal just that much better, truly it did.

We also made a stop at the gift shop, of course, where I bought a keychain for my Christmas tree and discovered a Thing: apparently, at some point in the recent past, the British government decided that they would use the 50p coins as blank slates to put interesting designs upon.  Oh, the obverse is the usual portrait of the queen (who has been poorly served by her designer this time around, truth be known), but on the back there were all sorts of designs from children’s books – Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddleduck, and so on.  I am not sure what made them do this, but I am all for it.  It’s so much more interesting than the current Tourist Attraction Quarters over on this side of the Atlantic, for example.  We got a few of them in change, and eventually I started asking for them wherever we went.  Most people were more than happy to dig through their registers to help me out.

From there we had to walk back to the car, and this is where we discovered that for all the climbing one does when one is actually at the ruins, the larger site is actually located at the bottom of a deep well and getting back to the town of Tintagel is an exercise in Alpine climbing.  Fortunately it was a nice day, although we did look with some envy at the Range Rover shuttles that were operating along the roadway.

We went back to the cottage where we were met by a friendly farm dog and the world’s most curmudgeonly cat.

We played a round of Spyfall 2, made ourselves a nice dinner of pasta and pancetta, and settled down for further games, reading, and general hanging out, as one does on vacation.

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