Jonathan Footerman continues his circumnavigation of the UK in a mini-yacht, and orders the most difficult Cornish breakfast ever.
(Author’s Note: Taken from the fifteenth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.)
For the information of those whom life has deprived of such pleasures, a nice cold water body wash in the public conveniences is a revivifying experience. I had sailed from Gosport down the Solent, up the English Channel to Dover, across the Thames Estuary and up the east coast to Scotland, down the west coast via Ireland, the Isle of Man and Wales, around Lands End to Newlyn in Cornwall, with only the south-west coast to sail along to Gosport to complete my circumnavigation. After an epic sail across the Bristol Channel from Milford Haven (well, only twenty-seven hours, not exactly the Kontiki expedition), a shower was first on the agenda but the Newlyn harbour facilities were closed, and I had to make do.
It took me back to my teens, when post-war austerity had not entirely disappeared from England, extended by governments that put economic growth so far behind wealth redistribution that top rate income tax was 98%. (Strange how madness can possess an entire government.) I rented a room in a boarding house where I was only allowed a bath once a week, not much good as I was working as a factory porter. But I discovered the Public Baths, an emporium of steaming water, enamel, cast iron, carbolic, scratchy old towels and huge, disciplinarian women with Popeye forearms – what could be nicer for a few pence? I would come out feeling renewed, as from a Turkish bath, and somewhere in my subconscious, I suspect that the demise of these shared facilities in favour of ‘en suite’ bathrooms in avocado plastic acetate is a socially retrograde step.
Newlyn is a pleasant little town in the Bay of Penzance with a proper fishing fleet and some industry freezing and packing the harvest. Like any Cornish sea-side town, it is perched on the cliff-side and there are little streets inaccessible by car with pretty, recherché stone dwellings that used to house poor fishermen. Further up, attractive stone-faced Victorian and Georgian terraces have tremendous views from their bay windows over neighbouring Penzance to St. Michael’s Mount on the other side of the bay, which in profile looks like a little version of its namesake off the coast of Brittany. Both are accessible only when the receding tide uncovers a causeway. I visited Mont St. Michel, paying to labour up through the corridors reeking of the sweat of millions of others who have done the same, some trembling in religious ecstasy and some hauling millstones of camera equipment to take a picture from the top of … well, the sea, I suppose. I would explore later, but the next stop was the market square to find a cafe for a late breakfast.
There was a pretty choice of homemade cakes on the counter, a genuine ‘great leap forward’ socially speaking. The traditional sponge cake completely disappeared from London during a period of cultural mutation in the 1970s, just about the time they began to close the public baths. The advent of ‘health ‘n’ safety’ regulations put a halt to home baking for sale, but the deceitful mass-produced ‘Devil’s Food Cake’ smothered in appetising chocolate cream replaced it, which turned out to be whipped, plasticised fat on an expanded polystyrene wedge, completely tasteless. These gave way in the 1990s to dense banana and carrot cakes that carried an implicit quasi-Soviet injunction to enjoy because they were dietetically correct (who thought of making cake out of carrots anyway?). But now traditional cakes, the focus of so much rivalry and spite amongst our grandmothers, have made a come-back. (Perhaps public baths will reappear as the oil runs out.) It is a gratifying affirmation that searing hot burger-shop apple pies have not killed off our papillary buds, although it was a near thing.
From a childhood that made no concession to choice, with a Bunter-like (Cartman-like) disposition, I eat anything. A tendency on menus to verbose, opaque descriptions leads me to prefer fixed meals that allow you to get on with the matter in hand instead of soliciting questions from under-fed, over-exhibiting aesthetes such as whether the chef sources his truffles from the Perigord or Yunnan Province. I had a great meal with a friend in Yugoslavia while Tito was still in charge, served with Soviet Bloc grace: requesting a passing waiter for the menu, it was “Fish or meat?” One of each with a bottle of red; very nice. Best of all was one of the few real ‘Bouchons Lyonnais’ left when I lived in that city in the 1990s, where the large assortment of classic French dishes were passed from bench-table to bench-table for diners to help themselves, the very best way to provide variety without the dilettantism of choice. We no longer enjoy shared meals at bench tables with strangers, one of the lost pleasures of English inns and Lyonnais ‘bouchons’. In the UK as in the States, you get to choose, and in Newlyn, it went a bit like this:
“I’ll have the full Cornish breakfast, please.” Not sure how different it was going to be from the full English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh versions I had tried en route, but I thought that’s that, and reached for the newspaper. Premature! Choice is everything.
“Fried or scrambled?” Pen poised. “Can you do poached?” Tetchy scribble.
“Fries or hash browns?” “Hmm… hash browns, I suppose.”
“Beans or tomato?” “Uh… beans.” Only because it came first.
“Fried slice or toast?” “Toast, please.” No time to ask for marmalade.
“White or granary?” “Um… one of each?” Couldn’t decide quickly enough.
“Two slices?” “OK.” Too much, but otherwise I’ll have to choose.
“Butter or margarine?” “Oh, butter!”
“Jam or marmalade?” “Yes… oh, sorry, marmalade please.”
“Tea or coffee?” “Black coffee, please.”
“Filter or Americano?” “Filter will do.”
“Cup or mug?” “Er…”
“Milk and sugar?” “No thanks.” I don’t really mind.
“No milk or sugar?” “No thanks.” Should have said yes.
“It’ll be a few minutes at the moment, love, is that all right?” “That’s fine!” Phew! Did it!
“Pay now or later?”
I’m glad high school graduation wasn’t this difficult. I once sat the American GMAT with a view to an MBA in the USA, so I am familiar with multiple choice; but not before breakfast.
In the afternoon, I climbed the slopes to a high terrace for some photos, and came back down with legs a little shaky from the steep climb after a long two days on board, to rest at the Fisherman’s Arms. The landlady was visibly past her best, expressed in her demeanour more than her looks. I made the mistake of asking if the fish pie was homemade, a gambit which usually makes common cause in small local pubs against the conspiracy of brewery-owned chains that want to take them over, but she took it as a personal slight and went out of her way to be awkward, while the regulars exchanged knowing looks. I am happy to say that in over fifty ports of call thus far, she was the only one to make me feel unwelcome, commenting loudly to her regulars about people with too much money – I looked over my shoulder but there was no one there. When I had had enough of ignoring her, I moved on to the Red Lion, as do many others I suspect. But it was good for me, feeling pleased with myself for the Bristol Channel crossing and eager to talk about it: at times of private triumph just like the public triumphal marches of the Romans, you need a nearby slave whose job it is to remind you that you are just a man, and that any special interest the others in the pub might show is just a passing bonus.
If you want to know what is what, find a nice battered forty-year-old (a yacht, I mean), the sort that does not hang about in marinas or show money spent on anything more appreciated at the pontoon than at sea. The ideal battered job was berthed about thirty yards away beyond a nice shiny, useless new Beneteau, and I struck up a conversation with its owners. It was registered in Falmouth, and I learnt that the Visitors’ Yacht Haven is cheaper than the private marinas dotted around the Fal river and tributaries where I was heading next, but has good facilities and is right beside the town; and in Newlyn, I could get a shower and breakfast at the Fishermen’s Mission. That was a true revelation. There used to be seamen’s missions in most ports, usually in attractive 19th Century Masonic or other charitable architecture, and they were a necessary backstop for the precarious lives and livelihoods of poor seamen. Most of the buildings have long since been turned over to commercial use, or sadly fallen into decrepitude. It was a pleasure to find one still operating and full of trawler-men, also serving yachtsmen as a sound commercial strategy. I went there on the following morning, and walked smack into a glass double door.
If I were a UK architect, I would not bother with double doors, glass or not. There is something parsimonious in the spirit of these islands that inhibits people from unlocking both of them at once (or maybe it’s the weather). If the parsimony were consistently right-handed, I would not care, but it is arbitrary – probably because it depends from which side you approach. In any case, the open door never seems to be the one you expect to be open. Even if they are both open, you never get the convenience of it because many abrupt lessons have taught you not to walk straight through – you stop to check. Except sometimes you forget and give a flush of schadenfreude to the person who only undid the bolts of the other door. Anyhow, having negotiated a safe entry into the mission premises, I had my breakfast, served up promptly with steaming coffee in a mug, and no fuss at all.
Falmouth is a 40 mile sail away round the Lizard, the wide head of a peninsula on the east side of the Bay of Penzance extending several miles further south than Lands End. It has a justifiably bad reputation. The Atlantic flood tide makes a powerful arc around the bay, sweeping out at the Lizard across the main flow up the English Channel, magnifying the turbulence caused by a shallow and uneven sea-bed which stretches over two miles off the point. A similar effect occurs in the bay on the other side on the ebb, so that it is choppy most of the time. The Almanac discouraged me from taking the inner route already a mile south of the head, because of dangerous tidal races, suggesting I stay 3 miles off shore with at least an hour more sailing; and on no account to go north of the prescribed inner route for which precise latitude was given. All right. A gentle wind took me down under full sail making only three knots, weakening all the way. I took the inner route. The boat was jerked about for 45 minutes as it crossed the overfalls, but the turbulence stopped abruptly (as though by a glass door on the latch!) as I came east of the point. A forecast northerly wind never rose enough to lift the red ensign at my stern and the rest of the journey was by motor. Sunny all the way, the afternoon turned into one of the hottest of the circumnavigation—I would have liked a little breeze to cool off as I smeared on the UV protection.
Buying sun-screen before setting out, the choice of unfamiliar products with one additive or another was so great that I grew embarrassed by the time I took reading packaging to work out what to buy. Before security could decide I was loitering with intent, I bought something ridiculously expensive as insurance against what I did not know about the alternatives. When curiosity drew me into a pound shop in Grimsby, trusted old names in shrink-wrapped 10-packs for less than the price of one bottle of Noo-goo in my wash bag told me what a sucker I was. Again. After decades of weekly trolley pushing, you’d think I’d know better. Nowadays, I wander dazed through the aisles with autistic mental blinkers that permit me to see only what I already want, just to escape the choice that dogs us now that we have made an ideology of it. So, with supermarkets and restaurant menus off the list of pleasures, how exactly do you ‘get out more’? Why, you circumnavigate the UK of course!
The area of the Fal Estuary is beautiful, very attractive to sailors, and large numbers of boats lie strewn like orderly waterfowl across the wide, branching, tree-lined waterways, facing upwind just as the birds do (where would you want the wind to blow, even if you did have feathers?). The port and its approach, the Carrick Roads, constitute one of the deepest harbours in the world, and there are always Royal Navy ships to be seen at berth or anchor. The river is navigable all the way inland to the middle of Cornwall and the town of Truro. Its cattle market was an immense attraction in my childhood as the old farmers with their heavy sticks, cloth hats and pipes discussed and bid for the livestock in rich, rounded accents as confidential as they were incomprehensible, auctioneers sang out the sales with the speed and rhythm of express trains, parents struggled to keep infants from under the hooves, and costermongers did thriving business.
In Falmouth, there is a major coastguard centre with worldwide responsibilities. I carried a Personal Locator Beacon activated automatically if I fell into the water, but most yachts are equipped with EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacons) similarly activated. They send a signal and GPS location by satellite, and the international clearing centre is at Falmouth, whether you fall in at Newlyn or New Zealand. Before British coastal waters became European Union property, their richness was extraordinary. Line fishing as a family of five in a rowing dinghy off nearby Portscatho, the excitement as we hauled in mackerel faster than we could remove them from the hooks and spinners, had us children jumping about fit to sink the boat. Nowadays you get something boneless under plastic from the supermarket, and if much more rubbish is pitched into the sea, you’ll get the same on line hooks.
I enjoyed re-discovering Penny-Come-Quick as Falmouth used to be known, anglicising the old Cornish name. Today many of the very attractive old houses in the region belong to wealthy outsiders as second or retirement homes, and large numbers come in season by land and sea. To serve them the town is packed with bistros of many flavours, and ‘Cornish Pasty’ bakeries galore. But once more on my favourite subject, I have to register my disappointment compared with the glories of yesteryear. Set on finding a good pasty, I tried three from separate bakeries boasting to be the best and most genuine. Pap, with degrees of lumpiness, carried past the pepper pot. The bakeries all had great chewy country names and graphic motifs, but not one pasty was the real peppery, meaty deal of yore, made with a heavy edge crust for the tin and coal miners to hold and throw away afterwards. The mines that brought the Romans to our shores – tin was a rare essential in bronze smelting – have all gone now, and the pasties with them it seems. As for the ice-cream, the delicious golden Cornish confection has given up in the face of Ben, Jerry, Baskin, Marina, Haagen and their ilk, yet another taste to join the fruit species in history that did not survive automated harvesting, the pigs that did not grow quickly enough, and the radishes that bit back. Like deceitful chocolate cake, the appearance is just right, but not the flavour. Needing a bit more of a walk in the evening, I made my way to the other end of the town past a fish and chip shop badged with awards (remember that ‘French fries’ west of the Atlantic are ‘chips’ east of it, and chips west of it are crisps in the East). What is to be made of organisations ranking fish and chip shops? Isn’t it a bit like badging hot dog stands? Walking on, I came across another, under the name of a celebrity chef. Does it follow that you get better fish and chips? What could Julia Child or Fanny Craddock do with hot chip oil that the corner shop cannot? Only one way to find out. I went in, but asked for my Bream on the bone. This had to come from the upper storey Champagne and Oyster bar instead of the restaurant kitchen, with thin straw chips instead of fat ones. Compelled to challenge blatant potato discrimination, I assured the head waiter that while the take-away classes might like fat chips and the champagne classes thin ones, the MacDonald classes also like thin ones and amongst the connoisseur classes, fat chips are de rigueur again. He denied any such motivations, so I challenged him to produce genuine Cornish ice-cream. He failed, nobly enough with genuine vanilla pod, but clearly the celebrity chef was not old enough to know the real thing from the 1950s, let alone to have visited the public baths. Or perhaps the white-uniformed starched ladies who furnished towels, or the pink uniforms with frilly bits that wielded the scoop over yellow ice-cream, were just too sensitive a memory to be allowed near his food.
The Falmouth Yacht Haven is not enclosed but it was a more sheltered place to berth than I had supposed as it is on the north-facing shore inside the harbour, protected on all sides – boats enter from the South and cover 2 miles to reach it, turning through 180° inside the branching Fal estuary. I was able to catch up on my sleep, although the berths are used by many yachts for fuel and supplies, and there is a lot of movement. The following day was dismally overcast, very different from the preceding one, and I never got any photos of Falmouth town. The forecast was for winds of force 4 to 5 gusting 6, above my self-imposed limit. When stuck for more than a day or so, there is a tendency to get more and more flexible about what is acceptable. Illogical of course, so you have to be a bit rigorous, or risk regretting it. On this occasion, a couple from Brightlingsea on the Essex coast sailed in at lunch time and recognised my boat which had over-wintered there. We had a long chat, and they reported winds milder than expected and a sea state quite calm, so the Met Office had done me no favours. Too bad – I planned to leave the next day when the winds were forecast lighter, force 4 gusting 5, and more westerly.
I left as planned. But I mean to return, to explore the Cornish coast from Plymouth to Lands End at leisure, and to linger in and potter about the lovely Fal and Helford estuaries.
Next week: Plymouth Hoe!
Photos 1, 2, 3, courtesy of author. Photo of Fal Estuary: eutrophication&hypoxia / Flckr
My ports of call:
- Gosport, Haslar marina, the start and end of the voyage.
- Eastbourne (Sovereign marina)
- Felixstowe Ferry (River Deben)
- Wells-next-the Sea
- Grimsby & Spurn Head
- West Hartlepool
- Low Newton-by-the-Sea
- Muir Town Basin (Caledonian Canal)
- Dochgarroch (Caledonian Canal)
- Fort Augustus (Caledonian Canal)
- Gairlochy (Caledonian Canal)
- Corpach (Caledonian Canal exit)
- Crinan (Canal entrance)
- Ardrishaig (Crinan Canal exit)
- Lochranza (Arran)
- Bangor (Belfast Lough)
- Peel (Isle of Man)
- Port St.Mary
- Milford Haven & Dale
- Newlyn (Lands End)
- Newton Ferrers (to visit friends)
- West Bay (Bridport)
- Yarmouth (Isle of Wight)
(From there back to Gosport)