Sunday, 30 August 2015

'Where you to?': Not Abroad, but in Cornwall

The UK may often be snubbed by many, particularly those of us who live here, as a potential 'holiday at home' haven. However, as I discover in West Cornwall, there are parts of it that truly transport us away from the normal drab tourist traps.

'Dreckly', 'Where you to?' and 'Emmet'; some of the Cornish slang that truly confirms its cultural niche , the latter of which I am about to become. 'Emmet' refers to those folk who are not local, who flock to Cornwall in the summer months, and quickly disappear in the winter, rather like ants. My very quick trip will be a snapshot of the very best that West Cornwall has to offer in terms of spectacular beaches and harbours.

Penzance is the 'hub' of this part of Cornwall, with the main train-line terminating here. It really does feel like this is where the rest of the UK gets pushed aside. Penzance has suffered a decline in its fishing industry, but an increase in tourism and retail. Property prices have soared here over the last decade and in the surrounding areas. The sea glistens in the background as hordes of tourists arrive at the station by the harbour.

Mousehole, or actually as with many Cornish words pronounced differently to how it appears - more like 'Mouzul' - is a small fishing village nearby. Perhaps most known for its Christmas illuminations around the harbour, and the associated book, 'The Mousehole Cat'.

Dodging Americans wielding large cameras, wandering around the harbour feels like a movie set. Plant pots left trustingly outside, visitors stepping over a sleeping cat in the ice-cream parlour doorway, and bright green seaweed strewn contrasting the light Cornish sand on the small beach, lined with coloured surfboards.

The only thing lacking seems to be the presence of locals. Besides the many American and Asian tourists, sadly while walking past the quaint 'local' cottages, I hear unmistakeable London accents, chattering as they go in and out of their homes. The reality is that many of these homes are simply now unaffordable for locals and are predominantly owned by wealthy out-of-towners, buying into the dream. The locals have been squeezed out, to be replaced with 'emmets' seeking permanent residence. The realness seems jaded. A real-life movie set, perhaps, but still beautiful none-the-less even on an overcast day.

Porthcurno beach is widely regarded as one of the best in the UK. This narrow beach is accessible via a small path and set of steps down the hillside. Historically the area is known for its connection, quite literally, to the cable industry, exemplified by the presence of the Telegraph Museum. International underwater cabling used to connect to the building now exhibiting Porthcurno's old industry.

Stepping on to the beach at the bottom, the sand gently slopes down into very clear looking waters. Not many people chance swimming, due to the presence of strong rip tides. The dramatic cliffs either side make for a protected beach and micro-climate for sun lovers.

Further along is Sennen, a much longer beach stretching along the coast. This allows for the increased presence of bars and restaurants, being much more accessible, but less secluded that Porthcurno.

The water seems to have a special quality only found in this part of the UK, with saturated blue hues lapping against the light sand. I prefer it here to Porthcurno, mainly owing to the accessibility, despite how heaving it is.

Somewhere more tranquil is Cape Cornwall, the UKs only cape. Following the trend of encroaching outside purchasers, unfortunately only part of the cape is accessible now that land has been bought surrounding it, however its beauty can still be appreciated.

Topped with a mining chimney dating back to 1864, the rugged cliffs and pounding waves make for a refreshing experience.

Some international tourist destinations have a magical quality that cannot be bought, and St Michaels Mount in Marazion is one of them. What makes it so special is the man made causeway that mysteriously appears for a few hours when the tide is low, allowing the many tourists to traverse out to the imposing castle on an island.

There are in fact quite a few tidal islands in the UK alone, but this one allures with charm and intrigue. Once on the island, one can explore the harbour, occupied only by those that work in the castle, or pay an entrance fee to go inside, or another fee to explore the gardens... I do think it's a shame that charging is necessary, although National Trust annual membership can be bought, which could prove to be worth it for UK residents at least.

St Ives is the final beach on my list. The train journey in itself is an attraction. St Erth Station Buffet is a throwback to the classical days of British rail travel, with old posters adoring the walls advertising glamorous destinations, and tea served in floral cups. The train will be here 'dreckly' - meaning shortly, as far as I understand...

The train journey offers stunning coastal views on the right, and to the left golf courses and countryside. The posters in the cafe don't seem to lie, as it feels as though the journey to St Ives truly takes me further than the short stretch of rail track. Looking out at the vivid turquoise and clear waters, I feel as though I've gone abroad.

Leaving the station with hundreds of tourists, there is a large pristine beach directly opposite to head for. Although completely packed, I find it hard not to appreciate how far removed this is from what we expect a UK holiday to look like. Heat seems to radiate in a micro-climate, and coupled with the wonderfully bright colours I feel I could easily be in the Pacific somewhere.

Carbis Bay, the train stop before, looks to offer a similar experience, yet perhaps a little less packed.

St Ives is known for its local artists, drawn here because of the unusual quality of the light. The colours bounce off the jewel-esque sea, creating a unique and ethereal atmosphere. A further walk down reveals a harbour lined with shops and restaurants, again framed by the luminescent waters. This feels more Caribbean than Cornish!

The UK's coasts, especially Cornwall's, still sizzle as a hot tourist destination - how long this can be preserved for though is uncertain, as 'emmets' monopolise the beauty and traditional culture of Cornwall. However, evolving into a primarily tourist driven industry isn't necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps motivates locals to preserve its wonderful scenery. The second home purchasers and landowners have an obligation to fully integrate into the Cornish way of life, share it with others, and actively maintain it - one can't remain an emmet forever, after all.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Edinburgh Castle at a Glance

With a history spanning over 1000 years, Edinburgh Castle is perhaps the most unavoidable and visually ubiquitous centrepiece of the city. I take a moment from a very quick day trip to Edinburgh to join the thousands of visitors who tick it off their Scottish bucket list each year.

With a history spanning over 1000 years, Edinburgh Castle is perhaps the most unavoidable and visually ubiquitous centrepiece of the city. I take a moment from a very quick day trip to Edinburgh to join the thousands of visitors who tick it off their Scottish bucket list each year.

We tend to think of any historic human development, building or monument as being static - a snapshot of a long time ago, erected suddenly, and subsequently steeped in inevitable history. In reality, most buildings have a varied, if vague sense of when and how they were created. Often they are a product of an architectural evolution, involving construction, destruction, adaptation, salvation and fortitude, guided by the equally chaotic history of human civilisation.

In fact, we could say that the history of Edinburgh Castle in fact began millions, rather than thousands of years ago, and surprisingly this ancient period created the most obvious and dominating feature of the castle. After dropping my bag off at the nearby hotel, the striking, towering volcanic bedrock that the castle sits atop of is immediately obvious walking towards it. As I get closer, the dramatically shaped black rock formed millions of years ago presents itself as the first stage in the castles history. One side is a sheer cliff face where ancient lava struck, and the other a gentle slope, protected from the jagged cliffs on the other side, where the lava 'gracefully' drifted by. The castle's proudest statement is that its built on a prehistoric volcano.

I walk towards this sloping section, gifted by nature as a natural gateway to this fortress of rock, aptly named 'The Royal Mile'. Ancient buildings are more often than not chosen for their geographical surroundings and convenience, Edinburgh Castle being a clear example. As I reach the top of some steps, The Royal Mile slopes gently downwards to the right, and the castle stands beckoning to the left.

With the Fringe Festival commencing tomorrow, and the stadium already set up for the Edinburgh Tattoo, the crowds swarm around me. I enter through the first archway, with proud knights carved either side.

It takes a while to obtain my ticket, which I put down to the fact that the one o'clock cannon firing is in about half an hour. There is time for little exploring before. The castle walls seem to have more of reddish hue up close than expected, instead of the grey colour perceived from a distance. The walls are lined with cannons and outlooks, and immediately the impressive vantage point is obvious.

The castle's history as a royal residential establishment is actually quite limited - in fact only up until about 1603. Its chief involvement in history from then on was for military and war purposes. The list of wars Edinburgh Castle had involvement in is staggering, spanning centuries.

Holding prisoners of war was one of the castle's primary purposes. I head into the dark recesses of the prison area, guided by displays, exhibits and audio visual information. The smell of rot and damp fills the air. A large stone room is full of recreated hammocks where prisoners would have slept. It's easy to see how the comradery amongst prisoners formed and lead to prison breaks.

The next prison I head into is of typical Victorian design, with a central area containing a wrought iron staircase, and rows of small individual cells around it. Peering inside reveals the isolating nature of the conditions, although perhaps more preferable to the hammocks.

The Regiment Museum is just around the corner, and a quick walk-through reveals a fascinating history in costume and items such as pistols, horns and horse riding paraphernalia. Of course the kilt, as well as ornate bagpipes, are a recurring theme.

I justle for a position outside to witness the firing of the cannon at one o'clock. Tourists wrestle and push for a position whilst staff politely (and repeatedly) ask them to keep off the grass banks of the castle interior. Rather unceremoniously a kilted Scot appears, and although I am expecting it, the ricocheting bang makes me jump, and is followed by a plume of smoke drifting across the Edinburgh skyline.

The (hopefully) final battle in the castle seems to be the war of the tourists, as I fight my way through dozy dawdlers and screaming children to find the The Great Hall. The red walls and glowing embers of the huge fireplace create a warm space, with knights armour and weaponry adorning it.

Dramatic paintings, elaborate chandeliers and wooden vaulted ceilings adds to the grandness of it. The exterior certainly does seem to create a villainous sense of foreboding, intentional or not.

Finally I have a very quick peek into the Memorial Hall, before having to go back into battle to leave. Framed by the fortification inside the castle, modern Edinburgh from this perspective appears nurtured and as though under a protective spell.

Whether predominantly from its volcanic roots millions of years ago, or from its rich and evolving architectural history, Edinburgh Castle seems to cultivate a position of permanent authority from its location, and one of prowess from its strong stone walls.