Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A tale of two town mice

Goodness, I'm such a townie. I never really quite realised before. I went to Cornwall last week, to Falmouth to be exact. I was accompanying my son, who wanted to attend the open day at University College Falmouth, where he thought he might like to study fine art.
Gorgeous Cornwall, with its fabulous countryside and glorious seascapes; full of artistic communities, wonderful light and good seafood too. Where could be better to spend three years of student life?
It's a long way to Cornwall from London. Five to six hours on the train, give or take a missed connection at Truro and frozen points at Newton Abbot. Still, we felt a thrill of excitement as the Penzance express nosed its way through the snowy countryside like an excitable dog let off the lead to pursue beguiling scents. And even when we missed the Falmouth train (the express was running 10 minutes late) and had to wait for an hour on a freezing cold station, the glow of anticipation was only dimmed a little.
It dimmed a little more when we arrived at Falmouth Town station ("alight here for Woodland Campus") and found that there were no minicabs, no map that we could see, and certainly no people. (There are no station staff on this branch line, merely a notice that exhorts you to ring the national rail inquiry number if you have any queries.) And it was further dimmed when we finally arrived at our B&B after walking the entire length of the town to find that we should have alighted at Penmere station instead. (Penmere does not have a notice that says "alight here for Woodlane Campus". But it should.)
It's difficult to say what put me off Falmouth. It could have been the non-stop traffic. If you're going to spend five to six hours on a train getting away from London, it would be nice not to be mown down at the end of it by speeding Cornishmen and women. In London, motorists actually slow down sometimes so you can risk death by crossing the road. In Falmouth, the accepted practice seems to be to speed up, or honk your horn very loudly. (They hoot at each other too, not just Londoners.)
Apart from that, everyone was very friendly, especially the two ladies in the tourist information office, who were practically my best friends by the time I left. They seemed to be the only source of rail timetables, bus timetables, maps of the town and general information. If you ever visit Falmouth, do make them your first stop.
My son went off to his welcome session and fine art seminar and I wandered around the campus where there is a rather nice sub-tropical garden, with yuccas and cordylines and bamboo. It's called the Fox Rosehill garden and it was lovely, as you can see from the pictures.

It wasn't until I was on the train home that I worked out what was missing. At Reading (half an hour from London) a family got on. The father was English and the mother was Spanish and I listened to her talking to her children with affectionate relief.
I think I'd felt nostalgic for the sheer polyglot international-ness of London. For the fact that you can walk down the street and hear Italian, Russian, Arabic, Gujerati, Spanish, Polish - half a dozen languages within a square mile. For the smell of French, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese or Moroccan food wafting from restaurants around you.
When we arrived at Paddington, we found the Circle Line was out of commission for the weekend (as was part of the Northern Line, the Jubilee Line and the District Line). It turned the last part of our journey into something resembling one of those corporate bonding/problem-solving exercises. But it failed completely to dim my joy at returning home.


Sunita said...

Hmmm... and I was just wondering whether I could add Cornwall to our Grand Holiday ! Long ago, I had seen photos of quaint villages in Cornwall with thatched roofs, the works and I always wanted to live in one for a day at least. And since we're planning a Grand Tour of Europe with a longish halt at London with relatives, I thought I could finally swing it. What do you think? Apart from being cut off from 'city-ness' is it worth carting a 16-year old and a 11-year old there?

Victoria said...

Hi, Sunita, yes, I think it would be worth it and I think the children would enjoy it. I like Cornwall, I just don't think I'd want to live there.
There's lots to do and see, whether you want surfing, sailing, gardens (Heligan, Eden), food (Rick Stein at Padstow) or art (Tate St Ives). Whether you go by road or rail, the moment when you go over the Tamar river and into Cornwall is quite exciting: it's almost like going over the border into a different country. I'd go by rail if I were you - it's much more relaxing (if you don't go in February, when it's snowing...). And there's another fabulous bit of the journey where the train runs along the Ex estuary towards Plymouth right beside the water.
I've rented in the past with Cornish Cottage Holidays, if that's any help.

Esther Montgomery said...

I used to go to Cornwall when I was little when there were still steam-trains and there was a restaurant car and it went dark in the tunnels and crossing the Tamar was like going into another country.

We used to stay with my grandfather's brother who had a dairy farm. There was no bathroom (no loo in the house) and electricity was just arriving.

I've been back only once since my childhood . . . and I don't think it can be the same place any more.

It was so 'remote' people there used to talk about going to England. In fact, some people had never 'been to England' - and my mother was asked how the Queen was as if they were personally aquainted.

Your description made me sad.

Sunita - don't forget Dorset. No-one seems to know about Dorset. There's nothing here except beautiful scenery and the sea. (And it is very beautiful!)

Newcastle and Northumberland and Hadrian's wall - cold and windy and wonderful and not to be missed. (There's nothing in Northumberland either but it's a very special and dramatic kind of nothing.)

The only building in Britain I'd recommend is Durham Cathedral.

Victoria - what did your son decide? Does he still want to study in Falmouth?


Niels Plougmann said...

The countryside IS overrated! There are sharks at the beaches in Cornwall! Your story reminded me a bit of "Children of the Corn". And you think of sending your son there .-)
London is a great metropol - they claim that if you are tired of London you are tired of life. But it must be expensive to live there. At least your son will not have any of the distractions and temptations down there.

Susan Tomlinson said...

Oh, I know what you mean about the diversity of cultures and ethnicities, Victoria.

I live in a smallish city, out in the boonies of west Texas, but since there is a major university here, the population is still more diverse than in many other places I've traveled. I remember having that same sort of epiphany on a vacation one year...I felt such relief when we got home. It took me a day or two to figure out why.

Diversity turns plain cloth into a tapestry.

patientgardener said...

I like Cornwall in term sof holidays but I think i would get fustrated with all the windy lanes to live there. Your journey reminded me of one we made to Lancaster for the same sort of reason last August except it rained non stop for 3 days and my youngest now has a pathalogical dislike for Lancaster and the Yorkshire Moors. Needless to say my eldest then decided Uni wasnt for him and he is now an apprentice joiner and very very happy.

Victoria said...

Esther, Niels and patientgardener: I was very careful not to say anything to my son, as I didn't want to influence him. However, it turned out he felt exactly the same way, so he's going to apply to Kingston instead, where he's currently doing a foundation year.
Susan: I love Texas! I spent three weeks touring around and nearly cried when it was time to fly home.

petoskystone said...

great slide show! loved the sculpture! do you know the name of the artist? agaves by the beach did set me back (mentally). i still have this image of 'north' when i think of england. that huge agave doesn't quite fit in with that word:)

Karen - An Artist's Garden said...

I found myself smiling with wry amusement at this post Victoria.

When we moved back to Wales I found that there were two ways of driving here - foot hard on the accelerator, or foot hard on the break - Traffic is a nightmare - although to be fair - rush hour is only 5 cars!

Moving here from the Reading area - it took me a while to work out what I was missing, and it was the cultural diversity and "blendings" that I had so much taken for granted.

Lovely sub tropical photos. Is your son also a Town mouse, or will the beautiful light in Cornwall entice him for three years?

nancybond said...

This was such a lovely post -- I felt transported. :) The slide show -- wonderful. I would love to visit London some day.

Lia Leendertz said...

Every time i go to Cornwall i want to move there, but then we go to the magical, mystical, lost bit right at the end, beyond Penzance (also traffic-jammed and dull). I know what you mean about missing the mix of the city, but at least in Cornwall you have some very alternative communities and lifestyles. Lovely to see your photos of succulents looking so healthy even now. My favourite Cornish garden, by the way, is the one at the Minnack Theatre right down at the tip. Beautiful, dramatic cliffside setting and incredible monster agaves and aeoniums.

emmat said...

i am going to stick up for Falmouth now... (given I have several family members in the vicinity)

Falmouth has a horrible outskirts. But the centre of town, which is mostly unnegotiable by car, has little shops along the waterfront, with fish and chip shops and pasty sellers, and a great bookshop, and a proper record shop, as well as art galleries. Above the harbour little Victorian streets line the hills, overlooking the huge and delicious beaches, with massive sky and sea views. The working boatyards usually have some massive tanker they are maintaining to occupy the interest of small children; on the other hand the art scene is really full of energy. On a sunny day, there is literally nowhere better in the world. It smells absolutely clean and fresh and fantastic, like a brand new day. And there's always a front garden full of weird subtropicals you didn't know could grow outdoors.

On the other hand, for a long time I owned a tiny shack in cornwall vainly hoping one day to move there, and I sold it when i realised that actually, like Victoria, the sound of people speaking eight different languages in a single carriage of a tube train... makes my heart exultant in a totally different but irreplaceable way. And that I could grow echiums in my front garden, just like people in Falmouth.

(Maybe I need a blog like Colleen's but called "Cornwall in urbis")

VP said...

Hi Victoria - I see you've already answered my question - your son's reaction to it all.

Yes there's a rich artistic community down there (e.g. St Ives, Leach pottery, Barbara Hepworth garden) and lots of natural inspiration, but that's probably not enough unless your son seriously wants to escape city life.

We holidayed at the Roseland peninsula a couple of years ago and that seriously felt like being in another country as some locals advocate too. We were there in November which was magical, but I suspect the narrow lanes would be hell when holiday traffic used them.

We took the ferry to Falmouth on the day it was having a health and safety assessment. We had to all rush at speed from side to side on the boat, just to make sure it wasn't on the point of capsizing at a moment's notice. It was so warm that day we were wearing T-shirts - in mid November! A week later they were digging cars out of Bodmin moor due to heavy snow!

VP said...

PS Would echo Esther's recommendation re both Dorset and Northumberland.

Both are very dear to my heart.

patientgardener said...

I would recommend St Mawes which is across the water from Falmouth - great castle (sister to the Falmouth one) and nice boats. Good for people watching. Fowey is also a nice place with good shops and a lovely feel about it. You can also go out on a power boat to look for dolphins etc - great fun for kids and adults a like

Mo said...

I still miss the cultural melting pot that is London. I spent ten happy years there, and wouldn't have missed it for the world. I am though truly a country girl at heart, and I love Cornwall. I always imagined I might move down there if I had stayed in the UK, but life had other plans for me! :)

James A-S said...

My daughter was supposed to go and look a Falmouth last week but got snowed off. Thank goodness or else she would have been stuck on the A38 in a blizzard all night. Will remremember to tell to go and oil up to tourist board.

Lindab said...

An epic journey! I used to live in Aberdeen, and the sight of the Aberdeen-Penzance sleeper at the station always made me want to jump on it and travel the whole length of the country. Clever of you to find a garden to visit to offset the open day hanging around. My son has also been on the road to open days just now - south of the border (gasp) - for aerospace engineering. Various English cities have been sampled and tested against 18 year old male criteria. Bath was apparently 'okay'. I didn't go with him, and I'm regretting it a bit now, tho like you I would have had to be careful not to influence the choice.

Sunita said...

So many ideas! My notebook is bursting with travel suggestions. Every place sounds so inviting I just may decide to forget the rest of Europe and stay back in England. My son has already decided to do that ... he wants to go to some football and cricket camps there ! He already plays at some cricket clubs here but I just cant understand him wanting more of the same when travelling :p