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August 22, 2020

Cornish Capers with Covid

I recently spent a short holiday in Cornwall and despite initial misgivings it turned out to be a delightful surprise. 

We wanted to spend as much time outdoors walking along the stunning coastal paths and enjoying the special landscape but was uncertain if accommodation could be found and if the holiday was going to be more hassle than enjoyable. Uncertain about lockdown restrictions I had booked the hotels quite late in the day and set off on the long drive trusting that none of them would suddenly close or have difficult covid protocols in place.

The first hotel near Harlyn Bay was intended to set the tone for the week ahead. Having worked seven days a week over the past five months I was ready for some serious downtime. The first night was a bit more down than I wanted – the entire electrical system blew. My partner was enjoying a shower after the long and sticky journey when the the lights went out. Being a Boy Scout at heart I had my head torch at the ready but that didn’t help when the shower then stopped working. Two bottles of chilled water from the minibar helped rinse off the lather, but I had been in two minds about taking the bottle of champagne to use instead – I think I missed the opportunity of introducing a whole new way of luxury showering. Champagne Showers anyone? Bracing Bollinger, Hot Heidsieck, Cold Krug and Tepid Tattinger are all available, at price.

A short drive took us to one of my favourite small museums. The Barbara Hepworth Studio is run by Tate St Ives and sits in a small luxuriantly leafy plot overlooking the town’s rooftops and was an oasis of calm amongst the busy nearby streets thronging with holiday makers. Delivery trucks and vans could just squeeze through the narrow streets but made it almost impossible for pedestrians to pass through. Masks were not much in evidence but all the shops we looked in on had hand sanitiser at the door, which was compulsory if you wanted to enter.

The beach outside the Tate was sprinkled with hopeful sunbathers with a warm mist enveloping the town. Previous visits to the Tate had left me feeling that it had been set up as a token nod to the southwest, with indifferent and sometimes second-rate paintings on show. This time it redeemed itself with an excellent show of the Russian avant-garde artist Naum Gabo’s work of innovative perspex sculptures and drawings exploring space. The other art works on show were good too.

Leaving the building we found the beach was now packed with sun seekers who were being rewarded with a mist-free bright afternoon. A stroll along the harbour wall was rewarded with the unusual sight of a friendly large adult seal which delighted onlookers as it put on a show revelling in the attention. 

The same could not be said of the numerous seagulls. Despite many warning signs to hold onto ice creams and food we saw a large bird on a wall beadily watching a family enjoy their picnic, and moments later it was wheeling away into the sky with food torn from a child’s hand.

The second hotel, in Padstow, with a reputation for serving the very freshest of fish and seafood had a similar mask rule to the first hotel – all staff were covered and guests asked to wear them in public spaces. The innovation here was having all cutlery served in recyclable paper bags which had all the utensils you needed. No salt or pepper was available which probably wasn’t such a bad idea as I tend to add a fair amount of both to my food – the subtle flavours of the perfectly cooked fish needed no embellishments.

The next three nights we stayed in a delightful small hotel in Penzance, immaculately clean and well appointed, which was the base for our coastal walks. The proprietor was masked and kept her distance when serving food and looking after guests, which included offering a selection of delicious homemade cakes.

Suitably rested and fortified we set off for the Helford River which is one of my favourite places in the UK. With fields and woods running down to the water’s edge it’s both a beautiful and peaceful area which hasn’t changed since I first stayed there as a young child when my parents bought a tiny thatched cottage in Helford village. Being the only non-Cornish people there we were known as ‘the bloody Londoners’, but despite the pejorative term it was always a very friendly place and continues to be so.

Taking the coastal path upstream we passed through oak woods with trees blown into strange angles, their twisted trunks furred with lichen. The small creeks were empty with a softness that was a welcome balm after so many stressful urban months. A small undulating path took us to the head of Frenchman’s Creek, made famous by Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic tale of a cultured pirate and the lady of the local manor, and moving up the other side of the water’s edge we found a bench, perfect for our picnic – and not a gull in sight. Sitting watching the water gently rise, and seeing shoals of sprats and other fish leaping, with the gentle rustle of the surrounding woods in the background was a moment of joy and transcendence. In my family we used to call that sensation a ‘tingly moment’ – pure, timeless and with a sense of direct connection to time and place.

Further days walking along the river banks, picnicking on empty beaches and welcome rough hewn benches solidified a sense of calm and a feeling that all was well with the world. 

Now back in London, which is empty and strange, I just have to close my eyes and I have big skies, rolling countryside and views that will fortify and stay with me through the months ahead.

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Anthony Thompson  |  Contribution: 1,540