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Cornwall Musings

Sunday, 3 August 2003
written by Sterling

Wow, my first log entry! I wrote it in late June, but because we were away from our Internet connection I didn't have a chance to post it until now. So, like the surrounding articles, just imagine yourself way back in those heady days of early summer�

We have temporarily left our camper behind and struck off via other transport, flying to Britain for nearly six weeks away. It's the first time we've been in over four years, and although Teresa's siblings have visited us in the US a couple of times, it's been that long since she's seen her friends or her homeland. It's too long. As for me, my previous trips here were brief enough, and long enough ago, that it feels like a new adventure again.

England is compact. This is something that, to my mind, underlies nearly all impressions of the country. It feels compressed to a degree bordering on the pathological. The roads are narrow, encouraging tiny cars and a driving style that is equal parts assertive and cooperative. The houses are mostly packed into small areas, so much so that a house that doesn't share any "outside" walls with at least one neighbor is a rarity. And the rooms are correspondingly small, seemingly reluctant to occupy any more square feet than absolutely necessary, barring a conscious effort of will on the part of the architect. These characteristics might not be so apparent to a visitor from an American city - my friend Steve's first apartment in New York comes to mind, I never saw it but by description it was positively British in dimension � but to me, raised in Wisconsin and freshly arrived from the wide-open spaces of the western USA, it's inescapable. Almost literally; there are moments when the scale of England becomes oppressive.

Coverack Harbor 1 But viewed another way, it's a very human scale. These narrow roads weren't built for automotive traffic; many of them probably originated as walking trails, centuries ago, then evolved through carts and carriages to automobiles. Other such "roads" still exist in their primal form: public rights-of-way, footpaths that are as inviolate as streets in my home country. The houses, for their part, were mostly built by hand of brick and stone, so a large dwelling wouldn't merely have been ostentatious, it would have been bloody hard work. The result is indeed a landscape that is sized for people, not for their cars or the impressions they'd like to convey. It is comfortable to walk in, for the most part, and this too is a refreshing change from the States. And when we do need to drive, our rented Fiat Punto is the right size for these roads - apart from a few we've encountered here in Cornwall, so narrow that we're brushing both wing mirrors against the hedgerows simultaneously. Our trusty house on wheels, small by American RV standards, would be a giant here, completely unmanageable on many of these roads.

Moreover, these human constructions are right at home here; humanity has occupied this landscape for long enough, and in sufficient density, that we have become integral to the ecosystem. Throughout the vast majority of England, there isn't a hillside that isn't divided into tiny fields or covered with houses, not a wood that doesn't harbor a few small cottages. Sheep and cows graze in the national parks. Domestic pets are predators as dominant as foxes or owls, both of whom are still here because of their ability to coexist with mankind, unlike the bears and wolves that have been gone from this island for countless years. In America, wolves are reintroduced (albeit not without controversy) in an attempt to restore a "natural balance"; such a concept would be unthinkable here. To a large extent, wilderness as it is known elsewhere in the world no longer exists here, it is so irretrievable that it isn't missed, it has been comfortably replaced. It feels like the human equivalent of an old-growth forest; the system has ceased to be transitional. The natural balance has found a new equilibrium.

One welcome exception to the diminutive scale, one thing that is larger here than in the States, is a pint of beer. It's a government-mandated twenty ounces, typically of hand-pulled, locally-brewed, full-bodied ambrosia. My love of British-style ales is well known and documented, so having Adnam's, St. Austell's or their equal in every corner pub is little short of heaven. The pubs themselves are also quite plentiful. Life's actually not too bad here, you know.

The British pint is particularly fascinating because the U.K. has officially standardized all units of trade to be metric with the sole exception of a pint of beer. Even other alcoholic beverages in a bar are now sold by the milliliter - but a pint remains a pint. It says something about how these folks feel about their beer.

We have spent a few days on the south coast of Cornwall, staying with Teresa's sister Solanna as well as having a few nights away in B&Bs. Cornish Cliffs The Cornish coast is a popular holiday destination for good reason; the shoreline is rugged, the villages picturesque, and the water has a color and clarity that I've never seen outside tropical regions. One reason for this might be the Gulf Stream that bathes these shores in comparatively warm water from the Caribbean, also blessing England with a climate uncharacteristically mild for its latitude. But whatever the reason, the effect beneath these cliffs is stunning, and we spent a wonderful day hiking the Southwest Coast Path from Cadgwith to Lizard Point, "the most southerly point in England", and back again.

Incidentally, the name of the point - and the peninsula on which it resides - has nothing to do with lithe four-footed reptiles. It's apparently from the old Cornish words lys ardh, meaning "high point". Most of the placenames in the county have this sort of origin, but manage to be more poetic and less bizarre than "Lizard"; typical delicious examples include Trelissick and Porthleven, though the town of Mousehole (thankfully pronounced "Mousel") bears mention as well.

Our last day in Cornwall was spent at The Eden Project, a former clay pit that has been miraculously recycled into a massive tourist attraction. It's essentially a large twenty-first century botanical garden, but they describe it as a "Living Theater of Plants and People", which gives you some idea of the lofty aspirations of the place. I would describe it is as what Epcot would look like if Walt Disney had been a politically-correct gardening fanatic. The Eden Project The former open-pit mine has been transformed via the manufacture of 85,000 metric tons of soil, and from a distance the layout of the gardens appears wonderfully organic, though up close the arrangement of individual plants is regimented enough to warm the heart of any Victorian horticulturalist. This space is then dominated by two large geodesic "biomes", high-tech domes enclosing Humid Tropics and Warm Temperate ecosystems. Overall, the Project is amazing in its scale and scope, but as Solanna told us, it has become something of a victim of its own success. We arrived on a Tuesday before the height of the tourist season and didn't have to queue for entry, but even so the place was packed, and moving through the biomes consisted largely of shuffling along with the crowd.

I also can't help but feel cynical of it on other levels. They pay homage to environmental principles, but their people-moving vehicles are all internal-combustion-based, happily burning fossil fuels. Perhaps they feel that the extra carbon dioxide will be good for their plants. Another small but telling example struck me at the olive-tasting booth near the end of the Mediterranean trail, where the "Eden Team" member overseeing things blithely assured us that the olives we were sampling had not been grown at Eden; because they use no chemicals, he said, their own olives were full of bugs and not fit to eat. Stunning or what - Eden likes to present themselves as being wholly organic, and therefore superior to users of chemical pesticides, but then they completely undermine it with comments like this. If they were serious about it, why not employ some of the many organic farming techniques that actually work?

Tropical Flower Finally, I found it incredible that the Eden Project - largely built with public funds - passes itself off as a charitable trust when it's so clearly making money hand over fist. On an off-season weekday like ours, we were told that it can receive 20,000 visitors, at £10 (about $17) a head - plus an optional £4 for a guide booklet that mostly includes the same text as the numerous signs around Eden. The several restaurants and large gift shop were doing a brisk trade as well; to give you an example of their prices, we paid £1.20 (about $2) each for a tiny cup of fairly tasteless ice cream after emerging from the Humid Tropics biome. Sure sounds like charity to me.

But I have to say, if you have some money to spend and want to see a bunch of interesting, really well-presented plants, it's worth a trip. It may not sound it from the preceding paragraphs, but I did enjoy our visit; many of the exotic species were pleasingly familiar from our own travels in California and Florida.

But returning to Cornwall� I feel the need to say a few words here about tea. The English fondness for this hot beverage is quite well-known beyond their shores, but I suspect that it needs to be experienced for its extent to be truly believed. The English, as a people, drink tea at the slightest provocation (when visitors arrive in a house, the offer of "a brew" or "a cuppa" is de rigeur) - or even none at all. It's not at all uncommon to be sitting around, in conversation or watching the telly, when someone will blurt out, "How about a nice cup of tea?" And every time, virtually all present will happily join in, and not simply because it's usually promised to be nice in this way. According to one statistic, 150 million cups of the stuff are brewed every day here. Tea is drunk morning, noon and night, in weather hot or cold, wet or dry; tearooms are sought out if one is away from home. And in times of any crisis, this tendency increases still further. Staff roam the corridors of hospitals, offering the national drink to patients and distraught family members alike, every hour or two. It's all a bit astounding.

Seemingly not content with this, the English also apply the word "tea" to the evening meal (what I'd call "supper"). This can lead to a bit of confusion, at least for a poor American lad. Imagine me, in the late afternoon, walking into the kitchen of a friend's house where we're staying.

"Care for a bit of tea?" they ask. Having already had 39 cups that day, I politely decline; they look a bit surprised. "Are you sure?"

"Umm yeah, I'm fine." A bit less sure of myself, but as the whites of my eyes are beginning to take on a brownish tinge from all the tannin, I hold firm.

"OK then," comes the reply, and they begin to prepare dinner for everyone but me. All right, so I've never actually gone hungry because of this mistake, but you can see the difficulty.

And Cornwall served as the setting for my introduction to yet another English usage of the word. For some time, Teresa had been promising me a Cornish cream tea, usually salivating at the prospect herself. Cadwith Cottage So early one afternoon in Cadgwith, we ambled into a little waterfront restaurant, hot on the cream tea trail. I was a bit confused by the menu - it included such things as "cream tea with coffee" - but that happens to me a lot here, so Teresa took charge, ordering "cream tea for two". My confusion increased when the order arrived; the cups of tea (accompanied by scones, jam, etc.) looked quite normal, not creamy at all.

I finally had to ask for clarification, and it turns out that the "cream tea" is the scones, jam, etc., with the et cetera being a bowl of Cornish clotted cream. This latter is the cream that makes a cream tea, apparently, and I must confess that I was not overly keen on it. For one thing, I was a bit uncomfortable eating something with the word "clotted" in its name - sounds more like a serious medical condition than a snack, I'm afraid. But also, though the cream itself has such a high fat content that it's scarcely distinguishable from butter, the accepted way to eat it appears to be to slather it on the scones, half an inch thick. I could feel my arteries hardening with each bite. So maybe it is aptly named after all.

On the plus side, the pub next door pulled a lovely pint of Ruddles County.

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