It’s easy to forget that you don’t have to travel far for a great holiday. We’ve all been so spoiled by cheap flights that we seem to have abandoned the option of hopping on a ferry and visiting our nearest neighbours.
Last year, my wife and I decided to try a holiday in Devon and Cornwall, mainly because of my fond memories of the area from a childhood trip in the mid 70s.
At the same time, we were marking our 20th wedding anniversary and Shelly came up with the bright idea for my anniversary present of renting a vintage car for a few days while we were over there. I was definitely game for that and quickly decided that nothing short of an E-Type Jaguar convertible would do.
The problems began when I tried to find one for hire. It was easy enough to find cars, but none of them were near Cornwall. I got a lead on a V12, but it was 200 miles away from where I needed it. Besides, the V12 drinks petrol and I really wanted the six cylinder 4.2. I eventually contacted an owner’s club in Cornwall and they put me onto a garage in Helston. They had a beautiful, dark blue example from 1967 available for hire.
The next thing to sort out was a car for the rest of our trip. For the distances involved, I needed something comfortable and economical, while our ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ packing policy, dictated that we also needed a decent amount of space. Ford came up trumps with a C-Max and with its 2.0 litre diesel engine and commodious interior, it was the perfect car for our requirements.
With everything set, finally the day of departure dawned and after a comfortable ferry trip from Dublin to Holyhead, we were ready to hit for Devon. It’s a fair hike from North Wales to the South Western tip of England, but with the good motorway network, I was surprised by how quickly we made the journey.
We were staying for the first week at Ta Mill, a group of self-catering cottages located outside Launceston on the Devon-Cornwall border.
Because it was evening by the time we arrived, we ate at the Rising Sun, one of Devon’s fantastic gastro-pubs. There I discovered that each locality has their own unique beer and found that the best thing to ask for was a pint of the local brew, although by the end of the holiday, my allegiance had switched to the local ciders. Food in these pubs is generally of a very high quality, with fish in particular being a speciality but you won’t go wrong no matter what you choose. I can also highly recommend the Mason’s Arms in the quaintly named town of Camelford.
The following day was a Sunday, so we decided to take it easy and go for a ride on a steam train, which took us out to Newmills, a farm park deep in the Tamar Valley. We spent a pleasant afternoon looking at the animals, eating scones among wandering ducks, geese and peacocks and generally chilling out.
The Eden Project, which opened in 2001, is one of the must-see attractions in Cornwall. It consists of a number of huge domes, which house a massive array of exotic plants in a highly controlled environment. The two main domes house Mediterranean and tropical species and anyone who’s into plants could happily spend the day walking around. Me? I can take or leave stuff like that and after a while, I just felt I was in the world’s largest garden centre.
You can climb up to the top of one of the domes and the view from that angle is undeniably impressive, as is the project as a whole. It’s situated at the bottom of a disused quarry and walking down to it initially leaves a very deep impression. It’s also supposed to be an eco-project, with the aim of teaching green living and carrying out environmental research. For me, this part of the experience was missing and I was left slightly underwhelmed. I have to admit that their Cornish pasties were superb though.
The following day was spent visiting various coastal towns, including Barnstaple, Ilfracombe and Bideford. I’d have to say that none were very inspiring but I suppose the heavy rain which fell steadily all day didn’t help. After a disappointing day, I knew it was time to bring out the big guns, so the following day, we would go to Clovelly.
Clovelly is a tiny fishing village on the North Coast of Devon and it’s owned by one family, so you have to pay to get in. The cobbled main street is both steep and narrow as it meanders down to the sea. It’s car free and it’s so steep that if you don’t fancy walking, you can take a donkey or a Land Rover taxi will bring you down by an alternate route.
We walked down and on the way we met a woman showing her tame owls. They perched quite calmly on our hands and I’ve never before had the chance to get so close to such magnificent creatures.
Later on, we stopped for lunch on a small terrace overlooking the harbour. Clovelly’s climate is heavily influenced by the surrounding woods, so the weather is generally very good there. Certainly on the day of our visit, the weather was so beautiful, that sitting on the terrace eating our sandwiches and looking down at the harbour, we could easily have been in Positano.
The harbour itself, when we got there, was smaller than I remembered from my last visit as a child, but I suppose everything seems bigger when you’re eight.
On the way back home, we passed by Tintagel Castle, the legendary home of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Further along the coast, we stopped at the little village of Boscastle and asked at the tourist centre for a recommendation for a restaurant. As the centre was run by National Trust, they weren’t allowed to make a recommendation, but on a nod-and-a-wink we were told to try the nearby Riverside restaurant. It proved to be an inspired choice, as the Riverside served the most fantastic seafood. Shelly even loved the scallops, served in a white wine sauce, something she’s never liked before.
Thursday proved to be the wettest day by far of our holiday and having looked at the weather, we decided to visit a nearby cider farm. Cider is big business in this part of the country and Healey’s cider farm is one of the larger producers. Despite the rain, we took a tour around the farm on a trailer pulled by a tractor, getting drenched in the process. Later on, I discovered that it was Donald Healey’s family who owned the farm and business. Donald Healey teamed up with Austin in the 1950s to make Austin-Healey sports cars, which were manufactured up to 1972 and gained quite a racing heritage over the years. There’s a motoring angle wherever you look.
On the way back, we stopped at the fishing village of Port Isaac and, again after a local recommendation, found the Moat bar and restaurant where we were served some more fantastic fish.
The following day we went to Appledore, a fishing village on the mouth of the River Torridge. The waterfront consisted of a long row of small houses and businesses, testament to the village’s past. Appledore was also a very important shipbu ilding area and shipbuilding goes on to this day. We stopped for a coffee and scone at the Quay Gallery and got chatting to the owner, who moved to Appledore from Dublin eight years ago with her Cornish husband.
On Saturday, it was time to leave the Launceston area and move further into Cornwall. On the way, we wanted a cup of coffee and the choice being fairly limited, followed a sign off the road and ended up in the Kew farm shop. In the middle of the car park, we were amazed to see several geese bathing in a water-filled pothole. A woman in a Megané cabriolet was so busy trying to avoid the geese as she reversed out that she hit a Honda Civic. There were so many dents on both cars that one more didn’t matter and she drove off. The shop itself was very rough and ready but sold a vast array of delicious cakes and breads. I couldn’t believe that a shop like that would be allowed to trade, but still I’d highly recommend a visit.
Before collecting the Jaguar at Helston, I dropped our luggage off at our hotel in nearby Penzance, knowing that there’d be no room in the E-Type. When I saw the hotel car park, my heart sank. It was tiny, tight and ranged up a steep hill. Getting the Jaguar parked was going to be a nightmare.
The Hotel Penzance is a charming, quite old-fashioned hotel, perched on a hill above Penzance. There are magnificent views across the bay to St Michael’s Mount and there’s even a resident cat who seemed to spend all his time sleeping on a sunny chair in the lobby.
Then it was off to Castle Green Garage, to pick up the highlight of my trip. I was given a thorough briefing on the car, which included how to get in and out, how to operate the roof and even how to open the boot, which involved pushing the seats forward to release the hidden catch.
Even the dashboard looked strange. I recognised the indicator stalks, but after that, all the other functions were controlled by a scattergun of identical looking switches. Ergonomics were clearly not a priority in the 60s. I’ve driven an E-Type before, but only had the chance to give it a quick blast down the road, so I was really looking forward to getting to know it properly.
Roof down, we set off and to give myself some time to get used to the car, we headed for Falmouth. I was surprised how quickly I got used to the length of the Jaguar’s bonnet, which initially seemed intimidating. The real surprise was how bad the gearbox was. A four speed unit, it felt like stirring concrete and I’ll be honest, it took me a day or two to master it. Even then, it caught me out on occasion.
After parking in Falmouth, I looked back at the E-Type and was struck by how narrow it was, compared to the modern cars around it. That narrow body would prove very useful over the coming days when travelling down the narrow lanes around the tip of Cornwall.
At Falmouth, we had a sudden yen for fish and chips and wanted to try Rick Stein’s café, but he was closed for lunch and we had to try elsewhere.
Sunday dawned sunny and hot, so we drove down to Land’s End, at the very tip of the British Isles. I was quite disappointed to see lots of development there, it’s almost like a theme park now. Even so, the scenery was absolutely spectacular and as we walked along the cliffs to the next village, there were even a few observation posts to allow visitors to look at the huge variety of sea birds making their home on the cliffs.
A few miles back the coast lies the Minack Theatre, what must be one of the most extraordinary performance spaces I’ve ever seen. Cut out of the rocky cliffs, it was constructed almost single-handedly by a local woman, Rowena Cade. She started the mammoth task in 1931 and continued the work until her death in 1983. When we arrived, rehearsals were taking place for that evening’s performance. I’ve never seen anything as unlikely as actors reading their lines on a stone stage, just metres from the blue waters of the bay. As we sat on a terrace, eating scones and looking out at this beautiful view, I couldn’t help but marvel at the life’s work of one remarkable woman. You would honestly believe that the place had been left behind by the ancient Romans yet it has been in existence for well short of a century. I definitely want to go back and see a real performance there.
Although we didn’t have time to visit, there’s also a Telegraph Museum in nearby Porthcurno, which was where the old transatlantic telephone and telegraph cables came ashore. During World War II, tunnels were dug by miners to accommodate underground buildings and an entire communications centre to keep allied forces in constant contact. The tunnels are bomb proof and gas proof and are even now open to the public.
We called into the tiny village of Mousehole on the way back to Penzance. The village is centred around a small harbour and I didn’t realise how narrow the streets were until I arrived. I had been warned that our cooling system was marginal and even with the auxiliary electric fan, the Jaguar inevitably began to overheat. Before steam started to escape from the radiator, I had no option but to get back on the road fast to allow the car to cool down. We’ve come to expect rock solid reliability from our cars, but that clearly wasn’t the case for cars of this vintage.
The following day, we went to St Ives and on the way there, I found a rare stretch of dual carriageway and was able to give the Jag a bit of wellie. 70 mph was quite fast enough, given the noise from the engine and the numerous gaps between the roof, windscreen and doors. Suddenly, I heard an almighty bang as one of the roof catches gave way, causing the fabric roof to flap violently in the wind. I stopped the car and luckily discovered no damage had been done. It was simply a matter of popping the catch back and we were away again.
St Ives turned out to be a beautiful, small town, with a harbour at the heart of its winding, narrow streets. Much of it is pedestrianised, with visitors encouraged to use one of several park and ride car parks. It’s built on a very steep hill, so there’s a lot to be said for taking the bus back to your car.
There seems to be a big emphasis on art, with lots of independent art galleries, and individual artists selling their wares direct to the public. It’s a really quirky and interesting little town.
On Tuesday, the skies were grey to match my mood, as today was the day the Jaguar was due to go back. As we drove off from Penzance, it began to rain heavily and I thought the E Type would be a nightmare in those conditions. As it happened, it wasn’t too bad. I expected the windows to mist up but didn’t happen although the car proved to be far from watertight. A constant dripping from the window frames kept us nicely soaked, but with the soundtrack from that glorious inline six to appreciate, I didn’t care one bit.
We took advantage of a small break in the weather to visit a local seal sanctuary and spent a very enjoyable morning in the company of seals, otters, penguins and other wild life before we ended up back in Helston.
I put up just over 300 miles on the Jaguar over the few days and it cost £75 in petrol, which wasn’t a bad figure, all things considered. I was surprised how easy it was to drive, once you got around that appalling gearbox. Nothing fell off, except a windscreen wiper and the car was otherwise reliable, except for that tendency to overheat, which at times was a bit of a nuisance but you quickly learned to keep a weather eye on the temperature gauge.
It was a difficult car to park, too, although with the roof down it was easy to reverse. In fact, travelling with the roof down made things so much easier as visibility was greatly improved. I was very sorry to hand the car back and look forward to the day when I can drive an E-Type again.
Now that I had my C-Max under me, I was confident of tackling Mousehole again, without any overheating problems, so we went back to explore the village. Pronounced ‘Mowzel’ by the locals, it was described as the loveliest village in England by no less than Dylan Thomas. Having seen the place, I’d have to agree with him. Small houses, built mainly from local granite, are ranged around a small fishing harbour, which also incorporates a sandy beach at one end. A short walk down the coast brings you to a huge cave which some people claim gave its name to the village. It’s believed to be the last place in Cornwall where the Cornish language was spoken.
We ate at 2 Fore Street, a fabulous restaurant serving Mediterranean style cuisine with a modern twist. Given our location overlooking the harbour, it’s no surprise that we both had fish.
We had promised ourselves a meal at Rick Stein’s famous fish restaurant in Padstow and had booked lunch there on the following day. On the way to Padstow, we visited New Quay but really didn’t think much of it at all. It seemed to be geared to cater for surfers and there was a slightly seedy air to the place. We didn’t spend long there before we hit the road towards our lunch.
Padstow is yet another fishing port turned tourist destination and must be one of the most popular tourist spots in Cornwall, at least judging by the crowds trying to park.
Rick Stein’s influence can be seen all around the town, with cafés, patisseries and delis all bearing his name. If you were in the mood for a picnic, you’d certainly be spoiled for choice, with delicious looking Cornish pasties and other delicacies on sale in every second shop.
Rick Stein’s dog, Chalky, a Jack Russell terrier, regularly appeared on his cookery programmes. As I was wandering around the village, I came across a range of beers with names like Chalky’s Bite and Chalky’s Bark. I couldn’t resist buying a couple and although I did manage to take them home with me, they didn’t last long and I can report that they’re truly delicious.
Rick Stein’s restaurant was certainly an experience to savour. I threatened to order a steak but in the end of course, we both ordered fish and thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
On the way back to the car, we spotted the National Lobster Hatchery, which is an educational and research centre established to preserve lobster stocks around the coast. We saw lobsters only a couple of days old and amazingly, they were only a few millimetres in length, yet they were still clearly recognisable as lobsters. They grow by shedding their hard shells numerous times through their lives, a process that takes anything from hours to several weeks and they keep growing right throughout their lives.
For devilment, we sent a plastic lobster to our friend, Gerry, in Belfast, with no note or identification. He’s into sea fishing and sea food, so it seemed like a good idea at the time. He happened to be at home when the lobster was delivered and the postwoman remarked that the package felt a bit funny. He copped straight away and with a straight face told her ‘That’s just a lobster’. She’s been looking at him strangely ever since.
Rather than driving hell-for-leather for the ferry, we decided to make our way slowly North over a couple of days, stopping off first in Exeter. I booked the Woodbury Park Hotel and something about the name was nagging at me. Only as I drove up to it and saw signs advertising the Nigel Mansell Museum did I realise that this was the hotel and golf course he developed after he retired from motor racing. The museum isn’t open to the public but I asked nicely and the following morning got a guided tour. The museum houses quite a few of Mansell’s racing cars from various periods of his career, both in Europe and America, including the Grand Prix Masters car I saw him race at Silverstone a few years ago. I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the trophy room, so I can’t show you any pictures of the $1,000,000 uncashed casino chip that formed part of his prize for winning the Australian Grand Prix. The collection has since been moved to Mansell’s home in Jersey.
Before leaving Devon, we were determined to find the ultimate clotted cream tea, a Devon-Cornwall speciality consisting of scones, jam and clotted cream. All the guide books told us to try Otterton Mill, in the countryside outside Exeter. The guidebooks didn’t steer us wrong, as we found the scones there to be the best we’ve ever tasted. The mill itself features an ancient, working flour mill, powered by the River Otter flowing underneath. The flour used in the baking is all milled using the old methods and the place is well worth a visit, as is the village of Otterton itself, which is old-fashioned and picture postcard pretty.
We spent the afternoon exploring the moors, visiting Postbridge in the heart of Dartmoor, which is best known for its 13th century stone clapper bridge, formed of granite slabs and supported on stone piers.
Fingle Bridge is another famous bridge on Dartmoor and it’s about the narrowest road bridge I’ve ever seen. It was designed for just one cart to cross it at a time, with triangular recesses provided to accommodate any unfortunates going the other way. It was such a pretty spot we just had to have our lunch, looking out over the fast-flowing river, while enjoying the wonderful views.
Our last night was spent in Chester, near the Welsh border, at the delightfully old-fashioned Green Bough Hotel on the outskirts of the city. We didn’t have much time to explore, but I did spend an enjoyable hour at the Chester Cartoon Gallery, which I’d highly recommend for a good laugh.
Having broken our journey up from Cornwall, we were only a little over an hour from the ferry so we could finish our holiday with a gentle cruise West.
As we drove onto the Irish Ferries ship, I was delighted not to be facing security queues at a crowded airport. I’m telling you, it’s the only way to travel.