Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Day 4 - South West Coast - St Austell - UFOs and Rainforests at Eden Project

From there I shook a leg across to the Eden Project near St Austell. I heard about this futuristic environmental site long ago, and being a willing earthy type, I always wanted to go. It’s well worth it.

From the outside, there are five or six massive space-ship-like, honeycombed white domes. It’s futuristic looking, and when it was launched back in the day, it was a futuristic concept. These days we've has come to realise how we’ve messed up the earth, so whereas the Eden Project was an implicit warning to the world when it launched, today it’s simply confirming for us what we’ve now known for some time.

What’s impressive is that the site on which Eden is built used to be a massive mining pit, and what’s arisen from the dust is all the more special because of it.

Inside each dome is the recreation of different natural climates and habitats from across the globe. You can get really hot and sweaty in the tropical biome crammed with rainforest, and then cool off in the Mediterranean one. It's worth the £16 entry fee, which all goes to the charity which runs Eden anyway.

It was packed with people, and is clearly a big hit. For me, it was a melancholy experience...I
wondered what things would be like in the future...would the world be one big concrete megalopolis, and we’d have to visit a habitat “zoo”, like Eden Project, just to remind ourselves what deserts and rainforests were like? That’s a dumb thought I guess. I hope it is!

The river in the rainforest biome

Outside the UFOs

The Mediterranean biome

Day 4 - South West Coast - Bigbury-on-Sea & Burgh Island - Sea tractor and surfing

Nearby to Hope Cove is Bigbury-on-Sea, which has some of the best surfing waves in the UK (take a surf lesson at the local Discovery Surf School), and looks onto the exclusive Burgh Island, which is privately owned by the same folk who have built a very high-end hotel on the isle. You can stay there for between £300 and £600 a night.

There’s also a special pub there called the Pilchard Inn. According to locals, non-residents aren’t officially welcomed there – it’s very much a local’s local. But don’t worry about that, because the kids (and anyone who likes being a kid), will enjoy the sea tractor which ferries you across the 50 metres between the island and the mainland. The tractor is a unique contraption that looks exactly like a normal tractor, except you sit about fifteen feet high above the huge inflatable wheels. When the tide is out, you can walk the distance to the island, but when the tide comes in, the sea tractor will shuttle you across without you getting wet.

The sea tractor on Burgh Island (pic courtesy of Wikimedia - the tractor wasn't running when I was there as it was low tide)

Day 3 – South West Coast - Hope Cove - Don’t read this if you’re a tourist...

I’m sitting in a hotel room in a village that isn’t really on the maps or in the guide books. And, it’s got two names. Hope Cove is made up of Inner Hope and Outer Hope. It’s a tiny town that dates back to the 1300s, and apparently some of the thatched fishing houses in Inner Hope are the original ones from about 1600. The Norsemen got here long before that. And some iron-age folk got here long before that (there’s a remnant of an iron-age fort nearby). Those cavemen clearly knew a good spot to light a fire...

And crazily, it’s hardly mentioned in any guide books, and even on the Ordnance Survey map for the South West of England, the names are written in that small font that makes people drive past. Don’t. It’s got the feel of this part of the coast, with cliffs into the sea, peninsulas and rocky outcrops. But it’s better somehow. There aren’t any fancy yachts in the harbour like Dartmouth or Brixham, only a couple of small working fishing boats. The houses aren’t out of the real estate magazines – most are weather-beaten and covered in a layer of salt from the insistent sea breeze. And best of all there are hardly any tourists. So if you are a tourist reading this, press the Ctrl-Alt-Del button on your brain and forget everything you’ve just read.

The Cottage Hotel is a friendly, formal hotel run by the Ireland family for the past 35 years. I should be careful about talking up the views, because I thought the Cumberland Hotel in Bournemouth had a great view. But The Cottage Hotel’s is better. To the left is a cliff-faced peninsula. In front of the hotel is the tiny harbour, with a paltry breakwater that somehow stands up to the winter storms (check out the video from last winter). And to the right are several rocky outcrops jutting out above the sea. The Cottage Hotel’s view is the benchmark from now on..., and keep it as a benchmark for the rest of my journey.

Guests at the hotel are 80% returnees, and many are of the older vintage, which suits the place – because it’s a traditional, old-fashioned place, with friendly, yet formal staff. William (the brother) and Sarah (the sister) run the hotel – their parents bought it 35 years ago. William wears a dinner suit with bow-tie. The chef has been with the hotel for 30 years (some city food snobs might say that the five-course set menu probably hasn’t changed either, yet it’s tasty, and probably suited to the clientele’s needs). And although there are a few who surf in the bay just to the right of the hotel, Hope Cove isn’t going to be on any varsity student’s end of year celebrations. It’s too quiet, and too out of the way, and too traditional. And because the National Trust has control over the village, there ain’t going to be any gluttonous property developers lurking. Just perfect.

William recommends having a drink at the Hope & Anchor, one of the oldest, consistently-used pubs in the region. And spend time walking. It’s the best way to explore the coastline. The views from the roads don’t match up those from the paths. Unless you are sitting on your porch in one of the hotel’s sea-facing rooms: the videos and photos can do the talking for me.

The Cottage Hotel, Hope Cove

Sunset from the porch at The Cottage Hotel

Coastal path near Hope Cove

Aerial view of Hope Cove

Room in The Cottage Hotel

Day 3 – South West Coast - Brixham & Dartmouth - Places I wish I could have spent more time..

First up is Brixham. It’s perched at the end of a peninsula south of Torquay. I only visited it because I am a lighthouse fan, and Brixham has the “tallest and shortest” lighthouse in the UK (maybe the world?) Figure it out for’s a pic. (Okay, it's on top of a huge cliff, so the lighthouse only needs to be a couple metres high!)

Brixham Lighthouse...tall or short?

The village of Brixham is probably what a lot of foreigners think English fishing villages are like. It hugs a small cove, with pastel coloured cottages and red and yellow fishing boats huddled up in the harbour, surrounded by steep hills. Check out Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind (it’s a full-sized replica). For me it was interesting, because the same (quite dainty and small!) ship rounded my home town of Cape Town in South Africa a few hundred years back, and Sir Franky proclaimed it the “fairest cape of all”. That’s not a bad compliment coming from someone who knew this pretty section of Britain’s coast really well.

Village of Brixham, another pretty village along the South West Coast

Then just over the beautiful river harbour of the River Dart is Dartmouth itself. Another stereotypical English scene. It’s like Brixham, just bigger and slicker, and with its own castle at the heads of the bay. The steep slopes of the hills give the town a secretive attitude. Smugglers used to operate around here, and that’s probably because they could hide out in the many tiny coves and caves.

So, Brixham and Dartmouth – don’t miss them, and don’t just drive through them like I had to.

(One of the other things I am realising is that driving close to this part of the coast of Britain takes LOTS of time. The roads twist and wind, and because there are so many villages along the way, driving speed is far slower than the highways. I really only covered about 300 kms today, but it took me a good 7 hours. There’s also a LOT to see along this coast – so budget for a couple of days at least.)

Day 3 – South West Coast - Dorset & East Devon - Dinosaurs!

From Corfe the coastline really sharpens up. The landscape undulates from steep cliffs to long beaches, to secluded coves. It made me happy – there’s an authentically natural feel, and the locals haven’t had to invent schemes to lure tourists...the scenery probably does it for them.

More than that, there’s an old man time side to it...the coast is famous for its geological heritage. In 140 kms of driving, you’re exposed to about 200 million years of dinosaur history. People come fossil-hunting here for fun – check out the Jurassic Coast website for more info. The coastline is Britain’s first World Heritage Site in amongst a whole lot of cultural sites that are probably far less breathtaking to outdoor fans.

Case in point: Chesil Beach, which goes on for miles and miles and miles – 17 miles. It consists of more than 100 million tonnes of small pebbles. It’s a must visit. I drove as near as possible to it, and I found that the the best place to get onto it is near Abbotsbury. The added bonus is visiting St Catherine’s Chapel, perched brilliantly on the hill above the village. It catches your eye from miles away, and you gravitate towards it without realising it. It’s a fair walk from the beach, so park at the village and go from there.

(The one thing I’m realising about travelling to these super sites is that none of them are really free. You have to pay £3 to park at Chesil Beach near Abbotsbury – which, for a 17 mile beach, is kinda strange.)

Chesil Beach - 17 miles of tiny pebbles

St Catherine's Chapel nearby Chesil Beach at Abbotsbury

Day 3 - South Coast - Corfe - The first of many castles...?

Leaving Bournemouth, you should head to the small village of Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck, across Poole Harbour. There’s a chain-drawn ferry that will take your car across the 150m of water for about £3. (The Isle is not really an island...there are a few rivers that flow between it and the mainland).

Corfe Castle is dramatic, not only because of its location high up above the village, but also because it looks like it’s just been blown up. Well, it was given a good working over about 350 years ago. The republican forces bombarded it, during their siege on Sir John Bankes, whose family owned the castle, and sided with King Charles the 1st.

I can definitely recommend a visit. The whole village is maintained by the National Trust, which makes it look like a film set. There’s a £6 entry fee to the castle.

(PS. Thanks to Paul Bhaya, a painter for National Trust who let me climb up his scaffolding in town to get some decent photos. He works on all the National Trust’s properties, and Salisbury
Cathedral is his favourite.)

Also fun to do is the Swanage-Norden ( steam lasts about 20 minutes, and stops at Corfe.

Corfe and it's castle from Paul Bhaya's scaffolding

Corfe Castle