Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A week in a weekend

Weather forecast

HOT! (it has been hot about ten days this summer).

Event

My first wedding to attend since I was five, and on top of that, it was an English wedding.

London

Being bombed by terrorists.

Solution

Spend the weekend in Devon and Cornwall on a weekend mini-break.

Preparations

I persuaded fellow guest and good friend Kate to travel with me down to the Saturday wedding in Devon and then around Cornwall for the rest of the weekend for our last adventure before I leave for Perth. I then decided what I really had to see in Cornwall and planned a breakneck itinerary for the Sunday after the wedding.

[Please note that due to the mixture of lifts and one-way train journeys the itinerary contained, our best priced expected trip home was going to be seven hours, with three hours of that spent waiting for connecting trains.]

Friday

Caught the bus to Paddington since I will only travel on the tube again if that is the only way you can get my coffin to Heathrow! Caught the train to Bath and got to see the West in the syrupy gold of sunset with hot air balloons hanging like ripe fruit in the sky. Bath was just as beautiful as I remembered, all clear air, golden glow and crumbling Roman statuary.

Saturday

Rich and Heather’s Nuptials

If my wedding is half as good as the new Mr and Mrs Nelmes’ wedding, I will have had a very good wedding indeed.

Richard looked dapper and relaxed, Heather looked gorgeous and gracious and both looked very, very happy. We sat in a tiny ancient church just out of Plymouth on a hot and clear day to watch Rich and Heather beam their way through a very touching and perfectly timed ceremony. The two of them were so glowing it looked like they may just melt into one being with pleasure. We stood and serenaded them kneeling at the altar after the vows and they would lean into each other, making each other laugh under all the ceremonial words. Afterwards they roared off to the reception in a mint-green Volkswagen convertible, leaving us to follow them up onto the Dartmoor with quite a bit of jealous admiration over the delicious little bug.

In Britain I have turned into something of a hopeless landscape romantic. My favorite pastime is trying to categorise all the different parts of Britain that I have seen, and most particularly their hills.

[So, in a little aside, here are my assessments of the landscapes of Britain as pertains to hills:

London – the top hills are Greenwich and Hampstead Heath.
Oxfordshire – hills that are placed just so for an interesting aspect.
East Sussex – hills that draw your eye out to an endless horizon, beyond which anything is possible.
Wiltshire– hills that make you gasp with pleasure each time you crest one and see the next one.
Cotswolds – hills that have been so pretty for so long everyone loves them.
Lincolnshire – hills that need to huddle together for warmth.
Nottinghamshire – hills that lend themselves to the re-distribution of wealth.
Yorkshire – hills that make you want to bear it all bravely.
Snowdonia – hills (and mountains) that make you feel like you are being watched.
South Wales – hills that are tall, dark and handsome, catching your eye over and over again.
Hereford – hills that roll like surf towards the horizon.
Somerset – hills that promise that there is much more below the turf.]


The Dartmoor was something else entirely. The hills are huge, but so wide and squat that they seem small until you realize there are only three hills to the horizon, not six. The ponies and sheep were contentedly grazing centimeters from the road that was only separated from the moor by a strip of untrimmed grass, the ponies tiny but fat with foals. With the beaming sun the moor was gorgeous, yet where the clouds blocked the light they were still the grey, forbidding landscape portrayed in The Hound of the Baskervilles and other great pieces of literature.

The reception was a picnic near a stream at a place called Badger’s Holt. The food was plentiful and presented in hampers, we all sprawled on our blankets and soaked up the sun while Heather glided from group to group in her still pristine gown and Richard ferried his well-clad “obsequious chatter” around the guests. At five they drove off in the much envied green VW to their honeymoon in Moscow and we were left to our own devices.

Two other workmates from the Evangelical Alliance were at the wedding, and Gareth, determined to get as much mileage as possible from his little sporty car, offered to drive Kate and I into Cornwall. And so Gareth, Sarah, Kate and I were off with the sunroof off, the girl's hair swirling around our faces and the sun beating down and for the next hour and a half we headed across the Dartmoor, through the last of Devon and into Cornwall.

What can I say about Cornwall other than it must be the only place you would want to be on a stunning English summer day? The water is blue, the headlands are green and the towns so cute they are like little intricate silver shells sitting on the beach that you just want to hold and look at forever. We got to St Austell and went to dinner in a tiny little fishing port, sitting on the quayside, mesmerized by the glittering sea and the endless serrations of the Cornish coast back towards the heat-hazed horizon.

Sunday

The guide book had warned us that we would need the whole day for the Lost Gardens of Heligan, but Sunday buses being what they were, and my experience of Gardens being what they were, we only had three hours and I thought that would be enough. We skirted pristine manicured lawns; we roamed vast and tiny walled vegetable gardens and enjoyed hedge framed vistas of the coastal fishing villages from the lawns while we ate scones, strawberries and clotted cream. There was even a mini-swamp with a viewing hide so we could watch tiny birds moving like herds of minute wildebeests on the banks of the pond for a drink and eyeing enormous dragonflies nearly their size hovering like attack helicopters painted in iridescent greens and blues.

At the end of a leisurely three hours we strolled down a path through the most perfect woodlands imaginable and suddenly realized we had only seen half of the gardens. Leaving Kate to make some quick sketches I raced down the hill and was greeted with a sight that ensures that if there is one thing I have to do it is get back to Heligan. In front of me was a huge ravine that ended in at the horizon and was a vast, lush tropical jungle, showing the endless manicured English lawns on the hills either side just what green was supposed to look like. I gaped, consulted the map, realized that the Lost Valley, another 20 minutes walk from the Jungle, was even bigger and resigned myself to another divine holiday in Cornwall!

On the way back to St Austell we stopped in Mevagissey, a working fishing village and inspiration for the Cornish village in my favorite childhood books (Susan Cooper again), which was unbelievably cute and yet so touristy it was quite a disappointment.

And then Kate and I, after a weekend of free rides, pulled the ultimate blag. We had tickets for a painful trip home; St Austell to Plymouth, one hour wait, Plymouth to Bristol, one hour wait, Bristol to London, coming in at 11pm. We got on the train going straight to London at St Austell … and “slept” through our change at Plymouth. Just out of Plymouth, while we were still “sleeping”, the ticket collector paused by us, saw us sleeping, and moved on. Truly a masterful performance from the two budget travelers!

The train trip crowned an already fabulous weekend with a sun drenched journey through six of the prettiest counties of South England. We shot across Cornish viaducts with their legs lost in lush valleys and we hugged the Devon coast, skimming the beaches between the towns and the surf. Once in Dorset we were practically in the sea and when not seeming to walk on water we were drilling straight through the brilliant red cliffs and headlands that jutted out into the huge bays. Then we turned inland to surf over Somerset and Wiltshire and chase hot air balloons across Oxfordshire to London.

It was the ultimate way to say my last goodbye to England; with my English friends, on a summer weekend, deep in the hills and gardens of my home away from home.

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