Sunday, March 8, 2009

Captivated by Cornwall--Discovering St. Ives

Wednesday, March 4, 2009
St. Ives, Cornwall

Departure for Cornwall:
As always happens when I have to awake in the middle of the night, I slept sporadically throughout and awoke spontaneously at 2 am. It was I who called Llew to tell him not to bother to call me as I had awoken already. We chatted for a bit. He worried at the thought of my going out into the London night at 2. 30 am but I reassured him that the city is buzzing all night long. I got out of my building at 2.45 only when I saw the N8 bus a few meters away. This allowed me to cross the street and hop right into it without having to wait alone on High Holborn at that hour.

At Victoria, there were late-night commuters hauling their strolleys behind them all along the street leading to the Easybus stand where an older couple were already ahead of me waiting for our coach which arrived at 3. 30 am. Because there was no traffic at all, we reached Stanstead at 4. 48 and within minutes, I was all checked-in and waiting at the gate for my 6. 30 am flight to Newquay.

Touch Down in Cornwall:
Dawn had already broken over Southwestern England as our aircraft lost height on its descent into Cornwall. I was so pleased to be able to spy the biodomes of the Eden Project from the air. Indeed, though the sky was thickly overcast, Cornwall looked bright green at that early hour though I did discern some patches of leftover snow especially over Bodmin Moor. The landscape was crisscrossed with tarred roads that ran through it like narrow black ribbons and occasional traffic was easily visible on them. Then, we were touching down into the wilderness of Newquay airport (at exactly 7. 30 am) and since my bus to the City Center was not for another half hour, I sat in the airport lobby and waited.

It was horribly cold outside today and my expectations of mild Cornish weather were shattered as the icy wind whipped around me. I was so grateful for my warm layered clothing and was thrilled to be able to settle down in the heated coach that took me to Newquay Bus Station from where I followed directions on the five-minute walk to St. Christopher’s Inn where I had a reservation. The sound of the thundering Atlantic waves reached my ears and when I caught my first glimpse of the sea, I also caught my breath, as the pale jade expanse was startlingly beautiful.

At St. Christopher’s Inn, I discovered that check-in time was 2 pm. I could leave my bag there, however, and after extracting my camera and the few essentials I would need for the day, I left it in the care of a young staff attendant to look for the Tourist Information Office as it had just gone 9 am. However, when I did find the Office, I realized that they were closed. It is still off-season in Cornwall and many seasonal businesses remained shut.

A lovely man named Allan in the next-door Council Office did, however, go online to help me find bus schedules and other information. It was not long before I was seated on the bus making my way to Truro, a junction of sorts, from which I needed to connect to another bus. All along the way, I enjoyed the Cornish landscape. Our bus wove lazily through tiny villages somewhat pretentiously and amusingly named High Street and Higher Bugle! Fields with lone horses and new-born black lambs prancing in the early spring sunshine passed outside my window. For indeed Spring had arrived in Cornwall and daffodils were everywhere. Leaving the built-in recesses of Newquay behind with its garish casinos, amusement arcades and surfer's supplies stores was a relief for rural Cornwall was serene and spiritual and a salve to my travel-weary senses. It wasn't long before we arrived in Truro and I was able to get a quick look around the market.

Stopping in Truro:
Truro is a bustling town with a cathedral whose spires reach out above the rooftops of uniformly built houses. In the market square, as I was browsing around the stalls, it suddenly came down again ferociously, but just as suddenly, the rain stopped and it was then that I realized that it wasn’t rain at all but hailstones the size of small peas. No wonder the local folk were shaking their heads in bewilderment. It appears that such occurrences are rather rare in these parts and they were quite perplexed by the strangeness of the weather.

Arrival at St. Ives:
Back on the bus to St. Ives, I enjoyed the sun once again—in fact, I have rarely seen such mood swings in the people as impacted by the weather! When we finally reached the town of St. Ives, the sun had disappeared behind a dark cloud and it looked as if it would pour again any second. I decided that it would be a perfect time to closet myself inside the Tate St. Ives which, at any rate, is the chief attraction of the town other than its beaches. Within five minutes, I was at the waterfront and there was Porthmeor Beach with the fierce waves bringing froth and foam to the sand’s edge. The setting of the museum is indeed stunning--a very futuristic space built in 1993. I was grateful for my Metropolitan Museum connections that got me in for free and saved me the 12. 50 pounds that it would have cost to see both the Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth House and Garden for which a joint ticket is issued.

Exploring Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museums:
The Tate St.Ives does not have a permanent collection. Though created to showcase the work of the Cornish artists who made the area their home and set up an artists’ colony there as early as the 40s, it specializes in setting up periodic exhibitions that focus on the work of the major figures who contributed to the area’s development as a significant artistic Mecca. Leading this movement was Hepworth herself and her husband Ben Nicholson as well as other artists such as Luke Frost and Bernard Leach and it was the work of some of these artists that I saw for the first time today. Apart from their very abstract canvasses, the museum boasts a really singular design and a charming café on the top floor whose picture windows afford some of the most stunning views of the ocean and the lands that embrace it on this sheltered cove.

When I had taken my fill of photographs from this vantage point, I went out in search of Barbara Hepworth’s Studio and Garden and spent the next half hour taking in the individualistic vision that led to her arresting body of work. Ranging in size from small tabletop pieces to gigantic compositions that grace the garden that she personally designed and planted, it was interesting to see her workspace and the tools she used to accomplish her unique designs. Without the use of any machines, she was able to fashion abstract shapes and forms and give them depth and a character that was entirely her own. I shuddered to learn that she passed away in a fire that engulfed her home. Apparently, she was asleep while it broke out leaving her oblivious to it.

Becoming a Beach Bum:
Then, I was out on the cobbled streets of St. Ives enjoying the seaside ambience of this renowned beach resort, checking out its stores, enjoying the ‘tasters’ passed out by the old-fashioned chocolate shops and honey and marmalade stores, buying myself a genuine Cornish pasty from a small bakery that the locals patronized (I ordered a “Premier Steak” because that’s what I heard a regular Cornish customer order) and enjoying its warmth, the crispness of its crust, the flavor of its filling and thinking of the origin of this most regional of foods—the need for Cornish miners to fix themselves a meal that could be eaten underground without silverware. In fact, I remembered that in one of her recent novels, Anita Desai had talked about the Mexican empanada having originated when Cornish miners moved from the tin mines of Cornwall to the silver mines of Mexico in search of work taking the pasty with them and indigenizing it for local consumption.

Be that as it may, the town was a delight to stroll through and I was charmed by everything I saw. Best of all, I had it to myself. Though many of the restaurants were still closed, there was enough of a buzz to make the place feel lived in without becoming overwhelming. I had seagulls for company along the railings that separate rock and cliff from foaming breakers. I spied Godrevy Lighthouse on an island in the distance—the lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness novel To The Lighthouse. I took pictures galore, trying to capture, as the artists had done through their paints and canvases, the light, the angles of the rooftops and the colors of the sand, the ocean and the sky in that particular brightness which only Cornwall seems to possess.

I walked through the entire curve of the harbor, stopping to buy postcards and searching for magnets (but finding none that took my fancy). I knocked around narrow cobbled streets that were reminiscent of Mykonnos’ ‘chora’ (Old Town) for me with its winding roads, small picturesque balconies and shop windows. I guess all beach resorts have the same laid back ambience, the same combination of bleached sea whiteness with the shocking dashes of color that come from kites and inflatable toys and beach wear. All of it was delightful and I soaked it in, glad to find myself finally in Cornwall where I have often dreamed of being.

Missing the Sea:
I realized, with a sudden pang, that the ocean took me sharply home to Southport and my beloved Connecticut coastline, for I have indeed missed the sea and my close proximity to it in the landlocked environs of London. All my life, I have lived close to the sea-side. In the Bombay suburb of Bandra where I grew up, I could walk to the promenade of the Arabian Sea in three minutes and in Southport, the harbor and the marina of Long Island Sound are similarly close at hand. The salt tang of the Atlantic and the waves that licked the St. Ives’ shores reminded me that these same ones had originated in the same ocean not too far from my permanent home in America and on that nostalgic and very sentimental mode of contemplation, I passed the rest of the afternoon.

A Commuting Faux-Pas:
Then, at close to five, after I had passed by a stone church and its adjoining Memorial Gardens filled with more vivid primroses and daffodils, I climbed uphill towards the bus station and caught the 5 pm bus to Truro where I arrived at 6.30. I had a half hour wait before I made my connection at 7 pm for a bus back to Newquay but that was where I wasn’t thinking right. I waited at the same place where I had alighted from St. Ives instead of at the gate where my bus to Newquay would depart. This meant that I missed the last bus and had to take one run by the Western Greyhound bus service, which did not leave for another 45 minutes. It had grown uncomfortably cold by this time and all the major stores had closed down leaving me with no place to shelter in while I awaited the bus.

Finally, I found the foyer of a hotel called Manning’s and there I settled for 20 minutes before the coach did trundle along and take it with me. I nodded off for a bit and arrived at Newquay at 9 pm and made my way to the inn where the bar was lively with youngsters.

I, however, was pooped and settling into my room, I wrote this blog and went straight to bed.

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