Monday, 4 February 2013

Once upon a time in the West

Dr Pumphrey’s cottage in the small Cornish village of Portscatho was our holiday destination in the early ‘70s.  It was the amiable GP’s* second home, and that must have been quite a rarity back then.  Second-home ownership is something with which I have some issues these days and if you got me started I could rant about it for a whole post - but I don’t intend to at the moment.  Still, whatever I think of the principle of it now, all I knew at the age of eight or nine was that it felt magical to spend a couple of weeks in Summer living in someone else’s house.  Especially one right by the sea.

From street level it looked tiny, but once inside it became Tardis-like; there seemed to be loads of rooms (and, I wished longingly, perhaps some secret ones) leading off from multiple staircases and corridors.  But the best bit was that the bedrooms were downstairs and the kitchen was upstairs, which felt very Alice In Wonderland - plus it had a breakfast bar.  I’d never known such a thing and I was instantly besotted.  Ricicles tasted so much better whilst perched on a high, slender stool at a Scandinavian style pine bench, than at the fold-out table at home sitting on a chair whose vinyl seat stuck to the undersides of my thighs.

Travelling down to Cornwall from Hertfordshire required major, strategic planning - and leaving the house at Ridiculously Early.  My sister and I were ushered out of our warm beds at 4am and, after goodbye kisses with Rudolph and Cleo (the cats), bundled into the back of the car with sleeping bags pulled around us like giant cocoons.  The gentle vibration of the car engine and the way the orange streetlights seemed to blink rhythmically as we passed them lulled us into a strange half-slumber for the first part of the journey, out of our dormant market town and towards London.  With the completion of the M25 still a few years away, we’d drive right through the city, and every so often mum would gently see if we were awake and point out some landmarks, now softly lit by the early, half-hearted sun of an August dawn.  I’m sure we made some odd detours to get close-up views of the futuristic-looking Post Office Tower and the dome of St Paul’s, which looked to me like a gigantic, fossilised blancmange.

It seemed an exotic trip across the Southern half of England.  After the high-rises and majestic bridges of the metropolis we traversed the mellow countryside of Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire.  As the hours passed along with the miles it felt like we were crossing into other countries, with their houses made of stone, bricks and tiles of unfamiliar shades, and unrecognised place names.  On through Somerset, then Devon…even the skies looked different above these unknown hills and moors.  It took all day to get there and our final destination seemed the most foreign of all; Cornwall really was another world.

I’d never seen lanes so narrow, nor hedges so high.  Steep distant cliffs gave promise of secret coves and story-book adventures of hidden treasure, whilst the sea itself seemed bigger, wilder and far, far bluer than the one I’d seen before in the South East.

My memory is playing tricks with me.  If I believed it, I would tell you that I spent every day, from sunrise to sunset, down at Gerrans Bay amongst the rock pools, because that’s what it felt like.  I realise we must have gone to other places, and I guess sometimes the sun didn’t shine, and we must have sat in the car with cans of Cola, eating hardboiled eggs when picnic plans were called off due to rain.  But all I can really vividly remember is going down to the rock pools with my bucket and spending endless hours there, finding tiny prawns and blennies, furtive hermit crabs and fantastic anemones, exotic-looking shells, slimy seaweed and pretty pebbles, the sand between my toes and the salt in my hair.  These were all  things we just didn’t have in my world back home.  Then it was back to the topsy turvy cottage every evening, and the hope of still discovering a hidden room. 

Although it’s over ten years since my last visit, I have been back to Portscatho a few times.  Dr Pumphrey’s cottage was there, exactly as I remembered it.  I couldn’t help hoping it still had the breakfast bar, and that somewhere, in a secret room, there is a small collection of shells left there by a young girl in 1972.



* My mum did private typing work for Dr Pumphrey and he let us use his holiday home for free.  What a nice man.

14 comments:

  1. Beautiful memories...my daughter 'Shellhunter' will like this one.

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    1. Thanks, OPC. (Your daughter's name gives me a clue that she might!)

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  2. There is something magical about the Cornish Coast, we used to make the trip (7 hours from North Wales back then!) despite having some lovely often deserted beaches just 10 minutes away. Here the land dips down gently into a mainly calm sea but Cornwall has those rugged cliffs and coves and the Atlantic leaping around part of it's borders, much more dramatic. I went back the Summer before last and it cast it's spell all over again. Not surprised you have so many fond memories.

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    1. Yes there is something about the place, isn't there - I was last there in 2001 after having visited for several consecutive years, I must go back again and see if it casts its spell on me again too.
      Mind you - I've never been to the Welsh coast so I can't compare, it does sound beautiful.

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  3. Most of my favorite memories as a kid (and as an adult for that matter) involve being on the Gulf Coast (Gulf of Mexico...panhandle of Florida). Either on the gorgeous beaches or fishing and crabbing in the brackish water of places like St. Mark's.

    At the beach I never wanted to get out of the water...Martha still has a hard time getting me out now. I very soothing memories of standing in our kitchen at night, sunburned in nothing but short britches, while my Moma boiled crabs and fried fish...I could still feels the waves rocking my body. It's an odd sensation...but, I wish I could conjure it up now.

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    1. I can really get the atmosphere of your childhood seaside memory too, e.f. I think our senses are so receptive and enhanced when we're young, and with limited experiences to compare to, certain ones just stay very vivid. Lovely stuff!

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  4. Lovely prose.

    My childhood was spent with my head in the rock pools of the Roseland peninsular. Portscatho, Porthcurnic, Carne and Portloe.I was the kid with burnt shoulders and holed plimsoles.

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    1. Ah, thank you. What a wonderful place to spend your childhood in - I'm envious...

      Burnt shoulders and holed plimsoles? - I think I remember you ;-)

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  5. Magical. And what a lovely man the Good Doctor must have been, to share his home so generously. I'm glad it's there and seems unchanged - very reassuring.

    I've only been to Cornwall once, and it was blanketed in fog so thick I could barely see my own feet. This in July. I've never risked my precious holiday leave on a UK break since, I'm afraid.

    But as a coast-dweller, I get what you say about the magic of the sea all too well. I love it when I'm lying in bed on a wild night and can hear the shingle being dragged up and down the beach here by the tide. I'd struggle to live inland now.

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    1. Thanks - I envy you too, being near the sea now. It has such a special draw, quite primal in some ways, I think.
      But I think everyone could recommend Cornwall when the sun shines! Breathtaking. I sat out at The Lizard one day under azure skies, the sun beating down, too hot in just a sleeveless Tshirt - it was October...

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  6. As a big fan of Cornwall, I love this post. It's a very special place isn't it? I sometimes think it's the only place in England that feels almost 'foreign' (which, in a way, it is). You've made me want to get down there again.

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    1. Thanks - yes as I was writing it I started to get a yearning again too. I'm so far away though :-(

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  7. I spent a handful of summers in Cornwall during the 1990's and loved discovering little lanes and finding hidden coves well off the beaten track, of which there seemed a never-ending supply. I'll get back there one day.

    Did you travel to Cornwall on the A303 via Stonehenge and were you, like me, amazed at how teeny-tiny it seemed from the road the first time you saw it?

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    1. Yes, I agree, so many hidden places.
      Indeed, Stonehenge looked so much smaller to me as an adult driving past than it did to me as a child. I was taken there a few times as a kid back in the day when you could wander amongst the stones, clamber around and sit on them. They seemed quite big then - but maybe it was just because I was small?!
      At least they're not Spinal Tap proportions though, eh...

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