Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Plymouth and Cornwall

With my 'would-be novelist''s hat on, I would definitely chose Plymouth as a location and metaphor for confusion, madness and grief. It is a vast city, sprawling out over a complex of steep hills and complex harbours - a series of drowned valleys, with such a history of war and preparation for war that the whole layout and architecture is pressed to extremes. How many wives have waved goodbye to their young officer husbands? How many mothers pressed their twisty young sons to their sobbing bosoms as the lads went off to the Navy's stern clutches? The whole centre of the city was bombed and burned to ashes during WWII, and the archaic was replaced with the brutalities of mid-twentieth century concrete and traffic management flow. Being an Atlantic seaboard, they are used to rain there, as we found, and they use granite in copious quantities for their walls and steps, so that the tone is really dark and grim, at least at this time of year. However I should also mention the wonderful red stone pavements we saw, either marble or granite - of superb quality and fit for a palace... these areas just roughly arranged around the Barbican. This ancient area remains as a sort-of quaint fishing port, surrounded by rip-off restos in the pretty old warehouses, and the Citadel up beside the Hoe is a wonderful masculine fortress - rather plain compared to its French equivalents created by the great Vauban, but still impressive. I think I mentioned the squads of young men doing their physical training all around the town, running, straggling, being urged on by the demi-gods who are in charge of them, these latter being older, shining with vigour and health, making it all look easy. Training in the hilly streets of Plymouth is still easier than being shot at in Afghanistan. Our hotel - being a concrete slab from the 60s - was alright, but exasperating somehow, as it was run down where it need not have been. In writing my blog yesterday morning, the machine was taken over by some anti-virus routine sweep, and my precious paid-for-in-advance minutes were gobbled up by its activities - but the staff could not have cared less. An old lady hoovered round me. In our room, the carpet was truly threadbare and ever so slightly sticky.... (yuk). But the view from the window was magnificent, worth every penny of the extra £20 they charged us. The waterways were laid out in front of us like a smaller version of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Warships manoeuvred around the ways, sometimes with tugs or pilot boats in charge. Lights gleamed and flashed in the darkness. Under the onslaught of the might depression sweeping over Britain, the waters were slate grey and ominous. The Eddystone lighthouse, removed from its rock and rebuilt, stood sentinel on the Hoe to our left. Marvellous. We had a small outing in the car - found our way into interminable council-type estates - thousands and thousands of houses and apartments, piling up the hills. Here and there, little areas reminiscent of Bristol (Clifton), and in fact in one such we saw a sign to BBC Plymouth. We picknicked our lunch back in our room, showered and put our gladrags on, and then headed off to find the wedding which had summoned us. This meant crossing on the Torpoint Chain Ferry - and HOORAH! for this marvellous, efficient, quaint, historic, funny gadget. A short wait, then onto the broad open deck, preceded by an ambulance with its light flashing. Not much traffic. With a clanking of the chains and barely any shudder, we were off! The quarter mile took less than 10 minutes and there we were, in Cornwall. This saves 29 miles by road! We tootled out onto the peninsular towards Rame point - along a narrow cliff road with huts built by the citizens of Plymouth during the Blitz and now much sought after, and down down down, with the Atlantic on our right... down a narrow private track, tight into the cliff, with water rushing down and a huge storm gathering on the far horizon out at sea. Parking, crossing a little bridge, along a paved flat roof, down a fantastic steep granite spiral staircase, into a red-brick vaulted spacious bedroom! What???! Is this Polhawn Fort? Yes! Through another huge red-brick ceiling bedroom, and a sitting room, and then into a series of gun-rooms, now decorated with fairy lights and wedding-feast tables, but once clearly a gunnery platform, with a series of wide chamfered window embrasures backed with huge granite window sills. The wedding party was in the garden - a windswept grass terrace on the sea side - having photos taken before the storm struck. There was barely time for hallos. As the hail and sleet arrived, we all rushed back inside, to hugs and greetings. Slowly the party gathered, with beautiful babies and children, glamorous girls, swoony-looking tall American and Canadians, glowing grandparents, helpers doing final adjustments to the tables and decorations, photographers with massive cameras snapping away at everything.... Someone explained, the guns here were never fired in anger. By the time the building was finished, that particular war was over. The amazing vaulted rooms (reminiscent of the old Parson Woodford restaurant in Norwich if you knew that) became a hospital. Whoever owns it now is on to a good thing. It's booked up forever as a wedding venue, romantic, wild, hard to find, and very memorable. Well, a wedding is a wedding and this was loving, funny, a bit rude, very informal, very international, generous, laid-back, very pretty, well fed, well supplied with every kind of drink, and a joy to attend. Dinner was actually fish and chips! All delicious and brilliantly managed. Funny speeches, honest and amusing. Such love, from all generations of the families. After the dancing started, we crept away, the first to leave, and somewhat reluctantly, but Andrew had toothache and we had a way to go back.... .along the cliff, back to the ferry (clank clank), through the city to the hotel, and to crash out like old people. Sigh. Another howling night as the storms swept across. We tried to feed a clever young seagull which eyed us up from a tiny ledge below our windown. We watched a German frigate gently make its way out of the huge harbour. We ate a private and utterly delicious breakfast of fruit salad and croissants (courtesy of Marks and Spencer) at a cost of £3 or something, compared to £11.99 a head in the admittedly pretty but grotesquely overpriced hotel dining room. I gave my lovely white rose (from the wedding) to the maid who was going to clean our room, along with a tip. On the TV there was a programme about climate change knocking out the Egyptian civilisation.. I fell asleep during the last 10 minutes, but I think I got the main gist of it. At this moment we are in Hereford after a magnificent day's drive, which I will describe tomorrow. For now, talk with friennds is waiting.

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