Saturday, December 22, 2007

And I would drive 700 miles …

Christmas is a time for giving, as we all know. It’s also a time of shopping madness and erratic postal services (to be fair the Royal Mail are pretty good considering the volume of post they handle at this time of year – but we always seem to lose at least one present in the post), so what I like to do is pop down to Cornwall with the family’s presents and cards and to collect theirs for my family up here in Buckinghamshire. Normally, I’d do this over the course of a two or three day visit but this year things have been so busy that I had just one day to do it. That meant driving to Cornwall (around 300 miles door to door), visiting all my various relatives and then driving home again. All in a single day. My son Liam decided he’d like to come along too so I picked him up from his house at 5am and off we went. It was a good run all the way to my daughter Kerys’s house. She lives in Devon and I’d promised to pick her and my two grandchildren up en route and take them down to Cornwall with us for the day.

I still get a thrill driving over the Tamar Bridge. It’s a high suspension bridge and the view to the river far below is amazing. There are usually a couple of naval warships parked up there and any number of smaller boats and ships. Then there’s Brunel’s sexy curvy railway bridge that runs parallel to the road bridge. It’s a strange design, 100% Victorian but also strangely futuristic and steampunk-ish; like something from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Or it could be a large scale model of the Loch Ness Monster. I don’t think there’s another bridge in the world like it. The other thrill is entirely emotional. Crossing the bridge means that I’m returning to my roots; I’m back in both my childhood and ancestral home. The broad river Tamar slices Cornwall off from mainland Britain and the county is effectively an island - It’s almost impossible to get into the place without crossing a bridge of some kind. Which is why, as the borders of the kingdom of Cornwall were gradually pushed further and further westwards by the English Saxons (Kernow, as it was called then, once consisted of Cornwall and the Scillies, most of Devon and a major chunk of Somerset), the river formed a natural boundary that the enemy couldn’t cross. Consequently, the Celtic culture and the Cornish language (Kernowek) stayed west of the Tamar. It really was a different country once. And even now, stroppy Cornish separatists are demanding equal billing with the other Celtic nations of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and the Isle of Man.

First stop was Camborne and a visit to my brother Jake’s house. Camborne and neighbouring Redruth once formed the steam engineering capital of the UK and they were two of the richest towns in Britain. Sadly, Camborne now just looks run-down and destitute. There are Pound shops everywhere; as indicative of poverty as DNA is at the scene of a crime. Once, the whole town throbbed to the mighty engines of a hundred tin mines and the sky was black with smoke from iron foundries and engineering works. The monolithic granite-built factories now stand empty and the tin mines are silent. All that’s left of the business are the skeletal remains of the pump houses and their tall chimneys; nothing defines the Cornish landscape more. The mining industry rolled over and died in 1998 with the closure of the last working mine at South Crofty in Camborne. It was the end of an era; tin has been almost continuously mined on the Crofty site for 400 years and the shafts extend two and a half miles under the town and to a depth of some 3000 feet.

The closure was marked by some poignant graffiti. There is a story that the local police caught the daubers just as they were adding the final question mark. The officers read the graffiti, sighed sadly, got back in their car and drove slowly away. And what was written? Two lines from the chorus of Cornish Lads, a modern folk song written by local lad Roger Bryant:

‘Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too,
But when the fish and tine are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?’

Crofty has just re-opened for business and, as long as the price of tin remains high, has the potential for another 80 years of production. But such is the fragile nature of the industry that I'm not hopeful, sadly. There will always be cheaper labour elsewhere.

Then it was off to Hayle to visit my mother. She's just moved house again. She's moved five times in the past 25 years - I once started to suspect that she was trying to hide from me - and never seems to be happy unless she's scatting down walls (Ooh, that sounded so Cornish), building this, converting that or decorating the other. And in between property developments, she buys crappy abused old furniture from car boot sales, strips the paint off, polishes, fills, sands and varnishes and sells the resulting beautifully restored items on. My Mum is nearly 70, but still gets excited by power tools and works to a soundtrack of Queen and Guns 'n' Roses. Amazing woman. Anyhow, we joined her for a bracing dog walk up on the towans – a kind of moorland of sand dunes held together by seagrass – and enjoyed the unseasonal blue skies and the fantastic views across the bay towards St Ives. Nothing is better for showing off a sky than a broad ocean horizon and today was no exception. The clouds were extraordinary.

At the risk of getting boring, I’ll just say that we then spent the remaining daylight hours driving around Cornwall visiting various relatives finishing up just outside of Saltash – the last (or first) town in Cornwall - for a brief tea and biscuits visit with my Aunt Marlene and her chap Mike at their gorgeous hilltop barn conversion. Not that we could enjoy the view. A blanket of fog had settled over this part of North Cornwall and, indeed, the whole of the west country.

Having crossed back over the Tamar (and paid the toll for the privilege of ‘re-entering England’), we dropped Kerys and the kids off and then spent four hours peering intently through thick fog all the way home. The drive would have been tiring enough already but the additional strain that the limited visibility put on me was very wearing. And Liam snoring in the passenger seat didn't exactly goad me on. By the time we reached Wiltshire, my eyes were feeling heavy and my lower back ached. So we stopped at a motorway services, topped the car up with petrol and ourselves with Red Bull and then set off again. And as we drove, we munched our way through several bags of Haribo (the Tangfastic ones – they’re the best) to keep the sugar rush going.

We finally got back to High Wycombe at 12.15am. I dropped Liam off at his house and went home … and was completely unable to get to sleep as the combination of energy drinks and sugar was now providing my brain with enough energy to power the Duracell bunny for a thousand years.

The odometer on my car showed that my total mileage for the day was 717 miles. That's a hell of a drive in 20 hours. So, would I do it again?

Hell yes.


joelmead said...

Some fantastic photos. Still think you're mental to do the drive in the same day though…

Me said...

That cloud shot is fantasic.
Aside from that - I agree wholeheartedly with Joel!