Monthly Archives: June 2017

Bedraggled Bodmin

I read Kirsty Fergusson’s excellent book SLOW TRAVEL Cornwall and wrote down the names of towns that sounded interesting.  That’s why Ruth & I went to Bodmin.  It turned out to be very interesting but not for the reasons we went there. Bodmin has a long, colorful history but has seen better days.

It’s the only Cornish town mentioned in The Doomsday Book.  Compiled in 1058, this was one of the earliest public record documents in history.  It followed a survey ordered by King William I and listed all the landholdings and resources in the area.  I don’t know how it got its depressing name.  It became the foundation document of the British national archives.  Bodmin was the scene of 7 Holy Wells visited by pilgrims searching for health and omens.  Nearby Dozmary Pool is thought to be the lake from which King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, emerged from the depths.  This hilly town sits near vast Bodmin Moor, a granite expanse that is the source of many of Cornwall’s rivers.

About 50 years ago a bureaucrat chose to close many local train depots.  Many towns like Bodmin lost easy rail access to the rest of the country.  The closest main line train service to Bodmin is 3 miles from town. The station is called Bodmin Parkway.  Visitors like us have to rely on a slow bus to get us to town. The old Bodmin and Wenford that calls itself Cornwall’s premier steam railway, however, is still chugging around, but it’s a strictly tourist railroad going nowhere scenically.

The name Bodmin derives from the Celtic phrase “Bodmeneghy”.  This means ‘by the sanctuary of monks’.  Bodmin was already a monastic settlement in the 6th century.  If you go there, don’t stay at the White Hart Inn, a hotel/pub we booked through Expedia.   Most of the people who check in and dine next door at the Westbury Hotel and Restaurant call it the dungeon.  That’s apt.  It was so bad that we moved to the Westberry where its new proprietor, Le Khanh Au Duong, took very good care of us.   The restaurant, which I highly recommend, serves typical English food and delicious Thai dishes.

Bodmin has some curious tourist attractions.  The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Museum was being visited by fewer and fewer tourists, so a new marketing director who redid it was hired.  The conflicts that this regiment fought in, including the American Revolutionary War, form an impressive list.  But the 2 best attractions we found in Bodmin were its comprehensive visitor center in the Shire Hall and an entertainment called the Courtroom Experience. It was truly original and I’ll tell you about another day.


ps  Views from Bodmin’s White Hart Inn:



Cuba Travel Changes

Ruth and I were lucky.  We visited Cuba earlier this year on a Fathom cruise.   They’re no longer being offered.   Being the first cruise line to enter Cuba when restrictions were lifted, Fathom, a Carnival company, took boatloads of Americans there.   Carnival continues to offer cruises to Cuba, but there are few available.   With the U.S. Government now restricting travel to Cuba, this will be more and more the case.

For the time being, only licensed tour operators can take Americans to Cuba. Group operators, apparently, will sell more trips to Cuba, but hotel builders and airlines will scale back plans.   Southwest, American, and Jet Blue have already cancelled flights although Southwest is still offering daily flights to Havana.  I have read that those planning independent travel to Cuba are cancelling trips.

After Barak Obama made travel to Cuba less restrictive, curious Americans headed there in large numbers.   Airbnb added lots of homes there to its offerings.   But Donald Trump announced new restrictions in June and now Americans can only travel there as part of an organized group, like Road Scholar, the Smithsonian, etc.    Since Americans will need a tourist card to enter Cuba, people will have to go legally with a group.

When we went to Cuba earlier in 2017, we were not, to my knowledge, monitored.   We were taken to only state-run shops to buy rum and cigars and heard that the Cubans who spoke to us were being questioned by plain clothes officials, but I was on my own, at times, to look around. This kind of freedom many no longer be possible.  The Trump Administration has told the Treasury Department to enforce the law.   Our cruise was supposedly a people to people, get acquainted cultural exchange endeavor, but every time passengers engaged Cubans in conversation, they were asked for money, soap, a photo op, etc.

If you were looking forward to traveling around Cuba without restriction, you’re at least temporarily out of luck.   If you’ve decided to wait-and-see if the policy changes, you can at least rent The Fate of the Furious when it becomes available on July 11.  It was partially shot in and around Havana.  The production company reportedly generated 300 jobs.   No new Cuban-made U.S. movies have been announced except for Wasp Network, which will also film in Florida.  Probably.  There is no official timetable yet.



If You’re Going to Cornwall….

If you’re going to England and visiting a lot of gardens, homes, and castles, consider getting an Overseas Visitor Pass.  You can see about 100 attractions for as little as £31 with it.  An upgrade is available too that increases the number to about 400, including the castle in Launceston.   We didn’t learn about this pass until we were in our final Cornwall destination, Launceston.  Seeing the castle ruins would have been free if we had the upgrade.

I looked back over the available choices and realized that we would have gotten into exactly one place, Tintagel, with an OVP.    However, the entry to it was less than £10 and I was not happy at Tintagel.   There was almost nothing about King Arthur in the area and I got tired of tourist shops and hearing people enthuse about being in King Arthur’s home.  Actually, the Tintagel Castle ruins date from the 13th century, and it was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall.  We saved several £s by not having an Overseas Visitor Pass on this trip.  But if we go back….

We saw a lot in Cornwall.  When we were on our way back to London, I looked over what we had missed, and there were 4 major attractions that we didn’t get to for a variety of reasons.  I have learned, over time, to skip some major stuff wherever Ruth & I go and like so that we have reasons to return.   But these 4 seemed exceptional, so if you’re going to Cornwall…..

Eden.  Many people asked if we had visited The Eden Project.  No.  We thought about it but were never close enough to St. Austell to see the place that TripAdvisor calls “Paradise” and the BBC calls a garden of indulgent magnificence. Eden, 2 huge covered Biomes reportedly in a crater, is said to be the largest rainforest under a roof.  It’s actually devoted to the scientific study of rainforest biodiversity.  Its most recent venture is a Western Australian garden.

Port Isaac.  After Ruth watched Poldark, she got into Doc Martin.  Doc Martin supposedly practices medicine in this small, scenic Cornish port, which is seen regularly on this series.  Although other travelers asked if we had been there, the closest we came was finding it on a map.

The Minack Theatre.  Near Penzance, this unlikely outdoor theater built into a Cornish cliff is, according to Lonely Planet, “One of the world’s top 10 open air experiences”.   Something is performed in Minack every day except Christmas and the day after it, and there are busses from Penzance to get you there. However, we had seen the show that was current, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Isles of Scilly.   Pronounced “silly”, this cluster of small, subtropical islands surrounded by aquamarine water is 24 miles off the Cornwall coast.  Five isles are inhabited, mostly by people seeking the peace that comes with a slower pace.  Travelers like to day-trip, walk everywhere, and hop from island to island.  I know this because we had breakfast 2 mornings with a lady named Pamela who was planning to do exactly that.


A Celebrated Mousehole

My favorite Cornwall town was Launceston.  Ruth favored Mousehole.  I can see why.  It’s more of a village than a town and the kind of place where kids can ride bikes and dive into the bay without adult supervision. It has galleries selling art and little shops with tourist trinkets in their windows but no real attractions other than its history and as a hamlet to witness a slower pace in an enchanted place.  Since parking is a problem, I’d suggest taking the public bus from Penzance to get to Mousehole.  Once there, your feet will be enough to see all of it.

Historically, Mousehole has been around for a long time as a fishing village.   In 1595 it was almost completely burned to the ground by Spaniards in the Battle of Cornwall during the Anglo-Spanish War.   I spied this information on a plaque on a private residence.  It stated, “Squire Jenkyn Keigwin was killed here…defending his house against the Spaniards. Mousehole was burned but the house spared.  It is now the oldest in the village built circa 14th Cent.” Another historical marker said, “Here lived Dolly Pentreath one of the last speakers of the Cornish language as her native tongue died Dec. 1777.”

A century ago Mousehole was a lively commercial fishing port of narrow streets lined with shops.   Today it’s known for its elaborate Christmas lights. People helicopter out from Penzance to see them from on high.

About 35 years ago the Solomon Browne, a local lifeboat, sank while trying to rescue the crew of the Union Star, a cargo-laden coaster.  The Browne’s entire crew, 8 men, died. Then in 1967 The Torrez Canyon, a supertanker carrying more than 25 million gallons of oil, struck a rock and broke up off the Cornish coast.  It was the world’s worst oil spill for a time and 8,000 oil-covered birds passed through the Mousehole Wild Bird Hospital.   Founded in 1928, this charity is still around and opened to the public.

Mousehole is the perfect name for this Cornish destination.



Ruth & Poldark

Daphne du Maurier wasn’t the only prolific Cornwall writer.  Another was Winston Graham.  If you’re like me, you’re now asking, “Winston who?”  At least that was me a couple of months ago.  Then I went to Cornwall.  I can explain Graham’s popularity in one word–Poldark.

When Ruth knew she was going to Cornwall, she found the BBC series that played on Masterpiece Theater and binge-watched it.  She watched Doc Martin too, but Poldark won her affection.  At first she wasn’t sure she liked it, but by the end of series 2 she was in love with it and Ross.  Her hope was to see where it was actually filmed.   She especially fantasized about standing on the promontory where her romantic hero rode his horse across Cornwall cliffs above the ocean.

Ross is the central character in the Poldark novels.  Winston Graham wrote 12 of them beginning in 1945. He moved to the part of Cornwall known as The Tin Coast when he was 17 and stayed for 34 years.   Over time he wrote 32 novels, but nothing has resonated like Poldark. Early in the TV series and books, Ross returns home from involvement in the American Revolutionary War.  No longer an escaped prisoner of war, he find his father has died, his mine is failing, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin.

The first few Poldark novels were the subject of a BBC series beginning in 1977. It lasted for 2 seasons and attracted 15,000,000 viewers.  Revived in 2015, 27 new episodes have been filmed.  They begin with the 1st two novels.  New episodes that will surely find their way to the United States begin on the BBC this month.  Poldark location tours are becoming big business in Cornwall, and Ruth made it to that promontory thanks to a woman who lives in St. Just named Christine.  One woman in tourism told me that Americans, who love this series like Ruth does, like to go to Exeter and take a tour of as many Poldark locations as they can in one day.

Thanks to Christine, Ruth visited 2 of the 3 locations near St. Just.  North of Land’s End, Great Britain’s most southwesterly point, Poldark was filmed at West Wheat Owles, the Levant Mine, and, most importantly, the Botallack Mine.  There are 9 other Cornwall sites shown in A Guide to Poldark Locations, a publication of “Cornish Mining World Heritage”.   Poldark is so popular in Cornwall and has contributed so much to its economy that I was asked not to reveal some of the locations I learned about.  Because shooting has been so difficult in a place of narrow roads and limited services, I was told that new episodes will likely be shot in Wales, which also has a rich mining heritage. Check out the overly romanticized, old Bette Davis movie The Corn Is Green.  

The Romans came to Cornwall to trade for what they called stannum. We call it tin.  We spent most of our time at Botallack, where there’s a small, interesting museum about local mining. Here I learned that Botallack had its own Poldark figure.  Stephen Harvey James saved Botallack from abandonment in the mid 19th century with the discovery of copper. By 1865 it was thriving and providing 500 jobs   At Botallack we watched some interviews. Being questioned were a Poldark producer and Winston Graham’s son.

Ruth got to see the place where Ross rode his horse while attempting to solve his problems. Unlike Ross, Ruth had a giant smile on her face.