As part of my visit to my home county, indeed the veritable “raison d’etre” of my travels really, I was to join the celebrations of my sister’s 60th birthday. Around a year back she moved from Tiverton in Devon down to Truro, the county capital and administrative center of Cornwall.
Despite having lived in Cornwall for all of my formative years and being proud of my heritage I have to admit that I can’t recall that I had ever visited Truro in my life. I probably have actually, as part of one of those interminable school trips of my youth. Outings that were celebrated more because it meant that you weren’t in class than for the cultural splendor of whatever it was that we were dragged off to see. I don’t recall such an outing but there was probably some occasion that demanded a visit to the place.
To be honest my only real recollections of school trips centre around the “individually wrapped fruit pies” which all the kids had in their packed lunches. And of course the inevitable regurgitation of those self-same pies some time later, when one of those afflicted by chronic motion sickness would decorate the coach or carriage floor with vomit. Such that all memories of school outings bring back to mind a disgusting aroma of bile, Dettol and little else. The clickety-clack of rail tracks and the acrid olfactory affront of partially digested fruit pies are indelibly linked in my head to this day.
All of that notwithstanding I was on my way to Truro, and as any recollections of previous visits were entirely lacking it was something of an adventure. I find myself constantly amazed at how close together things are in the South of England. Perhaps because most of my time living there was when I was both small and limited, in terms of travel, by the range of my puny legs and the mechanical inadequacies of my bicycle. Thus, places that seemed far from home in my youth, now with the modern conveniences of motorized transport, good roads and such are all really rather on top of one another. Indeed Truro, a very distant, near mythical location in my youth was now little more than an hour’s travel. That however belies the actual isolation of these places. Towns or hamlets but a mile or two apart still enjoy their own unique ambiance and it is not at all unusual to find elderly residents of such places who have rarely, if ever, visited the town a stone’s throw away over the next hill. It is perhaps one of the more likeable traits of England, that no matter that is sinking under a massive population for such a small isle it can still offer up the illusion of space and isolation.
So I ventured out in my snazzy bright yellow hire car along the A39 heading for Camelford, Wadebridge, Winnard’s Perch and Indian Queens on my way to the country capital. Of course there is no need to mention the route but for the fact that I love the place names in England, they conjure up all manner of images in my mind and seem so unlikely. How on earth does a place in mid-Cornwall end up with a name like Indian Queens?
Well apparently it comes from the name of a coach house or inn which displayed a picture of an “Indian Queen” on its frontage. The image supposedly of a Portuguese princess who landed in Falmouth and spent a night in this particular establishment, her darkened complexion giving the idea that she was Indian. There are however other versions of the story and one romantic, if rather unlikely idea is that the Queen in question was Pocahontas, the daughter of an American Indian chief and now better known as a Disney character. The lack of credible evidence of this hasn’t stopped the town having a street named after the princess and in a spiral of increasingly bizarre nomenclature you can, if you look, find “Pocahontas Crescent” in Indian Queens, smack bang in the middle of the Cornish countryside amidst, Trelawneys, Trevithics, St Columbs and such. It is odd, but then at the same time it really is rather quaint. Of no import to what my sister refers to as the “intellectually incurious” but to me really rather fascinating.
The journey took me through the Allen Valley, a roadway alongside the Camel River, a place which I do recall from my youth. It is perhaps one of the loveliest pieces of road in the whole of the South West, (Although the Exe Valley is right up there too I have to say). A narrow two lane highway entirely covered in the summer months, by a tunnel of bright green. The trees on either side of the road apexing cathedral like above the roadway.The height of the tunnel, as best I can tell, only determined by the trimming effects of the top of tourist coaches. Driving along its meandering tarmac is like being encased in a massive wave. In fact if you don’t surf I could recommend a drive along this highway if only because it might give you something of the sensation of being “barreled” as the surfers call it, when riding in the tubular flow of an ocean swell, turning over rapidly on contact with a shallow reef. In short it is quite specular. I considered turning the car about and racing back the way I had come just to experience it all once more, but time was pressing and I continued on my route. I could get “barreled” again on my way home in a few days anyway.
In the “Green Room” along the Allen Valley
It is a further oddity that the Allen River (from which the name Allen Valley is taken) has a cousin of the same name flowing eventually through Truro, my ultimate destination. Apparently this the result of an error on an Ordinance Survey Map resulting in two rivers of the same name in the same county. Perhaps that is why so many places have, to me at least, odd names, there is then little room for confusion and it’s not too likely that one will end up with two “Box’s Shops” or “Winnards Perches” on the map.
Perhaps unfortunately, one rarely goes through any of these towns that are signposted along the way. The invention of the “mini-roundabout” and the “bypass” have led to a plethora of entirely confusing interchanges which whilst speeding things up demand considerable alertness on the part of the driver and result in one skirting most of the intervening hamlets. On the periphery of Truro I was to come upon a multiple “mini-roundabout” so confusing that I am sure the main reason that it functions at all is that everyone slows down so much and is so careful that in fact there are few accidents. Inquiries during my stay revealed that not a single local with whom I spoke had the foggiest idea how this convoluted intersection was supposed to function. Fortunately drivers in the South West tend to be tediously considerate such that traffic jams are more based on the “you go..no you go” sort of interaction rather than the violent road rage “I’m going to F@#$ you up” type incidents of more northern metropolitan centres.
I finally, having negotiated the imaginary breaking waves of the Allen Valley, the confusion of the mini-roundabouts and the ubiquitous road works that interrupt all motor vehicle travel, arrived in Truro.
Having done the obligatory greetings and dropped off my bags I sallied forth to explore the surrounds of my temporary new home. The Truro skyline is entirely dominated by the Cathedral, a quite spectacular edifice to the illusion of heavenly power. Designed by the architect John Loughborough Pearson the highest spire of the structure rises some 76 metres from the ground. The Cathedral took 30 years to build, between 1890 and 1910, situated on top of St Mary’s Church which had been consecrated some 600 years previously. I am not particularly given over to interest in religious architecture of religious anything else for that matter but the cathedral is, even to a confirmed atheist, really rather impressive. I confess that I didn’t venture closer or indeed inside as I was on a mission to wander, and hopefully find a cosy hostelry in which to enjoy a decent beer.
The city of Truro holds the honour of being the most southerly city in Great Britain, and to me one of the most wonderful things about the place is the age and history that is all about one as one walks. Where else would one find the pavements manufactured out of massive granite slabs? Or for that matter a river running underneath the city centre. It quite fascinated me that the river flows on either side of the market area but not through it. This because it has been moved underground at that point to make way for Marks and Spencer’s, well that last bit is a fib, but it has been channeled underground so as not to dissect the pedestrian precinct of the market area. In days gone by the centre of Truro was apparently a thriving port and one can still get a ferry down the estuary to Falmouth, itself a significant maritime trading post in the past. On this day it wasn’t likely that I would be able to enjoy any boat based transport, the tide was out and in these parts when the tide is out, it is out with a capital “O”!
A walk along the banks past some rather smart offices and on to a more slovenly area of broken concrete, scrap yards and such revealed miles of mud flats, dotted with boats lying high and dry. I was quite fascinated to see that many sported, one imagines specifically designed, little legs on them such that they remain upright when the tide recedes. There were also a good number of rotting hulls in various degrees of decay gradually sinking into the sticky looking river bottom and serving little purpose other than as perches for the ever present seagulls.
One might think this a rather depressing scene but in all honesty, but for the scrap yards, I thought it all rather pretty. It turns out that I had chosen my route poorly and had I walked down the other side of the inlet I would have enjoyed sports fields, yacht basins and yes pubs too. In fact I could have, given sufficient time and energy trekked to Malpas, a glorious riverside village set at the confluence of the Truro and Tresillian Rivers. I also found out, all too late, that I could have arranged some trout fishing on the Tresillian, a little higher up, but alas there was no place locally from which to obtain an Angling Passport to do so legitimately and I ultimately had to forego that pleasure
Anyway I hadn’t chosen that particular route and headed back into the town centre, purchasing one of many very tasty Cornish pasties that I enjoyed during my trip, and ate it along the way. I was in search of a pub and eating some lunch, even on the move, seemed like a sensible option.
The wonderful charm of English village names apparently extends to the streets in these parts. On the way to The Rising Sun, an alehouse that I hoped might provide a decent beer (as it happens I wasn’t to be disappointed). I ventured down a doglegged and narrow passageway between ancient buildings with the colourfully authentic title of “Squeeze Guts Alley”.. Certainly if two patrons of The Rising Sun, having dedicated a lifetime to sampling the wide variety of local ales and developing the bodily dimensions that generally accompany such an obsession, were to try to pass each other within the confines of this particular backstreet they would undoubtedly bring visual confirmation of its title. But what a wonderfully creative name, and to my mind a far more memorable and descriptive legend for a roadway than, for example, Pocahontas Crescent.
So having enjoyed an authentic local ale or two and a decent Cornish pasty it was time to return to my accommodations and assist in party preparations. I walked back up the granite clad, Georgian splendor of Lemon Street, past the statue of Richard Lander, a Cornish explorer who sailed and trekked the Niger River and was apparently the first to recognize that its mouth was in fact a delta. This intrepid soul died as a result of a musket ball lodged in his leg during a fight with native tribesmen in Africa. Compared to his travels perhaps it is unfair to refer to a short drive to and a leisurely wander around Truro as an “adventure”. Mind you Richard Lemon Lander may well have had to fight off hostile tribes and bouts of fever but I bet he never negotiated a mini-roundabout, and I figure that makes us about even.