Saturday, 15 May 2010

A Tale of Two Cities


Almost anywhere looks better on a bright sunny morning, but I don't thinh it was simply today's weather that made Truro look so pretty. This is in every sense a perfect little city of cobbled streets and fine old buildings dressed in pale warm granite. There's a host of crooked ways and its easy – and rewarding - to get lost among them. I did, and I loved it.

There's a fine old Brunel railway station up the hill, of course, but for me the architectural top dog has to be the cathedral, which manages to look both cool and simple and exquisitely decorative at the same time. Worth a peek inside, too.

But I didn't have time to wait around – I had a bus to catch and I was all too soon on the road to Newquay, which is on Cornwall's Atlantic coast. The journey there, by double decker (guess where I was sitting – that's right, on top at the front), was along Cornwall's by now familiar narrow country lanes, but this time the landscape had more of a downland feel to it with soft rounded hills and huge airy skies. There were very few trees and those that were had that withered wind-blown look that spoke of Atlantic gales that blew for 12 months of the year.

Newquay must have been quite grand during Victorian and Edwardian times but like many such seaside resorts along Britain's coast has fallen on harder times since. It's still a-buzz with activity, though, thanks to a youthful surfer crowd who now swarm over this coastline and who are catered for by the dozens of brash and noisy bars which have recently sprung up. That this youthful influx is not always a happy state of affairs for local residents - despite the much-needed income they clearly bring to the town - is evidenced by signs in some shop doorways informing people that "this is not a toilet" and that CCTV cameras are being trained on them.

Newquay was followed by a spectacular run up the coast to the once-pretty village of Padstow – a place now so full of tourists that it difficult to see much pretty in it any more. The setting is wonderful, of course, a cluster of shops and bars around an old harbour with a warren of pictureseque narrow streets behind.

But there are two centres to Padstow now – the harbour, and the renowned TV chef Rick Stein's own fish and chip shop which is based in a strikingly modern building a little further along the quay. On a bright and sunny day like today, the crowds are split equally between those who are in and around Rick's chippie and are eating fish and chips as if the cod is about to become extinct (which, of course, it is), and those who have already eaten their fish and chips and are now strolling contentedly around the harbour. Leaving Padstow was something of a relief, I'm afraid to say.

Onwards then to Bodmin where I take yet another of my now customary strolls around the town whilst waiting for a connection. Here were all the features of a fine Cornish town – higgledy piggledy narrow streets, stately granite buildings, cunning little back lanes – but the presence of empty shops and numerous 'To Let' signs (which I'd seen very few of so far) suggested that Bodmin was feeling the wearing effects of the recession rather more than other towns, and was showing them.

I got off in the centre of Plymouth, the second city of my travels today, and I immediately felling love with the place. Personally, I blame the Germans.

Even by wartime standards, Plymouth had a hard war. Thanks to the proximity of the Devonport naval dockyards, the city took a right old clobbering from the Nazis during World War Two, with the result that there wasn't much of the city centre that was still standing by 1945 (apart from the medieval Barbican area which miraculously survived and which is a joy to behold). So after the war the city fathers set about re-building the city centre in the mode of the modern-thinking but essentially pre-war trained 1950's, with the result that Plymouth now boasts a grand and elegant central shopping centre joyfully crafted from that most dignified of building material, pale Portland stone. It is a joy. And it's clearly commercially successful.

It will be difficult to leave tomorrow, but the road leads me ever onwards - to Dartmoor and the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. Unfortunately, it will rain - but at least it might lend yet more character to Dartmoor's misty wastes!

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