Barmy Basset Hounds & Martins of Port Isaac

The thing with eating your ice cream on the sly is that you gotta pay for it later when your wife goes into an artisan fudge confectionery and arms herself with a sizeable waffle cone. Topped up by gigantic dollops studded with moreish caramel bits.

We had reached the village of Port Isaac (an easy drive from PadstowBoscastle or Tintagel in Cornwall) when I needed to use the loo at the carpark facing the sea, the water guzzling cow that I am. FYI Cows can drink up to and over 90 litres of water on hot days. I came out of the loo and why there stood my husband quietly tucking into a mint chocolate chip ice cream. A sheepish look surfacing upon the visage as he spotted me. His supplier: the ubiquitous Mr. Whippy.

Then he offered me a lick. A Lick. It was your veritable ‘just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins’ moment.

Providence is a sweet woman. She took me by the hand and led me to a fudge shop. Behind the till stood Mr Meakins, the owner who had played a part in Doc Martin, the British medical comedy TV series that was shot in Port Isaac. In the show, the village is called Port Wenn.

Martin. There you have the first name in the title of the post come into play. The show is delightful, I promise. You shall not and will not egg me. I would rather you make me an omelette.

At the fudge shop charmingly called Buttermilk – which made me instantly want to tuck into anything I laid eyes on inside its old interiors – I was urged by Meakins to lay my hand on a few fudges but my eyes sparkled at the thought of the half-eaten beauty you see below.

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Ship Shape indeed
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Anchor on the slipway

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The rusty old anchor which could easily challenge a gang of 40 beefy men to lift it is your introduction to Port Isaac. For this is a fishing village, aye, that traces its fishing roots back to the 13th century. Till the 19th century, men would have also been dragging carts of stone, ores, salt and limestone from the many ships that would have arrived at the small and busy harbour of Port Isaac — it was one of the few sheltered ones along the inhospitable Cornish coastline.

But here I get ahead of myself. Let me pause and retrace my steps to when we entered the village.

From the car park you walk down to the beach below and think this is it, but wait. Get out of that carpark onto the main road, then walk past The Angry Anchovy ensuring that you are not ensnared by pizzas and make your way down a steep and narrow road. Past weathered houses, ivy-caked stone walls and a parish church. At the bottom of the street an old school house pops up with a brooding slate exterior. You know you have hit pay dirt.

You are in Port Isaac, dear darling.

The home of British crabs and lobsters.

The main street winding into the town is flanked by 18th and 19th century cottages, some whitewashed with bright blue window panes and doors and others clad in dark slate fronts. A stone owl looked down imperiously at us from its perch upon dry stone walls as we we walked in the footsteps of the grumpy Martin Ellingham, who arrives in the village to be greeted by the likes of characters such as Bert Large and two grimy fishermen – they who almost drive him off the narrow country lanes after declaring him ‘Bodmin’. You would pounce upon that word if you are a Daphne du Maurier fan. The moors of Bodmin is where Jamaica Inn was (and still is) famously situated. If you were deemed Bodmin by a local it basically meant you were barmy (also that you could be a repository of murder and madness).

Opes, Cornish for narrow alleys between houses, issued warnings on signposts about big vehicles trying to barge their way in. Seriously, if you even thought of wedging yourself in a big car between those houses, I would say you deserve to sit inside while the rest of the world (like me) passes you by with ice cream cones held aloft as beacons of goodness.

Now if you gave me a house in Port Isaac, I would shut my eyes and take it off your hands. It is bustling and chirpy but there is an astonishing level of quiet that comes over the village as soon as you leave behind the harbour and start climbing up the opes where brooks gurgle by stone houses. There is a lifeboat shed in the village and a fisherman merchant’s smelly quarters where seafood is sold during the day but the real deal is as you climb up the hill. The village is spread out below you just beyond two breakwaters, pale turquoise waters and the coastline.

On our way up, we passed Martin’s cottage on the left, a little below which stood Bert Large’s whitewashed restaurant. Too many Doc Martin things in this post, you say? I would agree but that is because I am goading you into watching at least the first episode.

To come to the second part of this post’s title. We heard these baritone barks as we trudged up the hill. Not your average few barks. This was a remarkable volley that refused to stop. We peeked down through the gap between one of the houses and espied a podgy basset hound bent on playing Elvis for the day. Now people from Elvis country, hear me out. You had to meet Mr. Personality. After we had spent some time sitting on the hill and Adi had fooled around on the edges singing away so badly that I had to turn and run, we met this basset hound down at the harbour. He had a mate who was as quiet as he was mouthy. A few labradors ran around, but your guess is good enough to figure out who stole the show.

To agitate our basset boy, his amused master made a few faces and stooped to say a few things. Our ears ringing with his deepest of deep barks, the sight of his astoundingly droopy face, podgy body and pendulous ears carved into our minds, we left the village of Port Isaac with deep sighs. But wait, I can still hear his baritone woofs, can you?

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Opes of Port Isaac

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More opes
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You see what I mean when I say that you should arm yourself with an ice cream and then work it off by just walking. These opes demand it.
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Climbing up the hill for a view of the village and the coastline
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The one. Who excels at pestering me.
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Between the breakwaters
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Taking a moment to savour the beauty of the moment…
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…before yodelling
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Caught in the act

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Port Isaac Harbour
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Bert Large’s restaurant is the whitewashed stone cottage on the left. Above it, the first stone cottage with the orange pipings was Martin’s cottage in the show, Doc Martin.
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Master in a conversation with Mouthy One
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The image we left Port Isaac with

Before I leave you for the day, here’s Episode 1 of Doc Martin. Humour me?

Hardy’s Boscastle

“I found her out there
On a slope few see,
That falls westwardly
To the salt-edged air,
Where the ocean breaks
On the purple strand,
And the hurricane shakes
The solid land.”

Looking at those mesmerising opal-sapphire hued waters, just like the view that glistened in the midday sun below me, Thomas Hardy would have contemplated upon his chance meeting with the love of his life in the village of Boscastle. Dramatic environs such as these must surely serve as an elixir to seal in young love.

Hardy, if you are not acquainted with the man, wrote Tess of the D’urbervilles and challenged the traditional notions of morality in Victorian England. I have always wondered about it: How is it that Hardy could empathise so with his heroine? Here was a writer, far ahead of the times that he was a product of. I can almost hear Hardy echo Butch Cassidy: ‘Boy I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.’

But the post is neither on Hardy (really, you might say with some disbelief, given that the woman has waxed upon his love for two paragraphs and shall devote another to it), the strain of realism that pervades his writing, nor is it about Tess. It is to take you into the quaint fishing village of Boscastle where Hardy arrived as a young architect in 1870 to work on the restoration of the church of St. Juliot. His prize in the North Cornish village would have been to chance upon a pair of blue eyes (you know who that novel was inspired by) and a swathe of blonde hair that would have his heart for a long time even after the owner of those attributes, Emma Gifford, had died and he had married a second time. Hardy’s heart is buried with Gifford in her grave in a churchyard in Dorset, although his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.

When he arrived in Boscastle, he would have come upon the three pubs in the village, a lime kiln and the stonewashed cottages which are said to have been built from stones culled from the ruins of the Botreaux Castle (the village derives its name from the castle).

A lane past Cobweb Inn winds up the village. Now names in the English countryside are literal. You know when you come upon a Two Turn Lane what lies ahead, so when you come upon a name like Cobweb Inn, you can safely expect cobwebs hanging from the eaves and ceilings. Or so you could till the early ’90s when some namby pamby Health and Safety inspectors decided that thick, matted cobwebs hanging to keep flies away from kegs of wine and spirits was not hygienic. They were questioning decades of cobweb-wisdom of men who had run the pub as a wine cellar and flour store dating back to the 1700s.

The passing years have meant that we, as modern-day travellers, got the extras without the cobwebs such as clutches of charming boutiques, a National Trust tearoom and a museum on witchcraft at the entrance of which is the grave of a ‘witch’ called Joan Wytte. That poor 18th century woman’s skeleton had hung for years at the museum till they decided it was not quite okay. The river gushes alongside and if you follow its path up the cliffs above the harbour, you can go on long walks (as we did and it turned out to be so long that our legs would not stop trembling, but more about the trembling later in the next post).

After the quintessential tea & cake stop at the pretty tea room, once you are up on the cliffs, you can spot the Elizabethan harbour, a powerful reminder of times when privateers, wreckers and smugglers carried on thriving business with alacrity. Then you can sit on the cliffs and cast your mind back in time, that is all. Bung in a gale, a stormy sky and turbulent waters lashing against the cliffs. Maybe even imagine the Devil’s Bellows at half tide spouting out water below from the small hole at the bottom of the cliffs, and yes, you will be in another time and age with the necessary ingredient that is at the essence of every wild imagination, the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.

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Behind Adi is the lime kiln, the third stone structure from the right with the hint of an arched opening. The white cottage next door is the National Trust Tea Room. The kiln points to Boscastle’s quarrying past. 
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Temptation awaits the unwary inside the National Trust tea room

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Luna and Remus. Psst: Potter fans. Transfiguration happened. We got two giant Leonbergers playing in the waters with their mutt mate. However they were kind and they allowed two strange muggles to shower them with the customary cuddles and coos.
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Bridge in Boscastle
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The harbour put in place by the English sailor and explorer, Sir Richard Grenville, in the late 1500s. A popular hangout for smugglers and wreckers.
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Penally Point, below which is a blowhole that spouts up water in a gush and with a boom (the Devil’s Bellows) during low tide.
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That spot of white sticking out above the cliffs is Willa Lookout coastwatch
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Looking back at the cliffs of Boscastle from Forrabury Common

On Not Meeting Demelza in Poldark Country

No, not even Ross. Rather reality crept in upon me as I took nimble steps down to ruins of tin mines perched upon the rugged cliffs of the Cornish landscape, the inky-turquoise waters of the Celtic Sea crashed dashed against granite rocks and frothed below a strong afternoon sun. Paths ribboned around the cliffs, some muddy and slithery enough to make me take a step back, and, hold the husband back too. “If you are going, leave the car keys behind,” I said into the quiet of the noon. Unfeeling? Tough luck. You have got to figure out ways of dealing with stubbornness.

So you swoon over Ross Poldark, that well-toned torso in the buff, the scarred cheek beneath the tricorn hat and the smouldering good looks, but Winston Graham’s world does not even begin to touch upon the dangers which tin miners faced every day of their lives when they went about work. You see, what I have shown photographs of, above and below, are remnants of engine houses. The miners used to travel down shafts and go into a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels that ran below the sea for miles. Ponies were also sent down those shafts to work for months below in those tunnels. As they worked on extracting metal from the seams along the coastline, the sea pounded away above their heads.

There were dreadful accidents. Men used to work within the shafts, perched upon ledges as they worked man-worked engines to deliver their fellow workers to the tunnels. When an iron cap or bolt did not work right, entire pillars of men were mangled and crushed to death. Certainly not cheery, but the realities of life and how they have changed with time. You wonder if people still lead such lives, fraught with danger, in a bid to garner their daily pieces of bread.

We spent hours charting paths up and down the cliffs, exploring the disused tin engine houses and remnants of labyrinthine structures where arsenic was solidified and cooled into crystals. Yet we were in the midst of our explorations beneath a chirpy sun and blue skies – just close your eyes and lend your imagination to the same landscape under stormy skies and a gale-swept turbulent sea. That is the terribly truth of tin mining which is now conserved in these UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There were once 3,000 tin mines strewn around the coast.

I would say give it a go. It is the real story behind Poldark’s world.

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We walked down a narrow path to the bluff. From that big boulder jutting out above the bluff is a view of Botallack mines (it has been featured in Poldark). On both sides of the path are steep falls into the rocks below. It is a little alarming as you see that path from above the bluff, but as you scramble down, you realise that the trail is not as fatal as it looks.
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Before we climb up the cliffs and go down to the Botallack tin engine houses.
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Tall and Taller.
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Making our way down to the engine houses of Botallack. In the old days they used to have ladders that would take the miners to the engine house at the very bottom of the cliffs. We had no way of going down there. 
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Dramatic views around the Botallack ruins.
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Paths that suddenly taper off, hugging cliffs and snaking around them.
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Like that…
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Levant mines
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Fragrant gorse and mine remnants sticking out into the firmament.
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The tin miners who worked at Levant in the 19th century.
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Botallack in tatters
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Pendeen Lighthouse that tin miners must have seen as they went about their rigours.
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Towanroath Engine House in St. Agnes. Adi tripped down the slopes off the charted paths, and I had to follow, till I stopped short in dismay. Running down ’em slopes carpeted with heather and prickly bushes is not a plum idea. Period.
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The 19th century Towanroath Engine House is perched right above the Celtic Sea.
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Ponies around Land’s End
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Conversations with curious listeners
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Disused tin mines at Porkellis.
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The Celtic Sea beneath a mellow sun as it starts its journey into the horizon after an full day of shining strong above us.

Which Tin Mines to Explore: Head to the tin mines of Botallack, Levant and Geevor around Land’s End and the ones along the stretch of St. Agnes. Poldark Mine is the only one that takes you underground but the mine was re-dubbing taking advantage of the novels and the telly series. Botallack is the most dramatic of the lot.

Where to Stay: Book former lighthouse keepers’ cottages at Pendeen Lighthouse through Rural Retreats (www.ruralretreats.co.uk).

What to Do: Long rambles around the tin mines. The thing to remember is this: Do not go tumbling into the granite rocks below. Some paths are dangerous. We took some of them so I would not say wuss out completely. But do take a call and keep a check upon those adventurous genes in places where you do not feel quite so sure of making it back. You also have to keep this in mind that in this part of mining country, you do not have to make an effort. Drama will come your way.