Sunday, 24 December 2017

Motorsport Can Be Dangerous (Devon and Cornwall, Part 2)

We were headed for Lands End. Not the place itself, which, despite being the setting for one of the great unsung classics of children’s literature is, according to M, “really boring,” but Penzance and St Ives. I was interested to visit both towns, and they’re as close to the Southernmost and Westernmost points of England as we could be bothered to go. I did have a look at how much it would cost to get to the Isles of Scilly, and decided it wasn’t worth it. I’ll go there when I’ve made my fortune selling secondhand records and I’m trying to decide what to do with my yacht.

Penzance is a great town. Sure, it has plenty of tell-tale signs of people living in poverty and heroin, but it has lots going for it. It has atmosphere, dramatic landscape, architectural interest and more miles between it and London SE15 than the Tyne Bridge. We met up with some other ex-regulars from the Ivy House who moved out of London at about the same time as us. They’ve both got jobs down there, and their young son is starting nursery school. 

What they make (so far) of their drastic change of circumstances is given interesting perspective by the fact that they’ve both taken the time and trouble to be American.I don’t know them particularly well, only chatting to them on a few occasions prior to this, and I tend to assume that Americans experiencing The Great British Countryside can only possibly be enjoying a quaint oldy-worldiness. People hailing from a continent where the scale of everything dwarfs what is possible on these islands surely can’t actually be thrilled by the best that our natural and built environments have to offer, can they? 

As we walked down the hill away from the Admiral Benbow Inn (where I was moved to tell the barman that my two pints of Proper Job were the best cask ales I’d drunk in the last six months, the length and breadth of the country), one of our new friends leapt into an involuntary star-jump at the view. “LOOK at this place.” She almost snarled. “I FUCKING LOVE IT.” And, for the umpteenth time on this journey, I had to agree.

Not just because I’m a little scared of her (because the first time I ‘met’ her, she was heavily pregnant and just standing in the doorway of the Ivy House, firing ice-laser-beams out of her eyes at her partner, who had already fielded two ‘come home’ phone calls while sitting at the bar nattering about record shops in Brooklyn), but also because the view across harbour to water was impressive. She is, I realise now, one of the most talented pubgoers I’ve met, effortlessly striking up conversations with locals everywhere we went (The Lamp and Whistle was very good too), although Being American might be cheating.

He, for his part, has already got himself a regular spot playing records in some late-night bar, and gained unrestricted access to one of those stupidly huge archive-type collections you see YouTube videos about. The thought occurred to me that Penzance was all the more inspiring a place for us to visit because it had this family happily living in it. They took us to the lido cafĂ© for breakfast, which was amazing – the food, the elegant lines of the building, but, more than anything, the light.

Also, one member of staff (still) wore a Save the Lido T-shirt, and I felt a little Londonsick for the first time. People would ask me why, a year after the pub reopened, the Twitter account I was running was still called Save the Ivy House, although we would always both know that if nobody spent any money there, it would close again, forever, and soon. Being a customer for small businesses is like Mr Incredible says, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again… sometimes I just want it to STAY SAVED, y’know?”

Near St Michael’s Mount (or a good view of it from Marazion) there’s a great spot to park up (we have found it much easier since M found this website), away from the road but open to the elements. We were battered by the wind and rain more relentlessly than on any night since Rothbury, and although we never quite got to the bottom of whether Plymouth is truly “Britain’s Ocean City”, I’m not having anybody try to tell me that what was blowing around and through Vanny that night was a breeze from the English Channel or Irish Sea. That’s the Atlantic Ocean right there, and you can’t tell me any different.

Two of M’s least favourite things (on this tour, at least, after me) are steep, winding roads on which I might end up running her over, and towns where most of the buildings are Londoners’ second homes. But, like the Bio-Electronic Navigator BEN-GUNN in Disney’s version, she arrowed in on St Ives Rugby Club, which is a good overnight stop (if you’re prepared to ignore a few signs) and saves you from having to take your van down the slope into the narrow lanes of town.

Big H had told us to beware of ‘low-flying seagulls and Barbara Hepworth sculptures’ and we were soon victims of both. In something of a Cornish ClichĂ©, M had the last bit of pasty stolen from her by a gang of gulls. A gull gang, or rather, one adult seagull and a bunch of teenage gulls flying around him, trying to look hard. Despite the armour of the brown paper bag it was barely protruding from, M, showing me her angry-red fingers, said she could feel that the seagull’s beak was serrated at its edge. I call BULLSHIT. (Remember to Google that before putting it in the blog.)

It’s interesting how Dame Babs has left great slabs of stone and metal lying next to our route throughout, from the dreadful sculpture above John Lewis on Oxford Street, where I spent the vouchers my colleagues collected for on my departure exactly a year ago, through Big H’s retirement japes with a cardboard replica of Two Forms (which had been a well-loved landmark in the best lesson I ever planned (rendered unreusable when the Divided Circle was recombined in a backstreet scrapyard’s furnace six years ago)), past reading about what Leeds is famous for, and ending up peering into her garden.

There were some nice ones of hers in the Tate, though. Big H’s younger namesake must have received an irreverent message psychically, as his behaviour in Tate St Ives was the worst I’ve seen from either boy on the whole tour. (To give credit where it is due, this wouldn’t even place him in the 30th percentile of the Boys’ Bad Behaviour Bell Curve I didn’t draw when I was teaching.)

H just wandered about looking grumpy and bored and saying sarcastic-sounding things that his vocabulary didn’t quite stretch to. I didn’t exactly help, delving into myTired and Bored Teacher’s Mental Book of Wind-Ups as we sat in front of Roger Hilton’s Oi Yoi Yoi.

“I just don’t like it. It’s not very good. It doesn’t even look like a person.” He opined.

“Ah, but you’re still responding to it. Well Done. You are appreciating it for what it is, whether you like it or not.”

This made him really cross, marching off to one of the two stations in the gallery that asked for feedback to be written on little paper circles which could then be hung on little round pegs. There were lots of little pencils with which to write something heartfelt. H was the second most-motivated (after his Christmas list) I’ve ever seen him when writing, “I didn’t like any of it. And I’m keeping the pencil.”

It was, as my brother has suggested, a good time to visit the town, and be able to enjoy its pubs and bars and beaches without all the bloody part-timer tourists getting in the way. Beer and Bird, the Firehouse, John’s bottle shop and more took plenty of money from us in return for great food and beer and incredibly friendly, professional service. It was, in fact, one of those phases of the tour when it felt like we are just on a really long, greedy holiday, breaking off chunks of Property Pie and stuffing it into our fat mouths, getting all bits of filling stuck in our beards.

Or maybe it was just me.

So for the first step of the journey back East, we thought we’d do something more educational. E had been insistent upon trying either quad biking or paintballing. It was a school day and I felt that driving a motor vehicle would hopefully be a more useful transferable skill for his future than shooting people, so we visited Blackwater’s ATV centre. Like the shit and boring Dad I sometimes have to be, I made a point of standing them for a meaningful moment in front of the sign that says MOTORSPORT CAN BE DANGEROUS in big letters.

It wasn’t really that important a lesson for these two first-time drivers. The sign would probably be better-deployed next to the A30 near Ottery St Mary. The boys were given full safety gear and excellent tuition, and the quad bikes themselves had little throttle limiters that the young bloke adjusted carefully, according to their respective ages and body weights. These, I feel, should be fitted to ALL vehicles driven by anybody under the age of 45. As they pootled around a well-designed course, they looked like they had a lot of fun, even if H did shout “I HATE THIS,” each time he passed me in the pits.

I consider this to be a healthy attitude to motor vehicles. Although I’ve never particularly enjoyed driving, this van is the most comfortable and least stressful ride I’ve ever had. Part of it is the position, up nice and high so you can see everything. Part of it is never having to stop because somebody needs the toilet. But the biggest part is that it doesn’t go very fast, so I don’t feel obliged to keep my speed up. The fact that I can’t see out of the back, so I don’t feel the pressure of a great long line of Audi drivers shaking their well-groomed fists at me, probably helps too.

M had just come back from the loo. This is illegal, of course, but I would like to see any of you try and stop her, even if you weren’t driving. The fact that you can’t see what’s behind you came as a blessing yet again, as I was only aware of these two cars, bumper-to-bumper at about seventy-five, as they appeared in the right-hand corner of my vision. As the second car, a little sporty-hairdresser’s thing, was passing me on my right, it was looking to accelerate across in front of me and undertake the first car in one very short diagonal line.

“Undertakers. Friends only to the Undertaker,” I decided to write in a blog several days later.

He lost control with his car a few feet in front of Vanny’s brave little snub nose, immediately going into a spin and bumping skywards off the central reservation, spinning mid-air, broadsiding the crash barrier with an enormous, well, crash, bouncing up in the air again and doing a lot of quick backwards swervy stuff before gradually slowing to a stop. All the time this was happening, I was just looking at the slow-lane gap, leaning forward over the wheel like Dougal in Pat’s milk float.

M said she felt she was looking at his face all the way through. Both boys were watching too, and all of us reported something different – M didn’t hear a crash, E was just mesmerized by how many “bits of mud and other stuff were flying up in the air,” H’s keen sense of drama reported that he was sure he’d heard the car knock some bits off the van. We were all in shock, and resolved, then and there, to stop off in Frome again and get drunk. On our previous visit, Brewed Boy was closed. This time, thankfully, it was not. And it is excellent.

Like Chris Rea, we felt we had been driving home for Christmas for about thirty years, but we made it to my Mum and Dad’s in Suffolk in the end. Where will we go next? Um, dunno yet. But we hope that you all have a very enjoyable few days off from whatever awful things you have to do the rest of the time, and do take care and look after each other. 

Merry Christmas, if that’s your sort of thing.


  1. Merry Christmas! Me and my other half have just torn thru the whole of your blog in the last 24 hours, both reading it at the same time. We live in SE5 and also harbour campervan escape dreams. Watching with interest to see where you settle. We are inspired.....

    1. Oh wow, thanks very much for saying so. I can only recommend it, really. I'll be glad to offer you a free consultation if and when you do go for it. I might even try to write a post in the new year with more useful tips and the bare minimum of inane prattling, but if you have any questions, please feel free to ask them here.

  2. Replies
    1. Oh, I hadn't read about Chris Rea being so poorly. Yes, poor old chap. I guess it might have seemed in rather poor taste to refeerene him, but it wasn't the intention. I expect it was just another oblique whinge about never getting control of the stereo. Radio 2 Xmas :(

    2. And now I can't see where you asked about the driver. Even I wouldn't write about him here if I didn't know he was okay - it looked for all the world lilke he was going to die. But as I rang 999, I saw him getting out in the mirror.