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A Winter Refuge on the Edge
A Quartet of Friends Travels to the Tip of England for a Bracing Winter Break

By Sarah Clayton
The Washington Post
Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page E01
   


The instructions to our National Trust rental cottage were so endearingly English that despite jet lag and pure exhaustion from the 10-hour drive from London's Heathrow Airport to this remote corner of Cornwall, we had to laugh: "Fifty yards inside the gateway into the Penrose Estate . . . you will see a free-standing mounted estate map . . . (If you pass a 'Private road to Penrose House--No public access' sign on your left, you have gone a little too far). Underneath the map, between the two supports, you will find a shelf on which is a key."

It was pitch dark when we turned onto the estate road near the Lizard, a high, flat, windswept peninsula just east of Land's End. It was also pouring, with rain driven horizontal by fierce winds. But there it was, "50 yards inside the gateway," the map beneath which we would find the key to Bar Lodge, a late-19th-century folly that was to be our home for the next week.

We were four women from Washington state, Connecticut and Virginia who'd gathered that morning at Heathrow for our annual walking holiday. By 8:30 a.m., we had bags stacked in the rental car and were headed west on the M-3 toward southwest England and Cornwall, workday worries left far behind as we motored toward the land of wild seas, dark cliffs, ancient fishing villages and, even at this time of the year, flowers both wild and domesticated. The Gulf Stream nips close into the coast of southern England, leavening winter's ferocity, and allowing palm trees and other mild-weather foliage to proliferate.

Not that it can't be bracing. Winter's wind and the sea's spray can chill the very marrow of your bones. Especially if you've been hiking the cliffs all day. Especially in winter.

But we wouldn't come at any other time of the year. The deep pleasure of hot baths and roaring fires and the burn of Scotch is only fully realized after walking all day in the sharp air and stinging rain. People think we're mad, but I highly recommend it. By week's end, you've regained a long-forgotten, elemental part of yourself, your cheeks are rosy and your eyes dance, once again, with Life.

I pulled the car around so the headlights shone directly on the map sign. Marybeth pulled her raincoat tight and jumped out. On her knees in the thick wet grass around the sign, she searched for the key and, for one awful moment, I imagined it not being there. Then she turned and triumphantly held the key aloft. Our collective sigh of relief fogged up the windows.

We continued through the estate on a narrow, leaf-strewn lane overhung with thick forest. Then the trees began to thin out and, through their trunks, we caught glimpses of moonlight on water. The sea! The wind whipping it up and scattering the moonbeams in kaleidoscopic chaos. Another quarter-mile and the lane ended at a stone-balustraded granite cottage with sharply peaked roof and bow windows. It was tucked into the side of the cliff, small and idyllic. Ours. For a whole week!

The wind almost took the doors off the car when we opened them, and made conversation impossible. But, like a flock of birds motivated by some imperceptible signal, we flew together first to the cliff edge to gaze out at the sea, then swooped up the stone steps to the front door.

Inside, the house was as cold and cheerless as the outside was romantic and welcoming--surprising for a National Trust property, where a homelike, cozy atmosphere is usually one of the main draws. But here the rooms were spartanly furnished, the coals lifeless in the grate and the air still and moldy. However, the manager had put a small bouquet of flowers on the table and a pint of milk in the fridge, so we were momentarily cheered--until we realized that we'd forgotten to order coal and wood. We stood in a gloomy cluster, contemplating our first evening without the now much-needed comfort of a fire.

"Wait a minute," Marybeth said. "We just drove through a huge forest." She and Margaret headed outside to collect wood.

Like a frozen tableau suddenly come to life, we all leapt into action, spirits restored. My sister, Louisa, and I went into Martha Stewart mode, rearranging the furniture in the living room into a more congenial pattern and bringing in the large pine dining room table so we could eat before the fire. We found a colorful vase in one room, a piece of interesting pewter in another and a picture of local wildflowers in another, and concentrated it all in the living room. In a drawer in the kitchen we found some plain white candles, kept for power outages; set in egg cups for holders, they lit up the living room.

By the time Marybeth and Margaret came back with a basket full of wood, the house was warm and welcoming with the glow of candles and smells of supper cooking. In a few minutes, the fire was crackling away and we were sipping Scotch and nibbling Stilton and crackers. Heathrow seemed like forever ago. And America another planet.

Bar Lodge was built in the late 1890s by Capt. John Peverell Rogers, the owner of Penrose estate, which dates back to the 13th century. The original house fell into ruin; later a Tudor mansion was built on the site. When Rogers bought the place, he rebuilt the house, using some of the stone from the old Tudor place; to accommodate his wife's love of the sea, he built Bar Lodge, where she would often take tea, enjoying the glorious views one gets from almost every window.

Today the estate, with its 1,600 acres, is one of some 240 National Trust properties in Britain. These range from a simple cabin overlooking a Cornish cove to a flat in York with views of the cathedral to an entire estate available for rent. Bar Lodge sleeps six and, in the summer high season, rents for nearly $1,400 a week. In the off-season, it can be had for $482--another reason we visit in the winter.

We awoke the next morning to a cloudy sky. But great shafts of honey-thick light beamed through, turning the cliff tops we'd be hiking that day into dazzling green carpets. The air was balmy, the seas pounding. We packed our lunches, made two thermoses of hot tea and headed east over Loe Bar, a half-mile of sand heaved up by the sea in the 13th century, damming the Cober River and forming the Loe Pool, where vacationers fish and swim. (The nearby sea, with its strong, unpredictable currents, is not suitable for swimming.)

Beyond the beach, sheep-strewn fields rose to the cliff tops. Our well-worn path--part of the 500-mile Southwest Peninsula Coast Path, which traces the entire coastline of Devon and Cornwall--wound before us, beckoning. We walked as geese migrating, one leading for a while, then, without announcement or fanfare, another taking over. In this manner we made our way slowly up steep cliffs, past the last of summer's blooms--white campium and pink sea thrift and yellow gorse--and down into granite-lined coves, the sea constantly with us, throwing itself against the rocks, sending spume and spray aloft, the gulls and jackdaws and cormorants spinning in windblown frenzy, calling, calling, calling.

Inland, on the lofty plateau that is the Lizard (meaning "high palace" in old Cornish, a language that died out only in the late 18th century), was the very surreal vision of 20 or so huge modern windmills, like giant airplane propellers turning silently in great, sweeping arcs. Nearby were the oversize receiving dishes of a satellite tracking station. But it was easy to forget this modern intrusion in the intrigue of our immediate world of path, sea, cliffs and coves.

I have been hiking this coastal path for 25 years and it never fails to enthrall me. I went to Maine once, hoping to find my own Cornwall in America. But while the two are similar in appearance--green fields sloping down to a rocky coastline, within which are tucked small coves and villages--most of Maine's coast is private property, and thus unavailable for walking. The entire coast of Cornwall, by contrast, is open to the public via the ever-present, well-marked Coast Path. Dotted along it are specific parking places. But often as not, you can find your own place to pull over, or just park in one of the villages and go out from there.

Most days, we'd hike along the coast, then come back inland. These inland "public footpaths" are usually well marked, with simple signs that name the next village and tell how far away it is. All fences have stiles--a series of rock or wooden steps--to facilitate easy passage.

Of course, it being England, the paths can be muddy. Marybeth, who has been hiking these trails with me for the past 12 years, and I usually wear "wellies"--over-the-calf rubber boots. We also bring lightweight rain gear--pants and windbreakers--in our day packs for the sudden changes in weather so characteristic of England in general and Cornwall in particular.

Another trusted companion: our Ordnance Survey maps, which come in a scale large enough to show even stone walls and barns. But we didn't need our map this morning, the cliff path being so well-trodden and obvious.

By lunch time, we'd tramped about three miles. We had our picnic overlooking Dollar Cove, named for a Spanish galleon, laden with 2 1/2 tons of gold coin, that sank here in 1785. It is said that the occasional coin still washes up on the beach. Naturally, we didn't believe any of this, but we did seem particularly fascinated by our feet as we crossed the small spit of sand.

The next cove over has a 15th-century church that is constantly under threat of being inundated, or its headland turned into an island, by the shifting sands. The building itself, constructed on the site of the 6th-century Saint Winoloe's church, sits some four feet below ground level, so only the top half can be seen from a distance.

From the modern dates on some of the tombstones, it seems peculiarly hopeful that they are still burying people in this churchyard that is itself being buried. But then, the English are a peculiar people, and the Cornish especially so. The Tamar River comes within five miles of cutting Cornwall off completely from the rest of England, so Cornish history is, for the most part, one of isolation and independent development, of myth and romance. Cornwall is the land of Tristram and Isolde, of Arthur and Guinevere and people more ancient, whose presence still saturates this magical land. Each day, our walks took us past Bronze Age burial mounds or the remains of neolithic field terracing or Iron Age hill forts. Or simply into a village where we found shelter and warmth in a pub or tea shop. It is a heady land. Like a pint of good ale--complex yet subtle. And always intriguing.

Our walk this first day also took us past a large rosemary bush (there are hedges of it here) and a watercress-choked creek from which we picked great bunches of bounty and tucked them into pockets and rucksacks for later use.

And then, at day's end, with eight or 10 miles of walking under our feet, we turned westward, back to Bar Lodge, taking the inland tracks through muddy farmyards and past gardens still sprouting cabbages. Through the windows we could see low-ceilinged, beamed rooms, tables set for dinner, a dog lying before the fire, a cat asleep on the high back of a chair, and people milling about--the Cornish going through their evening routines, unaware of the strangers completely enthralled by what the natives consider ordinary.

Bar Lodge, tucked up against its heath-covered hill, glowed welcomingly in the late afternoon light as we reconnected with the cliff path and headed back across Loe Bar. There was no one else around and it was easy to believe that all this beauty--the blue Loe Pool, the forest, the foaming sea, the dark cliffs, the sand beneath our feet--was ours alone for this one exquisite moment. And so, like a flock of birds coming home to roost, we floated up to the house, overwhelmed with the good fortune of living, really Living, this one perfect day.

Within an hour, we were all bathed and sitting before the fire, recalling our day's adventures, while the rosemary-rubbed chicken roasted away and the watercress salad awaited its dressing.

The next day we headed west from Bar Lodge and, after 45 minutes of leisurely walking, came to the small fishing village of Porthleven, with its big harbor built in 1811 for the export of tin and copper, and the import of mining machinery. Mining, with fishing, was once the mainstay of Cornish life, but it has pretty much died out now, and the harbor had only a scattering of small fishing boats.

Porthleven's charm lies in its status as a working fishing village. We got talking to two ruddy-cheeked locals in the newsstand there, one of whom wanted to tell us all about the time he went to Seattle just after the war, and the other who, with a twinkle in his eye, averred that he had no need of going to America. Too big. Too far away.

I wandered down to the quay to examine an odd-looking small building of nondescript 1950s architecture with large windows overlooking the harbor. A sign announced that it was a senior citizens lounge. Inside was a collection of castoff furniture, wobbly chairs, crooked tables, a sagging sofa, and two old men chatting away. "Come on in, luv," they greeted me. "Best view in town."

And it was--over the colorful boats in the harbor to the whitewashed cottages and brooding cliffs beyond. I thought of the closed-up, formal nursing homes back in my home town in Virginia, and thought how lucky these fellows were. "Have a nice day," one wished me in a put-on American accent when I turned to leave. I could hear their soft Cornish voices return to a discussion of the ups and downs of the mackerel fishing these days as I walked back to the quay.

We hiked out of town in a light, cold rain. In the distance, a mile or so away, were the ruins of those classic Cornish stone engine houses with their tall, slender chimneys that once held the workings of the steam-driven pumps. Developed in the late 18th century by a local man, the pumps allowed the miners to dig even deeper into the earth by removing the water ahead of them. Their engines also activated a simple elevator system for lowering the miners as deep as 3,300 feet. Before the introduction of these elevators, the men descended and ascended by way of a series of ladders.

After 1860 the industry declined, and only a handful of mines made it into the 20th century. Two or three are still in operation, and a few are open for public tours. But the majority, such as the ones we could see through the fog and rain before us, are wasting away.

We had hoped to shelter in the ruins for lunch but, upon arrival, discovered that they were roofless. We found a little respite in the broad stone doorways and ate a chilly but interesting meal, looking out the windows to a military helicopter executing practice rescue maneuvers on the cliffs, raising and lowering men on long cables from the mother ship to the rocks below.

In Praa Sands, a dispirited modern "resort" on an impressive stretch of beach with even more impressive fuchsia bushes in full scarlet and purple bloom, we bought several pints of milk in old-fashioned glass bottles with the cream, thick and yellow, floating on top. Then, consulting our map, we chose a route via public footpath over the fields back to Bar Lodge. It was dark when we finally walked through Porthleven again, but the moon was full and the path from there along the sea broad and easy, so we wandered contentedly back through the gentle night.

And so on through the blissful week, one day much like the other--walking in achingly beautiful scenery down to Lizard Point, the southernmost place in all of England; through Kynance Cove with its red, purple and green-streaked serpentine rock; into Mevagissey, one of Cornwall's classic fishing villages, with twisting, narrow streets and colorful houses; and, on our last day, along the cliff tops to Land's End, where we stopped at the hotel out on the tip of the most westerly point of England and had a traditional Cornish cream tea, the "cream" being a thickly clotted paste that one spreads as lavishly as possible on a biscuitlike scone before topping it with strawberry jam.

While we feasted away, we watched the sun sink through a haze of lavender and pink clouds, and off the edge of our world. Before it winked out, it silhouetted the Longships Lighthouse, on a rocky outcrop one mile offshore--all that's visible of the land that once connected mainland England to the Scilly Isles, 28 miles away, the legendary Lyonnesse that King Arthur ruled before it sank beneath the Atlantic.

We poured another round. Tomorrow we would all fly back to our other worlds, this moment too soon becoming one of tender memory. But tonight we would sit on the edge of King Arthur's kingdom and remember other times.

We ended this last day's hike with our way lighted, once again, by the full power of the moon, and hot baths and blazing fire and stinging Scotch and a sumptuous meal spiced with stolen rosemary. And so to bed . . . cheeks rosy, eyes dancing with Life.

Sarah Clayton last wrote for the Travel section on van Gogh's Auvers.

DETAILS: Renting in England

The 240 National Trust properties for rent in England, Wales and Northern Ireland include everything from simple cottages without electricity to castle "follies" to grand estates. Prices range from about $225 per week in the low season (January) to $2,200 per week in high season (July and August). Bar Lodge, where we stayed in Cornwall, rents for about $470 in low season, $1,365 in high.

The National Trust catalogue (see below) lists all properties and prices, and advises which properties are wheelchair-accessible, which are not advisable for small children, and which "are not suitable for nervous drivers."

It is advisable to book as early as possible (you can book several years in advance), especially for the more popular properties. Most of the cottages in Devon and Cornwall are already booked for next August, as a total solar eclipse is scheduled for the 11th.

* To request a catalogue: Royal Oak Foundation, 285 W. Broadway, Suite 400, New York, N.Y. 10013, 1-800-913-6565 or 212-966-6565, www.royal-oak.org. Cost: $7.50 for nonmembers. Note: 1999 catalogues will be available in January.

* To book a cottage or to check availability: National Trust Enterprises, P.O. Box 536, Melksham, Wiltshire, SN12 8SX, England, telephone 011-44-1225-791133 or 011-44-1225-791199.

--Sarah Clayton

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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