Winchester, Wednesday 20 December Day 235 5350 miles
Winchester is a very old city where all the early kings of Wessex and of England were crowned and buried.
I feel very old and tired myself today and I'm very much looking forward to getting back to London. This is positively the last postcard from my round Britain cycle tour! Winchester is not exactly on the coast and you will have to look at the map to find out how I got here.
See you soon,
Lots of love,
For a small town of 20,000 inhabitants or so, Penzance has an enormous by-pass. It is the last town on the three hundred miles of the A30 road which begins in London and finishes abruptly at Lands End. Though the eastern portions of the road have been superseded by motorways, it remains the main artery pumping summer traffic into the sclerotic veins of Cornwall. The centre of Penzance would be a major clot to the flow of traffic without that by-pass.
In the centre of the narrow Market Place, in the spot most calculated to cause maximum disruption, is the Market Building. But when it was built in 1836 the grand Ionic columns, portico, and dome would have been the height of English architectural fashion, scaled in elegant proportion with the buildings which surrounded it, and allowing free passage all around it.
Penzance was a prosperous tin-trading town and mining its major industry. Before the steps of the Market house stands a statue of Sir Humphry Davy, born in nearby Market Jew Street in 1778, holding the miner's safety lamp for which he is famous. Davy was President of the Royal Society, the leading chemist of his day who, through his researches, identified a series of metallic elements which he called potassium, sodium, barium, strontium, calcium, and magnesium.
Round the back of the statue I used one of the telephone boxes to conduct a remote negotiation with a new tenant for my flat. My original tenant had now left and Adele had found somebody who was in need of emergency accommodation with her boyfriend until shortly before Christmas.
There is little commercial shipping any more in Penzance, though hundreds of leisure sailors use the harbour in the summer. So I walked a mile up the coast to Newlyn to see whether anything was going on at what is now the centre of the Cornish fisheries. Not a lot was the answer. Like Peterhead the harbour was full to overflowing with fishing boats but there was not a soul to be seen.
The water in the harbour was quiet, but outside the wind was driving the sea hard into Mount's Bay. Looking back to Penzance, tier upon tier of ice-green rollers careened towards the shore, setting up a veil of spray flashing in the sunshine filtering through the dark clouds. Yet through that veil the buildings of Penzance showed up luminously against the horizon.
It was just such luminous light which drew a colony of painters to Newlyn in the 1880s. Here they could adopt the new method of painting in the open air rather than in studios, a practice they had first encountered in Brittany. The Newlyn Art Gallery is now an exhibition space for contemporary artists, much of which is not to my taste, but back in the Penzance and District Museum and Art Gallery in Penlee Park the works of those first painters of the Newlyn School vividly portray Cornish life before the motor age.
For centuries Penzance has traded on its position as the furthermost port from the capital. The first landfall from the Indies, the last in the defensive chain of ports facing France and Spain. I lunched in the Dolphin Inn which claims the doubtful privilege of being where tobacco was first smoked on British soil, and the place which Sir John Hawkins used as his headquarters in the long period of hostilities with sixteenth century Spain. But Penzance is not quite the end of England. Metropolitan types can still come by train to the south-western terminus of the Great Western Railway and sail off on RMV Scillonian, bound for the Scilly Isles twenty-eight miles beyond Lands End.
As I loaded up the bike the rains returned and I left the youth hostel muffled up in full waterproofs. Rather than go down into the town I sloshed along the A30 which by-passes the town to the north and east and then turned off to the village of Marazion. Out in the bay St Michael's Mount reared up out of a thrashing sea, surmounted by church and castle, as grim and grey a slab of granite as any I had seen. The causeway to the island was exposed by the low tide but no visitors would venture across its rain-lashed length today.
At Helston I turned southwards towards the Lizard straight into the teeth of the southern wind. I was alone on the road, stranded in a watery wasteland, blinded by the rain streaming down my glasses. The closer I got to Lizard the stronger the wind, the harder the rain, and the slower my progress. It began to seem as if I might not get there, brought asymptotically to rest before reaching the end.
But the village of Lizard did loom up and pass and I carried on down to Lizard Point, the most southerly tip of the British mainland. An empty car park, an expanse of glistening, grey rock, an impenetrable wall of watery wind, and a sad, wooden shack defiantly proclaiming itself to be The Last Cafe in England. It was closed. I leant the bike up in the lee of the shack and dashed out into the tumult to take a photograph. If ever nuclear winter comes and sweeps us to an early grave this desolation could be our memorial. The last cafe in England.
I turned and headed back to the village. Fortunately the chip shop was open. I sat and gorged myself on fatty foods and watched as a pool of water drained off my clothes and spread out on the floor around my feet. And then, miraculously, the rain stopped and the village was bathed in brilliant sunshine.
With the wind behind me I pedalled effortlessly away. Turning eastwards I bowled across Goonhilly Down with the great white dishes of the Satellite Earth Station shining in the sun. Eastwards! Lizard, last of the geographical milestones; last of my compass points. East, north, west and south, all behind me. Now at last I could head for home. That evening in Falmouth I studied the map, working out the easiest way of getting into Devon. Shamelessly, I plotted a route across the ferries at Falmouth, Fowey, and Torpoint. No more of conscientiously cycling around the estuaries of Cornwall. Home beckoned.
I waited on Prince of Wales Pier for the ten-fifteen ferry to St Mawes. A half-hearted drizzle was dispiritedly coming to a desultory end. It had rained enough for one week and deserved a day off. I had to unload my belongings, carry bike and bags down steep, weed-encrusted steps and hand them across to the boatman on the heaving deck of the small passenger ferry.
There is a lot of water at Falmouth. The natural harbour is the third deepest in the world. Standing at the mouth of the River Penryn it was for more than two centuries the first port of call for Atlantic shipping. We crossed the open mouth of Falmouth Docks, left the Eastern Breakwater behind, and set off across Carrick Roads. These deep, sheltered waters were once filled with sailing ships and steam ships riding out a storm or awaiting orders for new voyages. Into the Roads from the north drain the waters of the Carnon, Truro, Tresillion, and Fal Rivers, stretching out like fingers into the heartland of southern Cornwall. But there was no sense of distance this morning. The multi-coloured houses seemed disembodied, pasted on to the steep slopes which enclose the estuaries, chopped off abruptly by the bank of thick mist hovering above them.
We rounded Castle Point into the Percuil River and tied up to the jetty at St Mawes. After loading up the bike again I started up the steep hill out of the town. I kept on my waterproofs to guard against the cold winds I knew would be sweeping around the tops. But when I got there I found to my surprise that the wind was warm and mild and I was soon sweating profusely.
After a meal in the Little Chef on St Austel ring road I pressed on for the last few miles. Past a deserted Par Sands, over Gribbin Head, and descended into the steep and narrow streets of Fowey. The Tourist Information Office had closed at lunchtime but an accommodation list outside told me which places were still open for bed and breakfast.
I stayed at The Globe Posting House, a lucky choice. Jenny and Nick Bancroft were obviously wise to keep open all through the winter for I was not the only person to be touring Cornwall in December, though the other guests were sensible enough to be travelling by car rather than by bike. A comfortable room and wholesome home cooking were what they provided. And Nick turned out to be a keen mountain biker too. After dinner we settled down in front of the fire with a pint of bitter and talked about cycling. He was the first cyclist I had met for many weeks and it was so refreshing to talk to somebody with whom I could share an understanding of my journey.
Next morning wet mist clung to the river. I crossed by the chain ferry to Bodinnick and began the long, steep walk up the road which zigzags away from the jetty and disappears into a labyrinth of tiny lanes linking isolated cottages, each of which seemed to be graced by a village name. Somewhere I took a wrong turning, or perhaps six wrong turnings. Eventually I came to a road which I could identify from the map. I was several miles north of where I wanted to be.
It was a very wet day. Not that it was raining heavily. But the bike and I seemed to be acting as watery lightning conductors, encouraging moisture to leak out of the misty air and wash over us to reach the road. I cycled on through the mist, slowly churning out the miles, briefly emerging into the solidity of Looe before submerging once more into anonymous, indistinct countryside.
The mist lifted as I approached
the ferry at Torpoint to reveal Devonport dockyard across the
water. I was too busy negotiating the busy roads of Plymouth to
notice what little of the historic town survived the wartime bombing,
though I must have passed quite close to Sutton Harbour from which
the Mayflower finally sailed to America on the sixteenth
of September 1620. As I headed ever eastwards the sun came out
to light up the afternoon. Crossing the River Yealm I turned southwards
to Newton Ferrers where I would be staying with my cousins Eileen
and George Rudge.