Fifteen years ago, I was roughly midway through a three and a half month walk through southern England when I stopped for the night at a bed and breakfast in the incredibly scenic coastal village of Boscastle, in Cornwall. The next morning, after the usual protein- and calorie-rich British breakfast—eggs, bacon, sausage, sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes, beans, toast, tea and more—I shouldered my backpack and continued south along the Southwest Coast Path heading for Land’s End.
It was a beautiful mid-August morning, bright sun, lots of blue sky. But it was also muggy and hot as I trudged along the cliff edge path, grateful for the occasional breeze off the Atlantic. Out over the ocean I noticed peculiar though small black cloud cells against the bright sky. They were rolling in toward the coast like ocean waves, one after another. But still, I was hiking in the sun. At one point one of these fierce little clouds reached the cliffs where I was walking. I simply bent at the waist behind a sturdy stone wall and the squall flew right past me. Within a minute it passed and I didn’t feel a drop.
Many hours later, I fetched up in Port Isaac (now famous as “Porthwen” in the Doc Martin TV series). My B&B hostess asked where I’d been the night before. I told her Boscastle. She looked at me and said, “It’s not there anymore.”
It turns out that just a couple of hours after I’d left, Boscastle was hit by the most catastrophic flash flood in recorded British history. Those dark cloud cells I’d seen gathered in a convergence zone on the hills high above the village and the epic rainfall funneled down the narrow Valency river valley to the village. An estimated 310 million gallons, the equivalent of 21 petrol tankers worth of water per second barreled through the little coastal village in two hours, sweeping buildings and dozens of cars out into the Atlantic. Had I stayed there only a few hours longer I would have been caught up in the flood; the home where I had stayed the night before was washed away.
One of my novels, Water, Stone, Heart, is set in Boscastle during that flood. It is a love story about how sometimes it takes a disaster to make two people realize how much they mean to each other.
This video link will give you a sense of the disaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxweiRNlHbo
Miraculously, no one died.
I have to confess to a somewhat odd fascination with fish markets. No, not your local fish monger or that fish case in the supermarket, but the really big ones—where the trawlers roll in to wharves around the world, one after another, to off-load their catch for the dawn wholesale fish auction.
I blame this on my father (well, why not?). When I was a wee New York lad of perhaps six he took me down to the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, right by the East River. In my memory, the market was vast, a block square, and inside were dozens upon dozens of aisles and stalls stocked with iced fresh fish of every imaginable description, manned by very large, very loud Italian stall-keepers trying to undersell and out-shout their neighbors to reel you in to buy (at that time the market was controlled by the Mafia!).
It was like theater; I was mesmerized. And this is also where, at a block-long raw bar, my father introduced me to the joys of just-shucked cherrystone clams and cocktail sauce. I was instantly hooked (pardon the pun) on raw clams (and later oysters)…but that’s another story.
As I have traveled over the years (mostly in Europe) to various port cities, I always try to haul myself out into the dark for the local fish auction—Greece, Italy, France, Denmark. From a purely scenic point of view, though, the most magical was Stavanger, near the southwest tip of Norway. Dawn had barely broken to reveal a port veiled in fog and, as if by magic, trawlers appeared like ghosts from the mist. You could hear them before you could see them by the thump-thump of their diesel engines. On and on they came. How they avoided collision in that gloom is still a mystery to me.
But my favorite fishing port, by far, is Newlyn Harbor, in Cornwall. It’s on the English Channel coast and is essentially indistinguishable from its neighbor, Penzance, where I’ve lived briefly in the past. More than 600 vessels in rainbow colors arrive to land up to forty different species of fish and shellfish each day, a list too long to note here but including species I suspect you’ve never heard of before, like Gurnard, Melgrim, or Pilchard (I certainly hadn’t). The auction begins at around 4:00 each morning when the graders and sorters organize the day’s haul by size and species. Then, the auctioneers and buyers arrive and it gets noisy. Everyone is dressed in what looks like white lab coats with matching white hats and they move quickly among hundreds of red crates full of iced fish. And though the auction is conducted in English, you’d hardly know it; it’s in some kind of code only they understand. But it is exciting.
Many years ago, my late wife and I went to our first Newlyn fish auction. It was over just as the sun rose over the Channel and the two of us were hungry for breakfast…which turned out to be fish (ling cod) and chips at a wharfside stand, wrapped in newsprint to absorb the oil. Right off the boat.
A very fond memory.
Some years back, I went out for a walk. In England. For three and a half months. I did it almost entirely on what are known there as “public footpaths.” There are something like 140,000 miles of them in England and Wales alone and they existed long before there were ever roads. How long? One of them, the Ridgeway, has been in continuous use for at least 5,000 years. It runs atop a high chalk escarpment (once a coral reef) that stretches diagonally across much of southern England. It may have been used even before England separated geologically from the rest of Europe. Why? Consider the word “highway.” Back in those days, carving your way through forest and undergrowth-choked lowlands, or slogging through swamps, was hard going. Far better and faster, then, to go “high” and follow “thinly treed ridgelines”—the high way.
During my own personal trek, I followed the Ridgeway west across Berkshire and Wiltshire and, a few months later, hiked another chalk ridge footpath, the South Downs Way (“down” comes from “dun” or hill and is very “up”), on my way back east, high above the English Channel coast.
Most of the rest of my walk was along the Southwest Coast Path, a National Trail that runs some 630 miles from North Devon, down the Atlantic Coast all the way to Land’s End, and back again along the English Channel Coast all the way north to Dorset. Much of it is wild and windswept; all of it is flat-out spectacular (think of the PBS Poldark series). Fool that I have been known to be, I thought: what could be better than weeks of strolling along cliff tops with sweeping views and little pocket fishing villages within which to shelter for the night (think of Doc Martin’s “Porthwenn,” in reality, Port Isaac)?
However, I did not take into account erosion. Or gravity. See, here’s the thing: these cliffs have been cut through over the eons by knife-sharp streams which have left them as deeply serrated as the teeth of a lumberjack’s saw. You can’t go a tenth of a mile horizontally without encountering a narrow but very deep gorge, one after another. The coast path is maintained, in most places, by the National Trust. There are rudimentary steps cut down and up through these defiles, which is very thoughtful. But maybe they weren’t counting on my 50-pound backpack. Trekking the Southwest Coast Path is a wonderful, life-changingly beautiful experience, and essentially the reverse of Newton’s Law: “What goes down must go (very steeply) up.”
I recommend it highly.
The cover of my novel Harm None—the first in the Davies and West mystery series set in Cornwall, England—is dominated by the image of a massive stone monument, a thirteen ton slab of granite perched atop three hulking stone pillars. The image is not photo-shopped, it’s real. It’s been real for at least 5,000 years, maybe longer. It’s prehistoric. It is called Lanyon Quoit and is technically a dolmen, believed to have been a burial chamber for a chief or shaman, originally covered with earth and stone. It stands on a lonely hill but it’s hardly alone. It’s one of several in this area.
But that’s just the beginning. The far southwestern tip of Cornwall, called West Penwith, is home to the largest concentration of Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age stone monuments in all of Europe: standing stones, stone circles, hill forts, settlements, long barrows, clusters of stone huts (their foundations intact), sacred wells, ceremonial underground fogous, not to mention ancient field systems bordered by stone walls (called “hedges” here) that suggest stone was the prehistoric settlers’ first “harvest.”
The variety is stunning; the fact that they survive at all is mind-boggling. Not long ago, I shouldered a light day pack and walked all the way from the English Channel on the south of this peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean cliffs on the north (it’s not a big achievement; it only took about four hours and one of my favorite pubs was waiting for me at the end). But so help me, every few hundred yards I was almost literally tripping over prehistoric monuments of one sort or another. It is a strange and humbling experience to wander among these ancients.
Harm None also features a settlement that may first have been established before the Bronze Age. It too is very real and was only abandoned after the Roman Era. That’s thousands of years! I call it Carn Dewes in the book but its real name is Carn Euny. With a commanding hillside location looking south toward Land’s End, the settlement is circled by a thick stone wall that encloses nine round courtyard houses complete with outbuildings for storage and livestock. But its most stunning feature is a sixty-five foot long stone-lined underground passage within which is a perfectly round domed underground stone chamber. I am well over six feet tall and I can stand up in it.
Its purpose? There have been theories, most of them debunked. Was it to store grain? Not likely: too damp; the grain would have rotted. A hideout from invaders? Equally unlikely, as it would have been quickly discovered and anyone sheltering there would be smoked out easily. It is likely to have been ceremonial, worshipers must crawl in order to enter. There is a sort of “hearth” directly opposite the chamber entrance, but no chimney. It is a mystery.
You’ll have to read Harm None to learn what I think that “hearth” was for…
As my readers know, Cornwall, England is the setting for my Davies and West mystery series and my second home (at least in my heart). At the far southwest tip of England, with its soaring ocean cliffs, pearlescent beaches, granite knuckled tors, stone built hamlets in pocket ports (think Doc Martin’s “Porthwenn”—actually Port Isaac), and prehistoric monuments and settlements dating back 5,000 years scattered all over the landscape and still intact, it manages to feel magically untamed yet today.
But of its many secrets, one stands out: it’s a gastronomes’ paradise. Kissed by the warm remnants of the Gulf Stream (yes it reaches that far), its climate is mild and roughly evenly moist and sunny. It’s ideal for grazing prime livestock and growing fresh produce year-round. Flowers, too: Cornwall is the world’s leading producer of daffodils. And, of course, there is the sea. Newlyn, next door to Penzance, is the top whitefish landing port in the UK and a rich source for shellfish as well.
Little wonder, then, that some of the top TV and Michelin-starred chefs in England—Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Nathan Outlaw, Paul Ainsworth, to name only a few—have opened flagship restaurants in Cornwall in the last ten years or so. Rick Stein’s seafood “empire”—restaurants, bistros, cooking school, cookware shops, and boutique hotels—all located in the Atlantic harbor village of Padstow have residents there calling the place, “Padstein.”
The list of stunning restaurants in Cornwall seems to grow daily. Some years ago I was given the task of writing about the gourmet scene in Cornwall for a major magazine. It was a horrible assignment. I had to eat in all the best restaurants. Nightmare! My favorites then and now? Stein’s “The Seafood Restaurant” in Padstow (Stein is a minor character in some of my mysteries) and Paul Ainworth’s “#6,” both in the same village; Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant in Port Isaac, and Jamie Oliver’s “Fifteen Cornwall” just north of Newquay on spectacular Whitesand Bay, where Oliver trains disadvantaged young people to become chefs. These are among the finest restaurants in England and, with the British pound weak compared to the dollar, they’re very affordable as well!
But I must confess that my heart longs for lunch or dinner by the fire at Cornwall’s most ancient pubs—many of them now upgraded to “gastropubs” because of the quality of the food. My favorites though are, I suppose, personal. They include “The Tinners Arms” on the wild Atlantic coast in the hamlet of Zennor almost at Land’s End, built in the 1200s, and “The Crown” tucked into a hollow in tiny Lanlivery near Bodmin Moor, and built in the 1100s. I have to duck to get into each of them and am often recognized and welcomed.
You will be, too.