Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Pirates aplenty in Penzance

Back onto the First Great Western train to Penzance Davina and I found ourselves reading, sleeping, chatting to while away the four or so hours to Penzance. Penzance has always been a mythical place to me. A place you hear of in fantasy and fairy tales where Pirates reside and shenanigans are aplenty in public houses that line the wooden foreshore docks. I never really expected it to be real. But real it was and unfortunately rather disappointing. It is grey, dull and I want to say concreted. The town wraps itself around a port in a sweeping motion that, as you walk to the bottom end, draws you into a run down and long forgotten tip of England.

Davina found us a great B&B in Alexandra Street. It was beautifully renovated and the owners were welcoming and attentive. It gave me hope that perhaps the real shine of Penzance wasn't its shell or it's notoriety but the kind and open-hearted people. Maybe I am over dramatising it all, but it was a kick in the guts to see what Penzance actually was. Totally not what I expected and a bit of a let down. But it did have its highlights and I give credit to Davina for picking some fantastic things to see - The Michael St Mount, the Minack theatre and the fish and chippie joint that made us laugh.

Michael St Mount is at the northern part of the town. You pass it on the train coming in and on the bus going out. The castle stands tall and proud off the coast and seems both isolating and enticing at the same time. When the tide is in it is accessible only by boat. But when the tide goes out the true magic happens. Almost like a scaly dragon rising from the deep, a cobblestone walkway emerges from the water allowing people to walk across from the mainland to the church and surrounding buildings. Davina rolled up her trousers and took off, one foot in front of the other, hoping and praying the middle section wouldn't be too deep. Me? I did what any sane Australian does when faced with a breath-taking scene and a setting sun...headed to the Godolphin pub to appreciate it with a cold beverage!

As any Aussie traveller will attest to - you travel 100,000 miles to meet Australians and Penzance is no different. Whilst I sat back and took in the "serenity" at the pub overlooking Michael St Mount I overheard a familiar accent and ended up talking to Ben from Umina whilst his kids had running races from the wall of the pub to the receding tide. Ben and his family were doing a house swap with a family from Penzance. For 4 months they swapped complete lives, from schools to cars to houses to jobs. It was a fascinating way to see the other side of the world and allow your kids to expand their minds with experiences and history not available at home. I also had to admire the youngest child's ingenuity when a mud throwing match broke out with his older siblings. Unable to sling the mud as far as the others, he perfected the art of catapulting seaweed by whipping it around his head a few times first. :)

Davina, queen of finding strange, unusual and often life altering things to see and do, had heard about a theatre that had been carved into the sheer cliffs outside of Penzance. The Minack Theatre was designed, built and financed by a woman named Rowena Cade in the 50s and 60s. It was her lifelong dream to see plays performed with nature as the dramatic backdrop. "Minack" in Cornish means a rocky place and the theatre does not disappoint. The patrons sit on slabs of rock tiered up from a split stage. The actors and actresses work on two main levels - a spot light section up to the left of the main stage and the stage itself.

Getting to the theatre is an adventure unto itself. We caught the only bus that goes up and out of Penzance from the top of our B&B's street. It is old and although double storey you may be taking your life into your own hands heading up top. Keen adventurers that we were, we gave it a shot but most people stayed downstairs. The bus itself doesn't have a death wish so much as there is no stopping, slowing down or even allowing others to pass. It just hurtles along the ever increasingly smaller country roads, up jagged hills and down twisting and turning paths. When the roads became gravel rather than bitumen you know you are heading to the sticks. We made it in one piece 50 minutes later and then glanced up to realise that the biggest hill has been left to last and this one we had to hike up as the bus wouldn't make it. Nothing like a bit of exercise!

The play showing that night was Cinderella and despite it being a children's play, I'm never to old for a fairytale. We ended up sitting next to the family of the actress who played Cinderella. Immediately to my left was Nanna who came prepared with shortbread biscuits and fruit pastilles. All throughout the play she kept insisting that Davina and I eat because we had travelled so far. I think perhaps she thought that we had flown in from Sydney that evening just for the 7 o'clock performance! She was an absolutely lovely lady and made me miss my Grandma very much. She spoke so lovingly of her grand-daughter and was eagerly anticipating her wedding that Autumn. But it was Cinderella's dad who brought a glisten to my eye. At the end of the performance he stood and gave the loudest, most raucous applause and a standing ovation to his daughter. I can't be sure but I think he may have been the instigator of the beginning of a Mexican wave too!

After negotiating the mega hill down to the bus stop we boarded the bus back to Penzance and our B&B room (complete with hanging stuffed monkey from the ceiling - we think it was a child's room). It was well after midnight by the time we reached "home" and we both crashed into an immediate Cinderella filled slumber.

Having visited Michael St Mount, drunk at the pub, walked along the main street and hot footing it to the Minack theatre I think it was safe to say we had seen Penzance. Whilst devouring an ice-cream and watching the ships docking and unloading their goods in the harbour I couldn't help feeling proud of the fact that I had made it to the southern most part of England...or had I?

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