Amidst the Madding Crowd

Fistral Beach near Newquay in Cornwall is mainly known for one thing: Surfing.

The beach isn’t long, around a half a mile. But it is generally full.

On a recent visit, we watched a constant stream of surfboard-lidded cars arrive at the end of the beachfront road where our friend there lives, turn, and look for a parking spot. Surfers changed into wetsuits on the street. IMG_2776

A surfer website says: “Very consistent, beachbreak peak, that occasionally gets epic.” Indeed.

Even on a calm day of glassy water there are surfers out in the sea, there are beginner’s classes being held on the beach, dozens of people madly paddling and learning to stand on a board, right there on the sand.

On this day, the surf looked pretty decent, at least to this non-surfer. Boards filled the waves, boards filled the beach.

I didn’t take photos of all that.IMG_2777

I was more interested in the water at incoming tide, casting reflections in small pools, or rippling against the sand.


I went on an early Sunday walk, not early enough to beat the crowds of surfers and families and dogs and kids, but early enough that some of the walk was peaceful and meditative.

It’s the sand beneath the feet and between the toes. It’s the flow and retreat of water.IMG_2770

It’s the sun and subtle reflections.

It’s the hint of past human activity merged into the rocks. IMG_2793The rush of waves that drowns out the sound of bullhorned lifeguards calling out warnings and corralling wayward young.

Two small fish swim in a temporary pond of shadows and light, avoiding notice of nearby children with nets and waiting for the tide to return and carry them back out to the big pond.

Calm among frenzy. It was occasionally epic.IMG_2797


Serendipitous Walk

Near St. Austell, earlier this year. If I had known about Hicks & Heaney whiskey back then, I would have gone in search for it.  Photo: PK Read

Near St. Austell, earlier this year. If I had known about Hicks & Healey whiskey back then, I would have gone in search of it.
Photo: PK Read

I read some time ago about a new whisky produced in Cornwall, the first in 300 years. Small-batch, impossibly difficult to get a hold of, and well out of my normal price range. Hicks & Healey, who spell their whisky with an ‘e’. Cornish whiskey, made with Cornish barley and local spring water. It’s a collaboration between St. Austell’s Brewery and Healey’s Cider Farm.1

I love trying drinks, foods, customs that are highly localised, so of course I was intrigued. But Hicks & Healey’s is hardly the kind of drink that your average whisky bar is going to have sitting around. At a limited edition of only a few hundred bottles a year, this is specialized stuff.

So, this weekend, I am back up in Exeter with my daughter. I thought to myself, maybe I should try and find a sip of H&H, but St. Austell is just a bit too far outside my driving range for this short visit, so I had silently chalked this up to one experience I was not yet destined to have.

Mill on the Exe

Mill on the Exe

Instead, we took a long walk down to the Mill on the Exe, a riverside restaurant and pub that gets very high praise from visitors and which we hadn’t yet tried.  It’s a lively and excellent place. We had a lovely meal, tasty wine, and I decided to see what kinds of whiskies were stocked at the bar.

Chatting with the bartender, I decided to revisit Monkey Shoulder – my first impression of it last year was good but not great, and I like second chances so that’s what Monkey Shoulder was going to get. And as we were talking over whiskies, Ashley Millgate – who turned out to be the manager of the establishment – mentioned that he had bought a wonderful, limited edition Cornish whisky.3

Well, long story short, Ashley went up and got his own private bottle of – you guessed it – Hicks & Healey, bottle number 105. Then Ashley went beyond the bounds of regular hospitality and offered me a taste.

It’s funny how small, unspoken wishes can sometimes manifest themselves in our daily lives.

I don’t know which was better – the light, floating caramel, apple flavors of this unusual, delicate and rare whiskey with an ‘e’, or the generosity and friendliness of a fellow whisky enthusiast.

All in all, a perfect whisky experience, and a great night out. Thank you, Ashley and thank you, Hicks & Healey.


St. Austell Brewery website

Different Bubbles

Camel Valley Vineyard Bodmin, Cornwall Photo: PK Read

Camel Valley Vineyard
Bodmin, Cornwall
Photo: PK Read

I took the family to visit Camel Valley Vineyard in Cornwall last week, where we tried out every type of sparkling wine they had on offer. I stand by my first assessment – my favorites are the CV Rosè and the CV Cornwall Brut. The others – including an oddly satisfying pinot noir sparkling wine – were all good, just not quite my coupe de champagne. I like them as well as some of my regular champagnes, which is saying something, and it’s nice to know I can buy tasty sparkling wine in the UK while supporting local producers.

Also, the drive down ever-narrowing roads and through the Cornish countryside, over the Camel River and up to the vineyards, is a small adventure in discovery. After we left the winery, we headed out to our hotel for the evening, the lovely Lewinnick Lodge. A friend (a very good friend!) had made sure that a bottle of chilled Champagne (a Deutz brut) was waiting for us in our room, so we were able to do our own direct comparison – the Deutz had that unique chalky dryness of French Champagne, while the CV brut had a mellow roundess that was very enjoyable.

Twenty minutes from Camel Valley - the sea Photo: PK Read

Thirty minutes from Camel Valley – the sea
Photo: PK Read

Overall, sparkling wines are doing very well globally – for many, they have the pop of Champagne from France without the price. Italian prosecco is expanding in sales, and other countries (notably the United States, Australia and New Zealand) have produced solid sparkling wines for years. The name Champagne is only protected if the product comes from Europe – many other regions outside Europe use the word champagne as synonymous with sparkling wine.

Since English-produced bubbly currently only accounts for around 1% of sparkling wine sales in the UK, I guess you could say it’s a sector with a lot of growth potential. Variety being the spice of life, I know that when I am visiting the UK, I will be trying out some of the other local sparkling products, as well.

Cornish Bouquet

Cornish bouquet Photo: PK Read

Cornish bouquet
Photo: PK Read

Here are a few shots of a walk we took yesterday in Newquay, Cornwall. I have never, I think, seen a hillside so spectacularly, thoroughly, ridiculously carpeted in flowers as this hillside on Pentire Headland. The photo doesn’t do it anywhere near justice. It looked like a computer graphics intern had been practicing and hadn’t known when enough was enough. Pink, yellow, white, lavender, beige, all no higher than my ankle. Silly, silly amounts of coastal flowers.

Headland view  Photo: PK Read

Headland view
Photo: PK Read

What you don’t see here, of course, are the gale-force winds that made it dangerous to approach any interesting cliff-side views. The world was awash in wind. Then, abruptly, the flower meadow ended and a miniature forest, thigh-high, commenced. Prickly, twisty, battering our legs. It was alive with birdsong warning of our presence – but we never saw a single feather.

Tiny forest Photo: PK Read

Tiny forest
Photo: PK Read



Good Mood Restored

Camel Valley Wines Image via: English Wines

Camel Valley Wines
Image via: English Wines

I am generally a happy driver, by which I mean, I like driving a car. Especially through beautiful countryside. I grew up on the coast of northern California, which has some pretty nice roads for driving, and I guess I just got into the habit of being happy behind the wheel, most of the time.

So the way from Bristol to the Eden Project, a drive which runs through the SouthWest of England, should have been a great experience. And parts of it were: The long stretch on the A30 roadway that leads from Exeter (where we had stopped off for a couple of days) to St. Austell is stunning, rangy open country. And on the divided roadway, I could almost forget that I’m driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. But then the signage to the Eden Project, where we were headed, turned out to be intermittent and a bit misleading, the roads got narrow and then narrower, and after a couple of hours of my passenger (my intrepid father) white-knuckling every close encounter with a stone wall, hedgerow or side mirror of a parked car, I was ready to throw in the towel.

We had planned to drive down to the westernmost tip of Cornwall after visiting the large biomes of the Eden Project, but that would have meant another couple of hours on the road, and neither of us could face that.

Lucky us.

Because what we ended up finding, purely by chance, was a lovely cliff-side hotel. Besides having fantastic sea views from our rooms, and being served local mussels in local cider and cream, if we hadn’t stopped just outside St. Austell I doubt I would have gotten the chance to try a genuine surprise, the locally produced Camel Valley sparkling wine. Tracy, our friendly waitress at the Carlyon Bay Hotel, recommended the Cornish wine when I told her about my rattled nerves and my hankering for some champagne. She brought me two kinds to try, the brut and the rosé.

Well. My good mood was instantly restored. Because as it turns out, Camel Valley is turning out some excellent bubbly. In fact, the winery has been awarded a number of international prizes, winning out more than once against major champagne producers. The brut was light, chalky, dry and delicate, finely pearled – a delight. The rosé had a lovely tawny blush, and a slight berry taste I haven’t often experienced. image

The funny thing is, while we were making the decision to stay in St. Austell, I had been noodling around on the rental car GPS system and had seen ‘wineries’ listed. When I clicked on those listings, I was given helpful driving instructions on how to get to the champagne wineries – on the other side of the Channel. After all, they are only around 100 miles away, if you have an amphibious vehicle. Couldn’t be much more difficult than the country lanes we’d been on already.

But Camel Valley itself was only twenty minutes away, in Bodmin. Sparkling wine in England actually predates champagne, partly due to British glassmaking techniques. While Cornwall has been producing wine since the 1600s, Camel Valley is a family-run winery that’s only been in business since 1989. But if they keep turning out the kind of wine I tasted, maybe the French GPS systems will start listing them as a destination from the French coastline, as well.

Need I mention that I managed to return the car, a brand-new white VW, without a single scratch or mark, in spite of all the near misses? Now that, indeed, makes for a happy driver.


Camel Valley Wines website

Good English Wine article on Camel Valley Wines

Telegraph article on Camel Valley Wines

The Independent article on Camel Valley and other good British wines

Also, the music that helped calm our nerves:

The Morning Run – Cornish Coast

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

On Carlyon Bay, Cornwall. We stopped by here after visiting the Eden Project, which will be the subject of a post for another day. But for now, after a long cold winter and spring, the coast is in a reproductive riot of blossoms, pollen and birdsong.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The path led along a cliff, and there was this sign.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

What is it about warning signs that make us desire to do exactly what they warn against? Of course I looked.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Crystal clear waters, soft waves. It sounded like I could hear seals barking in the distance, although I didn’t see any.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read