travel · U.K.

The Cornish Coast: Port Isaac

We left London for Port Isaac along the southwestern Cornish coast of England on a Monday morning at 8:30am. I had bailed on the group dinner the night before as I had walked the soles of my feet raw and the city had worn on me a bit. So I stayed in. I think a large part of growing up and learning to travel well is knowing when to call it a day and allowing yourself to do so. More on that and tours later this week…

Since I had stayed in, enjoying the company of my book and a bathtub, I had missed the big, awkward meet and greet that every tour does on Day 1. And now, here I was, Day 2 introducing myself a little too loudly, convincing myself that indeed I could be incredibly charming and gregarious while bleary eyed and sore.

“Where’s your other bag?” the driver asked.

“Haven’t got one. I only ever bring the one.”

He looked at me quizzically and took my almost empty pack from me, sliding it on top of monstrously large rolling bags and duffles- the first through third bags of my companions. It looked like a handbag in comparison.

It was a four hour drive from our hotel to Port Isaac but we were leaving in what appeared to be rush hour traffic. It would end up taking seven hours. I checked my map frequently. We had two stops listed and, based on my own reasoning and history with large tours, I assumed we would be stopping somewhere worthwhile…like Windsor or Reading or Bath. Maybe Bristol. Or a deeply southern Cotswolds town. Tintagel Castle or some expansive manor home if I was lucky.

I was not lucky. We stopped at two gas stations – one just to stop, the other for lunch. I considered the advantages and disadvantages of tours large and small while I stood outside in the mist stewing in a mild anger over missed opportunities for fortuitous stops. (Again, more on the pros and cons of tours later!)

A heavy fog rolled in after the rain, blanketing the countryside in thick white fluff. As it cleared, we realized it hadn’t mattered all that much – the Cornish countryside is parceled off by stone walls covered thickly with raspberries, foxglove, nettles, and other coarse plants. A nearly five foot wall and grown with greenery to seven or eight – a scenic view wasn’t possible unless you were driving.

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Our hotel was located outside of town overlooking the countryside from atop a hill. It was surrounded by an award winning maze garden and fields of sheep and cows whose voices carried across the green. A pair of ducks waddled around the front pond as a lanky cat flopped into a nearby corner of bench.

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The hotel was a converted Victorian with a tessellated tile entry, a heavy front door, and all the classic wood turnings and plasterwork that I look for to tell me I’m in England. My room was through the breakfast room and up a short flight of stairs. Painted robin’s egg blue and overlooking the garden, it came with tea and hot chocolate, little biscuits, a fuzzy geometric-print throw, and four down pillows. I eyeballed the white ceramic and inky slate bathroom with its gleaming tub. “I’ll be back for you later,” I pointed at it before flopping on my pillow of a bed. The ducks passed my window chattering to each other.

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“The walk is only about ten minutes but it is steep,” our guide told us. A heavy mist was falling. I lifted my raincoat’s hood over my frizzy hair and we began our steep descent into Port Isaac, dodging cars as we walked along the walls. Foolishly, I brushed into some nettles as a car passed. I knew instantly – they aren’t called Stinging Nettles for nothing – a heat rushed through my ankle before intensifying into a slow, burning, itchy rash.

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Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in town, soaked and sore. The other tour-goers – all over 60 as it turned out – glared. The entire walk in had been a recap of every season of Doc Martin, a show filmed in Port Isaac. “Are you a huge Doc Martin fan?” they asked frequently.  I had watched it but wasn’t fanatical so I was the oddball out when everyone lost it at the chance to meet with Ian McNeice who was in between scenes as Bert Large. The ladies took photos on his lap, glowing (him glowering), as their husbands scowled on the sidelines.

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IMG_20170515_183658.jpgAmidst the ruckus over McNeice, I slipped away from the Doc Martin sightseeing tour to explore. Port Isaac was tiny – a web of narrow whitewashed rowhouses overlooking the port. Seagulls darted overhead through the clearing mist. Coastal flowers bloomed along the rock walls as snails scooted along their craggy surfaces. A Jack Russell Terrier inspected me from its second story window perch, leaning out and sniffing at the glass from atop its cushion. A little boy with a mop of blond waves darted to and from the houses with a giggle as I meandered along.

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At The Cornish Cove, a small cafe overlooking the harbor, I snuck out of the rain. With a pot of mint tea, I began to warm up over a salad of local greens, tomatoes, balsamic, and freshly caught crab followed by a slice of apple pie with clotted cream. The woman behind me was a prop designer on Doc Martin and she promised to bring the show’s main actor, Martin Clunes, in for tea and a photo op. To the dismay of some locals and annual vacationers, the show was regularly attracted ever larger tour groups – some from as far as Japan.

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Mrs. Tishell’s Pharmacy in Portwenn/Port Isaac
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Doc Martin’s Surgery

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I carried on, meandering through the smallest alley in Britain and beach combing the harbor as the film crew packed up and allowed the town to get back to business as usual. Many of the shops had closed – many do by 4:30pm – and for once I didn’t have a reason to feel bad about just sitting and watching the tide. Couples paced the beach, hand in hand. A pair of Irish setters bounded up and down the shoreline as gulls circled overhead.

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Dinner was at The Mote – a cozy restaurant housed in a rehabbed 16th century building. Broccoli soup, crusty bread with local butter, and spicy wine at an old oak table. I read my book and watched an elderly couple recall beach towns they had stayed at thirty years prior before catching a van up to the hotel.

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“I can’t believe you took a cab!” the guide teased. “The youngest person here!”

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But I didn’t make any apologies. After all, I was still a bit of a wreck, it was raining, I was soaked and cold, and the thought of walking 45 minutes in the dark at a 30 degree incline didn’t bring me much joy. I shrugged and disappeared to my little room, peeling off the wet layers to dry on the heated towel rack, prepping a pot of tea, and sinking into a steaming bath with a magazine.

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Tomorrow morning I would walk around the hotel grounds, I thought as I dozed off, before we headed south for St. Michael’s Mount and St. Ives.

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