Sun, seals and surfing

Yet another of my vastly delayed write ups.  Predicted year when my posts will be contemporary with my life: 2093.

We went on holiday to Cornwall last autumn, firstly to Sennen Cove for a few days of surfing, and then on to the Scilly Isles. Firstly and most importantly, we managed to get to the Pirate’s Rest in Penzance, rightly renowned as one of the best fish and chip places in the region. After two failed attempts to get in during our last stay we were lucky to get there twenty minutes before closing this time. The payoff was worth it. Beautiful firm plump fish, and even cod roe, which I haven’t seen on sale for years. We ate it on the promenade overlooking the sea, the sunset exactly matching the colour of the roe.

Then a quick taxi ride through the dark countryside. Sennen Cove has a beautiful bay with a lovely sandy beach, which is great since my surfing ability is basically non-existent. The weather the first day was great, sunny and with just enough wind to make some little waves. The instructor giggled at us slightly less than last time, which I think was an achievement on her part as I actually managed to get worse in the intervening year. Flopping onto my board I was rather less elegant than a seal trying to climb on a rock. Still, I managed to stand up for about a second. The second day we just hired equipment, and I found out how much harder it is to catch a wave on your own when the instructor isn’t pushing you. The third day, tragically, there were no waves at all, so I had a swim and Ed built an amazing sandcastle. It had a moat, a large outer wall, an inner wall and a tower. Its destruction was watched by an audience of six. After the sea had destroyed the walls you could still see the outline of the moats under the water, like the remnants of a Bronze Age village.

Sailing for the Scilly Isles involved getting up altogether too early. We were, however, more than rewarded for this exertion when halfway through the trip Ed spotted an ocean sunfish. I knew they were occasionally spotted in this area but I never thought we’d actually see one. For the second before it disappeared into the surf of the wake, I got a clear view. It looked like a huge dinner plate with fins.

We stayed in a B&B on St Mary’s, with a view into Hugh Town. It was very pleasant, though the room was rather small. St Mary’s is the largest island and there’s a lot to do. On the first day we went for a walk round the old fortifications, then down to Old Town, including a wander through the beautiful old churchyard. We cut back along a nature trail, and in the stream next to the path spotted freshwater eels and what we think must have been carp. Later on in our stay we took bikes and rode around the island. There are very few cars, and the drivers are used to cyclists. We also took a horse ride, along paths between fields and then down to the sea. It was very enjoyable apart from the trotting, which I handled with all the elegance and grace of a sack of potatoes. In the evenings there was almost always something on offer, and we tried a bat walk, where you got to use sonar detectors, and a wildlife talk which illustrated all the birds that just looked brown and identical to us.

There was a lot to do off island too, with the big attraction being Tresco Abbey Gardens. Tresco also has two castles, which we visited first, which have great views towards the neighbouring island Bryher. As we walked back, we came across a flock of what we think were red legged partridges, which scurried across the path and, when startled, flew away like fat little bullets. Later, Ed was delighted to see a huge flock of sparrows which sounded like a little helicopter when they all took off at once, and a single hen, which stalked off in disgust when it realised we weren’t going to feed it.

The Abbey Gardens are split up by huge hedges, often over twenty feet tall, which act as windbreaks. In the absence of the wind the temperature is definitely subtropical, and it’s easy to understand why palms and succulents flourish here. There are lots of beautiful features and as the visitor numbers are limited by the boats, it isn’t too crowded. Highlights were the tree ferns, the palm circle, the old Abbey ruins and the views that occasionally opened up looking up and down the terraces. We were lucky enough to see one of the red squirrels that were introduced to the island, as way of preserving them away from the greys on the mainland. As we were having a last wander before leaving, we came across a spectacular golden pheasant. He ate the remains of our lunch bread out of our hands.

The other popular island is St Martins, which has lovely beaches and a few rockpools, which are relatively rare on the islands. It was also the base from which we went seal snorkelling. This involved putting on 5mm neoprene, slipping into the sea and then trying to sidle up to the seals without scaring them. Ed succeeded spectacularly, a seal actually came right up to him and nudged his fin. I had slightly shyer specimens, though at one point apparently one of them came up directly behind me. Unfortunately, despite having watched many action movies, I was unable to translate Ed’s frantic gestures in time. I did see them swimming down below me occasionally, but more usually they had their heads out of the water when I saw them, bobbing up and down and deciding what they thought of me.

Seals were a popular attraction, and we encountered them first when we went on a glass bottomed boat trip on our first full day there, where they were only upstaged by the peregrine falcon. Our last sight of one was when we went out to follow the pilot gig racing. During the middle of the race, a seal popped its head out of the water, took a look around, seemed to decide that the humans were crazy, and swam away. It took another look from behind the boats, but it didn’t seem any more impressed then.

Perhaps inevitably, all of this excitement proved a bit too much for me, especially when we found we had booked the wrong number of nights and had to move with no warning. I would like to be the sort of daring, Lara Croft-ian person who would spend their holiday doing non-stop action; I see little point in lazing by the side of the pool. But there is also little point in getting increasingly bad-tempered because you’re overtired, and so next time I think a little more lazing and a little less frantic racing around is probably in order. I didn’t do any reading to speak of, and the only writing I managed was on my proposals (I swore I wouldn’t do any work on holiday, but two major grant deadlines during and after the holiday defeated me). And someone (who shall remain nameless) will remember his earplugs next time, because I certainly wasn’t the only one who was a bit miserable at times.

But next time, it won’t be our first break for a year. We’ll have achieved a better work-life balance and not be so tired to start with. Right? Right?

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