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Short breaks: Cornwall

The sight that greeted the men of the 29th US Infantry Division five days after they left Cornwall, on June 6, 1944, is powerfully recalled in the words of combat medic Marion C Gray:

"The first wave opened the gates to hell and we entered …"

He was among many who took a long, long time to be able to speak about what they encountered on D-Day, keeping his silence for more than half a century before offering those words.

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How much thought went into the choice of departure for the men who entered that hell is hard to tell. Perhaps, knowing what was likely to happen, the intention was to offer them time in a paradise location, but the contrast between Trebah Gardens today and Omaha Beach, where the Normandy landings took place, could not be more extreme.

Trebah's permanent memorial to those who left, never to return, was the setting, this summer, for the profoundly poignant memorial ceremony attended by many D-Day veterans in a place that is at once stunning and serene, a most magnificent garden. It was a privilege to be there to share the occasion with them.

What had been their departure point on June 1, 70 years earlier, was now the perfect place to remember the scale of the sacrifice and the understated tone struck by the Royal Navy chaplain Reverend Tim Wilkinson, as he led the service, was just right, ending with his recital of the famous wartime epitaph:

"Went the day well?

We died and never knew.

But, well or ill,

Freedom, we died for you.

Went the day well?"

Making the short trip, thereafter, to my base for the first part of this visit to England's most remote county consequently almost brought a sense of guilt. Budock Vean would already have been the plushest of quarters when used to house officers ahead of that mission, but it has now evolved into a holidaymaker's heaven.

Packed with prehistoric gunnera, rhododendrons, succulents, lilies and acers, the grounds are like a miniature version of Trebah, but also contain a James Braid-designed golf course, tennis courts and croquet lawn. Walk through the sub-tropical undergrowth, past the duck pond, down to the hotel's own little beach and jetty, and a further array of options is available, from a ferry trip across the Helford river, to kayaking, to fishing trips.

Some may not, however, even feel the need to leave the confines of the building itself with its heated indoor swimming pool complex that includes hot tub, sauna and spa, as well as a restaurant that has deservedly picked up awards.

It does no harm in terms of maximising appreciation to consider, for a little while at least, the sacrifice made to allow us to indulge ourselves in such surroundings by men who, even ahead of the horror that awaited them in Normandy, spent what must have been an interminable five days working their way across the English Channel to the Isle of Wight on their flat-bottomed boats. The Cornish connection to that episode fits with the history of this Celtic outpost and its nautical tradition laced, as it is, with heroism and tragedy in almost equal measure.

The relationship between man and ocean is encapsulated in the work of local author Philip Marsden, as he explains his passion for the world to which he has become attached in the opening chapter of his book, The Levelling Sea.

"I know, too, that 'love of the sea' is not strictly accurate," he writes. "Mariners do not love the sea. Love for the sea is something you feel from the shore. You can admire the sea from a deck; you can be drawn by it. If you are out on the water your affection is not for the shifting mass all around the hull, but for the hull itself. What seamen feel for their vessel is something that elevates it high above the inanimate …

"No other arena of human endeavour has proved quite so challenging as the ocean. It has driven individuals and whole nations to do remarkable things - innovative, courageous and brutal …

"Every strange force the sea exerts, every quirk of every tidal stream and every reef and twist of shoreline, every tackle-snapping, deck-swamping, broaching, pooping, pitch-poling and sinking, and every lone drowning, booms out the same warning: you should not be out here!"

Yet there are few on these islands who have absolutely no connection with seafarers. My own maternal great-grandfather was, according to family legend, a stowaway on a whaling boat. My father, while undergoing National Service, rejected the chance to stay in Plymouth and play for the barracks football team, in favour of climbing aboard an aircraft carrier which took him into harm's way during the Suez Crisis.

Here in Cornwall, it feels like there is barely a street that does not have direct connection with some tale of smuggling, piracy or heroic rescues from the sea.

For those who view such things as romantic - and it is difficult not to - there could be no better way to fuel the imagination than visiting Falmouth towards the end of this summer (August 28-31) for the Tall Ships Regatta, as close to 50 elegant multi-masted, heavily-rigged vessels gather in one of the country's deepest harbours.

The entire town will be involved in a programme of shore-side entertainment, activities and events, most free of charge, while visitors will be able to go on board and explore the ships when they are berthed, dependent on tides.

On August 31 they will then depart in what is expected to be a spectacular Parade of Sails, passing between Henry VIII's twin Tudor castles at Pendennis and stylish St Mawes - not to mention the lighthouse made famous by children's TV's Fraggle Rock - as they head out of Falmouth Bay.

That is the start point for a race which sees them follow a similar course to that taken by the aforementioned heroes of the Second World War as they head eastwards towards the finish line just off the Isle of Wight, albeit those on board will be travelling much more quickly and in far superior comfort.

When it comes to true comfort, however, those visiting the area to witness that event, or at any other time, will struggle to find a better base for their stay than neighbouring Mylor Harbour.

A historic former naval dockyard, it now has a vibrant modern marina feel with high-class self-catering apartments which back on to the Castaways restaurant where a team of chefs fully understand the need to match quality with quantity for those exposed to lengthy periods in the Cornish fresh air.

No place better, either, to spend that outdoors time than by following generation upon generation of local men and women in getting out on to the water under sail.

Andy, the instructor at the Mylor Sailing School, originally hails from Greenock but seems in no real hurry to return since life seems good for him down here, an opportunity having arisen to buy into the business. As we headed out of the harbour on a little 24-foot dinghy his apology for the gentle purr of the engine seemed unnecessary but was explained by an extraordinary sense of peacefulness that took over as soon as he turned it off and left the wind to power the boat.

During our trip, news came over the radio that the school's application for £50,000 to upgrade their equipment and facilities to allow them to provide lessons for the disabled had, after a lengthy process, finally been approved.

Apt, indeed, that the venue which played host to the GB sailing team ahead of the 2012 Paralympics should now have the potential to ensure that as many people as possible get the chance to experience the sensation of this type of exposure to the elements.

It is, of course, at times a deeply dangerous place to be, but the lure of the sea always seems to have been a difficult thing to resist, and nowhere more so than in the county which boasts the longest coastline in the UK.

TRAVEL NOTES

Where to stay

Kevin Ferrie stayed at the Budock Vean Hotel and Mylor Holiday Cottages, which both provide ideal bases from which to enjoy the Falmouth Tall Ships Regatta, organised by Visit Cornwall, from August 29-31. Visit falmouthtallships.co.uk.

The Budock Vean Hotel (budockvean.co.uk, 01326 252100) is running a special Tall Ships weekend at £133 per person per night for dinner, bed and breakfast plus £46 per adult ticket for transport to Falmouth and a three-hour sail aboard the majestic tall ship Mercedes.

Mylor Yacht Harbour's Drake Cottage sleeps six and costs £1230 a week in July and August (mylor.com, 01326 372121).

What to do

Mylor Sailing School has RYA individual and group courses for all ages, levels and abilities. Two students to one teacher costs £365 per person for a five-day course (mylorsailingschool.co.uk).

Trebah Gardens (trebahgarden.co.uk, 01326 252200) is open daily from 10am; entry costs £9 for adults from March to October.

Where to eat

Castaways Bistro (castawaysmylor.com, 01326 377710)specialises in local seafood, pizzas and pasta dishes with starters from £4.95, mains from £10.95 and pizzas from £8.95.

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