Tuesday 13 August 2013

Going West 13th August 2013

Badger, Andy and myself had planned a four day seawatching extravaganza on the Cornish coast. August is the prime time for seeing large shearwaters and if you are extremely fortunate maybe even the hallowed Fea's Petrel, although it is always a lottery as the wind has to be strong and either southwest or northwest. If southwest it is Porthgwarra on the southern coast,  northwest you go to Pendeen on the northern coast, although I am sure other headlands in the far west of Cornwall would be just as good. From the outset our trip seemed ill fated. I was at the theatre in London on Wednesday night when I received a text from Badger advising that he could no longer drive us down there as he had gout. We could go in Andy's car which is microscopic and five hours crammed in the back of that was a definite no go so the only alternative was for me to drive the Audi. I got back from the theatre at 1am in the morning courtesy of First Great Western, so bleary and weary it came to pass that we duly left Oxfordshire mid morning and drove west on a sunny Thursday arriving in the wild west mid afternoon. Badger had arranged cheap accommodation in a Youth Hostel near Redruth. On being shown our very small room which was just about big enough for two, but a third could cram in by sleeping on the floor on an  inflatable mattress thoughtfully provided by Badger, my heart sank. No guesses who got the short straw. We made ourselves relatively comfortable and then headed for the Lizard for some birding and to try and see the Red billed Choughs that had bred there earlier in the year. The Lizard is very beautiful with a micro climate all of it's own and some very exotic looking plant life that in quieter times would be worth a look but we were visiting in the height of the tourist season and the school holidays so peaceful it most certainly was not and our prime interest was seabirds. We drove down an impossibly narrow lane towards the point, thankfully not meeting any vehicle coming the other way and found a small car park with a very pricey parking tariff for basically leaving your car on a piece of waste ground. This was our first experience with the predilection of the residents of Cornwall to relieve visitors of as much money as possible whilst providing as minimal value as possible. However being from Oxford we were used to exorbitant parking charges so we paid up for an hour's parking. We then walked a short way down the lane to the coast only to find that another small car park owned by the National Trust and almost on the cliff edge was free although you were asked to make a small donation. Undaunted we set about some seawatching and soon the long drive was forgotten and the sussurus of the sea and wild beauty of this bit of coastline soothed the nerves. Manx Shearwaters and Gannets were passing in good numbers, a couple of Mediterranean Gulls headed west and eventually two real goodies turned up in the shape of a Sooty Shearwater and a Balearic Shearwater. Both new UK birds for Andy. He got a third with a very distant Great Skua. Two hours seawatching quickly passed and we went in search of something to eat before planning a restful night in anticipation of an early start to seawatching the next morning. We estimated the wind was westerly at The Lizard and as there seemed to be many seabirds passing The Lizard we opted to go to Porthgwarra also on the southern Cornwall coast. A big mistake.

The nearest pub to where we were staying was The Bridge - a place newly taken over by a friendly couple from Birmingham. We enquired about food only to be told apologetically that they had not started to do food as they were just settling in. The landlady however kindly made us a small bowl of chips for free. We resigned ourselves to just having a drink and the chips then moving on. The Bridge suggested a pub called The Robartes Arms at a place called Illogan a few miles away. The first pint of Rattler cider in The Bridge went down very well and we then went in search of food. At 8.30 in the evening we entered The Robartes Arms only to be told they stopped serving food at 8.30. This at the height of the tourist season but more of The Robartes Arms later. We had another drink there and went back to The Bridge. Another round of Rattler cider and a cheese roll each sufficed for our evening meal. The landlord obviously liked our company so gave us a gratis alcopop each. I was feeling good. So were the others.

Andy and myself. Three pints of Rattler to the good in The Bridge
The next morning I was not feeling good. None of us were. We staggered around in the mini space of our room trying to clear our heads and get everything together, and eventually drove to Porthgwarra. It was dead with just a few Manx Shearwaters and the odd Balearic Shearwater passing. The pager later advised us that at Pendeen they had two Great Shearwaters, eighteen Sooty Shearwaters and heaven knows how many Balearic Shearwaters passing before 9am! Already hungover we now plumbed new depths of despair. We had really messed this one up. We went to Pendeen but it was far too late.The wind had dropped, the birds had stopped passing and I closed my eyes and wished I could be anywhere but here. Jaded, fed up and dispirited I contemplated the horror of another two days in this benighted corner of little England. The scenery may be stunning as can be the birding but everything else so far was a paeon to mediocrity and awfulness.

We decided to go back to Porthgwarra to look for Choughs. There was also the tiny Beach Cafe at Pothgwarra advertising all sorts of goodies including Cornish Cream Teas, with the added attraction of a garden in stunning scenery.We arrived at Porthgwarra. 'What about a cream tea, that will cheer us up'.  I ventured. 'Three Cream Teas please'. 'We have no scones so they are off'. This delivered in a take it or leave it tone. 'Well why are you advertising them?  I just turned and walked out. Dazed and with that listless uncertainty that comes with extreme tiredness we walked up to Gwennap Head in search of the Choughs. Andy had never seen these in the UK. Needless to say we never saw them but an enjoyable amble up to the Coastguard station, through a sun drenched carpet of purple heather and wind stunted yellow gorse produced a solitary Clouded Yellow and some Grayling butterflies which are always nice to see. 

Porthgwarra - looking west

Porthgwarra-looking east

Porthgwarra watchpoint with Badger and Andy just looking
The contrast between the natural beauty all around us and it's consequent spiritual enhancement and the dire experiences with Cornish hospitality was not lost on any of us. What is it about this land that everyone thinks it is beneath them to serve, be nice and friendly? In other European countries being a waiter or working in the service industry is a valued occupation, here we just sneer and think it is beneath us or if we do it we are often surly, unfriendly and unhelpful. 

We drove further back inland to St Buryan. A large board outside a hotel and restaurant advertised Cream Teas and Food. We walked in and sat down. 'Three Cream Teas please'. 'Sorry we have no scones or cream'. 'You are joking? 'No'. This with a face that seemed to indicate I was being difficult. We gave up and ordered a round of drinks and some food. Badger and Andy ordered a big breakfast each. 'I do not know if the chef will do a breakfast now as it is lunchtime' intoned the girl attending to us. She went off to ask. The chef decided he could manage this. Next. 'I am afraid we do not have enough forks'. 'What!'  We eventually got another fork. The waitress returned yet again. 'We have run out of vegetarian sausages.'  Badger had a vegetarian burger instead. We ate the meal which thankfully was very acceptable, paid up and were promptly overcharged for the drinks.We were so tired we only realised this after we had left and that Andy had been charged £4.70 for a coke.We could not be bothered to go back and argue. Thankfully we did not leave a tip. 

We drove back to Pendeen to look for the Choughs along the coastline between Pendeen and Lands End. There was nothing else to do. Badger could take no more and remained in the car to sleep whilst Andy and myself heroically took the coastal path through the atmospheric older part of Geevor Tin Mine and onwards to Levant. 

Old tin mine shafts and chimneys at Pendeen
You will not be surprised to learn we did not locate the Choughs. They were achieving mythical status by now. Our walk was however enlivened and brightened by some Northern Wheatears, European Stonechats and Clouded Yellow, Grayling and Wall Brown butterflies

In the evening Badger decided to be sensible and just stay in the room and try and relax and get some sleep. Andy and myself went in search of food. We toured Camborne, a ghastly place with no charm whatsoever and frankly nearby Redruth looked even less appealing. Eventually we found a place called the New Inn somewhere between Redruth and Camborne which looked promising but it was Friday night and it was bingo night.The place was packed. Not one table was left with every local for miles around scoring off legs eleven and two fat ladies. We had decided when we set off looking for a hostelry that The Robartes Arms was beyond the pale after last night's experience but now with little choice left we went back there and ordered some food. I was advised there would be a slight delay as they were very busy. No matter. An hour later we were still waiting. They served everyone else, including their friends who came in and ordered after us and eventually after an hour with the pub virtually empty, apart from some chavs playing pool in the next room, a set of knives and forks were plonked down on our unwiped table with not a word of apology or explanation. Another half an hour passed as we stared at the cutlery. Already tired I was about ready to let rip but in the end we just walked out. Thankfully we had not paid in advance for our meals. I bought a sandwich at the Co-op next door.  Looking on the internet and reading a review from some other unfortunate misguided visitor to this miserable example of all that is wrong with the English attitude to courtesy and civility it seemed we were not the only ones to be treated so appallingly. So f**k you Robartes Arms and your miserable parochial attitude. I have been all over the world and in Third World countries such as Cambodia, The Robartes Arms with it's contemptible attitude could learn much from such places about how to treat people properly and with civility.

Do not under any circumstances visit this place unless you are a local
We rose the next day full of optimism and headed for Pendeen. Unfortunately the wind had died down and there was a consequent lack of birds apart from the ever present Manx Shearwaters and Gannets passing in their hundreds. We amused ourselves by picking out the occasional Balearic Shearwater amongst the Manx Shearwaters but there was little else to keep us awake. I dozed off in my chair, so did Badger and finally Andy. It was not unpleasant in the sun, perched beneath the lighthouse and with a wonderful view out to sea. Giving up the fruitless seawatch we finally managed to find somewhere that was prepared to serve us a Cream Tea. Yes, congratulations goes to Heathers in Pendeen, which was not only welcoming but tastefully decorated and with a very nice ambience. Needless to say the owners were not locals. The Cream Tea was pretty good as well with a bright yellow saffron bun as well as the home made scone to tempt our palates. Revived we went in search of the Choughs again. No success again. Oh well at least we are consistent in our failure

We tried a seawatch at Porthgwarra in the afternoon and had some small success with some Balearic and a couple of Sooty Shearwaters. The latter like miniscule albatrosses, their long black wings with silver linings so different to the shorter winged Manx Shearwaters. The highlight for me were the four Basking Sharks that cruised past. One was absolutely huge judging by the distance from it's huge paddle shaped dorsal fin to the sickle tip of it's tail. Black and sinister looking they are anything but, being the most gentle of creatures consuming only plankton, with only their fearsome size sending a frisson of primal fear through one as they slowly pass on their endless oceanic odyssey.This evening we ate early and well and were in bed by nine.

Tomorrow the winds augured well, forecast to be coming from the northwest and in sufficient strength to hopefully bring something interesting. So we planned our final birding session to be at Pendeen. Although it remained unsaid the trip so far had not been a success from any point of view.The birding had not been good for which we had no one to blame but ourselves but the attitude of most places and the local people we encountered in the west of Cornwall was also hugely disappointing and cast a long shadow of despond. We arrived early at Pendeen, at dawn and in fact we were first. 

Pendeen Lighthouse
Pendeen Cliffs
We took our place underneath the lighthouse and scanned the sea. Nothing, absolutely nothing. The predicted wind was absent. I fell asleep again, planning to revive when the wind materialised which it duly did. We were joined by three locals but no one else came. Slowly the birds started coming but it was hardly a classic seawatch. A couple of Arctic Skua's passed as did a Pomarine Skua. Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Balearic Shearwaters and a few Sooty Shearwaters passed by. Slowly the Manx Shearwaters built up to impressive numbers and we indulged ourselves again in picking out the odd Balearic Shearwater amongst them. A Great Skua came by very close, mottled brown in the sunlight with huge white wing flashes. Andy was so tired he missed it. Badger was out for the count. Time wore on and we alternately dozed or watched. Then came the call from one of the locals that made the long four days worth it. 'Great Shearwater, two thirds out moving west'. Panic.The seascape is a huge area to cover. 'It's passing over a Gannet on the water, now over two Fulmars. It's circling and going right. Now going left again'. The instructions came steadily but at first I could not find it. Then a final comment  'It's following a Manxie' and I got it. Huge compared to the Manx. It settled briefly on the sea. 'Blimey it is a long way out. How on earth did he pick this one out?' Nonetheless we were all grateful and Andy had not only a new bird for the UK but a lifer. We watched it slowly wend it's way out to the west and the trackless Atlantic Ocean. At last we had something to be pleased about and to make the trip worthwhile. After this excitement it died a death with only a really good and prolonged view of an Ocean Sunfish, flopping its extraordinary fin above the water as it made its laborious progress out to sea. Huge, square and tailess I saw it framed in a green rising wave before it was lost in the surf off the Wra rocks. Lunchtime was our deadline for setting off for home. We returned to the car and seven corvids flew over us calling. Keeyah, keeyah, jackdaw like but not quite. After our fruitless searches over the last three days the seven Red billed Choughs from The Lizard came to us and flew happily around the cliffs by the lighthouse.You could not make it up. Let's go. I was never so glad to leave Cornwall 


1 comment:

  1. Most people find Cornwall a magical place, personally i have found it to be a mostly treeless overrated tourist attraction acting as little more than a car park in the holiday season with very little magic. I guess its saving grace is the spectacular coast line.
    Unusually I must take issue with you regarding your generalisation of poor service in the - UK not in my experience.