diamond geezer

 Monday, March 16, 2020

The other thing I did while I was in Plymouth was go to Cornwall three times. This is harder than it sounds because the Tamar estuary is in the way.

Crossing 1: The Cremyll Ferry

This is the lowest of the crossings, at the mouth of the estuary where the river flows into Plymouth Sound. On the Cornish side is the Rame peninsula, an underpopulated inaccessible finger, the tip of which is a favourite recreational getaway. There's been a ferry here since the 11th century. Today it runs every half an hour using a small boat, the Edgcumbe Belle, for a flat fare of £2. It's a jolly affair. [9 photos]

Access is down Admiral's Hard, which is an excellent name for a street, just past a pub which declares itself the First and Last in Devon. A heap of seaweed outside the waiting shelter suggested that the tide sometimes comes all the way up to the foot of the road, but I got to walk for 100 metres down a long curving jetty instead. Another passenger cycled past me. It was slippery at the tip so the tattooed deckhand helped me aboard, and then I walked through the cabin to find a seat at the back of the boat. Everybody else sat inside, because any novelty in the crossing was long past.

The adjacent marina looked like it must be a sailor's playground in high summer, but on a showery spring weekday all was quiet. Nor was much going on at Royal William Yard, whose victualling warehouses soon swept past off the port bow. This former naval supplies depot was converted to a luxury apartment complex at the turn of the millennium by renowned regenerators Urban Splash. Although it has the feel of a gated community outsiders are positively welcomed inside to frequent its cavernous upscale bars and restaurants (rather than simply walking through to exercise their dogs up on Devil's Point).

The ferry crossing takes eight minutes, not helped by a swift running current, and taking care to avoid any other vessels heading out to sea. I would have enjoyed the view more had not a torrential downpour descended from the west forcing me to hunker down in the cabin with the other passengers. Thankfully the rain had lessened slightly by the time we were turfed off on the far side, again on a long exposed jetty with tyres attached along each side. Welcome to Cornwall, version one.

A handful of facilities are present in the hamlet of Cremyll, including a pub, a turning point for bus connections to the peninsula and a set of disused turnstiles from a busier age. But the real attraction is through the iron gates - Mount Edgcumbe Park. Once the estate of an earldom, and centred round a Tudor mansion, these 800 acres of woodland and landscaped gardens are a great place to escape. One option is to follow the coastal path past hard-at-work gardeners, former gun emplacements and classic temples. Alternatively nip up the hill to the big house, more extensive views and to wander amid the National Camellia Collection.

The house is open four days a week from April to September, i.e. not now, but the formal gardens are already a riot. Tucked away behind the mansion is the Barrow Centre, a cluster of artists studios and upcycling boutiques, plus somewhere to hire mountain bikes and segways - an impressive recreational ensemble. If I'd had more than an hour between ferries I'd have explored further and dug deeper into the woodland dells, enjoying the seclusion of the winding trails. As it was I spent five minutes hiding from another torrential downpour and was then gifted with an astonishing double rainbow arcing above the estuary... looking down on Devon from the heights of Cornwall.

Crossing 2: The Torpoint Ferry

This ferry's been around since the late 18th century, always capable of carrying the vehicles of the day. It operates between Devonport, where the naval dockyards are, and Torpoint on another tip of the Rame peninsula. To cope with the strong current iron chains were laid across the estuary in 1832, and three sets are now strung out between the sloping slipways on each shore. The latest ferries can each carry 73 cars, and at busy times run a rolling three-craft service departing every 10 minutes. Cars pay eastbound, motorbikes pay westbound and pedestrians pay nothing at all. Buses on route 70 slip aboard as timetabled. [webcam] [5 photos]

Foot passengers can either travel down below in a cabin or climb a steep set of steps to an upper deck with ribbed wooden benches. Nobody else hiked up to the top on my crossing, in either direction, even though the weather was sunny and dry. They gossiped and checked their phones, and I stared at the vast naval dockyard stretching along the Devonport shore. Three giant hangars covered the dock closest to us, one gaping open, while moored further upstream were some of our nation's battleships, one with a globular radar casing on top. Devonport's not the powerhouse it once was, but thousands still work here.

The exit flap opens quickly on the other side and foot passengers stream off up the slipway. Welcome to Cornwall, version two. Torpoint isn't an especially welcoming destination, at first sight a holding space for traffic with entirely unadventurous architecture beyond.... tipping the balance much as Gosport does to Portsmouth. I made my way past a defensive police station and miniature library to the main street where inexpensive shopping was the order of the day. But I'd crossed the Tamar so took the opportunity to buy a pasty on home soil, plus a bag of saffron cakes for later, and blimey it tasted fantastic on the return voyage.

Crossing 3: The Royal Albert Bridge

Rail travellers have Isambard Kingdom Brunel to thank for the construction of a bridge into Cornwall. His lenticular truss design took five years to build and was completed in 1859, the year that Brunel died, and still carries traffic on the mainline today. That's fairly amazing for what is essentially a suspended single track trench, the rails only opening out to double track on reaching land. The view from the train is pretty stunning (sit on the left if entering Cornwall) but for a truly excellent viewpoint stand at the very end of platform 1 at Saltash station. The land drops away sharply as a chain of brick pillars stalks towards the estuary above rooftop level, with the A38 road bridge immediately behind. [webcam] [9 photos]

Saltash is a nugget in itself, the seventh largest town in Cornwall no less, despite being somewhere most people thunder through. A short heritage trail leads round the town, kicking off by the granite Guildhall, but the best part comes as you plunge down steep lanes (very Cornwall) to the waterfront. Along the descent is Mary Newman's Cottage (she was Sir Francis Drake's first wife and, briefly, Mayor of Plymouth) where refreshment can sometimes be taken. A more promising all-year-round watering hole is the Union Inn, better known as 'that pub with a Union Jack painted across the front which you can see from the train when entering Cornwall'. A statue of Brunel in stovepipe hat gazes out nearby.

Old Ferry Road passes directly underneath both bridges, which is quite the experience when you're more used to rumbling over the top. When yet another squally shower interrupted my day I discovered that both bridges were too lofty to provide adequate protection, so huddled for a while in the shelter of a closed cafe. Lower Fore Street back up into town has a 20% gradient, which was enough to afford a stunning view back towards the bridges as the rain finally cleared. My second rainbow of the day launched into the sky immediately alongside Brunel's iron gateway and I stood in awe of the natural/engineering spectacle for a couple of minutes.

It's normally possible to walk over the Tamar Bridge, which would have topped off my trip to Saltash perfectly, but unfortunately repair works to the south cantilever have been ongoing since September and road traffic is currently using the pedestrian and cycle lane. I could have caught the free shuttle bus, but decided to end my third day trip to Cornwall on the train instead. When Brunel's bridge is in front of you, why cross any other way?

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