The Uber-Impressive Minack Theatre

Minack Theatre

At first glance, the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno looks as though it was built by some ancient empire. Nestled into granite cliffs overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the venue hosts an array of drama, musical and opera performances throughout the summer months. We popped in for a visit on a non-show day, and my socks were blown off (it is a tad windy) by not only the venue, but the tenacity of its creator.

The Minack Theatre was planned, built and financed by one very plucky Cornish woman, Rowena Cade. A fan of the stage in her youth, she moved to Cornwall following the First World War and settled in a house overlooking the sea near Porthcurno. Due to its remote location, entertainment options were scarce, so Cade became involved with a local theatre group in 1929. Sensing the need for a more dramatic stage for the group’s next production of The Tempest, Cade initially offered her garden before adopting a “go big or go home mentality” and instead opting to build a stage into the cliff beneath her house.

Minack TheatreDespite having no previous manual labour experience, she learned the skills needed from her gardeners and they built a theatre. Into a cliff. So determined was she to bring this project to life, Cade and her gardeners even rebuilt the theatre following its destruction in World War II. Every winter until she was in her eighties she worked away, developing her own techniques for working with cement so that it would mimic the appearance of granite, and lugging sand and reclaimed materials from the beach below (including 15ft beams! This woman was a machine). It truly is remarkable to see the theatre as it stands now and realize that it was built not by a team of labourers or fancy equipment but by sheer determination and grit.

From the start of April to the end of September, the theatre is open to day visitors from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., except during certain ticketed and children’s performances. There’s a small exhibit honouring the life of Rowena Cade – a worthwhile stop to gain an even greater appreciation of this beautiful space.

Also a worthwhile stop – Porthcurno Beach. Just don’t blow over the side of the cliff on the path down.

Porthcurno Beach

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Eating ‘Round the World – English Cream Tea

English food is more than cheese and chutney, despite what this blog might lead you to believe. There is, of course, the ultimate in English fare – the cream tea (there are also numerous other items that are well known, such as fish and chips, bangers, and many pies that contain ingredients I don’t want to talk about). But for this post alone – let’s talk about the cream tea!

A delicious combination of tea with scones, clotted cream and jam, the cream tea is readily available in quaint cafes, restaurants and even pubs across England. For a proper one, however, you must go to Devon and Cornwall. Who “owns” the cream tea remains a bit of a mystery (seriously – there have been battles over which one reigns supreme), and both varieties are certainly very different. You can’t play neutral on this one and declare “Erm, I like both” when asked which is your favourite. Only one can be declared a winner.

In the interest of journalistic fairness, I felt it was important to sample both a Devonshire and Cornish cream tea to present a balanced review. I also enlisted the assistance and taste buds of my parents to weigh in on this important matter. Therefore, I present to you the ultimate test, polarizing opinions everywhere: Devon vs. Cornwall – Which cream tea takes the cake? (scone?)

First, some vital stats:

Cornish Way

  • Traditionally served with a “Cornish split”, a slightly sweet bread roll. While these are now harder to find, the methods in which the scones are to be eaten remains the same – first a healthy spread of jam, followed by a dollop of Cornish clotted cream. Butter can also be involved here, if your arteries are thinking “Let’s really make this interesting!”

Devonshire Way

  • Split the scone in two, topping each side with a spoonful of Devonshire cream followed by jam. No butter allowed!

Taste Tests

Cornish

Cornish Tea
Before…
Cornish Tea
After. As you can see, I clearly didn’t like it.

Location: Hole Foods, Mousehole, Cornwall

The Challenger: Two baked-on-site scones (not warm, although it was nearing the end of the day)
Accessories: Your choice of blackcurrant or raspberry jam with a little side pot of Cornish cream. Oh, and a big pot of tea.
Thoughts:  Generous amounts of both spreads and the scones were golden on top, a bit crispy. Inside, they were dense and able to support a nice glob of cream and jam without falling to pieces. The Cornish cream itself was thick on top with the consistency and colour of a soft butter. Sacrilege alert – I ate mine the Devonshire way as I just can’t wrap my head around the idea of putting cream on top of jam – sorry Cornwall. My Mum, however, prefers the Cornish method and was pretty content with the results of eating it the “traditional” way. We all agreed that the scones are excellent and the tea is perfection. Eaten overlooking the harbour, so bonus ambiance points awarded.

Score: 5 out of 5 cups of tea

Devonshire

Devonshire Cream Tea

Location: The Pea Green Boat Cafe, Sidmouth, Devon

The Challenger: Two warm scones with a dusting of icing sugar
Accessories: A generous pot of Devonshire cream and a prepackaged strawberry jam. And a big pot of a tea.
Thoughts: Warm scones! Big points right there, although they had a taste more like a tea biscuit than the sweetness of a scone that I’m used to.  The cream was a whipped consistency and a bit runnier and paler in texture and colour. I’m familiar with Devonshire cream as that’s all we can get in Canada, but I have to say – the Cornish cream had a more appealing taste. I ate my scones the Cornish way this time (why not do things backwards?) and have to say – jam first may be better (Mum, if you’re reading this, you were right). The tea itself tasted far superior here – whether it was due to our front-row seats to the ocean I’m not sure, but I need to toss in some bonus ambiance points again.

Score: 4.5 out of 5 cups of tea (minus 1/4 cup for the texture of the cream and another 1/4 cup for the scones)

The Winner: Cornish! Apologies to my Devonshire-resident Nan and her love for their clotted cream.

In all seriousness though, they’re both delicious. Try them both out if you’re trekking around England! Perfect for quieting that pesky grumbly tummy between lunch and dinner.

Day Tripping – Marazion

Have you heard of Marazion?

If you live in the UK (or even closer, Cornwall), likely yes. If you live outside of it, like me, probably not. Which is a damn shame, because it’s a really lovely place.

Upon maneuvering ourselves out of town (you can read about that adventure here or visualize what it felt like here) we headed to Marazion for lunch and a wander. Here’s three things you can do in this wee gem of a town:

IMG_26901. Get Your Stroll On
Marazion is small and perfect for a wander. Along the winding main street you’ll find a few little shops and galleries, some of which cater more to tourists but are still worth a look. There’s also a nice path along the waterfront where you can gaze at St. Michael’s Mount or better yet, go across to it. When the tide is out you can follow a causeway across to it; the tide was unfortunately very much in when I was there, and we opted not to take a boat across and just look at it from afar.

2. Eat
I guarantee you the best lunch you will have in Cornwall at  Delicious: Marazion, a great little deli just on the far side of town. Get it? Deli? Delicious? I was sold by the fact that they were punny, and also had bunting. They could have sold nothing but ham and I probably still would have gone in. Parked in a window seat (good for spotting drivers trying to navigate around double decker buses on the small roads – seriously, what is with these roads?!) my Dad and I tucked into cheese and chutney sandwiches that were the biggest sandwiches I have ever seen, let alone consumed. Freshly grated Cornish cheddar with a mean bite, sweet and tangy chutney, fresh bread and coleslaw on the side. I opted for a gluten-free bun which was a wise decision as it helped to contain the downpour of cheese making a hasty escape – I wasn’t going to let any of that deliciousness go to waste! People often scoff at the idea that British food can be good, but everything is fresh, simple and reallyfreakingdelicious.

As an aside, I would be very interested to know where my cholesterol levels stood at the end of this trip, but that’s neither here nor there.

Following our sandwiches, we grabbed lattes and seriously the best hot chocolate of my life to go, and I was sad to leave. I dreamt of cheese that night…

IMG_27013. Beach Yourself
Maybe it was from the half-pound of cheese. Maybe it was the fact that the sun had finally come out and everything was warm and smelled like sea salt. Maybe we were tired from the stress of getting the car out of Mousehole that morning. Whatever the reason, we parked ourselves on the beach to look at St. Michael’s Mount and take in the views of the sea and promptly fell asleep. Families around us poked around in the sand and played, we snoozed through the whole thing. Choose your own adventure on that beach, it’s nice and peaceful.

The Charm (and Hell) of English Roads

Roads in Cornwall (like much/most of England) are very small. You bump along with hedges poking in both sides of the car and suddenly have to slam on the brakes as a truck peels around the corner in front of you. Then, in a well-organized series of maneuvers, someone always pulls aside just enough for each person to pass and you continue to barrel along until this happens once more.

Again and again and again.

I don’t quite understand why all roads have the hedges-as-fences approach – in addition to creating the feeling that you’re trapped in a maze since you can’t see over it to place where you are, it also makes tucking over quite difficult. Is this just a more eco-friendly way of keeping sheep and other animals penned in? Or does it just allow the English to turn a blind eye to the constant near-misses that are happening?

MouseholeAt any rate, if you think that you’ll be fine once you arrive in a town or village think again. We stayed in an adorable fishing village called Mousehole with what must have been the narrowest streets of all time. It didn’t help that the only car we could rent was a Land Rover – perfect for plowing across streams (which we did actually do at one point) and down motorways, not so perfect for village streets that a Fiat would have trouble winding around. And so there we were one morning trying to get out of town when we came face to face with a giant delivery truck approaching, a dead-end road behind us, a line of cars to our left and the realization that a real-life game of Tetris was about to begin.

My dear Dad, bless him, did the best that he could. But the delivery truck wouldn’t budge, and a long cue of cars began to line up behind it. So I did the only thing I could think of – I jumped out and pleaded for help from the first car to our left.

“I’m very sorry, but there’s a giant truck coming and we don’t know what to do because we’re not from here!” I cried to the driver. He smiled in response and said “Oh, not from here? American, are you?” “No!” I replied, “Canadian”. “Even worse!” he said jokingly before hopping out of his car to see what the situation was.

Thanks to the kindness of that man, he helped direct my Dad into a corner so that the truck could pass, commenting that it was far too big to be in the town in the first place and reassuring us that the resulting traffic jam had not been our fault. And then he asked where we were trying to get to and guided us out of town.

So, kind sir, thanks for the helping hand, and reinforcing the notion that it’s always a good idea to ask for help when travelling!

Visiting The Lost Gardens of Heligan

IMG_2657

I went to a botanical garden and liked it.

To be fair, I always enjoy photographing flowers and leaves. I’m never overly fussed about the gardens themselves – they smell lovely, but after awhile my brain gets bored and starts humming to itself or occupying me with thoughts about lunch and then I realize I’ve been awkwardly staring at tulips for who knows how long.

I visited Cornwall at the end of May with my parents who are big garden fans, and in the spirit of being a good travel companion I agreed to check out the Lost Gardens of Heligan near Mevagissey. The weather was unseasonably cold and grey and many of the flowers not yet in bloom, but it was still quite the beautiful place.

IMG_2628The gardens were created by the Tremayne family over a period of time spanning from the mid-18th century up to the beginning of the 20th century, but were neglected after the First World War. Uber-neglected. Restoration only began in the 1990s (you can find several great TV shows and books on the subject) – a pretty phenomenal feat when you see how much work they’ve done in a relatively short timeframe.

The contents vary depending on the area that you’re wandering – from fruit and veg gardens (including Europe’s only remaining pineapple pit), to a sub-tropical “jungle”, to massive rhododendrons.

Highlights for me, however, were the rock and plant figures designed by a local artist and her brother – the Mud Maid and Giant’s Head.

And the hard-working pigs.

I can only imagine how beautiful Heligan must be when all the flowers are in bloom (and it’s warm enough for you to thaw out your fingers) – check it out when in Cornwall. Pack good walking shoes for the trip – many of the paths are quite steep!

Tintagel Castle

After weeks of gloating about how great the weather’s been in the UK, Mother Nature reached down from the sky to give me a cheeky slap.
It finally rained.

Not a lot, mind you, and I think it actually enhanced the location of that photo (more on this in a second). However the one day that we decided to do a proper road trip and go to Cornwall (known for its beaches, amongst other things), the thermometer dipped a bit lower than we were comfortably used to. I am wearing three shirts, a scarf and a rain jacket in the photo.

It was, however, the weather that I’d been expecting. This is England, land of perpetual fog, rain, and damp weather. Crisp blue skies and warm sunshine have been messing with my head!

And so, Cornwall. About a two hour drive (as you can’t go through the moors, much to my poor Dad’s relief), we arrived in Port Isaac, which is where the show Doc Martin is filmed.

For those of you who previously thought Doc Martin was a brand of shoes, join the club.

At any rate, Port Isaac is a charming and picturesque little fishing village on the Atlantic Coast. We popped in for lunch (Dad had a Cornish Pasty, Mum and I delicious sandwiches) and a coffee and sat along the seawall during low tide, breathing in the delicious salt air.

Darker clouds began to roll in as we made our way further north up the coast to Tintagel, which perfectly suited the setting as we trudged up the hill towards Tintagel Castle.

Steeped in legend and mystery, the Castle is thought to be the birthplace of King Arthur (oooo). When peering out through the ruins, you can also spy Merlin’s Cave (another one now – ooooo). And it’s old, with a history stretching back as far as the Romans, so you know it’s an important and cool place to visit.

Which is was, but man was it ever windy. I really felt at times like I was going to blow off the top of the cliff, and the steps leading to and from the ruins were quite treacherous in the rainy conditions. But as I said, I don’t think the area would have given off the same mystical aura had it been a sunny and cheerful day – when an English castle’s involved, you just expect a bit of misery.