Another foggy morning, sitting in the garden watching a trio of squabbling magpies. Today is Plymouth Day and in a double attempt at both environmental awareness and the lowering of Mirinda’s irit-meter, we drove only as far as Gunnislake and caught the train.
According to various brochures, this is supposed to be one of England’s ‘loveliest country branch lines’ and for most of it, I’d agree, it is indeed very beautiful. Spoilt only by the train. I remember the massive windows on the Flamm Railway train, big enough to soak in the view and become part of it all – these are just ordinary train windows, allowing you to glimpse any wonders along the way. Even so, the train appears to be well used. But it has to be said that the ride across the Calstock Viaduct was pretty spectacular all the same. As the train gradually gets closer to Plymouth, so the scenery degenerates into grimy city edges and it’s at this point you’re grateful for the little windows.
We passed under the bright shiny very expensive Tamar Bridge then under the cute Royal Albert Bridge, designed and engineered by Brunel. From this point on we stopped at all the stations from St Budeaux (sounds a lot better than it looked) to Plymouth each one grimmer than the one before. Still, the trip was only half an hour and we weren’t there to see the suburban platforms of outer Plymouth.
Arriving at Plymouth Central we headed for the ferry wharf. Having a very rudimentary map necessitated taking the longest possible route, something commented on repeatedly by my loving wife.
The centre of Plymouth is almost completely pedestrianised, something that seems to work extremely well. At least it’s pleasing to the eye and ear! The centre of the city was designed by architect Patrick Abercrombie after Hitler’s airforce had levelled it back in 1940-41. In a 9 month bombardment, the Luftwaffe managed to destroy everything including nearly 50 churches, 24 schools, 8 cinemas and more than 100 pubs. As it turns out good came of this enforced clearing out. Before the war the town centre of Plymouth was awful: too small with too much traffic. The destruction gave Abercrombie the opportunity to design a big airy, traffic free centre and this is exactly what he did.
Two thirds of the way up this boulevard, we stopped at what appeared to be the ONLY outdoor coffee spot. And this is the only real shame. If this were on the continent, you wouldn’t be able to move for restaurants and cafes but not in England! Oh no. In London, they cram tables and chairs on the small footpaths so you can enjoy the choking city streets and be cursed by passers-by but here in Plymouth, where space is in wonderful, glorious abundance, we found one little impermanent structure selling coffee and cakes. Oh well, rant over.
After our caffeine top-up, we continued on our ferry quest. We eventually found it but not without the irit-meter getting into the yellow zone and threatening to spill into the red. But the Phoenix Wharf saved the day (and my navigational bacon) and the friendly staff of Plymouth Boat Tours greeted us, took our cash and sat us down.
There followed a wonderful tour of Plymouth harbour. We saw the Hoe, where Drake is supposed to have played bowls before heading out to beat up on the Spanish – he didn’t actually play bowls on the Hoe as it was not allowed at the time. We saw lots of naval ships and submarines and where they build and maintain them – some very big boat houses!
At the Saltash end of the trip – the head of the Tamar River – we went under Brunel’s bridge to the Tamar Bridge just beyond it. The guide told us that the Tamar Bridge, opened in 1961, was expanded in 1999 by two lanes being added to either side. This is a Japanese invention and the process is called the ‘Nippon Clip-on’. I have to admit that the extra lanes DO look clipped on and not at all safe, however, I’m too much of a realist to hope that this story is true.
Then I found the real story. If you prefer to live in the luxury of fantasy, skip the next paragraph, otherwise, read on:
The main problem with strengthening the Tamar Bridge was that since it catered for around 40 000 vehicles a week, closing it for the duration was not a viable option. An engineer proposed temporarily adding cantilever platforms to the sides of the bridge to accommodate traffic while the main deck was strengthened. Once this revolutionary technique had been accepted, it was soon decided that these two extra lanes should be permanent additions to the bridge in order to increase the number of lanes from three to five. Wikipedia
So, believe what you will! Before the bridge was built the only way across was by the ferry, which, again according to the ferry guide, cost nothing to go to Cornwall but £1 to get back to Devon. He also claimed that on one side of the river was Cornwall, on the other was Devon and the rest of England.
On the way back to the wharf we swung by a load of yachts preparing for the solo race to Boston that begins on Monday.
I highly recommend the tour; very informative and the crew is very friendly which is more than can be said for the Park and Ride bus driver! Mr Grim is the best way to describe this cheerless individual…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
From the wharf we walked around to the National Marine Aquarium, paid our money then made our way to the top of the building. Now, it has to be said, that I’m not big on aquariums (Mirinda, being half fish, of course, is) but some of the big tanks in this place are fabulous. There’s a couple of sharks – not typical Australian scary ones – and a fantastic turtle which is, apparently, a bit sight impaired. It proved this by running into the wall of the tank a few times, causing great merriment to the family group glued to the glass.
We managed to find Nemo and learned all about Banggai Cardinal Fish, which carry their eggs in their mouths. Well, the males do, not sure about the females. They’re probably off searching for Nemo too. Anyway, they are black and white and vaguely frilly.
Not sure how long we spent roaming the tanks but it seemed like ages to me. We then waited for the Park & Ride bus. The next train to Gunnislake was at 4:28 and then not another for 2 hours. The bus would get us to Plymouth station at 4:19. That’s a 9 minute buffer but did it allow for Plymouth traffic conditions? Mirinda, sitting beside me, had gone all quiet, the irit-meter gradually climbing with every spare minute that ticked away. Eventually the bus drew up outside the station except ‘outside the station’ is actually across a six lane highway with only a small footbridge to cross.
Well we made it with 7 minutes up our sleeves and even had time to buy a drink and some truly horrific sandwiches. The train, worse than the earlier one, had the added attraction of being jam packed with the very smelly unwashed and assorted freaks. Again, the windows could have been bigger so you could stick your head out and breath some sweeter air. Still, the views we did get were pretty…pretty.
Back at Gunnislake we managed to collect the local traffic jam either going into or coming out of Tavistock but eventually we made it back to the peace and tranquillity of the Count House. After a nice rest to recover from the city visit, we went down to Tavistock and bought fish and chips which we ate outside to the accompaniment of lowing cows and evening birdsong.
We watched Liar, Liar (a personal favourite) then prepared for bed. I was in the kitchen when Mirinda suddenly burst in, telling me to come outside quickly and quietly. She said she’d heard something scary. Personally I think she could have told me this BEFORE I ventured outside into the darkness. Still, we stood, in the dark, silent, but, apart from a few isolated moos, only silence remained. She said she’d heard a crashing through the trees, like a deer, then strange barking sounds. So that’ll be a near positive sighting of the legendary Barking Doe of Capeltor, I presume.
In the middle of the night I was woken up by the sounds of crunching gravel outside the bedroom window. I kept my eyes squeezed tightly shut and strained to get back to sleep. Damn those dead miners!