Cornwall England - Where Palm Trees Grow

The year was 1981 and Pat and I were living in London.  A friend of Pat’s mentioned to us that she had never seen a palm tree, so we offered to take her on a short vacation during which we promised her that she would see plenty of palm trees.  Our invitation was eagerly accepted. The friend no doubt presumed that we would whisk her away by air to the south of France or to some similar Mediterranean destination. The friend was in for a shock.

Tresco Abbey Gardens, Scilly Isles, UK

Instead of heading towards London Airport, our car made its way to Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England, a journey of about 300 miles. There were plenty of palm trees there for her to see.  How on earth can that be?  Cornwall is on the same latitude as frozen Labrador in eastern Canada, which it faces across the Atlantic Ocean.

The explanation is called the Gulf Stream, a very strong current in the Atlantic Ocean.  It begins off the south coast of Florida, where it collects huge quantities of warm water, which it pushes across the ocean in a northeasterly direction.

Watch the video below for a visual explanation of the Gulf Stream.

The first land it encounters is Cornwall, where the warmth of the ocean changes the Cornish climate to one where palm trees grow, even at the latitude of 50 degrees north.   The Arctic Circle is not far away at 66 degrees north.  If the Gulf Stream flowed in the opposite direction, the Caribbean would be a most chilly place but, fortunately for all those happy calypso singers and limbo dancers, it does not.

Penpillick House Hotel - Owner Len Davis

On that short visit to Cornwall, we stayed at the Penpillick House Hotel, near Par, in southern Cornwall.  Here our friend became aware of another anomaly, which is that Cornwall is two faced.  By saying that, I am not accusing it of deceit or hypocrisy.  I simply mean that Cornwall's southern coast is utterly different from its northern coast.  Near our hotel, the land meets the sea at about the same level.  There are no beaches or cliffs.  The land is covered in thick green foliage, which is probed by fingers of the sea creeping quietly inland.  It's peaceful and mysterious. The northern coast is quite different, with plenty of high cliffs and noisy waves crashing ashore on broad beaches.

A typical example of the northern coast is to be seen in the world famous TV serial "Doc Martin". It is filmed on location in the village of Port Isaac, although in the show they have named the place Portwenn.

Click on the video below to see Doc Martin – Behind the Scenes

The village is full of hills and cliffs and narrow winding streets, typical of northern Cornwall. Add to that mixture, the thousands of "Doc Martin" fans who come from all over world to see the location and Port Isaac is prosperous.

Doc Martin's house is the small grey stone house in center of photo
In that, it differs from most of the rest of Cornwall, which is one of England's poorest counties.  So much so, that Cornwall at present receives substantial subsidies from the European Union as a deprived region - no prizes therefore for guessing which way the Cornish will vote in the forthcoming referendum as to whether Britain should exit the European Union. (Update: Britain voted to leave the EU.)
Map of Cornwall and Devon

In the east, Cornwall is bordered by the county of Devon.  The two counties are separated by the River Tamar.  On the Devon bank of that river stands the town of Devonport, where both my parents were born, met and married. They had many relatives living on the Cornish side of the river and this led to visits to Cornwall during my childhood, when we lived in London.

At that time, we depended on a great steam engine known as the Cornish Riviera Express which would leave Paddington railway station in London and take us non-stop in just a few hours to Cornwall.  It was the Concorde of its day.

Click on the video below to see the Cornish Riviera Express.

This train and its route were almost as famous as "The Flying Scotsman", the steam engine that headed north out of London towards Edinburgh.

Flying Scotsman

In the early 1920s, my father played soccer as a goalkeeper for St Austell Football Club and that led to visits to that town, one of the largest in Cornwall, which is still the center of the Cornish china clay industry.

China Clay Mountains in St. Austell
Driving into St Austell between large white heaps of recently mined clay is like travelling though a moonscape. It's eerie.

Truro Cathedral
The only city (as opposed to a town) in Cornwall is nearby Truro, which has its own cathedral built in the city center in 1876.  At the time, it was the only cathedral to be built on a new site in England since 1220.

Truro Cathedral interior
A great mansion named Boconnoc, together with its 7500 acre estate, is located close to the hotel where we stayed in 1981. It is even listed in the Doomsday Book, which was prepared in 1086 on the orders of William the Conqueror.

Click on the video below to see Boconnoc estate.

Boconnoc had already enjoyed a remarkable history, when it was bought early in the 18th century by Thomas Pitt, grandfather and great-grandfather of two British prime ministers. Pitt paid for Boconnoc by selling to the Regent of France a great diamond brought back from India. The Pitt Diamond was set eventually in the sword of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Early in the 19th century, Boconnoc passed to another British prime minister, Lord Grenville. Then, in 1864, it passed to the Fortescue family. Eventually the great house fell into disrepair. It was requisitioned during World War Two and used by the US Army as an ammunition dump. When finally returned to the legal owners after the war, it was a dump in every sense of the word.

High Sheriff Anthony Fortescu with sheep on London Bridge
The High Sheriff of Cornwall is an office going back to Saxon times. Once it carried real power, but these days it carries none. However, the High Sheriff continues to be the official representative in Cornwall of the Queen and has the right to drive a flock of sheep across London Bridge. The appointment is today treated simply as an honor to be passed around annually among distinguished residents of the county.

Anthony Fortescu, late owner of Boconnoc
Until his recent death, this year's High Sheriff of Cornwall was a gentleman named Anthony Fortescue who had earlier inherited a sadly dilapidated Boconnoc. He then devoted many years of his life to restoring it to its former glory and seems to have done a fine job. In addition, he exercised the ancient right of the High Sheriff of Cornwall to drive a flock of sheep across London Bridge. When he did so last August, one cannot imagine how or why the police would permit such disruption to the London traffic. Perhaps they were promised some well cooked lamb with mint sauce as a bonus for their efforts. That leads us on to the ultimate Cornish dish, the pasty.

Check out the video below all about the Cornish pasty made by the Cornish Pasty Association.

Before leaving Cornwall, try eating a Cornish pasty.  This is prepared by laying uncooked pieces of beef, onion, potato, turnip and other vegetables on top of some freshly rolled dough.  Add pepper and salt to taste.  Then fold the dough over the beef and vegetables and bake until the resulting pastry is golden brown and until the contents of the pasty are cooked.  It's delicious but the reason that it's such a good idea is that it provides a complete and balanced meal in a form that is easy to carry. No knife and fork is needed.  Many a Cornish miner would take a pasty with him to work, when a plate of meat and vegetables would have been impossible to carry.  So try a Cornish pasty and, if there's no convenient mine to descend before eating it, one can always sit under a palm tree instead.

This piece, written by Bob, was originally posted on our website on December 4, 2015.