All For the Want of a Horseshoe Nail

I am sure I have mentioned this before, but there is something about having done a big building project which puts you off wanting to tackle the little things.

To begin with, there’s no money left, and then the need to have a break from endless workmen in the house, and the feeling that as long as most of the house is nice, you can live with the rest.

The thought of kicking off the whole recommendations – quotes – comparisons – appointments process to get one small thing fixed is heart-sinking enough, let alone the actual reality of having workmen in again.

And then after the big renovations in 2014 and a couple of smaller projects in 2015, we financially ground to a halt in 2016/2017, so nothing was going to happen then anyway (thanks, Brexit).

After a while, though, the little things begin to gnaw away at you, and there is a satisfaction in being able to tick off the small jobs one by one. For example, £90 got me pigeon spikes fitted above the bay window in the spare room = result, no more pigeon poo on the drive. It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.

However, the thing that has bothered me is trying to get one small problem fixed and discovering it hasn’t been fixed at all, and the one small problem is symptomatic of all sorts of other things you weren’t even aware of. It always reminds me of the old poem about the horseshoe nail.

For instance, this is a patch of rising damp by the front door. Back in the old days it was hidden under a thick layer of woodchip, out of sight, out of mind. When we had the wall replastered and painted, it began to flake, so we had it stripped back and a new damp proof course inserted.

It held up for a while but started to peel and crack again – damp proof course had failed, and the trader (who we tried to contact within the warranty period) had mysteriously vanished from Rated People, damn him.

So we are back to square one with the rising damp, but we had other signs of mould appearing – in our bedroom and the spare room, and a patch on the bathroom ceiling.

It turns out, frustratingly, there is no one simple fix for all these things, they all need different solutions and to be tackled separately…frustrating, but ultimately, like the horseshoe nail, fixing one thing may have positive knock-on effects elsewhere.

The mould patch in the bathroom, we now realise, appears because it’s alongside the void of a blocked up chimney, which means there is a cavity of cold air stuck there in winter. A stronger bathroom fan should help improve ventilation in the room overall which should also help with condensation in the bedrooms.

Ah, the bedrooms. What should be the tranquil retreat from family life is a dismal gloomy room with an awkward bay window, horrid curtains and an even more horrid mustard carpet.

The worst thing about our bedroom was the mould behind the curtains. We had kept the net curtains up in our room for privacy, but they got more and more filthy and in the end I couldn’t take any more – I took down the nets one day back in Feb some time, and gave the wall and windowsill area around the bay a good scrub (baking soda is the thing to use, apparently).

The difference straight away was amazing – the room so much brighter, and of course I wondered why I hadn’t done it before.

There was a secondary motive – we had in the end decided to get new windows fitted in the living room and upstairs front rooms, (thanks, PPI payout) as we’d been debating back at the start of the year, so I’d been wanting to get rid of the nets before the new window came.

The windows were fitted in the spring and already our room is so much more pleasant – the black mould hasn’t come back and I don’t feel my heart sink when I set foot in there like I used to.

The spare room is a conundrum, though – the mould there is not under the window, the room is warm and south-east facing, (so it doesn’t get the prevailing weather) well-ventilated and only occasionally slept in, (so it’s not due to heavy night-time breathers). It is, admittedly, used for drying clothes, so that could be where all the condensation comes from.

The black mould doesn’t seem to be disappearing from the spare room, whereas in our room where we breathe all night, it isn’t coming back so far. The whole room is a mystery – it’s an odd shape with all sorts of awkward angles – and as it’s ‘only’ the guest room it probably matters the least, but I don’t want guests to have to sleep in a mouldy room!

But I’ve reluctantly admitted there is no point trying to do anything more to those rooms (when we can afford to) – redecorating, fitting new storage or tearing up those awful carpets – if the mould isn’t gone. I can’t bear the thought of having it fixed up once and then having the mould come back, like the rising damp did.

So we go back to the original suggestion – fit a more powerful bathroom fan and see if that helps reduce condensation overall. We’ve also been recommended to try dehumidifiers. Two small fixes, wait another winter to see what happens to the mouldy walls, and perhaps then we tackle the next project.

That’s without even getting on to the massive potential work to be done in the front garden where we have a wall crumbling away and a drive we can barely fit the car onto – again, no point doing a quick fix, it needs to be the whole job or nothing.

Meanwhile, I can make the most of the other investment we made this spring, new sofa and armchairs in the living room.

This is finally a room we can go to in the evening and feel we’ve left the chaos of everyday life behind. The battered old leather sofas and even more battered beige rug gone – it feels like a proper grown-up, reasonably clutter-free room. And that feeling is worth every penny!

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Struggling into spring

I never quite understood what TS Eliot had against April, or lilacs (mine flowers in May, not April, anyway – the photo below shows its buds still squeezed tightly up in the last week of April), but this spring has certainly proved that April can indeed be the cruellest month.

As the Easter holidays approached, we’d had a few glorious sunny days, when it felt like the year had turned the corner – the clocks had gone forward, the evenings were light, and finally things had begun to grow.

Then, the Easter weekend forecast began to grow worse, and it rained solidly virtually all day on Good Friday. Easter Saturday and Sunday stayed dry, more or less, but there was an iron grey cloud overhead all day; the sun simply vanished. It felt more like February than April.

Spring seemed to give up on us: I can count on one hand how many daffodils grew in the garden this year – it was as if the leaves came up, but the flowers thought ‘nah, can’t be bothered’.

Easter Monday we spent in Greenwich, where the Observatory was a good indoor distraction for a child ‘doing space’ at school next term – but what a dismal sight compared to the normal view across Greenwich Park! I felt sorry for the tourists seeing one of my favourite places at its absolute worst.

Having lost most of February half term to a vomiting bug, I had been banking on the Easter fortnight to be a chance for fresh air, sightseeing and fun, but fitting around work commitments, play dates and the ever worsening weather forecast meant we had little chance for proper outdoorsy exploring anywhere new or exciting.

There was one glorious, perfect sunny day in the first week of the holiday, but various plans already made that day meant we had no time to go further than Streatham Common (when it looks this lovely, though, who’s complaining?)

The next day, which started out grey but got better, we went to Crystal Palace Park, another old favourite, which as luck would have it had a funfair – I felt I was giving the children one unadulterated fun day which didn’t also involve me running errands, making a delivery or doing some other dull adult task en route.

And coming across lesser celandine spreading itself across waste ground in dappled sunlight (just outside the park) will always make my day – so that was, overall, a good day. That was the last sunshine we saw for quite some time, though.

Of course, we’ve had cold, wet and windy weather in April before – looking back at past blogs at this time of year I can see I’m always complaining about the rain and the lack of spring warmth – but there was something about the cold grey spell managing to last exactly the length of the Easter holiday which was relentless in its ability to grind me down.

We did find indoor stuff to do, naturally – the Horniman, Tate Modern, Flip Out, swimming, visits from friends and a thrilling trip to meet Doorkins, the famous Cat of Southwark Cathedral – but the endless grey skies were a monotonous backdrop to all the photos I took.

The day at Tate Modern was eerie and oppressive, with the City gradually disappearing into fog over the course of the afternoon – memorable, certainly, and perhaps a glimpse of London Dickens might recognise – but dismal when compared to past sunny day outings across the Wobbly Bridge and watching the street entertainers.

Into the second week, I felt the weather was beginning to troll me – the forecast when school went back was suddenly lovely, heading up to 24 degrees or more.

This felt like torment – all the fun times we could have been having, but the children will be back at school and preschool and I will be locked into the usual routine racing up and down the hill between them. Not fair!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The small ones had a fun time, and the mini heatwave, when it came, was still lovely. (We seem now to have settled back into more typical April showers followed by sunshine with a side serving of brisk winds, but the weather is set to worsen again this weekend – THANKS FOR THAT, APRIL).

Still, after the short intense burst of warmth and sun, the garden has finally caught up with itself, and May bank holiday weekend weather is looking promising – but then I’m spending it in the Lakes, famous for its prolonged dry spells and sunshine….oh well!

The Golden Age

I was sitting drinking a cup of tea at playgroup the other day when it suddenly struck me – I was coming to the end of the era of playgroups.

The toddler gets her 15 free hours at preschool after the end of the Easter holidays, so she’ll add in an extra day to the 3 she already does (we’re keeping one day free for swimming lessons), and the last remaining playgroup we go to will be a thing of the past.

It’s no big change for her, really – preschool is in the same building as playgroup, going through the same door, using the same toilets and playing in the same garden. She’s been there since September and only cried at drop-off once. Going there one extra day won’t make a big difference to her.

But for me, it has felt like the end of an era – when the big girl left preschool, I was able to think ‘there’s still one more to go, still a few years with a baby and toddler ahead of me’ – and now that time has gone. I won’t ever sit in that hall, making small talk to mums I know slightly, or get dragged up to the craft room to ‘help’ paint another picture or make a collage.

So much of my life spent in those halls, drinking tea, watching babies grow from tiny things to toddlers charging around. That time has gone, completely: it won’t ever come back again.

And it’s also made me question what I have done with all that time – so many mums have moved on, those who had to go back to work or wanted to go back, those who’ve moved away from the area, have not been in the same halls and community centres, week in, week out, like I have – and I wonder what else I could have been doing with myself?

Six years of being a non-working parent, and I haven’t written a novel (probably best all round, that one), or made my children their clothes by hand, or managed to teach the big girl to read before she started school, or taken 6 months, (or even just a month), to do some exciting life-changing travel experience with them.

Instead, their lives have been made up of the very ordinary, everyday things – the park, playgroup, the local museum, gym class, swimming, library, soft play, the park again. And yet I look back on that time, especially when I had a preschooler and a baby, before we were tied to the school routine, before Brexit, as the golden age.

Ok, so there was no sleep being had, that bit wasn’t good, but it now feels like a more innocent, carefree time, and at the time it was happening, it felt like exactly what I ought to be doing. I wanted to be with my children while they were still young, I had not wanted to go back to my old life commuting in and out of central London, and there were golden moments when it felt like it would go on forever.

I was still working alongside all this, which kept me feeling like I was keeping some other part of my brain active and interested, but it was voluntary work – work I loved, work I wanted to be doing – but the guilt of not contributing financially to the household still bothered me, and even the thought I was no longer a proper taxpayer in my own right.

I used to pay my way, do my bit for the NHS and schools and keeping this sorry country afloat; now I was an unwaged mother by choice, a ‘lifestyle choice’ according to George Osborne (huh!). Sure, we’ve saved a lot on childcare by me not working, but increasingly, this past year, the voice inside my head has been telling me I do actually feel like I want something more. I finally wanted to work because I wanted to, not because I had to – and that took a long time in coming.

And, in one of those moments which did feel like the universe presenting me with an opportunity I couldn’t say no to, work appeared. Suddenly, I am doing freelance work for a couple of local organisations, and I realise what it is all my working mum friends have been juggling all these years.

The diaries that have to be scheduled, the rushing off to meetings after preschool drop-off, the time working in cafes noted by the hour, and then making a conscious effort to switch all that off when I am actually with the kids.

And no longer being the ‘parent at home’ means struggling to keep on top of household things – when can I be home for the boiler to be serviced, or get a quote for new windows, or plan a birthday party, or find time to get things done around the house? How do parents manage to do all that when both of them work? The plan is, eventually, I can justify getting a cleaner, now we have the extra income. But even sorting that out has slipped to the bottom of the to-do list.

The good bit, though, is that I still have a girl at preschool for a whole year and a bit, so we still get our lunches and afternoons together, and a whole day on Thursdays when we swim – she is still my baby (sort of) for a while – and I have a chance to build up a career (and my confidence) in the meantime, so I won’t be completely floundering when she does start school.

And – the bit where I have to try not to blub – even though the Golden Age has finished, I had that time, we had it all together, I got to be with my girls whilst they were small – and it was good. I have that golden time locked up in its golden box, and I get to keep it.

The Last of the Melting Snow

We finally had the thaw today, and seems appropriate to use the title of a song by one of my favourite bands, The Leisure Society. We went out for a few hours today, snow still thick on pavements and lawns, and came home to find it mostly gone. Rain just as it got dark took the last of it away.

This (above) was how it looked a day ago!

Seems bizarre that just two weekends before we’d been enjoying almost spring-like weather – we’d been to Emmett’s Garden where we’d seen amazing bluebells a few years ago.

It turned out late Feb was not nearly such a special time there, barely any snowdrops, and daffodils only just appearing, but it is a lovely setting at any time of year, and has what must be one of my favourite views, anywhere.

This photo doesn’t really do it justice, but take it from me, you can see a long way into the distance, across the Weald and towards what must be some part of the South Downs, blue in the distance.

However, the blast of cold we’ve had in early March was hardly unforeseen – it had been the talk of Facebook for several weeks beforehand (I have a weather guru friend), and pretty much exactly what was predicted, came to pass.

It feels very different from the last real snow we had – 2013, memorable to me because we had just moved house and the big grown-up girl was only 9 months old.

I was terrified of going down the steep hill to our nearest high street with a buggy, and went everywhere by bus instead, because I could walk to the nearest bus stop without having to negotiate any major slopes.

I particularly remember the Monday morning trudge to the Pilates class I’d signed up to – I could get most of the way by bus, but had to edge my way down another hill to get to the church hall where the class was, and back up the hill to the library where we’d retreat from the cold for a bit, before heading home. All through the winter of 2013, well into March, it seemed to snow every Monday – that may be a slight exaggeration, but when I picture that church hall in my mind, it’s always with snow falling outside.

These days, the thought of a day where getting to a Pilates class is the only challenge, seems like a far-off dream – though, after a gap of a few years, I am doing Pilates again, much to the relief of my back and arms, which were quite tired of carrying toddler.

Despite the snow, the school run went on, meetings had to happen, and appointments kept, all with a constant stream of nose-wiping and night-time coughing and whimpering about cold feet.

Having a five-year-old who LOVES snow is thrilling, and seeing her make snow angels for the first time a joy, but when you add in a three-year-old who only wants to experience snow from under a blanket and behind glass, it gets tricky.

I had forgotten that we even had a footmuff for the buggy – it hasn’t been used for years and I had no idea where it was – so had to improvise with blankets and even a hot-water bottle to try and forestall wailing the entire length, there and back, of the school run.

Finally, school gave in on Thursday lunchtime, asked us to pick the children up early, and cancelled school on Friday. A bonus day at home was just what was needed – most of half term had been lost in a fog of sickness, and to have a free day to do fun stuff was like a bonus prize at the end of a lot of cold dull January and February days.

The down side was not being able to go out and sledge and enjoy the outdoors – the small snow refusenik would not have tolerated that – but we did the library and had haircuts and made cakes and played dominoes and had a disco party with Alexa.

Of course it didn’t go perfectly; right at the end of the day a toy got broken in a catastrophe of glitter which is never going to be satisfactorily cleaned up, but the cakes were pretty damn good.

And, before I get my soggy muddy green garden back, I will remember that, just for a minute, it looked like this….

The Lost World of North London

I don’t go north very often – north of the river, that is. My personal fiefdom these days doesn’t stretch far beyond the British Museum – but a couple of recent happenings have reminded me of my North London days, and I thought it was worth trying to capture those moments before they slip away altogether.

View from Parliament Hill Fields

My first proper job was in Camden. It was an odd place to work, as opposed to hang out, or shop, or drink. There was a whole other non-tourist Camden under the surface: the pub where we used to drink was a stones throw from the Worlds End, but it was down an alleyway a few steps away, and if you hadn’t been intending to go there, you’d have no reason to find it. This meant we mostly had the pub entirely to ourselves, and as the office had a lack of meeting rooms, we met in the pub.

I remember particularly the Friday after my first proper week at work (I’d been an intern for six weeks before that). We had, naturally, gone to the pub. I happened to glance out of the window, surrounded by my new colleagues, newly solvent and newly thrilled with myself, and saw an old-ish man walking past. He gave me a weary, dismissive glance – and it was, who else, Alan Bennett.

I wanted to run out after him and explain. I’m not really one of them, Mr Bennett. I went to Leeds. I know how the trams used to run past the Packhorse. I’ve been to Kirkstall Abbey. My mum and dad went to Beyond the Fringe. Don’t lump me in with them!

Anyway, this all came to mind when I read that Bennett’s former home on Gloucester Crescent is for sale. I never saw him again in Camden, and I never realised till years later that many other literary types lived on the same street (not that I would have recognised Michael Frayn or Claire Tomalin if I’d seen them).

I did wander the back streets when I got a chance, though – particularly in the second year when we moved to a bigger office in Primrose Hill, and some of those grand streets along by the canal became short cuts through to the new office.

Canal, east from Camden Lock

The book which taught me all about Camden’s literary hinterland, and brought back all its messy glory was of course Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. By genuine coincidence, the week I read about Alan Bennett’s house being on sale, I also went to see Stibbe reading from her new book, An Almost Perfect Christmas, and this brought on the sentimental urge to revisit my Camden days.

To be strictly honest, being a media executive in Camden in the Noughties is probably not very much like being a nanny there in the Eighties, but there were some things which rang true.

It felt a lot like the Camden I knew – Parkway with its shabby non-tourist shops including a pet shop that actually still sold pets, and always had a sad parrot in the window, and my first proper hairdresser where Darron cut my hair, Delancey Street with its posh bistro where I had to endure a terrifying lunch with my new boss and drank far too much, and the cafes on the High Street, (pre-Costa, pre-Starbucks and nicer than any of them) – Ruby in the Dust and Bean and Cup, you are still the benchmarks of my favourite cafes, all these years later.

Then there was yoga, which featured in Love, Nina, and for me, too. It was the year 2000, I was 23, and I was all about the yoga. I had been going to a class in South London, but the commute home wasn’t getting me there on time, so I looked for a class near to work. ‘Near’ turned out to be in a community hall on the stunning Maiden Lane Estate, which was a brisk walk from the office, and practically half way to Kings Cross – so I used to walk back along York Way to get to the tube, marvelling at how desolate and magnificent it all was.

I can barely remember if the yoga class itself was any good, it was the splendour of Maiden Lane’s terraces and alleyways, and those long walks through the wasteland of pre-gentrified Kings Cross that stay with me.

St Pancras, mid-regeneration (2008)

When we moved to the new office in Primrose Hill, I discovered we were close to the chi chi Triyoga, beloved of various Spice Girls – so I switched allegiance from poor old Maiden Lane and for a few months was able to claim I shared a yoga teacher with Sporty Spice, Simon Low. That was the peak of my Camden cool, as it came to a halt in autumn 2001 when I was made redundant, with a good chunk of my colleagues following at the same time or a month or so later.

There was a rather bleak period of unemployment – it was a cold winter, not a pleasant time to be in a flat with no central heating, or out pounding the pavements looking for temp work, but just like something out of a chick-lit novel, I got a week’s work just before Christmas, which meant I could afford to buy Christmas presents.

After an unsatisfactory 9 months commuting to Chiswick, (not recommended) and it was (too good to be true, another chick-lit plot point, but genuinely true) almost exactly 12 months to the day I was made redundant, that I started a new job back in the borough of Camden.

This time, though, it was Fitzrovia, and though the work was less fun and I missed the golden days of schlepping round Camden and afternoons lounging on Primrose Hill when we should have been working (no wonder we were all made redundant, really), it felt like the start of proper grown-up life.

And it opened up a whole new bit of London, which became far more special even than Camden had been, and led eventually to the year I spent in my tiny but very much loved Bloomsbury flat.

My fireplace in Bloomsbury

Finally, when browsing through my old photos from days wandering round north London, I found a favourite which captures the essence of Camden for me – the plaque commemorating the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed (it’s probably nearer to Kings Cross than it is to Camden, but the same neck of the woods).

When I took this photo, the terrace was in a state so shabby, it seemed very appropriate, given their reputation for being dishevelled and generally disreputable, but it looked like it was heading towards being done up. And I am still amused that someone put a plaque up to commemorate that they stayed there for just 3 months – so fleeting, so pointless, but somebody out there bothered to record it.

Even Further West

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing, but also putting off – because I’m going back to one of my favourite places, but I’m also not sure I can do it justice.

When I went to Cornwall in 2002, I stayed right at the very end. Ok, not the very end, but in one of the last villages before Land’s End.

It was one of those holidays memorable not solely for idyllic and relaxing moments – I remember a lot of mist, fog and rain – and a holiday barn which you might call bijou and atmospheric, but could also have accurately been called basic and somewhat uncomfortable.

But something about the far west of Cornwall got under my skin, and it hasn’t ever really left me. This time round, when we stayed squarely in the centre of the county, I noticed a difference – we were surrounded by cornfields, not to mention acres of cauliflowers (if we’d got cut off from Truro and Waitrose by a flash flood, we could have survived quite well on caulis).

It was charming and scenic and bucolic and so on, but it wasn’t the wild, rugged Cornwall I remembered – where the recall of magical names like Sennen, St Buryan, St Just, Lamorna, Treen and Mousehole can still cast a spell over me.

So, with only a couple of days left in Cornwall, I wanted to go back to my favourite place. The weather didn’t look promising, but crucially it did look like it would improve the further west we went – so we set off, and as we passed St Michael’s Mount and Penzance, I felt my spirits rising (and the sun did come out!)

It is impossible to put my finger on it, but beyond Penzance, the landscape did change subtly. Narrower lanes, definitely, less trees, (and those there were more obviously shaped by the wind). Houses seemed to get smaller and more hunched into the ground.

Everything slightly less lush and green, as if all the vegetation had been scorched by salt. We drove slower, the roads got narrower. I was convinced we’d missed a turning: it didn’t feel like a place I ought to be using a smartphone. Back in the day, I would have had a road atlas on my lap, but some of these lanes were too tiny to be on an atlas.

Then, finally, the lane turned abruptly downhill and we got a glimpse of the beach I lost my heart to all those years back – Porthcurno, home of the famous Minack theatre.

I hadn’t visited the theatre last time, and we didn’t plan ahead well enough to arrange to see a play this time, but we could pay to look around, so this is what we did first. The cliff top location is every bit as dramatic as I imagined, the sheer scale of it impressive – and quite terrifying if you have any problem with heights or cliff edges.

Quite how you’d manage to watch a play there without being completely distracted by the surroundings – let alone the issue of audibility, which is often a challenge for me – but there was a fascinating exhibition on the site explaining how theatre companies deal with the, um, unique performance conditions.

Then, we went to the beach. I’m not sure I can quite explain why I love Porthcurno beach so much, but these things probably contribute:

– it’s a perfect horseshoe curve of a bay with the dramatic Logan Rock (see far right in the picture above) at one end, and towering cliffs on either side.

– the sea is the colour above (ok probably not in February) and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Britain.

– it is simply the best beach for swimming outside of the Caribbean I’ve ever been.

The waves are not so huge that you can’t get into the water easily, but once you’re in, the ground shelves away quickly and you’re comfortably out of your depth (just enough for it to feel slightly thrilling, but not dangerous, provided you’re a confident swimmer).

I must have spent a good hour, on and off, with my feet up, sculling with my hands, bobbing up and down in the waves and feeling in complete heaven. (Btw the last time I was there, a shark swam into the bay. It was exactly like Jaws, the speed with which everyone got out of the water. This time, fortunately, no shark).

The other joyful moment was taking the big girl for her first proper swim in the sea. (The toddler’s verdict was that the waves were ‘too scratchy’).

The big girl loved it, though, and I hope that she remembers the first proper time she went in the sea was at Porthcurno, the one of the best beaches in the world, and her mum’s favourite place in England. (Not my favourite place in Britain – that can be saved for another day).

Further West Country Rambling

It was quite a thrilling moment, crossing the Tamar to get to Cornwall. I hadn’t gone to Cornwall via that route since my first trip there, and that was only to have breakfast at a Little Chef after getting off a Brittany ferry in Plymouth.

Yes, my parents were trolling me – I had begged for years to go to Cornwall, inspired by Over Sea, Under Stone, naturally – so what did they do? They took me there for breakfast. And then drove home to Essex. I held that grudge against them for years.

I’d been to Cornwall a couple of times as an adult – one brief trip over the border from Devon during a weekend break, and a proper holiday there circa 2002, but neither trip had taken us over the Tamar bridge, so I commemorated it with this rather poor photo.

and found myself remembering a favourite line from ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ – ‘What’s he mean, Logres?’ demanded Jane. ‘He means the land of the West,’ Barney said … ‘It’s the old name for Cornwall. King Arthur’s name.’

I have loyalties and affections in many corners of the UK – raised in East Anglia, family roots in Wales, very drawn to the wildest furthest bits of Scotland and islands in general – but nothing quite matches Cornwall for me for magic, and it was probably the influence of Susan Cooper which put the germ of it there.

I did also have a great fondness for Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, which covers the most famous Arthurian and Cornish legends with a light touch, though it didn’t shy away from the more down-beat elements of Arthur (spoiler: there’s a big battle and it doesn’t go well for him).

I hadn’t thought of it for years, but as luck would have it, the holiday barn we stayed in had a copy, and the 5 year old was enchanted by it. (She’ll come to Susan Cooper in time, I hope).

View near our holiday barn, Tregear

I seem to have veered off the original topic, which was meant to be a holiday round-up – but there was a point in there somewhere.

My daydream version of Cornwall as a child was all tied up in magic and mystery and legend, all of my favourite things – the reality I learned from this holiday is that Cornwall has buckets and spades and holiday parks and heaving beaches and cafes of questionable quality, just like any other British seaside district.

It isn’t all mists and stone circles and empty cliff tops, which was much more the experience I had staying there in 2002 – of course, that was pre-children, and a very different kind of holiday. I hoped to find more of what I had loved about it back then, but searching for wild and lonely places whilst also trying to have a family-friendly holiday is a bit of a challenge.

Holywell Beach, nr Newquay

We certainly saw areas which looked like they’d seen better days, and plenty of inferior boxy housing going up – plus some very nasty mock-Georgian stuff on the edges of Truro, which has a new Waitrose, presumably put there for the horrid grockles like us (and of course we did use it.

I suppose what troubles me is that in Cornwall, the place which felt like home to me before I’d even been there, I know I am truly an outsider. In Wales, I feel at home because I can pronounce Machynlleth without fear and know to say diolch instead of thank you.

In East Anglia and the Kent/Sussex coast and the Lake District I’m in the places I spent my childhood holidays, so I feel very at ease. In Cornwall, though, I’ll always be a grockle. The question is how to do it without feeling too guilty about it.

Staying well away from the tourist hotspots and the coast was a big advantage – we were beautifully isolated in our holiday barn at Tregear, with the most complicated network of tiny lanes crisscrossing the fields to get us there (I was reminded of what Britain must have been like in wartime, with all the signposts gone – how do you navigate when every field and junction looks interchangeable?)

View from Tregear Barns

The location, despite its peace and quiet, was actually very well placed for driving to either the north or south coasts, (once we’d escaped the jumble of lanes) and convenient for Truro and that damn Waitrose. I had assumed we’d mainly stick to the south coast, but we ended up exploring both, and I had a proper sense for the first time of how different their characters are.

Perranporth Beach

The huge stretches of sand at Perranporth and Holywell in the north reminded me of Brittany, and diving into the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, aged about 15.

This time, I was practically the only person swimming (ok, jumping in the waves and paddling a bit) there rather than surfing, and it did make me wish I’d signed up for a body boarding lesson. Perhaps signs of a mid-life crisis but when I saw everyone but me doing it, I wanted to give it a go!

The south coast, on the other hand, was more like bits of Devon I’d been to years ago, and we found some pleasingly wild places alongside the more manicured and tourist-friendly. I was pleasantly surprised by Falmouth, which was much more upmarket and yachty than I’d realised – the place to go if you want to shop at Joules or Fat Face – but was still somehow a proper place, not all full of Hooray Henries, and the maritime museum is brilliant.

Falmouth Harbour

And I did, eventually find – or rediscover – the place that really owns my heart in Cornwall, Porthcurno, but that deserves a blog all on its own. Plenty more to follow!