I was a few miles outside beer, a village in Devon. (“Beer’s a good place for cider,” a fellow had told me seriously the day before.) I was rolling along the English lanes in my little rental car at about 15 miles an hour. With six-foot-high hedges on each side of the lane, I had only the narrow, winding road to look at and not a single sign to assure me I was headed right. There was no turning around. A piece of verse about a hedged lane kept jingling through my mind:
…when once you are in it,
It holds you as fast as a cage does a linnet.
Good travel is its own excuse. It doesn’t really need anything more than that famous response about the reason for an ascent of Mount Everest: “Because it is there.” Still, when it comes to a jaunt, I prefer to concoct a goal that gives a general direction – and nothing more. Some travelers like schedules and itineraries. For me, I favor a mere compass heading that will let the journey open on its own time to its own vagaries, revealing the lay of the land, the phrasings of the natives, and, in this place, the particular bite of hops in a local pint of ale.
Although I’d visited Devon and Cornwall before, I’d not seen them from the coast road. But after I arrived and bought a large-scale road atlas, I realized there was no coast road.
Instead, I found myself on bending and hitching roadways that branched off to dozens of lesser ones, and then to hedge-lined routes, single lanes carrying two-way traffic, where approaching drivers slowed as they edged their left side-
mirrors into the shrubbery and reached to pull back their right-side ones. To see this coast by auto requires miles and miles of popping in and out of clipped blackthorn.
These lanes at least give the feel of England, and that’s good because you rarely can see the countryside from them. And there’s another advantage: When you drive so slowly and can’t see where you’re going or how far you haven’t come, a small island nation spreads as large as a continent. I found 20 miles of West Country lanes left me with a sense of accomplishment commensurate with, say, driving across Montana.
Perhaps because of their notion that everything in America is gigantic, the English continually asked me whether I found things small. Yes, I said, things are smaller here – roads, shops, lawns (and, once upon a time, autos), but that relative diminution enlarges England, where one can never be more than 75 miles from the sea and still feel safely inland after traveling only an hour away from the coast.
When the sign for Beer finally came into view, I turned down a long slope toward the sea. At last, the sea. (The village name, incidentally, has nothing to do with a malt-and-hops beverage; rather, it comes from an Old English word bearu meaning “grove.”) Rock houses with thatch or slate roofs lined the high street, and a rill rolled down a stone trough on one side and then the other, a course I followed on foot past small gardens of hollihocks and roses and ivy, a tearoom, an inn, and at last to the cobble beach under high chalk cliffs, with the Channel lying quietly in a blueness I didn’t believe it could possess.
Unlike the more famous coastal villages of Lyme Regis and Polperro, Beer is a place less for strolling near the sea than for getting onto it: You can hire a motorboat or sailboat or kayak; you can idle on the water or fish it for mackerel; you can paddle out to the sea caves once used by smugglers of hard spirits.
I arrived in early July, just before the great coming of the “grockles,” a Devonshire word for tourists. Because commercial fishing here has suffered from overharvesting and pollution, grockles now provide much of what fish did. As a result, the village, like so many others along the coast, each year becomes more of a historical diorama than a genuine fishing port.
Still, I liked Beer, especially for the way its high street ran right to the sea, stopping only at the strand of surf-rounded rocks one must cross to get to the water – no easy pier or jetty these days. But in the 16th century John Leland, the antiquarian, wrote in his Itinerary: “Ther was begon a fair Pere for Socour of Shippelettes at this Berewood [Beer], but there cam such a Tempest a 3 Yeres sins as never in mynd of men had before beene sene in that shore, and tare the Pere in Peaces.” Where peres – piers – are concerned, that storm has been a long discouragement.
I walked up to the Anchor Inn and sat in a breezy window. Before me was a fine pint of ale, which seemed only appropriate in a place with a promontory called Beer Head. If the British have yielded their empire, they have not lost their capacity to produce at least two things in uncommon excellence: actors and ale. Yet when I first began traveling here in the mid-1960s, their great beers were disappearing fast because of the Americanization and conglomeration of their breweries. Then a revolt began. CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, came forward to insist there is nothing so splendidly British as an ale or a stout made in the traditional way and served on draft in the traditional pub. While an industrialized, fizzed, watery, malt beverage might be passed off as beer in America (a nation that had forgotten its own rich brewing heritage), CAMRA was not going to let that happen here.
Some 20 years later I could sit in a pleasant pub in Beer and drink a genuine ale (containing but four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast) hand-pumped from the cellar and brewed only a few miles away. It was a taste of Devon I could not find in London or Birmingham.
The next day I was in Branscombe, a thatched-roof village appropriately scattered along its combe, or valley. The jumble of hills all around cut off any view of the sea, although I could hear it on the south wind. During a morning walk, while I was hunting for old folk
poetry and remnants of earlier lives, I went into the graveyard of the Norman church, where an inscription on a monument memorialized, better than any snapshot could, a farmer who died while shearing sheep:
Strong and at Labour
suddenly he reels.
Death came behind him
and stroke up his heels.
For lunch I walked to the ancient Masons Arms (the inscription on the worn gantry sign was now ye toil not), which lay beside a streamlet. To go with a picked-crab sandwich, I ordered a glass of scrumpy, a rough cider that the bartender said “will go through you like a ballistic prune.” The crab, from the Channel, was fresh and sweet and the bread good enough to take a few slices for the road.
With improved beers has come better pub food, so that the old jokes about English cooking are no longer apt. As go the public houses in rural England, so goes the traveler’s welfare, because a village pub is commonly the only place serving food and always the jolliest spot for a conversation. (In the West Country, it’s true, one may find a Devonshire or Cornish cream tea – a couple of buttery scones, a small pot of clotted cream, jam, and tea. Given the choice, I’d rather simply mainline cholesterol and get it over with.)
Another few miles down the deeply cut lanes, I traded the white cliffs along the Channel for the red bluffs around Sidmouth, the celebrated watering place every 19th-century traveling pooh-bah visited. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote of it as Baymouth in Pendennis. The town lies in the rather broad valley where the River Sid enters the sea but, unlike many Channel settlements, it doesn’t hide from the water but rather confronts it openly with a long esplanade for strollers who ask nothing more than a grand marine view.
Sidmouth has long been a spot for moneyed visitors, but I didn’t stay more than one evening. Learning that this section of the coast calls itself “the English Riviera,” I moved on. When I visit England I want England, not ersatz Mediterranean, and vice versa. I was off for Dartmouth.
Leaving the hedged lanes, I drove onto something remarkably like a two-lane highway, although I wasn’t entirely sure, since the British use the white center line as a third lane for passing. I went quickly through Torquay (the setting for “Fawlty Towers”; there is now a hotel so named), and by noon I was at Kingswear, across the narrow estuary from Dartmouth. One of the ferries was broken down, and a long queue ran up the hill from the slip. By good luck, I ended up waiting alongside the Steam Packet Inn, where I fell into a conversation with a fellow about river names: He noted how Americans seem to prefer many syllables – Mississippi, Chattahoochee – but the English prefer single ones – Dart, Sid, Taw.
He was drinking Lovage, a spirit made from the aromatic plant. “Good for a hangover,” he said. “Keeps you in your cups.” He recommended it or another called Shrub, but I passed them up, not wanting to drink something that sounded as if it might need pruning.
“Have you tried a country wine?” he asked. “Cowslip, parsnip, raisin, black beer?”
I said I’d had a soft drink yesterday called Dandelion and Burdock, which I’d found to be like a hydraulic salad.
When the ferry was running again, I crossed to Dartmouth, with its narrow twisting streets and a few aged buildings overhanging the pavement. For refreshment, I skipped the orange-and-mushroom salad for a ploughman’s (in one pub it was a ploughperson’s) lunch:
Stilton cheese, hard bread, Branston pickle (like chutney), pickled onions, and green salad. At the next table sat a small, red-faced man who spoke of the D-day ships that sailed from this little harbor, a place that seemed too small to have helped such a massive invasion.
“We had to spread the fleet out, you see,” he said, “so Jerry couldn’t be sure what was coming. Along the Channel these old villages were good for keeping plans rather concealed, although we still got bombed. You know the blasting Jerry gave Plymouth, I dare say, but a number of these little dots on your map caught it, too.” He became animated as he spoke of the war and the special bond between Americans and Britons.
When I first traveled in England, World War II nearly always came up in conversation – it was a way of establishing shared ground. Now, with those who have a clear memory of the war thinning fast, topics for pub talk tend to be trickier, such as big government, racism, renewed German or Japanese imperialism – issues that can rustle up unpredictable responses. I don’t believe the older English miss the war, but I think a disappearing generation does miss being able to share it with an ally.
By chance, I came next to the remnants of Dartmouth Castle, its earliest fortifications dating from 1388, when launching stones at a seaborne enemy was the strongest response it could make. A century later weaponry had advanced to “grete Murderers,” a fit name for things like cannons.
The last six centuries had hit the castle harder than any enemy ever had, and the buildings were barely recognizable as fortifications. I was about to leave in disappointment when I noticed that military engineers in 1940 had built phony castellations atop a new gun platform to camouflage it. Things had come to irony.
World War II took on a more haunting aspect at Slapton Sands. There, just beyond a lovely beach seven miles long, a salvaged U.S. tank had been set up as a memorial to the nearly 1,000 Americans who died when a German U-boat sneaked in close and opened fire during a D-day exercise.
Farther west in Hope, a settlement almost too small to be called a village, I took a room with a full view of the Channel. The little cove was quiet except for the sound the sea pitched up onto the rocks, and there was no promenade, no amusements.
It was a harbor of repose that seemed never to have been disturbed, a notion I gave up when I saw in a shop a souvenir tea towel proclaiming Hope Cove as “the only place in England where an Armada sailor came ashore.” It’s salubrious to realize how later generations trivialize and peddle the great wars of their ancestors; sometime there will surely be a tank on a bright Slapton Sands tea towel.
How a tiny village like Hope could support two pubs one can understand only by remembering that an English country pub is to an American bar what a living room is to a hotel lobby. A pub is a place where everybody knows your name, or soon will, if you stand alone, smiling, near the taps. Between conversations I ordered a meal of John Dory, a thin ugly fish that would taste, according to the waitress, “lovely.” She thanked me each time she brought a plate and each time she removed one.
The English virtually never say “you’re welcome” to a “thank you,” but they make up for it by saying “thank you” all over the place. When I left the pub that night, I said good night to a fellow entering, and he touched his hat and said, “Thank you!”
Breakfast the next morning included “devil-on-horseback,” a name I did not understand even when I saw three of them on my plate: a rasher of bacon wrapped around a stewed prune. I ordered them to add to my list of English foods of odd name: bubble and squeak, toad-in-the-hole, spotted dick.
Polperro, in Cornwall, is an old and truly quaint village where a little fishing continues, one suspects, just to keep up the tradition for tourists, hundreds of them, coachload after coachload. The village sits pinched into a combe opening on the sea, its streets so narrow they seem set on edge. Things get crowded, and visitors must leave cars or buses some distance away and, jammed together like a school of mullet, mass into Polperro.
The ancient domestic architecture is a delight of stone and slate, but I was so conscious of behaving like an “emmet” (an Old English word for ant – now applied to tourists, and most appropriate as we milled in lines along the narrow streets, bumping into each other, all of us blindly bent on some unseen goal), that I soon turned and wedged my way back out.
A few miles away Mevagissey was also quaint but nearly empty, a village, according to my old guidebook, with waters once “fishfull” enough to be called Fishygissey. But it, too, seeing the futures of fishing and tourism, was on its way toward shedding the old sobriquet of the once abundant sea.
In a hardier day John Carew returned home to Mevagissey after losing his right hand at the siege of Ostend in 1601; he walked into his lodgings and said to the hostess as he tossed his severed appendage onto the table, “That’s the hand that cut the pudding to-day.”
The lanes toward the small harbor of St. Mawes opened here and there onto cottages oozing carmine droplets of fuchsia blossoms and gardens shoving up pastel puffs of hydrangeas. Every so often across the lane lay a waft of honeysuckle. The village of St. Mawes sits on the quiet side of a peninsula jutting toward Falmouth Bay, a sweet spot for a morning stroll along the shore.
I met a man who volunteered directions because he thought I looked lost. His stories contained more words than the incidents could support, but I liked his ancient-mariner turns of phrase and his unwillingness to let me pass without his recitations. He enumerated the old ships “victualed” here before sailing out of the harbor and after several names he added the phrase, “and she, gone to grief.”
“You mean sunk?”
“Aye, mate,” he said. “Bound for Davy Jones, she was.”
I followed the shore up a slope to St. Mawes Castle, built by Henry VIII, a fortification remarkably preserved and small enough that I could comprehend its overall structure: a cloverleaf of squat stone towers just above the fetch of the sea. A woman looking down on it from the road said to a child, “What a deliciously darling little castle!” With its carvings, inscriptions, and gargoyles, it is the most decorated of Henry’s castles, one that expresses not the Renaissance of his time but the Middle Ages. The site guidebook said: “There is something rather perverse in this deliberate archaism, especially where it hinders military efficiency.”
Headlands and estuaries break the line of the southern coast of Cornwall and enforce a wandering route for hikers or drivers. My old pocket guide advised that Cornish “byroads twist rather more than seems strictly necessary.”
In remote Constantine, a village of granite houses, I looked into what appeared an ordinary – if small – grocery. I was hunting the fixings for a seaside lunch when I discovered the back portion of the shop stacked as full of hard spirits as a smuggler’s den. I was surprised even further to see bottle after bottle of single malt Scotch; I started counting, lost track, and turned to a clerk standing near and asked how many different kinds were there. He was Ivan Rowe, the owner.
“Today,” he said, “a few more than 200.”
I asked how a small place could carry such an inventory – including one bottle costing nearly $700. His stock, he said, was perhaps the second largest in England. The stock of Scotches alone outnumbered the people in the village. He motioned me toward a small counter, pulled out a bottle, and poured me a glass of cognac, proof against the morning mist.
“If you specialize in something,” he said, “you can become known for it, and then people will find you.”
Late that afternoon I went through Gweek and then Mawgan, where there was an inscription that turned doom into a play of words one could read in any direction; its singsong seemed more mocking than direful:
I came to a river and twisted down a lane along the estuary and arrived in Helford, a village that was, despite its ominous name, idyllic. It lay along the steep, wooded slopes of a tidal stream so that I could see the village only in small segments: It unfolded as I walked, and it disappeared behind me as if I were dreaming it. Roses and ivy bestrung the thatched cottages that were reduced to fit around the little ford at the bottom of the combe, things small and quaint enough they might have slipped out of a children’s illustrated book. Once a fishing village, Helford was now mostly a stop for yachters and a community for fast, new wealth. I took lodging at the Riverside, a blossom-bound cottage where I could watch the rising tide from my window.
I walked across the ford to the Shipwrights Arms, a pub from the 17th century noted for the dipping of coins into beer to fix them to the low ceiling, a practice one man alleged, “could drop a coin into a bloke’s beer and choke him to death.” All across the yellowed ceiling little round imprints of the Queen looked impassively down on the boon tipplers. I found out later the coins, in fact, go to support life-saving boats.
When I left Helford, with reluctance, I followed a course over the scrub-grown Goonhilly Downs southward to Lizard town, through it to Lizard Point, the southernmost place in England, where the chaos of rocks off the shore and the frequent fogs combine to create for mariners (said my guidebook) “a deadly notoriety.” It added, “Human ingenuity could never invent a more speedy and sure means of destruction for ships than is offered by the Lizard promontory as designed by Nature.”
But from high atop the headland on that morning, I watched a sea glazed with sun and slick as if smoothed by the easy, innocent wind. Up the slope of the Lizard were several little sheds selling snacks and gewgaws. In one sitting higher than the others was a Mr. Casley, who for years had quarried here the lovely green and dark red serpentine stone and turned it on a lathe, as if it were pine, into a variety of wondrously polished objects: jugs and bowls that put a kindly face on the seamen’s treacherous rocks.
The road west took me to St. Michael’s Mount, one of the more remarkable topographical features in England: a high, truncated rock cone surrounded by sea and surmounted by – I don’t know what to call it – a castle, a church, a residence, all built into each other.
If you are familiar with the more famous, somewhat grander, fortified rock and cathedral atop Le Mont-St.-Michel across the Channel in Normandy, you have an idea of this English counterpart. In fact, monks from St.-Michel founded the Benedictine priory here in the 12th century, although subsequent events made the history on this side one of soldiers rather than holy fathers, who departed long ago. Just as at St.-Michel, travelers here can wait for low tide, walk out to the mount over a stone causeway, across the shallow flats to the harbor village at the base of the rock, and then make the steep climb to the castellated buildings on the top.
The high views from the windows were as if from a precipice, and visitors kept a step back from the sill and cautiously bent to it for a peek. Out on the windy parapets we all held on needlessly as we looked down to the Channel having a good whack at the base. Although the St. Aubyns family still lives in part of the interlinked buildings atop the rock, a visitor may pass through the place to find dozens of maps and paintings of the mount, and a marvelously precise model of it made from cut and cloven champagne corks.
Westward in Penzance, the romance conjured up by Gilbert and Sullivan no longer matches the plainness of the town, but a couple of miles on along the coast is Mousehole, where quaintness of name fits the village of stone houses, bending streets wide enough for an oxcart, and alleys and rock stairs climbing above the little harbor. The British love the name Mousehole, pronounced MOW-zul, although it comes from a lost Cornish word apparently having nothing to do with mice or holes.
Old boats served as planters, and gulls sat on chimney pots and swept the roofs with their cries that began at one end of the village and moved across the peaks like surf. Outside one doorway lay a thick stone, a couple of feet square, with a center hollowed into a shallow declivity. I asked the shopkeeper what it was.
“We dug it up when we were refurbishing,” she answered. “It’s a plague stone that used to sit at the edge of the village. During the Black Death its basin held vinegar, so money changing hands between outsiders and villagers could be dropped in to try to disinfect it. We thought its peculiarity overshadowed its grimness.”
Grimness of another kind awaited me the following day when I came to the end of the southwest coast, to the western promontory where England stops – or begins – Land’s End, a place that has long roused English sentiment and curiosity beyond a foreigner’s comprehension. I don’t think more than one in a hundred Americans could name the most western (or eastern, southern, or northern) point in the contiguous states, yet virtually all English children know and revere this narrow cape, perhaps because it’s so happily apparent on maps, pointing into the Atlantic like a toe of an elf’s boot. But today, what is more apparent, once a visitor arrives, is a new amusement park owned by New Zealanders.
Land’s End itself is a modest piece of Cornish coast, a stony protruding shoulder that gives way to several seabound rocks of shapes odd enough to have earned them names: the Armed Knight, Irish Lady, Kettle Bottom, Shark’s Fin. I circumvented the new “amusements” by walking the coastal path, and as long as I did not turn around, I saw Land’s End in its ancient aspect, where the mayhem of the surges shattered over the dark rocks, edging their slow, invincible way toward the plastic realm of the Mariner’s Chest arcade and the Shipwreck Play Area. I could hear only the thump and plunge of the Atlantic.