Lost and found

by Patrick O'Connor

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HOW do you find something that is lost?

By following the road signs of course.

A recent short break in the English county of Cornwall took us to The Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Let me explain, they used to be lost but aren't any longer! Put it down to the English sense of humour although it might have been more appropriate to call them 'The Found Gardens'.

The gardens were originally part of an estate owned by the Tremayne family, but after the First World War, which led to the death of 16 of its 22 gardeners, they fell into neglect and were not discovered again until 1990.  They were restored on a shoe-string budget by a small band of enthusiasts, but are now one of the most popular botanical gardens in Britain, attracting around 300,000 visitors annually.

There are about 200 acres to explore, comprising historic productive and pleasure grounds, exotic gardens, grazed pasture, woodlands, wetlands, lakes, ponds and streams.  Visitors have the option of two different tours, either The Northern Gardens or The Wider Estate which includes the Jungle.

The Giant's Head

We chose to the do the Jungle first and although we did not come across any snakes or tigers it was full of surprises such as woodland sculptures including the Mud Maid and the Giant's Head.   The Jungle has an almost sub-tropical climate about it, being a steep-sided, south-facing ravine valley enjoying temperatures several degrees higher than the Northern Gardens.

It rarely suffers from ground frost which is very handy when you consider that The Lost Gardens of Heligan are open all-year round.

Once completed and after a short break, we embarked on the second tour around The Northern Gardens.  Areas such as The Melon Yard, The Italian Garden and The Ravine offered a fascinating variety of experiences.  Both The Jungle and the Northern Gardens can take up to two hours (or longer) to explore if you take it at a leisurely pace.

We then popped into the nearby village of Mevagissey.  To be able to sit on a sun-soaked bench in its secluded harbour on a late afternoon in  mid-April was an unexpected treat. Then it was on to St Austell and finally another little gem, Fowey.

The coastline around this tiny port is very popular with fishermen and perhaps not surprisingly, Fowey provided us with our best culinary experience (excluding Cornish pasties and ice cream of course!) of our stay.

A wander around its cramped streets brought us to Sam's Restaurant where we enjoyed a fabulous Bouillabaisse fish stew.

Sam's was busy, a vibrant venue with music posters exhorting the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Prince, Joe Strummer and The Damned populating its walls.   The restaurant has been going since 1987 and its durability in these difficult economic times says a lot about its tasty food and likeable staff including our jovial waiter Ed who was gracious enough to only mildly rebuke us for daring to leave three prawns uneaten!

Cornwall is full of strange names like Mevagissey and Fowey. Cornish is one of two forms of the Celtic language and functioned as a community language until the late 18th century.

The process to revive it started in the early 20th century and in 2002 Cornish gained official recognition under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. As you drive around, names like Gweakavellan, Nancledra and Cripplescase spring up to challenge your pronunciation skills.

However, if you happen to have children in your car then no doubt hamlets like Bottoms and Mousehole may produce the occasional snigger.

The next day saw our journey take us west of our base in Perranporth  to two locations whose names have a special place in English culture.

Perranporth

The Pirates of Penzance is a world-renowned Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera which was set in the Cornish town in Queen Victoria's time. Penzance boasts a long promenade which was no doubt much used in those days and a bracing walk certainly sharpened up our appetites.

Their much-heralded crab sandwiches drew us into the Admiral Benbow, one of Penzance's oldest drinking houses, which dates back to the 17th century.

This cosy, friendly pub is packed to the rafters with maritime artefacts and one particularly amusing sign which decrees: 'No slap 'an tickle o' the wenches'and 'no skulking loafers or flea bitten tramps.'

Famous visitors to the pub have included the Hollywood film star Gregory Peck, the lead singer of Madness, Suggs, and The Rolling Stones. Wonder if the Stones managed to restrain themselves and avoid a bit of slap 'an tickle with the wenches!

From Penzance we decided to visit the nearby fishing town of St Ives. The traditional English language nursery rhyme 'As I Was Going To St Ives' is thought to be a riddle, the origins of which date back to around 1650. Although there are several places in England called St Ives, it is generally believed that the rhyme refers to the Cornish one.

On our way into St Ives we noticed a 'park and ride' sign. Having already forked out a fair bit in car parking charges during our stay, we decided to take advantage.

What a wise move....

The park and ride involved embarking on a 10 minute train journey from  Lelant Saltings to St Ives which took in spectacular views of the Atlantic out over Carbis Bay.

A group of Italian tourists, no doubt surprised that England could offer anything to rival their own country's  coastline, stood up in wonderment to enjoy the view.

After an all too short journey, the train pulled into St Ives and upon departure we were immediately able to step onto the golden sands of Porthminster beach.

St Ives was named as the best seaside town of 2007 by the Guardian newspaper which is no surprise.

Like so many of the places we visited during our stay, it has an almost Mediterranean feel about it. It has not been sploilt by over-exploitation and long may that be the case.

It may be rather selfish, but one almost wishes that Cornwall became 'lost' and was only available to a chosen few.