Changing views

The other day I had the chance of an afternoon in a place not too far from here so I mapped a stroll to search out the nice part of this particular town, something which has so far eluded me. I mean, every city has its nice part, doesn’t it? Er, apparently not as it turned out. But I am nothing if not perkily positive on this platform, so I shall not name this town but shall instead move swiftly on, noting that after some time searching in vain for a way of accessing the car park attached to the green space I could see on top of the hill, seeing only signs bellowing No parking, No access and (my bete noire) No turning and negotiating mile upon mile of post War housing estates, eventually I spotted a sign to somewhere completely different and headed that way instead.


Not immediately enticing

My perky positivity was waning somewhat by the time I got to Sand Bay and was not improved by dodging the puddled potholes in a grotty car park and then having to grub about for the right coin for the loo.


A penny in the slot machine – how charmingly retro

Happily a woman emerged from the Gents at this moment (yes, I wondered too) and kindly held the door open for me. Suitably relieved I lingered on the threshold for a bit, foot in the door, in case I could pay the favour forward. Then I realised that this probably wasn’t a good look.

Having faced a dearth of useful signage in the previous place, here they had gone to the opposite extreme. A faded sketchmap done in blocks of primary colours but now long outdated, promised many attractions, few of which appear to have survived. The mariners light cattery gave me pause for thought. Evidently this is accommodation for solely the sveltest of moggy – but how does that work then? Do they make all prospective guests hop on the scales on the way in? Or maybe the only access is through a very small cat flap? Then I realised – it’s the Mariner’s Light cattery. Of course. Silly of me. Maybe there’s more than one mariner but who cares as long as he’s brought an apostrophe with him. (It was turning into a bit of a day for errant punctuation – on the way into the Town I Shall Not Name I spotted an employment agency offering various services, including light house keeping. Naturally I read that as lighthouse keeping). IMG_0481Taking my life in my hands – quicksand, fast moving tides, strong currents, and unspecified inflatables related incidents – and determined to Be Positive I crossed the road, a very quiet dead end that turns to mud in the car park at the far end of the strand.  I cannot say that this most uninviting of beaches was in fact glorious, but the air was fresh and clean and, with the tide out, the sands seemed to stretch forever in a strangely calming manner.


Spot the container ship passing Cardiff Bay on the other side of the Severn estuary?

It turned into a pleasant enough stroll, occasionally passing small knots of other people Being Positive, stoically eating sandwiches, using a discarded tractor tyre as a makeshift paddling pool, failing to get a kite airborne or displaying superior local knowledge. IMG_0524Reaching the headland  a mile or so later I turned back and took to the broad tarmac path along dunes, right by the road side. The beach based, seaward view was pleasant enough but, once the ship had gone down the channel, it was unchanging. From what I could see, the settlement of Sand Bay consists of a collection of mid century homes strung along a road that goes nowhere, interspersed here and there with the occasional older farm cottage, a pub reeking of old cooking fat, and a café, firmly locked up, chairs piled up against the doors, at just gone 4pm on an August afternoon.

But the start of this seaside drag was dominated by an extraordinary building, with something of the Art Deco about it,  incongruously out of scale amidst the Sixties bungalows. The Kewstoke Hospital – as the discreet sign announced it to be – looked to be neither a mainstream NHS institution nor one of those private places where they will do you a new hip, knee or nose. (I looked it up later – it is now a secure psychiatric hospital). IMG_0529 (1)I heard the affable couple settled on one of the path side benches before I saw them. They were passing the time of day in broad Midlands accents with all who passed. As I approached, the man called out to me and I stopped for a chat. Aged somewhere in their seventies, this pleasant pair had that comfortable way of speaking that some long marrieds have. Not so much finishing each other’s sentence, more one taking the descant while the other carries the tune. We’ve just come down from Birmingham. (We’re from Stourbridge, in fact). Terrible traffic on the motorway. (Long queues all the way from Bristol). Usually takes us two hours. (Took us two and a half hours today).

They had come down to stay at the holiday camp just along the road and were waiting to be able to check in to their chalet. You get your room and all your meals for a week for £59. (And you can eat as much as you like). It’ll be full this week (Over 300 people). And there’s entertainment in the evening. (But he likes his kip so he’s not bothered about that) I like my kip. (I like the entertainment though). They had been coming for years, they said, they loved it here. We’ve been down once this year already but that was an expensive week. (It was £65. They had better entertainers that week) They had Elvis here then. And Whitney Houston.

We put the world to rights for quite a time, none of us knowing the answer to the question that had been perplexing the woman on the journey down – what happens when electric cars get stuck in long traffic queues? If they run out of charge in the middle of the motorway how do they get them going again? (Any ideas anyone?)

IMG_0542As I walked on, I began to notice thatnearly all of the dedications on benches mentioned the West Midlands. This end of the road spot tucked away in a much overlooked corner of Somerset clearly occupies a large place in the affections of generations of Brummies. It’s Birmingham by the Sea.

But why? I was intrigued so when I went home I did a bit of Googling and ended up back at what’s now the psychiatric unit. Turns out this striking building started life as a convalescent home, its construction funded by the weekly contributions of the city’s workers into the delightfully named Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund, back in the pre NHS 1930s. Interestingly it was a place of recovery for women only (Were there many female facilities back then? The men’s homes were in North Wales).

Don’t they look a happy bunch? Source: Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund Convalescent Home, Kewstoke Wellcome L0030741.jpg Wikimedia commons

I don’t know any more about it than that so I can only imagine just how much respite a spell in the fresh air and the open spaces in this quiet backwater could provide from the congestion and grime of the industrial centre. And in how high a regard such a place would be held for ever after.

But that is to jump ahead. All this Being Positive was starting to have an effect on me. The Black Country cheer was infectious. I began to admire immaculate front gardens and to wonder at the stories behind a couple of almost abandoned dwellings. I lauded the thoughtful positioning of a shelter mid way along the exposed path. I admired the variety in the design of the benches.

And then I saw this.IMG_0536 No idea where it had come from but such generosity could not be ignored. I anticipated sinking my teeth into something unlovely, woolly, or sour but, Being Positive, I took a bite. It was the best apple I have tasted in a long time.

So, Sand Bay?IMG_0486

Oddly life affirming.



Serendipity and the Oxfam Bookshop

IMG_9956On one of my Cornish walks I fell in with a couple of walkers as we paused to catch our breaths under cover of admiring Boat Cove – one of those rather lovely beaches with sand to laze on for a read in the sun, rocks to clamber over for a spot of exploring, a stream to dam should a civil engineering moment strike you (just me then?), and a slipway for the launching of boats and the provision of diversions for landlubbers like me. IMG_9957After we had exchanged the usual walkers’ pleasantries (Where are you heading? How are you finding it?), we turned to how we had come to find ourselves in the very tip on Cornwall. They – perhaps in their 70s – spoke of how they had first come to the Penwith Peninsula decades ago on the invitation of a friend and had so loved the place that they had returned ever afterwards. Their friend had been an art teacher at an upmarket boarding school, they told me, where houses were provided for masters and their families. With no need of a property in that area, the young schoolmaster bought a rundown miner’s cottage way down here instead. He spent his summers restoring it, joined by a wife and children as time went by, and eventually retired to live year round in this beautiful spot.

We – my new companions and I – agreed that there is something very special about this particular, remote part of the world. I cannot say that I know Cornwall and that is one of the reasons I’m walking this way. Before I came I had perceived that much of the county had been bespoiled by early uncontrolled overly commercialised and unsympathetic development (Tintagel, Newquay) or by its own picturesque success (Padstow, Rock). I’ll make an honourable exception for Porthleven, which is cannily steering a middle path, but my few visits to Cornwall usually had me scurrying back to Pembrokeshire.

Turns out I was wrong. I am sure that I shall meet blights of bungalowification along the way as I move further up the coast but Penwith is a very distinct place, wild and yet peaceful, with a gentle atmosphere.

IMG_9978 (2)

Sun setting over Land’s End

There’s a very good book about this place. Called West of Hayle River. Sums it up. Written by Gerald Priestland, remember him? Yes of course. From Thought for the Day. The Today programme has been the soundtrack to my mornings for as long as I can recall. Bit old now though so you probably won’t find it anywhereHe talks about how the part of Cornwall west of St Ives is like nowhere else in the world. A really special place.

I think you know where this is going.

A few weeks later I went into my local Oxfam bookshop in search of light, disposable holiday reading – nothing with a pink cover, nothing with a black cover, nothing with the title in gold letters, but otherwise all else acceptable – and there it was.


Priestland, G & S (1980) West of Hayle River. Wildwood House. London