Seduced by the beautiful weather yesterday and the bright blue sky this morning, we decided to take the train to Penzance. We had read that this city, at the western edge of Cornwall, has an even milder climate than Truro, and we dimly remembered the palm trees and other tropical plants we'd seen on our 1985 visit to England. Penzance is the home of Sir Humphrey Davy, inventor of the miner's lamp (according to the museum he is best known for encouraging Michael Faraday!). His marble statue stands at the top of the shopping street. The other well-known residents are the Bramwell sisters, the mother and aunt of the Brontes.
We are becoming used to English trains, so we weren't surprised to learn that our train would be 42 minutes late. "Wessex Trains apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause." Shortly it was announced that the train would be 26 minutes late. In the event, it pulled out about 34 minutes late. Before all these announcements we hadn't been keeping track of the minutes so carefully.
We were surprised at the size of the Penzance train station, which is undergoing restoration. After privatization, there are three different Crowded Market Jew street railroad companies - First Great Western, Wessex, and Virgin - with routes to Penzance, from London, Cardiff, and Glasgow, respectively. But it appears they all share the business equably, and each tries gently to blame the other for the delays, when in fact it's the need to maintain the track and roadbed. This they try to do on weekends, so as not to interfere with commuters.
We picked up a city map at the Tourist Info booth, looked at quite a few racks of tourist brochures, and headed up Market Jew Street -- "Jew" being Cornish for Thursday. It was filled with people, but whereas Truro was filled with shoppers, Penzance was filled with holiday goers, with hotels and pubs enjoying the earliest wave of families and students on Mid-Term Break from schools and universities. There was a greater incidence of "pierced, purpled and painted" get-ups than in Truro, and the pubs were all advertising live music. A Penzance pub would not be a good place to engage some grizzled old Cornish farmers in conversation; this was for the young crowd.
Of course we headed straight for the library, where we have got the hang of free internet access. We bring along a rewritable CD with our latest outgoing mail, including addresses, and we're done within the first free thirty minutes. If there's an important message we just click the print button. Really nice!
Two doors down the street was Penlee House, a large Victorian home transformed in 1997 into the city's art and history museum. An exhibit of Cornish copperwork reminded us of Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft movement in New York, which flourished at just about the same time as this Newlyn copper school, with many of the same Art Deco motifs of sensuous vines and flowers, and heroic figures. The Newlyn Industrial Class was established at the end of the 1800s, when mines were closing or closed, and there was no market for local copper; benefactors taught the techniques of making decorative objects to Deserted beach and promenade provide work for local artisans.
The second temporary exhibit consisted of wonderful pictures by news photographer Harry Penhaul. A Cornish native, he learned his art as a soldier in World War II, and returned to Cornwall anticipating a modest career as a free-lance photographer. His photos ran the gamut from daredevil shots taken while leaning far out of a perfectly good airplane to remarkably sensitive portrayals of the Cornish people in their daily life.
Each of these temporary exhibits was housed in one large room, which showed the skill of the museum curators in selecting just the right items to display, and writing very good caption boards to accompany the exhibit. We were quite impressed, and recommend Penlee House to you all.
The historical part of the museum comes off as superior to the more important Royal Institute in Truro, again because of well-chosen exhibits and clear story boards. As an old-time holiday resort, Penzance was somewhat of an art colony, and the museum has an interesting collection of paintings of the region, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Scenes of fishermen, farmers, miners, and their families were balanced by landscapes and seascapes and paintings of holiday beachgoers. Our favorite is a large moody oil painting of the Penzance promenade on a rainy day. According to the curator, it was the artist's only great work.
One of the most charming aspects of England is the huge number of civic projects -- bandstands, fountains, statues, gardens, parks, gazebos, arcades, public buildings, and the like, which were erected during the dizzying heights of the British Empire under Queen Victoria (who, oddly enough, is never remembered as the Empress Victoria). Truro has a Victoria Garden, and Penzance has the Morrab Subtropical Gardens. We might quarrel with the name, having lived a while in the bonafide subtropical climate of Islamorada, Florida, but technically it's correct; these plants and trees do not tolerate frost, and there is none to speak of in Penzance. We may also be forgiven for being irritated with the name this day, because we emerged from the garden to cross the Morrab Subtropical Gardens street into the very windy and chilly Penzance promenade.
We were reminded of our arrival a few years ago in Brighton, near the end of July. The wind whipped mercilessly along the oceanfront. We believe the British term is "bracing." It was chilly then in Brighton, and it was chilly today in Penzance. The street was lined with resort hotels, many just opening for business for this year. Across the harbor we could see St. Michael's Mount rising in the mist, topped by an opulent private mansion run by the National Trust. Along the beach is a swimming pool, which provides adequate testimony that only the young and brave would venture into the ocean for long. Can you imagine how swimmers cross the English Channel with only a thin coating of grease to protect them form instant hypothermia? To us it seems next to madness! The sign on the swimming pool indicated it would open on Good Friday. For today, this beach belonged to the birds.
But we must tell you that yesterday, back at the County Record Office in Truro, we were speaking to one of the archivists, a little snip of a girl. It was the first sunny and not-cold day we'd had (about 50 degrees), and the young lady agreed, saying she wished she were surfing. We said we'd seen pictures in the paper of a winter surfing class, and thought the water must be fearfully cold. "It's always cold, even in summer," she told us; "why do you think they invented wetsuits?"
As we rode out of town along the shore we looked out the train window and saw, first, some people riding on surfboards while hanging on to a parasail and periodically leaping in the air; and, second, some more mundane athletes merely out for a ride on their windsurfers, the sails tightly belled out. We decided, somewhat reluctantly, that our circulation must be poor because of our age, but we did enjoy the sight of the adventurous ocean lovers!