7. Padstow to Perranporth

7. Padstow to Perranporth – a different class of path user, a lounge-bar lothario, deserted by our hosts and possibly the world’s worst B&B.

At Padstow, another sunny day dawned for our 13.5 mile walk to Porthcothan.  On the headland at the mouth of the Camel estuary we chatted with a nice old couple who claimed to have holidayed at the same hotel in Constantine for the last 20 years: I can’t help thinking that, however nice a hotel is, it must get a bit boring visiting it annually  for 20 years. As we chatted we spotted our first seal of the trip – cue excitement all round.

Before the long circumnavigation of Trevose Head, en route to Constantine, we walked through Trevone Bay, a wonderfully deserted surfer’s beach with a sign marking a “Complex Car Park” – as opposed to a simple one presumably?

As we approached Constantine we met another friendly couple who could trump our earlier friends for staying power. They proudly told us that they had holidayed in a nearby caravan for each of the last 40 years! As we chatted we spotted another couple of seals bobbing in the rocky cove far below us.

Those interested in what the best dressed hikers are wearing these days will be interested to note that today I walked in the buff. Steady on, there’s no need to call the police, the “Buff” is an extremely versatile piece of headgear, available from all good outdoor shops and designed to convert to bandana, head band, skull cap and a few other options in between. I did try converting it to a pair of swimming trunks once, but found it lacked the necessary support and left me feeling somewhat exposed – less “Bay Watch,” more “last turkey in the shop.”

Porthcothan, which boasts a lovely deep cove, was the first place we had trouble finding our accommodation – and very bizarre accommodation it was too. With no mobile signal, we wandered around asking directions (having been sent totally inadequate ones) and eventually found our B&B, which was a private house. Failing to make ourselves heard at the door, we spotted a note informing us that the proprietor was out and that we should let ourselves in and make a cup of tea. So far: so good.

Things started to go down-hill rapidly though when we entered our room: a room with one coat hanger, no shampoo or shower gel and no telly. As we didn’t have much worth hanging up, are not telly addicts or obsessive bathers, none of this presented much of a problem. However, we were taken aback when “mine host” appeared and – ignoring any small talk – urgently asked “how early can I persuade you to have breakfast in the morning?”  It turns out that she wanted to leave for work at the crack of dawn. As rude a welcome as any we received on the SWCP, or anywhere else for that matter.

Porthcothan Bay

The evening didn’t improve after visiting a local pub. What really made the meal memorable (for all the wrong reasons) were the lurid ramblings of a local man propping up the bar.

To set the scene: he was around 50 years old and dressed in “market trader chic”. His shiny gold bracelets and chain nicely complementing a belly that spoke of close acquaintance with the products of St Austell Brewery. This picture of British manhood was holding forth for the benefit of his younger companions, who (inexplicably) seemed to be doting on him. We could only explain this extraordinary phenomenon by the fact that they were either employees, keen to ingratiate themselves with their obnoxious boss, or a couple of lads laudably doing some care in the community work with a certifiable sexist.  

Should you feel that I’m being harsh, I’ll outline his conversation, or rather, monologue. Sweating profusely, “gold chain man” began by explaining to his younger colleagues / carers that “you don’t lose interest in sex just ‘cos you’re getting older” and that you “still get a hard on.” To dispel any possible misunderstanding, he went on to explain how he still wanted  to “sh*g everything in sight.” I don’t imagine this was particularly good news for the ladies of Porthcothan.

As he held forth, I noticed a number of disgusted- looking older couples trying to ignore him and enjoy a quiet dinner, but they must have thought they had stumbled upon a scene from “The Decameron.” This sort of bawdy behaviour may be appropriate in a medieval tavern, but is surely unacceptable amongst civilised diners in a Cornish holiday resort?

The next day, at Fox Cove, we saw the wreckage of the “Hemsley I,” an ageing tanker which ran aground on its final voyage to the breakers yard. A sad sight, but nowhere near as pathetic as the ageing w*nker in the pub. 

The next morning we breakfasted alone, after our host dropped off our breakfast then ran down the drive asking, over her retreating shoulder, if we could let ourselves out! This was not to be the last time that we felt a B&B owner’s heart wasn’t in the job. In fact, although we didn’t know it at the time our stay in Porthcoton was the first of four consecutive nights featuring the worst B&Bs on the whole trip.

I had not been looking forward to the walk from Porthcothan to Newquay, as my guidebook suggested little of interest. However, the SWCP rarely disappoints and today we were rewarded with what I thought was the finest view of the whole walk. The vista from Pentire Point symbolises the path for me, with its wild cliffs and craggy islands fading into the distance. We also saw two more seals just off Beacon Cove. So, another “good to be alive day,” as my mate “The Pieman” would say.

The wilderness of Hartland Point seemed a distant memory as the path became more and more “touristy” as it neared Newquay – the stag party and surfing capital of the UK. I had found Woolacombe to be a culture shock, but it is positively sedate compared to its big brother in the surfing family.

On this largely uneventful walk, we couldn’t help but notice how the nature of path-users changed: more “holiday maker” and less “proper walker”. The interminable walk through Newquay took us past a crumbling 24 hour surfers’ hostel, which seemed to perfectly symbolise this rather seedy resort.

Our B&B conformed to the “seaside guesthouse” stereotype. Perhaps the people here haven’t realised that the war is over, but rationing was still in force at breakfast, with portion controlled cereal and fruit juice (pre-poured into bowls and glasses). I came across this sort of parsimony at other establishments and always had the same thought – that the savings gained by such austerity measures must be far outweighed by the loss of goodwill and potentially poor reviews?

Our night out in Newquay was spent in a family pub, eating a meal of mashed potato, watery gravy and tasteless sausages of dubious provenance. Not for the first time I wondered if I was becoming a food snob – but I don’t think it’s snobbish to expect decent food when prices at both the B&B and pub were far from the budget end of the scale – even if the food and level of service wasn’t.

A misty start to our second day in Newquay, but it was a grey precursor to a bright, fast day; Pat transported most of my gear to Perranporth, caught the bus back to Hollywell and then walked to Perranporth with me from there. At this point I’d say I don’t deserve her, but it’s getting a bit repetitive and boring, so I wont.

The walk to Perranporth took us past Penhale army camp, framed by cliffs covered in sea pinks, and then along the exhilarating, long golden beach of Peran Sands. A fitting end to the walk was eating a pasty on the beach at Perranporth, a place often visited with my mum, when she came to stay with me when I lived in Truro.

Sea Thrift on the way to Perranporth

Tonight’s B&B looked promising from a distance (say, a mile away), but as we approached we became less optimistic.

In its favour, it tied – at £25 per night for a single room – for the title of “cheapest accommodation on the trip” and also had one of the best views: a panoramic sweep of Peran Sands. On the other side of the ledger were a number of less positive features, including the fact that the establishment is run by a couple straight from a Hammer horror movie, who operated portion control at breakfast, provided no toiletries in the bathroom and expected me to sleep in the smallest bed I’ve seen since I was in short trousers.

Lest it’s felt that I’m being unnecessarily critical for dramatic effect, let me elaborate, for the above summary doesn’t do justice to the true horror of the place.  

As we approached the front door, tripping over cracked concrete and admiring the peeling paintwork, we could not have guessed what joys awaited us.

The door was opened by a small, squat woman who could have doubled for Kathy Burke, the talented actress, playing Waynetta Slob in the Harry Enfield show. With the zip on her grubby jeans opened seductively, she asked me to take my boots off and not slam the door, at which point my eyes fell on a welcoming sign advising guests that payment must be made the night before departure.

“Waynetta” then explained that she was upgrading me to a large, en-suite “room with a view” rather than the small single room that I had booked. Excited by my good fortune, we followed her along the gloomy corridors, replete with threadbare carpet, peeling wallpaper and faded paintwork, to a room containing both a double and a single bed. She explained that she was happy for me to use this room, provided I slept in the single bed.  I readily agreed to this, as the view was superb.

It was only after she had stripped the double bed and left us alone in the room that I noticed that the “single” was a child’s bed, the room clearly being a “family room”. Pat left to go back to work in Bristol and I can still hear the sound of her hysterical laughter as she drove into the distance, no doubt reflecting on what she was missing.

I slept with my legs hanging well over the end of the bed and my neck straining to watch the miniature TV, which was thoughtfully positioned on my bedside table so that it could be viewed from the double bed on the other side of the room. This meant that, to view the telly, I had to perform an act worthy of a skilled contortionist: to be fair, by turning my body sideways I found I did have a good view, not surprising really since my eyes were then only about 6 inches from the screen.

The bed was not the only Health and Safety hazard here: walking to the bathroom involved negotiating a threadbare carpet partially repaired with broad gaffer tape and then working out how to prevent the shower from falling apart, fixed tentatively as it was to the wall. Given the bed and telly combo, the room would have suited a short sighted, vertically challenged person, but was quite inappropriate for a standard sized, tired coast path hiker.

Before retiring, I thought I would raise my spirits by sampling the goodies on the tea tray. My enthusiasm waned rapidly however when I discovered that the rusting tea tin contained but one solitary teabag, which looked to have been there since the coronation. The coffee was equally unappealing, being stored in an old, stained jar without a label and looking as if it had seen several seasons service.

In addition to all these insalubrious features, the room also lacked any form of heating – a regular home from home, if you happen to be a short, holidaying Inuit. 

My impressions of Perranporth did not improve on the first of two evening out on the town. I tried the Green Parrot, but after a very swift pint had to leave to escape the cacophony rising above the small children, who all sounded as if they would rather be anywhere else other than a Wetherspoon’s in Perranporth. Irritatingly, their parents were making no effort to stop them.

I then tried another family pub. The service I endured here, at first irritating, but ultimately so bad as to be laughable, earns it my award for “worst eatery on the SWCP.”

I’ll present the facts and leave you to be the judge. I went to the bar and ordered a starter and a main course. Because I had previously had problems with bar staff assuming that you must be part of a couple and bringing both orders at once, I specified very clearly that I wanted potato skins “AS A STARTER.” The friendly waitress said that she would record this on the rather elaborate computerised till / ordering system. Imagine my surprise when she arrived at my table bearing the starter, but informing me that there had been a mistake and that my main course of chicken curry would be served at the same time. I’m the first to acknowledge that anyone can make a mistake, but what I found astonishing was her assumption that I would be happy to accept both dishes at once. As she proceeded to place the curry alongside the potato skins I told her that this was not acceptable and pointed out that you would have to be insane to eat a chicken curry with a side dish of potato skins. Her look suggested that she felt that, in my case, this may well be true and appeared quite incapable of accepting that I would be less than happy to eat the “double whammy” – until I asked her to cancel my main course and give me my money back.

At this point an irate, glowering, shaven – headed man emerged from the kitchen and without a word of apology, asked what my “problem was.” I explained what had gone before and again asked for my money back. Still seemingly unable to grasp why I would not want to eat two dishes at once, he re-emerged from the kitchen and literally threw my refund on the table, again without a word of apology. Cornish hospitality?

Admittedly, this incident was an extreme example of woefully poor service, but it does typify something I discovered several times on my walk – a tendency for proprietors of B&Bs or eateries to assume that their customers will accept poor, sullen service combined with an over- priced, poor quality product. I guess that this attitude will persist until the Great British Public become more like their American counterparts and start to demand better service, or vote with their feet. It is very “British” to accept sub-standard service and moan afterwards, while at the same time assuring the waitress that “everything’s fine”, instead of complaining at the time. In my case the worm has definitely taken a turn for the better, as many a waitress would testify.

After this delightful dining experience, I slept like a baby – not surprising really, given that I was in a child’s bed.

My, by now, low expectations were fully met as the Perranporth experience continued in the same vein at breakfast. Making my way downstairs at the appointed time I found an empty breakfast room. After a while I helped myself to cereal and sat down to enjoy the repast.

Waynetta Slobb’s husband then appeared for the first time, looking like an overweight extra from Eastenders, whose cv might have included a stint with the Krays. He observed in a challenging tone that “I see you’ve helped yourself then?”  Clearly this was not de rigour in his establishment; although it was the standard system at every other B&B I stayed in on my walk.

Suffice to say that everything about breakfast was uninviting and not a little unnerving. From the surly, monosyllabic enquiry from mine host as to whether I wanted coffee or tea to his generous query as to whether I wanted “one slice of toast or two.” In the event, one slice of the limp, white, anaemically toasted bread was quite enough, particularly since he could not even offer the absolute necessity for a civilised breakfast, baked beans.   

My review of this B&B recorded that it had “all the charm of an unflushed toilet” and was by far the worst accommodation on the whole trip. It’s the sort of grubby establishment where you wipe your feet on the way out. Had I checked on trip advisor before we booked I would have been warned off by the first entry, which read – “you would be better off sleeping on the beach.” Spot on!

Things began to look up when I left Perranporth to enjoy a well earned rest day in Truro. The country bus operated by Summerlands Travel provides excellent, reasonably priced transport which seems to be a lifeline for older people living in the outlying villages. 

Truro is a lovely cathedral city and I made the most of my time there. I visited the Audit Commission offices and had a cup of tea and natter with some former colleagues before sitting out in the breezy, cool sunshine and enjoying a (very) old busker playing outside the cathedral.

This guy looked about 90 and was playing an amplified mandolin – very badly. Cruelly, some passers-by were taking the mickey, but I thought it was wonderful that he was still out there enjoying himself and entertaining people at such an advanced age. I did wonder though why someone with so little talent would have gone to the trouble of getting all the kit, then I remembered my own electric guitar and amplifier sat gathering dust in the back bedroom.

Not wishing to repeat the culinary adventure of my first night in Perranporth, I avoided the pubs – which again seemed to be full of screeching kids – and had a good Indian meal. Excellent service and food, but absolutely no atmosphere, as there was no one else in the restaurant.

It is odd that I had such a fraught experience in Perranporth, given that when I lived in Cornwall I loved the place and used to drive down from Truro regularly to run along its sandy beach and drink in its pubs. Maybe it shows that to really get to know a place, you do need to stay overnight. In any case, I was mighty glad to move on.

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