Just Back From… Penzance

October may seem an odd time of year to visit Cornwall – notorious for its ‘mizzle’ (mist and drizzle) and when the nights are drawing in. No late evening walks along the promenade at sunset for us then. October is, however, my birth month and this year marked a special anniversary too – ten years of marriage and a BIG birthday. The one where you used to get a free bus pass and a state pension – no longer though. So where to go and celebrate these two milestone events?

I thought about romantic Florence, I considered the northern lights of Reykjavik, I mused about South Africa and my beloved Cape Town, but on the other hand we still hadn’t found a house to buy and until we settled I felt that I was in limbo. I needed to get on with the rest of my life and my heart was still set on being near the coast so what better place to return to than Cornwall.

Those of you who have followed my blog may recall another visit to Cornwall in the wet and cold springtime of this year when we searched the area around Truro. On that visit we realised that we preferred the far south-western region where the light appears brighter. Seeing St Michael’s Mount makes my heart lift. Penzance on paper, appears to meet most of our requirements. My husband gets a town with music venues, transport links and his independence (he doesn’t drive). I get to be near the coast. Compromises have to be made – I can’t have my detached barn conversion with a third of an acre garden, he doesn’t get to stay in landlocked Shropshire where he already has a network of music gigs. The climate is similar to the western Cape (albeit not so warm and dry in the summer) so I can grow my favourite Mediterranean plants. Since we have only spent a day or so in Penzance before having two weeks there would enable us to really get to know this town and decide whether or not it really suits us and whether we suit it.

Penzance (Pens Sans – Holy Headland) began as a sheltered harbour in Mount’s Bay. The higher, level area above the harbour was the site of a market to serve the area’s growing mining community. Often in Cornwall the town is separated from the port – such as Mullion and Mullion Cove, Sennan and Sennan Cove, Mousehole (Mowzel) and Paul. With the collapse of mining, tourism began to assume a more important role in the local  economy. The Promenade was built in 1844 followed by the Queens Hotel in 1861. Tourism declined with the advent of the First World War and hadn’t really recovered by the time of WWII. In the fifties and sixties there was a boom in holidaymakers from the more affluent working classes and many of the larger Regency terraced homes became B&Bs with quite restrictive rules. Today in Penzance, along with most of Cornwall, mining, fishing and agricultural industries are in decline and only tourism and other service industries are its source of income.

The Market House which is now Lloyds Bank was opened on the site of the previous one in 1838 and the Public Buildings (known as St John’s Hall, which is in fact within the building) was opened in 1867. A famous former resident of Ludgvan (a village outside Penzance), Sir Humphrey Davy, who invented the miners’ safety lamp is honoured in the town by a statue in front of the Market House.

We stayed in the historic Chapel Street, opposite the imposing granite building of St Mary’s Church rebuilt on the site of an earlier medieval chapel. It was a convenient place to stay, almost in the heart of the town, but only a few minutes from the promenade where we could sit and stare at the sea or walk around to Newlyn. The house had views of the harbour, Mount’s Bay and a glimpse across to Newlyn, depending on which room you were in. The bathroom had the best view – sitting on the loo you could watch the sun rise over the harbour and the brightly painted boats  reflect in the warm golden light. When the bells rang from the church it almost felt like being in Ludlow.

Numbers 6 -7 Chapel Street is much better known as the Egyptian House. It was rebuilt by a mineralogist John Lavin in 1835 and reflected the current vogue for antiquities and especially Egyptian. In the 1970s the Landmark Trust undertook the restoration of this building to its original brilliant colours. There are several fascinating inns on the street too, including the Union Hotel where it is believed that the news of the Battle of Trafalgar was first announced, the Turks Head rumoured to be the oldest inn in town, and the Admiral Benbow with an armed smuggler on its roof and full of wreck memorabilia.

It was interesting to find that although Penzance suffers from the influx of ‘High Street’ shops such as Poundstretcher and Iceland, it does have quite an eclectic mix of independent outlets including a butcher, baker, deli and greengrocer as well as health food shops, galleries, art shops and bookshops. We were pleasantly surprised that during our stay we only went into a supermarket twice to buy milk and cereals. OK, I will confess to eating out often. It was after all a holiday and although we were self-catering, this time I wanted, no make that needed, a break from the relentless cooking of the daily meal. I wanted fresh fish and seafood, and I got them in abundance. Plus New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – I never knew white wine could be so good.

Elegant terraces in Penzance can be found to the south and west of the main street, Market Jew Street (derived from the Cornish ‘Marghas Yow’, the Thursday Market) – North and South Parade, Clarence Street and Place, Regent Terrace and Square, St Mary’s Terrace, Morrab Terrace and Place and Chapel Street. We explored them all and the granite terraces to the east of the town where five bedroom homes are for sale under £250,000. We discovered the Morrab Gardens, home to many sub-tropical plants including a variety of palms, as well as myrtles, aloes, camellias and geraniums and I was reminded of the Company Gardens in Cape Town. I could see myself here.

Penzance may lack the visual appeal of other Cornish seaports, but does have a faded Edwardian charm all of its own, and if you take the time to explore the many terraces and lanes beyond the main thoroughfare you might be pleasantly surprised by what it has to offer.

We were.

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

31 thoughts on “Just Back From… Penzance”

  1. Almost bought a house overlooking St Michael’s Mount. it had a wonderful folly at the bottom of the garden.
    Happy (big) Birthday although I am shocked you can get to such a fine age without sampling my favourite tipple especially after I have pushed it so flagrantly in my posts. Try Wither Hills. There’s a personal recommendation for you.
    Penzance is also nice and near to St Ives but a long way from most else it must be said.

    1. I shall away to find some immediately Mrs C! I have been a red wine drinker for many years, as whites seemed to cause me indigestion. HOWEVER, the ones we sampled here were far too good to assign to the risotto 😉

      1. They are more acidic, it’s true. Wither is slightly buttery but, taken in quantity, can cause the need for a 5 pillow night. Better for the non staining of teeth however 🙂

        1. A 5 pillow night, Mrs C… I think that follows serious consumption of Wither Hills – Jude, I do suggest you take this tipple in moderation!! 😉

  2. Just a lovely post and significant not chronologically but because you are aging like fine Wither Hills. I also very much like the way you formatted your blog! I guess I need to add this to my travel list!

  3. One of my favourite posts Jude. A real flavour of the town, and great pictures too. I really like the Egyptian House, wonderful renovation of this unique facade.
    You make the place sound so desirable, I could almost consider a move from Norfolk, but not quite. I suspect you are enamoured though, and look forward to you posting as a resident of Cornwall by next year!
    Regards as always, Pete. X

  4. By the way, Happy Big Birthday! Mine was almost two years ago now, and I still have to wait for that bus pass, and three more years for the pension! X

    1. I reckon we’ll get them around the same time then Pete! It’s annoying because my OH got his bus pass at 60 so he can go trundling all over the country for free!

      1. I have a 1952 date of birth, so just (by a whisker) missed out on a lot of good stuff when I reached 60. Really annoying, and I hated the government for the changes that affected me. However, Julie (1961) has to work until age 67 to get anything at all. Bastards! X

  5. We’ve been rediscovering Cornwall lately – it must be an age thing – having spent many childhood summers there, we had left a large gap in our travels westwards. Mousehole was lovely as of course was St Ives; we found a delightful deli-restaurant in Penzance where we had the best pasta we’ve had for a long, long time and most annoyingly, I can’t remember its name, but we had to go up stairs to the first floor.

    1. That is annoying Jenny as so many restaurants are on the first floor! I guess I shall just have to try them all until I find the one you mean 😀

      Actually I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurants in Penzance and the quality of the food we were served.

  6. I’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for the Egyptian House! I never saw anything like it! 🙂
    Years and years since I was in Cornwall (easier to get to the Algarve from here, though I expect there are flights to Exeter) and I don’t think we did Penzance. Always had romantic notions about St. Michael’s Mount and I’d be quite happy to sit on the loo and watch sunrises.
    We’re the other way round. I don’t drive and my husband does. It’s why I do so much walking 🙂
    It sounds like a great and also productive way to spend your birthday/anniversary. Belated congrats. I shall raise a glass of red to you after Strictly 🙂 Sauvignon Blanc is my favourite white, but Mick’s a red man.

    1. Cheers Jo – having a Chilean Shiraz tonight with some lovely Ludlow sausages 🙂

      One thing about the Mount – it is quite a schlepp up to the top, but worth it!

  7. Congrats, I’ve been told I am the very model of a modern major general…;-)
    I love Gilbert and Sullivan

  8. How lovely that you got to spend your ‘special’ birthday and your anniversary in such a beautiful place Jude…and many congratulations to you on both counts! We love Cornwall, particularly Mousehole and St Michael’s Mount and it was great to read all about it here and see all your lovely photos. Maybe a move to the West Country after all?

  9. Reblogged this on Under a Cornish Sky and commented:

    My next reblog of a Cornish Post. Reading this I realise that another BIGGISH birthday is due this year when hopefully I will have the free bus pass AND the miserly state pension. I am also reminded of good blogging friends who I never see post or comment any more. Funny how we can miss people we have never actually met.

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