The current star of TV smash hit Poldark, heartthrob Aiden Turner, wasn’t even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes when I ‘discovered’ Cornwall and started taking my family there on holiday.
That was way back in the days of the BBC’s original Poldark series, when Robin Ellis was the craggy hero and goodness knows how many Cornish new-borns were christened Demelza.
We drove down virtually every year for about a decade as my daughters grew up and we had great times, rain or shine, wherever else we managed to go in the world.
We stayed with friends near the ‘Furry Dance’ town of Helston, putting us firmly in Poldark country, which has the old tin mining capital of Redruth at its core – once a rich, booming centre of a thriving industry, but a victim of decline.
Never the most glamorous of places, it was never going to be high on the tourism list either, outshone by the pretty-pretty fishing ports and villages on the coast and almost written off as a somewhat scruffy throwback with swathes of post-industrial wasteland after the mines closed and trade collapsed.
But hang on, I’m revisiting my old haunts and I’ve found out that it’s more than just a smudge on the map that you speed past on the much-improved A30, one of the two arteries leading to the heart of the county.
Back in the day, it was a major undertaking just to get to deepest Kernow, and we soon found out that when setting out from the Pennines north of Manchester, it was wise to make an overnight stop around Gloucester or Bristol. Even so, it was a guessing game as to when you were going to get trapped in the inevitable traffic jams on either the A30 or A39 and rough-edged Redruth was a place to get past with a sigh of relief, never a stopping-off spot. There are still hold-ups, if only a pale shadow of what they used to be, but Redruth couldn’t be handier as a hub from where you can reach every tourist hotspot with ease. And it’s now my ‘home’ base of choice for one very special reason.
Yes, it has a quirky, traffic-free and steep main street with a smashing little cinema and some striking heritage architecture (and a fascinating little clock shop!) but the biggest surprise is just a few minutes’ walk from there.
Still almost in the heart of town is a lush piece of mature wooded parkland and gardens, rich in plant and birdlife, surrounding a gem of a Georgian mansion that catches you by surprise as you go down the winding drive through the trees.
This almost-hidden oasis of calm is the Penventon Park Hotel, well-known locally as a top-end, award-winning wedding venue and dining spot and being lovingly restored and improved by the Pascoe family owners, who’ve been there since the late 1960s.
Steeped in a history of titled comings and goings and lavish parties in its heyday, the gorgeous house was taken over by the government after the Great Depression in the 1930s and locals still remember it as a centre for medical tests for National Service conscripts.
But now it’s back to the glory days and you’re made to feel like nobility yourself as you walk through the pillared entrance to the reception area and adjacent lounge, where you’re immediately made to feel welcome and at ease in surroundings that would have been impressive even when it was home to a county magistrate and partying gentry in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The workmanship involved in preserving, restoring and decorating the public areas, function rooms and bedrooms wouldn’t be out of place in a costly National Trust project and the dining rooms in particular have a distinct no-expense-spared feel about them. This is thanks in no small measure to a senior member of the Pascoe family, who hails from Venice and is a lover of Venetian glass, which explains the bespoke chandeliers and light fittings that an Italian palace would boast about.
Alongside that, under ornate, plaster moulded ceilings, there are steam-punk fixtures and objets d’art and furniture of all styles, mixing and matching in a glorious, fun celebration you can’t help but enjoy.
Director Aaron Pascoe, who along with brother Mark and their wives Laura and Juliet mans the helm at the Penventon, explained that they were concentrating on the hotel itself before doing work like improving the not very distinct signage and resurfacing the drive.
“It’s no use having an impressive approach if you’re going to be disappointed when you get here,” he explained, “so the core value is to make the hotel a great experience to remember before we finish work on anything else.”
My experience to remember started with a pre-dinner welcome from general manager Rajesh J, who introduced me to the lavish, baroque bar, where bar manager Terry Weeks embarked on my education with an ever-growing collection of 150-plus gins. With a taster selection of four gins (I started with Cornish ones!) and a bottle of premium tonic, presented on a tailor-made platter with ice and various garnishes, for the princely sum of just £8, how could I possibly shirk my duty?
Our weekend dinner was another experience, too, in a lavish dining room with resident pianist and with genial head chef Keith Brooksbank and his brigade producing some exceptional food, like my wife’s fresh local-caught lobster with parsley and garlic and my local-caught sole cooked and served on the bone; both of which cried out for a rather nice, well-priced prosecco. What a superb meal that was!
Keith, who was head of Rick Stein’s famous Padstow Seafood School for four years, is proud to use as much local produce as possible, including fish he’s licenced to buy straight from the boat, and a good number of ingredients and ‘specials’ are also made in-house.
He said he was more than happy to source anything you might want with a bit of notice and I’m determined to join him, sleeves rolled up, in tackling a couple of crabs or a plate full of crab claws and a glass of wine when I can get down there again and he can escape the kitchen for an hour or so!
We gained a measure of how good the kitchen team can be after a dinner service for more than 70 people, with a large number having a ‘bit of a do’ in an adjoining private dining room, followed by a breakfast service for more than 120, with the inevitable late-ish rush.
Seamless dinner service, then a bit of a chase round in the morning, with a pleasantly chatty queue for the toaster on the help-yourself buffet section, but bearing in mind that all hot breakfast items on the huge menu are cooked to order, we certainly didn’t go hungry or have to wait unduly; and I didn’t see anyone else neglected either.
Hardly a pause after breakfast before the ‘day menu’ comes into play, with basic fare and snacks in parallel to a full, more formal lunch offering, both with signature dishes from Bertha, the venerable charcoal-fuelled oven.
Many snacky items also featured on the night menu and top choice after we arrived back quite late one evening and didn’t want to trouble the dining room was a hand-picked crab sandwich, served on chunky, hand cut bread with lemon mayonnaise and a dressed side salad and crisps. Not cheap, maybe, at £9.95, but it did feed two people and I’ve been charged more in a ‘tourist’ pub on the coast and not had half as much to eat.
Surprisingly, the Penventon Park has a modest three-star listing, despite having a 12 meter heated indoor pool and spa complex as well as everything else, but that must surely change very soon. Not wishing to heap praise where it isn’t deserved, I’ve stayed in some 4 and 5star hotels which don’t even come close, but as Aaron said: “There’s no use rushing things when you’re trying to get things right and that’s just what we’re doing, first things first.”
Great place to stay, but what of the Cornwall beyond? Time to get in the car and head off into Poldark Revisited – Part 2.