With our memories massaged, thanks to re-seen scenery and well-remembered tastes of great fish and chips and good Cornish ale, it was good to spend time mixing the old with the new on a memorable family trip to the South West.
Topping the list of new experiences after staying away from the glorious county for far too long was the quite amazing National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.
The town itself is still as big a joy as ever, with colourful streets and alleyways to explore and with views of the bustling port and Fal Estuary always a pleasure, especially from one of the tucked-away waterside watering holes, with many offering new craft brews as well as more traditional fare.
Part of the new face of Falmouth is on show on the way to the museum, with trendy cafes, bars and restaurants and open-air seating on aptly-named Discovery Quay, reflecting our more cosmopolitan tastes these days, along with the upwardly-mobile image of one of our more treasured institutions, the fish and chip shop – no better illustrated than by having a rather fine chippy with Rick Stein’s name emblazoned on it.
After a wake-up coffee in what’s known locally as Events Square, we went into the unassuming entrance of the spectacular, timber-clad museum, stepping into what was revealed as an awesome, maritime Tardis; a tremendous space packed with interest, and displaying or covering just about everything that floats (and sinks) in its 15 galleries, spread over five floors. There’s so much to see that it’s worth having a quick explore to see what’s on offer before you get down to cherry pick what you want to spend time seeing – it’s so easy to let the clock run away with you and lose all track.
The Main Hall is a fine taster for what is to come; as soon as you walk in, you look up to find a hanging flotilla of small boats over your head, before you reach the heart of the display, a huge, elegant Thames steam launch called the Waterlily, which makes you yearn to dress up for a decadent trip on the river to take afternoon tea in the sunshine. Savour that, then visit the Survival Zone to see the other side of the coin when it comes to ‘pleasure’ sailing, with the tiny, 9ft dinghy Ednamair, in which five members of the Robertson family and a friend survived in the Pacific for 38 days after their yacht was sunk by a pod of killer whales in the 1970s.
Beyond that is the Boatbuilding Workshop, where visitors can watch shipwrights as they repair and build vessels, like a gig for the 2016 World Pilot Gig Championships. And then there is The Hold, the largest single display space where major exhibitions are showcased. The two-year Viking Voyagers extravaganza, with lots of hands-on features as well as sights, sounds and even smells aboard a full-size longship replica, was a tremendous success and has given way to what could be an even bigger hit.
This year’s specials are: Tattoo – British Tattoo Art Revealed, showing that it’s not just for sailors! and Captain Bligh – Myth, Man and Mutiny, chiming in nicely with the new Channel 4 reality series, ‘Mutiny.’
The TV show features nine modern-day adventurers on the same gruelling, 4,000-mile voyage as Bligh from Tonga to Timor, on board a 23ft open wooden boat, with the same rations and food as Bligh and his men after they were cast adrift by mutineers.
If the experience leaves you feeling cast adrift, then head for the museum cafe, where sustenance is on hand, with lots of local and fair trade goodies to fuel you for the rest of your voyage round the museum, for there’s lot more to see.
Head upwards to take in an eye-level view of the flotilla from the National Small Boat collection and then move on to more fascinating corners, including the Falmouth Gallery, celebrating the town’s colourful maritime history, Cornwall and the Sea and Cornish Quayside, and keep on heading skywards, past the Nav Station and the Quarterdeck, to reach the Lookout Tower for superb views over the harbour, docks and estuary. There are binoculars and telescopes for visitors to use, as well as maps to help you put everything in context.
When you go back down, keep on going until you hit the Tidal Zone, where you can go underwater to look into the harbour through two large windows, maybe to see the tide rise and fall if you hang on long enough. Coming up for air, you find time has hurtled by, but you won’t begrudge a second of it, except if you get dragged into the lavish museum shop by kids/grandkids to pick up a souvenir cargo to take home.
There are handy car parks nearby, especially if you do a bit of homework and pinpoint them before you set out, but if you don’t fancy taking the car into the heart of Falmouth, there is a Park and Ride scheme from May to September, which will take you to within a 10-minute walk of the museum (Park and Ride postcode is TR10 8AD) or if you can’t manage the walk there is the circular Falmouth Shuttle Bus every 20 minutes.
You could also try the nautical route, with a ferry from Truro or St Mawes, or the even handier Park and Float scheme, which again runs just in summer, from Monday to Saturday, from the car park at Ponsharden, just outside Falmouth, to Custom House Quay in the centre of the town, just 10 minutes round the corner from the museum. You even get a 10% entry discount for using the service! (Park and Float postcode TR10 8AD)
Whether you’ve arrived by ferry from Truro or not, the county town is another place well worth a visit, with a lot going on both in and around what is billed by the locals as ‘our great little city’.
Park and Ride if you want, but there are some quite handy car parks near the centre, with one in particular just behind the lovely cathedral – and you could always try your luck, for a limited time, at the bottom of Lemon Street, just by the big open public space of Lemon Quay, where there’s always something going on.
Lots of places to eat and drink, whether a full-scale meal or just nibbles, and some nice spots for people-watching, too, be it a pub with a garden, a trendy coffee place, or even the Old Grammar School near the cathedral, where you can get tapas and a cocktail.
Not too many pints or pasties, though, if you want to take the popular local short-cut called Squeeze Guts Alley – it’s not called that for nothing!
David Graham spent a week or so visiting old family haunts in Cornwall, using the Penventon Park Hotel in Redruth as a base to travel to and from all corners of the wonderful county. David aims to do more of the same very soon!