Southern Exposure It is dark and I find myself walking alone down a pitch-black country lane at eleven in the evening. I had just met with the crew of Grayhound, a 108-foot wooden sailing ship that would be launched into the water for the first time the next day. Suddenly, car lights appeared behind me. The lane is so small that I have to stop walking and move carefully into the prickly hedgerow in order not to get run over. The car passes by and then suddenly stops.
“Do you need a ride?” inquires a woman’s voice.
“Sure. I’m just heading back to Millbrook. I’m staying at the Devon & Cornwall (a local pub/inn).
In the car I tell Jill, the driver, how much I am enjoying this beautiful part of England when I am suddenly interrupted. “But this is not England. This is Cornwall!” I am momentarily confused. The last time I checked my internal GPS I was in England. “Once you cross the river by Plymouth, you are in Cornwall,” explains Jill. “We are a country onto ourselves.”
I understood. At least a little. I have been to maritime places before that brimmed with myopic, fanatical, turf pride. The Florida Keys have their own beloved, breakaway Conch Republic.
And then there is the MRE (the Maritime Republic of Eastport) the enlightened Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis, Maryland. Apparently Cornwall is from the same mold. Bordered by the River Tamar to the east, the English Channel to the south and concluding with Lands End to the west, this independent southwest English county listens to its own chimes.
I quickly learned that Cornwall is indeed in England, but only in Rand-McNally’s world. Here on the ground, the mentality of its people and the terrain are distinctively different. Rolling hills dotted with black & white cows tumble down to the sea. Wet-suited surfers oblivious to the cold water ride breaking waves with California moxie. The Millbrook estuary tolerates a flotilla of sailboats on its muddy bottom. The tide will rise 15 feet in a few hours, releasing the vessels from the muck. Quaint is the word for the villages here with no visually apparent economic motor. Although shipwright Chis Rees later tells me that boat building is major employer around here.
Ten minutes later Jill drops me off in front of the Devon & Cornwall. “Hope to see you at the launching ceremony tomorrow. There will be pirates there,” she warns. I am not surprised. The Cornwall flag is a black field with a white cross. It conjures up monochrome visions of a Jolly Rogers. Arrrg.
Riding The Rails We end up in what is billed as The Quiet Carriage, First-Great Western’s line from Plymouth to London’s Paddington Station. Our plan is to travel by train in one day from the extreme south of Great Britain to north of Edinburgh, Scotland. I discovered this is a journey that few Brits would attempt in one day. It is, in their opinion, just too bloody long. I found it enlightening to see the landscape’s character change. while traveling most of the length of this large island in a Sunday. On the way to London we pass through Totnes, Newton Abbot, Exeter/Saint Davids, Tireton Parkway, Taunton, Castle Cary, Westbury, Pewsy and Reading before reaching London. Much of the landscape is rolling hills filled with huge rolls of harvested hay that appear to pause before rolling down the slope. They remind me of enormous Shredded Wheat made for a giant.
Sitting across the aisle from us for most of the trip is a middle-aged Englishman and his Chinese/English daughter, Rose. The young girl has behaved well but as we approach the outskirts of London, she begins to get irritated by the length of the journey. Squirming in her seat, the daughter reaches for her dad’s long cooled-off paper cup of tea. “You can’t drink that, Rose,” commands the father in a very British tone. “It is a cold and horrible thing.” “But I like cold and horrible things,” retorts Rose. The entire train cracks up.
Communication It started upon the landing of our British Airways 747 from Miami to London Heathrow. The male flight attendant bid farewell to me by saying, “Cheerio, mate.” Of course, I had heard of cheerio before, but even my British friends thought that was strange as the word has faded away from the modern vernacular. No matter. Other common phrases peppered my trip. I was told to “mind the gap upon alighting the carriage” repeatedly as I rode London’s underground trains. Translation? Watch out for the space between the train and the platform when you exit the car. But the best by far was told by my friend, Rhian as she avoided a pedestrian while driving through a Scottish village. “I always have to look out for the coffin dodgers,” commented Rhi. “Coffin dodgers?” I asked. “Yes, old people.
To The North Our new train is Edinburgh bound and departs London’s Kings Cross station exactly on time. The land north of the city broadens into flat, wide fields, sometimes flanked by rivers. It makes for rich farm land and is super green on this gentle, partly cloudy day. The towns pass by—Peterborough. Grantham, Doncaster, York, Darlington, and Durham. We finally reach Newcastle, the biggest city along the line. The center is choked with old stone building and towers. I see a young woman speeding down a side street on her bicycle, obviously enjoying the sunny weather. She is wearing a white T-shirt with bold, black, capital letters that shout, LOVE IS A DRUG. The train presses on. Scottish adventures ahead.