Warning: long post, may contain rants.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2004

Silence is golden, unless you're perched on the edge of your seat waiting for a noise. This journal (to swerve briefly into the pompous third-person style of writing) has been inundated with emails asking where the author is and what he is up to. Well, one email anyway. A very brief one. But it was appreciated.

It has been a pretty troublesome few days, in fact. Stand by for excessive amounts of bile regarding:

  • The National Trust
  • Pokey uninhabitable holiday accommodation
  • The BBC's best-ever sitcom contest
  • Rapacious seagulls
  • Seafood that looks back at you when you look at it

Right now, I should be sitting in a delightful little cottage in St Ives, a glass of scotch close to hand, thinking great thoughts and doing a little light writing whenever I can summon the effort to raise my weary hand. The very picture of the effete Englishman at play.

Instead I am exactly where I was last week, St Ives a distant dream (well, an 11-mile drive away actually, but why spoil a well-crafted phrase with accuracy? I did train as a journalist and pursue a career in politics, after all).

Saturday was a dodgy day. No doubt about it. By 11am we'd packed, hoovered and vacated the rather wonderful cottage near Helford where we'd just spent a very pleasant week. Our plan was to stop off and visit Glendurgan before we moved into the St Ives cottage for the second week.

Glendurgan is one of a number of valley gardens in the Helford River area: it seems that wherever a valley runs down to the river, some enterprising Cornishman built a large house at the top of it a couple of hundred years ago and planted the valley with lush tropical plants, the like of which grow nowhere else in England (apart from all the other lush tropical gardens owned by his neighbours). In January we went to Trebah, which is glorious and greatly recommended. Glendurgan is its next-door neighbour (quite literally) and is owned by the National Trust. This is where the alarm bells should have rung.

Now, the NT undoubtedly does a lot of good work, no question about it. But equally, we have met more than a few people who feel its determination to preserve bits of countryside in an unspoiled state verges on the fanatical. People have to live in these areas too: the NT sometimes gives the impression it would like to drive them out. (Indeed, we have stayed with one couple who maintain the NT has been conducting a guerrilla campaign to get them out of their gloriously-located home for some years now. And it would make a great tea shop and souvenir emporium if converted.)

Also, the last time we checked the NT still allowed fox hunting on its land – which is of course its right, but not one we would agree with. And, most of all, the NT is second only to the Moonies in its determination to sign you up as a member.

No other organisation puts so much pressure on you to join when you come into its orbit. We visit a lot of Royal Horticultural Society and English Heritage properties too and they are nothing like the NT. Sure, they'd like you to join ( is an RHS member in fact) but they lack the glassy-eyed evangelism of the NT.

At Glendurgan, the plausible-sounding chap on the ticket desk asked if we were members. We said no. Then he asked if we'd ever considered becoming members. We said no. He said, in that case, would we like to join now? We said no thanks, we'd just like to visit the gardens. He said fair enough, but did we realise we could get discounts at all sorts of other NT properties if we joined? We said no thanks, we'd just like to visit the gardens. So he sold us the tickets – big satisfying purple things – and a guide to the gardens, and helpfully added that he'd just put this membership leaflet in too, and if we had time to look at while we were going round the garden –

We ought to have just said no, we really ought to, but I was sick of the hard sell by now. I argued back. It caught him by surprise, but he rallied and started putting the NT case. It was developing into quite the debate when ended it by wailing that all she wanted to do was visit the garden and she was sick and tired of having to go through this every time we visited an NT property.

The garden's pretty good. Not as good as Trebah, though.

When we left we both filled in feedback cards complaining – and then we went next door to spend money in The Trebah shop instead of the Glendurgan one.

So after this we went off to St Ives looking forward to slobbing out, but nervously wondering what the day had in store for us as a sting in the tail.

What it had was a cottage so claustrophobic and tacky that we spent the night in the hotel next door and left the next day, never to return.

Now, I don't want to be too rude about the place. The NT's fair game, but this cottage is the property of a couple who had obviously put a lot of effort into making it just right for the holiday market. unfortunately, their definition of 'just right' was, as far as we were concerned, 'just wrong'.

Size was a huge problem. Houses in St Ives are often small, but this had developed 'small' into an art form with decor (such as dark pub-style carpets) that made it seem smaller and none of the little touches that can open out a tiny property. The double bedroom was only a couple of feet larger than the double bed itself. The twin bedroom still had damp plaster in its window frame from improvements done for our booking. The shower was in a cupboard and could have given the most level-headed person an attack of the screaming heebie-jeebies: with the door shut it would have resembled a very wet lift with half the lights gone. Downstairs was better, but whoever selected the pictures that crammed the walls laboured under the misapprehension that needlepoint depictions of weatherbeaten fishermen were what was needed in a town so famed for its artists that the Tate has opened an outpost there.

We packed overnight bags and the scotch, and decamped to the neighbouring hotel – an establishment with the proud boast that it was the first in Britain to serve Guinness. There we goggled with astonishment at the BBC's 'Britains's Best Sitcom' contest, watching some the finest TV ever made beaten by the Vicar of Dibley – admittedly a far, far better show than we'd previously realised but not fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Porridge, Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, Open All Hours or Yes, Minister.

The next day we checked out and returned to the cottage we'd left the day before. We'd phoned the owners in Guildford, and they were cool about it – but because it was Saturday night we hadn't tried to contact the letting company. And we didn't think we'd get much life out of them on Sunday either. Wrong… we found a note waiting for us, instructing us to phone them immediately. It all got a bit sticky for a while, but it's been sorted out now.

But the worst part of it – by far the worst – was just before we started loading up the car to evacuate the cottage we'd rejected. Its owner came round to see how we'd settled in and to check everything was alright. She seemed a really nice person, and having to tell her that we couldn't even bear to spend a single night in her house was horrible.

The rest of Sunday was pleasantly domestic – comfort food, comfort baths, and metaphorically weeing in corners to re-establish residence – then yesterday we went back to St Ives for the day. I think it was Karl Marx who said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. Well, for the second time this holiday I had bird's wings beating around my face, and for the second time I was far too close to the unpleasant disembowelling of previously-alive food. No falcon on a glove this time, though.

Lunch yesterday was a spicy vegetable Cornish pasty, a great lump of pastry very much in the proper tradition despite its lack of meat. I was eating it as we walked along the street, past three very unprepossessing youths. I was about to take a bite – was actually holding the pasty up to my mouth – when suddenly one of them yelled 'watch out'. Before I could react the pasty was on the ground – dashed out of my hand by a dive-bombing seagull that hovered in my face, flapping at me and streaking my shirt with yellow mud from its claws. There was really nothing to do except thank the youth who'd tried to help and walk on, thinking murderous thoughts and plotting revenge on the seagull race in general.

After this we sat on Porthmeor Beach for a while and pottered around Barnoon Cemetery, which overlooks it and may just be the finest place in the country to be laid to rest. We also visited a gallery and had a long rambling conversation with the artist who was exhibiting there. She'd waited two years for her shot at this particular exhibition space and had supported herself by (among other things) working in a chip shop in order to paint. In many ways she was inspirational – in many others what she had gone through in order to paint was scary.

With the day drawing to a close, we went to a very good Italian restaurant where we'd dined well in the past. It's notorious for a meal where I'd decided to have mussels (my highly subjective interpretation of vegetarianism allows seafood, although I don't eat a lot of it, and usually only in curries, oriental food or with pasta). I expected small things cooked out of their shells, but the management presented me with a bowlful of monstrosities the size of castanets, and a bright yellow plastic seaside bucket to put the shells in. This remains the comedy highlight of our restaurant careers, and I really should have remembered it before I decided to order prawns last night.

No bucket this time, just a bowl with two enormous hunks of bread hiding its contents – apart from one immensely long, immensely thin, immensely pink antenna poking out. Under the bread were six whole tiger prawns, each the size of a small rat, swimming in liquid garlic butter. I discovered that if you tried to pull the head off first, only half came away and something unpleasantly black and inky fell into the butter. It was a case of ripping the tails off first, then peeling away at the legs, after which the head fell off whole. Ick. Tasted good, though.

Finally, we drove out to near Godrevy lighthouse for the sunset. This is the lighthouse that inspired my favourite author, Virgina Woolf, but as we watched it we slowly became away of a problem: although by now it was dark, the lighthouse was not lit. We never did get to the bottom of what that was all about.

Today has been quieter. We set off to walk the St Michael's Way, between Cornwall's north and south coasts, but decided not to as it was too late in the day – tomorrow instead. As an alternative we went to Chysauster, a Celtic settlement of stone huts on a hillside. On the way back we found the road by the Naval air station at Culdrose closed by police and had to follow a diversion through narrow lanes behind a cement mixer barely big enough to get through them. I thought little of it but , who used to report on RAF Northolt, was wiser and said no good ever came from road closures by air bases. Sure enough, the evening news tonight told of a helicopter crash. Minor injuries only, and three airmen walked away unharmed, but the aircraft was a total loss.

And since we got home I've been writing this. For hours. The next one will be shorter.

I promise.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.