The Battle of the Cream Teas: Devon vs. Cornwall – England, May 2018

I think SuperShuttle has a vendetta against me. Last May, as I was heading off to Europe, I waited patiently in front of my building for the familiar blue van to pull up and whisk me off to the airport, but it never materialized. I kept getting texts from them saying they were outside my apartment waiting for me, but they were simply not there. I kept telling them I was in front of my building. They kept telling me I was simply not there. And then they said they had waited long enough and had to get their other passengers to the airport and were leaving. How do you leave if you’ve never arrived?

A neighbor saw me out front and when he heard my plight, he kindly drove me to the airport and I made my flight despite being a nervous wreck. I later learned that my shuttle had been parked in front of some garages on the street below mine, 5 stories down from the main entrance to my building. Nice going, SuperShuttle. Since then they have arrived a full 20 to 30 minutes EARLY every time I use them, forcing me to scramble to get myself together and get down to the van, hoping to God that I hadn’t forgotten something in the last minute panic.

And that brings us to May 16, 2018 when, after waiting for 30 minutes past my pick up time and then spending 20 minutes on hold trying to get through to an actual human who could help me, I learned that for some reason, bewildering even to the dispatcher, my van was not coming to get me. I had to find a taxi service that goes to the airport and beg them to come and get me immediately. Fifty bucks and a few gray hairs later, I arrived at the airport and made my flight, but I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that SuperShuttle generously refunded my pre-paid fare.  I have no words…

But I digress. This is a story about the first leg of my annual European trip, which commences within a few days of my university’s graduation ceremony. My first stop was to have been London for a 4 night stay. I have only been to London once, back in 1987, and it was not my favorite place. I thought that after almost 30 years I might give it another shot, and booked a hideously expensive Best Western near Hyde Park. But I just wasn’t excited about it, and as the trip got closer, I began to long for quiet countryside rather than big city chaos. And then, perhaps the only one in the world who was not clued in, I learned that I would be in London the weekend of the Royal Wedding. That did it. I opted out, as I knew the city would be a zoo. I canceled my hotel reservation and made plans to simply rent a car from Heathrow and explore a part of England I’d never been to before: Devon and Cornwall on the far southwestern tip of the island.

I confess, I did not know a lot about these areas, except that some friends told me they were really pretty. I’d heard of Devonshire cream teas: beautiful tea and scones served with jam and Devonshire “clotted cream”. I’d had many a cream tea during prior trips to England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but I had never experienced them at their original birthplace. I did a little research and learned that Devon and Cornwall actually argue as to where the tradition started and which region serves the better version. I also learned that in Devonshire, one is expected to put cream on the scone first, and then top that with jam; in Cornwall, the process is reversed, with jam on the bottom and cream on the top, which seems like a totally ridiculous sticking point to me. Heavy, spreadable cream: good. Fresh berry preserves: good. As long as they are both present, who cares which one has the top bunk? At any rate, I decided that it was my duty as an impartial American who does hark from a British heritage to help resolve the debate between these two competing counties once and for all.

As I drove the Motorway west from Heathrow, I was amazed by the warm, sunny weather Britain was experiencing and before long the urban sprawl of London gave way to a beautiful countryside of rolling hills and eventually, the sea. I entered Devon along the northern coast and stopped at the charming town of Lynmouth, built along the mouth of a river, with cute little shops and restaurants lining the riverbank on one side, and green parks and gardens lining the other. Signs everywhere advertised crab salad sandwiches, so I got one to go from a small stand and ate it by the river. But then I headed for the Lynmouth Bay Café, which I’d heard was one of the best places to go for a cream tea. I sat outside at a tiny table… or a “wee” table if you prefer… and a jolly waitress happily served me my tea and scones. I’d almost forgotten how decadently wonderful real clotted cream is, and the scones were also served with whortleberry preserves, a European cousin of the blueberry. It was quite the affair and the scones were wonderful, even though you could put clotted cream and whortleberry preserves on a graham cracker and it’d be good! This cream tea definitely gave Devon a good head start in the contest, but still I had to give Cornwall its chance as well.

My first Devonshire Cream Tea, in Devon

I stayed on the far southwestern tip of Cornwall on the Lizard Peninsula near the town of Helston at a B & B called Tregaddra Farm, an actual working farm nestled down a lane off a very tiny country road. And I do mean a tiny road. Not unlike parts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, this area is criss-crossed with small roads that are perhaps one and a half car widths wide at best and barely the width of one car at worst. In most places these roads are bordered on both sides by 6 to 8 foot tall walls of hedges, grasses and wild flowers. It is rather beautiful until you dare sneak a glance at the flowers. Then and only then, a car comes speeding around the next bend, bearing down on you like a kamikaze plane. Often one or the other of you must back up a considerable distance to find an area to pull off and let the other pass. It can take awhile to get even a short distance. And of course there is often a wild speed demon riding virtually in your trunk and itching to pass you, which makes things even more exciting. Who’d have thought Cornwall would be more scary than Naples, Italy to drive through?

So although I’d slept a bit on my 11 hour flight, after about an 8 hour drive including my photo taking and cream tea stops, I was half dead when I got to Cornwall, but I was also starving. But at 9:00 PM in Cornwall, there is not much to choose from… in fact, virtually nothing to choose from! I wandered the nearby town of Helston, and there was only one place still serving anything to eat, a pub called Weatherspoon’s that offered things like pizza and chicken nuggets, but I gave it a try, had fish and chips that were absolutely beautiful, and went  to bed happy that night.

My room at the guest house was quiet and peaceful, located in an annex next to the main house, and outside was a glorious tree with leaves dappled in reddish-orange that made beautiful patterns when the wind blew. The host, June, was very kind and welcoming and served a full English breakfast… eggs, tomatoes, sausage, bacon and mushrooms, rather than the usual baked beans. Unfortunately breakfast was served from 8:00 to 8:30 only, and not being a farm boy, I had to set my alarm to go get breakfast and then I returned to bed for another hour or two!

My first full day in England I stayed close to “home”. I first had a lunch, consisting of a delicious ham and mustard sandwich with four fresh and innovative salads, followed by a slice of homemade lemon layer cake at a remote and quirky spot called The Fat Apple Cafe. The owners were very friendly and I ate outside under a covered awning on a gloriously sunny day. I then visited The Lizard – the town at the end of the Lizard Peninsula. It’s actually called The Lizard, not Lizard. It’s a ramshackle, colorful little town with lots of touristy shops and ice cream stands, and a few restaurants.

The highlight of the day was a visit to nearby Kynance Cove, which is set on the west side of the peninsula below steep cliffs covered in bizarre rock formations. All the rocks seem porous and wildflowers of every shape, size and description grow from holes and cracks in the rock. I tested out my new, high powered zoom lens by taking a photo of a man far off on a distant hill, and then zooming in and getting a close up portrait. It actually stunned me! I made the hike down to the cove along steep trails and seemingly hundreds of stairs, but it was all worth it to reach the  sandy beach at the bottom. It was a beautiful hike and far more soothing than driving!

That day’s mis-step was making a reservation for dinner at Cadgwith Cove Inn, a seemingly highly rated restaurant in the miniscule fishing village of Cadgwith… hence the name. They are so popular that I could only get reservations for 6:45, and I took them, when I would rather have seen sunset somewhere and eaten later. The place supposedly has a group of fisherman who supply the restaurant with its fresh seafood, but also sing shanties at 10PM on a Friday night. Unfortunately, if I was eating at 6:45, and had to be done and out to make way for the 8:30 seatings, sea shanties were not in the cards for me.

The town is cute, accessible from a parking lot from which you then hike about 1/3 of a mile down to the sea. It was a fun adventure… until I got to the restaurant and ordered the food. What a huge letdown. I almost ordered a seafood chowder appetizer, but it was the cost of an entrée and so I opted instead for lobster claws, and then fish and chips, which I was told could be “supersized” – my term, not theirs – for an additional fee to give me more fish. When the waitress brought my claws, she asked if I knew how to open them, and I laughed and said that as a New Englander, I have cracked many a lobster claw in my time. And then I started to think I was on Candid Camera. I could NOT crack the first claw for to save my life! It was as hard as a rock, the tool they gave me was too small to get around the claw, and I laughed as I wondered if this was the lobster equivalent to trick birthday candles that won’t blow out. I could imagine them all back in the kitchen, “We’ll show that smarty pants New Englander that he doesn’t know lobsters as well as he thinks he does!”

I finally managed to break open the first claw, feeling that I had done irreparable damage to my hands in the process, and out ran a veritable ocean of cold water and all that I found inside were mushy, cold pieces of claw meat. They would have thrown this baby back into the ocean in Boston. It was absolutely awful. The second claw opened more easily, but the meat in that one was no better. What a disappointment!

While I waited for my main course, a woman who’d been sitting nearby and had eaten the seafood chowder I’d considered ordering was about to leave, but she came over to my table and whispered, “It’s a good thing you didn’t waste your money on the chowder. It was utterly flavorless and there was barely any seafood in it! Dreadful!” And out she walked.

Finally my fish and chips arrived, and while it was a huge portion, I hate to say it, but it was dreadful as well. The fish did taste very fresh, but the batter was all soggy and wet and having been placed on top of the chips, they too were soggy. It was really a sad state of affairs. Meanwhile, a couple was seated next to me and they were discussing ordering the fish and chips. I had to warn them; it was the right thing to do. “Don’t do it! It’s not at all crispy and the fries were wet and cold.” They looked forlorn, and the husband said, “Well I was thinking about the chowder, but then I heard what that woman said to you!” We had a good laugh together, as my new friend went back to the drawing board to figure out what to order. Meanwhile, I wish I’d been out watching the sun set over the water instead. Sigh.

The following day I got a late start and decided to try my first Cornwall cream tea at a place called The Waymaker in Falmouth. This was a very out of the way spot in the middle of nowhere along a road that took me through towns named Mawgan and Gweek! It was a pretty little glassed in café with a spacious terrace and a huge tent, so I took a spot in the shade of an umbrella on the terrace (believe it or not, I feared a sunburn. It was really hot… in Cornwall… ENGLAND!) This place offered a variety of scones in different flavors: cinnamon, butternut squash and plain. Being a butternut squash freak (yes, I confess, it’s true), I ordered one of those and one of the cinnamon. The clotted cream was spot on, and the jam was great. The cinnamon scone was nice, and though the butternut one tasted great, it had a weird consistency and virtually disintegrated into a million pieces as I tried to eat it, which gets very messy when it is slathered in jam and cream (note the order of things… this is Cornwall, so jam on the bottom!). No matter which condiment I put on the bloody scone first, they both ended up making my hands a sticky mess. An A for effort on this one, but the actual product was lacking due to the mess factor.

I then drove west along the coast and stopped at St. Michael’s Mount. For those of you familiar with France’s Mont St. Michele, an island topped with an imposing castle off the coast of Normandy that is connected to the mainland by a causeway, England has its own version. At both places the tides are so extreme that sometimes the islands are connected to the mainland by dry land, and sometimes the only way to reach them is by a causeway. England’s version is not quite as spectacular as France’s, but I had a beautiful walk along the coast snapping photos of the place and soaking up the sunshine.

Then, I had a dilemma to solve. Just before this trip I bought a new camera to replace my older, failing one. Well, as I hurriedly tried to prepare for the ever-early SuperShuttle that never came, I misplaced or did not pack the cable to recharge the battery! These days no appliance takes a standard anything, so I have my telephone and its charger, my computer and its charger, my mp3 player and its charger, and the camera without its charger. I found out there was a camera store in St. Ives, a town on the coast that I’d heard was very scenic and had planned to visit anyway. I punched the address into the GPS on my phone and made a beeline for the place, as it was Saturday and it was closing at 4PM.

Well, one reason why I refrain from using GPS whenever possible is because it doesn’t know about streets that are pedestrian zones only, and the route it tried to take me on dead-ended at one. With only 20 minutes to spare, I found parking and then noticed that my phone battery was almost dead and so I got to look at the map it provided one last time before the screen went dark. Relying on my own built-in GPS, I navigated down long, steep staircases that I knew would be torturous to climb back up and headed in the general direction that I knew the store to be in. And when I got the main pedestrian street, voila! (or should I say something like, “tally ho!”): there was the camera store, right in front of me… with 8 minutes to spare. The good news was that they had a charger that would work. The bad news is that it cost $35 and it was not just a simple wire. Oh no, this is akin to a puzzle with several pieces that must all be put together in a certain way and of course, at the end is a British power plug. As soon as I head to the continent, I will have to get a British to European adapter to make the damned thing work there, and if, God forbid, I have really lost the original charger to my camera, I will have to get an American to British adaptor when I get home. A fine, bloody mess I have made of things. I’m blaming it all on Supershuttle.

I then tromped back up the hill to my car (I’d only had enough change to pay for 30 minutes of parking) and it was sweltering. I heard they had to send an ambulance to the beach to help someone who’d fainted from the heat. It was only 71 degrees, but those of us with British stock don’t hold up well in heat, especially when climbing 1,000 stairs.  And so, mission accomplished, I then took a ride along the Land’s End of the Cornwall Peninsula, catching a few pretty vistas, but mostly for any ocean views you had to detour 5 or 6 miles down narrow roads to get to see anything, and that got old fast, so eventually I headed back toward the Lizard Peninsula and dined at the Ship Inn Pub in Mawgan, near Gweek. I went with their Beef Brisket and it was tasty, but nothing to write home about, despite this sentence.

On Sunday morning I said farewell to June and the Tradaggra Farms and headed east, planning to spend the night in Brighton, only 30 minutes from Gatwick Airport where I would be catching my flight to Portugal on Monday morning. I planned to see the Jurassic Coast of Dorset along the way, so named because there have been many fossils found in this area. Personally I think it’s also because at least one of the rock formations resembles a brontosaurus dipping its head into the ocean, but you won’t see that in Wikipedia!

I crossed from Cornwall back into Devon and for lunch decided to have a last cream tea at an out of the way place called Royal Oak Farms in Honiton. Another working farm, this place featured tables spread across a large lawn and I managed to get what was the last open table. Unfortunately a family of 11 people came in right as I did and were seated near me, so the waitresses were distraught and I had a long wait. Very close to my table, a cocker spaniel was leashed to the trunk of a tree and his owners were sitting a few feet behind me. They had two children under 5 years old. The little girl, whom they never seemed to call by name, wandered aimlessly across the lawn, causing near accidents with the rushing waitresses, and occasionally trying to pull the table cloth off of my table while her parents said nothing.

Perhaps that was because the other child, a boy named Barnaby (I am not kidding) was getting into all sorts of mischief. Evidently the dog’s name was Bronte (I am not kidding) and so for at least 30 minutes I listened to these parents, speaking in rather pretentious, high class English accents, using the boy’s and the dog’s names incessantly. “Barnaby!  I say, Barnaby, what ARE you doing? Are you visiting with Bronte? Bronte would like company, Barnaby, that’s a good chap. No, no, Barnaby, don’t pull on Bronte’s ears! He’s not fond of that, Barnaby! No, Barnaby, please don’t wind Bronte’s leash around the tree. Can you not see that Bronte is choking! Barnaby, you simply must help Bronte get untangled from the tree!” On and on and on it went, with me contemplating taking my butter knife and trying to set Bronte free.

Meanwhile, the table of 11 was restless. They were evidently starving for some lunch and service was slow, so grandma decided to play an alphabet game with the children and used a voice so loud that all of Devonshire could likely hear her. “Now children, find something around us that begins with the letter A.”  The children wandered around looking, with grandma telling them how warm or cold or hot they were until one of them thankfully found an apron.

“Ok, children! Time to find something with a B! Can you find something that begins with the letter B?” The kids wandered everywhere as grandma continue to shout out, “You’re cold, your freezing, you are in Antarctica!” After what seemed an eternity, I simply lost it and began laughing uncontrollably. I wanted to scream, “Hey, kids, wake up! You’ve got Barnaby and Bronte over here under the tree. You’re on a blood berry farm! There are  bowls all over your table filled with bloody butter! How hard can this possibly be?”  But before I snapped, my cream tea arrived and I was pleasantly distracted.

And, dear readers, this was the definitive cream tea, the one that clinched the title for County Devon as far as this judge is concerned. Everything was served on bone china, which truthfully is of zero interest to me other than the fact that it did look quite nice. The scones were fantastically good and were accompanied by a huge scoop of Devonshire cream and a pot each of homemade raspberry and plum preserves, the latter was a bit runny and warm, as according to the waitress, this batch had just been made that morning. I did not take one bite of that cream tea for granted and made it last as long as I could, using up all the cream and jam, eating every last scone crumb, and consuming every drop of my tea. Barnaby, Bronte, and the continuing difficulty that the children were having identifying anything that began with a B faded from consciousness as I lost myself in a cream tea rapture.

And so, as full as a tick and as happy as a clam, off I went, saying goodbye to the lush, rolling hills of Devon and hello to Dorset and its Jurassic Coast. I visited the formation known formally as the Durdle Door, which to me looks more like the Loch Ness Monster hanging out off shore. I heaved a sigh as I descended a trail so steep it made my shins hurt, knowing I would have to come back up again at some point. Ah well, I would be working off the calories from the cream tea at least. The calm and quiet of Devon and Cornwall were lost here; there were hundreds of tourist from all over the world, screaming to each other, venturing up paths that had huge CLOSED signs on them to help the grass and flowers come back, and climbing over safety walls to get a better photo on precarious cliff faces that looked like they could give way as easily as my Cornish butternut squash scone. I had to laugh at how many of them walked right into me because they were staring into their phones and didn’t seem to notice a 275 pound man being pulled downhill by the forces of gravity like a small landslide. Ah yes: “civilization”.

It was a beautiful place to visit and I did enjoy the hike, even though it was still very hot and the trail was quite dusty, I definitely see the dinosaur (or Nessie) bending to take a drink of water, but have a look at the photo and decide for yourselves.

And then I arrived at long last in the seaside resort of Brighton. I stayed at a small guesthouse just half a block from the ocean, but arrived at almost 8:30 PM. There were very few choices for dinner by the time I found the inn, used the codes that the manager had texted me to get into the building and into my room (they do not have a 24 hour front desk, so they send a code and you let yourself in), then retrieved my parking pass and went in search of a parking space. Luckily I found a space, as usual, just a half a block from the inn, despite Brighton’s reputation as a parking nightmare. I ended up getting a take-out order of lamb korma over rice from an Indian restaurant that had stopped serving already, but were happy to send me on my way with a to go box.

The famous Brighton Pier was closed for the night, and there was very little going on in what seems like a city that has seen better times. Still, it was a Sunday night and early in the season, so perhaps it’s got more life to it than I found. That left me nothing more to do than to re-pack my bag, have a hot shower, and head to bed, dreaming of sheep made of clotted cream leaping over cloud-like scones into puddles of fresh preserves. Of course, I am making that all up to be poetic. In reality I think I had a nightmare about Barnaby, Bronte and the never-ending alphabet game.  Cheers!

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