Sunday, 11 May 2008

Necessary Dorsal Muscles

"The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately," said Owl. "The what?" "It has been raining," explained Owl. "Yes," said Christopher Robin. "It has." "The flood-level has reached an unprecedented height." "The who?" "There's a lot of water about," explained Owl.

Sunday morning, waking up in a strange bunk bed brought a sense of deja-vu. It was nice this time that Wayne and Meg had been able to share a bed, which hadn’t been the case at the Youth Hostel all those months ago. As we prepared for the day the weather was vaguely overcast, but didn’t look overly threatening. We packed the car, returned the key, said ‘Goodbye’ to some of the other backpackers and took a few photos before heading off for Mousehole (pronounced ‘mow-s’ll), our first destination of the day.

To say that Mousehole is a beautiful English seaside village would be like saying that the Taj Mahal is a nice memorial tomb from a husband to his wife. It was absolutely gorgeous. We had been warned that the streets would be narrow; we hadn’t quite comprehended that we could almost scrape both side mirrors on houses at the same time. The harbour there was also gorgeous, walled in for the fishing and pleasure craft that were kept inside. Earlier in the year, when there had been some big storms batter the west coast; we had seen waves eclipsing roads and being here gave us a sense of what it might be like. If we hadn’t already been determined to come back to Cornwall, then Mousehole would have convinced us. If you would like a sense of what the town is like, the television program ‘Doc Martin’, which is shown on the ABC in Australia, is set in a very similar little village (it is actually filmed in Port Isaac, which is on the northern coast of Cornwall, not that far away).

From Mousehole we drove back into Penzance to get fuel for both the car and ourselves. Brock, in particular, was extremely excited to break his fast at McDonalds, which he felt he had become disacquainted with. From there we drove to another part of Mount’s Bay (on which Penzance sits) to the town of Marazion, in order to get a better look at Mount St Michaels. You may have seen photos of Mount St Michaels; it is a castle sitting atop an island in the bay, which is accessible by car during low tide, but which is cut off from the mainland and only accessible by ferry for much of the rest of the day. We got out of Kylie and wandered out on to the beach, annoying greatly a traffic warden who had wanted us to park in the paid car park, to take some photos. The sight truly is breathtaking, although it would have been nicer if the weather had been a little bit finer. If you look at our photos you will be able to compare them to some available on various tourism websites for the area and see what we mean.

From here we set out without a completely fixed plan. There are a number of English Heritage sites in Cornwall, including a few which are relatively close to Penzance. We had been fairly determined to get to Tintagel (an English Heritage site which is very closely linked with all the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) but as to where else we might visit we were prepared to see where the weather, and various road signs, directed us. This is important at this point because as we were leaving Marazion it began to rain, which seemed to put paid to our idea of visiting either Pendennis or St Mawes castles which were not far away but also on the coast where the rain seemed to be heaviest. Driving back to the ancient villages or barrows also seemed to be a foolish move. So instead we began driving in the general direction of Tintagel, while still leaving ourselves open to pursuing other options.

When we got to the exit off the A30 which would take us up toward Tintagel, the first of these options made itself apparent. As we reached the roundabout which had multiple options to venture into other parts of Cornwall, we spied a sign pointing to a town named Indian Queens (which for some reason conjured images of men wearing saris and bad wigs). Underneath was another sign which pointed to something called Gnome World. The idea of a world devoted to Garden Gnomes was one that appealed to all of us, so we went completely around the roundabout and drove off into Indian Queens. Unfortunately, Gnome World turned out to be a disappointment; an extravaganza of 1970’s decay. Without leaving the car we were able to take in everything from the car park and quickly exited, however, rather than head back towards Tintagel we followed the other sign for attractions at Indian Queens toward the Screech Owl Sanctuary.

Anyone who knows Meg and Brock at all well will realise just how bizarre this situation is. Both have an extraordinary fear of birds. In fact, anything with wings (ie. pigeons, bats, moths, paper aeroplanes, bugs of any sort and, possibly, sanitary pads) has been known to send them screaming from the immediate area. Both, however, were prepared to put that fear to one side in order to enter the sanctuary. Admittedly, there were some tears, and some vague heel marks were left in the concrete outside the building but, these aside, they could almost have been said to be enthusiastic. All of this changed when we were actually inside what we all would probably describe as one of the best experiences of our lives.

Upon first walking through the gift shop and into the sanctuary itself, one response was, ‘This looks like a ranch’. On one side of the main area were a series of stalls, the size that sometimes house horses, and sitting at the bottom of each on a lamp-sized perch, was an owl. We walked close, amazed at the different species, sizes and colours, and were introduced to their keeper. It was at this point that the visit really took off. After a question or two to ascertain our level of knowledge, he started to tell us about the owls for which he was responsible. The level of enthusiasm and sheer love for these birds was astonishing and engrossing. Within a couple of minutes he had the first of them, a Little Owl called ‘Freedom’, off its perch, on his hand, and we were stroking the feathers on Freedom’s back. As the keeper pointed out, this was unusual because normally the owls liked to be stroked on the stomach, however, because of Freedom’s past (she had been a pet who had never been with other birds, only people, and they had only taken her at the sanctuary because she was said to be a ‘breeding bird’, only after she had slaughtered her sixth ‘husband’ did they fully realise just how ingrained that perception that she was, in fact, human, actually was) it was not safe to pet her stomach.

The birds varied in size, background, colouring and country of origin, but all were magnificent. Their keeper knew, and explained, all of their personality traits and allowed us to get up close and see how amazing each was. Each had a name, although the gender implied in their naming in no way reflected the gender of the actual bird. As the keeper explained, in the end you have to experience something like a bird laying an egg to be confident that it is female. In particular, we will never forget looking inside the ear of one of the owls, only to see the back of its eye socket leading to the brain. For many owls, their eyes make up approximately 50% of their skulls and this was really brought home to us in a vivid way.

The next part of the day was the flying display, where we all (by this stage there were more people than just us visiting the sanctuary) sat on wooden benches around a grassed area which had five different perches stationed around it. The first bird out was a buzzard who had been discovered as a baby by two nine year old boys. They rescued him without telling their family and successfully brought him up for some time. However, after a while they got tired and their father was informed and brought him to the sanctuary. ‘Lucky’ as he is known, still believes himself to be a 9 year old boy, a cross between Scooby Doo and Bart Simpson, but was prepared to fly backwards and forwards, accepting bits of chicken meat when he did was he was told. Brock and Quinn were incredibly brave and barely flinched when he landed on the seat between them. It was very funny, but made us very aware of the impact humans can have upon creatures from the natural world. More was to come, however.

The next bird out was ‘Goldie’ a beautiful Golden barn owl. ‘Goldie’ didn’t have quite the same attention deficit issues as ‘Lucky’ and consequently, the keeper invited people from the audience to come out and wear the glove which ‘Goldie’ was trained to land upon. You might not find it at all strange to learn that Wayne was the first person up, but Brock and Quinn soon followed suit and all were amazed at just how light this bird was, and how tamely she sat upon their arms (only Quinn got a small fright when she almost missed the large leather glove and made contact with his arm). It was so wonderful, that even Meg was prepared to get up and have a go, and unfortunately we ran out of time before this was able to happen as the falconry show came to an end.

We went back to the owls that we had not already seen close up and were able to pat more of them. In particular there was ‘Charlie’ a European Eagle Owl, whose feet were furry so that patting them felt like patting a cat. Brock and Quinn went off and found some amazing owls that weren’t part of the hands on display, including a pair of Great Grey Owls that scared them with their large, saucer shaped faces, and some beautiful Snowy White Owls, just like Hedwig from the Harry Potter movies. After another conversation with the keeper at the coffee shop we made our way back to the car, stopping only to buy some small stuffed owls for the boys, determined that we would find a way to get back to this wonderful place again. The sanctuary also has a process by which we can adopt an owl, and we would all like to do this as well, as this process helps to fund the work of the sanctuary. We cannot recommend it highly enough and the official website does not do it justice.

By now it was later in the day than we had originally planned, but we were very very happy about how we had been delayed. We made straight for Tintagel as our last stop before heading back home to Hertfordshire. Despite the reputation of the Castle, which has been established for hundreds of years, to be linked with King Arthur, we were disappointed in the quality and width of the roads which took us there, and even more so with the parking which seemed to be quite a distance from the Castle itself. By this stage it had even begun to rain in this part of Cornwall, so we endured a rather damp walk to the Camelot Hotel, overlooking the bay. This was worth a visit in itself. It is an old mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean which has been converted into a Hotel by a local artist and is filled with pictures of famous people; ranging from film stars to royalty, who have visited the area. Inside the main dining area is a replica Round Table marked out with the names of Arthur’s Knights. However, the path down from the Hotel was quite steep and slippery in the rain, so only Quinn and Wayne ventured down the path, while Meg and Brock walked back to the car.

The views from the walk down were magnificent. The ruins of the main castle buildings stood out clearly and the caves which had been forced out by the sea (including one which was reputed to be Merlin’s cave) were spectacular. Without too many falls they made it down to the English Heritage entrance building to discover that there was an easier, much less slippery route which we had missed (it was not at all well signposted) on our walk through the town. However, access to the castle is via at least 100 steep steps. Surfaces in the castle include grass, gravel, cobbles and flagstones. Many of the surfaces are uneven and include changes of level. The island element of the site is a natural Cornish headland which includes several cliffs. So it may well have been that Brock and Meg would not have ventured far anyway. After having a good look around, Quinn and Wayne walked back up the steep driveway to the village where we all had, at least a bite of, a Cornish Pasty before getting back in the car to head for home.

Even this was not the end of our adventures however. As we neared Bristol on our return leg, Wayne pulled over to the side of the road as he had been indicated to do by a police car driving behind him. Wayne had not been speeding, nor had he done anything else wrong, so we were a little perplexed as to the reason for being stopped. Surely they had not been able to hear our accents? Indeed, they hadn’t and they were quite surprised to find that we were from Australia. When we first bought Kylie we had been given every bit of documentation relating to her past, but because of the speed at which the sale had taken place, we had not been able to receive the registration certificate from the previous owners. However they had sent off their paperwork to the DVLA as had we. When we had got our MOT done, the previous month, we had thought that our new rego papers would come with it. Imagine our surprise to find that Registration, Insurance, and Roadworthiness (which is what the MOT is concerned with) are all completely separate parts of owning a car and that, for some reason, we had not been registered. Our insurance had mistakenly been registered with another vehicle as well, so the police questioned Wayne long and hard about what had taken place, telling him that they could have the car impounded and crushed if they wished to do so. Fortunately, they let us off with a warning to get our paperwork sorted out and to report to Hoddesdon Police (which we did today!)

We loved our time in Cornwall, Brock and Quinn showed how far they have come in being more outgoing in relating to new people, and adventurous as regards trying new experiences. The county is full of amazing natural beauty and wonderful efforts by people to preserve it. As well, there are some phenomenally beautiful, created places with enormous historical significance and some gastronomical niceties (deep fried Mars Bars for example) which make it a truly English experience. If you are ever planning to come here, Cornwall is a must visit.

One final note, our good friends Michael and Rachel Barr have given birth to their first child, Angus Harrison Cam Barr on May 8th. They have always been wonderful to us, including providing us with invaluable support and assistance around our wedding. For those who attended, Mike signed the register and he and Rachel were responsible for bringing Callum, Declan and Ethan to Brisbane for the wedding. We are all so very happy for them, and know they will be amazing parents for Angus. We look forward to seeing them again.

We hope you are all well and enjoying reading of our adventures. As always, we look forward to hearing from all of you, whether it be via phone, text message, email or comment on our blog (which houses all of these e-letters plus more photos)

For those of you wondering about the title of this e-letter, it comes from this quote by A.A. Milne.
“Owl explained about the Necessary Dorsal Muscles. He had explained this to Pooh and Christopher Robin once before, and had been waiting ever since for a chance to do it again, because it is a thing which you can easily explain twice before anyone knows what you are talking about.”

1 comment:

barrandgirl said...

Wow. We feel quite honoured to get an official mention in "the Times". Sounds as though you guys are all enjoying life. I also say good on Brock and Meg for conquering (or at least confronting) their fear of birds. Bravo.

From our perspective we are also going well - a little sleep deprived but we are enjoying the challenges of a new family member. I don't think we have been on such a steep learning curve as this for some time.

Look forward to keeping in touch and reading more of your adventures.


Mike Rach and Angus