Wednesday, 16 May 2012
The Bedruthan Steps hotel, Mawgan Porth, Cornwall
I promise I don't have any grand designs to morph into a travel blog - invitations like this will probably remain a rarity, and I have a sneaking feeling there's only so much you can say about a hotel room ("tea and coffee making facilities were, again, adequate"). But when someone offers a free weekend in a four-star hotel in one of the most attractive parts of the country, well, there are some things you don't say no to. So I'm going to try my best to make What I Did On My Holidays relevant and interesting (or at least as relevant and interesting as anything else I write, ie. not very) and remain stubbornly objective in the face of extreme PR generosity. It's really the least I can do.
There's no avoiding the fact that Cornwall is very far away from London. With 45 minutes to get from my house to Paddington station, 4 1/2 hours on a (busy and slightly shabby) First Great Western train to Bodmin Parkway and another 40 minutes odd in a taxi from there to Mawgan Porth, it's no exaggeration to say that it's quicker and cheaper to fly to the south of Spain for your holidays. Which of course you're very much entitled to do, and by the time I'd coughed up £39 for the cab from the station I was beginning to wonder whether it would be worth the effort myself, and then... well just look at this view:
This won't be news to anyone who's ever been themselves, but Cornwall is breath-taking. Mawgan Porth, in particular, looks like it's been created by the CG team that worked on Lord of the Rings - a vast golden beach stretches in a long, gentle arc from the brightly-coloured town to the azure surf, and is framed on either side by dramatic green cliffs edged with purple heather. During the day, surfers in dark wetsuits trail across the sands to the water while seabirds circle lazily around their cliff-side nests above. At night, and when the tempramental English weather allows it, an open window allows the water's distant roar to send you off gently to sleep, a soporific soundtrack created by a mysterious combination of the crashing waves and echo from the cliffs. Relaxing doesn't begin to cover it - it's life-affirming and soul-cleansing - just being here feels like it's doing you good, and in fact probably is.
The Bedruthan Steps hotel knows how to make the most of its surroundings, as well. My room had floor-to-ceiling windows that slid open so you could take in the incredible view, and both restaurants, and the bar, also pointed the same way. It's not the most attractive building from the outside, is the Bedruthan, so to be in a seaside room staring out is probably the best place in town to be - some of the "villa" rooms further down the hill were hidden under turf in that curious way some places do when they're trying extra hard to show you how eco-friendly they are - but the main building is a 60s office block in white paint, right at the top of the hill so you can't miss it wherever in the bay you happen to be. Sister hotel the Scarlet is altogether easier on the eye, but they don't have as many swimming pools so you know, swings and roundabouts.
I should, in the interests of absolute objectivity, point out a few quirks I came across at the Bedruthan that while not spoiling the stay by any means, were slightly odd. Firstly the bed in my room was very short. I am not a tall person, 5'7" at a push, but if I lay out flat with my head on the pillow, my feet stuck out over the end of the mattress. Perhaps people were shorter in the 60s. Secondly I'm afraid I can't recommend anything from the bar other than the champagne and beers; I ordered a martini from a painfully shy teenager on duty one evening, and the poor guy broke every golden rule in the book, using vodka, shaking it and serving it in a warm glass. It was only £7 I suppose but my tip is to have your pre-prandials at the Scarlet, where they make proper drinks and you pay through the nose for them, as it should be.
Perhaps I should also mention the food. The Wild Café is the less formal dining option, and is also where you grab your traditional hotel buffet breakfast. There was plenty of guff on the menu about how careful they are sourcing every bit of everything (Apple juice supplied by Cornish Orchards of Liskeard, Honey supplied by Heatherbell Farm of The Lizard, Free-range eggs from Manor Green of Newquay, and so on) but in the end this was nothing out of the ordinary; on the last morning I paid £4.50 extra for a very decent Eggs Benedict though so I should give them that. A lunch here, too, was fairly unremarkable. I had smoked salmon sandwiches because they'd run out of the daily special Cornish Chowder at 2pm, and a pepperoni pizza was like something from Tesco's. But none of it was unreasonably priced, service was always charming and, all said and done, there's always That View to bask in. I'll forgive most things for That View.
Back in 2009 I spent a long weekend in yet another devastatingly attractive part of Cornwall (the place is full of 'em), St. Ives. Highlight of that weekend was a fabulous meal at the Porthminster Beach Café, and so when I learned the same team were opening a new restaurant in the Bedruthan Steps, I was understandably excited. Had the Red Herring lived up to the promise of the Porthminster Beach Café I would probably have given it its own post but alas, it seems the style and panache of the Porthminster haven't translated very well to Mawgan Porth. It's not that any of it was inedible (nearly), but the Herring was an altogether less focussed affair. Perhaps that's what happens when you move from your own building to a hotel restaurant - I've heard of even the fanciest London hotels imposing their own suppliers on reluctant chefs, and of restaurant owners cutting corners to squeeze a profit out of sky-high hotel rents - but the Herring felt like a tourist hotel restaurant, not an impression I took away with me from the Porthminster Beach Café at all.
There were issues with every course at the Herring, but very briefly - 3 oysters is not enough food for a starter, and these were dry and pointlessly topped with bits of chewy parma ham; fresh Cornish crab was certainly that - fresh - but contained a bit too much soily dark meat and I don't think it needed much of the veg underneath it; slow-cooked lamb had decent flavour but could have done with losing either the celeriac remoulade (which I think also contained coconut? Very bizarre) or the cold ratatouille, the combination of all of that was a bit of a mess; and finally a piece of hake was overcooked and mushy, topped with a pointless slab of impenetrable chorizo and accompanied by three dense, floury and disgusting "herb dumplings". Cheese course was nice enough and I guess £35 isn't a fortune for 3 courses, but it was all just too odd to recommend. Thank God for That View, then. That View makes everything better.
We did eat well in Cornwall, but not in the Bedruthan Steps and not in Mawgan Porth - fortunately a little bistro in nearby Padstow restored our faith in Cornish cuisine, but I will leave that for another post. And I imagine most people, who are on holiday to enjoy themselves and don't have the twisted attitude of a London food snob, would have enjoyed the food at the Herring just as they might have enjoyed their warm, cloudy vodka martini in the bar beforehand. But I'm afraid it wouldn't be fair if I judged a gratefully-received freebie any differently than if I'd paid for it out of my own pocket, and if your four-star hotel serves inadequate food and bad cocktails then you are doing something wrong.
The real star of the trip, then, was Cornwall itself. On Saturday afternoon, a strenuous cliff top walk north along the coast brought us to a teeny National Trust property perched alongside a series of dramatic coves. In keeping with most of the rest of the weekend, the food wasn't great - a Cornish pasty was soggy and served in strange bready pastry, and afternoon tea came with cold scones and not enough cream and jam - but the sheer beauty of the surroundings and the relentless charm of everyone we came into contact with meant it was impossible not to enjoy ourselves. On the walk back, snakes basking in the afternoon sun scuttled away as we battled our way up the steep path back to the hotel, and having showered and changed we rewarded ourselves with champagne cocktails at the Scarlet. Accompanied, of course, by a long loving gaze on That View. Maybe there are more important things than food, after all.
I was a guest of the Bedruthan steps. Return first-class rail tickets provided by First Great Western.