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New attractions in England's Maritime South-West

by Bob Barton

A great seafaring tradition of adventurers, explorers, pirates and smugglers; the sea-salt flavour of novels by Daphne du Maurier and Rosamunde Pilcher; pilgrims setting sail for the New World – all are symbolic of England’s south-western extremity. Cornwall and Devon’s maritime appeal continues to grow, with some major new attractions opening this year.

A National Maritime Museum; a centre devoted to the Pilgrim Fathers and other emigrants; and Europe’s biggest marine aquarium are the latest additions to a region that already boasts the Eden Project (a vast indoor rainforest); the artistic colony of St. Ives and gastronomic hot-spot, Padstow.

Add to these the area’s picturesque harbour-towns, gardens warmed by Gulf Stream currents; the real-life Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek, and you have the makings of a holiday with a nautical feel.

Even the 08:33 train from London’s Paddington station to Plymouth, Devon bears a ship’s name – “The Mayflower”. This was the vessel which carried a band of determined religious reformers, the Pilgrim Fathers, on their momentous journey to a new life in North America, in 1620. After 66 days at sea they eventually settled in New Plymouth and laid the foundation of the New England states.

The story is brought to life in the naval port and city of Plymouth’s new Mayflower Centre, situated opposite the historic harbour steps from which they set off nearly four centuries ago. It also tells how thousands of emigrants to the USA and other countries (mainly Australia and New Zealand, with Canada becoming popular later) started their journey here.

The city is full of seaside atmosphere, particularly around the old harbour with its fish market and customs house, the Barbican, and the waterfront park, the Hoe. Here Elizabethan seafarer Sir Francis Drake is said to have finished a game of bowls before sailing off to confront the approaching Spanish Armada.

Near the Mayflower Centre is the National Marine Aquarium which, among its many fishy delights, boasts the world’s largest collection of sea-horses. Its brand new attractions include a coral reef teeming with brightly-coloured fish and the deepest tank in Europe – three storeys high – containing a wide variety of sharks which you can view close-up (if you dare) from inside a walk-through transparent tunnel.

Going west from Plymouth you cross the wide River Tamar on one of two high bridges, road and rail, leave Devon and enter Cornwall. There are views of battleships at anchor and the sparkling ocean beyond.

The UK has more coastline than any other country in Europe, with no-one living more than 75 miles from the sea. But it is only in Cornwall that you feel the sea is ever-present: a leg of land jutting precariously into the Atlantic, its two coasts only four miles apart at the narrowest point.
So Cornwall was an obvious choice as location for a new National Maritime Museum (opening October 2002). The stylish, modern building, clad in English oak, rises beside the water in the harbour-town of Falmouth, on the edge of the world’s third largest natural harbour (Rio and Sydney take the top slots).

Until recently, Falmouth was an almost sleepy place, despite once being the British Empire’s second busiest port. Its main occupations after tourism are luxury yacht-building, ship repair and oyster fishing (oyster sail-boats are still to be seen working the River Fal). But the museum is bringing new life and a buzz to the town.

The entrance is through Events Square, surrounded by shops and dining places, and the focal point for open-air entertainment, particularly during the town’s Oyster Festival (October).

Inside, 11 galleries include several housing historic small vessels from the national collection. They range from a 70ft. rowing boat used by Eton schoolboys in the late 1800s, through Olympic medal-winning boats, canoes, yachts, power-boats and working craft to the ketch used by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to make the first solo, non-stop global circumnavigation. You can compare Queen Elizabeth II’s little yacht Bluebottle to the latest state-of-the-art, carbon-fibre racing dinghy.

Find out more about Cornwall’s nautical traditions in various exhibits. How seven generations of the same family made a living from the sea; and how the 40 mail ships of Falmouth Packet Service made the town a world communication hub, from 1688 until the electric telegraph took over.
Visitors will descend to the Tidal Gallery where windows thicker than a man’s fist, and five metres high, look directly out under the waters of Falmouth Harbour. See fish and other marine creatures – sometimes even cormorants diving for their dinner – it’s like an aquarium in reverse! Then it’s time to climb the museum’s 30-metre tall tower for an aerial view of the harbour. A top-floor café offers refreshment while you admire the view.

No visit to Cornwall should exclude the artists’ town of St. Ives, its Tate Gallery sitting right on the beach; Newquay, a young surfers’ paradise with a nightlife to match; or the Eden Project near St. Austell, which opened in 2001. While not at all maritime, this science-fiction-like attraction, its spherical hot-houses or ‘biomes’ containing waterfalls, bamboo houses and tropical flora from distant parts of the world – all in a former quarry -- is breathtaking.

Something with a definite maritime flavour is the region’s food. It is now as easy to find freshly-caught sea bass or native oysters as fish-and-chips. Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow is one of the best of its kind.
Cornish theatre has a maritime feel, too: the open-air Minack Theatre at Porthcurno sits on a cliff-top, with the restless Atlantic as a backdrop.

As for places to stay, these range from friendly farmhouses and family-run bed and breakfasts to luxurious hotels. In summer it pays to book ahead: this region is traditionally the favourite with the British themselves.