With high-season tourists gone and the promise of an Indian summer, a weekend away beckoned. The map came out and Falmouth was decided upon. Two hours by car for us, with the added delight of a ‘foreign’ trip to Cornwall, the borderline of the River Tamar always marking a tectonic shift in culture, attitude and time/space.
There’s really only one place to stay if you visit Falmouth – the 235 year-old Greenbank Hotel situated where the River Penryn meets the Carrick Roads, estuary to the River Fal. The place has been a private dwelling, then ferryboat inn connecting with Flushing, a seagull’s swoop across the river; later a residence for the Falmouth Packet sea captains, who made fortunes, some legal, commanding nippy, full rigged, three-masters, the internet of their day, hastening mail and goods to far-flung reaches of the Empire, mail coaches linking with Plymouth, Exeter, London, Bath and Bristol.
We’d been given the ‘Lookout Suite’ reached via the meandering stairways and creaky floorboards of the oldest part of the building. A lovely modern addition to the more historic part, the suite is split level, with bespoke furniture, quirky Cole & Son maritime-themed wallpaper, Farrow & Ball paint, and Harlequin, Sanderson and Scion fabrics.
We’d arranged to eat out and battled our way against a proper Cornish force-9 hoolie to the Star and Garter, a Georgian town-house restaurant at the head of the High Street run by Becca and husband/chef Elliot. We sat overlooking the harbour, contented, cocooned in cosy candlelight eating scallops from local boat the ‘Morel Margh’, followed by monkfish, with manteca, parsley, sherry and clams. Outside, to steal Elmore James’s lyrics… ‘The sky was crying, look at the tears roll down the street’. Fab. And so to bed and the sound of halyards clinking on masts, and the wind howling at the windows.
Morning, and a chance to see what view we’d missed the night before. Pulling back the curtains in ‘The Lookout’ revealed a sunny day of limitless promise. Yachts bobbing, as yachts do; the lovely waterfront of next-door-neighbour Flushing across the way; the ferry piggy-backing a Land Rover across to big-brother Falmouth. Breakfast on the verandah and a chance to look through the telescope providentially provided. The penny dropped…Lookout, telescope. Doh! This must be why those sea captains lived here, to keep an eye out for comings and goings, rival’s vessels, the Excise men. I focussed on Flushing, pin-sharp through the powerful lens. People going about their business, walking the dog, shaking bedding through an open bedroom window. Aha. An ideal arranged signal for a Georgian sea-captain’s wife, pre-mobile phone days…‘white sheet out the window means watch out! My husband’s home!’
Falmouth has the allure of all proper working ports. The constant change of scene, the ever-present awareness of the dangers of the sea, the allure of a world beyond the horizon. It attracts artists, romancers, writers. Kenneth Grahame stayed at the Greenbank in 1907. Inspired by the village of Lerryn and the Fowey Estuary he wrote letters to his son which later formed the stories for The Wind in the Willows.
The temporal health of a town can be gauged by the number of independent booksellers. Falmouth has three, two of which are outstanding. But I was careful to time my visits. Why will become apparent later. Bookmark, in Arwenack Street, the perfect archetypical second-hand establishment owned by Tash Berks is for morning visits, perhaps pre-cocoa elevenses (I don’t drink coffee) when you are fresh and alert and open to discovery. Different floors crammed with goodies to browse away an hour or two.
Falmouth Art Gallery has browsing of a different kind, a feast for the eyes. My personal favourites – their fine collection Henry Scott Tuke paintings. The very essence of bygone Cornwall. I found myself, normally a very reluctant shopper, engaging in that ghastly phrase ‘Retail Therapy’ and pottering in and out of the many independent shops. Typical is the Little Vintage Shop on Old High Street run by Lara and Oly Merrill. He scours Europe for retro clothes. I shocked myself by buying a German workman’s jacket. So on-trend, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the likes of Ricky Wilson of The Voice and Kaiser Chiefs, trying on the self-same outfit. He lives in Stratton House a Regency five-bedder overlooking the harbour. If you fancy the rock-star lifestyle it’s yours for £1.5m. Ricky’s moving on.
Another celeb, possibly not drawn to the bookshoppy/gallery allure of Falmouth, is Eastenders hardman Phil Mitchell, a.k.a. actor Steve McFadden, who has a second home here. The draw for him is the fishing. Oh, and popping in to the Royal British Legion Club for a pint and a pie…“Oo you lookin’at ?”
By now I’m also ready for a pint, a browse, and a sit-down. Where does the browse come in, I sense you asking? As I said earlier, timing is everything…so off the No 3, Bells Court, and the magnificence that is Beerwolf Books. Is it a pub? Is it a bookshop? Yes, and yes. Originally a maritime store loft then a Working Men’s Club, half is occupied by a bar bursting with microbrewery beers, plus four cider hand pulls including the famous Grandma’s Weapons Grade Ginger Beer. The other half is books with shelves groaning with second-hand or remaindered books all in excellent condition and realistically priced. I found three beauties and armed with a pint of G’s WGGB sat down to read. But they’d have to wait as the 5.5% ABV had a profoundly negative effect on my focussing.
Back to base for a lazy soak in the cast-iron roll top bath, liberally dosed with local Living Sea Therapy calming sea-salt bath flakes, ready for cocktails in the hotel’s Water’s Edge Bar before an across-town-stroll to Rick Stein’s for dinner.
For the uninitiated, Mr Stein made his name, quite rightly, by earning a fine reputation for the original Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. That started in 1975, and, like Topsy, it grew and grew. There are ten Rick Stein’s now (I think) and Padstow is now known half-jokingly, as PadStein. All well and good. To secure a table at the original you’ll have to book around two months ahead, but no such wait at the Falmouth branch. Why? ‘Cos it’s a Fish & Chip shop (with restaurant attached). Being a cold October night we opted to sit in the warm.
The menu, as you would guess, is quite fishcentric, but surprisingly I couldn’t see any clues as to where the ingredients had come from. (Remember the name of the actual boat that landed my scallops at the Star and Garter?) Take note, Rick, if you drop by. To me there’s a world of difference between, say, those from New Zealand, Brittany, or the local Falmouth variety. No clues on the menu and the helpful staff didn’t know either. Not to be put off I ordered Moules Marinière, chips, and a carafe of Pinot Grigio Villa Fiore 2018, and jolly nice it all was.
Rick’s is right next to the National Maritime Museum, fortunately shut for the night. It would have to wait for another day. All the browsing, retail therapy, pottering and eating had me wanting my comfy bed, and dreams of Sea Captain’s mistresses. Must cast an eye through the telescope in the morning…
That’s what a weekend in Falmouth will do to you.