This was actually the remaining part of a longer holiday, but I'd had to cut it back to allow myself a chance to get well after my horrible cold and the food poisoning. I set off on Monday 16 March, but had barely felt all right on the Friday before, and genuinely needed as much as two easy, undemanding days to load up the caravan, and attend to other last-minute preparations. I felt weak and very lacking in energy.
But I was determined to go: a change of scene, a different air to breathe, and all the stimulations of a holiday area I loved would, I knew, make a new woman of me. And I was right. The journey down to North Devon was energising in itself. By Tuesday 17 March, the first full day, I felt fit for bigger efforts than I'd been capable of for three weeks past.
And, would you credit it, the sun shone brightly and warmly on that Tuesday. I knew it would not do so again on my holiday. So this was the day for a really long, ambitious trip. I decided on Padstow, on the north coast of Cornwall, an hour an a half's fast drive away. That would of course mean two long drives in two days, when I was supposed to be very much convalescent! But it was too nice a day to waste.
So, after a whizz down the A39 in Fiona, I was parked a bit after midday in the upper car park at Padstow, the one that overlooks the town. Here I am, just after arrival, looking very pleased with myself (well, it had been a very satisfying drive), wearing a newish jacket and top that hadn't been out much so far:
I wasn't the only person parked there by any means - but that will be enlarged upon in a post to come. The parking fee - for 24 hours! - was only £1:
Well, having had a chat with a security person (all of that will be explained in the fullness of time) I made my way down into town. I hadn't been there since 2010, even though I'd visited the general vicinity - nearby bays - in 2012. It shouted 'come and enjoy me' as I paused to contemplate it over its rooftops:
I first visited Padstow with Mum and Dad in 1965, so I've seen it develop over a span of fifty years. It has not very much changed in that long period. The station has closed; so has the old Home & Colonial Stores and the bookshop on the quay; the gasometer has gone, and flats are built there now; the harbour doesn't dry at low tide - the water is held in so that boats stay prettily afloat; plenty of houses have been modified, or converted into smart holiday lets; posh boutiques have moved in; galleries offering expensive artworks abound; and there are more - and better - eating places, most famously those opened by Rick Stein.
Mr Stein (whose gastronomic focus is now in Australia) has been blamed for single-handedly changing the atmosphere of Padstow for the worse. This is nonsense. From the 1980s, Padstow was bound to change willy-nilly, as more and more people moved to Cornwall from metropolitan cities, expecting not only sandy beaches but the Good Life in bucketfuls. If Rick Stein had not catered for them, then somebody else would have. Speaking as an observer, I'd say that Rick Stein put Padstow on the map for the benefit of other businesses as well as his own, and has kept it there.
True, Padstow is rather less of a quaint fishing town than it used to be, perhaps not even much of a working town at all now, just a place where people live. But there are still proper fishing vessels to be seen in the harbour, not just yachts. It remains attractive, and not too touristy, and I can match up the Padstow of today pretty well with the Padstow of fifty years ago. Here are my harbour shots from two weeks back, to show how nice the place still is:
But my first objective was to treat myself to a good lunch. And although there were worthy alternatives to Rick Stein's eateries, I was intent on trying out his Café. I'd already lunched at his upmarket and decidedly posh Seafood Restaurant in 2010. Now I wanted to try the simpler (but still casually upmarket) Café, right in the heart of the town.
I neglected to take an exterior shot of it, but here's one I took back in 2010, when I thought about going in, but didn't:
It still looks the same. Inside it is L-shaped, and intimate, and you can if you really want to sit in the back patio to enjoy some open-air sunshine out of the wind:
It wasn't full when I arrived at 12.45pm, but couples, and threesomes, and a family party of grandparents, parents, and very young children (who sat opposite me, for my close study) soon came in, and within half an hour the place was very busy. As you can see, the furniture is plain, and the decor subdued, but on the walls and shelves are colourful artworks that make the Café seem like a gallery. If you like standard fish-and-chip restaurants with check tablecloths and ketchup sachets, it might all seem too neat and contrived. But if you thrive on neatness and contrivance, as I do, then you will feel right at home. Waitrose Woman especially (I can't deny my true provenance). Children are catered for, if silent and well-behaved; dogs are permitted, if trained to perfection. There is indeed a reference to Rick Stein's beloved little dog Chalky, sadly deceased a few years ago but commemorated in two intriguing drinks special to the house:
The nature of Chalky's Bark and Chalky's Bite (actually types of beer) were explained in the drinks list:
The staff (during my visit anyway) were two University Girls, well-spoken, cheerful and punctiliously polite, but with eyes lit by an unimaginable intelligence far beyond my own, and hair cut in salons far beyond my means. Not that I felt in any way out of my element. The place was pleasant and civilised, and very much my cup of tea.
So what did I order and consume? To drink, a carafe of water, and a large glass of Rick Stein's Spanish White 2013:
Then, to start, orecchiette crab with tomato, chilli and garlic. It was absolutely delicious:
For the main, it had to be fish. So I chose grilled hake with mushy peas and tartare sauce, with a bowl of thin chips on the side. Simple, honest fare that old-time Padstow quay hands and salts might have eaten for their midday luncheon - although no doubt scoffed with a pint of Doom Bar 4.3% beer in their hands, rather than my wine:
Several lunchers confined themselves to just a main, but that wasn't my personal agenda. I had barely escaped from death. I needed building up again. So a dessert was essential. I chose apple and blackberry pie with clotted cream:
Exactly what the old-time fisher-folk would have called for, after mending their nets and suspenders. Did I eat all of that cream? Is the Pope a Catholic?
I mentioned that a family sat opposite me. No pictures of them, but I will describe them. A slim, fit-looking late-twenties daughter, clearly a Capable Well-Organised And Happy Modern Mum, with a solid, imperturbable Reliable Husband Very Good With Children of thirty-odd years who had the relaxed air of a City Partner, perhaps in a merchant bank. Two children - a babe in arms, the son, very quiet when I was eating, but getting fretful as I departed, wanting his bottle. And a little daughter, very alert, very engaging, and very sophisticated (as you will hear shortly). Then Mum and Dad, the grandparents. Mum - very smartly dressed, immaculate makeup, tasteful scarf, but still eager to risk dirty dribbles from the baby, and clearly able to soothe the worries of tiny infants who need their early-afternoon comforts. I spoke with her as I went out. A really nice lady. Dad - taciturn, thoughtful, clearly long retired, but with the air of Having Been Someone In The Past.
The thing that impressed me with the little girl was this. All the adults had starters. She wanted to have one too, but didn't like what was on offer in the lunchtime menu. The waitress suggested something sweet. But no! This little girl confidently cried out that she would like a bowl of green olives. Wow. I noticed that none of the adults thought this precocious or inappropriate - her grandmother told me afterwards that she was aged only three. At a nod from Husband, a bowl of green olives was brought to the table, and she tucked in with relish. At a guess, I'd say that most little girls would have wanted a quite different kind of taste - though what do I know? This one certainly knew her own mind. And thus I pondered her home background. Presumably she had acquired her taste for green olives at the home dinner table. My goodness, I didn't even know olives existed until my late teens! That was around 1969, of course. Things were very bad in 1969. How times have changed for kids.
There was also another set of people worth watching. Two sixty-something men, very alike - so alike they must have been twin brothers - and a woman who was slightly younger. They all looked vaguely familiar - and remember that for some things I've got a very long memory. They talked about mooring charges and getting provisions, as if they had a boat in a harbour somewhere. They reminded me very much of two brothers and a wife (or girlfriend) who had been on the deck of a smartly-painted motorised sailing boat at Ilfracombe, up the coast, back in 1996. I'd watched them sail slowly out out the harbour there - here are two of my 1996 pictures:
I felt certain it was the same people. After they left, I asked the waitress whether she knew anything about them, but she had no information. But it's a small world. I bet I was right!
Finally, my bill. It came in a special 'Rick Stein Café' folder, very artistic:
I rounded it up to £38.00, to include a gratuity, and felt that for a superior three-course lunch in a Big Name restaurant, with wine, and nicely served, this was fair enough.
Would I go again? Yes: I liked the experience. In fact I preferred it to Rick Stein's big flagship Seafood Restaurant elsewhere in Padstow, the one I tried in 2010. The Seafood Restaurant is really for Special Meals and Occasions. Formal stuff. The Café is much more for casual drop-in eating - the light-bite option as it were.
It's not the only game in town, and I think I'd like to see what the other restaurants are like. All this suggests that I shall have to take the caravan all the way to Cornwall, so that I'm locally based and can spend more than just one day in Padstow. Mmmm, I could enjoy a week of comparing and contrasting!