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A Visit to St. Ives

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Seven wives with seven sacks
Seven sacks with seven cats
Seven cats with seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St Ives?

English schools run to a very civilized calendar. The school year starts in September, takes a four-week Christmas recess, continues until April, when there is another four-week Easter recess, and finally winds up at the end of July. There are also a number of extra bank holidays throughout the year. (I never did understand why they were called bank holidays, since everybody seemed to get them off, but I didn’t complain either.)

One Easter recess shortly after we arrived in England, we all set out for St. Ives by car. At that time we – or perhaps I should say Robert, since it was definitely his car – had a black Jaguar MK VII saloon with leather seats. In these days, when leather seats are a suburban comonplace, that may not seem like much, but in 1950’s London that was not only a fancy car but rather an advanced car as well. (A less advanced car would have been a Rover or a Woolsey.)

Travelling in England, particularly with Robert driving, was an adventure. There were no motorways. The highways were either two-lane or three-lane. On the two-lane roads you could spend hours behind a slow-moving lorry; on the three-lane roads you got to play chicken with the car coming the other way, who was trying to pass his lorry. On the whole I think the two-lane were better. Invariably, Robert would drive, Possum would sit in the front right seat and Jeff, Mark, and I would fight over who had to sit in the middle in back. There was additional impediment that the street signs had been taken down during the War and not all of them had yet been replaced. (Personally I also suspect that some were misdirected to fool the Jerrys and that the locals decided that they rather liked them that way.)

Then there was the matter of food. As the day wore on you would become hungrier and hungrier, but nobody would like to suggest stopping because we all knew how dreadful the food would be. Finaly we would reach the point of desperation where we would stop at a restaurant in some country market town. We would be ushered upstairs to the dining room, which would have tables with stiff white tableclothes and heavy cutlery of dubious cleanliness – it seems improbable but I don’t believe that there were generally any napkins; the story was that they had been cut out as a War economy measure. The food would generally consist of tough, stringy roast beef, overcooked roast potatoes that you could have used as balast in a ship and brocolli that no amount of boiling could make palatable. (I suppose, in retrospect, that if we’d stopped sooner, the food might not have been so dreadfullly overcooked.)

But don’t let me give you the impression that we didn’t enjoy these trips. Quite the contrary. these were great adventures. We embarked on them with eager anticipation of the sights to be seen and the cameraderie of the trip. Possum and Robert would discuss the things we had seen and were about to see. These discussions were generally mysterious, if interesting, to those of us in the back seat, since we didn’t have the background knowledge to really understand them. But they always left us with the feeling that great things were coming. This trip was the first time that I heard the rhyme about the travellers to St. Ives. It too was rather mysterious to me then and the answer is still a bit of a mystery. According to Wikipedia, the answer is probably zero, but might be one, or possibly a much larger number. Personally I always imagined the travel to be taking place in a railway carriage, so all of the travellers would, of necessity, be going in the same direction. So it never occured to me that the kits, kats, sacks and wives might not all be going to St. Ives.

On this particular occasion, it was a very long grueling trip to Cornwall. I believe it took close to 10 hours for a trip of less than 300 miles. (Yahoo Maps tells me that it’s 285 miles from Edwardes Square to St. Ives and should take a little over 5 hours.) When we finally arrived, we found that we were to stay in a very nice hotel up over the beach just outside the town of St. Ives. The railway station was directly across the street from the hotel. But don’t picture a grand victorian station. This was a single line railway with just one tiny, Edwardian-era engine that pulled a single car back and forth across the Cornish peninsula to Penzance. Since this was in my trainspotting days, I loved it.

Early April in Cornwall is still out of season and fairly chilly, so we had the beach to ourselves. This particlular beach had a storm drain – at least I hope it was a storm drain, it did sometimes smell a little funny – that let out onto the beach and provided a constant stream of water for us to attempt to dam. In my memory we spent the entire four days on the beach trying one stratagem after another to staunch the flow of water. Naturally we always failed, but we didn’t mind.

I have a vague memory that we were supposed to like St. Ives for other reasons, art perhaps? But really, it was only the railway and the stream that counted. I don’t believe that I have ever been back to St. Ives, and yet, it holds a fond place in my memories. I would certainly return, if only it could still be 1958 and a simple village with an artists’ colony and not a tourist magnet overrun by cars and people.

3 Responses to “A Visit to St. Ives”

  1. Mark says:

    I don’t remember the restaurant, but I do remember I had a tin of cookies with frosting in the middle, and eating the whole tin in one go.

    That was the year of the Olympics, so I suspect our first trip to Cornwall was 1956. I was inspired to enter the ping pong tournament at the hotel and did jolly well (for a 5-year old).

    I also remember meeting a rhododendron for the first time on the path down to the beach from the hotel. We have been friends ever since, though none since have seemed quite so big.

    It is distinctly odd; I believe I remember plants more clearly than I remember people. How can that be genetic?

  2. Bill says:

    I should think that remembering plants could certainly be genetic. If you are going to live by gathering plants it would pay to know which plants are which. If I remember right, there’s a fellow who gives tours of Central Park in NYC pointing out the edible plants. (I admit that that particular mode of survival is probably too recent to have a genetic component.)

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