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Why it's time to skip Padstow and head to Penzance

Travelling
Long read

While Padstow and Falmouth attract the hoards, Penzance is the UK's first plastic free town and it's commitment should appeal to conscious travellers this summer.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 26 June 2019

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It’s a windy weekend in April. As I queue up for a warming cuppa in my Keepcup at XX on Long Rock beach, the wind cracks a Surfers Against Sewage sign like a gunshot and windcheater wrapped people make their way back and forward across the sand, picking up a tiny percentage of the 5,000 bits of plastic found for every mile around the Brtiish coastline. 

With typically British persistence one bearded gentleman tries to cook hotdogs on a barbeque despite the gusts and grey skies.

Last July Penzance in Cornwall became the first Plastic Free Community in the UK, as designated by Surfers Against Sewage, one of the charities leading the fight against plastic pollution.

Plastic Free Penzance beach

St Michael's Mount is the ancient island monastery off Penzance

Kicked off by Rachel Yates, who was sick of picking up waves of plastic washed by the Atlantic like the people taking part in the Big Beach Spring Clean, a Plastic Free Penzance campaign went onto be supported by the town council, businesses and schools and dozens of businesses who have all pledged to remove plastic from their supply chains.

She’s not alone in wanting to rid her local community from plastic. There are now 543 Plastic Free Communities across the UK. But what does that really mean? 

I went down to Penzance to find out how tourists and locals can work together to help support the initiative. The town is set to be a must-visit as Penzance’s stunning Art Deco, Jubilee l reopens in July, the first to be heated by geothermal energy.

What is a plastic free community?

Surfers Against Sewage have started to designate towns and communities around the UK as plastic free. There’s a clear road map for the steps communities have to take, from working with local councils and getting them on the journey to plastic free to getting support from businesses, schools, community groups and individuals. 

(Click here to find out about their new Plastic Free Awards).

Surfers Against Sewage beach clean in Penzance

Look out for the Plastic Free community stickers for business that don't use single use plastic

But what does it mean in reality?

In Penzance, amongst the restaurants, cafes, hotels and vineyards I visited there was almost a 100% visible commitment to not using single use plastic. 

This is often a lot harder than most people realise, as it’s not just about the plastic you can see as a consumer but behind the scenes, think about the plastic that deliveries arrive in and that products need to be packed in. But businesses here are working hard to find new ways round the plastic packaging issue.

Speed however is of the essence. Our plastic soup seas aren’t improving and microplastics are now found in almost every square metre of land, sea and everything in between. 

Many of us acknowledge that without change, we’ll be drowning in microplastics and there will be more bits of plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.

For such a coastal town like Penzance, supporting and respecting the marine environment is all important, not just for tourists who flock down to Cornwall for endless skies and the medieval charms of St Michael’s Mount, but also for the recovering fishing industry that’s down here at Newlyn, fuelling a rise in award-winning local restaurants.

Plastic Free Penzance is a plastic free community

Watch out for these plastic free community stickers to find businesses who have got rid of single use plastic

Fishy business

While Padstow or Falmouth might be where most non Cornish holiday makers head for, Penzance is slowly building up its own reputation for all the right fishy reasons. 

My first stop after a long journey down? Frasers Fish n’ Chips.

This cheery fish n chip restaurant on the harbour won an award for Sustainable Seafood at the Fish n' Chip shop Awards this year, and boy is it fresh. 

The hake I was served had been delivered to the shop only three hours before, a few hours before that it was still swimming off the Cornish coast. I have to say it was the best bit of battered fish I’ve ever had, and I grew up on the coast.

Frasers also don’t just cater for tourists, there’s real love for the people who eat here every week and wash their fish supper down with a few Friday night gins or local Cornish beers. As I demolished my flaky hake, there was a family group celebrating a birthday, an elderly couple out for a Friday treat and plenty of friendly welcomes for the stream of people queueing for their award winning classics, with no styrofoam, ketchup packets or plastic straws in sight.

But it’s not just Frasers flying the fish flag in Penzance. 

The Shore is serious about serving the best fish dishes in Cornwall - and when I rocked up on Sunday night, Cornish chef Nathan Outlaw was at the next table, tucking into the set menu. 

Each evening, chef Bruce Rennie, creates and dishes up a fish only, set menu based on whatever comes off the boats two miles down the road at Newlyn that morning, mixed with seasonal, locally grown veg. 

While the set menu is wafted under my nose at the start of the seven course tasting menu, most dishes are a delight to guess the ingredients, with the mackerel sashimi with a wasabi sorbet and a monkfish vindaloo with pickled onions the stand outs, once a year, kind of dish that has me licking the plate clean and begging for bread.

Two miles might seem like nothing for a fish delivery but at Tolcarne Inn at Newlyn harbour, hake, cod, john dory, scallops and mackerel are landed just metres away, the other side of the sea wall. 

Newlyn is like rolling back the decades, it’s a working harbour town, while the Tolcarne Inn is a proper smuggler style, historic proper pub. Order up a steaming bowl of mussels, don't skip the fresh sourdough and settle in for the afternoon.

plastic free penzance 5
“Last July Penzance in Cornwall became the first Plastic Free Community in the UK”

Beach life

With all that plastic free eating, I wanted to explore the environment Penzance is so keen on protecting. 

Long Rock beach stretches away from Penzance town centre round into next door Marazion with postcard pretty sand. Ancient monastery St Michael’s Mount perches tantalisingly close off shore. It’s accessible across ancient flagstones once a day as the tide retreats. 

Rockpools created amongst these ancient stones were a source of shrieking on the Sunday morning I made my way across, as kids discovered the thriving marine life hiding under the rocks. Crabs, limpets and anemones are only a few of the sea creatures that suffer from microplastic pollution so seeing kids’ learning about their habitats was a cheering site under the stormy skies.

Opposite the medieval causeway sits The Goldophin Arms, where if it’s not sunny weather, it’s the best place to beat a retreat too. After an afternoon sat in a sea level bay window watching the tide change and seabirds soar, I toasted the sunset with a couple of cocktails on deck before tucking into plump, juicy scallops. Who needs Netflix or rolling news, when you've got such a beautiful, every changing view.

Head to the hills

But it’s not the 13 beaches and the only harbour promenade in Cornwall that brings people to Penzance. 

There’s plenty to do here should the weather not play ball. Up behind Marazion beach I found, Tremenheere Sculpture Garden, which showcases just how verdant and green Cornwall can be.

The large scale site on the side of the hill, is said to have once been the vineyard for the monks on St Michael’s Mount. The Tremenheere family owned it for 600 years, establishing the now ancient forests and terraced planting. The micro-climate here means that ferns and palm trees flourish as well as streams, ponds and landscaped flower beds. In amongst the gorgeous greenery you’ll find works from over 20 artists that encourage contemplation and reflection.

It’s a stunning balance of nurture and nature, and although the site isn’t huge, it’s worth a slow meandering afternoon investigating nooks and crannies and listening to the birds. I found it a great counterpoint to the vast openness of the local beaches. 

New for this year are sculptures from Richard Woods (don’t miss his bright yellow Holiday Home that debuted in Regent’s Park, London last year), plus two from local sculptor and potter Tom Leaper.

Vegan wines in Cornwall from Polgoon

Family business Polgoon produce vegan wines, cider and soft drinks

Cornish wine

Ancient monks weren’t the only ones interested in Cornwall’s southern slopes for growing grapes. 

The Coulson family who own award-winning, low-impact and nearly plastic free vineyard, Polgoon, have resurrected wine making in Penzance, despite starting the operation knowing little to nothing about making wine.

And it is a real family affair at Polgoon. Mum, gran and various children run and supply the shop with homemade tasty treats from honey collected on site, to granola made in the kitchen. Vineyard tours are given by a daughter, while the cafe is staffed by another.

It’s a testament to sustainable farming and perseverance that has brought this small operation several awards for its British sparkling fizz and vegan white wines. As well as wine, Polgoon also makes cider and fruit juices, using every bit of its land wisely. A 90 minute tour of the slopes, and production processes ends with a delicious tasting of its five main wines and fizz, which coincides with the sun coming out for the first and only time in days. 

Polgoon was one of the first businesses to sign up to become a Plastic Free Champion in Penzance and proudly talk about the difficulties of moving away from plastic carriers and packaging. But as a family who literally live off the land under their feet they’re more than happy to swap products and educate customers to ensure a more sustainable future. 

There are now dozens of businesses signed up to Penzance’s Plastic Free charter (see here for a full list of Plastic Free Penzance), all of whom are happy to talk to people who pop in to find out what they’re doing to change our reliance on single use plastic. 

When the link between the environment’s health and your own income is so obvious and direct, it’s no wonder that people in Penzance want to make moves to reduce their plastic consumption. 

Relying on the sea, one way or another means stopping the single use. Now all it needs is for the thousands of tourists visiting this summer to do the same. 

Where to stay in Penzance

Here’s where I stayed:

The Goldolphin Arms in Marazion has the best view over St Michael’s Mount and is a large scale, family friendly casual hotel and restaurant. If you’re looking to explore this quieter, pretty village it’s the best place to make a base, plus you have Penzance’s biggest beach on your doorstep. 

Chapel House Penzance

Book in for the views, stay for the breakfast at Chapel House

Chapel House in Penzance is an award winning B&B that has two new separate two level suites overlooking Penzance harbour. Break out the binoculars and watch the birds circle the fishing boats and whatever you do, don’t miss the communal breakfast in the main house. And leave enough time to linger. Weekend papers, proper coffee, incredible fry ups and pastries...the best breakfast I’ve had in ages.

Artist Residence, Penzance is just over the road from Chapel House is one of the boutique chain of artistic hotels, Artist Residence. My room was a lesson in modern seaside chic, complete with sliding barn door to the bathroom and no single use plastic in site. Penzance is a bit shy on the old cocktail bar side, so slip into the hotel’s comfy living room style bar, The Cornish Barn, and hit up the impressive cocktail list. It’s not cheap, but it is fun.

This trip was arranged in conjunction with the Penzance Business Improvement District.

Want to travel plastic free this summer?

How to stop using single use plastic on your travels

10 ways to go plastic free at festivals this summer


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