I used to live a few hundred metres from the Indian Ocean and on a clear night I could hear the waves crashing on the rocky shore. These days I live close to the Thames in London and on a clear night I can hear the bells of Big Ben, reminding me I should be sleeping.
But more and more I find myself thinking about the sea and how much I miss it. I’ve spent a lot of time sailing and swimming and surfing and once it’s hooked you, the ocean never lets go. So I imagine floating down the twisted ribbon of the Thames, out into the English Channel and on to the horizon, a tall ship and a star to sail her by. And it’s why I loved visiting Falmouth recently because I got a taste of the sea.
Over Christmas Carmen and I went to Cornwall, an English county famed for the restless spirit of its inhabitants who are obsessed with the sea. They don’t have much choice. The open water is never too far way and the rugged coast is dotted with settlements – from tiny hamlets to big towns with bustling ports. By far my favourite place we visited was Falmouth, a port that was once the gateway to the British Empire.
I wanted to see the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth – I am a bit of a museum geek – and this one is all about my favourite things; boats. When you walk inside there are two of the boats the British sailor Ben Ainsley (Sir Charles Benedict Ainsley, CBE, to be precise) used to win gold medals in the Sydney and London Olympic games. Just behind them is an interactive display where you can steer a remote control sailing boat and learn how to use the wind (a fan) to make it go. It was very cool, although I kept crashing my boat into a small island with a lighthouse on it. I guess I’m out of practise!
In the next room is a display devoted to the men and women over the centuries who’ve risked their lives to save those in peril on the sea. If a ship foundered on the rocks off Cornwall there was often very little that could be done. But some brave souls organised the very first life boats, just dinghies really, and invented things like cork life vests and helmets fashioned from baskets to help them tackle the wind and waves.
From these humble beginnings grew the modern day search and rescue services, which now use helicopters and speed boats to patrol Britain’s coast. We went on board a Sea King helicopter just like the one Prince William co-pilots, and even saw one flying over Falmouth later that day.
The museum features a big viewing platform in the shape of a lighthouse. Some of the lighthouses on the Cornish coast were built in places so dangerous the waves used to cover the light at the top in really bad storms! One lighthouse keeper said he and his mates used to go up to the light and have a smoke while they watched the big ones brew up out of the blackness and crash into them. Another said when the waves swamped his lighthouse the water acted like a pump, sucking the air out of the building then pushing it back in as it fell away.
The sun came out in Falmouth for the first time on our visit to Cornwall so we left the museum behind and strolled through the town, admiring the beautiful harbour and imagining what it must have been like when it was full of tall ships from every point of the compass.
These days the big container ships bypass Falmouth and the great squadrons of fishing boats have all gone. Tourism is the big industry now, although a few things from the good old days survive. Cornwall is a very romantic place with a deep history that you can still touch and taste – especially if you get some fish and chips. Best in Britain, seriously.
What you need to know
Costs: An adult ticket costs £10.50 for the museum and you can expect to spend at least two hours there.
When to go: We went on a rainy day just after Christmas. It was very quiet but I expect in the summer holidays it get very busy. Luckily the skies cleared for us, because there’s a viewing platform in the lighthouse area with spectacular views over Falmouth and the harbour.
How to get there: There’s paid parking out the front and car is the best way to get there. There nearest train station is in Penryn, a neighbouring village.
The Maritime Museum was kind enough to give us free admission but as always, our views are our own.