As I rushed for the camera, Mary, the American friend with whom we were sharing the week's holiday rental, announced: 'His name's Henry. He has a wife out there, too. Some people feed him, but it says here that you shouldn't'
She was reading from the log left by previous visitors. It was our first holiday in a Landmark Trust property, but it quickly became apparent that the log - a substantial and handsomely bound volume - was an essential part of the experience. Some entries went on for page after page. Apart from forceful contributions to the do-we / don't-we feed Henry debate, there were tips on pubs, restaurants, cream teas, parking and walks, spiced with comments, often scathing, on other people's recommendations: 'I pity someone who thinks Hayle has the best beach round here . . .'
There were hints on the knack of operating some of the domestic gadgets that had grown quirky with multiple use, and a couple of complaints about the noise made by drunken local youths on Saturday nights. The Egyptian House, a spirited romantic confection of the early 19th century, is in the centre of Penzance.
Landmarkers, as they call themselves, are a group of enthusiasts as clearly defined as, say, ramblers or train-spotters. 'This is our 17th Landmark Trust holiday,' one entry began dauntingly, comparing the property with others. That is where the ill-shaped armchairs came in, for it seems the Trust is famous for them. 'Where do they get them?' one log-writer wondered. 'Do they have them made specially?'
Probably not, but the bossy list of dos and don'ts (mainly don'ts) sent to us in advance suggests they are not acquired casually: 'Much thought goes into the purchase and positioning of furniture and we do mind very much when it is moved.' They mind very much about a number of things, most of all the thought that we might cram the flat with unauthorised guests. 'The number of people sleeping in the property and its grounds must NEVER exceed the number shown as the maximum in the price list. We mind VERY much about this.' (Their capitals.) They provide two extra place settings, indicating the number we can invite to dinner without their minding, at least not very much.
Going on a Landmark Trust holiday is one of those things we have always said we must do, but never really thought we would get around to. Its catalogue is a tempting read, offering strange-shaped apartments in medieval manor houses or outlandish Gothic follies in the middle of fields, a distance from any proper road. When Mary said she was coming over, we saw our chance. We chose the Egyptian House because none of us had been to Cornwall and the flats are of modest size and price.
After making the acquaintance of Henry, we explored the place. Everything was clean and in working order and it was well heated - important in Cornwall in late spring. We were especially delighted with the small library of books of local interest, as well as maps and pamphlets about tourist attractions. It gave us something nice to write in the log.
We had a broad idea of what we wanted to see - local gardens, the new Tate Gallery at St Ives, the Iron Age settlement at Chysauster, St Michael's Mount - but we did take some of the advice generously offered by earlier tenants. The clifftop walks were as magnificent as our predecessors claimed, and most of their favourite pubs came up to scratch.
One recommendation, though, showed how dangerous it is to assume that everyone's tastes are the same. Geevor, one of many disused tin mines around St Just, was recently opened to visitors and won a rave review in the log. We read of the moving exposition by the guide, a former miner, who had made the process come alive as he talked the Landmarkers through their two-hour tour. Two hours seemed a lot, but we could scarcely ignore such enthusiasm and decided to give it a try.
The mine closed down only four years ago and nothing has been done to prettify it in the meantime, save the erection of a large sign announcing that it has received a European Community grant. We were the only visitors. Our guide was not an ex-miner but a woman who had acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of the business, along with a passionate commitment to it and a deep sorrow that the mine had closed - despite the dreadful working conditions she described to us.
Yet her keenness could not prevent the tour becoming a strain. There was no visit underground, although that may come as a result of the Euro-cash. She led us through large halls containing disused machinery - or in some cases no machinery at all, because it had been sold for scrap - and explained in formidable detail how tin ore was extracted from the earth and prepared for smelting. Thankfully, the tour did not last two hours, although there were times when it seemed to.
As we neared the end of the week, we spent a lot of time deciding what to write in the log. The Geevor experience made us wary of recommendations and we kept our entry short. We gave the Tate a favourable mention and recommended eating at the Abbey Hotel - one of those super-exclusive places where you have to ring the bell to get in and are first ushered to the cosy library for sherry in front of a blazing fire. We thought it kinder not to mention Geevor but felt we had to warn future visitors against one restaurant, where we had misguidedly eaten because we liked the look of the menu. Even taking into account that it was early in the season, it was unforgivably sloppy and disorganised. And we recorded that we had cold-heartedly left Henry unfed.
The catch is that now, of course, we want to go back. Not just because we liked Cornwall, but because we want to find out whether anyone has taken up our suggestions, and in particular whether we are being pilloried for our execrable taste.
The Landmark Trust is based at Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3SW. For a brochure telephone 0628 825925.
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