Back in my NCT classes when I was pregnant with Anna, the teacher led a relaxation exercise, and asked us to envision our ‘happy place’. I didn’t have to think for a moment. My happy place is Penberth Cove, on the Penwith Peninsula, right down in the far, far west of Cornwall. Without consciously knowing I was doing it, I had already been employing this meditative technique for years. At the dentist having a filling, or struggling to get to sleep because I had a big day at work the next day, I would take myself to Penberth. I would imagine as much detail as I could; the saline tang of the air, the salt spray in my face, the swoosh swoosh (or crash crash, depending on weather) of the waves coming in, the bright yellow gorse, turquoise sea contrasting with uncompromising grey granite cliffs, and (in my dreams at least) azure sky. It still is my happy place, and now all the happier for being able to add the image of a toddler Anna exploring it into my mental picture.
I went to this part of Cornwall for the first time when I was nineteen. My boyfriend (now husband) had been going with his family to the same cottage every year since he was five, so it was incredibly generous of my parents-in-law to include his girlfriend of six months in this special family tradition. To say nothing of brave to commit themselves to a week in a tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere with a girl they barely knew. Probably fairly brave of me to accept the invitation too, given the infamous challenges of the in-law relationship, but I was so dizzily and madly in love that I would probably have taken a holiday in a war zone or a tent in the middle of the desert if my beloved had thought it was a good idea.
Miraculously it all worked out. My parents-in-law’s generosity extended to making me feel incredibly welcome and included, and I still have so many happy memories of that trip. Long, wet, windy walks along the cliff tops, and then back home to light the fire and sit chatting, reading or watching TV. Oh, and drinking gin and tonic. My tastes in alcohol weren’t particularly sophisticated in those days. My drink of choice in the pub with friends had been a steamboat – Southern Comfort, lime and lemonade. It’s main advantage is that it packs quite a punch without actually tasting of alcohol. But my mother-in-law’s G&Ts are good enough to convert a teetotaller. I dread to think what the ratios are – suffice it to say that the first time I ordered a G&T in a pub (a double) I nearly returned it because I thought they must have forgotten the gin!
It was the first of many Cornish holidays with my in-laws. One year we were up to our eyes in college work and couldn’t manage a whole week, so we took the train down to Penzance, spent the night in the cottage, went for a walk and the obligatory pasty the next day before getting the sleeper train back to Paddington. We were away from Oxford for considerably less than 48 hours, yet had travelled half a world away. Sadly my father-in-law died a few years ago. One of the reasons Cornwall is such a happy place for me now is that it is somewhere I have such happy memories of him.
Penberth was also the first place we took Anna on holiday, when she was just three months old. The next year she had recently started walking, and I have some lovely memories (and photos) of her finding her feet in the verdant garden and on the coastal path.
We haven’t been very lucky with the weather in Cornwall the last few years we’ve been but, although it is particularly beautiful and enjoyable in the sunshine, I genuinely love it in all weathers. Wind and rain has a particular violent freedom in Cornwall which sends me straight to a Daphne du Maurier novel. And at any time of year the food is heavenly – Cornish pasties, fresh crab, clotted cream – some of my favourite things ever. Although I love it so much, I can’t possibly spend more than a week a year there or I will end up too fat to fit on the train down.
The train down is another total joy. On a couple of occasions my MIL has taken Anna down on an early train, and husband has done a day in work and then met me at Paddington to take the 18.00 to Penzance. When that happens we make a real occasion of it. A glass of champagne at Searcy’s in Paddington station, and then the full three-course silver service dinner in the proper old-fashioned restaurant car. Watching the sun set over the Dawlish coast from a luxurious feeling train carriage whilst eating a delicious meal has got to be a lifetime highlight.
I might only get to Cornwall once a year or so, but the memories it has provided and the knowledge that it is there in my mind’s eye whenever I need it make me happy all year round.