The first time I visited Penzance was 33 years ago. In the five years I spent there, I have hazy memories of hanging out at a record shop on Bread Street, paddling in Jubilee Pool, the Victorian lido, and riding Poppet, my pink and white bike up and down the promenade. Fast forward to spring 2016, Rockin’ Rhythm & Jazz, my dad’s old record shop, is no longer there, and Jubilee Pool is temporarily closed, reopening in the summer, after repairs to the structure, caused by the 2014 storm, are complete. But, the prom and Penzance, itself – bar a little polish here and there – are exactly as it’s they’ve always been.
Full disclaimer, I was born here. I’ve popped back now and again over the years, but rose-tinted, Cornish spectacles aside, Penzance and its immediate neighbours, are in my opinion, the very best Cornwall has to offer. Something its twin towns, Nevada City, California; Concarneau, France; Bendigo, Australia, and Cuxhavan, Germany, surely agree. This ancient market town offers B&Bs I could happily live in forever, a unique microclimate and strong network of farmers and fisherman, all contributing to an abundance of prime food and drink, and some excellent places to consume them at; independent shops to peruse, and a wealth of picturesque beaches, gardens and villages to explore nearby.
It’s a long drive from London, made longer by the seemingly never-ending route through Bodmin Moor, but one that treats you at the end with dashing views of St Michael’s Mount, an expanse of sea, and, if you head down in the spring, fields of golden daffodils.
Being low season, the town had pretty much closed up for the day by the time we arrived, which suited us just fine. Checking into Venton Vean, a B&B directly opposite Penlee Park and a five minute walk from the town centre and sea, was more what we were after. Like stepping inside a Farrow & Ball brochure; immaculately decorated with a collection of covetable furniture and art dotted around, this Victorian townhouse is the baby of Philippa and David, who left behind the London 9 to 5, to do what could only be summed up as living the dream.
All five bedrooms are bright and fresh, filled with books you want to settle down and read, and sweet touches such as handmade bath salts, Pure Nuff Stuff toiletries, and little bunches of fresh flowers. Beds are that perfect level of soft, with goose feather duvets and pillows to make getting out of bed that little bit harder, even if you have been awake since the dawn chorus (N.B. if the sound of seagulls isn’t music to your ears, bring some plugs).
Aside from creating a beautiful boutique stay, they’ve mastered the art of the breakfast, with the best choice I’ve seen in a B&B, sourcing the meats, fish, eggs, bread and even the freshly ground coffee from local producers. The cooked to order menu includes the obligatory full English, as well other interesting choices such as Mexican, Spanish, pancakes with all manner of toppings, including homemade salt caramel, bananas and hazelnut, and lighter options such as avocado and toasted almonds on sourdough toast.
Served in a light-filled dining room overlooking the blossoming front garden, with a selection of David’s homemade jams, in flavours such as strawberry, lime and black pepper, to tempt you with more toast, it’s an excellent start to a day of exploring. We left armed with the tide times from Philippa, for our visit to St Michael’s Mount, and the pipe dream that one day, we’ll also move down to Penzance and run a B&B…
After a morning in Marazion, a walk along the causeway to St Michael’s Mount and couple of hours exploring the woodland paths, babbling brooks and art installations at Tremenhere Sculpture Gardens (somewhere I highly recommend), it was time to check in to our next abode, Chapel House. On a street lined with Georgian properties, antiques shops and art galleries, Chapel House is the piece de resistance.
This imposing 18th century property opened as a hotel in 2015 following an extensive, yet sympathetic, two-year renovation, saving the former Arts Club from its dilapidated state. Beautiful period features such as grand fireplaces, wooden floors, high ceilings and cornicing, mingle with antiques and curios, and pieces of interest, both from owner Susan Stuart’s private art collection and those lent through a partnership with the Newlyn Art Gallery; providing a regularly changing selection of pottery and paintings to peruse or purchase. There are six double bedrooms, each one bright, spacious and finished to impeccable standard, with views to the sea.
We stayed at the top of the house in Bedroom Four, on a hand-made oak bed under the exposed rafters; a lovely room with a deep bath where I enjoyed no less than three leisurely soaks, while looking down at the comings and goings of Penzance harbour. Bedroom Two is perhaps my favourite of all, the one I would choose should Sue allow me to move in, for its combination of in-room bath and log burner, made for cosy winter stays.
You’re free to lounge in the reception areas, and roam as you please, even into the other bedrooms for a little nosey, if they’re unoccupied. In fact, were it not for exceptional linen, regularly made-beds, and daily replenished amenities (such as cake, ground coffee, loose tea, fresh milk and water), you could easily forget you were in a hotel. Head down to the basement kitchen/dining room and you’ll likely find Sue whipping up the nightly complimentary aperitifs, or cooking up a feast for breakfast, brunch and dinner (see the website for select days and times).
Sue has an air about her that makes you want to pull up one of the high stools and talk over your troubles, while working through the glass of Prosecco and bowl of Cornish chorizo she’s just placed before you. She also happens to be an excellent cook – nothing too fussy, just good honest, delicious food, with seasonal ingredients sourced locally, such as scallops with cauliflower and cumin puree; lemon sole with roe, spring greens and roasted root vegetables, and saffron bread and butter pudding with clotted cream, available with a super selection of Cornish wines.
Breakfast at Chapel House is equally good, with freshly made smoothies, granola, yoghurts and fruit salad, accompanied by something warm: from the full works to interesting daily specials such as the fried cod roe, poached egg and bacon we ordered out of curiosity on our last morning. The only thing preventing you from accepting another pot of tea and working slowly through the newspapers is the sun flooding through the sash windows, beckoning you outside to make the most of the day. A bookcase stacked with ordinance survey maps provides inspiration, and ensures you don’t get lost on the winding country lanes, when Sat Nav and mobile phone reception inevitably let you down. It was our saviour on a trip to the ancient Men-an-Tol, a nearby stone monument thought to hark from the Bronze Age, when said GPS methods failed. Two nights here and it becomes genuinely sad to leave, with views you could never tire of, and a comfort that switches you immediately to holiday mode.
In other Penzance matters, the restaurants here are the sort you want to revisit and recommend to friends. The Shore Restaurant, on Alverton Street, is one such place, and the book-ahead option, due to its limited seating. The menu is tweaked daily, with four or five choices for each course, depending on the fresh produce available, either via local producers, farmers; what the fishermen have landed that day in Newlyn, or what owner and head chef Bruce Rennie has growing in his garden.
What this passionate Scot achieves with little help, other than an excellent young waiter, is incredible. The sourdough bread and delicious, ever-so-slightly crunchy, salty butter are both made by Rennie. All the prep, cooking, plating and even washing up, is done by him, and yet, the whole experience was faultless. Every single dish we ordered was a delight; or, as Adam described his main course of gurnard, with warming ptitim, roasted carrot, mint and pops of sweet pomegranate, ‘the kind that makes you smile’. The soft, rolled thornback ray, with nutty, citrus puree and crunchy Jerusalem artichoke, was an absolute dream to eat; so good, I was reluctant to wash it away with the wine.
That was preceded by Adam’s brill served as carpacchio with ginger, spring onions, garlic and wasabi, and my beautiful plate of warm red mullet with salty tapenade with cool crunchy leek. The promise of peanut and dark chocolate gave me no choice other than to order the Valrhona Dulcey chocolate cremeaux for dessert, while Adam went for the rhubarb and vanilla cheesecake. After finding out that Rennie also makes the petit fours from scratch, we found room for them too, with a little espresso to power us through the five minute walk back to our B&B.
The menu contains the disclaimer that: ‘all dishes are freshly prepared and cooked to order so availability may be limited’. This is due to Rennie’s ethos of selecting the best in-season, ethically-sourced ingredients, in just the right amounts to feed those booked in to eat that day. It makes it difficult to cater for walk-ins, but does limit the amount of waste, which is something more restaurants should champion. I worry Rennie might run himself into the ground, and pray he at least gets in a little more help in the kitchen, but more than ever I wish him success. Rather selfishly, the main reason I want all this is so I can come back for more.
Following the theme of good food, but with a place oozing with a buzz of happy locals, who all seemed to be celebrating either an anniversary or birthday the eve we visit, is The Bakehouse. This is the place to get some hearty steak or seafood, held together by a small group of cheerful locals, who somehow manage to also hold down ‘day jobs’ as teachers and the like. In this small two-storey space, dotted with regularly changing exhibitions from local artists, down a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it alleyway off Chapel Street, is where we shared a tender, nicely charred, beef Chateaubriand 20oz, with a rosemary and garlic rub, dauphinous potatoes and steamed greens. The sort of meal that leaves you pot-bellied, but content; smiling like the little piglet that you are, for even thinking to follow it with pudding. Which, of course, we did.
We got our pasty fix with lunch at the Cornish Hen, a sweet deli at the top of Market Jew Street, with window seats offering some prime people watching. A perfect spot for a homemade light bite (they also do a mean homity pie), pot of tea, or to pick up some Cornish foodie souvenirs, from the chorizo we sampled at Chapel House, to preserves, oils, teas, chocolate and Camel Valley sparkling wine.
And when you’re not eating or drinking your way through Cornwall’s excellent fare, there’s plenty to see and do in and around Penzance. For antiques, second hand books, mid-century furniture shops and art galleries, head to Chapel Street, stopping part way for half a local ale at the 11th century Turks Head, Penzance’s oldest pub.
Every Friday between 9am-2pm, St John’s Hall plays host to a small farmers’ market, where you can pick up anything from Cornish heather to artisan goat cheese. Causewayhead is home to more antiques and curios shops, independent grocery stores and knick-knack boutiques; and at the bottom, as you turn into Bread Street, there’s The Tube Coffee Van, serving a mean macchiato from a vintage Citroen HY.
If you have a car, then a host of breath-taking beaches and coves, fishing villages such as Mousehole and Lamorna; the Minack Theatre and Lands End, are all within short drive, through country lanes, offering panoramic views of the sea, lined with lush hedgerows and dry stone walls, past pretty granite cottages, and the distinctive remains of the old tin mines. In Penzance, you can eat and sleep like a king, and spend your days in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. In fact, if I wasn’t so proud of my old hometown, and keen for it to thrive, I’d be tempted to keep it to myself…