Richard Wilson gets to grips with a retro VW camper van as he drives the coast road from St Ives to Land's End and learns about St Ives's 1950s art heyday.
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For many, the 1950s were the golden age of British motoring.
Back then, driving was leisurely, liberating and fun.
Yes, things have changed a bit since then.
But perhaps it's still possible to recapture some of that magic.
I'm setting off on six of the best drives from the 1950s,
as recommended by the guidebooks of the era.
And I'll be driving them in some of the decade's most iconic vehicles.
Gone into reverse.
I want to find out if these routes still thrill and inspire...
This is a spectacular road.
..and how in 50 years, Britain itself has changed.
Oh, for God's sake!
They wouldn't have thought to come here without a sat nav.
I'm sure they wouldn't.
People don't value each other as much as they did then.
It was a different type of life, wasn't it?
Cornwall contains all, or almost all, the ingredients
that make for a good motoring holiday.
Fine varied scenery, an exceptionally
brilliant coast and an excellent summer climate.
Cornwall has all the climatic advantages of continental residence,
without the drawback of long and fatiguing travel,
foreign language, unusual habits and strange attendance.
I never thought I would be driving into Cornwall in a VW campervan.
I would like to say that I've got a surfboard attached to the roof,
but I haven't. I won't be doing any surfing, I'm afraid.
When the VW van first appeared in 1950,
it revolutionised leisure motoring.
it was simple, adaptable and surprisingly spacious.
With a top speed of just 56mph, this mobile 'home from home'
might not have been the fastest vehicle off the block,
but never mind, with its 11 picture windows, driving a campervan
was as much about enjoying the journey as it was the destination.
I haven't totally got control of the gears yet but, er,
we're getting there.
That was a change from fourth to third I was rather proud of.
Ah, bugger it!
So time to take my '50s design classic on a classic '50s drive.
I'm in Cornwall to explore a road described in my 1959 guidebook
as "one of the finest coast roads in Britain,"
so I've got high hopes for something pretty special.
The B3306 starts at the former fishing village of St Ives, hugs the
dramatic North Cornish coast, and will lead me ultimately to England's
most westerly point, Land's End.
The first stop on my road trip is St Ives,
and my old guidebooks are united in their praise for the place.
St Ives - a quaint and fascinating little town...
it is one of Cornwall's gems.
"All that is best in Cornwall
"seems to meet in St Ives."
Fifty years ago, St Ives was living a sort of triple life,
at once a bucket and spade resort, a traditional fishing port, and
perhaps most surprisingly given its far-flung location,
an internationally renowned centre for abstract art!
Working in studios converted from fishermen's cottages and old net
lofts were some of the world's most significant abstract artists,
Barbara Hepworth, and painter
Sir Terry Frost.
All of them inspired by
the Cornish landscape around them.
Anthony Frost, son of
the late Sir Terry, and himself
a successful abstract artist, was born and brought up in the town.
-Anthony, hello, I'm Richard Wilson.
-Hello, nice to meet you.
Come in to my.. So what was it like living here as a boy?
Well, it was fantastic, because you just lived on the beach, for a start.
And I mean...
when I first met my wife, I told her that I didn't have shoes,
and that I only had shoes to go to school in.
I mean, she never believed me, but it's true, you had your pair of shoes
to go to school in. Because you didn't need them
for the rest of the time, because you were on the beaches. Here,
we used to have football matches, sort of like 40-a side.
So in the late '50s, the art scene was pretty vibrant here, was it?
It was fantastic, because it has sort of never reached that climax again
in the sense of that you know America looked to St Ives, New York looked to
-It was the centre.
Yeah, I mean, because you had Rothko, and Klein, all these people,
and they came here. To meet Patrick Heron, Terry Frost,
Peter Lanyon, he wanted to meet these people.
Because for a short time, St Ives was as big as New York.
You know, the abstract American expressionist painters.
So the art scene today, how does that differ?
There is still a fantastic, vibrant art scene, we still have wonderful
studios. We have galleries everywhere.
I suppose the difference now is that
we also have the sort of factory galleries.
I mean, there is supposedly, allegedly, you know, a gallery where
the painters go along, somebody paints the sky, the clouds,
-and the boats.
-No, that's impossible.
But, er, it has changed in that sense. And of course, there is that
thing of there is people here all the time and people do buy those sorts of
paintings to take home almost as if like a stick of rock now.
Because it's got a name for paintings.
Yes, yes, St Ives has got that reputation.
But there are still serious painters here.
It's just that it has become diluted.
One of those "serious" painters is Bob Crossley,
a rare survivor from St Ives' abstract heyday.
Incredibly, Bob is 95 years old and still an active artist.
Believe it or not, he only gave up skiing four years ago!
So when did you come to
So in 1959, of course, there must have been lots of artists here?
-Yeah. I knew them all.
-And you knew them all.
Yes, and I was the oldest of the lot. They've all died now.
And I suppose the painters come here because the light is so...
It's nice and clear and sunny, yes, it is, yes. Light's light.
Light is for working, you don't look at the light, you look through
the light at what you're looking at.
Bob really is living art history.
There aren't many painters around today that can claim that
LS Lowry himself bought one of their pictures.
And fifty years after he first moved here, he's still going strong.
His work and indeed the man himself are inspirational.
95 years, you...
still haven't run out of ideas, and still doing wonderful stuff.
Well, I'm lucky to have good health.
-Well, yes, you are, 95, and you're still standing.
Thanks to artists like Bob, people no longer come to St Ives simply for
sun and sand, the town now attracts a new kind of holidaymaker,
the cultural tourist, drawn
to sites like Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden.
So it's no longer just the summer season that's busy,
the town is crammed with sightseers all year round, and driving through
the narrow streets can be an absolute nightmare.
So it's with some relief that I'm heading out of town and
up along the coast road that all my 1950s guidebooks are raving about.
# Life is but a dream... #
This is a spectacular road...ahead, it's just beautiful.
I really can see why this is one of the best drives in Britain.
The road behind the north coast,
from St Ives to Land's End, meandering among boulder-strewn
heaths, is one of the most attractive of Cornish ways.
The coast from here out to the Land's End
is as dramatic as any in Cornwall. To drive
from St Ives and out along this coast
is always exhilarating,
an experience never to be forgotten.
But, for me, driving this stunning road
is not without its challenges.
After owning nothing but automatics for the past thirty years, I'm still
finding the campervan's retro gearbox a bit of a lucky dip.
Ah, I'm going to have to try.
Oh, I've gone into reverse.
Just four miles out of St Ives, we arrive at the ancient
and picturesque village of Zennor, a chance for me to give the gear box
a rest, grab a spot of lunch and do some swatting up.
Most of my guidebooks recommend a visit to Zennor. But this one
is particularly intriguing. In the First World War, DH Lawrence
lived here for a while, and hated it.
In fact, he lived for a while in this very pub, The Tinners Arms.
And then discovered that the reason
that he hated it was in fact because he was chucked out.
His wife was German and she was a cousin of the Red Baron, in fact.
And when you think there were U-boats just off the coast here
trying to sink British ships,
and they were going along the coast road singing German folk songs,
it's not really unreasonable that they were so unpopular.
So the locals didn't take to them, and DH Lawrence
didn't take to the locals.
There's a quote here of what he said about them...
"Like insects gone cold, living only for money, for dirt.
"They are foul, they all ought to die."
So the locals said that they were spies and that she was hanging out
her red knickers as a signal to the U-boats.
Which seems a highly unlikely thing to do, but anyway, they thought that
they were spies and so they kicked them out.
Lawrence and his wife were expelled from the entire county,
and it left him with a bitterness for the Cornish
and their highly individual outlook.
It seems that even as recently as 50 years ago, the Cornish people
were still very much a breed apart, as is borne out by my guides.
The inhabitants are, racially,
quite different from those in other parts of England.
It is, in truth, a very foreign land, the whole atmosphere of
the county is different from that of any other part of Britain.
To find out if there's any truth in these statements, I'm heading to one
of my route's recommended stops, Zennor's 12th-century church,
to meet Cornish storyteller Graham Whitford.
Graham, my guidebooks which are from the '50s, um, most of them
talk about the separateness of Cornwall
and how it was almost a foreign land where the people are very different.
Is that still true today, do you think, the separateness of
-It is to some extent, but it's fast disappearing, I think.
Um, in the '50s,
Cornwall was very Cornish, probably 95% of people were
born here. Whereas today, 70% of the people aren't born here.
So there's been a massive influx from out of the county.
I mean, people have seen that Cornwall is a lovely place...
-..and people like to go to lovely places.
But politically, all these second homes are not popular in Cornwall,
-because young people can't afford to buy houses here.
But I think that's
fired people up, it's fired the Cornish people up
to keep hold of their history, their culture, and their heritage.
And storytelling is burgeoning.
-And Zennor has a few tales to tell, doesn't it?
The mermaid of Zennor, the story is closely attached to this church.
And some time ago, um, Matthew Trewhella, a local fisherman,
used to sing in the choir in this church.
Now, the legend says that his voice was so beautiful that it
passed out of the church and was heard beneath the sea by Morveren,
-one of the mermaids.
And she thought that the voice was so beautiful and enchanting,
she wanted to find out where this voice came from.
And then on one occasion, Matthew Trewhella happened to look up
and see her standing in the doorway.
And with her long tresses and beautiful face, he was in love
in an instant.
And he chased after her,
and several of the congregation
chased after them as they ran down towards the shore.
But he said as he disappeared beneath the waves, "This is my true love,
"and we will be happy together, and I will follow her wherever she leads."
So he became a merman?
-One would like to think so.
-Sprouted a few gills.
You can draw your own pictures.
I'm not mocking you,
I believe every word of it.
Well, my guidebook backs up Graham's story,
"The Zennor, the picturesque village of Zennor, church town 4.5 miles
"due west of St Ives, is famous for its legendary mermaid,
"whose image is carved on a pew end in the lovely 12th-century church."
And this is the pew end, and it looks extraordinarily old,
and here is our mermaid.
So, there she is.
And for those interested in mermaids,
well worth a visit, but frankly, I wouldn't bother...
You did ask!
MUSIC: "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers
Leaving Zennor behind, I'm now headed a further 13 miles
up the coast to renowned beauty spot Sennen Cove.
And despite Cornwall's huge popularity,
this beautiful road has remained remarkably unspoilt.
A wonderful smell of manure coming in now.
Ooh, yes, that's a pungent one.
But of course,
it's pointless to talk about it
on television, because you can't smell it...fortunately for you.
'The makers of this programme, in their infinite wisdom, have decided
'that because I've got such an obvious natural affinity with
'this special vehicle...'
Come on, you stupid...!
'I hope you note my irony.
'..I should immerse myself in the '50s
'driving experience still further.'
The producers thought it would be a very nice idea
if I was to camp out in the campervan.
And I said, "Well, that's a wonderful idea,
Trevedra Farm has been welcoming campers for more than 65 years, but
while once upon a time, it was first and foremost a working farm,
there's now been a complete turnabout.
Oh, here we are, all these caravans.
Former owners Jean and Michael Nicolas
have watched as tourism has become the predominant Cornish industry.
Would you say that the farm now is more of a campsite than a farm?
-And is that good, or bad?
Well, it's just different, isn't it,
-we change with the times, like, isn't it?
You've got to change where the money is. If there's not the money
in farming, you've got to change your lifestyle...
and step up the camping...
-..and slide the farm back.
Jean and Mike possess that admirable British quality of adaptability.
I only wish I could be so flexible.
I'm driving a...
-I think they are trying to get me to stay in it tonight.
-Do you think that's a good idea?
-Yes. It will be a marvellous experience for you.
-If I was
staying out there tonight, could I book a toilet just for myself?
Because I don't like sharing toilets.
Yes, you can have the key to the family room.
-And what about a Jacuzzi? Have you got a Jacuzzi up there?
-Do you have a television room, and things like that?
Do you have a wine list?
-No, we haven't got a licence for...
I don't know, it's getting worse and worse.
I suggest that that might be the next step.
-You get a nice wine list.
-We shall have them all out there drunk!
They'll be out talking to the cows!
Oh, well, I suppose it would be churlish of me not to give it a go.
And the producers have assured me they won't let me go hungry.
Apparently, they've packed my picnic hamper with everything I need
for a hearty supper.
"1950 - corned-beef hash."
I don't think I've had corned-beef hash for 50 years!
And I can't honestly say I've missed it much in the interim.
Still, all this fresh air does give one an appetite...
as indeed does trying to find my way around all this van's
little nooks and crannies.
I'm just looking for a tin opener.
Ooh, I can smell gas anyway.
Ah, this is just what we want...
to bash the cooker with to create a spark and set it alight.
So, hold on...
No, I'd better not do that.
Ah... See, it's easy really.
Oh, this is a sink, that's handy.
There we go.
Oh, yes. I bet everyone at home is just wishing they were here,
down on this campsite.
Ah, look at that.
What more could you ask for? A perfect setting,
there is going to be the most extraordinary sunset behind us.
Really nice. Has it made me have second thoughts
about sleeping in a campervan?
no, it hasn't.
Well, you didn't really think I was
about to suddenly take up camping at my age, did you?
This morning, I'm backtracking five miles along my route
to the village of Botallack...
an area dominated by the remains of
Cornwall's industrial heritage...
..and I've managed to bag myself what must be one of the
best parking spaces in Britain.
Everywhere one looks, there are relics of
Cornwall's tin mining past,
an industry that was once an inseparable part of life down here.
I've arranged to meet Author and former tin miner Allan Buckley
at some of the area's most dramatic ruins.
So, we drive past roads with a lot of mines.
In fact, the first one I saw, I thought was an old castle ruin.
Yes, yes. Well, people call them Cornish castles.
But they're engine houses, and they are
just the tip of the iceberg, because beneath them underground, there are
literally hundreds and hundreds of miles of tunnels and workings.
At its peak in the 1860s, there were several tens of thousands worked
underground in Cornish mines. There were over two hundred miners working.
Amazingly, some Cornish mines are 3,000 feet deep, that's
considerably more than twice the height of the Empire State Building.
And they don't just run underground.
So you can imagine the workings go under the sea for half a mile,
-three quarters of a mile beyond there, where that boat is.
-So you were working under the sea?
-Oh, yes, yes.
Looking at these noble ruins, it would be easy to romanticise
a miner's life, but the truth is, it was a tough and archaic existence,
even when Alan first went down the mines just under 50 years ago.
-Was it like coal mining, did you get very dirty?
And you had showers and all that?
-Very primitive showers.
A one-inch pipe with holes in it was actually it.
And a great big bath that was filthy after the first person got into it.
-So it was different, much more primitive.
And as I say, we used lamps instead of electric lights. And there was
-a lot of hand labour, as opposed to mechanised labour.
-So it was a primitive place in those days.
-And no conveyor belts?
No, none at all underground, no.
What tough men those miners must have been.
It's bad enough just standing out here at this exposed spot,
especially when the director insists on shooting everything
from 100 different angles!
We'll give you two more minutes in this shot.
-'It's not like you've ever warmed up.'
-Oh, bugger you!
Like so much of Britain's heavy industry, Cornish mining declined
dramatically over the past half century, and the last mine closed
in 1998, spelling the end of an era
that irrevocably shaped the landscape and people of Cornwall.
You realise that those tin mines did employ a lot of people, so I suppose
the sad thing about it going is that these communities all shifted.
And finally, just 20 miles after this fascinating drive began,
I'm coming to the end of the road, quite literally.
MUSIC: "All I Have To Do Is Dream," by The Everly Brothers
Land's End is England's most westerly point,
and it's been attracting tourists for generations.
Oh, wonderful, look at this, spectacular,
A proud boast, to have been to Land's End.
Mere description can never hope to give even the illusion of the thrill
its name and significance produce in those who have been there.
Land's End. Beautiful...
The colours of the rocks down here,
the sea, the white and the blue and the dark browns
and the greens. You can see why people come to paint here,
the light is quite extraordinary.
And I suppose there is a feeling of...
being at the end, there is so much light, so much horizon.
It's worth driving - it's certainly one of the best drives of Britain.
You do realise that there are great big stretches of Cornwall, which are
pretty unspoilt still.
It's only when you're in the...
really touristy bits, I suppose, but the road is such a beautiful road.
A lot of the road and places like this you, can get away and...
I suppose this was just the way it was in the '50s.
And it is...
a spectacular drive, without a doubt.
Sat here at the edge of Britain, it's easy to see why the Cornish
people were once so isolated.
I mean, it really is the road to nowhere.
But with its rugged good looks and inspirational vistas,
it was inevitable that outsiders would want to live here.
Cornwall may be losing the uniquely provincial charm that it had
50 years ago, but I think that's probably true of much of Britain,
and indeed the world.
But, no matter who settles here, with landscapes like this,
Cornwall will always be a very special place.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Actor Richard Wilson takes a journey into the past, following routes raved about in motoring guides of 50 years ago.
Richard struggles to get to grips with a retro VW camper van as he drives the coast road from St Ives to Land's End.
He learns of St Ives's 1950s abstract art heyday and meets a 95-year-old painter still at work in Porthmeor Studios. He discovers why DH Lawrence was expelled from the county, hears legends of Cornish mermaids and gets to know his van on a blustery clifftop campsite.