Lee Atkinson sticks to the back roads on an eight-day pub crawl through the West Country.
John "Eyebrows" Thomas was a pirate from Penzance. But unlike his much-loved cousins, who sang and danced across Victorian stages in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance, Ol' Eyebrows wasn't quite so revered by his neighbours. When the smuggler and buccaneer died in 1753, he was refused a burial in his parish church at Marazion, five kilometres up the coast from Penzance in Cornwall, and in desperation his family had to pay the neighbouring parish of Gulval to do the job. His gravestone, jet black and engraved with a skull and crossbones, is still there, half hidden by ferns behind the 12th-century church, watched over by the mediaeval carvings of monks on the 15th-century bell tower.
There's not much to Gulval apart from the church, with its pirate's grave and rather tropical garden graveyard. The village, about a mile from Penzance overlooking Mounts Bay, encircles the church, an ornate drinking fountain and horse trough in the centre of what would once have been the village square but now serving as a roundabout. Opposite is the real heart of the village, the Coldstreamer pub.
We're on a West Country pub crawl, doing our best to escape the summer tourist hordes that descend on the coastal seaside resorts of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset every August. Our plan is to keep to back roads and stay in country pubs in villages off the beaten track, and it seems to be working. We're only 2.4 kilometres from Penzance, where crowds of English holidaymakers are making the most of the fickle summer sunshine by filling up almost every available towel space on the beach, devouring overpriced fish and chips in cafes and endlessly driving up and down the waterfront looking for a place to park. However, here in Gulval, there's not another tourist in sight, parking's not an issue, our rooms are half the price and twice the size of most of the hotels and guesthouses in town, and the food is both superb and good value.
Our first pub, Ring of Bells in North Bovey, a tiny postcard-perfect village of thatched-roof houses enclosing a village green in the middle of Dartmoor National Park in Devon, was the quintessential "Ye Olde Inn", a rambling warren of rooms built in the 12th century with foot-thick whitewashed stone walls, ancient oak beams, diabolically low ceilings, four-poster beds and a thatched roof. To get to North Bovey you need to wind your way down narrow country lanes, so the only people in the bar are locals and a handful of those in the know who have heard how good the food is.
We spend long, sunny days exploring the coastline.
The Coldstreamer is much more modern, built in 1895 in black-and-white faux-Tudor style, when it was called, simply, the New Inn. In 1946 it was renamed the Coldstreamer in memory of the landlord's 25-year-old son, Captain Michael Lempriere Bolitho of the Coldstream Guards, who was killed in action in North Africa in 1942. The bar is a meeting spot for locals, who perch with their dogs at their feet while families play Monopoly and Scrabble in the window seats. And with only three rooms, there's no chance that the visitors will ever outnumber the natives. Here, too, the food is excellent (think locally smoked mackerel for breakfast and scallops, crab fritters and lots of fresh fish for dinner) and, just like at Ring of Bells in Dartmoor, where the kitchen dished out whatever had been caught, shot or dug up that day, the menu changes daily depending on whatever it is the fishermen in nearby Newlyn bring in.
Our third pub, the Rock Inn at Waterrow, is an old coaching inn squeezed between a river and a rock halfway between Bampton and Wiveliscombe on the Somerset side of the border with Devon. If we'd thought North Bovey and Gulval were tiny, at least they were villages; the only thing at Waterrow is the pub. There's no guessing how the pub got its name - it's quite literally built into the side of a cliff and one wall of the bar area is bare rock. It too is made to look Elizabethan with a black-and-white timber front, although there has been an inn here for centuries, so parts of it are very old. However, no one seems to be able to put a precise date on it. And just like Ring of Bells in Dartmoor, people travel out of the way to get here for the food, particularly the West Country meat and cheeses.
Using our three pubs as a base, we make a lazy loop of the area in a series of day trips.
In Devon we drive across the windswept moors of Dartmoor, trekking across the plains to find mysterious stone circles and Bronze Age burial chambers. We follow the meandering trail of rivers through deep ravines and mossy forests, visiting ruined castles and abbeys and indulging in a few too many cream teas with home-made scones, strawberry jam and rich clotted cream so thick you can slice it.
In Cornwall we spend long, sunny days exploring the coastline, hiking sections of the coastal clifftop path past lighthouses and abandoned tin mines to deserted rocky coves.
We snack on plate-sized Cornish pasties washed down with pints of bitter brown ale in tiny harbourside fishing villages with cute names such as Mousehole. In Penzance we duck out of the squally rain into a nondescript side-street pub that we discover is home to "the best seafood restaurant in the world", or at least that's what we call it. (Taxi drivers probably know it as the Navy Inn on Lower Queen Street.)
By the time we get to Somerset, we're weary of driving and tired of getting lost down nameless country lanes (satnav can be more of a hindrance than a help in these parts), so we spend a day riding a restored steam train on the West Somerset Railway, hopping off at each stop and touring the lavishly furnished Dunster Castle and its mediaeval village.
All up, we spend eight days driving around one of England's most popular family holiday destinations in the middle of the English summer school holidays.
We'd been warned before we left home to expect crowds and traffic jams. By sticking to back roads and avoiding the popular holiday resorts, we didn't find either. What we did find in our selection of out-of-the-way village pubs was great-value accommodation, a genuinely warm welcome, some great local travel tips and some of the best British food we've ever eaten. Just wish I could acquire a taste for their awful beer.
Three ancient wonders
1 Chysauster Ancient Village, Cornwall Wander around the remains of an Iron Age village high in the hills behind Penzance. Each of the nine stone-walled houses had a central courtyard and a number of thatched rooms, and you can still see where the inhabitants used to cook and grind grain. www.english-heritage.org.uk.
2 Merrivale standing stones, Dartmoor More than 60 prehistoric sites are scattered across Dartmoor, but these three ancient stone rows and small stone circle are just a few hundred metres' walk from the B3357, the main road through Dartmoor National Park, near Merrivale. The largest standing stone is 3.8 metres high.
3 Lanyon Quoit, Cornwall Dating from the Neolithic period (3500-2500BC), three huge standing stones support a massive capstone, believed to be either a burial chamber or ritual funeral site. It can be hard to find — look for the signs hidden in the hedgerow halfway along the Morvah-to-Madron road north-west of Penzance.
Dartmoor National Park is about a four-hour drive south-west of London, via the M3. North Bovey is 25km south-west of Exeter. Gulval is just minutes from Penzance, about two hours' drive from Dartmoor, via the A30. Waterrow is 22km from Taunton, an hour north-east of Dartmoor via the M5.
Most big airlines offer Sydney-London flights. Return fares start at about $1800.
Ring of Bells has five en suite bedrooms and room rates range from £85 to £100 ($129-$152) a night a double, including breakfast. ringofbells.net.
Bed and breakfast in one of the three en suite rooms at the Coldstreamer in Gulval costs £85; dinner (three courses), bed and breakfast is £120 for two. coldstreamer-penzance .co.uk.
The Rock Inn has eight en suite rooms, although not all of the bathrooms have stand-up showers. Bed and breakfast for two costs £85. rockinn.co.uk.
There are no park fees to visit Dartmoor National Park.
Okehampton Castle is open daily.
The two-hour walk through Lydford Gorge near Tavistock is strenuous and slippery — you'll need decent walking shoes but it's well worth it.
West Somerset Railway runs several steam trains daily between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. Adult all-day hop-on, hop-off tickets cost £15.60.
Dunster Castle is open 11am-5pm most days (closed some Thursdays during winter).