19 AUGUST 1989, Page 7


Coming to north Cornwall for some- thing like the 42nd successive year, I am struck this summer by an unwelcome pro- liferation of signs and notices. In this age of recreation and access, everything, it seems, now has to be spelt out; we have to be nannied and told where we are. 'Coast path' signs are everywhere (and the steeper sections of path now have steps, ledges and handrails); a lane behind our house has quite needlessly been given a name; and a notice on the road to Port Isaac announces a 'Welcome to the historic fishing village of Port Isaac'. Why cannot people be allowed — as most would surely prefer — to use their initiative, with the help of an Ord- nance Survey map? Next year, I suppose, there will be 'toilets' on the coast path at four-mile intervals.


t came as no surprise to those of us who spend time in Cornwall to learn from an Observer survey that our tap water has unacceptably high concentrations of lead, aluminium and trihalomethanes. Quite ' apart from the notorious aluminium sul- phate incident at Camelford last summer, People have been getting stomach upsets here for years, and many allow their children to drink only boiled water. There is also the matter of raw sewage discharged into the sea; and one nearby cove is known as Stinky Bay because of what comes down from the farm at the head of the valley. The Government, however, has the im- pertinence to go on maintaining that there is nothing wrong with our water or our beaches, and that they are going to become even cleaner when the privatised water companies get going and start spending billions of pounds on water and sewage treatment. The other day a junior environ- ment minister insisted to me that we had cleaner beaches than any other country in Europe. He was just putting out the propaganda, of course, which he may even have believed; but he appeared not to know, or to want to know, how many British bathing beaches still fail to meet EEC standards, which are much less strin- gent than in parts of the United States. Another government boast which I have read recently is that, thanks to its magnifi- cent efforts and spending programmes, the Thames is now the cleanest metropolitan estuary in the world. Such a claim, even if verifiable, is not calculated to impress anyone who has taken a look at the river lately. The idea put about that the Thames is now so cleansed that thousands of salmon have returned to run merrily up its limpid waters to spawn is simply laughable if you go, for example, to Twickenham where a notice advises against swimming and warns that 'Thames water is polluted water'. According to the Friends of the


Earth its bacteria levels are too high, and it contains illegal discharges from sewage treatment works — also ammonia, ni- trates, pesticides, and heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. Most sinister of all, you may contract Weil's Disease, transmit- ted by rats which infect the water through their urine, which 'can be fatal'. The new water companies have got a lot more cleaning to do, and we shall take a lot of convincing that they are doing it.

So the Prime Minister decided to for- sake this magnificent stretch of coast in favour of a holiday in Austria this year. From where I write I can almost see, about five miles away as the seagull flies, the golf course where Denis Thatcher has played the past two summers near the Trevose Head lighthouse, and his wife may have spent a few relaxing, or invigorating, days. The Cornish sea air rejuvenates the spirit, restores the equilibrium and so it was reassuring to know that, however obsessive Mrs Thatcher may be, she would come here in August to contemplate things like the rocks and the waves which even she cannot change. But now she has been on holiday abroad, which is rather worrying. Labour politicians have often been attracted to Cornwall: I used to think that Harold Wilson gained a few points by having a house on the Isles of Scilly, though he made rather a performance of it. Michael Foot, of course, is a Cornishman; Douglas Jay and I would occasionally pass the time of day while walking on the cliffs above Port Quin Bay; and George Brown came to live in Cornwall, I believe, after he left his wife. I wonder whether politicians realise to what extent it may matter where `Environment friendly? What's the environ- ment ever done for me?' they choose to take their holidays. The effect of the 'grouse moor image' on the fortunes of the Conservative Party under Macmillan and Douglas-Home was almost certainly overstated, and is anyway a thing of the past — Tom King and Nicholas Ridley, so far as I know, are the only members of the Cabinet who shoot. However, Paul Channon made a serious mistake after the Lockerbie air crash when he went off to the island of Mustique in the West Indies. It was not only the wrong place for a Minister of Transport to be going at such a time, but the wrong place for any politician to be going for Christ- , mas. I felt then that he would have to pay for that error of judgment. If Mrs Thatcher does not come back to Cornwall for her summer holiday before the next election, I fear her fate, too, may be sealed.

The first houses at Polzeath, where we are staying, were built at the turn of the century when tea planters and civil ser- vants, having spent most of their lives out East, returned home to set up house by the sea. Our own house was built in 1906, apparently by a man who had spent years working for the Indian railways and wished never to see or hear another train. Intri- guingly, he built it with rounded gables Sir John Betjeman used to refer to it as 'the little Dutch house' — and called it Medla. Did the railwayman, I wonder, spend part of his life in South Africa, and decide to recreate the Cape Dutch architectural style on top of a Cornish cliff? And was Media the name of a favourite branch-line station in Bengal? I cannot find it in any atlas. The name has now been passed on to our Jack Russell which was born in the house last summer, but its origin remains a mystery.

Acouple of years ago I remember Max Hastings writing on this page of his mixed feelings when one of his children first beat him at ping-pong. My thoughts were not dissimilar this week when I had to admit, after a race of no great distance, that my 13-year-old daughter is unques- tionably a better swimmer than I am. The pleasure taken in seeing one's child do something well competes for a few mo- ments with a mild annoyance that she beat me and that I must be getting past it. However, paternal pride soon comes out on top. I also concede that I will never master the stand-up Malibu surfboard at which my 16-year-old son is becoming quite proficient. On the old-fashioned small wooden board I am, of course, still the best — not to mention the highly skilled arts of prawning and finding cowrie shells. But it may not be long before I lose at the ping-pong table.