Monday, February 21, 2011


A creekside walk not far from Truro

My darling husband, Pip, died suddenly on Boxing Day 2010, and as the Heron was one of the first pubs he took me to, Malpas always reminds me of him. One day he met me from the train and, instead of returning to the boat he lived on, we headed in a different direction. Where? He grinned, and shrugged, said, “Oh look – here's a pub. Might as well have a drink.”

The pub was the Heron; a quiet hostelry with a few outside tables overlooking the river opposite. On one of these was a pint of beer and a glass of wine – waiting for us. In addition I noticed an oyster shell which I recognised as being from his oyster fishing days. Inside the shell was a small green baize bag containing a pair of Cornish tin earrings – at the time Pip designed and made jewellery.

I still have those earrings and wore them for this walk, as another of my many thanks to a talented, brave man. Mind you, he wasn't a walker, so if he'd been with us, he would have spent the whole time in the pub.

A week after Pip died, Richard, Viv and I arrived at the Trafalgar roundabout in Truro and turned left signposted Malpas, continuing until we came to the tiny village of Malpas, where we parked in the road. This village is built at the conjunction of three rivers - the Tresillian River, the arm of Truro River leading to the city and the Truro River as it flows towards the Fal and Carrick Roads.

The love story of Tristan and Iseult tells how Iseult crossed the Truro River at La Mal Pas (pronounced Mopus) to meet her lover as she travelled from Moresk to Kea. Malpas derives from the French 'mal pas' meaning 'bad passage', because of the dangerous waterways here, where whirlpools and tidal waves have been reported.

Titch and Mollie (the canine version of Tristan and Iseult) charged ahead as we walked past the Heron, looking over the river to where Jenny Davies, also known as Jenny Mopus, ran the ferry until she died aged 82, in 1832. Jenny stated that her worst passengers were “wemmin and pigs”, and her portrait hangs at Tregothnan house, although the house and estate are private and not open to the public.

There was once an important oyster bed here at Malpas, and many ships carried coal and other commodities along this stretch of the river during the industrial heyday of the 19th century. The huge ships carrying timber from Norway anchored here for their cargo to be unloaded onto rafts to be taken up the shallower stretch of the river to Truro and the mines beyond.

As we walked, eight swans glided gently down the river while Richard and Viv discovered a joint passion for real ale and compared notes on recent CAMRA festivals. We followed a yellow waymark sign on the right saying St Clement which led us along a private road, round the back of some houses and into a very muddy path (Richard's mud rating of 5/10). We passed through a wooden kissing gate and into dense woods where tendrils of Old Man's Beard tumbled into a fast flowing stream, and emerald green moss grew up the tree trunks.

Over a makeshift bridge, we followed a waymark sign to St Clement - Denas Road to the right is an alternative route by the creek but we came back that way. “We could do with Nordic poles,” puffed Viv as we struggled up a very steep field, “or a ski lift.” At the top of this hill, which managed to even shut Viv up, we passed through a metal kissing gate and the sun came out for the first time in a week. Passing through another field, we looked back down the river where the sun glinted on silver water, and bare winter branches decorated the skyline. The next waymark sign guided us through another kissing gate into mud rating 8, churned up by cattle, and we turned right into another quagmire (mud rating 11) before emerging into another field. “Look at the view,” gasped Viv as Richard squelched his way to safety. Below us the church of St Clement (1326) nestled in a valley and a gentle sunlight kissed the tops of the trees. Even Richard rated it worth the knee high mud.

Another kissing gate brought us into St Clement and we turned right, past Elm Cottage where old teacups hung from hooks around the outside. We continued downhill past beautiful old cottages, down to the river. The woodland on the far bank is part of the Tregothnan Estate, owned by Lord and Lady Falmouth and we passed Tresemple Pond on our left. This is a wonderful place for spotting birds: our joint knowledge was sketchy (I invented a new type of gull called the herring bone gull) but we did see curlews flying overhead. “and that should be a peewit,” said Richard convincingly.

This flat path, which follows the river up to Tresillian, is very popular with walkers - “but don't try it with a wheelchair,” warned Viv. “I brought Mum here and it nearly killed me.” We continued until we came to a footbridge on our right which leads through a marshy area to Tresillian: you can turn left and walk back to Truro via the road, but having the dogs, we retraced our steps. The return journey grew damper by the moment until we arrived back at St Clement, where we turned left along Denas Road, which led us back along the shore line. The rain began to pelt down and on the opposite shore, a lone egret glowed eerily in the gathering dusk.

This path grew increasingly muddy (rating 7), while above us an eyrar of swans flew overhead in a V shape, honking persistently. “It's always mournful here at this time of year,” said Viv, but I found it rather peacefulm and Pip would have approved. The path led us into woods of dense pines that made me think of a Narnia forest, with shy centaurs peeping out from behind dark branches. Keeping the river on our left, the path opened up over various stiles into fields, more woodland, until finally, through the torrential rain, we glimpsed the lights of Malpas ahead.

Eventually we came to the end of Denas Road at the junction of the earlier path, and made it back to Malpas by which time it was dark, the dogs were covered in mud and my duffel coat was steaming gently. We'd hoped to have a drink in the Heron in honour of Pip, but they don't allow dogs inside, so we drove back to Viv's to dry out.

Pip's favourite toast was, “Here's to us what's like us,” so we raised our glasses and drank to another lovely walk, to good friends – and to my very special Pip.

Map: OS Explorer 105
Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes
Length: Approximately 4 miles
Grading: a few steep hills, can be very muddy
Refreshments: The Heron at Malpas 01872 272773;

Cornwall Today March 2011

The Cornish Dr Doolittles

Walking into Porfell farmhouse is like a childhood dream come true for an animal lover like me. A black and white cat lies curled up on a chair, while a white cockatoo sits on top of a large cage, chewing the wallpaper absently. Two elderly black labradors climb off a sofa and greet us joyously, cold wet noses nudging insistently. And then – I blink – warming itself in front of the woodburner –“is that a lemur?”

“Yes,” says Joy Palmer cheerfully. “He's called Stumpy and he sleeps on top of the dresser.”

“He's been poorly so that's why he's here,” adds John. “He's strokeable but you can't pick him up.” He smiles. “Our friends think we're mad – but they accept it.”

John and Joy Palmer opened Porfell Wildlife Park in 1989 but their journey started in 1973, when they left Solihull in search of a new beginning. “We'd always wanted a small farm but everything was too expensive or in a terrible state so we came down to Cornwall,” says John.

So they married in Liskeard, bought a house and moved down to Cornwall. Three years on they bought Porfell Farm near Lanreath, Liskeard – a run down farmhouse with no fences, burst pipes and no heating. Not an obvious choice for most people, but perfect for the Palmers because of the land. “Our house in Looe had a field behind it so we kept a couple of ponies there,” said John. “Then we got goats and chickens so we needed somewhere with more space.”

Money was very tight, but in 1979 they had twin boys so John built an extension which they let out to holidaymakers. “The guests enjoyed the farm so much they suggested opening a farm park, which we did in 1989,” says John. “We started with sheep, goats, a cow, ducks and chickens, then added deer, wallabies, a raccoon, coati and capybara.”

The more exotic animals arrived when they were asked to look after a raccoon which had been kept as a pet. “We needed a Dangerous Wild Animal licence for the raccoon, so having got it, we thought we might as well have other animals,” explains John.

John became friends with a lecturer from Plymouth College who was also a zoologist and he came to have a look at the park. “He introduced us to friends in the zoo world and this is how we started taking in animals from other zoos.” Animals now come from all over England. “The RSPCA, Customs and Excise, private keepers, animal welfare officers and other rescue organisations contact us,” says John. “We're expecting a group of 10 marmosets from a laboratory though fortunately they haven't been used in testing. And we're building a new enclosure for 4 macaques coming from a rescue centre in Holland.”

John and Joy's aim is to provide a safe haven for elderly and problem exotic animals for the rest of their lives. They provide the best possible environment to meet the individual need of the animals in their care and this has brought respect from zoos, wildlife parks and other rescue organisations.

Here at Porfell, visitors are able to get much closer to the animals than in most wildlife parks, so there is more interaction and opportunities to learn and understand more about animals through descriptions, talks and demonstrations. John explains, “There is a general lack of respect nowadays and if we can contribute in a small way to help others have more respect - for animals and the environment – then that can only be good.” He looks up. “Joy? What makes us different from other wildlife parks?”

Joy hoots with laughter. “We're always broke!” She reaches over to stroke Stumpy, the lemur. “We keep the animals for life - we give everything to them.”

In addition to a Children's Farm, John built an African Village following a trip to Kenya for his 70th birthday. “The safari was fabulous and as we'd already got zebra, I thought how lovely it would be to create an area here and call it African Plains,” John says. So he sketched out his ideas to create an African village which took four years to come to fruition. At the opening, in July 2010, a representative from the Kenyan High Commission cut the ribbon at the entrance of the Border Post, and TV presenter Nick Baker said, “It's the best example of a Maasai village this side of the equator.”

Running any kind of wildlife park must be a financial nightmare, and this one is no exception. “This has been a huge gamble, but you don't do this work for financial gain,” explains John. “We want to make enough money to take in more animals. We've gone short over the years but we work 7 days a week, 15 hours a day. But we both love animals and couldn't imagine doing anything else. It can be very hard in the winter and it's also very hard when you get attached to animals and they die. But you have to think that you've given them a good quality of life.”

He smiles. “I'd like to have a lot more money so we could have more visitors: we rely on the visitors entirely for our income. Vet's bills, food bills etc – it's very very hard in this economic climate.”

But like any business, John is always looking forward to the next opportunity. “We are opening the macaque section in April which is a large enclosure with special facilities because they are quite a dangerous animal so they need to be very secure,” he explains. “On the back of the African village, which has been a great success, we are working with a charity called Send-a-Cow who do a tremendous amount of work helping people out in Africa. They have chosen us as a venue in May for 2 weeks – we're having a Ugandan farmer staying with us so we've sent out invitations to schools to learn about life out there, and about sustainability in gardening and farming. We're fully booked at 60 students a day.”

Seeing their way of life, it's difficult to imagine the Palmers ever retiring. John laughs. “That word's not in my dictionary! No, I couldn't. Even on holiday I get restless and I'm always sketching out ideas.” Here Joy shouts to the cockatoo, “Pepsi! Stop chewing the skirting boards!”

John wards the cockatoo off the woodwork and gives him a stroke. “We must never get complacent and must always be alert and respect the animals' space,” he says. “Interaction must be always on their terms.” At this moment, Stumpy leaps over the sofa to snuggle down with one of the dogs and John smiles contentedly. “How wonderful it is to sit here and have a wild animal wandering around the house. That's an instance where the animal has made its choice to be with us.” He pauses. “Everyone should remember that though we think we own land or property we are actually only borrowing it for our lifetime and we have a responsibility to protect it for future generations.”

Porfell Wildlife Park and Sanctuary, Porfell, Trecangate, Lanreath, Liskeard PL14 4RE
(01503) 220211

Open February half term holiday for 2 weeks, then weekends until 1st April and daily until 1st of November 10am to 6pm.

Cornwall Today March 2011