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Bude enough to eat
7:00am Saturday 10th August 2013 in Travel
Fish and chips may once have been a staple for the seaside town of Bude, but Jeremy Gates discovers a wide range of haute cuisine on the menu on a trip to north Cornwall.
It is such a long, long time since I have sat by the beach as darkness descended that I had no idea of the excitement which would erupt when the setting sun slipped beneath the Atlantic waves in our quiet Cornish bay.
Suddenly, at 9.55pm, diners leaped from their seats to photograph the tiny, sinking slither of blazing red on the far horizon. Children paddling towards Camel Rock turned back to the shore and playful terriers at last stopped kicking up the sand with their hind legs.
As for me, I paused for moment or two to savour a meal prepared by Thinh Nguyen Nho, a chef from Vietnam who already boasts Rick Stein and The Lanesborough Hotel in London's West End on his CV, and now appears nightly at The Beach House & Hotel on Widemouth Bay.
When you look at a map, this corner of north Cornwall looks a fair way from the big attractions like the Eden Project or The Tate at St Ives.
But Bude, a breezy clifftop walk away from Widemouth Bay, is an elegant seaside town, famous for its Sea Pool, refreshed daily by the ocean. There are acres of sandy beaches, one reaching inland for hundreds of yards, swathes of public lawns, a mini castle and a canal surrounded by cobbled walkways.
Widemouth Bay became a natural bolthole after our first clifftop picnic.
Somehow the whitewashed 1970s bungalows, the cars resting in the dunes and the irregular line of restaurants and bars dotted along the clifftop road looks the perfect backdrop for a family holiday - leaving the 'Chelsea Tractor' brigade to hurtle on their way to glitzier Newquay and St Ives.
It's an area perfect for the simple pleasures, like fish, chips and mushy peas on an outside table at sunset.
One afternoon, we tried in vain to find a footpath leading from the beach to our holiday home, barely a mile inland. But a walk along the clifftops in the morning haze in the opposite direction, towards Crackington Haven, was more successful.
By car, our expeditions along the Atlantic Highway - the dear old A39, weaving its way delicately between green fields and wind farms - rarely lasted more than an hour in stifling heat, but each one was memorable.
Following the line of the coast towards Devon, we reached Clovelly, a long narrow road of whitewashed houses on either side of a cobbled street so steep that groceries and drinks are still carried downwards on sledges towards the curving quayside, which dates to the 14th century.
On the way back, we found sleepy Morwenstow, a tiny hamlet with a stunning black Cornish chapel, where some pews were carved in 1575. Legend suggests the celebrated Rev Hawker and his flock sometimes held false lights on the coast to boost their income from shipwrecks in Victorian times.
Certainly too many drowned mariners lie buried in the churchyard. Hawker's Hut, where the racy rev sometimes took his opium, remains on the clifftop in its original form, the smallest building in the National Trust portfolio.
Going south, beyond superbly restored Boscastle, lies magical Tintagel Castle, a breathtaking treasure enhanced by the tender touches and wooden walkways of English Heritage.
From its highest rampart, you look far out to sea and for miles along a deserted coastline, and then vertically down to shallow blue waters lapping gently over granite rocks into a cave which just might have been Merlin's. It reminded me of a mystical Greek island setting in a John Fowles novel.
On the very spot where King Arthur might have convened his Camelot, I ambled under an arch as a German girl, camera poised, joked to fellow students.
"She used the German word for slowcoach," my wife pointed out helpfully. "Says she'd like to take a picture, but tourists keep getting in the way!"
After that humiliation, it was time for some R&R back at the holiday home to savour a chilled bottle of India Pale Ale brewed with American hops by the newly-formed Harbour Brewing Company, down the road in nearby Trekillick.
The Granary, our three-bedroomed holiday home which is part of the Kennacott estate, played a big role in a perfect week: when it was too hot to move, the massive 28-pane window in the living room could be turned into a primitive form of air conditioning, which possibly helped the owners to win a gold award from Visit Britain.
In total, Kennacott has 20 holiday homes, sleeping between two and 11 people, in converted farm buildings and newer terraced cottages. But the place never felt busy - in fact the only crowds we spotted were marauding gangs of rabbits.
Within the complex are all the important facilities - heated indoor pool, full size snooker table, Sky Sports - which 'townies' need to survive if they are dumped in the middle of the countryside for more than 24 hours.
Dotted around its 70 acres, Kennacott offers a mini-golf course, two all-weather tennis courts, a football pitch, a 15-acre nature walk, a purpose-built sports barn for badminton and mini-tennis, a games room with table tennis, a playroom for under-fives, and even a skittle alley which must have been bought from a country pub.
There's also a six-hole golf course, playable April-October, for £35 per person per week, including club hire. We found the course perfect for evening walks, with fairway views down to the wide bay of the Atlantic beneath a reddening sky.
Phil Myers, who has run Kennacott for the last decade or so, says the knack is to play golf for three holes in the morning, and three more as the sun goes down - then nobody will grumble that they've become a golf widow!
But the gilt on the gingerbread of our glorious week was the chance to enjoy food - and drink - produced locally.
If I couldn't find that Indian Pale Ale, my second choice was Tribute - finessed, says the St Austell Brewery, by Cornish spring water and Cornish Gold malts. It went down like medicine when temperatures were hitting 30C.
Cornish ice cream is already, by some margin, the finest in the land and when it comes to restaurants, you will be truly spoiled for choice. Two were quite exceptional on this visit.
With a wide, open terrace carved into the grassy cliffs which overlook Summerleaze Beach in Bude, Life's A Beach seemed a huge hit with every generation on the night we visited. My hunk of local turbot made a great dish with baby Cornish veg and creamy mashed potato, but equally impressive was the friendliness - and expertise - of the waiters.
For a fine dining experience, try Paul Ainsworth at Number Six in the heart of heaving Padstow. After training with Gary Rhodes and Gordon Ramsay, Ainsworth has turned an 18th century townhouse into Padstow's premier gastronomic address.
We were welcomed with a glass of cider, which tasted better than champagne, and an oyster nurtured on the other side of the estuary at Porthilly Oyster Farm.
I thought things couldn't get better after my starter, Cornish mackerel which had been 'torched', but indeed they did, rounding off with ice cream which it was quite impossible to leave in the dish.
Book up early, and be prepared to splash out. Settling for the set meal amidst these splendid delicacies would be a bit like third prize in a Fire Brigade raffle!
Travel facts - Bude
Jeremy Gates stayed at Kennacott Court, Bude, part of Premier Cottages 2013 programme, where a week's stay starts at £249 in a unit sleeping two. A week's stay in The Granary, sleeping six, costs £600 per week. For reservations, call 01288 362 000 or email email@example.com.
Travel Republic (020 8974 7200) currently lists rooms at The Beach House Hotel, Widemouth Bay (01288 361 256) from £32 per night.