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Merchants Manor: A Merchants Tale

Special occasions deserve special celebrations. Having got married in Cornwall, we were determined that our 25th wedding anniversary should be celebrated there, but where would we stay?
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Much of our courting (seems an old-fashioned term nowadays) was spent visiting Cornwall. Like many visitors, we loved its beautiful rolling countryside, quaint harbour villages, rugged coastline, and gorgeous turquoise sea. Over the years we’ve stayed in some great locations and really loved the idea of getting married there.

Back in 1997 we wanted to tie the knot in St Ives. We’d both fallen in love with the town over the years and Mark, being arty and creative, loved the galleries. Unfortunately, St Ives didn’t have a registry office. That resided in St John’s Hall, Penzance, so Penzance was duly booked. No matter, we could stay at Tregenna Castle in St Ives and head into Penzance on the Saturday morning; Saturday 6th September.

There were no nerves in the lead up. Everything was arranged and, as we lay in bed in the early hours of Sunday 31st August, we were truly excited at the prospect. Then the terrible news was announced that princess Diana’s car had crashed in Paris and, shortly after, that she had died.

Over the next few days, we all had to come to terms with the awful truth. It was only on the Tuesday that it dawned on us that our ceremony may not go ahead. Mark telephoned the Registry Office and the lady at the end of the phone confirmed it would go ahead, despite it being on the day of Diana’s funeral. She told Mark, “We will definitely be open, we’re sure Diana would not have wanted to spoil anyone’s special day.”

The day itself was a little surreal. I recall wearing my wedding dress (I’d bought in Spain a year earlier for £25), with sparkling tiara, walking past a room of sombre and tearful hotel guests sat in rows all watching the funeral. Two ladies stopped us in the foyer and told me I looked beautiful and to enjoy our day. One said, “You look like a princess.” That was very kind of them.

St John’s Hall, Penzance. Special memories.

The ceremony was beautiful and especially emotional and afterwards, as husband and wife, we walked through an eerily quiet Penzance to find somewhere to enjoy our wedding breakfast. Nothing special, we just rocked up at The Dolphin pub near the harbour and ordered scampi and chips. The pub is still there now.

The following day we had booked ourselves in at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow – that was our proper celebratory meal. I recall we had skate wings in black bean sauce and Rick signed our menu. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, and, in the afternoon, we sat on the harbour wall with ice creams watching the children crabbing with their orange nylon lines.

So here we are, twenty-five years on celebrating our silver wedding anniversary. It felt appropriate to return to Cornwall. Sadly, yet again, our celebration was touched by sadness. On our wedding day we were coming to terms with the sudden loss of Diana, now we were reflecting on the life of our much-loved Queen. As we drove through the gates at Merchants Manor, the similarities were not lost on us.

Reserved for The Lubber was the first thing we saw. “Our own parking space!” It’s funny the little things that contribute to feeling special about a hotel. This was a good sign. We checked in and were shown around, just to familiarise ourselves with what Merchants Manor had to offer. Beautiful split-level dining room, lounge area, gymnasium (Technogym equipment – very good), a sizeable indoor pool and steam room. Disappointingly the steam room was out of action – a part was required and was on order from, yes, you guessed it, Ukraine.

The hotel, originally called Garras, Cornish for ‘House on the Hill’, was built in 1913 by George Newby Carne, descendant of a long line of shipping merchants, wine distillers and beer brewers, with rumoured ties to Ithal, King of Gwent (clearly George had a Newport state of mind).

The hotel sits majestically in its grounds, cocooned among its palm trees, and the award-winning sub-tropical gardens remind you that you are definitely on the English Riviera. Falmouth centre, its waterside eateries and sandy beaches are well within walking distance and have plenty to offer the visitor. Indeed, we both observed that you could easily stay in Falmouth for three or four days. There’s plenty to see and do.

Merchants Manor has a variety of accommodation and offers a range of affordable packages. We had booked into Landlubber, a two-bedroomed apartment at the side of the hotel set in its own private area. Why two rooms? Mark snores occasionally and I twitch and jig. Having said that, we always end up in bed together in the morning.

The Landlubber is extremely well appointed. Reclaimed wood (and very nice artwork) is the recurring theme throughout, and the two identical bathrooms feature beautifully rustic brass fittings with gloriously retro, deep green tiles. The showers are truly magnificent – easy to use and cleverly designed so you can walk in either side.

The two bedrooms are very tastefully decorated with sufficient furniture and storage to take care of most visitors’ belongings. The beds are superb with high quality everything. The pillows were divine. We slept very well indeed.

The Landlubber has its own open plan kitchen and lounge area where you can sit (and eat) at the table, or on a two-seater sofa facing a good-sized flat screen television. It has all the usual appliances – fridge, dishwasher etc. Talking about televisions, if one thing could have improved the Landlubber for us, it would have been TVs in the bedrooms. That said, it wasn’t a deal breaker. The outside private seating area, together with hot tub, more than made up for it.

Merchants Manor’s reputation as a hotel is complemented by its highly regarded food offering. They source 75% of everything they use locally: cheese, meat, honey, milk, cream, bread, vegetables and fruit, with the aim of being ‘fully 100% Cornish’ within a few years.

We tried the seven-course taster menu and the à la carte offering during our stay, and both were excellent. The highlights being the Crispy Monkfish starter, Black Pig (Char Siu belly, steamed greens, and spring onions) from the taster menu, and from the à la carte, I loved the Newlyn hake and Mark raved about the grass-fed sirloin steak. One of the best he had ever tasted. He described it as perfection. No surprise really, Rastella, Merchants Manor’s restaurant, holds three AA rosettes and is, reputedly, “Falmouth’s highest rated dining experience”.

The drinks selection at Merchants Manor plays much more than a supporting role to the food. We were very impressed by their wine selection and the young lady who was training to be a sommelier certainly knew her grapes. The wines were, like the sirloin, simply perfect. Cocktails and spirits are of course available, and the bar staff were not phased in the slightest when Mark requested a White Russian, even though it wasn’t on the list.

Talking about staff, they really are brilliant. We always say people make places, and at Merchants Manor this reinforced our belief once again. They seem a relatively young front of house team, but all were impressive; extremely accommodating and professional but also warm and friendly – they truly made us feel special. One young lady by the name of Chloe stood out. She was extremely engaging, and we had several clandestine, whispered conversations about the extremely dark novels she was reading. She is a delight and a real credit to the hotel – as they all are.

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With Merchants Manor, and Falmouth, established as base of operations, we were ready to explore this beautiful part of Cornwall. Falmouth is perfectly positioned and has a huge amount to offer but there were some old favourites we had our sights on.

The following morning, after an excellent full breakfast, we headed for Padstow. Padstow holds special memories, and it is so pretty. We had a good look around (there are some excellent galleries and eateries there) and decided to have a light bite in Stein’s Seafood Bar & Fishmongers – the bar element being added since we visited several years back. Visiting one of Rick Stein’s establishments seemed appropriate – a nod to our lovely meal twenty-five years earlier. We shared a small platter of crayfish tails and plump, juicy prawns with freshly baked sourdough and aioli. At this rate we were certainly going to be piling on the pounds. Mark was driving so I enjoyed a chilled glass of rosé.

Padstow tour over we headed for St Ives. If this charming, working fishing harbour town is a pretty lady, then St Ives is its more attractive sister. St Ives doesn’t have to work hard to attract visitors, it is spectacularly beautiful. The waters are a special blend of blues and greens you don’t even see abroad. Again, we walked the town and must have visited every gallery there. It still is a town of artists and some of them are incredibly talented. Love it as we do, it has lost a bit of its soul over the years succumbing to the chain shops that you see on most high streets these days. Many of the indie shops that we loved have, sadly, disappeared and been replaced by the joyless corporates. That’s progress I suppose but St Ives holds her head high – there’s a lot to love still.

If you love being around old boats, Newlyn is for you…

The next day we had several spots we wanted to visit so we made sure we were early to breakfast. Marazion was our first destination. That name might not mean much but if I said St Michael’s Mount, you’d probably know it. We were planning on visiting St Michael’s Mount but after walking across the causeway, the terse and patronising welcome we received from one of the National Trust employees made us reconsider. We don’t reward negative behaviour and it’s not the first time we’ve experienced it from the NT. Perhaps Hilary McGrady, its new highly paid Director-General, could ramp up the customer care training. Unphased, we had a good stroll through Marazion. There are some nice shops, galleries and eateries – Mark loves the beautiful little church that features a wonderful piece of artwork by Zoe Cameron.

In AD 495, Archangel Michael appeared to fisherman in Marazion bay, warning them of danger, and telling them to build a sacred place. All Saints Church was built and the site dedicated to him. Hence, St Michael’s Mount. Zoe’s painting took over two years to complete and is on public view.

There were roadworks at the eastern side of Penzance that would delay our drive to Newlyn and Mousehole, so we lopped around to Sennen Cove, an old favourite of ours. Sennen Cove has a great gallery set on two levels called the Round House and Capstan. The work is of a very hide standard and local artists dominate the walls – well worth a look. Mark nipped off to take a few snaps and I had a lovely stroll across the front before we met up for an ice cream. If you love walking, this is one of the best and the sunsets at Sennen Cove are other-worldly. Some of the best on the planet.

Back to Newlyn and a lovely walk around the harbour. Newlyn is a proper fishing port and there are several websites where you can purchase their catch. We tried to find a lovely little gallery that Mark we had visited in our early years but, sadly, its owner had sold up. Mark bought me a beautiful ring with a face carved out of blue stone. It’s gorgeous and I still wear it regularly. We did find a new gallery run by a lovely chap and he had some great work on the walls plus some incredibly cool coffee tables made from polished, recycled portholes.

After a great hour and a half in Newlyn we nipped down the road to Mousehole. Again, Mousehole is a sweet little coastal, Cornish village with plenty of galleries, eateries and small shops. Despite the very tight roads, Newlyn has several carparks and, at the bottom of the main one, there’s a brilliant little café that overlooks the water. After our reccie we made a bee line for it – I enjoyed a nice glass of wine (cappuccino for Mark) and watched the seals bobbing up and down in the water just offshore. A perfect end to a perfect day.

As we drove back to Merchants Manor for dinner, we naturally reflected on our married life – we’ve been together twenty-eight years, we’ve loved two beautiful little dogs and we have a son we are extremely proud of. Like most couples, the decades have thrown some challenges our way, but we’ve sailed through the storms together.

We thoroughly enjoyed our anniversary celebrations in Cornwall, and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II reminded us that, like the death of Diana twenty-five years earlier, our lives together are finite and that it’s so important not to squander the time we have. None of us know how long we’ll be here. Our voyage together is always shorter than we hope. Like the amazing fishing communities of Cornwall, be strong, be brave, and seize life with both hands.

Merchants Manor
1 Western Terrace
Cornwall TR11 4QJ
01326 312734

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