The sound was faint at first. But when I trained my ears to it, it was clear. Hsssssss.
I stepped toward the rear of the vehicle as my husband looked on with trepidation. Our two daughters were both still plugged into their tablets, completely oblivious that their parents were navigating anything other than the harrowing English road we had been on for the past hour and 45 minutes.
“Yep,” I sighed. “We definitely lost one.”
That was about as far as my expertise in this area was going to get us. Planning this family vacation to Cornwall in southwest England had been my unofficial part-time job for months, and I wanted to turn every travel dollar into a lifetime recollection. Early mornings would find me researching train schedules, cross-referencing hotel reviews and scoring potential adventures for cultural value and memorability
But a flat tire was entirely beyond my scope of preparation.
My husband crumpled at the shoulders and climbed out of the driver’s seat. Today’s entry in my trip plan was in trouble: “Day 8 – rent car. Brett drives. Day trip: Porthcurno.” (No notes were made about impossibly curvy roads lined with stone walls, non-existent shoulders and other challenges to the uninitiated English driver.)
Just moments ago, we had passed the last sign for Porthcurno. Five miles. It was a long way to walk I thought as I noted our surroundings – an endless expanse of wild grass on one side and an imposing 10-foot hedge wall on the other.
“It’s okay!” jumped my husband, standing up excitedly at the trunk. “There’s a full spare back here.”
I went to give our girls an update, when my eyes caught the front tire. It was silent and fully collapsed into the asphalt. A two-tire catastrophe posed a greater challenge.
I flipped to my Emergency Contacts page of my itinerary. But though I had purchased assistance, insurance and all manners of travel support and had documented the local phone numbers for each, my prepurchased cell plan was not relevant for remote areas of Cornwall without service.
As my husband headed off down the road in search of help, our youngest finally slipped off her headphones. “Is this where we are going?”
“No, no,” I insisted. The Minack Theatre – according to my exhaustive notes – is an “open air auditorium, perched spectacularly on cliffs jutting out over the Atlantic.” It promised to be a perfect adventure replete with culture and unique backdrops for photos that would breathe life into these memories for years to come. If we could get there.
After 20 minutes, my husband reappeared. He was followed by a well-used, beige sedan with a grey-haired driver. “Come on then” the driver insisted as he opened the passenger door. The girls and I piled into a back seat covered in layers of wool blankets.
“Hello girls! I’m Simon,” he started. “We’ve got a table waiting for you and we’ll get you something to eat.” Simon pointed his car away from Porthcurno and drove a short distance before turning up a tiny lane that we hadn’t noticed on our way there. We parked next to an L-shaped stone building with roughly hewn wood beams and window boxes brimming with dainty greens. A modest sign told us that we had reached the Logan Rock Inn.
“Have a seat,” Simon said. A dark wood table with two wide benches sat empty thanks to a reserved sign that we came to realize was for us. “I’ll take your order in a minute and we’ll just see what we can do about your car.”
I slumped into my seat still thinking about the theatre performance. The tickets had arrived months ago, after which I had meticulously labelled them and tucked them into the proper folder for safe keeping. Now they sat idle, five miles away from utility.
My melancholy was interrupted by a hard nudge from a golden retriever who had sidled up from the neighbouring table. Another retriever was splayed generously on the stone hearth of the gently blazing fire beside us. The girls were delighted and I snapped photos of them nestled between much yellow fluff.
My husband went over to the pub to call the car company. As he hung up, a man at the bar asked: “Do you need a place to sleep tonight?”
When our eldest couldn’t decide on what to eat, Simon decided. “A Cornish pasty, then?” We had passed a few shops advertising the regional specialty, but had not left ourselves time to stop.
Simon returned with hot food, cold pints and an update. “Well, the car company phoned back but they can’t get you a new car until tomorrow. I called a garage that I know and they have a driver who can take you back tonight. He can be here in 20 minutes.”
The food and the fire were slowing my impulse to problem solve. I put my documents away and looked around a bit more. The father from the neighbouring table smiled again and this time I smiled back.
“Rough night?” he asked gently. “We heard you had a spot of trouble. Anything we can do to help?” We recounted our experience along the impossible road.
When the tow-truck driver arrived, he insisted on hitching our car as we finished our dinner and pints. “You finish eating,” he told us. “Absolutely no hurry. I’ll be in the lot with your car when you’re ready.” I tried to imagine this exchange ever happening at home in Ontario.
We finished up our meals and said goodbye to the couple with the dogs as well as the family next to us. We shook hands with Simon and thanked him for his kindness.
We climbed into the boxy white lorry with our rental car now tucked on its back. The girls and I played “I Spy” down the English country roads that we were now free to enjoy, while my husband asked all about the driver’s British military service. The driver finally asked what we had been doing out all this way.
“Minack Theatre?” he sputtered with much derision, as he careened expertly around a tight corner that was blind with shrubbery. “You’re better off in the pub!
And he was right. It was the best adventure we never could have planned.