We should have put puss in the boot

Funny to be back in Cornwall for my summer holidays for the first time since I was a child. I do not know what upturn in the family fortunes was responsible for the decision never to return - for there has been no significant upturn in the family fortunes that I have been aware of - but I do remember the annual occurrence of my father pacing up and down in the launderette in Delabole, saying "Never again" in a voice loud enough for anyone to hear, while the skies wept beyond the steamed-up windows.

But Cornwall is a place of deep past, in itself and for me. The Woman I Love rebukes me, correctly, for my mute but obvious disappointment
with the newly built, characterless holiday block we are staying in, but I am also spooked because I have been driving back into my own childhood. I remember one year when the Watergate scandal broke and my mother, an American, was glued to the news for the entire fortnight. I became almost certainly the best-informed ten-year-old on American politics in the country, but I was confused when we saw signs to a town called "Watergate" only a few miles away. When you bump into your own childhood, you can't help but wonder if the child, bumping into you, might not reasonably ask: "Is that the best you, or I, can do?"

That holiday feline

At least I have learned not to take a cat on holiday. We would take both of ours, which tested the patience of everyone present - humans and animals - on the then nine-hour drive, but apparently that was preferable to the anguish of leaving them in the hands of strangers. One of the cats shot out of the car when we stopped for a pee or carsickness break on Bodmin Moor, and each family member had to stand guard on each
side of the Rover with a shrimping net while the miserable animal crouched beneath the ticking chassis. I still sometimes wonder whether anyone in the passing traffic interpreted the scene correctly. And was it later on, or on another journey, that my brother and I had to press ourselves against the car doors to avoid the lake of cat diarrhoea spreading over the back seat? Either way, the car never really smelled the same again.

But back to the present day. I am now becoming acclimatised to our holiday home. Like a cat, it takes me a couple of days to get used to a new place, after which I am reluctant to leave. Give me a dressed crab and a chilled bottle and I'm happy.

It's also interesting to see how the surface of the landscape has changed. There's a copy here of Daphne du Maurier's Vanishing Cornwall and she's fretting in 1966 that it will become "the playground of all England, chalets and holiday-camps set close to every headland", and indeed
the Cornish have been known to take a pragmatic approach to the exploitation of their countryside. If I step on to the balcony and
turn to my left, I see nothing built before 1990, at a guess; to my right, there's nothing very inspiring. And as for Newquay, a couple of miles down the road, well, it's a horror.

But Padstow, though overrun by emmets such as myself and in thrall to Rick Stein, is still pretty enough to make one think of settling there out of season, were it not for the price of property, which rivals Kensington. And Port Isaac is, once you get into the middle, unchanged, as higgledy-piggledy as Fes; its cave, on the right-hand side as you face out to sea, is still as cosily thrilling to explore as it ever was. (It is just deep enough for a child to feel brave when she touches the back and to entertain the possibility that there might be buried treasure within.)

Besides, not all the changes are for the worse. When I was last here, a surfer was an outlandish novelty - no one had ever seen one other than in the credits of Hawaii Five-O - but now you can't move for them. You even see them padding around town in their wetsuits and bare feet when it's pissing down with rain and there aren't any waves. I like the mentality of the surfing subculture, which encourages a kind of dopey friendliness.

If this also means there are more extravagantly decorated VW camper vans than I remember from my childhood, then that's fine. And if the price of the wines on sale in Rick Stein's deli may make you question the notion that Cornwall is the place where you go on your hols when you don't have much money, it is still the place where Tintagel is, where Camelot might be, and where King Mark waited for Tristan to bring the princess Iseult back from Ireland. Which is good enough for me.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial