When D.H. Lawrence wrote that being in Cornwall was “like being at a window and looking out of England”, he wasn’t just thinking of its geographical extremity. Virtually unaffected by the Roman conquest, Cornwall was for centuries the last haven for a Celtic culture elsewhere eradicated by the Saxons. Primitive granite crosses and a crop of Celtic saints remain as traces of this formative period, and the Cornish language is present in place names that in many cases have grown more exotic as they have mutated over time.
Cornwall’s formerly thriving industrial economy is far more conspicuous than in neighbouring Devon. Its more westerly stretches in particular are littered with the derelict stacks and castle-like ruins of the engine houses that once powered the region’s copper and tin mines, while deposits of china clay continue to be mined in the area around St Austell, as witnessed by the conical spoil heaps thereabouts. Also prominent throughout the county are the grey nonconformist chapels that reflect the impact of Methodism on Cornwall’s mining communities. Nowadays, of course, Cornwall’s most flourishing industry is tourism. The impact of the holiday business has been uneven, for instance cluttering Land’s End with a tacky leisure complex but leaving Cornwall’s other great headland, Lizard Point, undeveloped. The thronged resorts of Falmouth, site of the National Maritime Museum, and Newquay, the West’s chief surfing centre, have adapted to the demands of mass tourism, but its effects have been more destructive in smaller, quainter places, such as Mevagissey, Polperro and Padstow, whose genuine charms can be hard to make out in full season. Other villages, such as Fowey and Boscastle, still preserve an authentic feel, however, while you couldn’t wish for anything more remote than Bodmin Moor, a tract of wilderness in the heart of Cornwall, or the Isles of Scilly, idyllically free of development. It would be hard to compromise the sense of desolation surrounding Tintagel, site of what is fondly known as King Arthur’s Castle, or the appeal of the seaside resorts of St Ives and Bude – both with great surfing beaches – while, near St Austell, the spectacular Eden Project celebrates environmental diversity with visionary style.Read More
The Eden Project
The Eden ProjectOccupying a 160ft-deep crater whose awesome scale only reveals itself once you have passed the entrance at its lip, the Eden Project showcases the diversity of the planet’s plant life in an imaginative style. Centre stage are the geodesic “biomes” – vast conservatories made up of eco-friendly Teflon-coated, hexagonal panels. One holds groves of olive and citrus trees, cacti and other plants usually found in the warm, temperate zones of the Mediterranean, southern Africa and southwestern USA, while the larger one contains plants from the tropics, including teak and mahogany trees, with a waterfall and river gushing through. Equally impressive are the grounds, where plantations of bamboo, tea, hops, hemp and tobacco are interspersed with brilliant swathes of flowers. In summer, the grassy arena sees performances of a range of music – from Peter Gabriel to Fleet Foxes – and in winter they set up a skating rink.
Amid the lush tranquillity of the Carrick Roads estuary basin, the major resort of FALMOUTH is the site of one of Cornwall’s mightiest castles, Pendennis Castle, and of one of the country’s foremost collections of boats in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. The town sits at the mouth of the Fal estuary, at the end of a rail branch line from Truro and connected by ferry to Truro and St Mawes. Round Pendennis Point, south of the centre, a long sandy bay holds a succession of sheltered beaches: from the popular Gyllyngvase Beach, you can reach the more attractive Swanpool Beach by cliff path, or walk a couple of miles further on to Maenporth, from where there are some fine cliff-top walks.
The Lizard peninsula
The Lizard peninsula
The Lizard peninsula – from the Celtic lys ardh, or “high point” – is mercifully undeveloped. If this flat and treeless expanse can be said to have a centre, it’s Helston, a junction for buses running from Falmouth and Truro and for services to the spartan villages of the peninsula’s interior and coast.
Lizard Point and around
Four miles south of Mullion, the peninsula’s best-known beach, Kynance Cove, has sheer 100ft cliffs, stacks and arches of serpentine rock and offshore outcrops. The water quality here is excellent – but take care not to be stranded by the tide. A little more than a mile southeast, Lizard Point, the southern tip of the promontory and mainland Britain’s southernmost point, is marked by a plain lighthouse above a tiny cove and a restless, churning sea. If you’re not following the coast path, you can reach the point via the road and footpath leading a mile south from the nondescript village called simply THE LIZARD, where you’ll find several places to stay and eat.
The Penwith peninsula
The Penwith peninsula
Though more densely populated than the Lizard, the Penwith peninsula is a more rugged landscape, with a raw appeal that is still encapsulated by Land’s End, despite the commercialization of that headland. The seascapes, the quality of the light and the slow tempo of the local fishing communities made this area a hotbed of artistic activity from the late nineteenth century onwards, when the painters of Newlyn, near Penzance, established a distinctive school of painting. More innovative figures – among them Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo – were soon afterwards to make St Ives one of England’s liveliest cultural communities, and their enduring influence is illustrated in the St Ives branch of the Tate Gallery, which showcases the modern artists associated with the locality.
Eight miles west of Mousehole, one of Penwith’s best beaches lies at PORTHCURNO, sandwiched between cliffs. On the shore to the east, a white pyramid marks the spot where the first transatlantic cables were laid in 1880. On the headland beyond lies an Iron Age fort, Treryn Dinas, close to the famous rocking stone called Logan Rock, a seventy-ton monster that was knocked off its perch in 1824 by a gang of sailors, among them a nephew of writer and poet Oliver Goldsmith. Somehow they replaced the stone, but it never rocked again.
The extreme western tip of England, Land’s End, lies four miles west of Porthcurno. Best approached on foot along the coastal path, the 60ft turf-covered cliffs provide a platform to view the Irish Lady, the Armed Knight, Dr Syntax Head and the rest of the Land’s End outcrops, beyond which you can spot the Longships lighthouse, a mile and a half out to sea, and sometimes the Wolf Rock lighthouse, nine miles southwest, or even the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles away.
To the north of Land’s End the rounded granite cliffs fall away at Whitesand Bay to reveal a glistening mile-long shelf of beach that offers the best swimming on the Penwith peninsula. The rollers make for good surfing and boards can be rented at Sennen Cove, the more popular southern end of the beach.
East of Zennor, the road runs four hilly miles on to the steeply built town of ST IVES. By the time the pilchard reserves dried up around the early 1900s, the town was beginning to attract a vibrant artists’ colony, precursors of the wave later headed by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and the potter Bernard Leach, who in the 1960s were followed by a third wave including Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron.
Porthmeor Beach dominates the northern side of St Ives, its excellent water quality and surfer-friendly rollers drawing a regular crowd, while the broader Porthminster Beach, south of the station, is usually less busy. A third town beach, the small and sheltered Porthgwidden, lies in the lee of the prong of land separating Porthmeor and Porthminster, while east of town a string of magnificent golden beaches lines St Ives Bay on either side of the Hayle estuary.
The Isles of Scilly
The Isles of Scilly
The Isles of Scilly are a compact archipelago of about a hundred islands, 28 miles southwest of Land’s End. None is bigger than three miles across, and only five of them are inhabited – St Mary’s, Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes. In the annals of folklore, the Scillies are the peaks of the submerged land of Lyonnesse, a fertile plain that extended west from Penwith before the ocean broke in, drowning the land and leaving only one survivor to tell the tale. In fact they form part of the same granite mass as Land’s End, Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, and despite rarely rising above 100ft, they possess a remarkable variety of landscape. Points of interest include irresistible beaches, such as Par Beach on St Martin’s; the Southwest’s greatest concentration of prehistoric remains; some fabulous rock formations, and the exuberant Tresco Abbey Gardens. Along with tourism, the main source of income is flower-growing, for which the equable climate and the long hours of sunshine – their name means “Sun Isles” – make the islands ideal. The profusion of wild flowers is even more noticeable than the fields of narcissi and daffodils, and the heaths and pathways are often dense with marigolds, gorse, sea thrift, trefoil and poppies, not to mention a host of more exotic varieties introduced by visiting foreign vessels. The waters hereabouts are held to be among the country’s best for diving, while between May and September, on a Wednesday or Friday evening, islanders gather for gig races, performed by six-oared vessels – some of them more than a hundred years old and 30ft long.
Free of traffic, theme parks and amusement arcades, the islands are a welcome respite from the tourist trail, the main drawbacks being the high cost of reaching them and the shortage of accommodation, most of which is on the main isle of St Mary’s.
- Cornwall’s Atlantic coast