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.