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.
The north Cornish coast is punctuated by some of the finest beaches in England, the most popular of which are to be found around Newquay, the surfers’ capital, and Padstow, also renowned for its gourmet seafood restaurants. North of the Camel estuary, the coast features an almost unbroken line of cliffs as far as the Devon border; this gaunt, exposed terrain makes a melodramatic setting for Tintagel Castle. There are more good beaches at Bude.
In the crook of Towan Head, Towan Beach is the most central of the seven miles of firm sandy beaches that line the coast around Newquay. Town beaches such as this and Porth Beach, with its grassy headland, can get very busy with families in high season, and are popular with surfers all year, though the latter are more partial to Watergate Bay to the north, and Fistral Bay, west of Towan Head.
On the other side of East Pentire Head from Fistral, Crantock Beach – reachable over the Gannel River by ferry or upstream footbridge – is usually less crowded, and has a lovely backdrop of dunes and undulating grassland. South of Crantock, Holywell Bay and the three-mile expanse of Perran Beach, enhanced by caves and natural rock arches, are also very popular with surfers.
Three miles east of Tintagel, the port of BOSCASTLE lies compressed within a narrow ravine drilled by the rivers Jordan and Valency, and ending in a twisty harbour. The tidy riverfront bordered by thatched and lime-washed cottages was the scene of a devastating flash flood in 2004, but most of the damage has now been repaired. Above and behind, you can see more seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cottages on a circular walk that traces the valley of the Valency for about a mile to reach Boscastle’s graceful parish church of St Juliot, tucked away in a peaceful glen, where Thomas Hardy once worked as a young architect.
Just four miles from the Devon border, Cornwall’s northernmost town of BUDE is built around an estuary surrounded by a fine expanse of sands. The town has sprouted a crop of hotels and holiday homes, though these have not unduly spoilt the place nor the magnificent cliffy coast surrounding it.
Of the excellent beaches hereabouts, the central Summerleaze is clean and spacious, but the mile-long Widemouth Bay, south of town, is the main focus of the holiday crowds (though bathing can be dangerous near the rocks at low tide). Surfers also congregate five miles down the coast at Crackington Haven, wonderfully situated between 430ft crags at the mouth of a lush valley. To the north of Bude, acres-wide Crooklets is the scene of surfing and life-saving demonstrations and competitions. A couple of miles further on, Sandy Mouth holds a pristine expanse of sand with rock pools beneath the encircling cliffs. It’s a short walk from here to another surfers’ delight, Duckpool, a tiny sandy cove flanked by jagged reefs at low tide, and dominated by the three-hundred-foot Steeple Point.
Did King Arthur really exist? If he did, it’s likely that he was an amalgam of two people: a sixth-century Celtic warlord who united the local tribes in a series of successful battles against the invading Anglo-Saxons, and a local Cornish saint. Whatever his origins, his role was recounted and inflated by poets and troubadours in later centuries. The Arthurian legends were elaborated by the medieval chroniclers Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Malmesbury and in Thomas Malory’s epic, Morte d’Arthur (1485), further romanticized in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859) and resurrected in T.H. White’s saga, The Once and Future King (1958).
Although there are places throughout Britain and Europe that claim some association with Arthur, it’s England’s West Country, and Cornwall in particular, that has the greatest concentration of places boasting a link. Here, the myths, enriched by fellow Celts from Brittany and Wales, have established deep roots, so that, for example, the spirit of Arthur is said to be embodied in the Cornish chough – a bird now almost extinct. Cornwall’s most famous Arthurian site is his supposed birthplace, Tintagel, where Merlin apparently lived in a cave under the castle (he also resided on a rock near Mousehole, south of Penzance, according to some sources). Nearby Bodmin Moor is littered with places with names such as “King Arthur’s Bed” and “King Arthur’s Downs”, while Camlan, the battlefield where Arthur was mortally wounded fighting against his nephew Mordred, is associated with Slaughterbridge, on the northern reaches of the moor near Camelford (which is also sometimes identified as Camelot itself). At Dozmary Pool, the knight Bedivere was dispatched by the dying Arthur to return the sword Excalibur to the mysterious hand emerging from the water – though Loe Pool in Mount’s Bay also claims this honour. Arthur’s body, it is claimed, was carried after the battle to Boscastle, on Cornwall’s northern coast, from where a funeral barge transported it to Avalon (identified with Glastonbury in Somerset;).
In a superb position on a knuckle of cliffs overlooking fine golden sands and Atlantic rollers, its glorious natural advantages have made NEWQUAY the premier resort of north Cornwall. It is difficult to imagine a lineage for the place that extends more than a few decades, but the “new quay” was built in the fifteenth century in what was already a long-established fishing port, up to then more colourfully known as Towan Blistra. The town was given a boost in the nineteenth century when a railway was constructed across the peninsula for china clay shipments; with the trains came a swelling stream of seasonal visitors.
The centre of town is a somewhat tacky parade of shops and restaurants from which lanes lead to ornamental gardens and cliff-top lawns. The main attraction is the beaches. Surfing competitions and festivals run through the summer, when the town can get very crowded.
PADSTOW attracts nearly as many holiday-makers as Newquay, but has a very different feel. Enclosed within the estuary of the Camel – the only river outlet of any size on Cornwall’s north coast – the town has long retained its position as North Cornwall’s principal fishing port, and can boast some of the county’s best seafood restaurants. The harbour is jammed with launches and boats offering cruises in the bay, while a regular ferry carries people across the river to ROCK – close to the isolated church of St Enodoc (John Betjeman’s burial place) and to the good beaches around Polzeath. Padstow is also known for its annual Obby Oss festival, a May Day romp when a local in horse costume prances through the town preceded by a masked and club-wielding “teaser”, in a spirited re-enactment of an old fertility rite.
Despite its romantic name and its famous castle standing aloof on a promontory to the north, the village of TINTAGEL is for the most part a dreary collection of cafés and B&Bs. The wild and unspoiled coast around the village, though, provides an appropriate backdrop for the forsaken ruins of Tintagel Castle. It was the twelfth-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth who first popularized the notion that this was the birthplace of King Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and Ygrayne, though the visible ruins in fact belong to a Norman stronghold occupied by the earls of Cornwall. After sporadic spurts of rebuilding, the castle was allowed to decay, and most of it had been washed into the sea by the sixteenth century. The remains of a sixth-century Celtic monastery on the headland have provided important insights into how the country’s earliest monastic houses were organized.
Occupying a 160ft-deep crater whose awesome scale only reveals itself once you have passed the entrance at its lip, the
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
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 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.
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.
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 Lizard Village, where you’ll find several places to stay and eat.
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.