Cornwall, also known by its Celtic name Kernow, is the most south westerly point of the south west of England. It is surrounded by coast on all sides, except for its border with Devon. If you love open spaces, spectacular coasts, big Atlantic waves, and the lure of legends, then the wild heart of Cornwall will have you entranced.
This is not a county of big cities and urban pleasures. The pleasant city of Truro is the county’s administrative headquarters. Plymouth, just over the border in Devon, also has close links with much of Cornwall. This is a place to explore at your leisure, making the most of the big outdoors, the small arty communities, the excellent food, and the beauty of the coast.
Isles of Scilly
These islands are an archipelago off the southwest tip of Cornwall. St Agnes, one of these islands, is the most southerly point in the United Kingdom, being four miles south of the mainland and Lizard Point. With a population across all the islands of just over 2,000, this really is an unspoilt place, despite tourism being a major part of the local economy. Agriculture is also important, particularly the production of flowers, making the islands even more beautiful.
Five of the islands are inhabited, the most populated by far being St Mary’s, and its main settlement of High Town. The islands have been designated an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and there are populations of terns and seals, plus rare birds taking migratory breaks. During spring tides, it is possible to walk between most of the islands.
The islands can be reached from the mainland by plane, helicopter and the cargo and passenger ferry the Scillonian III. You can read more about beach life on the Isles of Scilly here.
Tintagel and King Arthur
Tintagel, a tiny village on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall, is a place of legend. It is said that Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, left his wife Igraine safe in Tintagel while he went to war. But Merlin the magician disguised Uther Pendragon as Gorlois, enabling him to make Igraine pregnant with the baby that would become King Arthur.
In Trevena, you’ll find King Arthur’s Hall, built for custard powder manufacturer F.T. Glasscock. It is designated at the headquarters of the “Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table” and has 73 stained glass windows illustrating the Arthurian legends. It is now a Masonic hall.
The Old Post Office and parts of the cliff including Barras Nose are owned by the National Trust. The South West Coast Path runs by the village. You’ll also find the Camelot Castle hotel standing isolated on land known as the Firebeacon. The Great Hall on the first floor is designed as a replica of the Winchester Round Table.
Tintagel used to be a parliamentary borough, its most notable member being Sir Francis Drake. Today botanists and ornithologists will have a fabulous time walking the cliffs.
The Eden Project
Just three miles out of St Austell, on the site of an old clay pit, you’ll spot this collection of biomes perched on the hillside. The Eden Project consists of two climate zones – rainforest and Mediterranean – and is stuffed with plants that reflect those locations. If you’re thinking big greenhouse, don’t, because this is a vast site full of otherworldly vibes.
There’s plenty of art at the Eden Project, and bands as diverse as Bastille and Blondie have played at the Eden Sessions. Over a million people visit each year, giving you some idea of the popularity of this site, and for good reason.
Newquay and Fistral Bay
Newquay is one of the most visited places in Cornwall because of its coastline and the nine accessible sandy beaches including Fistral. The town’s population of just over 20,000 can increase five-fold in the summer due to the large amount of holiday accommodation.
The South West Coast Path, which stretches for 630 miles, runs through the town. Here you’ll also find the Newquay Discovery Trail, made up of Cornish slate discs, each bearing a series of conundrum words.
Newquay is a centre for the surf industry in Britain, with surf stores, board manufacturers and hire shops in town. Fistral Beach has a reputation as one of the best beach breaks in Cornwall, with powerful hollow waves. The reef known as the Cribbar has waves breaking at up to 20 feet, and was first surfed in 1965. The annual Boardmasters Festival takes place at Fistral, which has hosted international surfing competitions for 20 years now. Part of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was filmed in Newquay.
The very name Land’s End conjures up all kinds of images of pounding sea and isolation. Land’s End is also often used to suggest distance, particularly when describing the journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats in Scotland. This journey of 838 miles is often used to set the distance for walks and charitable events.
Land’s End itself is at Peal Point, although you’ll find a hotel and tourist complex at Carn Kez, 200 metres to the south. Don’t forget to visit nearby Sennan Cove. Land’s End is popular with climbers. Just over a mile offshore, you’ll find the Longships, a group of rocky islets, the Seven Stones Reef and the Isles of Scilly, all of which are part of the mythical lost land of Lyonesse of Arthurian legend.
If you’re visiting Land’s End, then you really should take the four mile trip to the Minack Theatre. This is no ordinary theatre, but instead an open-air space with the most magnificent views. It is constructed on a rocky granite outcrop jutting into the sea; minack being Cornish for a stony or rocky place. The production season here runs from May to September, with around 80,000 people each year enjoying a show. More than this number visit the site each year.
Rowena Cade, sister of the feminist dystopian author Katharine Burdekin, was the woman responsible for the theatre. The village players had staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a nearby meadow, following which Miss Cade’s garden was used for the next production, The Tempest. A terrace and rough seating was constructed, and the site was progressively improved. The 75th anniversary of Minack was celebrated with a production of The Tempest.
The charmingly named port and village of Mousehole – pronounced Mousell – is just south of Penzance on Mount’s Bay. The port here, along with that of Marazion, was one of the principal ports in the 16th century, and therefore also a centre of commerce with fairs and markets. It was totally destroyed, along with the village, by a Spanish raid in 1595, the only surviving building being the Keigwin Arms.
The harbourside formerly boasted the Lobster Pot guest house, honeymoon destination for Dylan Thomas. Mousehole today is full of vibrant festivals. If you are here just before Christmas, you’ll find Tom Bawcock’s Eve on 23 December, commemorating the ending of a 16th century famine by this local resident. This festival inspired the book The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber. Also at this festival you’ll find the original Star Gazey Pie – a fish and potato pie with the heads of the fish protruding skywards through the pastry. Every second year, Mousehole holds a maritime festival called Sea, Salt and Sail.
Dolly Pentreath, the last recorded speaker of the Cornish language, is reported to have been from Mousehole, and there is a memorial to her in the village.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan
Named after a willow tree, these gardens near Mevagissey are one of the most popular botanical gardens in the UK. Full of distinctly different areas contrasting in design and style, the gardens were created by the Tremayne family from the mid 19th century, and restored in the 1990s.
The gardens are a real celebration of what nature can achieve, having colossal rhododendrons and camelias and a wild area full of subtropical tree ferns known as The Jungle. You’ll also find Europe’s only remaining pineapple pit, warmed by rotting manure. There are lakes, fed by a ram pump that’s over a century old, an Italian garden, flower and vegetable gardens. Look out for the beautiful Mud Maid figure made from rocks and plants, recumbent on her side. There’s also the iconic Giant’s head.
Bodmin is a granite moorland, including Brown Willy, the highest point in Cornwall. The site has been inhabited since Neolithic times, when farmers clearing the land left monuments, hut circles and cairns. More Bronze Age stone circles and stone rows followed. You’ll find King Arthur’s Hall, believed to be a ceremonial site, to the east of St Breward.
You’ll also find plentiful cattle, sheep and ponies on the moor, plus enough rare birds for this to be a favourite spot for birdwatchers. Look closely enough, and you might spot the Beast of Bodmin, depicted as a large cat.
St Ives can be found north of Penzance and west of Camborne on the Atlantic coast. Formerly dependent on fishing, it is now a seaside resort, with a focus on its role as a centre for artists. Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery, set up the Leach Pottery in 1920. Leach himself produced work until 1972, and the Pottery remains operational with a small museum.
The foundation of the artists’ colony began in 1928, with Barbara Hepworth settling there in 1939. In 1993, a branch of the Tate Gallery – Tate St Ives – opened. It looks after the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. The town also attracted international artists such as Piet Mondrian and Maurice Sumray. Troika studio pottery began work in St Ives in 1963.
The St Ives September Festival lasts for 15 days, and is one of the longest and widest-ranging arts festivals in the UK. It includes music, poetry, film, spoken word and books.
Foodie Pleasures In Cornwall
You’ll find plenty of gastronomic treats in Cornwall. Respect for the produce of the seas and the local fishing industry has driven chefs to the county, including Rick Stein to Padstow. But Cornwall also has traditional treasures.
If you’ve not had a Cornish Pasty yet, you’re in for a treat. This highly portable confection was originally designed to encase food for mine workers. At that time the pastry case had one end full of savoury meaty delights, and the other end filled with jam to act as dessert, a pastry bridge keeping the two separate. Probably it wasn’t wise to take too big a bite at the end of your main course. Now you can get all kinds of flavours encased in rich shortcrust or puff pastry. To my mind, a pasty is best eaten hot from the bakery, perched on a harbour wall.
Don’t forget the delights of the cream tea too. There is some minor teasing as to whether the cream tea is from Devon or Cornwall, although beautiful thick clotted cream is readily available in both counties. Sit down to a fine pot of tea, accompanied by scones warm from the oven and topped with preserves and clotted cream. Allegedly if you’re from Devon, the cream goes on first and then the jam, and if you’re Cornish, it’s the other way round. Also you might enjoy the Cornish variant of clotted cream and treacle, known as thunder and lightning (and a mighty fine storm too).
More English Explorations
You can find out more about visiting Cornwall here.
If you’ve loved Cornwall, then why not call in further up the coast to explore Devon, which also has two beautiful coasts. For similar tranquility and open spaces, Herefordshire has plenty of outdoor pursuits and a history that required a plethora of castles and fortifications. If you want to see more of the English coast, we’ve found you its best beaches (and the best beaches in Wales too).
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