Druids, surfers, artists, pirates, fisherman and King Arthur – what have they got in common? Cornwall, that’s what.
The little bit hanging off the bottom left of England, Cornwall actually wants to be its own country and I can see why. It’s got everything you could need, is a little promontory anyway, and is being inundated by ‘incomers’, those city folk with money to burn on weekend houses who displace the locals by driving up prices, and unbalance the local economy and community spirit.
Or that’s what the Cornish say. And they’re definitely not the only ones having this problem around the world. But if you’re going to live in such a beautiful place, easily reachable from a big city – 3.5 hours by car, 5 by train from London – what do you expect?
Ahh, the cliffs of Porthcurnow
I’ve been to Cornwall twice now. The first time I stayed in the house of a friend of a friend’s uncle right on the clifftop at Porthcurnow. Lovely. Stepping out of the front gate onto a clifftop overlooking the endless sea. And walking along the cliff paths to the next town for a pub lunch or a bit of shopping.
Along the way we would pass the Minack Theatre, a fabulous outdoor amphitheatre set right in the cliff. We even went to a performance of Macbeth – Shakespeare’s plays and The Pirates of Penzance are some favourites performed here – and, while not the best production I have ever seen, the setting made it so magical I would go again and again and again. (Though take a cushion and a blanket.)
The Minack Theatre began life in the early 1930s thanks to Rowena Cade who lived with her mother in the house they built on Minack Headland. The local theatre group was looking for a place to stage The Tempest so Cade had a rough stage built in a natural amphitheatre with car batteries providing lighting. She died in 1983, aged 90, and the theatre is now run by a trust. You can also visit during the day and just sit and watch the sea for hours.
Porthcurno, like many of the Cornish towns, is small and calm. It has a lovely sandy beach between steep cliffs. And it’s only a few miles from Land’s End. We went and sat at Land’s End for a while and gazed into the distance, thinking of all those lands faraway. Really, it’s just like any other clifftop but there’s something about the name that suggest significance. I mean, yes, it is where the Atlantic Ocean hits Britain, and it is spectacularly beautiful. But you have to hand it to people: they’ve put in attractions such as a Doctor Who spectacular, a petting zoo, craft exhibits, and shops as well as the inevitable milepost pointing to London, Sydney etc.
In collaboration with the BBC and The Open University they also have a recent exhibit about the coast, and sea search and rescue, and a multimedia history of the area including stories of pirates, wreckers and witches, local myths and legends. So, kids love it and also learn a thing or two. Not totally shameless money spinning on a barren piece of cliff then…
Bless the wreckers & pirates
Wreckers and pirates are one of my favourite things about Cornwall. I’m sure I wouldn’t be so fond of them if I’d ever encountered any. Yet there is something so wildly romantic about these tough people who understood the wilds of the weather and the sea and had no qualms in turning their local knowledge to profit. Sure, luring ships onto the rocks at night was actually quite evil and I don’t really approve of that behaviour. But you have to admit that if a ship happened to go aground and its cargo happened to wash up near you, you’d be massively tempted to take a bit of it home. I remember news of a cargo ship going aground not that long ago and the authorities were amazed to find people taking things off the beach. Isn’t that just called beach combing?
This visit, I stayed in a deserted old house further along the coast at Prussia Cove. This is a private estate on a wild piece of coast, with holiday cottages for rent.
The cove was the home of a smuggler who called himself the King of Prussia and it was not hard to imagine him coming home in his boat to this rugged cove with all his booty. Rumour had it there is a tunnel in the cliffs.
This is not a holiday destination for the faint hearted. It’s deserted, the cottages all quite separate, the cliffpaths long and lonely. The beaches wild and rocky. I loved it. Another rumour is that there is buried treasure and mermaids in these parts…
Cornwall beaches, windsurfing, ruins
If you want a family beach holiday head to the other side of Cornwall, to St Ives with its two sandy beaches. Or head for Mousehole. A gorgeous little fishing village with a seawall to protect the fleet and create the impression of it’s being a mousehole. Whitewash houses crowd together in windy narrow streets, and cats lie in the sun on the stone walls overlooking the fishing boats.
You can also go to Marazion, Britain’s oldest town, founded by the Romans. Here you can windsurf and sail, or just wander on the beach. When we were there, a couple was getting married on the beach. At low tide you can walk out to St Michael’s Mount, a castle town on an island. Spectacular. And the family still live in the castle!
A different experience is Northern Cornwall. Here you find Tintagel, the legendary ruined castle said to be home to King Arthur and Camelot. Nearby is Bodmin Moor, said to be the resting place of the famous magical sword Excalibur. Merlin apparently still walks the caves of Tintagel. All of this has naturally helped the area become a tourist magnet so there are shops and cafes galore. But nothing can ruin the natural, wild beauty of the coastline.
More things to do in Cornwall
Dotted around Cornwall are other historical mysteries: standing stones and stone circles. These ancient relics dot the fields and moors and are not hard to find if you check directions on the internet or via books. One of my favourite musicians, Julian Cope, has thoroughly researched these antiquities and come up with a book of over 300 sites, The Modern Antiquarian. It’s quite impressive. In homage to him, my friends and I crawled around and through quite a few of these rocks. And if we can find them, anyone can. We visited one that is a perfect circle and is believed to improve fertility if you crawl through it. Another is a circle of 19 stones said to be maidens turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. It’s like visiting a secret version of Stonehenge – no crowds, no fences, no motorway.
Cornwall is also home to the world famous Eden Project. In a disused clay pit, it opened in 2001, housing plants from all over the world in two simulated environments: a tropical Rainforest dome (the largest greenhouse in the world) and a Mediterranean dome. It also includes a large educational area, looking at plants and their role in the environment, medicine etc. To fund their expensive work, the Eden Project has a programme of events, including concerts and an ice rink in winter.
Nearby is another plant-based attraction, The Lost Gardens of Heligan. Once the private gardens of a large estate owned by the local Tremayne family, they fell into ruin after the first world war when most of the gardeners were killed in the fighting. Until the 1990s, when a private group decided to restore them, which became the subject of a Channel 4 documentary series. Now the gardens are one of the most visited in the UK. There are glasshouses that once supplied the grand house, pleasure gardens including themed Italian gardens, pools and summerhouses. There’s also a Lost Valley, jungle area, lakes, and a wildlife project enabling visitors to watch the wildlife via hidden cameras: Big Brother for animals. The café just won Silver in the Cornwall tourism awards for 2008.
I’m not sure they’ll ever succeed in becoming their own country, even though they proudly fly the black and white Cornish flag. But Cornwall is certainly distinctive. You could spend months there and not run out of things to do. Just don’t be lured into the wild seas by mermaids or wreckers.