Cornwall, land of myth and legend, is steeped in history, rich in culture, has provided inspiration to artists, poets and writers for centuries, and even has its own language. With its mild climate and varied landscape, for many years it has been one of the favourite tourist destinations in England, attracting both domestic and international visitors.
Given its position at the very end of the English mainland, Cornwall has a very high proportion of coastline relative to land mass, and provides both the most southerly point of Great Britain (the Lizard), and the mainland’s most westerly point (Land’s End). Because of its southerly location and the influence of the Gulf Stream, Cornwall enjoys the mildest and sunniest climate in the UK, and almost a third of the county has AONB status (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
The 422 miles of Cornish coastline include nearly half of the South West Coast Path – one of the jewels of the South West – and offer spectacular walking and very varied landscapes, with the added frisson of a reputed history of piracy, smugglers and wrecking. The coastline is formed mostly of high cliffs, punctuated by coves, bays, inlets and small harbours. The North coast, exposed to the full force of the Atlantic, is a starker, more rugged landscape, carved over the centuries by ferocious pounding storms. The dramatic cliffs stand proudly over magnificent stretches of golden sand, making it popular with families, while thrill seekers converge there for some of the best surfing beaches in Europe. The seas on the South coast are gentler, but the landscape is no less impressive: wooded valleys and river estuaries sweep over craggy cliffs down to the sea, interrupted periodically by pretty whitewashed fishing villages, sheltered river estuaries and sub-tropical gardens.
You can’t go far in Cornwall without becoming aware of its mining heritage, which has led to Cornish mining being declared a World Heritage Site in 2006, covering 10 sites from the Tamar Valley area in the East to St Just in the far West. The landscape was transformed by the growth of tin and copper mining in the 18th and 19th Centuries, which saw Cornwall become – for a time – the largest producer of tin, copper and arsenic in the world. The importance of mining meant that Cornwall made a substantial contribution to the Industrial Revolution, as developments in steam engine technology radically transformed hard rock mining. The crash in the copper market in the 1860s marked a sharp decline in the fortunes of the industry, and resulted in the migration of large numbers of miners to countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Africa – the Cornish diaspora – spreading their mining expertise across the globe. The engine house design so typical of the Cornish landscape can still be seen today in mining areas in those countries; as the old Cornish saying goes “a mine is a hole anywhere in the world with a Cornishman at the bottom of it”!
The heyday of Cornish mining also coincided with the most famous period in English garden history, and Cornwall, with its mild climate, boasts the highest concentration of grand gardens open to the public of any county in England. Many of these belong to some of the truly impressive houses which can be found the length and breadth of Cornwall, and you can take a walk through history as you visit them – Trematon in the Tamar Valley is a perfect miniature motte and bailey castle, built in 1350 for the Black Prince; nearby Cotehele is one of the best preserved Tudor houses in the country; Trerice, near Newquay, is one Elizabethan gem, and another is Mount Edgcumbe in Torpoint, described by Samel Pepys as “The Most Beautiful Place As Ever Was Seen”. Antony, Pencarrow, Lanhydrock, and Port Eliot are all famous names of some of the grand Cornish houses that capture some of the romance and history of the county. Then of course there is the iconic St Michael’s Mount, home to the St Aubyn family since 1650, but before that gifted to the Benedictines by Edward the Confessor in the 11th Century. Of course, no mention of Cornish gardens would be complete without at least a nod to Tim Smit’s magnificent Eden Project, born out of the china clay pits close to St Austell, and now home to the famous biomes and an extraordinary collection of plants from around the world. Another must-see is the Lost Gardens of Heligan, rediscovered in 1990 by Tim Smit and since restored to its former glory.
If walking around all those gardens leaves you hungry, then you’ve come to the right place. While having a Cornish pasty or a stargazy pie is still on the to-do list if you are here on holiday, these days it’s just as much about fine dining, and Cornwall now has a deserved reputation as something of a Mecca for foodies. The beauty of the countryside and the abundance of great quality local produce has attracted a lot of top name chefs to the county, from Big Daddy of them all Rick Stein in Padstow (or PadStein, as it is known locally…), to Jamie Oliver, Nathan Outlaw and Paul Ainsworth, all of whom have set up shop here. Local favourites include the Springer Spaniel at Treburley, The View at Millbrook, and Langmans in Callington. It’s not just about big name chefs though – with fabulous local ingredients available on the doorstep, there are plenty of cracking little restaurants and imaginative foodie cafes run by talented chefs who are passionate about their craft. Or should that be their art?
Speaking of which, art is another of Cornwall’s gifts to the nation. The county has always attracted artists, historically drawn in equal measure by the fantastic light and the low cost of living (Cornwall remains the poorest county in England, and one of the poorest in the EU, a fact belied by the price of property in many of its more scenic little fishing villages!). The famous so-called Newlyn School described a group of artists – including Arthur Munnings and Laura Knight – based in Newlyn from the 1880s to the early 19th Century, for the most part painting traditional seascapes and the working life of fishermen. The later St Ives School – at its peak in the 1950s and 60s – was more avant garde, and included influential artists such as Ben Nicholson and his wife Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon and Terry Frost. The spirit of the St Ives School is celebrated in Tate St Ives, which exhibits modern British artists, and also manages the Barbara Hepworth museum. This isn’t to say that art is the sole preserve of the west of the county – most towns have a gallery or several to mooch around, especially on the coast, and annual events such as Open Studios Cornwall and Drawn to the Valley enable visitors to get up close to the creative process.
Painters and sculptors aren’t the only ones to have taken inspiration from the Cornish landscape. The atmospheric moorland and rugged coastline have fired the imagination of many writers and provided the backdrop for many dramatic productions over the centuries. Daphne du Maurier’s works are some of the best known, with many of her titles such as Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and My cousin Rachel having also been turned into films. Rosamunde Pilcher is another prolific writer about Cornwall who has had her novels turned into films. The huge popularity of television adaptations of her novels in Germany has had a significant influence on German tourist numbers to the region. Then of course there is Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels, first televised in the 1970s and then remade in 2015, setting many a female heart aflutter! If theatre is more to your taste than television, then you should try to see a production by one of several award winning theatre groups in the county such as the Miracle Theatre Company and the Kneehigh Theatre Trust. It is also worth making the trip to Porthcurno, near Lands End, to see a production at what must surely be one of the most spectacular theatres in the world: the Minack open air theatre, carved into the cliffs overhanging the sea virtually single-handedly by Rowena Cade and her gardener, Billy Rawlings. On a warm summer evening, with dolphins playing in the sea beyond the stage, it is a truly magical experience.
Porthcurno is right down in the toe of Cornwall, but wherever you are in the county, you’re never more than 17 miles from the coast, so the beach is always accessible. There are more than 400 beaches around the coastline, and they offer possibly the widest variety of beaches in the UK, and are rated among the best in the world. On the north coast, names such as Fistral, Lusty Glaze, Gwithian and Crooklets are well known to surfers around the world. Every August, Newquay’s beaches host Boardmasters, which sees the world’s best surfers compete in the International Surf Competition, and also features a 5-day music festival. Further West, Porthminster Beach, with sweeping views over St Ives, is often considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The dramatic scenery of Land’s End has inspired people since ancient Greek times when it was referred to as ‘Belerion’, which means “place of the sun”. The most southerly point of the British mainland – the Lizard Peninsula – not only has dramatic scenery and beautiful woodland around the Helford River, but is also known as the birthplace of modern communication, as it was the centre of Marconi’s groundbreaking experiments wireless signal transmission in the early 20th Century. On the south coast, the Roseland Peninsula has been designated part of Cornwall’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for the quality of its landscape and coastal scenery. Travelling east from Roseland, the hidden gem of Lantic Bay – between the fishing towns of Fowey and Polperro – has near-white sand, giving the sea incredible turquoise hues; then before you reach the River Tamar – the border with Devon – Whitsand Bay offers 4 miles of stunning golden sand.
Inland, Cornwall is a land of contrasts. The rugged expanses of Bodmin Moor – the granite heart of the county – see Cornwall at its wildest. With dramatic tors rising out of the landscape, which is a mixture of natural and manmade features, this is a fantastic place for walking, with panoramic views and abundant wildlife. Up here you can also try your hand at a variety of watersports at Siblyback Lake Country Park, or take a stunning walk around the lake, against the backdrop of the Moor. To the east of Bodmin Moor you find the lush, gently rolling landscape of the Tamar Valley, with its meandering creeks and wooded inlets. West of Bodmin, the landscape carries reminders of its industrial past, with its china clay pits – now home to the Eden Project. Further west, beyond the elegant county town of Truro with its magnificent cathedral, you find Heartlands Cornwall, a celebration of the industrial heritage of the county, and gateway to the World Heritage Site of Cornish Mining.
For dog owners, it’s good to know that Cornwall is refreshingly dog-friendly. Many of the beaches welcome dogs all year round, though some have restrictions between Easter and October, so it is worth checking. A lot of popular tourist attractions such as the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan are now dog-friendly too: among others, you can take your dog to visit seals at the Seal Sanctuary at Gweek; ride on a steam train in the Lappa Valley; sample the wares at Healey’s Cornish Cyder Farm; or explore a number of castles, including Tintagel, Launceston, Restormel, St Mawes and Pendennis.
The beauty of Cornwall and its mild climate make it an attractive place to visit at any time of year. While the name tends to conjure up images of carefree childhood holidays spent building sandcastles, crabbing, rock pooling and swimming in the sea, once the children have gone back to school and the crowds thin, the Autumn brings gentle temperatures, mellow light, and the ability to enjoy all Cornwall has to offer, but without the hustle and bustle of the holiday crowds. As winter sets in – and it is rarely cruel in these parts – the opportunity for bracing walks on the moors, miles of deserted beach all to yourself, with a crackling fire and a welcoming pub at the end of it, lend it a special magic. Spring brings its own rewards, with riotous hedgerows and the splendour of Cornish gardens at their peak. Renowned the world over, this is the time when the rhododendron, azalea, magnolia and camellia that flourish in the acidic Cornish soils put on their best show. Kernow a’gas dynergh, as they say here – Welcome to Cornwall. Any time.