Cornwall may well be firmly attached to mainland England, but this spectacular county on the rugged southwestern tip has its own blend of unique charm and beauty that perfectly separates it from the rest of the country. Cornwall’s reach extends considerably into the Celtic Sea, forming a jagged peninsula culminating at the promontory of Land’s End, giving the impression of an island, rather than an adjunct to the mainland. The encompassing countryside of wild moorland adjacent to sandy beaches, interspersed with deep pockets of lush rainforest and quaint fishing villages, has attracted English holiday makers for centuries. The south coast, dubbed the Cornish Riviera, is home to picturesque harbour villages such as Fowey and Falmouth, while the north coast is lined with towering cliffs and seaside resorts like Newquay, known for its surfing culture and nightlife scene. Not to mention the once remote but now popular Port Isaac which fans of that well-loved televised series Doc Martin will recognise.
There is something about holidaying in Cornwall that feels almost familiar. Perhaps the scene is reminiscent of my childhood in Australia, summer days spent running barefoot along hot, sandy white beaches while the sharp perfume of banksia and seaweed, tinged with the unmistakable scent of sunscreen, fills the salty air. Though laced with the nostalgia of childhood memories, this landscape of Cornwall differs greatly from the beachside towns of coastal Australia. Even though it is difficult to impress an Australian when it comes to beaches, Cornwall’s coast is breathtaking in its rugged beauty. Especially on a cool spring day, with the chill of winter still apparent in the air, there is a sense of romance as you gaze out onto a dazzling sapphire sea.
While on a recent weeklong sightseeing holiday I managed, in the company of my mum and my husband, to explore quite a bit of Cornwall’s enigmatic landscape. We visited a magnificent old manor home, whose grand exterior resembled that of an ancient, fortified castle. We trapsed through acres of lush, overgrown gardens, full of exotic plantings with heart stopping views into the valleys below. We even trekked through the world’s largest indoor rainforest housed beneath the protection of huge tropical biomes nestled within an enormous crater in a reclaimed china clay pit. As a county Cornwall is as varied and diverse as it is beautiful, and the best way to experience Cornwall’s charms is to leave plenty of time to explore a handful of the picturesque port towns that reside there.
By no means an exhaustive list, here are three of my favourite towns that, together, will give you a little insight as to why Cornwall is so loved by residents and tourists alike.
It was a day of cloud and sunshine, the sun blinking in and out, the soft sweet air spiced by the freshness of the salt breeze.
– Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers.
Coincidentally while visiting Cornwall, I was reading Rosamunde Pilcher’s evocative novel The Shell Seekers. Born in Cornwall, the author features so many wonderfully rich descriptions of the Cornish coastal villages that I really experienced a sense of place when visiting these magical locations. And serendipitously, St Ives was the inspiration for the character’s fictional childhood home of Porthkerris. “…. That rugged claw of England where, once, she had lived, and loved and been young.”
Known for its rich, artistic legacy and pretty, sheltered bay, St Ives is perhaps one of Cornwall’s most visited destinations. Artists were drawn to the spectacular light that reflected off the languid waters below the town, and St Ives has been home to many creatives including Bernard Leach, revered as the Father of British Studio Pottery, as well as sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was a leading figure in the colony of artists that resided in St Ives during the Second World War. Their unique artistic legacy can still be felt in the town today. Tate St Ives is an art gallery proudly and prominently situated in the town, exhibiting work by modern British artists with links to the St Ives area. The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden has also been part of their management since 1980.
“They will come, not to paint the bay and the sea and the boats and the moors, but the warmth of the sun and the colour of the wind. A whole new concept. Such stimulation. Such vitality.”
– Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers.
It is a delightfully warm summery day for our visit and the town is awash with humanity; tourists, pale-faced and travel-weary, local families with strings of children in tow, faces smothered in the melted remains of some sugary ice cream treat. Elderly couples wander hand in hand as though time had lost all importance, stopping now and then to watch with affection as children build sandcastles along the water’s edge, and happy dogs splash about in search of far-flung sticks and chewed up old tennis balls.
The languid harbour, washed in the softness of late May’s sunshine, looks like a Victorian landscape painting – if not for the colourful, gaudy boardshorts and rubber flip flops found in abundance – and one could stand for hours, mesmerised by the gaiety of holiday life. We wander on, past striped wooden deck chairs occupied by stuporous sunbathers with reddening faces, towards the old time-worn jetty to find a new perspective from which to admire the town. Seagulls soar overhead or settle on weather worn posts to survey the world around them, watching with yellow eyes for fallen hot chips and screeching with defiance at nothing in particular. Although St Ives is a beloved holiday destination during the summer months, the coastal town is still a working harbour and the prime position on the jetty is the ideal place to watch as the local fishing boats, resplendent in their primary colours, ebb in and out of the bay.
We wander aimlessly, peeling off the remains of our winter layers to absorb the gentle warmth from the midday sun. Muddled streets are lined with ice cream parlours, surf shops, and laidback establishments where one can partake in a nice glass of something cool and refreshing. And why not linger on, when the atmosphere is one of such holiday cheer.
Referred to as Pad-Stein by locals for its inherent connection to local celebrity chef Rick Stein, Padstow is an elegant little town tucked along the Camel Estuary, about a one-hour drive north of St Ives. Somewhere between a working fishing fleet, and a well-known foodie hotspot – thanks largely to the gastronomic influence of Rick Stein – Padstow manages to perfectly balance the old-world charm of Cornwall’s seaside towns with a fresh, contemporary comfort that appeals to DFL’s (Down From Londoners), families, nature lovers, and gastronomes alike. In a town that has become so synonymous with its celebrity resident (Stein now splits his time between Padstow and his home in Mollymook, Australia that he shares with his Australian wife Sarah) you could be forgiven for assuming that Padstow has become a tourist trap. While wandering the cobbled alleyways you will be greeted with numerous signs of Stein’s presence; The Seafood Restaurant, now in residence for over forty years, holds prime position at the edge of the harbour, St Petroc’s Bistro, Rick Stein’s Café and Stein’s Fish and Chips are all scattered throughout the town. You will even spy ex-wife Jill’s Padstow-inspired homewares dotted throughout shop windows- yet the town has managed to retain its period charm. It seems that Stein’s presence has not only drawn much deserved attention to the region’s high-quality seafood, but it has also cemented Padstow as a place which simultaneously celebrates both its cultural history as well as its legacy of the past.
We visit Padstow on the recommendation of a food loving friend, who assures us that The Seafood Restaurant is one of the best places to go for a leisurely lunch, with freshly caught seafood dishes cooked to perfection by head chef Pete Murt. With time to spare, we meander towards a coastal pathway that leads upwards past Greens of Padstow, a family friendly restaurant overlooking the bay, and then up further into a wildflower meadow with sweeping views out across the silken estuary and into the curved headland beyond. Bright red poppies and tufts of swaying wild grasses accompany us along the way until we reach a small summit flanked by a series of lawns which slope down towards a winding coastal pathway leading to a vast stretch of pristine, sandy beaches that seem to disappear into the horizon.
With scarcely enough time to enjoy the view, we head back into the narrow lanes of the old town to enjoy our well-earned lunch. The restaurant is far more elegant and well decorated than I had imagined and the contemporary atmosphere in stark contrast to the charming fishing village outside. As we arrive at opening time, we are seated only to find head chef Pete Murt enjoying a moment of calm before the lunchtime rush ensues and he is whisked off back into the kitchen to wield his culinary magic. As he rises, he smiles warmly and says that he had better get to work, and wishes us a very pleasant meal, adding playfully that he will do his best! Needless to say, we enjoyed an excellent meal in beautiful surroundings in one of the prettiest towns in Cornwall, and I look forward to returning to explore further along that coastal path.
Perhaps a little less well known than its famous neighbouring towns of St Ives and Padstow, Mevagissey is perched over on the east coast of Cornwall and is nestled within a protected harbour amongst some of Cornwall’s most breathtaking coastal scenery. In summer, the town is a picture postcard perfection of quaint shops, dripping ice creams, sea breeze, and fish and chips. Having arrived rather early in the morning when only the fishermen and a couple of stray cats were active, we encountered some rather unseasonal cold and windy weather, which felt more like a wild winter’s day than the end of spring. The moody ambiance, combined with the low tide, creates an enchanting atmosphere that only enhances the beauty of the harbour and shrouds the town in a fine mist of salty air, giving the entire place a sense of romantic mystery.
“There was a smell in the air of tar and rope and rusted chain, a smell of tidal water. Down harbour, around the point, was the open sea. Here was the freedom I desired, long sought for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone.”
– Daphne du Maurier
Even though this quote is referencing du Maurier’s beloved Fowey, the timelessness of Mevagissey evokes similar sentiments. The town, with its quintessential winding cobbled alleyways and old-fashioned fudge shops, is lovely in its own merit. However, it is the working harbour, littered with painted fishing boats whose swollen, wooden bodies have become temporarily stranded on the harbour floor, that captivates. An inner quay, surrounded by two outer harbour walls, allows visitors a rare glimpse of a fishing fleet up close, and you could easily spend an hour or two just watching the activity as the fishermen go about their day. The colours and textures of the seabed which became exposed with the withdrawn tide were varied and worthy of any artist’s palette, while the smaller boats appeared perfectly placed among the seaweed and sand, just waiting to be captured by the artistry of a painter’s eye.
The coast around the harbour is home to grey seals, which outside of Cornwall and Scotland are very rare. We were informed by a friendly local that the seals around Mevagissey were particularly plump – perhaps due to the abundance of pilchards, the town’s once thriving fishing industry – and that if we sat long enough, we would be sure to spot at least one. Unfortunately, we went home without a single seal sighting. However, we felt buoyed by the small packages of homemade fudge tucked safely into my tote bag to be savoured and much enjoyed later that evening.