Cornwall for Beginners
I first went to Cornwall in 1970 in the company of a then girlfriend, one Sarah McKay, and her parents. Her father, Bill McKay, had been stationed in a remote part of Cornwall during his military service and had become fascinated by it, or rather by one village in particular. Ever since he had found an excuse to visit there nearly every year since. I suppose that at the time I probably considered it odd to keep on returning to the same place, year after year. Well the girlfriend has long gone, but little did I realise then that my affection for Cornwall would grow over the years to reach the same proportions. I must have visited more than a dozen times in the last 30 years, and what follows is my own personal, and highly biased, account of Cornwall.
In would be very easy to tour Cornwall, and come away having seen only the grotty bits (of which there are lots) and be convinced that it was a dump. It is a county that hides it's charms well, not unlike Fife, and more than a few folk have made this observation as to why I like it so much. The interior of Cornwall is largely scrubby moorland, pockmarked by centuries of mining, tin, lead, copper and the disfiguring china clay works. The north coast is dramatic with steep cliffs and rolling Atlantic seas, some of the more famous resorts, Newquay in particular, were no doubt once glorious, but to my eye they are a tacky morass of B&Bs, candy floss and lager louts. St Ives and Padstow are honourable exceptions.
The south coast however is the real secret, softer and more secretive, redolent of smugglers, Daphne Du Maurier and all that stuff. Much of this has sadly been spoiled, Polperro is famous but foul, Mevagissy the same, but Looe is rescued by its harbour and shark fishing. The furthest tip of the peninsula around Lands End draws the tourists, and Peter de Savary's money, but in truth it is rather barren and dull. But the true axis of my personal Cornwall is the Fowey river, with it's twin towns of Fowey and Polruan.
Arguably my second home. This is the village that captivated Bill McKay all those years ago. Obviously the magic hasn't worn thin for him yet, as I bumped into him there some years back. Nor has it waned for me, and on those years that we don't go there I always feel that my summer has somehow been incomplete. You would never go to Polruan by accident. Nothing on the map would lead you there and there is a fairly tortuous journey off the main road to get there, culminating in several miles of Cornwall's infamous high hedges. Just imagine driving through a green tunnel, scarcely broader than your car. Polruan is best appreciated by actually living there, but a must to visit none the less. There is a simple but comfortable caravan site at the top of the village, but there is a formidable hill down to the village, and car parking is restricted to a car park half way down (but what a view!)
Polruan is truly unspoiled. Sure there are a lot of white settlers and second homes, but no candy floss in sight.
There are two pubs "The Lugger" and "The Russell".
The Lugger is the more obviously touristy, but the cod and chips in the Russell is worth the hill! The local beer is an acquired taste mind you! If you are as enchanted by the place as I am, and want to avoid the blasted hill, try Polruan Cottages (on the web now). All the properties are much loved second homes, rather than grotty holiday flats. There is nothing to do in Polruan, but I doubt if you would be bored. The Hall walk is wonderful (4 miles), the point, the Headland garden on a Thursday, pints on the quay, and watch the world go by. Enjoy.
Take the foot ferry over to Fowey and experience another truly original place. Once a rough and ready piratical port, it grew to Victorian respectability and glamour, and then time froze it. It is unique in my experience, and one of the few places I know where I can spend days apparently doing nothing much, but happy as a pig in pig poo! Fowey is quite a vibrant and busy place, especially around the English school holidays, but it has a sort of faded stiff upper lip Englishness to it that is most endearing. Apart from the yachting community, it too is still largely undiscovered by the thronging hordes, and long may it remain so.
Fowey is alive with shops, some excellent restaurants (the best, though quite expensive is "Food for Thought" on the quay). Fowey also boasts the best fish shop in the known universe "Fowey Fish". It doesn't look much but you will get good old fashioned service from people who know what they are talking about. The owner is called Graham, don't choose anything, just take what he recommends, and his lobsters and crabs are a bargain. Ask nicely and I suspect he could organise sea fishing too, if you are of a mind.
The rest of Fowey is for you to discover, from the car ferry at Boddinnick, to Readymoney beach at the other, and don't miss the walk out to Gribben Head and Polridmouth beach if the weather and the legs hold.
Places to visit
In no real order of preference there are lots of places worthy of a trip.Truro, a lovely city with the best shops in the county by a long chalk, and not too big either.
The Eden Project, absolutely unmissable, a modern wonder. Buy tickets in advance at tourist offices, avoid the the queue.The Lost Gardens of Heligan. The project that Tim Smit completed before he went on to do the Eden Project. Deservedly popular.
Charlestown, where they filmed the Onedin Line, and sells good smoked sausages and cold smoked mackerel
National Trust; Lanhydrock and Cothele are excellent but my favourite is probably Trerice (excellent lunches as I remember!)
Up the Fowey estuary are some sleepy places, Lerryn at high tide (or take a river cruise), The church at St Winnow is just glorious, and Golant is not bad too.Loe Pool at Porthleven, an amazing phenomenon, a sand spit that separates a fresh water lake from the sea.
Push the boat out and take a Helicopter day trip to the Scilly Isles from Penzance.
St Ives, about as large as I can handle, but there are still some talented artists from the old Newlyn School working there, and some excellent galleries, including the new Tate St Ives.
Trelissick gardens, The King Harry Ferry, and a fish supper in St Mawes.... never fails!Further away, but Totnes in Devon is a real jewel, as is Bovey Tracy if you are into pottery. Dartmouth is impressive too, and Exmouth has that magic faded glory of Ye Olde 50's seaside resort gone to seed.. love it!
Looe, HQ of the British Shark Fish Association, nice place but too many people.
Places to avoid
Newquay, lovely beaches, hideous people.
Plymouth, horrid re-built city centre
Penzance, boring, ditto Lands End area
Polperro, Tackerama! They probably invented the shell suit here!
Bodmin, re-defines the word dull!
Carlyon Bay resort, horrendous!
Things to read
This is a bit rich really coming from me, the original non-reader of books, but there is something about being ensconced in Polruan that makes me want to read. And the best things to read are those that have some bearing on the place. You simply cannot go to Fowey and not be aware of two great English writers, Daphne Du Maurier and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known as "Q". Both of them lived in and around Fowey, and need no further introduction from me.
The real undiscovered gem is Leo Walmsley. Leo was one of the early bohemians, he fled from Yorkshire in the 30s and lived in a little cabin up a fairly desolate creek near Polruan. Here he married and raised a family and wrote about in his charming novel "Love in the Sun". Read this at home and it will seem like so much old tosh, but read it in Polruan and fight your way up the creek to find the spot where this all happened, and you will love it. For a second helping try "Paradise Creek" his further adventures in the same spot after the war.
There are also two Jonathan Raban books (my very favourite author) which have a very strong connection to this area, and which I highly recommend. "Coasting" is a travelogue which starts in Polruan where he buys a boat, and where he lodged while it was fettled in Toms yard. "Foreign Land" is his only novel to date and it doesn't take much imagination to see what inspired much of it. Although he never says it, it seems transparently obvious to me that it is based around the Fowey estuary.