Visit the seaside county now for empty beaches, peaceful fishing villages and wild walking
CORNWALL'S SEASON OF PEACE
Porthcurno, with its distinctive cove and relative proximity to mainland Europe, was
heavily fortified during the Second World War. Today it’s home to the open-air Minack
Theatre, which is built into the cliff face
Autumn, winter and spring are good seasons to be in Penzance. The town’s position – looking east towards St Michael’s Mount and the Lizard across the great sweep of Mount’s Bay – affords views that are, of course, glorious during the summer months. But, out-of-season, the scenery becomes even more dramatic, giving it an altogether different sort of appeal. On a half-decent day, perhaps with grey cloud breaking to show the sun, the sea gleams silver and gold. The scents of salt and seaweed mingle in the soft air. A seafront stroll, taking the breeze deep into your lungs, watching and listening to the rhythm of the waves, is a singular delight to behold.
A little way back from the sea is one of Cornwall’s lesser-known treasures: the sub-tropical Morrab Gardens. With its curving paths and banks of shrubs, its acacias and Japanese quinces, its ornate bandstand and cast-iron fountain, it is a place to linger and sniff the scented air. A place to pause and admire the handsome cream frontage of the Morrab Library, a repository for the records detailing Cornwall’s rich heritage.
Summer lingers late in this far-flung outpost of England and spring comes early. West of Penzance and further inland extends the irregular chequerboard of Penwith’s fields. They are bounded with hedges, some immensely ancient and not really hedges as the rest of the country understands the term, but rather ramparts of stone, slate and earth, supporting tangles of bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn, their sides bright with wildflowers.
The cultivated daffodil, ready from late winter onwards in these mild climes, has become a staple of Cornish agriculture and many of the fields are now given over to the yellow-flowering bulbs. Later comes the Cornish new potato, considered by many connoisseurs – myself included – to be superior to the Jersey Royal. Cornwall has many natural blessings and chief among them is its climate. Although hot summers are no more likely here than anywhere else, its famous balminess throughout the other seasons brings wonderful surprises. You’re likely to encounter a summer’s day in November or February, or a spring day in deep midwinter. Severe winters are extremely rare and the prevalence of warm, moist southerly and south-westerly winds makes the region a paradise for gardeners and outdoor types who always remember to bring along a raincoat.
DASHED AGAINST THE ROCKS
Of course the Cornish coast is also celebrated for storms and tempest and ship-shattering gales. Thousands of wrecks litter its shores, and the graveyards of Cornish churches are filled with the victims of seafaring disasters. Greediest shipswallower of them all is The Manacles, a reef of saw-toothed rocks just out from
“WITH ITS CURVING PATHS AND BANKS OF SHRUBS, IT’S A PLACE TO LINGER AND SNIFF THE SCENTED AIR”
The fishing boats that sail out of Penberth Cove were once winched ashore by a capstan. Today, an electric winch fulfils that duty
Porthoustock. Low tide exposes some of the rocks while perniciously hiding others. On even the most benign day, the sea licks and sucks around the reef in the most threatening and sinister way.
The sea and the fractured dark cliffs define the character of the western Cornish coast. The seascapes are lovely in the sunshine and warmth but, with only a touch of dark savage weather, the other harsh, implacable side of their nature is revealed. The cliffs are not high compared with others along the Channel but they have an unyielding strength and severity about them that is equally impressive. They are scarred and battered and bruised by the sea but never broken.
THE CORNISH CHARACTER
That great nature writer and ornithologist, WH Hudson, spent a good deal of time in the far west of Cornwall in the first years of the 20th century, most of it in the winter. He wandered the moorlands and windswept forelands, musing on the habits of gulls and terns, observing the fishermen at work and trying – generally unsuccessfully – to identify traits in the Cornish character. He was fascinated by Land’s End – and gave his 1908 book about West Cornwall that very name – but was aware of the danger of its power and magic being sabotaged by crowds and commercial exploitation.
Hudson recommended dusk on a stormy winter’s day to experience “the raving of the wind, the dark ocean, the jagged, isolated rocks… the hoarse sounds of the sea, with hollow booming noises in the caverns beneath.” He urged that the Cornish landscape be taken into public ownership to prevent it being overwhelmed by the tackiness of commercial interest – but his warning was never heeded.
His Cornwall was a very different place at a very different time. Although the LondonPenzance railway had opened the region up to a degree, it remained very much another place, introverted and suspicious of outsiders, and dependent on its surviving industries – mainly tin and copper mining and china clay, combined with fishing and subsistence agriculture. St Ives, where
Hudson took lodgings, was overwhelmingly focussed on fishing, although the artists were beginning to arrive. 800 fishermen and their families were packed into what Hudson likened to a rabbit warren or ants’ nest. A century later there are still artists but the fishermen have mostly gone and tourism dictates the economic heartbeat.
LEGEND AND ROMANCE
The marketing of Cornwall as a tourist destination began with the arrival of the railway. The county had legend, romance, coves and beaches of dazzling sand, quaint villages, wild landscapes and seascapes, old ruins – everything any holidaymaker could want. So they came, in ever-increasing numbers. By 1959, Looe was said to have reached saturation point. Polperro was, according to the 1983 edition of The Shell
Book of the Coast, “so overcooked commercially that much of its original charm has disappeared”.
Planners warned that the holiday industry that had become the region’s lifeblood could eventually destroy the very features that
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP Centuries of crashing waves have carved the rocks at Land’s End into curious configurations; daffodils bloom in Penwith’s fields from February to May; find sub-tropical surroundings in Morrab Gardens, Penzance
Grassland, rocky outcrops, fine sand and crystal-clear waters combine to make Kynance Cove one of the most striking beaches in the world
ABOVE Pure white spume boils on the surface as the Atlantic hurls waves against the Land’s End coastline
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