From the Iron Age to the TV age, a beau­ti­ful back­drop

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY NANCY NATHAN

Corn­wall, at the stun­ningly beau­ti­ful south­west­ern tip of Eng­land, was too much for the Ro­mans and the Sax­ons, who halted their in­va­sions of Bri­tain be­fore they got that far, leav­ing rocky Corn­wall to the Celtic tribes who con­trolled the area first in­hab­ited in about 10,000 B.C.

It’s still no pic­nic to get down to Corn­wall, and you re­ally need a car to ex­plore it. My hus­band, Dave, and I had driven many other parts of Eng­land and Scot­land, he putting up with my cathe­dral ob­ses­sion, I sup­port­ing his golf habit, both of us ap­pre­ci­at­ing the lay­ers of his­tory from pre­his­toric to Vic­to­rian in so many spots. I con­vinced him that be­fore we stopped ex­plor­ing the British hin­ter­lands we should make a point of see­ing out-of-the-way, largely un­changed Corn­wall. We knew it would be spe­cial.

The small penin­sula re­wards the in­trepid trav­eler. In long ex­panses, it is

changed from the Iron Age, when fields were squared off by low stone out­lines, which you still can make out on green hill­sides by the sea. In fact, it is only the oc­ca­sional ru­ined tin mine that in­ter­rupts vast mo­saics of heather and gorse, stretch­ing from the coast roads to rocky cliffs.

D.H. Lawrence wrote an ode to Corn­wall’s “high shaggy moor hills, and big sweep of lovely sea.” He lived in the tiny town of Zen­nor when English painters and writ­ers were drawn by the coast’s un­matched scenery and bril­liant light and es­tab­lished an artists’ colony at nearby St. Ives 100 years ago.

Lawrence stayed at the 13th­cen­tury Tin­ner’s Arms, which is tucked into a hill­side and where vis­i­tors still can en­joy a pint of Tin­ner’s Ale. A few yards from the inn is the main at­trac­tion at Zen­nor: a very large rough carv­ing, made in the 15th cen­tury, of a mer­maid on the end of a pew in the Church of St. Se­nara. The leg­end is that she was at­tracted to the town by a young man’s songs. Noth­ing seems to sym­bol­ize Corn­wall’s mar­riage to the sea like the lovely long-haired mer­maid, comb in one hand, mir­ror in the other.

The Mer­maid of Zen­nor, whose leg­end has in­spired books and films, echoes an­other Cornish land­mark that also is the stuff of leg­end: the Merry Maid­ens, a late Stone Age cir­cle of 19 stand­ing stones just a few miles away, be­lieved to date to 2500 B.C. The leg­end says the maid­ens were pet­ri­fied for danc­ing on the Sab­bath. The cir­cle is said to be the most per­fect of those dot­ting Corn­wall’s very south­west­ern end. There are about 150 Bronze Age (from about 2200 to 700 B.C.) or ear­lier mon­u­ments — stone cir­cles, tombs, stand­ing stones — in the area.

The sites are un­guarded, and also largely ig­nored. When we were at the Merry Maid­ens, the only thing stir­ring was a hun­dred yards away, where a farmer was mow­ing around two tall stand­ing stones known as the Pipers, which leg­end says played for the danc­ing maid­ens. The an­cient mon­u­ments re­main largely undis­turbed de­spite the ages of English his­tory that have passed in that small penin­sula.

Crown­ing hill­sides and stand­ing along the coast in this same small cor­ner of Corn­wall are tow­er­ing cylin­dri­cal stone stacks, rem­nants of de­serted tin mines. They glow in the sun and are strangely ro­man­tic, al­though they sur­vive the Vic­to­rian min­ing hey­day that ex­acted an enor­mous hu­man toll. Driv­ing the coast road called Tin­ner’s Way you pass se­vere stone vil­lages from which en­tire fam­i­lies trekked sev­eral miles to the mines. (Women and chil­dren sifted tin from rock above; men worked deep below.) This is “Poldark” coun­try, where the BBC filmed the hit se­ries about an English­man re­turned from the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion who re­vives his fam­ily’s derelict tin mine.

While we had a rental car, we found that the best way to see the Ne­olithic sites and the min­ing stacks of the Pen­with penin­sula is to hire one of the lo­cal ex­pert guides for a half- or full-day group or pri­vate tour. Their fees are low, they pro­vide won­der­ful com­men­tary and they pick you up. We saw sev­eral of the most significant sites in a half-day tour. With­out a guide, find­ing them is tricky. Many of the back roads are paved cow paths tun­nel­ing through an­cient Cornish Hedges, tow­er­ing rock walls con­tain­ing soil and vines that can ter­ror­ize a rental-car driver.

We con­tin­ued up Corn­wall’s West coast, to lovely St. Ives, where I de­clared the fa­mous Porth­min­ster Beach Cafe’s ver­sion of fish and chips the win­ner of my trip­long per­sonal sur­vey. A few miles far­ther north is tiny Port Isaac, the set­ting for the BBC se­ries “Doc Martin,” a com­edy/drama about the town’s only doc­tor, the ninth and fi­nal sea­son of which will be aired next year. And no won­der that it was cho­sen for film­ing. It’s the quin­tes­sen­tial un­spoiled fish­ing vil­lage, with stark, white build­ings against bright-green hill­sides, above huge, dark-gray rocks and truly sparkling blue wa­ter.

So far, Port Isaac seems to have con­trolled tourism by chan­nel­ing cars into lots be­fore they reach the edge of town. While we had Pen­with’s stone cir­cles and the Mer­lit­tle maid of Zen­nor to our­selves, this was an­other story. We paid to join a “Doc Martin” walk­ing tour that set off from the May Con­tain Nuts cafe on the path en­ter­ing town. The oth­ers on our tour were true DM afi­ciona­dos, in­ter­rupt­ing the guide (a guy who was ea­ger to tell the flock about his role as an ex­tra) with prob­ing ques­tions about which house be­longed to which char­ac­ter in the show.

“Doc Martin” is cur­rent BBC roy­alty. But as we walked back to our car, we spied in the dis­tance and around an­other breath­tak­ing cove, our next stop: Tin­tagel, birth­place of King Arthur and site of Camelot — if there was a King Arthur or a Camelot. An ex­cel­lent ex­hibit at the foot of the cliff­side cas­tle ru­ins lays out the roots of the Arthurian leg­end and makes a good case that some­one like Arthur lived there.

Just about ev­ery­thing you visit in Corn­wall is tough to reach, whether be­cause of nar­row roads or re­mote­ness. But Tin­tagel presents a new chal­lenge: you walk across a wide chasm, cre­ated in the 14th cen­tury by a “land­fall” that sep­a­rated the cas­tle’s cliff from the main­land. The climb is up 100 steep steps on a nar­row, ver­ti­cal path, with oth­ers com­ing down as you work your way to the top, try­ing not to look at the huge rocks below. The day of our visit was sunny; I can­not imag­ine the climb on a wet day.

Tin­tagel is prob­a­bly one of the three best-known Cornish tourist sites. An­other — the Eden Project — is 30 miles across the penin­sula to its East Coast and as new as Tin­tagel is an­cient. Two tow­er­ing biodomes, com­pris­ing the largest green­houses on Earth, were built in 2001 and con­ceived by Sir Tim Smit, who was de­ter­mined to demon­strate the in­ter­de­pen­dence of peo­ple and plants.

The larger biodome contains a rain for­est with ev­ery sort of tree, col­or­ful birds, small mam­mals, vines, wa­ter­falls, sky­ways and pools. The smaller (but still enor­mous) dome houses a Mediter­ranean ecol­ogy. Dur­ing the sum­mer Eden is packed, but in Septem­ber we found it easy to nav­i­gate. By its very na­ture, a dra­matic ex­per­i­ment about fu­ture sus­tain­abil­ity, Eden doesn’t of­fer much by way of en­chant­ment. But a trav­eler might take a les­son from the British — who, judg­ing by at­ten­dance fig­ures, seem more fo­cused on this stun­ning achieve­ment than on Ne­olithic sites.

Corn­wall’s third ma­jor tourist land­mark is St. Michael’s Mount, just past the faded town of Pen­zance, where the trains from Lon­don stop. The Mount is Corn­wall’s iconic twin to Nor­mandy’s Mont St. Michel. Just as with it, you can walk from the main­land at low tide on a stone cause­way once used by the pil­grims. We missed low tide, so we took the small foot ferry that runs con­tin­u­ously. A side ben­e­fit to the ferry is that when you step out on the other side you see a bronze shoeprint mark­ing the spot where Queen Vic­to­ria stepped in 1846 when she and Prince Al­bert had stopped by, unan­nounced.

And just as at Mont St. Michel, there’s a steep and rocky climb to a me­dieval Bene­dic­tine abbey with an un­matched view. But there is also a cas­tle of the rul­ing St. Aubyn fam­ily, fea­tur­ing the grand Chevy Chase room, named for the 17th­cen­tury hunt­ing-scene frieze around the cor­nice.

Our base for all of this was the well-known, charm­ing Old Coast­guard ho­tel in Mouse­hole (pro­nounced MOW-zell). It is the tini­est of fish­ing vil­lages and bet­ter than Pen­zance for your side trips around the Pen­with penin­sula’s Ne­olithic and min­ing sites. Mouse­hole also is a great place to stay if you’re headed to the fa­mous Mi­nack, the Greek theater that clings to the rocks at Porthcurno Cove a few miles from Mouse­hole. Plays are per­formed through the sea­son un­der the wide-open night sky, but vis­it­ing dur­ing the day also lets you ap­pre­ci­ate the re­mark­able rock con­struc­tion, look­ing out over the ocean.

And just be­yond the Mi­nack along the coast road is the stop ev­ery guide­book warns against. It is Land’s End, now a theme park where the British take kids on hol­i­day. But how could we pos­si­bly not go to Eng­land’s west­ern­most point? Park in the big lot and just head to the rocky coast, ig­nor­ing the car­ni­val en­trance. You’re at Corn­wall’s outer lim­its, and it is just you and the end­less ocean. Next stop: North Amer­ica.

PHO­TOS BY NANCY NATHAN

TOP: A bronze sculp­ture called “Gal­los,” the Cornish word for power, is placed atop Tin­tagel, the an­cient ru­ins linked to the leg­ends of King Arthur, at a van­tage point ac­cessed by 100 stairsteps. ABOVE: The Mi­nack Theater, at the Atlantic Ocean, hosts per­for­mances in tem­per­ate months.

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