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