There is a wealth of things to do in Cornwall in England for lovers of nature and people who appreciate cultural heritage. In fact, the two are very intertwined in this region at the very southwestern tip of England.
In this guide of things to do in Cornwall, I’ll map out twenty experiences that I thoroughly enjoyed during my two-week visit. The sights and attractions I’ll recommend encompass beaches; coastal walks; lighthouses; a tiny family-owned island; museums; ancient dolmens; tin mines; a theatre built into the cliffs; coves; village churches; botanical gardens; and a shipyard!
The Lay of the Land in Cornwall
Surrounded by open water on three sides, Cornwall occupies a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic, with the English Channel to its south. Cornwell gets its name from its shape; the Cornish word kern means horn. To the east of Cornwall is the county of Devon, with the River Tamar creating a natural boundary between Cornwall and the rest of England.
Cornwall is about 45 miles at its widest point and tapers for 80 miles to Lizard Point, home to a 5,000-acre nature reserve. While a relatively compact size, Cornwall has 422 miles of coastline and an interior that is largely wild moorlands. Almost a third of Cornwall has been designated an “Area of Outstanding National Beauty” (AONB) by Natural England.
The sense of separateness from England is very real to the Cornish people, who in 2014 became recognized as an ethnic minority in the United Kingdom. This designation accorded the Cornish identity the same status given to the Scottish, Welsh and Irish. In fact, most of the Cornish people I met do not consider themselves to be English.
The Celtic Heritage of the Cornish People
The Cornish trace their lineage to the ancient Britons who were Celtic people that arrived in the area during the Iron Age. Those people left an enduring material legacy by erecting stone circles and other megalithic monuments that can be visited today. Mysterious edifices with names like Men-an-Tol and Lanyon Quoit are believed to have been used in burial rites, or astronomy. Whatever their purpose, their power remains unmistakable.
The forebearers of today's Cornish also established a sensibility that continues today. For thousands of years, the Cornish people have forged an intimate connection with their environment that has shaped their outlook, spirituality and daily existence.
As evidenced by the place names, the Cornish know every nook & cranny of their patch of the planet; even if you don't know the language, you can sense the affection. This affinity for fields, coves and even the earth's interior has been cultivated by generations of farmers, fishermen, miners and, indeed, balmaidens--young women who processed the tin extracted from bountiful lodes by their brethren.
Tin mining began in Cornwall in the Bronze Age and ended only in 1998. The tin economy has played a huge part in the area’s identity, and there are many fascinating things to do in Cornwall that offer meaningful insight into this cultural heritage.
Since the early 1990s, there has been an ongoing robust revival of the Cornish language and traditions, such as the Esedhvos Festival, held annually in a different location in Cornwall.
Yet, I was told by more than one person that to be Cornish is a “state of mind”. Cornwall is almost a five-hour drive from London and it is indeed a world apart. Despite that remoteness, there is an abundance of things to do in Cornwall and certainly, one of those is to simply relax, enjoy the ambiance of wherever you find yourself, and see if you can tune into the Cornish spirit!
You certainly won't lack for inspiration! Cornwall's terrain and seascapes are dramatic: immense cliffs rising from churning surf; expansive swaths of sandy beaches with undulating windswept dunes; picturesque snug fishing harbors; poignant ruins of the once-mighty mining engine houses; peaceful woodland trails below canopies of intertwining elm trees.
Character Bases to Explore Best Things To Do in Cornwall
I had two bases for my exploration: St. Ives in the northwest, near the tip of the peninsula, and Mevagissey, in the southeast, about 42 miles and an hour away. Both are excellent choices; each of these towns have fine accommodations and restaurants and are really atmospheric and interesting. If you spend a week in each location, there are plenty of nearby attractions and other towns to explore. My only complaint is that two weeks wasn't enough time, as there are very worthy places I did not get to explore, like Falmouth, Truro, Newquay, and Cornwall's interior.
Where to Stay in Cornwall
Cornwall hotels run the gamut from luxury spas to quaint B & Bs. Whether you want peace and quiet or to be in the thick of things, there are plenty of options to choose from! Pick between hotels situated on the water with a secluded beach, or keep it classic with a family-owned business. When traveling, it's just as important to love where you relax at night as it is to explore the area. These Cornwall hotels are the best of the best, and are also economical choices!
- 3 Porthminster B&B - Highly recommended B&B and I can attest to that as I stayed here for the first week of my trip. Proprietress Lynn goes above and beyond to make you feel welcome, and the property is beautifully decorated with some amazing art from her own travels.
- Primrose House - With boutique bedrooms and a stylish bar, Primrose House offers free parking and it's Just meters from Porthminster Beach.
- Trevalsa Court Hotel - Situated in the pretty fishing village of Mevagissey, overlooking the bay, this boutique hotel has steps down to the secluded beach. I stayed here during the second week of my trip.
- The Commercial - A former coaching inn run by the Woolcock family for over 100 years, The Commercial is well known locally for its great food and warm Cornish welcome.
- Bosavern House - This Guest House offers top quality B&B and is situated just outside the historic mining town of St Just and 20 minutes from Penzance.
One of the best things to do in Cornwall is hit one of its multitude of beaches, with more than 300 across 300 miles of coastline. Cornwall beaches are also known for their great surfing. For beginners, head over to Praa Sands Beach between Perranuthnoe and Porthleven for great swells. For surfers who may be more advanced, try Fistral Beach in Newquay for the best-known surfing beach in the UK!
For those who may be more interested in sunbathing or a relaxing swim, consider Mawgan Porth Beach. It offers a long stretch of golden sand with various rock pools and caves open to exploring, and is considerably less crowded than most Cornwall beaches in Newquay! Another spacious beach that is popular with families is Harlyn Bay on the north coast. Finally, for those who are more into adventure or photography rather than relax at the beach, visit Kynance Cove. As one of the most photographed Cornwall beaches, this beach offers stunning views of bright teal water and unique, jagged cliffs.
The Legendary Past of Hamlet of Zennor
A short trek to the tiny hamlet of Zennor is a break from the buzz of St. Ives and a window into the peaceful pastoral countryside of Cornwall. This is a popular jaunt for walkers along the South West Coast Path, England's longest waymarked long-distance footpath and a National Trail. The St.Ives-Zennor route is 6.5 miles along the coast, and takes 3-4 hours based on your speed. Challenging at times with some steep ascents, it nonetheless offers spectacular views.
Or so I am told; I myself took an A1 Taxi from St. Just and thoroughly enjoyed the view from the passenger seat of rolling hills, a vivid green even in September. En route we came to a T intersection, at the head of which was a big building painted a gorgeous gold, it's roof emblazoned with its name "The Gurnard’s Head". We found ourselves in a slow-moving traffic jam, as a young man herded a couple of dozen cows down the road in front of us, eventually turning off into a field.
The Gurnard’s Head, a dining pub with rooms, is named after the headland on which it is located. That name, in turn, comes from a supposed resemblance to the head of the Gurnard fish. Despite the momentary hubbub, the area was otherwise serenely deserted. In fact, the Cornish name for the headland is 'Ynyal', which means 'desolate'.
Zennor is named for Saint Senara, a legendary figure with links to the village. The story goes that Senara was reputedly a Breton princess of Brest, described as having a rather dubious reputation before her conversion. She was married to a Breton king who wrongly accused her of adultery and threw her into the sea in a barrel while pregnant. She was visited by an angel while floating in the sea off Cornwall, and gave birth to a son in the waves, who later became an Irish bishop. She washed up on the Cornish coast, and some believe she founded Zennor and gave her name to the village.
Senara was highly venerated by local fishermen and is said to represent the human-divine duality of Christ. Based on her purported adultery, in Medieval times she was regarded as a symbol of the evils of lust.
A plaque on the wall of The Church of Saint Senara honors local farmer John Davey, who was the last person to have a traditional knowledge of the Cornish language. John died in 1891 at the age of 79 years.
The Church of Saint Senara is also home to a 400-year carving that memorializes the legend of a boy lured off by the siren call of a mermaid. That boy was Matthew Trewhella, the son of the churchwarden. Matthew came to this church every Sunday to sing in the choir. He had the most beautiful voice and each Sunday many people would come to hear him sing.
According to legend, one day a mermaid sitting on the rocks below Zennor in Pendour Cove, heard his voice drifting down from the Church above. She was mesmerized by the sound and every Sunday she would come to the same rock in the Cove to listen to him sing. She was very beautiful and loved to sing herself. Her voice was hauntingly serene.
The mermaid decided to venture up into the village and into the church. She fell in love with the boy and he with her. She enticed him to come away with her and they were last seen swimming out to sea, down at Pendour Cove.
Just next door to The Church of Saint Senara is the Tinner's Arms, a traditional Cornish pub that was initially built in 1271 to accommodate the masons who built the church. You can sit outside on picnic tables and enjoy the view of the countryside. If it's coziness you're after, you'll be comfy in the dark-paneled, low-ceiling single room of the pub, where six or seven hand-carved tables are flanked by a bar on one side and a fireplace on the other. The menu includes crab fresh off the boat, mackerel from Mount’s Bay, 28-day-hung steak from herds reared on local pastures, and Moomaid of Zennor ice-cream, churned down the lane at Tremedda farm.
Iconic Megalith of Lanyon Quoit
For anyone who has a fascination with ancient architecture, one of the best things to do in Cornwall is to explore its megaliths, dolmans, menhirs and stone circles, Cornwall is heaven. There are easily more than 100 such sites in Cornwall. Some have whimsical names like Merry Maidens, The Pipers, and the Blind Fiddler, but most are known by their Cornish name such as Pendeen Fogou (Pendeen means "headland of the castle" and ‘fogou’ is the Cornish word for cave).
Lanyon Quoit is one of Cornwall's most iconic megaliths, although appreciating it is a casual affair. Located in a pasture with limited parking, you have to mount a stone gate to reach the impressive monument--which could well have a few cows seeking shade in its shadows! The quoit is constructed with a massive slab supported by three standing stones--the cap stone weighs 12 tons! Archaeologists believe that Lanyon Quoit is the remains of a burial chamber built in 2500 B.C., and that it would have originally been covered with turf.
Not far from Lanyon Quoit is Tregeseal Stone Circle in St. Just. Stone circles were the community's focal point for religious and political rituals and ceremonies. In the Middle Ages, these circles were used for Druidic gatherings. The Cornish Gorsedd inaugurated its annual meeting of bards at Boscawen-Un stone circle in Penwith in 1928.
Cornwall Coastal Walk Reveals Cultural Landscape
While attending the Esedhvos Festival of Cornish Culture over the weekend, I had the opportunity to join a group of bards on a Cornwall coastal walk from Kenidjack to Wheal Owles and the Crowns Mine, ending in the village of Botallack for lunch at the Queens Arms pub.
While on this trek across a spectacular patch of countryside, I got quite an education on the role of tin mining in Cornwall's economic and social history & on the cultural landscape over several millennia from Ted Mole, as well as a tutorial on the Cornish language from Tony Phillips.
Our walk crossed through a valley (Cornish: nans), over a stream (Cornish: gover); along the coast (Cornish: arvor) often on a path (Cornish: hyns) through stone-walled fields (Cornish: keow a ven) and atop cliffs (Cornish: als)!
Our Cornwall coastal walk included climbing over a Cornish turnstile, and I'm proud to say our crew of seniors were all pretty nimble-footed! Between the fresh Cornish air and the plucky spirit of my comrades, I was inspired to stretch my arthritic limbs more than I might have otherwise.
Interestingly, Ted explained that investors in Cornish mines were always referred to as "Adventurers", the term goes back to the days of the merchant venturer companies of the 16th century. At Botallack there was a section of the mine known as Wheal Hazard, which had been worked since at least the late 16th century. The name, Hazard, relates not so much to danger as to the idea of 'hazarding one's luck' or in modern parlance, 'taking a gamble'. The notion of risk is there but it's more financial risk than risking one's neck.
Cape Cornwall Has a Starring Role in Cornish Culture
One of the best things to do in Cornwall is to learn how the landscape has influenced Cornish culture. Cape Cornwall, one of only two capes in Britain, offers a stunning way to connect with the history of this storied place. Four miles north of Land's End, Cape Cornwall's landmarks include stone burial sites from the Bronze Age; Priest's Cove, a longtime popular landing place for local fishermen; and Brison's Rocks, named for the French term for reef or breaker and often said to resemble Charles de Gaulle on his back in the bath; and Cape Cornwall Club, a luxury hotel and golf course.
In 2006 select mining landscapes across Cornwall were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, putting Cornish mining heritage in a league with the Pyramids of Giza, the Colosseum in Rome, and the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Cape Cornwall is among the sites that are part of the UNESCO designation; a tin mine operated here between 1838 and 1883. The mine's 1864 chimney continues to serve as a navigational aid for mariners today.
The view of Cape Cornwall along our walk was absolutely stunning. In addition to its mining heritage, it's also home to the remains of St. Helen's Oratory, a tiny early Christian chapel that dates back as far as Roman times. In Cornish, the Cape is known as Kilgoodh Ust, meaning "goose back of St Just".
"Are you a Poldark fan?" Ted asked me, as the others in the group looked at me curiously.
"What's a Poldark?" I asked, at which my fellow walkers burst into gales of laughter.
It was then explained that there was a hugely successful BBC bodice-ripper program called "Poldark", based on a series of novels about a Cornish military captain who returns home after fighting in the American War of Independence and his subsequent dramas and romance. The Cornish coast had a starring role in the series. As someone who doesn't watch TV, I was clueless about this phenomenon.
Ted pointed out West Wheal Owles engine house. He explained that in the Poldark saga, West Wheal Owles was a stand-in for Poldark's mine, called Wheal Leisure.
Memorable Heritage SIte Geevor Tin Mine
As someone who is claustrophobic, and knows nothing about minerals or engineering, I was somewhat skeptical how interesting I would find visiting Geevor Mine. Allow me to say I was wrong. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my trip, and I highly recommend you include this heritage site on your itinerary.
Geevor Tin Mine is the largest preserved mining site in the country. Located between the villages of Pendeen and Trewellard, Geevor was operational between 1911 and 1990 during which time it produced about 50,000 tons of tin. Geevor has an important collection of relics and artefacts, collected over the years by volunteers, enthusiasts and historians to preserve and demonstrate the significance of the Cornish tin mining industry. And while the preserved infrastructure is indeed fascinating, it was the people I met who really brought alive for me the cultural significance of mining in Cornwall. Head guide Jack Roberts gave me a running tutorial as we moved through the former mine's operations and I'll share some of the highlights with you!
The Cornish mining heyday was in the late 1700s into the early 1800s but extraction of tin has taken place for thousands of years here. In ancient times, it was mainly done through surface extraction and "streaming" from riverbeds. Underground mining started in the 1500s. A lot of the older mines from the 16th and 17th centuries, even into the 1800s, weren't mapped very well. Because the shafts weren't recorded, often newer mines would break into older mines.
Geever has an impressive model of the mine that is not just a prop for visitors. It was used to plot where the mine was going to go next. Created by the surveying department and geologists, the model covers over 100 miles worth of tunnels across a five mile stretch of coastline where approximately 90 different mining shops operated.
In the model, a blue line represents sea level. Any tunnels below that line were operating below sea level, which in Geever's day was the majority of the workings. They required constant pumping. When the mine flooded, the water worked its way up to that level.
The miners worked in pairs underground, which meant there was someone there that was accountable for your safety, and you're accountable for them. It was a close-knit community. Geever had a workforce of about 385 people, and 260 of those lived in the immediate area. That created that sense of camaraderie. Many former miners have long-lasting relationships from their time underground together.
Each miner had two lockers, one that was supposedly for their clean clothes and one that was for their dirty clothes. The orangey red color was caused by iron oxide staining. The miners themselves were that color by the time they came out in the mine. With the miners having two lockers each, they'd work next to the same people every day, and formed friendships and relationships. A lot of the guys that became very familiar over the years, despite not maybe working with each other underground ground, because their lockers were next to each other.
There was always a lot of banter between the miners, with a lot of tricks played. If you were new, you got a bit of a baptism of fire. But if you survived that initial treatment, you would be treated quite well. While it was a place of great humor, in the tough times people would band together and support each other.
Jack told me that miners were quite superstitious and there are myths and legends associated with mining. Creatures known as knockers were believed to live underground and help the miners find the best amounts of tin, or lead them astray if they weren't offered some of their food or if they whistled or otherwise annoyed them while underground.
With Eddie as my guide, I took a 30-minute tour of Wheal Mexico, a mine shaft that dates back to the 18th century. I will confess to being quite anxious in the confining space but Eddie was hugely informative. I am really glad I got out of my comfort zone to semi put myself in a miner's shoes, and have the privilege of his expertise and experience. I came away totally awed by the guts, ingenuity, humor and sense of pride the Geevor miners rightfully have in their cultural heritage.
Blue Hills Tin, Last Cornish Mining Operation
Every culture is shaped by its landscape and that is most certainly in evidence in Cornwall. My next excursion took me north to visit St. Agnes and Boscastle. St. Agnes is a cute village about a half hour's drive from St. Ives, and about a mile northeast of it is Blue Hills Tin, the last tin mining operation in the region, owned by the Wills family.
The hills at the time of my September visit were green and golden, with historic engine houses standing sentinel outside the Blue Hills operation. I was really struck by how these commercial Industrial Revolution-era buildings are really beautiful monuments to the Cornish relationship with the earth.
Mark Mills gave me a tour of the facility and explained the process to me. Rock is first crushed under iron shod stamps to a fine sand, releasing the grains of tin ore. Waste sand is washed away from the heavier tin ore on the shaking table to give a black tin concentrate ready for the smelting process. Tin concentrates are mixed with necessary ingredients and smelted under intense heat in the furnace until the white tin metal begins to flow from the rock. The metal is refined using some traditional methods until it’s ready to be cast into heavy ingots of pure Cornish tin for use.
Once an idea has been carved in wax, they make a mold and pour in the molten tin. When cooled the mold can be opened to reveal the casting. The metal castings are then filed, sanded and polished to produce a range of Cornish tin gifts which come with a certificate of authenticity.
Have an Iconic Pasty in Boscastle!
Boscastle is about an hour north of St. Agnes (and five miles from the cliff top ruins of Tintagel Castle, a Medieval castle associated with legendary King Arthur, which I sadly did not experience due to inclement weather).
I had a wonderful lunch at the stunningly-situated Boscastle Farm Shop & Cafe, owned by Jackie & Robin. The fields here have been farmed since medieval times, using an ancient technique known as "stitches". While enjoying the fantastic views through the cafe's floor-to-ceiling windows, I sampled my first pasty, the quintessential Cornish food staple. The recipe for a Cornish pasty includes diced or minced beef, onion, potato and swede in rough chunks along with some "light peppery" seasoning.
The pasty is considered the Cornish national dish, and since 2011 has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in Europe. The pasty was designed to accompany a miner to the mine in his pocket and it contained enough meat and turnips for at least a couple of meals. The miner's initials were usually carved into one end, to vent steam as it baked and so there would be no question to whom the pasty belonged. In a mine, the pasty's dense, folded pastry could stay warm for several hours, and if it did get cold, it could easily be warmed on a shovel over a candle.
Boscastle's name comes from a castle built in the 12th century by the de Botreaux family, originally of Normandy. The castle was abandoned in the 16th century with the remains swallowed up by time.
Cornwall Area of Outstanding Beauty
Boscastle lies within the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and its spectacular harbor certainly is chief among its qualifications. This natural inlet is a slender finger reaching inland in a steep sided valley on the convergence of the rivers Valency and Jordan. The harbor is protected by headlands on either side, Forrabury Head and Penally Point, as well as by two stone harbour walls built in 1584 by Sir Richard Grenville.
The construction of the quay was a significant investment but Boscastle was the only safe harbor in 40 miles of treacherous Cornish coastline; the dramatic cliffs rising from churning waters are breathtaking to behold but made landing from sea a death-defying act. Before the railroad reached north Cornwall in 1893, shipping was the only way to move goods in and out. In one year, 200 ships called here to trade, importing goods from Wales and Bristol and even timber from Canada, and exporting clay, slate, sardines, and agricultural produce.
Today the harbor and surrounding coastal area are owned by the National Trust. It's a tranquil spot to perch and appreciate the intersection of nature and heritage.
Freak Weather Disaster
However, Boscastle harbor was far from tranquil on the 16th of August in 2004, when disaster struck.
Beginning at noon, over the course of five hours, more than seven inches of rain fell on the high ground above the village. The narrow valleys of the Valency and Jordan rivers funneled the water towards Boscastle. The river rose, sweeping across the car park, taking cars, bridges, shops, and the previous visitor center with it. It is estimated that two billion litres of water surged through Boscastle that day. The heroic efforts of local firefighters, RAF, RNAS and Coastguard helicopters and brave villagers saved many people. Helicopters picked villagers off of roofs in what was one of the greatest peacetime rescue operations in mainland Britain.
Thanks to the indomitable spirit of area residents, the village was rebuilt and can continue to be enjoyed by locals and visitors today.
Here's four very different Cornwall coastal locales along the shores of the Penwith Peninsula, which draws its name from the Cornish: penn meaning 'headland' and wydh meaning 'at the end'. Sennen Cove is on the southwest, near the tip; the Minack Theatre is five miles further south, outside the village of Porthcunro; Mousehole (pronounced Mowzil) is across the peninsula on the southeast at almost the same latitude as Sennen Cove; and the tidal island of St. Michael's Mount is up the coast from Mousehole, off Marazion at the head of the peninsula. I wish I had longer at each place--you could easily spend at least a half day in any or all of these spots.
Sennen Cove (population 180 in 2000) is a wide swath of beach and Cornwall's most westerly hotspot for surfers; you can enjoy the view from up above with a cup of coffee and there's a lifesaving station that you can visit from 9 - 5 daily.
The landscape and seacoast of Cornwall are dramatic in their own right and yet the hand of man, or woman as the case may be, can make theatre out of earth and sea--literally! Rowena Cade was a force of nature who in 1931 had a vision: a cliffside theatre below her home and gardens in Porthcurno. She & her gardener Billy Rawlins hauled bags of sand from the beach & moved boulders to create this spectacular venue that welcomes 280,000 people a year to performances or simply to admire the thrilling work of art sculpted from the rock.
I was given a couple of different theories on the origin of Mousehole's name: a nearby sea cave, the opening of which resembles a giant mouse hole, or a reference to the shape of the town's snug harbor.
One of my favorite aspects of travel is learning about local festivals that celebrate a community's shared history. Mousehole is known for experiencing particularly harsh winter storms, which back in the day, meant famine. According to legend, in the midst of such a roaring tempest, fisherman Tom Bawcock braved the elements and went out to sea, returning with a big enough catch to feed the entire village.
That miraculous occasion is feted each December 23 with a lantern procession and a special dish that originated from Bawcock's bounty. Pilchards (sardines) are baked into what are known as "Stargazy pies", with the heads and tails poking out of the crust; this delicacy is made and eaten only on this occasion.
I was intrigued to learn that the name Tom Bawcock could well be symbolic for an anonymous hero lost to history. In old English, Bawcock is a nickname for a 'fine or worthy fellow' and Tom was a generic description for anyone, as in "Tom, Dick or Harry."
A winter visit may mean more accessible parking; in the summer, it is extremely difficult to find a spot in Mousehole, and it's best to park on the hilly outskirts and walk down to the village.
St. Michael’s Mount, Home to Giants and Visited by Jesus?
St Michael's Mount may look familiar to those who have traveled to its counterpart in Normandy; both were at one time owned by the Benedictines. The St. Aubyn family has owned the island and its castle since about 1650; since 1954, its been managed by the National Trust. Small boats ferry passengers back and forth from different piers in Marazion, with departure and arrival points changing with the tides. Or you can walk if you time the tides correctly!
One of many things I learned in Cornwall is that apparently there is more than one patron saint of fishermen! The Mount gets its name from archangel Michael, who as far back as 495 A.D. is said to have appeared to fishermen on the western side of the island to ward them off of danger. That legend was the inspiration for a long line of pilgrims, who continue to come today. There are those who visit now to experience the energy of ley lines at the heart of the Mount.
St Michael's Mount is also part of the Cornish tin story. It served as a major port in the tin trading business, from where the commodity was shipped to continental Europe and beyond. In yet another legend, it's said that St. Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant, visited Cornwall, accompanied by his nephew Jesus.
In Cornish folklore, St. Michael's Mount's original resident was Cormoran, a giant who is credited with creating the rocky outcropping as his base to steal cattle from mainland farms. However, Cormoran is not a Cornish name, although it may have been derived from Corineus, another legendary figure who is said to have been the founder of all of Cornwall and, indeed, its namesake. A descendant of heroes of the Trojan War, Corineus was believed to have been gifted with Cornwall for slaying a giant. At the time, the region that is today Cornwall was supposedly home to the largest population of giants and other nefarious creatures; Corineus was deemed to be the best qualified to rule the area.
The origins of the castle dates to a chapel founded by Edward the Confessor, one of the last Anglo Saxon kings of England, who gave it to the Norman monastery of its twin, Mont. St. Michel. Edward had close ties to Normandy, having spent much of his youth there. Amidst a series of civil wars in England, the Mount was used as a fortress off and on from the 14th century up to its purchase by Sir John St Aubyn in 1650. It is a steep hike up to the castle on a cobbled road, which can be slippery.
The terraced and walled gardens are spectacular and offer an education on the plant life that can flourish in the micro-climate created by the Gulf Stream. Species come from as far as Mexico and South Africa and range from succulents to Fuchsia, Lavender and yellow blooms of the Medicago Arborea, placed into the wedding bouquet of the first Lady St Levan.
I would recommend at least a half day here, if not longer. Plan to enjoy a nice lunch during your visit at either the Island Café or the Sail Loft Restaurant. The gardens are only open at specific times--be sure to check the schedule as you won't want to miss these!
Harnessing the Wild Cornish Coast at Mullion Cove
Mullion Cove is another example of man seeking to harness the wild and rugged Cornwall coast. In the 1890's, two granite piers were constructed to form this distinctive harbor in an era when there were few refuges for fishermen plying these waters. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there could be 200-300 ships at anchor offshore. Between 1859 - 1874, there were 32 shipwrecks. Taking a walk atop the jetties on a windy grey day, it's easy to imagine mariners grateful to find sanctuary within the walls of the horseshoe harbor.
The fishermen used to run their boats up the beach hauling them clear of the sea with the communal winch in the picturesque Winch House at the head of the slip. The two stone piers were built in 1887- 1895, financed by Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock to help his tenants after the failure of the pilchard fishery. Robartes considered plans to take the south pier all the way out to the outlying Mullion island, creating a large harbour refuge for storm-driven ships, but the project was too expensive and hazardous. Winter gales have taken their toll on the exposed walls, and in the last 10 years alone the National Trust, which has owned the cove since 1945, has had to spend nearly 1 million to maintain and repair the harbor.
There was a lifeboat station here from 1867 to 1909. The Rey Harvey, the vicar of Mullion , wrote to Western Morning News in 1873 that “in six years and a quarter there have been nine wrecks, with a loss of 69 lives. The lifeboat was barely able to help the situation. In 42 years there were only three successful active launches as it was simply impossible to put to sea from the cove in severe weather."
Atlantic seals can be seen around the harbour and island, whilst during the summer months basking sharks are visitors to these coastal waters.
The cliffs surrounding the cove are exceptionally rich in wild flowers due to the combination of the serpentine bedrock and mild Oceanic climate. Some species such as Cornish heath can only be found on the Lizard peninsula.
I'm disappointed to say this was a rare "drive by" for me. The weather was rather misty and my time was tight. I could easily see spending the day here in nicer weather, it's a truly stunning spot. The walk down from the parking lot is said to be relatively easy and I'm told the fare at the cafe in the cove is terrific--but not accessible at high tide! Even if you come just to admire the view from above, you won't regret it!
Lizard Lighthouse, Britain's Most Southerly Point
Wouldn't you agree that a place named "The Lizard" must have a story behind? This Cornwall locale is so-named after the Cornish word an Lysardh, meaning 'the high court", and it is home to a few interesting tales.
What is said to be the world's largest lighthouse compound sits on a point overlooking notoriously dangerous waters of the English Channel? The original lighthouse was built by Sir John Killigrew, who also happened to be a pirate known to be harboring ill-gotten goods in his home. The current lighthouse has two towers and a cottage and was built by the landowner Thomas Fonnereau between 1748 - 51, although its been extensively redesigned over the ensuing centuries. The lighthouse's beacon can be seen 100 miles away!
Cadgwith Cove Where Crab is on the Menu
Another atmospheric fishing harbor is Cadgwith Cove. In Cornish, Porthkajwydh means "cove of the thicket", although I'm told the literal translation is "battle of trees" referring to the fact this area was densely forested. Today, Cadgwith is thickly settled with adorable cottages, some of which date to the 17th century and appear Hobbitesque with their thatched roofs.
While I love a nice stretch of golden sand beach, one of the topographical features that makes Cornwall so fascinating are all its distinctive headlands. In Cadgwith Cove, a 30-foot high promontory called "The Todden" juts out, its walls capped with a grassy patch; there is a path cut into the rock leading from its heights to a swimming beach below, which is on opposite side of the Todden from the working fishing harbor.
The village grew out of fish cellars used by local farmers who supplemented their agricultural income by catching pilchards. Fishing became the main economy in the 16th century; in 1845, Cadgwith fishermen hauled a whopping 15 million pilchards. Today the pilchard stock is depleted but fishermen catch several tons of crab weekly. Indeed, I had lunch at a tiny cafe here and the menu offered crab, crab and more crab! After lunch I wandered over to the main beach, the base of operations for the fisherman. If your timing is good, you can watch them unload their catch!
Mevagissey, My Favorite Place in Cornwall
Mevagissey is a fishing village located on Cornwall's south coast and is about halfway between the Lizard and the border with Devon. I recommend spending a day just wandering around the harbor and taking your time poking in the various shops and galleries. There are also several great day trips within easy reach of Mevagissey, like the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the Eden Project, Charlestown and its Shipwreck Treasure Museum, and Polperro, another beautiful fishing village.
Mevagissey's harbour sits in a deep valley, the hillsides of which are terraced with houses. I stayed for a week at Trevalsa Court Hotel, on the cliff tops above the village. It's a lovely property and has an excellent dining room. The walk down to the village is by way of a winding switchback road and offers terrific views of the port, as well as glimpses into people's lives through the decorative flourishes on the exterior of their homes.
While I loved every place I visited, I will confess Mevagissey was my favorite place in Cornwall. It has the second biggest fishing port in Cornwall and I spent several hours both at the beginning and end of the day photographing its working life, which was heaven.
Mevagissey dates back to 1313 when it was two separate hamlets, both named after Irish missionaries, Meva and Issey. Here I encountered the fourth patron saint of fishermen, St. Peter, who is celebrated during the Cornish tradition of Feast Week at the end of June.
Mevagissey has a fabulous museum where I spent close to a couple of hours soaking up its amazing collection about life in the community. I was kindly given a tour by curator Gordan Kane, who explained to me that the building the museum is housed in is a piece of history itself, having served as a boatyard since 1745. In what now is three floors of exhibits were previously the boat-building operation on the first floor, a carpenter's workshop on the second and a store on the top floor.
Gordan explained that when the building was constructed, people were way ahead of their time in terms of recycling materials. Four of the building's beams are made from the masts of ships that sailed in the high seas in the mid-18th century.
In about the same era, Mevagissey had a surge of religious enthusiasm, thanks to a series of visits by John Wesley, an English theologian and evangelist who was a leader of a revival movement within the Church of England known as Methodism. He came seven times to Mevagissey, and in one of his diary entries at the very beginning of that run of visits he asked, “Can anything be done with the people of Mevagissey”.
Apparently the answer was yes, as Gordan said that there were four or five different branches of Methodism in Mevagissey at one point, all five part of the Wesleyan movement. "They used to take their religion very seriously, and they still do," he said. "Mevagissey loves to have a parade; any excuse for a parade, they will have a parade." To make his point, Gordan showed me a photo of a crowd of people all in their best Sunday outfits and hats, and the children all dressed up. "They used to march around the village and have a religious service followed by some sort of high tea afterwards with buns and cakes and all sorts of things," he said. "Quite often, there would be a brass band involved as well. It’s great fun, the whole thing."
Gordan next showed me a banner from the early Edwardian period, about 1905, and gave me the back story. He got a phone call from a woman who had found some sort of artifact crumpled up at the bottom of her garage. "I arranged to see it and found this, which is one of the Sunday School banners which had been used in the early 1900s," he said. "It was underneath loads of stuff. It was cracked. It was torn. It had been attacked by insects and moths. It was a complete mess. Thanks to the initiative of a colleague, the banner was restored."
Fishing has been a staple of Cornwall's economy for millennia, and yet today is under pressure as a result of certain kinds of stock being depleted, unfavorable quotas required by the government, and ancient maritime boundaries that favor fishermen from other countries, like France. While other Cornish communities are seeing fishing decline as a livelihood, Mevagissey's fishing industry has continued to thrive. In 1880, there were sixty fishing boats based here; at the most recent count, there were 63 registered fishing vessels in the harbour worked by 69 fishermen.
On the outskirts of Mevagissey is Caerhays Castle and gardens, which overlooks Porthluney Cove. Originally the site of a manor house owned by the Arundell family in the 13th century, the estate through marriage became the home of the Trevanion family in the late 14 century. Four generations later, in 1854, the property was bought by Micheal Williams II when the Trevanions could no longer afford it. Today, the current Williams family resides in the castle and opens it for tours seasonally in the spring. The castle gardens are only open from March until June, and so I wasn't able to visit them during the time of my September visit. They are said to be magnificent, spanning 120 acres and featuring more than 600 plant varieties, including over 250 kinds of rhododendron and the largest collection of magnolias in the U.K.
If you are a maritime aficionado, you could easily spend the whole day meandering around Mevgaissey's inner and outer harbor. Admire the colorful fishing boats with their always intriguing names and watch the fishermen unload their catch or mend their nets. Sit and have a sandwich in the sun on one of the benches with a view of the comings-and-goings--but be careful of scavenging gulls! I saw one swoop in and steal someone's lunch right out of their hands!
Mevagissey is unusual in that it has both an inner and an outer harbor; fishermen I spoke to said that Mevagissey's ongoing success as a commercial fishing center is in part thanks to this structure. Two outer breakwaters (North Pier and Victoria Pier) provide Mevagissey and its fishing fleet protection from south-easterly storms. The lighthouse was built in 1896 and is visible for 12 nautical miles. Whether you spend the whole day on the harbor, or just pop in for a quick visit, the time of day you go will dictate the ambiance you find. The tranquility of the port in the evening is in contrast to its hum from morning until late afternoon. Either way, you are sure to enjoy it!
Lost Gardens of Heligan
Two miles inland and northwest from Mevagissey is The Lost Gardens of Heligan, which are remarkable for many reasons. Carefully tended for more than 150 years by a team of gardeners in the employ of the Cornish Tremayne family, WWI devastated the fortunes of the estate. In 1990, this 200-acre Victorian botanical garden lay neglected and overgrown, its former opulence invisible. The story of its transformation to its former glory is part of what makes visiting Heligan so compelling.
Another of Heligan's unique attributes is a bonafide jungle! Cornwall has a temperate oceanic climate that creates a hospitable atmosphere for plants, and the jungle is located in a valley that has a micro-climate five degrees warmer than the rest of the estate.
The Ornamental Gardens at Heligan are also called the "Pleasure Gardens" and with good reason. Who wouldn't feel a sense of peace, contentment and well being in the presence of such beauty, individuality and vibrancy? In fact, it was realized by those who revived the "lost gardens" of Heligan from their decay that the word "Heligan" is actually an anagram for "healing".
Eden Project Eco Attraction Explores Our Connectedness
One of the best things to do in Cornwall was inspired by Dutch-born Tim Smits. A Renaissance man, Tim studied archaeology and anthropology, had a successful career as a record producer, and founded two of Cornwall's biggest attractions after moving to the area in 1987. The mastermind behind the restoration of Heligan Gardens, Tim also envisioned the Eden Project, an initiative intended to demonstrate the importance of plants to people and to promote sustainable use of plant resources. The Eden Project features two massive biomes created in an out-of-use clay pit, one of which houses a simulated rainforest environment, and the other, the plant life of the Mediterranean.
Smits, who was knighted in 2012 for his endeavors, has a philosophy cited as "sustainability is not about sandals and nut cutlets, it is about good business practice and the citizenship values of the future". Indeed, since opening its doors to the public in 2000, more than 19 million people have visited, credited with contributing over £1.9 billion into the Cornish economy.
The Eden Project is a 20-minute drive northeast of Mevagissey. Parking is situated above the site and it's an easy walk downhill to reach the biomes.
One of the many things I enjoyed about the Eden Project is all the imaginative sculptures scattered across the site and artfully interwoven into its setting. Just outside the biomes is a garden where Bombas the Giant Bee resides. This sculpture by artist Robert Bradford is playful and yet is a message about the hugely important role pollinators play to the existence of plant life and indeed, our own lives.
Eden's Mediterranean Biome Surprises
The Mediterranean biome surprised me with the diversity of the specific landscapes it presents, which includes not only the Mediterranean but also South Africa, California and Western Australia. I learned that a 'Mediterranean climate' is simply defined as hot, dry summers and frost-free, rainy winters, with winter and spring being the main growing seasons.
Another art installation also captures the spirit of man's relationship with Nature--which can be joyful and harmonious, or destructive and unpredictable. Amidst grape arbors in the Mediterranean biome is a series of sculptures by Tim Shaw depicting Dionysus, Greek god of the vines, and his followers, the Maenads. The figures simultaneously convey whimsy and a slightly dangerous sense of being out-of-control--an apt metaphor for the spectrum of human behavior. Our human condition is also explored by storytellers in an open area within the Mediterranean biome where people can rest their feet or even sprawl out on carpets.
Ironically, plants from the Mediterranean regions need to be able to thrive on drought and poor thin soils--and yet these arid climates are known for bountiful crops, scrumptious fruits, and fine wines. The survival techniques of plants range include leaves that are either hairy, spiny, evergreen or waxy, as well as having the ability to make protective oils.
The Multi-Sensory Rainforest Biome
The Rainforest Biome is a multi-sensory experience and you can almost feel it before you see it--upon entering the giant bubble, you are physically hit with the force of its humidity. In fact, the temperature is 64.5 - 95 degrees, so be sure to be outfitted in something loose and cool. With over 1,000 varieties of exotic plants, it's easy to spend a couple of hours here. In that time span, I followed a path through four of the world's rainforest environments: tropical islands, Southeast Asia, West Africa and tropical South America. Along the way, I crossed the Canopy Walkway, a rope bridge that traverses the tree tops and puffs vapor at you, which can be a little startling!
It's a lot of eye candy and hard to know where to look next. I continually shifted my gaze from scrutinizing the often flamboyant plants to gazing upward at the juxtaposition of all this nature contained in such a futuristic-looking enclosure. The biome "skin" is made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene copolymer (ETFE), or ‘cling film with attitude’, as Eden calls it. While the biome has a decidedly space age look, at the same time, the hexagonal "windows" also mimic the shape of a biological cell, and so it all connects, in a strange and wonderful way.
Shipwreck Treasure Museum, Tall Ships and Georgian Townhouses of Charlestown
Charlestown is about 6.5 miles from both Mevagissey and Heligan. Perhaps not surprisingly, Charlestown has a connection with Cornwall's mining industry. The locality was originally called West Polmear, and had nine residents. A local member of the landed gentry named Charles Rashleigh capitalized on the tin and copper trade by building a port here.
Built between 1791 and 1801, and named after the Rashleigh, the endeavor was a huge success, with the population exploding to 3,000 residents and numerous businesses by the 19th century. Today, Charlestown is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the harbour is owned by Square Sail, a company with a fleet of tall ships used in period films. You're sure to see at least one square rigger ship harbored here when you visit.
A block back from the harbor is the Shipwreck Treasure Museum, which has a first class private collection of nearly 8,000 artefacts from maritime history. These chronicle the stories behind man's efforts to salvage goods lost to Mother Nature at her fiercest. The Shackleton Experience documents the epic Royal Geographical Society sponsored trip to Antarctica in early summer in 1914, offering moments that are both chilling and poignant.
The harbor and the adjacent elegant townhouses are considered to be pristine examples of Georgian architecture in their symmetry and proportion. I visited in the early evening and enjoyed wandering around and taking it in from different angles. I also got a huge kick out of the squadron of kids who were doing cannon balls and back flips off the harbor walls into the water. I ended my visit to Charlestown with a delicious seafood dinner in the Pier House, and can recommend it.
Polperro is another fishing village well worth visiting, much bigger than Mousehole but more compact than St. Ives, with a year-round population of only about 1,500. An hour east from Mevagissey, Polperro is pedestrian-only, and at the bottom of a big hill with parking at the top. Across from the lot at the head of the hill is the 14th-century Crumplehorn Inn and Mill, with a massive restored water wheel. The property was originally a counting house during Elizabethan times when privateering was a legal occupation. It was a very pleasant walk down to the harbor, as the road is lined with colorfully-painted houses perched above terraced gardens.
Once you reach the village's center, you'll find a huddled hodge-podge of B & Bs, cafes, galleries, bakeries and other shops. It's definitely touristy, yet it's also charming with some tongue-in-cheek signage that plays off its heritage.
The Warren is the affectionate name for the neighborhood off Polperro's harbor, packed with quaint white-washed cottages; formerly home to the village's fishermen, today many of them are holiday lets. At the end of the long narrow cobbled lanes adjacent to the harbor is the Blue Peter Inn, built in the 16th century. Nearby, the "Shell House" gets its name from the patterns of shell embellishments covering its exterior, applied by resident and retired sailor Samuel Pucky between 1937 - 1942.
Polperro was first settled as a fishing harbor in the 13th century and is enclosed with ancient inner and outer piers. I had the pleasure of going out for a cruise along the coast with Tim Courtis, a fisherman who supplements his income by hosting people like me out on the water.
Tim told me his family has been fishing out of Polperro 'since records began', saying that the livelihood goes back many, many generations. He first went out on the water at the age of seven. "I had a rowing boat, and I worked 20 pots before I went to school," he said. "And I’ve been on the water ever since."
Polperro, Epicenter of Cornish Smuggling
We motored out of the harbor and turned west, and as we cruised along the coast, Tim pointed out Lansallos, which I had heard was one of Cornwall's busiest smuggling spots in the 18th and early 19th centuries when trading in contraband goods was part of everyday part of life on the Cornish coast. At that time, more and more goods were being taxed to finance England's various military campaigns, and smugglers brought goods in without paying these duties. So, "free traders", as they were called, could profit on people's desire to get goods more cheaply by not having to pay a tax. Another more common item that was heavily taxed and essential for the fishermen was salt, taxed at forty times its value in the early 1800s. These imported items were generally coming from the Channel Islands and Brittany.
Tim said Polperro was very active in the smuggling business, and that on the whole it was nothing nefarious. Smuggled goods were the luxuries of the day that were highly taxed, but fairly commonplace items, like lace and alcohol. At its peak, an estimated 500,000 gallons of French brandy per year were smuggled into Cornish coves. Having glazed windows was another luxury; most people had shutters, so glass was a highly-smuggled item. With the deep poverty in the area at the time, it was often considered an accepted means to raise the standard of living.
With everyone in on it, smuggling generally was not a violent "Miami Vice" type scenario. Yet there were bloody occasions and they invariably involved a customs officer. Next we came to Lantic Bay, scene of a major encounter between smugglers and excise officers who collected taxes, known as "the preventives" in 1835. In the 'Lantic Hill Affair', more than 100 smugglers engaged in a melee with revenue officers. Five smugglers were arrested and acquitted when their defense attorney claimed they had simply been out for a walk and unduly attached.
Tim's wife has a restaurant named "Michelle's", specializing in fresh fish & scallops; it's been recognized with the gold award from Taste of the West for two years running.
Share Your Take on the Best Things To Do in Cornwall!
Cornwall has an incredibly rich heritage that is inextricably intertwined with its natural land and seascapes. Between the charming Cornwall hotels and the pristine Cornwall beaches, I am quite keen to return and do more exploring! If you are a local resident or someone who has had the pleasure of getting to know Cornwall, I invite you to share your experiences in the comments box below!
Map of the Best Things To Do In Cornwall
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