By Jim Ferri
To describe the route as “serpentine” wouldn’t even scratch the surface.
For an hour, I had been flitting across sheep-speckled hillsides, zipping through clumps of thick forest, and hurtling through canyon-like hedgerows a car-width wide.
I was in Cornwall, that toe of land jutting out into the Atlantic in southwest England. It’s a place where the air is briny, the seafood fresh, and the landscape delightfully dramatic.
Cornwall is a place I’d wanted to visit for years but for one reason or another never did. Now I was there on a two-day getaway from London, just a four-hour drive away.
Instead of the chaos of the city, I was now in a bucolic countryside rimmed by a wild coast scalloped with little bays sheltering old fishing villages ripe with pubs and restaurants, gardens and galleries. The reality surpassed my expectations.
St. Agnes and Polperro
I began my odyssey in the little town of St. Agnes in the north of Cornwall. I had booked a room in the Porthdean, a bed-and-breakfast right in the center of town. Although it could have used a little modernizing, the price was right, the public areas comfortable, and the owners, Geoff and Lois, quite helpful and friendly.
It was the height of the season, which meant most of the few restaurants in town were full for the evening. Geoff, however, was able to find me a table at the nearby Taste Restaurant, a delightful little place just up the street. I relaxed over a rack of lamb accompanied by a nice Merlot, plotting my strategy for the days ahead.
I set out quite early next morning and headed across Cornwall to the little town of Polperro. It’s a pleasant place, a picturesque fishing village and ancient smuggler’s haven, crowded with shops and old fishermen’s houses all left relatively untouched for centuries. It retains much of its charm by having visitors park at the top of town and then walk the half-mile down to the old harbor.
When I arrived on Saturday at seven a.m. the town was still asleep. Walking down to the harbor I encountered just one other person, a woman sitting outside a café waiting for it to open. The only sound was that of seagulls screeching from their perches on chimney tops.
Wandering through its warren of little lanes, when I reached the harbor I found a jumble of boats sitting high and dry in the mud of low tide. Continuing on, I watched the port and little town slowly awake.
I did the same in attractive Mevagissey, and hour drive to the south. Looking there and in other towns at the preponderance of sea-related names engraved on old buildings and stamped above the doorways of businesses and restaurants, it was evident that history and tourism drive the local economy.
After two hours or so, I headed back to my car. My strategy was to drive southwards towards the Lizard Peninsula, the southernmost tip of England and the beginning of the English Channel. From there I would turn westward towards Penzance and beyond.
My GPS, seeking the shortest route, kept me on the back roads and between the hedgerows, which prompted some daring driving and many negotiations of passage with oncoming cars. I soon saw that many other drivers must have also been following their GPS, as we all consistently made the same turns.
But as we neared Falmouth, one of the embarkation points for the D-Day landings in Normandy, I decided to split off from the pack and detour to St. Just-in-Roseland to see its 13th-century church. I also wanted to bypass the nearby popular town of St. Mawes, said to be one of the more attractive areas of England. St. Mawes attracts the wealthy and their yachts, as well as hordes of tourists, and it being high season, I wanted to avoid the latter.
After a quick stop at St. Just, I followed the road that would take me southward. I was soon aboard the small King Harry Ferry, crossing the River Fal that empties into the English Channel at Falmouth just a short way downstream. I had a chuckle up the road earlier when I saw someone had changed the first “r” in Harry’s name, re-christening it the “King Hairy Ferry.”
Out of the Hedgerows
In the few minutes it took me to reach the far side of the river, I began to realize that I had my fill of hedgerows and the strenuous driving they entailed.
It was also becoming obvious it would take me days to reach my destination if I continued driving the back roads. I decided to get back on the main road, the A394, the quickest route to the Lizard Peninsula and its windswept coastline, the southernmost point in Britain.
My new route saved quite a bit of time, and as I neared the far reaches of the peninsula, I saw a sign for Cadgwith. Intrigued as to what it might be I abruptly turned off the main road.
I was soon in the clutch of a little old fishing village, a charming place with several thatched-roof houses, all authentic and still lived-in. Chicken wire covered the thatch and chains ran down the sides of the roofs to prevent them from being blown off in gales that at times lash the coast. I walked about Cadgwith for a while admiring my mini-discovery but didn’t spend a lot of time there since much still lay ahead.
Of great interest beyond the Lizard Peninsula was Mousehole (pronounced “mow-zall,” Geoff had advised me back in St. Agnes), a pretty little town about 30 miles to the west past Penzance, the commercial center of the area.
Once in Mousehole, I found that news of its charm had obviously spread far and wide since it was impossible to find a parking space. I wound up parking illegally before setting off towards the harbor along Duck Street, a little lane about 10 feet wide with small houses tucked along its sides. It led me downhill right to the beautiful little harbor.
Mousehole was quite engaging, and despite its popularity, you didn’t get the sense of having many tourists in town with you. I enjoyed spending time at the harbor, and later wandering through the maze of streets and little lanes on its periphery. It’s well worth a stop if you can find a parking spot.
The Incredible Minack Theatre
About a nine-mile drive south of Mousehole I found the phenomenal Minack Theater, its layout, and style mimicking an ancient Greek theater.
What makes the Minack so incredible is its setting – an amphitheater set on a cliff overlooking a stretch of wild coastline, where surf plummets the rocks below as far as the eye can see.
It’s an incredible setting, especially since the water in the area is aquamarine in color, giving it an exotic look, something rare in a country known for dreary winters. More unusual is the sub-tropical climate of the region, which nurtures plant life found nowhere else in England, and which allows outdoor productions at the Minack from April through September.
The Beach Town of St. Ives
Unfortunately, I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the town of St. Ives, approximately 20 miles to the north of the Minack Theatre. One of the gateways to the wild coastline at Land’s End, the westerly most point in England, St. Ives is often raved about in the British media.
I found it, however, to be almost the polar opposite of the other towns I had been visiting. It’s much larger than many of its Cornish neighbors, and much more mass-market, attracting partygoers and tourists seeking more of a beach-resort experience than a cultural one.
That’s not to suggest, however, that it’s entirely devoid of cultural interests. Several St. Ives’ institutions, such as the much-acclaimed Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Tate St. Ives, help balance the cultural scales.
Despite our best intentions, there’s often something we tend to miss on short trips and such it was with Cornwall. My miss was the much-heralded Eden Project, which I had to skip due to time constraints. It’s a series of huge biomes, a global educational garden containing plants from around the world.
If you plan to visit Cornwall, it’s best seen by car if you want to wander through the area’s many coastal villages. You’ll find plenty of auto rentals at Heathrow, which means you can bypass London entirely if you’d like.
Just be sure the car has GPS, or bring your own since the area’s numerous roads and little lanes can be confusing at times. And serpentine…