By Jim Ferri
I knew there were a lot of things to do in Cornwall.
But for an hour, I had been cutting across sheep-speckled hillsides, speeding through clumps of thick forest, and hurtling through canyon-like hedgerows a car-width wide.
To describe the route as “serpentine” didn’t even scratch the surface and I was wondering if I was on the right track.
I was on a two-day drive about Cornwall, the toe of land jutting out into the Atlantic in southwestern England, where the air is briny, the seafood fresh and the landscape dramatic. It’s a place I’d wanted to visit for years but for one reason or another never did.
And now I was there, driving across a bucolic countryside, and along a wild coast scalloped with little bays that sheltered old fishing villages ripe with good pubs, restaurants, gardens and galleries.
I was in search of good things to do in Cornwall. In the end, the reality surpassed my expectations.
St. Agnes, My First Stop in Cornwall
I began my Odyssey in the little town of St. Agnes, my first stop 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 to come.
The Old Smuggler’s Haven of Polperro, One of the Best Places to Visit in Cornwall
The next morning with some guidance from Geoff, I was out quite early and headed across Cornwall to the little town of Polperro. It’s a pleasant place, a picturesque fishing village and old smuggler’s haven, crowded with shops and old fishermen’s houses 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, I reached the harbor and found a jumble of boats sitting high and dry in the mud at low tide.
I continued to walk about, watching the harbor and the little town awake. Looking 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 to continue on my quest to find interesting things to do in Cornwall. My plan 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 west 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 frequent negotiation of passage with oncoming cars.
I soon saw that many other drivers must have also been following their GPSs, as we all consistently made the same turns.
As we neared Falmouth, one of the embarkation points for the D-Day landings in Normandy, I split off from the pack and decided to detour to St. Just-in-Roseland to see its 13th-century church.
I also wanted to bypass the nearby popular town of St. Mawes, one of the more attractive areas of England. I was interested in finding off-the-beaten-track things to do in Cornwall, not those places which attract the wealthy and their yachts, and crowds of tourists.
Off the Beaten Track to Cadgwith
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 on a sign, re-christening it the “King Hairy Ferry.”
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 often entailed.
It was becoming obvious it would take me days to reach my destination if I continued driving the back roads, as pleasant as they were. 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.
As I neared the far reaches of the peninsula, I saw a sign for Cadgwith and 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. You could see they were authentic and still someone’s home. Chicken wire covered the thatch and chains ran down the sides of the roofs to prevent them from being blown off in gales that sometimes lash the coast.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in Cadgwith since there was still many things to do in Cornwall ahead. Of great interest beyond the Lizard Peninsula was Mousehole (pronounced “mo-zall”, Geoff had explained), 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 comeliness 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 little houses tucked along its sides. It led me downhill right to the beautiful little harbor.
Mousehole was quite engaging, one of the best places in Cornwall I visited, 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
Drive about nine miles south of Mousehole and you’ll find the phenomenal Minack Theater, its layout and style mimicking an ancient Greek theater. It’s one of the best places in Cornwall to visit.
What makes Minack so incredible is its setting – an amphitheater set on a cliff overlooking a stretch of wild and rocky coastline plummeted by the surf as far as you can see.
It’s a beautiful 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.
Even rarer is the sub-tropical climate of the region, which nurtures plant life found nowhere else in England. The climate also allows for outdoor productions at 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 and the westerly most point in England, St. Ives is often raved about in the British media.
I didn’t, however, find it to be among best places in Cornwall to visit. In fact, it was almost the polar opposite of the other towns I had been visiting.
St. Ives is a much larger town than many of its Cornish neighbors, and more mass market, attracting party-goers and tourists seeking a beach resort experience more than travelers seeking a cultural one.
That is not to suggest, however, that St. Ives is totally 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.
If you go:
Cornwall is about a four-hour drive from London’s Heathrow, and is 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. 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.