Occupying the tip of England’s south west peninsula, Cornwall is bounded by the River Tamar to the east and by the sea on all other sides. Its mild climate, variety of landscape, rugged coasts and beautiful beaches make it deservedly one of the country’s favourite tourist destinations and visitor attractions abound (see below).
Evidence of former activities such as tin and copper mining and china clay extraction can be seen in many parts of the county; and Cornwall also has a particularly wide range of fine houses and gardens to explore and enjoy.
Access by road is either by the A 38 via the Tamar Bridge at Plymouth; or more usually by the A 30 from Exeter, which enters the county near Launceston and runs down the length of the peninsula. Hideaways has been letting holiday cottages in Cornwall for many years and has a wide variety of interesting and comfortable properties throughout the county.
Although occupation of the area now known as Cornwall dates from earlier times, by the late Bronze Age it had become part of a maritime trading network and by the Iron Age the peninsula was inhabited by Celts with strong cultural connections to Wales and Brittany. The common language spoken by these people developed into separate but similar ones, including modern-day Cornish.
Many place names in Cornwall are associated with saints, the name generally given to Christian missionaries from Ireland and Wales in the fifth century. Perhaps the best known is St Pirran (after whom Perranporth is named), but others including St Petroc and St Ia (St Ives) figure largely in Cornish culture. Always something of a mystic land, the county is also closely associated with the legend of King Arthur (see below).
From mediaeval times mining, mainly for tin and copper, played a significant part in the economy of the region. Throughout the centuries the fishing industry too has sustained many communities, while in more recent times tourism has perhaps become the county’s most vital means of support.
The headland and island on which the castle ruins stand was once a Roman outpost and is associated with the legend of King Arthur. Today’s remains date from the 13th century. Well-organised facilities make this an interesting and spectacular place to visit.
St Michael’s Mount
Once a Benedictine priory and later the home of the St Aubyn family, St Michael’s Mount is now owned and administered by the National Trust though the family still live there. It is full of history and stands in a spectacular position in Mount’s Bay near Penzance.
This is a fine example of a keep built on a well-preserved motte. It dates from Norman times and has had various uses over later centuries including being the seat of the County Assizes.
South Crofty Tin Mine
Tin mining became significant in the Cornish economy during the Middle Ages and expanded considerably in the early and mid 18th century. South Crofty is one of the earliest tin mines in the county, dating in part from the 16th century. The guided tour is mainly underground and affords an authentic insight into the life of a miner in those days.
The sheer number and variety of places of interest in Cornwall could keep the active visitor busy for months. The county boasts a particularly fine collection of beautiful gardens such as Heligan, Trerice near Newquay, Trelissick (Truro) and Trebah near Falmouth, most of them surrounding superb houses of various periods, also open to the public. The Arts are catered for by Tate St. Ives, an offshoot of the London gallery, and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Garden, as well as a number of galleries in the town. There are around 400 beaches in the county accessible on foot, from the famous surfing centres of the North coast to the creeks, coves and estuaries of the South coast (see ‘Outdoors’ below).
This remarkable open-air theatre was the dream – and largely the work – or one woman, Rowena Cade, who developed the original site into a proper theatre using the headland’s rocky cliffs as a dramatic backdrop for performances. In the care of a charitable trust since her death, Minack (‘a rocky place’) now hosts a different play each week from mid-May to mid-September with matinee and evening performances in a truly magical setting.
Built in a disused china clay pit near St Austell, this world-renowned, environmental project houses microcosms of different climatic regions under huge ‘biomes’, as well as many planted areas outside. The site covers several acres and at least half a day is needed to do it justice.
Lost Gardens of Heligan
A restoration project on these neglected gardens was started after the 1990 hurricane. The work continues to evolve but the walled kitchen garden is fully functioning, run in the original way; and there are many areas to explore including the sub-tropical jungle valley running down towards the sea.
Tate St Ives
This Cornish outpost of the London Tate Britain and Tate Modern galleries is housed in an attractive modern building close to Porthmeor Beach in St Ives, a lively town with a reputation as a centre for artists and the arts. Nearby is the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Gardens where paintings, drawings and sculptures by this important 20th century artist can be seen.
The original house on this site dated from the mid-17th century but a fire destroyed most of it in 1881 and it was rebuilt on a larger scale. Now owned by the National Trust, the house defines late-Victorian privilege, and the gardens contain a superb collection of magnolias.
Set in a wooded valley above the River Tamar, Cotehele was the historic home of the Mt Edgcumbe family. Built around three courts, it is one of the least altered, mediaeval houses in Britain and retains many of its original contents. The magnificent gardens are on a number of levels and lead down to the Quay where a restored Tamar sailing barge lies permanently moored alongside.
From small beginnings in the 1960s, Newquay Zoo has become one of Cornwall’s major attractions. It is an award-winning conservation and educational facility and joined forces with Paignton Zoo in 2003 to develop this aspect of its work. There is a wide range of animals to see and the visitor is well-catered for with a children’s play area and various food outlets.
The most westerly point on the UK mainland, the tip of Cornwall has been developed with the tourist in mind and as well as the spectacular cliff paths and nature trails there is a farm and pottery, exhibitions and firework displays, as well as an hotel and catering outlets.
Outdoors in Cornwall
The possibilities for outdoor activity in Cornwall are almost boundless. Its wide range of landscape, from wild moorland to high cliffs and deep wooded valleys, has been developed and harnessed to provide superb facilities for the active visitor. The North and South coasts have very different characteristics : the North is more rugged and exposed; the South (sometimes called the Cornish Riviera) is more sheltered and milder. Almost everywhere are tremendous stretches of coastline interspersed with superb beaches and in places river estuaries providing safe anchorages. The Lizard peninsula offers superb cliff walks and coves: the Helford River and the Fal Estuary are full of intriguing creeks and inlets, a paradise for sailors; and on the North coast the huge beaches at Constantine Bay are a magnet for surfers. Polzeath, Crackington Haven and Bude are also popular destinations.
Whether you are interested in walking (the South West Coastal Path encircles the county), cycling – the recently-completed Camel Trail affords different gradients and fine scenery – or sailing, swimming, and especially surfing, it is all catered for in considerable quantity and variety. Garden enthusiasts are spoilt for choice and the county boasts some of the best historic houses in the UK (see ‘visitor attractions’).
In recent years Cornwall has also attracted a number of the country’s best-known chefs, and national-standard restaurants, many specialising in sea-food, have established themselves in the county.
Towns and Villages
The county’s only city, Truro has some particularly fine Georgian architecture and is dominated by the magnificent cathedral which gives an impression of timelessness despite having only been completed in 1910. The city centre has a continental feel with pavement cafes and a good range of shops, as well as a number of art galleries. Truro is an interesting destination for a day out.
A popular family destination on the Atlantic coast, the town has a number of fine surfing and swimming beaches and a wide range of accommodation. Nearby are the Lappa Valley steam railway, the Screech Owl sanctuary (very popular with children), Trerice (NT), a small and perfect example of an Elizabethan house; and the Classic Air Force Museum at Newquay Airport, a newly formed and ever-increasing collection of vintage aircraft, some of which offer reasonably-priced local flights.
A fishing port at the mouth of the Camel Estuary with a fine harbour and several excellent places to eat including Rick Stein’s famous seafood restaurant. The Camel Trail cycle route starts here and follows the estuary before rising to Bodmin Moor.
A large port with deep water moorings and many beautiful creeks up the River Fal. Trelissick Gardens are at the head of the estuary with magnificent views. The Tudor castles of Pendennis and St Mawes guard the Carrick Roads; and the town is home to the famous national Maritime Museum.
A mediaeval harbour town in South East Cornwall on the West side of the Fowey River mouth, Fowey offers a deep-water anchorage and is a popular yachting destination. There is a festival of Words and Music in May, and a regatta in August. Not far away is Menabilly, the home of author Daphne du Maurier, where she wrote the famous novel Rebecca.
Named after St Ia, this small bustling town has a unique atmosphere. With wide sandy beaches on all sides, high quality restaurants, numerous galleries displaying works by local artists, and of course Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Garden, St Ives is a very popular all-year destination.
Both coasts of Cornwall are peppered with a wonderful variety of small villages, their characters varying greatly with their locality. Many are at the head of narrow and picturesque inlets of the sea. Of particular note are the fishing harbours of Mevagissey, Looe and Fowey on the south coast; and Port Isaac and Boscastle on the wilder north coast. The more active holidaymaker can explore many more of the lesser-known villages and harbours by walking along sections of the South West Coastal Path which links every one of them around the entire peninsula.