Friday, 14 February 2014

I can't believe this is England: exploring Cornwall

For nine months in 2010, and then again for six months in 2012, I lived and worked in London. When you live in such a big and chaotic city, you can easily get bored of the asphalt jungle, of the crowds of people crossing the street, not to mention of endless grey skies. Since I had already explored England, Scotland and Ireland to a certain degree, I wanted to go to a part of the country that felt completely different. I almost booked a getaway to the Lake District, and I was seriously thinking of going to Wales for a change, but in the end the pictures on the web convinced me to tackle the long train journey to Cornwall.

Cornwall, on the westernmost corner of England, has a temperate microclimate, and therefore different plants can grow here, like cactuses and strange colourful flowers. My train left from Paddington station early in the morning, and as the English countryside passed in front of me, I could see many different landscapes: strange rock formations, huge bridges, and even a harbour half buried under the sand.


Cornwall sea
The sea in St.Ives

My first stop was Newquay, a seaside resort famous for its surfing possibilities. Yes, you heard me: surfing in the United Kingdom is possible! When I arrived in this small town the wind was very strong, and soon my ears began to ache. I decided to take a walk anyway, just to see the famous beaches. The sea here was incredibly blue: I thought I was in the Mediterranean or in New Zealand, not in England. I first went to the beach closest to the hostel and I was amazed by the size of the waves.

Newquay, Beach

Towan Beach is an iconic beach because of the house on the rock, joined to the mainland by a suspension bridge. During low tide you can walk all along the beach, but during high tide it is not possible and the rock gets entirely surrounded with water, with big waves crashing against the rock for more drama. The house was the residence of Sir Oliver Lodge, a famous scientist, and is now a getaway for rich tourists who can hire the house for a few days or for longer periods. 

House on the Rock, Newquay, Cornwall
Towan Beach

The last beach I saw was Fistral Beach, the most famous for surfing.
Newquay, Cornwall
Surfing equipment in Newquay

Otherwise, the town is a regular seaside resort, with many fish restaurants, the usual souvenir shops, some surf shops and a small harbour. There are many restaurants serving fresh fish, everything from lobster to crab. I was supposed to join a guided tour of the Penwith and Lizard peninsula on the following day, but unfortunately it was cancelled. The hostel where I stayed, called Driftwood, was mysteriously devoid of guests, even though I saw a few surfing suits. I was alone in the dorm, what a feast to recover from five hours on the train and an earache!

Newquay, port
The seaport in Newquay

On the following day I made my way to St. Ives with the bus. I grabbed a cappuccino at the local Costa Coffee, and I boarded a green country bus on the way to this quaint little town famous for a branch of the Tate Gallery. I was the only passenger on the bus until an older British couple got on board. While the bus slowly made its way through the Cornish countryside, we passed by lovely cottages with carefully tended gardens, a campsite and gorgeous beaches with golden sand.
I had calculated everything so as soon as I arrived in St.Ives I could catch bus 300, which is also called the Penwith Explorer because it circles the beautiful peninsula of the same name on the westernmost tip of Cornwall. I studied the bus schedule very carefully (I love doing things like that, am I crazy?). The open-top bus stops at the most important tourist attractions in the area, and the ticket is valid for a whole day (£7.40), so you can choose two or three places to explore. My first stop was at St. Michael's Mount, a twin to the famous French island that you can reach on foot during low tide through a cobbled causeway. The Cornish version of Mont Saint-Michel is located in a village called Marazion (no idea how to pronounce it). The woman at the hostel in Newquay had told me that if I took bus 300 at the right time I would be in Marazion right when the tide was low, and I could walk to the castle on the stone path. She was right: when I arrived it was the perfect time for a trip to the island. The air smelled of sea salt and algae, and children were playing on the beach, jumping on the stones.
On the island there is a castle to explore (£7.60), and well-groomed terrace gardens with exotic plants to enjoy (£4). I chose the latter. The light was incredible here, almost blinding, and I couldn't stop looking out at the sea. After having explored St. Michael's Mount, it was almost time to board the bus again. Before that, I literally grabbed a Cornish pastry in the small market town and ate it at the bus stop. I had never tasted one before. Did I like it? Let's say it was interesting.
Penzance was a bit of a disappointment: as soon as I arrived I understood that I wouldn't care for this slightly bigger town whose only attraction seemed to be a wacky - and obviously fake - Egyptian House, now turned into a souvenir shop, so I boarded the bus 300 once again, trying to think whether to get off at Land's End or Porthcurno. In the end, I couldn't help stopping in Porthcurno, curious to see the Minack Theatre,  a 20th-century Greek-style amphitheatre looking out into the sea.

Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Cornwall
Minack Theatre (photo by Delboy 1940, retrieved on flickr)

Porthcurno turned out to be a stunning place. It's a secluded beach that wouldn't look bad on  a Greek island or in Sardinia. It is surrounded by lovely stone paths climbing the high cliffs. There was a performance going on in the amphitheatre, so I could only have a look from the outside, but it was enough to declare this place beyond beautiful. There is also a Telegraph Museum, because the west of Cornwall was the hub of international cable communications for over a century.

Porthcurno (picture by Martin@FMB, retrieved on flickr)

Porthcurno, Cornwall
Stone paths in Porthcurno

St. Ives is perhaps the place in Cornwall that I look back to with the most nostalgia. It used to be a favourite holiday destination for rich people in Victorian times. Virginia Woolf, just to mention a name, used to come here rather often, and many of her books, like "The Waves" and "To the Lighthouse" were inspired by Cornish landscapes and sights. When I arrived in  St. Ives I thought "how did a piece of Greece got stuck in England?". I was incredibly lucky, because the Tate Gallery was free for the day. It is a small museum, worth visiting for the stunning architecture perhaps even more than for the art it contains. There is this window set against white walls looking out at an impossibly blue sea. Today, St. Ives is a little town with white-washed houses, cobbled streets and a lot of sunshine. It is a fishing town so there is a lot of fresh fish to try. In St. Ives I had the better meal of the trip: pasta with crayfish! The hostel where I stayed was rather laid-back and it looked more like a house. I soon made friends with the girls in the dorm. My time in St. Ives passed quickly, with many walks along the beaches and the harbour.

St. Ives
St. Ives
Another great discovery in St. Ives was Barbara Hepworth museum and sculpture garden (£6.60). As a matter of fact, the town hosted a colony of artists in the first half of the 20th century, and Barbara Hepworth was one of them. The museum is lovely, as it often happens when studios are turned into museums dedicated to a single artist. 

Barbara hepworth garden, St. Ives
Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden

Even though it was a short holiday, Cornwall left an impression on me, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to everyone.

Have you ever been to Cornwall?


  1. You might struggle to get there by train now - the recent storms have wrecked the railtrack where it is close to the sea by Dawlish. I agree Cornwall is a beautiful part of the world, with some world class beaches - well worth the effort to get to.

    1. I didn't know about this recent problem, I hope they'll fix it soon. Cornwall really deserves to be on the list of places to explore for more travellers!

  2. I need to go to Cornwall!! I've wanted to go ever since I was a child so I'm literally telling myself off for this self-imposed denial! Porthcurno looks like a Greek Island, I would never guess it was somewhere in England - never! I'd love to go to the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture gallery too, recently in 2011 the Barbara Hepworth gallery opened in Wakefield, a small city in Yorkshire, if you're ever nearby I recommend it! (however, the city itself is less desirable!)

    1. You really have to go to Cornwall, it's magical and it's absolutely worth the long train ride to get there! It feels different from the rest of England, and not only because of the climate.

      I have never been to the north of England, so if I ever find myself in Yorkshire (I want to!) I'll make sure to check the Barbara Hepworth gallery.

  3. I've always told myself that whenever I return to England, I will definitely have to spend some time in Cornwall and this post just drives home that desire. Porthcurno looks absolutely amazing! I'm such a beach person, so Cornwall would definitely be the perfect escape from London.

    1. Make sure to go in summer, though. I've heard it's even more windy in winter!

  4. Wow, you brought out a totally different side of England. Although I haven't visited it, I have a certain impression of it and what I see here is totally new!

  5. I've heard of this place a lot from my friends. Although I spent 3 years in the UK, I never had a chance to go there. Wow, the beaches are amazing and I could do some surfing here. Nice place I must admit.

  6. I have always known that Cornwall was beautiful but never ventured passed the beaches of Bournemouth. Newquay is actually on the cards for this year. I just hope for better weather when I visit.


  7. This is a fabulous post and wonderful pictures! I have always wanted visit Cornwall but after reading this it became quite pressing! Thanks for sharing this lovely place!

    Safe travels.

    1. Thank you. That was exactly my intenntion with this post! :-)


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