The swell of the Atlantic, the moderate climate and excellent beaches make Cornwall Britain’s premier surfing destination. The action largely centers on Newquay, the surfing capital of the UK.
Cornwall – Long Read

Blood-curdling stories of smugglers

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Cornwall – Long Read Blood-curdling stories of smugglers

Hello Cornwall, both Britain’s extreme west and extreme south. The mild climate of this toe of England has filled it with gardens and palm trees that, on its many sunny days, recall the south of France. When Atlantic winter gales howl in along the north coast, however, it is a place to huddle in a cosy bar and listen to blood-curdling tales of smugglers from the past.

Helen Conijn
Helen Conijn

It is pleasantly full in the Smuggler’s Bar of the Jamaica Inn: the small tables are crowded with people happily eating and chatting as the scent of chips and beer fills the air. This is the legendary coaching house immortalized by Daphne du Maurier in the novel of the same name. This 18th-century inn with its facade of grey slate is the biggest attraction on Bodmin Moor, a granite wilderness at the gateway to Cornwall. No wonder many tourists are lured in on their way to Cornwall, Britain’s “subtropical” south, with its reputation for smuggling.

In Polperro, I wander through the small streets, curious as to what I might encounter around each bend. Old smugglers’ cottages are haphazardly scattered throughout the village. These days, the delightful whitewashed houses, with their tiny black-trimmed windows and pots of cheerful-looking geraniums, are rented out to tourists. One of the most beautiful villages in Cornwall, two smuggling museums highlight its darker past.

The small harbor opens onto the cliffs, where the raging sea lashes at the sleepy port. Cornwall’s staggering 500-kilometre coastline is dominated by sandy beaches and jagged cliffs. Its population were once hugely dependent on the sea and, while fishing was the most important source of income, smuggling became a welcome addition to everyday profits (see mini-feature). A handsome reward lay in wait for the 18th century inhabitant who managed to circumvent the taxes on luxury goods from France such as cognac, tea, perfume, silk and salt.

They used light signals to run ships ashore

The secluded county of Cornwall – with inland bays penetrating deep into the countryside – became a veritable smuggler’s paradise. An estimated 100,000 locals, including women and children, were involved in the trade. Some of the more brazen families were even said to have used light signals to run ships ashore, hoping to plunder the wreckage. These days, only tourists are attracted to the county but the wealth they bring is even more welcome.

One can easily conjure up images of holidaying on the French Riviera here. An abundance of palm trees and agaves grow in Cornwall’s temperate climate and villages such as St Mawes display a glittering sweep of white villas dotted along a blue bay. Sadly, the great Atlantic is no Mediterranean Sea. Pants rolled high, I wade through the surf at Lusty Glaze Bay beach in Newquay. “Sixteen degrees,” says Leigh, the on-duty lifeguard. The chilly water does not seem to bother the other bathers at all. Surfers patiently lie on their boards waiting for the next decent wave. The stretch of beaches on the northern coast, of which Watergate Bay is the trendiest and most popular, is known as “surfers’ paradise”.

A broad-shouldered surf instructor saunters down the beach with two students, salty sea water dripping from their wetsuits. “Yeah!” shrieks proud Londoner Janet Jenkens with glee, “I stood up twice!” Although she’s been on vacation here before, this is her first surfing lesson.

Watergate Bay is the trendiest and most popular beach in the area. Last year, renowned chef Jamie Oliver opened Fifteen here, one of his restaurants worldwide – including Amsterdam and London – that offers jobs to underprivileged kids. “We are fully booked a month in advance,” one of waiters says when we come in for a look. “But you can always call us to see if there’s been a cancellation.”

Cornwall has roughly 70 gardens open to the public

The subtropical climate is clearly conducive to gardening as well. Cornwall has roughly 70 gardens open to the public. Garden expert Claire Vickers says Trebah is one of the most beautiful due in part to its spectacular location on the Helford River. Claire is a connoisseur, having visited nearly every garden in Cornwall from the historic gardens of Heligan and Caerhays Castle, known for its beautiful magnolias, to Glendurgan Garden, famous for its exquisite labyrinth, and the sheltered garden of Trengwainton, with flora unique to Great Britain.

While each garden has at least one exceptional feature, the most striking is undoubtedly the futuristic Eden Project in St Austell. Set against the walls of a former china clay quarry are two enormous, domed biospheres. The transparent cells do not remotely resemble the standard greenhouses we are familiar with. The largest biome emulates a tropical rainforest with more than 8,000 species of plants. Some of the trees even reach the roof, hovering meters above the biome floor.

The second, smaller biome emulates a Mediterranean climate. Under the inspirational guidance of Tim Smit, this biome presents the history of plants, people and places and their inherent interconnectedness. In just a few short years, the Eden Project has become the most important tourist attraction in Cornwall, so much so that local newspapers carry ads appealing to visitors NOT to come on rainy days to control over-crowding.

As I inhale the crisp green scent of freshly cut grass and briny ocean air, I begin to understand what Claire said earlier: “Cornwall is a sensory delight.” Smell, color, taste – it is all-encompassing in its corporeal stimulation. In 2004, Claire traded her hectic London lifestyle for the calm and tranquillity of Cornwall. People here are not nearly as lazy as some claim: “The Cornish have a reputation for being laid-back folks who spend their days eating pasties and drinking cider,” she says with a laugh.

Crabbing is a popular pastime along the shore

In Cornwall, Claire has a close connection to the natural world. Just last weekend, she, her husband and their sons went crabbing across from the Pandora Inn, a thatched, 17th-century pub north of Falmouth which offers an excellent lunch. Crabbing is a popular pastime along the shores of Cornwall. Claire reveals her secret: “Try bacon, crabs love it.”

Shortly before reaching Land’s End, the most south-westerly point of Cornwall, I see the contours of St Michael’s Mount loom above the sea. Although much smaller, this island off the coast of Penzance is strongly reminiscent of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. This is not a surprising coincidence given that the Benedictines built a monastery here following the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The monastery later became part of the citadel fortress built by Henry VII to defend the area from French attack. Now open to the public, the castle can be easily accessed in low tide by walking across the dike. In high tide, a ferry brings visitors to the castle and returns them safely with dry feet.

The farther west I go, the wilder and more rugged the landscape becomes. The villages themselves also begin to change. Mousehole (pronounced ‘muzzle’) is far from an enchanting fishing village with charmingly whitewashed houses. The houses here are tough as nails and built from huge blocks of grey granite, with tiny windows facing the sea. Oh how the storms must rage! Despite the harsh, grey exterior, Mousehole is beautiful and is absolutely worth a visit. Families are enjoying a meal of fish and chips at the harbor. They eat it as it was meant to be eaten: from a large, crumpled newspaper as a cheeky seagull waddles around, eyeing a piece of fish.

Who made them? And why? When? How?

The most westerly part of Cornwall, stabbing at the sea like a crooked finger, is also the most uninhabited. Could this explain the abundance of prehistoric relics and persevered monuments, such as the Lanyon Quoit tomb and the Merry Maidens? The latter is a perfect Bronze Age stone circle near Mousehole surrounded by undulating fields. There are 19 upright monoliths. Who made them? And why? When? How?

After contemplating the prehistoric men and their motives for a while, I jump back into the car and hit the narrow roads for the final stretch to Land’s End. Considering the desolate landscape, which is at the mercy of the hellish winds that constantly lash the coast, it does feel like I’m approaching the end of the world. But the actual site is a tourist trap where any romance is soon dissipated by the raw commercial greed. I find I even have to pay to photograph to the ‘Land’s End’ sign, which is meanly taken down at closing time.

St Ives, just around the bend, feels like a breath of fresh air afterwards. Always a popular destination for holidaymakers, the Mediterranean light and natural beauty of the area has long attracted painters such as William Turner and James Whistler. When war broke out in 1939, sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicolson moved here. Hepworth had already made a name for herself as a modernist and lived in Trewyn Studio from 1949 to her death in 1975. Upon the request of this grande dame of sculptural art, her former studio was opened to the public as a museum and now displays her tools as artistic relics.

But it wasn’t until the establishment of Tate St Ives in 1993 that tourism began to dramatically increase. Now, the summer streets are packed with tourists and it’s easy to imagine yourself strolling through Corfu on a warm summer’s day.

One of the most spectacular beaches I have ever seen

The coastal road from St Ives to Newquay is sandwiched between steep cliffs. A sign alongside the road reads “Bedruthan Steps”. Could this be another prehistoric edifice? I can’t find it in my travel guide, but I do see a surprising number of cars parked here. A marvellous beach lies at the foot of a steep staircase, one of the most spectacular I have ever seen. It is more than a kilometer long and giant black granite rocks stick out of the sand. Bedruthan, I learn, was a mythical giant who planted these rocks and used them as steps.

Children work on an enormous sandcastle while others play bocce ball between the rocks. A few surfers are out in the sea, lying on their boards, waiting for the right swell to come along. But it is otherwise pleasantly quiet and still. Tiny mussels have attached themselves to the rocks and glimmer like black velvet. When the tide rolls in they will be submerged once more. With a difference of several metres, the tidal range here is astounding. Getting closed in is a real danger and everywhere there are warning signs.

Padstow is possibly the most lively and dynamic fishing village on the northern coast of Cornwall. Small streets with medieval houses lead to the small harbor. The village was made famous by Rick Stein, one of England’s most famous TV chefs. For many, his Seafood Restaurant is reason enough to visit Padstow. Stein’s Fish & Chips, a take-away, offers a cheaper option than the restaurant and has a long line of customers waiting who sit around the harbor wall nearby to enjoy this typical British treat.

The chef has also opened two other restaurants in the area, as well as a cooking school, a delicatessen and guest rooms in several old buildings. His spreading empire is resented by some locals whose own businesses have suffered although many have prospered – and the village has been dubbed ‘Padstein’ as a tribute by fans and resentfully by foes.

The origins of this Cornish clan can be traced back to the Viking Age

After over-eating, I take a short ride on the Camel Trail, a bicycle and walking path following a former railroad track inland for some 30 km from Padstow back to Bodmin through spectacular scenery. A number of companies offer bike hire and the route, being once used by trains, has no intense gradients to test the fitness of novice riders.

Padstow is also the hometown of the Prideaux-Brunes family – with a history, and an estate, that few other families can match. Their home has been in the family for 400 years and the origins of this Cornish clan can be traced back to the Viking Age. Their son William was even named after his 26-times great grandfather, William the Conqueror.

Despite its elegant name, Prideaux Place is still lived in to this day. The estate has been used as a site for several period film productions and various TV shows, just one more way to generate additional income for the seemingly endless renovations the estate requires. When Elizabeth and Peter moved to the 88-room house in 1988, the entire building was in need of restoration. It is a sheer pleasure to wander through the rooms, where not a single “Do not touch” sign can be found.

Peter can speak for hours about the place, offering up ghost stories and tales of the British royal family. He is a long-time friend of Camilla Parker-Bowles, named Duchess of Cornwall after marrying Prince Charles. The queen’s eldest son always inherits the Duchy of Cornwall which spans some of the most beautiful and wealthiest land in England, in both Cornwall and Devon as well as land in other counties. The duchy, which has the right of wreck on all ships wrecked on the Cornish coast, generates more than $25million each year for the Prince of Wales but is exempt from corporation tax. Cornwall’s smuggler spirit of avoiding taxes lives on.

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