After a bleak eight-hour train journey, multiple delays and a slightly bedraggled arrival to Redruth station in the midst of pouring rain, my first thought was that it could only get better from here.
In an age when you can fly to most of Europe in just a few hours, Cornwall has remained noticeably isolated from the rest of the country – Land’s End really does feel like it could be the end of the world. In fact, a strong nationalist movement persists, pushing for more autonomy, with some even claiming it’s a country in its own right.
Looking out from the train windows, I’d watched cities give way to small villages and vast expanses of fields. The busy streets of Manchester, my home town, couldn’t seem further away, but this is the main appeal. Almost a third of the county is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and it’s surrounded by the sea on three sides. The views of turquoise waves crashing against the shore are something I don’t think I’d ever get bored of.
The theme of the week seems to be battling against the strong Cornish gusts and dragging ourselves up assorted hills to look at the view. Luckily, this is completely worth it. At Easter, many of the beaches were deserted, and we wandered around the picturesque town of St Ives, whilst the sand dunes by Perranporth beach provided a vantage point overlooking miles of dramatic coastline, with barely another person in sight.
Perranporth is named after St Piran, one of the patron saints of Cornwall. The story goes that an Irish king, jealous of his saintly powers and miracle working, cast him into a stormy sea tied to a millstone. But the waters immediately became calm, and Piran was washed safely ashore.
He did pretty well for himself, allegedly going on to live to the ripe old age of 206. Even the most innocuous places we visited had some attachment to local folklore; the towns’ histories are brimming with tales of saints, kings and knights.
One Cornish quirk is the meadery; these are medieval themed pubs that don’t seem to exist elsewhere, with cosy, old-timey décor and staff in period dress. Coats of arms of the most prominent Cornish families adorned the walls, and the sweet honey flavoured mead topped off the
On the last day of the trip, we visited St Michael’s Mount. Steeped in legend, this tiny island lies a little offshore, with a castle and a few houses. It’s actually only a part-time island; when the tide is out, it’s connected to the village of Marazion (near Penzance) via a cobbled granite causeway, and at high tide you could spot many a bemused tourist wondering where the road had gone.
Its Cornish name, Carrack Looz en Kooz, means ‘the grey rock in the wood’, as it used to be surrounded by a hazel forest which was submerged in an eighteenth century flood. Some records link the Mount to the Cornish legend of the lost kingdom of Lyonnesse, along with the nearby Scilly Isles. Local fishermen claim to have discovered parts of ancient buildings in their trawling nets, and there are claims of locals being woken by the church bells of Lyonnesse on dark nights with rough seas.
The castle itself is like something out of a fairytale, perched precariously atop the rocky island, with gardens carved into the side of the cliffs. We were lucky that our visit coincided with the first day of the season, meaning other tourists were few and far between, but throughout the summer it’s one of Cornwall’s most popular sights. One story is that it was built by giants who had been banished from the mainland by villagers. A heart-shaped stone set in the path to the castle is apparently the giant’s heart, and, if you stand on it, you can still feel it beating, though it’s possibly more likely to be the sensation of waves beating against the island.
Whether it started out as a giant’s residence or not, it went on to serve as a Benedictine priory before being captured by Henry V who planned to use it defensively in his war against France, and was later privately bought by the St Aubyn family. I was surprised, not to mention hugely jealous, to find out the family still live there to this day; recent photos hang alongside Gainsborough portraits on the walls. It’s bizarre to think of them going about their daily life in this treasure trove of history;among the items on display were old sets of armour, antique furniture, and a mini replica of the castle made out of toothpicks by a presumably very dedicated former butler.
I was surprised at just how much of Cornwall has been left untouched, with sandy beaches, tiny cobbled and winding roads, and wild moorlands as far as the eye can see. The formerly prosperous mining towns which make up most of the inhabited areas of the county now seem a little faded and forgotten in places, but they have held onto much of their unique charm. Cornwall fiercely defends its own identity – signs are stubbornly given in both Cornish and English, even in the local Spoons, and it seems as though the rich history of the region lingers on, with more than a touch of fairytale magic in the air.