The original title for this post was Secret Cornwall (the cliched term ‘hidden gems’ is banned from the site), but let’s face it, there are no secrets any more. The county where I was born is so rammed with visitors these days they are squeezing into every nook and cranny (spreading Covid we hear). But there are still relatively undiscovered places that don’t draw the crowds. My round-up of ‘secrets’ is quite heavy on tin mining relics, Cornish moorland, scenic railways and social distancing. The only beaches on the list require walking boots and stamina. And I’ve chucked in three random food options, two of which are in Newquay (one of the most crowded places in the county).
Note: Most of these suggestions are lifted from my guide to Cornwall and the Scilly Isles (from Crimson’s Best of Britain series, now out of print but still available on Amazon).
Ding Dong Mine, Penwith Moor
In Cornwall’s wild west , Penwith Moor offers a network of footpaths which meander across grassland, heathland and ancient pasture, cutting through dry bracken and spiky gorse or hugging the rugged Atlantic coast. On rough and often rocky paths which occasionally skirt the edge of sheer cliffs you will need stamina, an OS map (number 203), and sensible clothing. But you will be justly rewarded for your efforts: one of the most dramatic coastal landscapes in Britain, riddled with the remnants of prehistoric settlements and dotted with the relics of tin mining. For some of the best of the ancient sites, do the Ding Dong Moor route, a 3-mile walk following the footpath from Bosullow to Men-an-tol,up to the atmospheric ruins of Ding Dong Mine (one of Cornwall’s oldest tin mines and part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site). Nearby, the standing stones known as the Merry Maidens (19 granite pillars, said to be a gaggle of girls who were turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday).
On the National Trust coastline between Polruan and Polperro, lies a pocket of secretive little bays: Lansallos, Lantivet and beautiful Lantic Bay. The latter, is a favourite with locals, though it’s quite a walk, even if you take the car. From the carpark on the road, follow the waymarked path, cutting across fields, before taking a steep descent down to the beach (remember, it’s all up-hill on the way back). In a horseshoe bay of sand and pebbles, sheltered by high cliffs, Lantic is a dream of a beach with clean, clear waters, but there are no facilities, and it can get busy with boat traffic at weekends in high summer. Photograph courtesy of visit cornwall.
Fern Pit Café, Newquay
The easy way to get here is from East Pentire (the cafe’s car park is between bungalows on Newquay’s western headland); the long way is to cross the river Gannel via gorgeous Crantock beach. At low tide, paddle through the sandy shallows; when the water’s up, climb aboard the Fern Pit’s own foot ferry. Either way, you arrive at a ramshackle boathouse shop (a curious mix of beach kit, souvenirs and tanks of live shellfish) before taking a long flight of steps that meanders through a wild cliff garden to the cafe, run by the Northey family since 1910. The food may not be the finest (think jacket potatoes and cheese and pickle) but it is well worth the climb for the views, the chickens in the garden, the rustic picnic tables and the sandwiches made with fresh crab caught and landed by the Northey family’s own fishing boat: fernpit.co.uk.
Note: this is an edited extract from a Guardian article on budget eats in south Cornwall.
In the Luxulyan Valley, which runs down to the banks of the River Par through mature woodland, entrepreneur Thomas Treffry engineered a series of leats, tramways and watermills to oil the progress of mid-19th century Cornish mining. Highlights include the water wheel pit and gushing waterfall at Carmears Rocks, and the spectacular Treffry Viaduct. Almost hidden in greenery, the latter was built to carry copper ore from the mines to the port at Par. To explore the valley, its woodland and wildlife, park at the Treffry Viaduct car park, roughly a mile from Luxulyan, and then follow the waymarked paths through the valley. For more information visit the website of the Friends of Luxulyan Valley (who supplied the photographs).
The Looe Valley Line
Photograph courtesy of Scenic Rail Britain and GWR.
Take the Looe Valley’s scenic railway line from Liskeard to Looe. A great introduction to this area of south-east Cornwall, the single-track line connects the mainline station at Liskeard and meanders south through the beautiful Looe Valley to East Looe. Following the towpath of the former Liskeard to Looe Union Canal, which once carried copper and granite (circa 1820) from Bodmin Moor to the sea, the route plunges through tunnels of riverbank greenery, through achingly pretty countryside that seems almost unchanged since the railway was built in 1860. Trains run every hour or so in each direction calling at Coombe Junction, St Keyne, Causeland and Sandplace. Try to time a trip at high tide when the river almost touches the track. On the final approach to Looe, the train appears to be almost floating on water. For more information see Scenic Rail Britain website or Great Senic Railways.
North Coast footpath – and the Strangles
Between Boscastle and Bude, lies one of the loneliest, loveliest coastlines on the Atlantic coast – every inch of it National Trust, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or both, and much of it empty other than a few isolated farms. Even mining didn’t stretch this far. On cliffs that rise and fall like a roller coaster, fulmars and housemartins nest on ledges and rock-faces. The aptly named High Cliff at Crackington Haven is Cornwall’s highest. The displays of wild flowers that grow here in the salt air are as good as in any botanical garden. And there are some cracking coastal walks, some of the best in the county, for those with plenty of puff and stamina. Toiling up the footpath to say, Cambeak Cliff, is not for the unfit. High Cliff, to the south is not only the highest in Cornwall at 735ft, but it’s the highest sheer-drop cliff in southern Britain. The Strangles, one of Cornwall’s wildest beaches (pictured, above) is a long climb down brittle slate cliffs, but so beautiful you could weep. The challenge is to find it.
Cadgwith Cove and St Mary’s Chapel
Huddled around two tiny coves, littered with boats, nets and crab-pots, at the bottom of a plunging U-shaped valley, this out-of-the-way Lizard village, used to be a secret back in the day, but thanks to at least one TV show, it’s been well and truly discovered. Now, you pay a tenner or more for an average sliced-bread crab sandwich and can be hard to find a space in the car-park (access is via a footpath). But Cadgwith still manages to carry off an air of the forgotten, it’s still a working fishing village, and it’s still worth a visit: for pretty thatched cottages, the Cove Inn (where local fishermen regularly get together for sea-shanty singalongs) and the Mission Church of St Mary’s (a blue-painted corrugated iron chapel the size of a room). This teeny tin tabernacle (picture one and three, above) was built in 1859 and remains a peaceful time-warp away from the mooching crowds.
A combo of tacos, cocktails, cold beers and crazy golf, delivered by a young surfer with a sideline in bespoke wetsuits … this is so Newquay. Before Elsie Pinniger took over, this was a tired cafe-in-a-hut on a vintage mini golf course, close to Fistral but a bit off-the-beaten track. Elsie painted the hut black, renamed it (after the film, Happy Gilmore), added a dash of kitschy-California colour and drew up a menu of Mexican-style dishes. Now it’s a hip Newquay hangout– even the mini golf looks cool. The food’s the main thing, though: Mexican eggs, breakfast burritos, nachos and a choice beef, fish or vegetarian tacos. Elsie uses Cornish meat, Newquay fish and her own soft-shell tacos. For more info, visit the website.
Note: this is an edited extract from a Guardian article on budget eats in south Cornwall.
Under the Tamar Bridges
Marvel at what the locals call the ‘Saltash bridges’, road and railway side by side straddling the Tamar Estuary, between Devon and Cornwall. This is the first point of entry for A38 travellers. And what an entrance. This is Britain’s answer to San Francisco’s Golden Gate – especially when photographed, as they often are, shrouded in an early-morning river mist. There’s a free pedestrian walkway on the 1960s suspension bridge, affording side-on views of trains rattling across the Royal Albert Bridge – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s tour de force, built in 1959, is unique in bridges, being the only one of its kind to carry main line trains. For overhead views of the bridges’ undercarriages, walk along the Saltash waterside on the quays below or grab a pint at the eye-catching Union Inn, painted with a Union Jack.
Morrab Library, Penzance
Gen up on a bit of local history, or borrow a book, at the Morrab Library, founded in 1818 and one of the oldest independent libraries in the UK. Housed in a 19th century villa in the centre of Penzance, its collections include around 70,000 books (some of them pre-1801) on a range of subjects from history and biography to topography and travel. The collection also includes photography, manuscripts, Napoleonic memorabilia and over 150 years of Cornish newspapers. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are arranged around original fireplaces and sash windows overlooking Morrab Gardens. You need to take out a membership to use the library (currently closed due to Covid) but you are invited to take a look around first. Membership is £30 a year (and the pre-pandemic daily memberships of £5 may return at some point). Photograph courtesy of www.morrablibrary.org.uk
This post wouldn’t be proper Cornish without a pasty or two, so here’s some of my favourites. In the top three: Gear Farm Pasty Co, near Helston on the Lizard (perfect pasties, home-made at this family-run, middle-of-nowhere farm); don’t even think about turning up without pre-ordering (01326 221150). Sarah’s Pasty Shop in Looe (not so keen on the faddy bacon-and-egg or spicy pasties, but the traditionals are rich, meaty and moist); get there early or pre-order. I’m also a regular at Paul Bray’s, the butchers in Tideford (a handy pit-stop right on the A38, minutes after you cross the bridge into Cornwall). For more suggestions see my vintage (2011) pasty blog in the Guardian. Pictures courtesy of Gear Farm (left) and Paul Bray & Son (right).