Located on the southwestern tip of Great Britain, Cornwall, like Brittany in France or Cape Cod in the US, is not somewhere international visitors flock to as a tourist destination. However, it can be crowded with British holidaymakers in the summer, so I was happy to visit off-season in early October.
It’s a county defined by its rugged coastline and charming fishing villages, and its story includes legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as well as tales of pirates and maritime exploits.
Cornwall's coastline stretches for over 400 miles, offering dramatic vistas of the Atlantic Ocean. Picturesque harbours, such as those in St. Ives and Padstow, dot the shoreline, while inland, Bodmin Moor is a wild and untamed natural beauty.
The St. Ives Harbour Hotel
We picked the town of St. Ives, on the western coast of Cornwall, as our base. Originally constructed in the 1800s, the Saint Ives Harbour Hotel has undergone several transformations, evolving from a historic seaside mansion to the rambling hotel with a spa that it is today. If you’re hoping for a sense of arrival at the hotel, there isn’t any. You have to double park on the opposite side of the road and schlep your bags into the unassuming hallway; to call it a foyer or lobby would be misleading. Yet, perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s very much its location, with breath-taking views of the rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and bustling Saint Ives Harbour, that make the hotel special. Our comfortable room looked over the beach, with the harbour and sea beyond.
St. Ives art and artists
The town's history can be traced back to the middle ages, when it was a bustling fishing port. Its name is believed to be derived from St. Ia, an Irish princess who, according to legend, arrived here on a leaf to spread Christianity. Over the centuries, the town's economy thrived on fishing, particularly the pilchard industry, which flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries. The historic Smeaton's Pier, dating back to 1770, still stands as a testament to this maritime heritage.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Saint Ives became a magnet for artists, drawn by its unique light and coastal landscapes. The renowned St. Ives School of Artists, founded in 1920, played a pivotal role in shaping the town's artistic identity. Artists like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson found inspiration here.
The Barbara Hepworth Museum, established in 1976 and housed in Trewyn Studio, Hepworth's former home and studio, is an intimate space that provides a unique insight into the artist's life and creative process. The studio remains largely unchanged, offering an experience of the sculptor’s working environment.
Adjacent to the museum, the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden and its surrounding area form a sculpture trail displaying Hepworth's iconic works in the open air. Nestled amid subtropical gardens, her sculptures harmonize with nature, creating a mesmerizing blend of art and environment.
Tate St. Ives opened its doors in 1993, hosting a diverse collection of artworks ranging from modern masterpieces to contemporary installations. The museum showcases pieces by renowned artists associated with Saint Ives, such as Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and other members of the St. Ives School of Artists. The exhibitions rotate regularly, ensuring that visitors encounter fresh and thought-provoking displays during their visits. When we visited, there was an especially colourful and exuberant exhibition of works emanating from the Casablanca School of Art in Morocco, from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Perched dramatically on the rugged cliffs of Cornwall, Tintagel Castle is a symbol of ancient legends and historical intrigue. The castle's history dates back to the medieval period, with the earliest records of a fortress on this site traced to the 13th century. However, archaeological findings suggest that the site was inhabited as far back as the Roman era.
Beyond its historical significance, Tintagel is steeped in Arthurian legend. According to medieval tales, Tintagel is believed to be the birthplace of King Arthur, the legendary British leader who defended Britain against Saxon invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries. The castle's mystique is amplified by stories of Merlin the magician, the Lady of the Lake, and the sword Excalibur, adding an aura of enchantment to its ancient stones.
We explored the ruins, wandered through ancient courtyards, and photographed the panoramic views of the rugged coastline.
A short drive from Tintagel, Port Isaac, on the rugged North Cornwall coast, has been a fishing village since the 14th century. We strolled around the narrow lanes of granite and whitewashed cottages.
Cycling the Camel Trail
After a day of museums, we hired e-bikes and cycled the Camel Trail along 18 miles of disused railway line between Wenfordbridge, Bodmin, Wadebridge, and Padstow. It’s an easy route that takes you through marshland, forest, and along the shoreline.
St. Michael’s Mount
The patron saint of fishermen, the Archangel Michael, is said to have appeared on the western side of the island—below where the entrance to St. Michael’s Mount castle is today—to ward fishermen from certain peril. It’s a legend that has brought pilgrims, monks, and people of faith to the island ever since.
Originally a Benedictine priory established in the 8th century, it later became a medieval fortress and, eventually, a grand residence. The castle has defended this coastline during the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War.
Its architecture is a captivating blend of styles, reflecting its diverse history. Norman, Gothic, and Tudor elements harmoniously coexist, showcasing the evolution of architectural tastes and techniques over centuries. We wandered through the castle's well-preserved rooms, including the medieval Priory Church, the Chevy Chase Room with its intricate Tudor ceiling, and the Garrison Room, adorned with historic weaponry and artefacts.
What's truly exceptional about it, of course, is its geographical setting. Accessible by a causeway at low tide and by boat during high tide, the castle is situated on a rocky island with an interplay of the tides, which can completely surround the island or reveal a pathway to the mainland, adding mystery and wonder to this historical site.
The Minack Theatre
There were storm-force winds when we arrived at the Minack Theatre, where, over 40 years, one tier at a time, Rowena Cade turned her clifftop garden into what became the famous Minack Theatre.
It all started in 1931 with her making a terrace and rough seating, hauling materials down from the house or up via the winding path from the beach below. In 1932, The Tempest was performed with the sea as a dramatic backdrop, to great success.
And in case you’re thinking, “All this must have cost a lot of money,” Rowena bought the land for £100 in 1930, which is worth £8,607.87 in today’s money. She was still working on it well into her 80s.
If life doesn’t give you lemons, and you love lemonade, why wait for anyone to let you plant some lemon trees?