Cornwall, from Tregony to the Lizard, a case in breathtaking beauty

The majestic St Michaels Mount in Cornwall. Picture: Shutterstock
The majestic St Michaels Mount in Cornwall. Picture: Shutterstock

The beauty of Cornwall has attracted people like chef Rick Stein, writes Brian Jackman.

In the dead of winter in south Cornwall, you can feel a mildness in the air missing in the rest of England. The first daffodils are out in December, camellias bloom at Christmas, and by February the subtropical gardens at Trebah and Glendurgan are already aglow with the miracle of the Cornish spring.

Tregony is where my journey begins, on the upper reaches of the Fal River. This is the gateway to the Roseland Peninsula, a beguiling coastal heritage region of woods and creeks and National Trust beaches between St Mawes and Veryan Bay.

Crugsillick, Mellangoose, Ruan Lanihorne - let the poetry of its Celtic place names entice you along the back roads. In these lost lands between the woods and the water lies the true and mysterious heart of Cornwall, still dreaming of its Dark Age saints.

Out of season it is as quiet as a prayer, its wooded valleys cobwebbed with lanes that burrow like badger runs between the trees, plunging down one-in-four gradients to emerge at last beside one of the tidal waterways whose salty fingers thrust far into the hinterland beneath the overhanging oaks.

These are rias, the drowned river valleys that are south Cornwall's most characteristic feature. Formed when sea levels rose after the last Ice Age, they are a powerful reminder of what global warming could bring; and for me they always exude a special magic, especially in late autumn when the smell of fallen leaves combines with the tang of the tideways to bring on a nostalgia that cuts to the bone, recalling the Cornwall of my childhood.

Beside one such creek on the Fal estuary hides St Just-in-Roseland. Is there any village with a lovelier name? Or a more tranquil last resting place than its waterside churchyard, wrapped around with palms and camellias?

Sooner or later every road leads down to the coast, to the little fishing village of Portscatho whose cottages are as dazzlingly white as any in a Greek island village, or to Portloe, a cleft in the cliffs where the Lugger Hotel stands with its feet in the sea on a slipway covered in crab pots.

In the gaunt headlands there is grandeur, but Cornwall's south coast is gentler than the north. Its bays and coves are safe and sheltered, and even the light is subtly different. On the north coast you stand with the sun at your back but here at midday it shines before you, beating a path of hammered silver to the horizon.

True, north Cornwall may have the surf, but the south has a distinctive style, and nowhere more so than at Rosevine, where the Driftwood Hotel - a vision of blue-and-cream Cape Cod clapboard - overlooks a quiet stretch of cormorant rocks and shining sand. If it's quietness and comfort you are after, with fine dining and personal service, the Driftwood hits the spot.

The South West Coast Path runs past the bottom of the garden, so I follow it down to Portscatho's pocket-sized harbour.

The strand line at Porthcurnick was strewn with limpets, but the sands themselves were deserted, although the Plume of Feathers, Portscatho's 17th-century pub, was full of ramblers.

At St Mawes, by far the best-known resort town in Roseland, a high tide was slopping over the roadway.

This is where visiting yachtsmen come to splash out at the Tresanton, one of Cornwall's swankier seaside hotels; but those on a more modest budget might prefer to board the passenger ferry to Falmouth. The return journey costs $20 and it's a 20-minute cruise across the finest sailing waters in the South West.

At the Prince of Wales Pier, I step ashore and make my way along Market Street towards the National Maritime Museum.

There's a real buzz about the town, helped by the presence of 10,000 university students, and the museum itself is the perfect destination for a gloomy day.

On the other side of Falmouth's quay, Rick Stein's Fish offers top-quality seafood at affordable prices. A superb fish soup costs $17.

Most of Stein's Cornwall restaurants are in Padstow but on the opening of his Falmouth outpost he said, "Outside Padstow it's my favourite seaside town in Cornwall."

The Ship Inn, built in 1570, is Fowey's oldest pub. Picture: Shutterstock

The Ship Inn, built in 1570, is Fowey's oldest pub. Picture: Shutterstock

North of Falmouth, on the River Fal's west bank is Trelissick, one of the National Trust's flagship gardens, and on the other side stands the 500-year-old Smugglers Cottage at Tolverne, formerly a tearoom. The creeper-clad cottage has a claim to fame, for it was here that General Eisenhower addressed 27,000 American troops before they embarked for the D-Day landings.

Cruising up the Fal's sheltered waters, it would be easy to imagine that the whole of south Cornwall is as gentle as this, but a trip to the Lizard will soon change your mind.

Here on the southernmost point of mainland Britain stands the Lizard Lighthouse.

Deep South this may be, but when the winter storms come beating in, it is as wild as anything the Atlantic can throw at you.

I went there on a glorious day, but even then a big sea was running, the swell exploding in huge shell bursts against the serpentine rocks.

Out of the wind, I picnicked while gulls wailed in the abyss below and a pair of choughs whirled in the updraughts. Quintessential Cornwall at its best.

Cornwall

Stay at

Driftwood Hotel, Rosevine. Right up alongside the best seaside hotels in Britain, it has a Michelin-starred restaurant, private sea-facing terraces and a private beach. See driftwoodhotel.co.uk

The Nare Hotel, Veryan-in-Roseland. One of Cornwall's finest, it has a sunny position on the peninsula. See narehotel.co.uk

Eat at

Rick Stein's Fish, Falmouth. Best cod and chips ever. See rickstein.com

Lugger Hotel, Portloe. Situated so close to the water that the sea bass cooked so perfectly for supper might have swum within a few feet of the kitchen door. See luggerhotel.co.uk

Plume of Feathers, Portscatho. Home-cooked ham in sandwiches of heroic proportions. See plumeoffeathers-roseland.com

The King's Head at Ruan Lanihorne. Hidden in the backwoods of the Fal estuary. Serves the best beef for miles around. See kings-head-ruan.co.uk

Roseland Inn, Philleigh. Sixteenth-century oak-beamed traditional rural Cornish pub near the King Harry Ferry. Open fires and real ales. See roselandinn.co.uk

Out and about

Caerhays Castle, Gorran: Glorious floral tribute to the 19th-century plant hunters. Its 40 hectares of woodland gardens overlook Porthluney Cove and contain a national magnolia collection. Gardens open daily from February 20 onwards. See caerhays.co.uk

Trebah, Mawnan Smith. Glendurgan's lush neighbour is one of the world's best gardens: a 10-hectare subtropical ravine filled with tree ferns, magnolias, ponds and waterfalls. See trebahgarden.co.uk

Glendurgan, Mawnan Smith. Spring comes early to this wildly romantic valley garden plunging down to the Helford River. Open daily from mid-February. See nationaltrust.org.uk

Tregothnan, Truro. The tea once sold at Tolverne was grown on the nearby Tregothnan estate, the first place in Britain with its own plantation. The first bushes were planted in 1999 and thrive in a climate akin to Darjeeling's. The estate can be visited by prior appointment for tastings and tours. See tregothnan.co.uk

Trelissick, Feock. About 300 metres from King Harry Ferry on the west bank of the Fal. Magnificent 16-hectare garden surrounded by 150 hectares of woods and parklands overlooking the Fal. See nationaltrust.org.uk

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