Cornwall - The author’s take

Going Slow in Cornwall

Photogenic fishing villages, squeezed into rocky coves, have long served to define Cornwall at its most picturesque.

Five million people come to Cornwall each year as visitors, and more ink has been spilt by writers attempting to capture the county than over any other part of Britain. It’s not hard to see why: Cornish beaches are astonishingly beautiful, washed by tumbling surf that has travelled the Atlantic, while photogenic fishing villages, squeezed into rocky coves, have long served to define Cornwall at its most picturesque. 

But Cornwall is more complex and infinitely more diverse than that. There are the post-industrial, granite-built towns of Redruth and Camborne as well as the whitewash-and-thatch villages of the Roseland peninsula; among the mountains of white china clay spoil there are moments of startling beauty, while the wild moors of Bodmin and Penwith are strewn with the skeletal husks of the tin-mining industry and evidence of prehistoric communities lingers in stone.

Mevagissey harbour Cornwall England UK by Mike Charles Shutterstock
Cornwall is full of picturesque harbours, such as this one in Mevagissey © Mike Charles, Shutterstock 

Then there’s the remarkable heritage of unspoilt country churches, holy wells and pilgrim routes, lying quietly beside busy roads and brash resorts; and colonies of artists, shifting with the times around Lamorna, St Ives, Redruth, Falmouth and Penryn.

The almost-island geography of Cornwall means you are rarely more than a few miles from the sea. The variety is seemingly infinite: the rugged north coast with its jutting cliffs of slate and granite, towering sand dunes and windy beaches, where Arthur fought and St Piran landed, or the gentler south coast, with its lush subtropical gardens running down to sheltered coves; busy estuaries, rambling rivers and storm-lashed harbours where old fishing communities still survive.

No wonder then, that dozens of guidebooks exist to help holidaymakers get the most out of their precious week or fortnight, listing Cornwall’s ‘unmissable’ sights, its ‘Top Ten Beaches’, swankiest celebrity-run restaurants or coolest surf bars and festivals. The Slow concept isn’t like that. Slow travel is about taking the time to get to know a place and what contributes to its uniqueness, rather than encouraging an anxious, superficial lightning tour, aimed at ticking as many cultural, gastronomic or geographical boxes as possible. But it’s not about travelling at a snail’s pace either. The reward of Slow travel is the understanding that immersion in one place often leads to insights into what makes up the bigger picture.

The author’s story

I found individuals and communities living well, savouring the special quality of their surroundings and very alert to the growing demand for sustainable tourism

Before I came to live in the far west of Cornwall, I remember poring over my OS maps and being enthralled by the dramatic contours of the coastline, the empty moors dotted with archaeological symbols, the deep meandering estuaries and the strange poetry of the place names.

St Mawes Castle Cornwall England UK by Helen Hotson ShutterstockCastle at St Mawes © Helen Hotson, Shutterstock

I was fortunate to have time to explore my adopted county out of season, on foot and by bicycle (and occasionally in a canoe): it was an eye-widening, if slightly random immersion, that revealed an exhilarating diversity in local identity. An additional impetus to my travels came from my meandering career in gardening and garden journalism. Cornwall lacks for nothing in horticultural variety and richness and there are few trails I have followed that have not had to include a small wiggle to take in a lush collection of those hardy exotics which thrive in sheltered coombes up and down the peninsula. Without realising it, I had embarked on a Slow exploration of Cornwall. So when Bradt, who had published a piece I’d written years earlier about looking for peonies in Mongolia, announced they were looking for new authors, I jumped at the possibility of more Slow exploring, relishing the opportunity to spend time in the places with which I was less familiar.

More recently, I based myself in Polbathic, close to the Tamar and the ‘forgotten corner of Cornwall’, otherwise known as the Rame peninsula. Here, as in so many parts of rural and coastal Cornwall, I found individuals and communities living well, savouring the special quality of their surroundings and very alert to the growing demand for sustainable tourism having seen their fair share of unsustainable industries. Time after time in conversation, ‘Slow’, I discovered, proved valuable shorthand for so much that Cornwall and its admirers aspire to in the 21st century.

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