Cornwall: tales of mystery and magic

Take an enchanting journey through one of our most mysterious counties in the company of Cornish bard Mike Sagar-Fenton


Cornwall shares with its Celtic cousins in Wales and Brittany a group of traditional cultural guardians, in Cornish known as Gorsedd Kernow, whose members are called – not too seriously – bards. We wear long blue robes on ceremonial occasions and are dedicated to promoting and preserving Cornwall’s unique story.
This is a special journey through Cornwall – not to see the regular beauty, but instead to see the places that resonate with atmosphere and history. It’s an insider’s track through some of Cornwall’s roots and branches; a bard’s trail. Don’t rush your visit, take a whole week and really get under Cornwall’s skin.
The first stop is easiest. Cross our border, the Tamar on the A30, and leave the main road for Launceston. This is a fine hilltop town with a generous square, the wonderful exterior carvings of St Mary’s church, and countless unexpected views over the countryside beneath. But we’ve come to look at the castle, a huge round bailey with far-reaching views eastwards towards the heights of Dartmoor; an unsleeping sentinel. But it wasn’t, as it appears, designed to protect Cornwall from invaders from the English side. No, Henry III’s brother Richard put it there to keep the Cornish in – or out, depending on your viewpoint. Even then we were treated with caution and watchfulness. It’s something we’re still proud of…
Go north from Launceston on the A395 till you reach the Atlantic Highway near the coast, turn west and look for signs for Tintagel. This is an optional diversion, since the Gorsedd annually declares its fealty to King Arthur, the legendary king of the Cornish whose traditional home was the ruined castle on the precipitous crag outside the village. There’s more legend here than fact, but that doesn’t stop Tintagel from making the most of it – the phrase King Arthur’s Filling Station lurks in my memory – so we won’t linger here long, except to stand by the cliff and cry: “Nyns yw marow myghtern Arthur!” (King Arthur isn’t dead!).
The B3266 takes you south-westwards from there, on a pretty route skirting the edge of wild and haunting Bodmin Moor, to Bodmin itself. Bodmin was Cornwall’s county town until Truro took command. Somewhere out on the dark Bodmin Moor lurks a beast… But its real beast is closer at hand, a stupendously grim building that strikes the smile from everyone’s face.
Bodmin Gaol was built by George III from 20,000 tons of Cornish granite, so dense that later attempts to demolish it with explosives failed to dent this monstrosity. Public hangings here in the mid-19th century used to attract enthusiastic crowds, many arriving via the Camel railway from Wadebridge and Padstow. It symbolises Cornwall’s violent past. Three rebellions marched on England from here, each to its doom. It’s now described as an “all-weather family attraction”. Memento mori.
Time to strike south. You’re not in a hurry, so follow the faithful B3266 again. Make time to stop at the lovely village of Lerryn or even walk to St Winnow’s riverside church, then make your way through the lanes to Polperro. There are two ways to our next destination, either through some scary narrow lanes, or better still by walking the coast path east from Polperro, stopping for a paddle and a cream tea on Talland Bay beach, and climbing the hill to the church.

Church of quirks
Selecting just one church from Cornwall’s rich store is a hard task. I was tempted to choose Minster, a forgotten church tucked into a silent wooded coombe near busy Boscastle, founded by a Welsh princess in AD500 on the site of a holy well. But in the end I’ve chosen Talland, quirky with its detached tower and perching alone on the side of a hill above a busy holiday beach. It was once home to an early Celtic hermit, now it is full of finely etched slate memorials and some of the most engaging medieval bench-ends in Britain.
Then it’s time to go west, so head up to Lostwithiel, another former capital. You could stop for a look at Restormel Castle or the even older 12th-century bridge. Settle in for a longish drive down the A390 via St Austell and Truro, or for something less boring, cut south on the A3078 before Truro, heading towards St Mawes and follow signs to the idyllic King Harry ferry across the Fal. Either way, your destination is Falmouth’s older neighbour, Penryn.
A walk around Penryn is a must, but our next important location is Glasney College on College Hill. The unique feature of Glasney College is that it’s no longer there. What is now an empty playing field was the site of a mighty church and college complex, the Bishop of Exeter’s western outpost from 1265 to 1549, whose scholars helped to found Oxford’s Exeter College.
It also became the living heart of Cornish culture, and the few major surviving works in the Cornish language – in particular the cycle of mystery plays known as the Ordinalia – were written there. But its Cornishness was its downfall. The Tudors, who had tasted Cornish rebellion once too often, used the Reformation to expunge the college despite the pleas of the local population, selling the plate, vestments, lead, windows, arches (some of which survive in local doorways), and the stones themselves. Now in this bare meadow, imagine a magnificent church, bells, canons, students, vicars and scribes, the ghosts of our greatest institution.

A Cornish genius
We leave ghostly Penryn for workaday Camborne via the A393. Look for the library at the junction of Trevenson Road and Basset Street. Outside it is the Trevithick Statue. Richard ‘Cap’n Dick’ Trevithick represents the best and worst of the fiery Celtic character. The word ‘genius’ hardly does credit to his career, though his erratic temper and contempt for money ensured that others claimed the credit. Among his creations were the first self-propelled steam locomotive, the first self-propelled road vehicle (or car), the high-pressure steam engine, which revolutionised mining throughout the world and made most Victorian achievements possible, and even the ship’s propeller.
But he’s best remembered in his native Camborne for the steam-driven vehicle he drove “Up Camborne Hill coming down” according to the song when, to the astonishment of the locals, “The horses stood still; the wheels went around…” Sadly the world’s first car journey ended in a ditch. Dick and his friends went to a nearby pub to cheer themselves up with “roast goose and proper drinks”, while the abandoned first vehicle continued to put on steam until it blew up. A proper Cornish story.
Every April, Camborne celebrates Trevithick Day, when scores of mighty steam traction engines gather in the town and process past this statue, each sounding its whistle to salute the Cap’n as they pass.
It’s time to meet the coast again. Leave Camborne, aiming for Gwithian. Go through the village, cross a narrow bridge and turn left at the next corner. Refresh yourself at the lovely Godrevy Beach Café, then follow the lane to reach Godrevy Point. From this headland, you can see much of what makes modern Cornwall tick. The view stretches over a generous sandy beach, and on a good day the sea is almost as populous as the shore: a navy of surfers patiently waiting for their ride, a sight that would have made an ancient Cornishman scratch his head.

A town of contrasts
Across the bay, St Ives sleeps on its peninsula, another phenomenon our forebears would have found it hard to comprehend. It is a town of contrasts, a fishing port full of seekers after artistic truth, high culture rubbing shoulders with fish ‘n’ chips around the harbour, all plagued by Cornwall’s greediest seagulls.
We’ll leave it there in the sunset and stare instead at Godrevy Island, with its white octagonal tower, the title character of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Or perhaps we’ll peep into the inaccessible cove nearby, where you can spot seals flopping around on the shingle far below.
Go back to Hayle (which you can safely bypass) and take the A30 towards Penzance. You’ll see your destination peeping over the hill long before you take the left turning to it: St Michael’s Mount. Words are wasted on this famous beauty, a tidal island topped by a castle. I’ve included it for its mining significance, as the first known consignments of Cornish tin were exported from here by Phoenicians as early as 325BC.
Approaching Penzance, ignore signs to the bypass but enter the town and take the harbour road to Newlyn. This is almost the last place in Cornwall where industry means everything and tourism almost nothing. Newlyn is a busy working port but always near the edge, subject to the vagaries of fish stocks and EC regulations. The harbour is a picture, as artists over the years discovered. You can buy the freshest fish, drink in a proper pub, admire the Penlee lifeboat or just stand and enjoy the view. But don’t get in the way.
Go back to the A30 and head for Land’s End (but don’t go there). Go through Drift and pass the turning to St Buryan, and in about half a mile climb out of a small copse and look for a lane to Boscawen Farm on the left. Walk through the farm and along a path to find Boscawen-Un stone circle.
This unspoilt round, with its 19 stones and sloping central pillar, lies concealed close to the A30. It’s a highly significant site for bards, as the first Gorsedd of the modern era took place here in 1928. Stone circles are subject to many explanations – astrological calendars, Druidic ceremonial sites or other earth mysteries, according to taste. A lot can happen in 4,000 years and perhaps its most impressive feature is its very survival, a tribute to its unspoken power over our imaginations. It’s a place to simply stand and be, especially in the spring, when its turf is full of bluebells.
And now for the last lap. Go back to the A30 and in less than a mile come to the hamlet of Crows an Wra – in English: Witches Cross. Turn right up a steep hill. Chapel Carn Brea is the last hill of the western peninsula and the Cornish land. Its panorama reaches around from the hills above Camborne, St Michael’s Mount and its bay, the long finger of the Lizard, Lamorna Cove, the hidden Minack Theatre, the angular tourist complex of Land’s End, the offshore rocks guarded by the Longships Lighthouse, the dark smudges of the Isles of Scilly on the horizon, the still-bare landscape, and gaunt engine houses of the mines around St Just and Pendeen.
Even those who’ve spent their lives here are not immune to the majesty of this landscape, which arrows like a mighty ship into the Atlantic and the setting sun, beautiful on a summer’s night, magnificent in a winter storm. True Cornwall.