Sunday nights haven’t been the same since Ross Poldark rode into them, swashing buckles and breaking hearts all over the place. But there’s another star in the BBC’s new adaptation of Winston Graham’s much-loved Poldark books, jostling for attention with Aidan Turner – the superb Cornish countryside, showcased in all its rugged glory as the action takes place against a backdrop of its sundrenched clifftops, deep blue coves and wild open moorland.
In the late 18th century, the smouldering, tricorn-wearing Ross Poldark returns from the American War of Independence to Cornwall to find his former life shattered. His father is dead, his estate and tin mine are in ruins and his lady love, Elizabeth, is about to marry his wormy cousin Francis. As he sets to putting his life to rights, Poldark also acquires a ridiculously beautiful kitchen maid, Demelza, and a scandalous love triangle ensues.
Poldark does a lot of galloping about in places that have made the whole nation sit up and wonder why they haven’t yet upped sticks and moved to Cornwall. From wildflower-strewn cliffs to picture-perfect little villages, Cornwall is the true beauty of Poldark (if you can tear your eyes away from a skinny-dipping Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson’s ruby-red locks, that is).
Keen to seek out some 18th century derring-do in the modern day, I headed for the coast with photographer Jacob Little to visit some of Poldark’s best film locations, with help from Visit Cornwall. A long weekend trip hunting out the incredible locations where cameras rolled is the perfect way to find a wilder way of life on the magical Cornish coast.
VISIT POLDARK’S FILM LOCATIONS
Walk on the windswept cliffs, swim in secret coves and visit the unspoilt fishing ports where filming for Poldark took place.
I’m reluctant to share just how idyllic and unspoilt this little cove is, so please keep this bit a secret. Honey-coloured stone cliffs covered in wild flowers shelter a narrow cove of crystal-clear turquoise water that will make you itch for a swim, and you’re in good company – this is the spot where Ross Poldark sheds his clothes for a dip, while Demelza watches from the cliff tops (and to the delight of female viewers countrywide). We couldn’t resist either, and gathered our courage for a (very quick) plunge into the refreshing water.
If you need to warm up afterwards, tunnels cut into the rock lead you back up to the top of the cove, where the tiny café serves cream teas and coffees. Or you could climb up the cliffs for a stiff walk to the end of the earth – it’s only three miles along the coast to Land’s End from here.
CHURCH COVE GUNWALLOE
This pretty part the Lizard was the scene of a chaotic nighttime shipwreck in Poldark, with the sand illuminated by glowing fires and overrun with hordes of actors, but you’d never know it to look at this peaceful place now – the only action we saw when we visited Church Cove were surfers riding the crystalline waves. The two beaches are split by the lovely little church of St Wynwallow, which proclaims itself above its door as ‘The church of the storms’. Go rockpooling or walk on the springy heather up to the top of the bluff for an endless view out to sea.
Untouched and scenic, it can’t have taken much work to transform the charming village of Charlestown, in St Austell, into an 18th-century port when it played the part of Truro in Poldark. Wander around the harbour, still in use by exporters of china clay, and imagine how it once thronged with fishermen, rope-makers and boat-builders, or admire the beautiful tall ships swaying in the water. The nearby Shipwreck Centre is worth a visit too – it’s full of fascinating curios from vessels lost at sea.
DELVE INTO CORNWALL’S MINING HISTORY
Mining runs through the Cornish landscape and Poldark’s plot like a seam of copper – the industry long defined Cornwall’s identity and the stark chimneys and ruined pump houses of long-abandoned mines stand everywhere on the coastline like beacons. Visit an old mine to learn more about life working underground or walk the cliffs in search of enigmatic ruins.
National Trust-run Levant Mine, which doubles up as Tressiders Rolling Mill in Poldark, is the perfect place to get under the skin of Cornish mining. Photographs, maps and stories told by the passionate team who run the site paint a picture of the backbreaking work that men and women undertook here, deep in the oxygen-starved bowels of the earth. At Levant, the tunnels snake out an astonishing 2km under the sea and shafts were sunk to 220 fathoms (402 metres) deep. You can stand above the Skip Shaft and peer into the infinite inky blackness below, visit the huge engine, which is still run for visitors to marvel at, and walk through a damp underground tunnel (above) to a gloomy shaft where 31 men lost their lives in the Man Engine tragedy of 1919. When you blink back into the sunlight, walk past the copper-dressing floors where women and children worked to extract the prized metal and peer over the cliffs at the weather-beaten steps that led miners down to tunnels on the edge of the sea. Levant was actually opened in 1820, 40 years after Poldark’s fictional Wheal Leisure, but the mining methods here were much the same – a painstaking extraction of tin and copper by candlelight.
Combine mine-spotting with a beautiful walk at this wide sandy beach. Down on the sand there are huge caves and mining tunnels to explore with a torch at low tide, then walk up onto the cliffs to the left of the beach to reach Wheal Coates, or to the right to visit Wheal Charlotte. The panoramic views of glowing yellow gorse, purple heather-clad cliffs and miles of ocean will make you fall irretrievably in love with Cornwall. We even spotted glossy seals rolling lazily in the shallow water below us. For a detailed step-by-step walk visit the National Trust website.
The mines around Botallack hold a starring role in Poldark – with the ruins of Owles and Crowns playing Wheal Leisure itself – and seeking them out makes for a perfect walk from St Just. You could even sit and picnic on the grass, Ross and Demelza style. In St Just itself is the Botallack Count House, where miners were once paid and owners schemed to plunder the earth for copper bounty. It’s now a museum full of insight into the old world of the so-called ‘mine-adventurers’ searching for fortune.
Gallop across moorland or take to the sea in a kayak for a more adrenaline-fuelled way to discover Poldark‘s Cornwall.
RIDE ON BODMIN MOOR
Poldark seems to spend a good chunk of his time galloping gallantly through open moorland, and keen riders can follow in his hoofprints and explore bleakly beautiful Bodmin Moor. Tricorn hat optional. Hallagenna Riding Stables provided accommodation for the show’s riders and horses, and their lovely guide Jenni took me out to explore the wild wastelands where filming took place.
Hallagenna’s friendly, sure-footed moorland ponies are at home on Bodmin, even over the uneven terrain, and instantly make you feel safe, leaving you free to enjoy the ever-changing scenery. We rode through rolling yellow moorland and on winding roads through shaded woods, passing curious herds of wild ponies. Lonely in the landscape is the cottage that plays Nampara, Ross Poldark’s house (above), and you can also ride through the neighbouring fields where a large portion of Poldark was filmed. Bodmin is full of stories and superstition, too – there are ‘witches circles’ of stones you’re advised not to walk through and ghost stories that linger in its wilder corners.
KAYAK ALONG THE COAST
A completely different way to explore Cornwall’s rugged coast is by oar power. We set off from the beach at St Agnes with the fabulous Hetty from Koru Kayaking as our guide and paddled through the waves, wild birds soaring overhead. The Cligga Cliffs lean out ominously over the water, and looking up we spotted open seams of copper, precarious miner’s paths down to long-forgotten tunnels and colonies of nesting birds perched in little crevices. Hetty told us tales of the great lengths miners went to in order to carve out the landscape as we kept our eyes peeled for seals and basking sharks. On the way back to the beach we paddled in close to the cliffs and kayaked through an incredible secret tunnel, so close to the dripping walls we could touch them. I’ll definitely be back in summer – on longer trips you can even stop off to sunbathe at secret beaches accessed only by kayak.
WHERE TO STAY, POLDARK-STYLE
From gloriously cosy country houses to windswept cottages and farmhouses, these are the perfect places to stay while you roam about the county.
We stayed in the beautiful Rose in Vale Hotel, an ivy-clad Georgian country house hotel tucked away in its own little valley near the village of Mithian. Its gentle, flower-filled garden and warm, well-sized rooms are a million miles away from the harsher landscapes on the coast. The Rose’s higgledy-piggledy corridors and big windows overlooking the garden make you feel as though you’re staying in someone’s (very posh) country house, and it’s hard not to feel well rested after exploring the grounds, which are cut in two by a babbling stream, swimming in the outdoor pool (from May) or whiling away an evening by the bar’s fire with a whisky. If you lusted after Elizabeth’s leisurely lady-of-the-manor lifestyle in Poldark, then this is the perfect place to stay.
The Rose is big on food as well as a warm welcome, and the AA-rosetted restaurant is worth a trip from anywhere in Cornwall. The Dining Room’s food is beautifully prepared and delicately presented. I’m still dreaming about their truffle mash.
If you can tear yourself away from the Rose, the lovely village of St Agnes (or ‘Aggie’, if you’re pretending to be a local) is a stone’s throw away and perfect for a spot of lunch and a ramble on Trevaunance beach, or a wander up the hill from the hotel to Mithian, which boasts the friendliest local ever, the 400-year-old Miner’s Arms.
OTHER PLACES TO STAY
Little Pengelly Farm (nr Hayle)
A pretty, simply furnished little stone cottage and converted barn, Little Pengelly was home to some of the cast during filming in Cornwall. The farm is just five miles from both the north and south coasts, making it the perfect base for seaside-loving explorers.
Porthgwarra Holiday Cottages (west Cornwall)
Tucked away right next to the gorgeous Porthgwarra cove, stay in these charming holiday cottages and you can steal out for a morning dip and then laze away the afternoon watching seals from the cliffs.
Lellizzick Farmhouse (nr Padstow)
Cliff scenes were filmed from outside this stone B&B farmhouse, which offers panoramic views across the Camel estuary and boasts a big garden that is perfect for a cream tea or two.