Cornwall is always gorgeous but in the cooler months, far from the madding crowds of summer holidaymakers, it takes on a special kind of quiet beauty. Tom Fort reports on the pleasures of the country’s southwestern tip during autumn and winter
Autumn, winter and spring are good seasons to be in Penzance. The town’s position – looking east towards St Michael’s Mount and the Lizard across the great sweep of Mount’s Bay – affords views that are, of course, glorious during the summer months. But, out-of-season, the scenery becomes even more dramatic, giving it an altogether different sort of appeal. On a half-decent day, perhaps with grey cloud breaking to show the sun, the sea gleams silver and gold. The scents of salt and seaweed mingle in the soft air. A seafront stroll, taking the breeze deep into your lungs, watching and listening to the rhythm of the waves, is a singular delight to behold.
A little way back from the sea is one of Cornwall’s lesser-known treasures: the sub-tropical Morrab Gardens. With its curving paths and banks of shrubs, its acacias and Japanese quinces, its ornate bandstand and cast-iron fountain, it is a place to linger and sniff the scented air.
A place to pause and admire the handsome cream frontage of the Morrab Library, a repository for the records detailing Cornwall’s rich heritage.
Summer lingers late in this far-flung outpost of England and spring comes early. West of Penzance and further inland extends the irregular chequerboard of Penwith’s fields. They are bounded with hedges, some immensely ancient and not really hedges as the rest of the country understands the term, but rather ramparts of stone, slate and earth, supporting tangles of bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn, their sides bright with wildflowers.
The cultivated daffodil, ready from late winter onwards in these mild climes, has become a staple of Cornish agriculture and many of the fields are now given over to the yellow-flowering bulbs. Later comes the Cornish new potato, considered by many connoisseurs – myself included – to be superior to the Jersey Royal.
Cornwall has many natural blessings and chief among them is its climate. Although hot summers are no more likely here than anywhere else, its famous balminess throughout the other seasons brings wonderful surprises. You’re likely to encounter a summer’s day in November or February, or a spring day in deep midwinter. Severe winters are extremely rare and the prevalence of warm, moist southerly and south-westerly winds makes the region a paradise for gardeners and outdoor types who always remember to bring along a raincoat.
Dashed against the rocks
Of course the Cornish coast is also celebrated for storms and tempest and ship-shattering gales. Thousands of wrecks litter its shores, and the graveyards of Cornish churches are filled with the victims of seafaring disasters. Greediest ship-swallower of them all is The Manacles, a reef of saw-toothed rocks just out from Porthoustock. Low tide exposes some of the rocks while perniciously hiding others. On even the most benign day, the sea licks and sucks around the reef in the most threatening and sinister way.
The sea and the fractured dark cliffs define the character of the western Cornish coast. The seascapes are lovely in the sunshine and warmth but, with only a touch of dark savage weather, the other harsh, implacable side of their nature is revealed. The cliffs are not high compared with others along the Channel but they have an unyielding strength and severity about them that is equally impressive. They are scarred and battered and bruised by the sea but never broken.
The Cornish Character
That great nature writer and ornithologist, WH Hudson, spent a good deal of time in the far west of Cornwall in the first years of the 20th century, most of it in the winter. He wandered the moorlands and windswept forelands, musing on the habits of gulls and terns, observing the fishermen at work and trying – generally unsuccessfully – to identify traits in the Cornish character. He was fascinated by Land’s End – and gave his 1908 book about West Cornwall that very name – but was aware of the danger of its power and magic being sabotaged by crowds and commercial exploitation.
Hudson recommended dusk on a stormy winter’s day to experience “the raving of the wind, the dark ocean, the jagged, isolated rocks… the hoarse sounds of the sea, with hollow booming noises in the caverns beneath.” He urged that the Cornish landscape be taken into public ownership to prevent it being overwhelmed by the tackiness of commercial interest – but his warning was never heeded.
His Cornwall was a very different place at a very different time. Although the London-Penzance railway had opened the region up to a degree, it remained very much another place, introverted and suspicious of outsiders, and dependent on its surviving industries – mainly tin and copper mining and china clay, combined with fishing and subsistence agriculture. St Ives, where Hudson took lodgings, was overwhelmingly focussed on fishing, although the artists were beginning to arrive. 800 fishermen and their families were packed into what Hudson likened to a rabbit warren or ants’ nest. A century later there are still artists but the fishermen have mostly gone and tourism dictates the economic heartbeat.
Legend and romance
The marketing of Cornwall as a tourist destination began with the arrival of the railway. The county had legend, romance, coves and beaches of dazzling sand, quaint villages, wild landscapes and seascapes, old ruins – everything any holidaymaker could want. So they came, in ever-increasing numbers. By 1959, Looe was said to have reached saturation point. Polperro was, according to the 1983 edition of The Shell Book of the Coast, “so overcooked commercially that much of its original charm has disappeared”.
Planners warned that the holiday industry that had become the region’s lifeblood could eventually destroy the very features that had created it. That, clearly, hasn’t happened but the seasonal flow of campers, caravanners, second-home owners, holiday home renters, hotel and B&B guests remains as strong as ever. So the question “when’s best to come?” is a pertinent one.
Go by bike
In his new book, The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson drops in on Cornwall by car, presumably in summer. He passes turnings for Looe, Polperro and Fowey but is deterred from taking them by the lines of cars and caravans. Eventually he has a shot at reaching Mevagissey but gets no further than the queue for the car park at the top
of the hill before giving up and turning back. An experience that leaves him musing morosely on the menace of the motor car.
I regret to say this of the great Mr Bryson but what an idiot. If you want to see Mevagissey – a lovely and fascinating little port when not submerged in humanity – don’t go in summer. Or if you must, do as I did and come by bike at eight in the morning. The teashops and souvenir shops may be shut but the cobbled streets are open and the fishermen are in the mood for a chat (although it is a heck of a steep climb to get in and out).
Better still, visit in February, or November, or March, or October. Or any month that isn’t July or August. The same applies to the other jewels along Cornwall’s Channel coast; Polperro, for instance, is an exquisite place made horrible by the incoming holiday tide. Wait for it to ebb, however, and the village reclaims its beauty and dignity. It is then that the permanent residents come out of hiding and take possession of this charming place once again.
For anyone who has chosen to live by the sea, the holiday season tends to be a kind of penance – unless they have a commercial stake in it, of course. They are not so interested in the obvious attractions of a hot sun and warm sea when there’s no choice but to share them with the hordes.
For the Cornish people, the whole point is the richness of variation made available by the changing seasons. They relish the storm with the calm, the rain with sunshine. The sea and its edge are much more to them than just a summer playground – and there is much to be said for taking a leaf out of their book. The downside is, of course, the quiet: the shut-up cafés and campsites, the empty holiday homes and the slump in economic life. If it’s local life you’re after, it’s better to head to the places where it persists, places such as Mevagissey, Looe or Newlyn, for instance, which remain fishing ports year-round.