Cornwall is like no place else in Britain. Its mild climate and clear, soft light; its cliffs, coves, and beaches have attracted artists for at least two centuries. Cornwall is a surprising magnet for surfers, while the romantic history of its mines and smugglers continue to inspire novelists and dramatists. Visitors who come in search of Poldark country discover so much more.
The striking white Tate St. Ives gallery, perched above Porthmeor Beach on Cornwall's northwest coast, is a brilliant showcase of British and international modern art. And, with St. Ives artists like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, along with such 20th-century figures as Peter Lanyon, Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, and Mark Rothko, the Tate's collections and exhibitions are a perfect introduction to the art world of West Cornwall. The museum's setting, above the sea and flooded with light, just might encourage you to pitch your easel in the sand and take up painting.
The late Bernard Leach was considered the father of British studio pottery. He learned his craft in the far east, and, in the 1920s, along with Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, established a studio and school in St. Ives. The Leach Pottery is still in operation as a museum, gallery, school, and working pottery. Visit to see the unusual "climbing kiln," pictured here, to watch raku firing taking place in the garden, to see changing exhibitions of master potters or to buy beautiful, handmade functional ware. From Easter through October, guided tours are offered on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sign up for a taster course to have a go at throwing on a wheel yourself. Or, for a more ambitious, activity vacation, join an intensive three- or five-day throwing course in Bernard Leach's historic studio.
Dame Barbara Hepworth was one of the top British modernist sculptors of the 20th century, and a leading figure in the artists' colony established in St Ives during World War II. For the last 26 years of her life, from 1949 to her death in 1975, she lived and worked in her studio and its walled garden near the center of town. Today that garden, filled with her monumental works, is a peaceful oasis in the heart of St Ives. She organized the plantings and placed the various pieces in position herself, so if a bronze catches water in a certain way, that is what the artist intended. This is one of the best attractions in St. Ives.
Cornwall is known for its surfing beaches, but in many places, sheltered coves and inlets provide calm, shallow waters for easy swimming from white or golden sand beaches. St. Ives is particularly good for this as it's actually a small peninsula, surrounded on three sides by beautiful beaches. Porthminster Beach, the easternmost beach and easy to reach from the rail station, is regularly selected as one of the best beaches in the UK. There's a cafe right on the sand that serves excellent local seafood—try the seafood linguine. Or climb the stone steps on the western end of the beach for cream teas or old fashioned feasts on terraces overlooking the beach or the harbor at the Pedn Olva.
This museum, on the harbor in Falmouth, uses permanent and temporary exhibitions to bring maritime issues and stories to life and to preserve Cornwall's maritime heritage. A flotilla of small boats (ancient and modern), suspended from the ceiling of the main gallery includes Ben Ainslee's three-time Olympic Gold medal-winning sailboat and the tiny dinghy in which seven people (six members of the Robertson family and a guest) survived for almost 40 days in the Pacific after killer whales rammed their boat. The stories of the sea are periodically enriched with maritime treasures brought to Cornwall from all over the world—and the views of Falmouth harbor from the museum's tower are spectacular.
The monks who built Mont Saint Michel off the coast of Normandy followed William the Conqueror across the Channel around 1066 and built on St. Michael's Mount. They established a chapel and abbey atop this island half a mile off Cornwall at Marazion, not far from Penzance. The chapel and abbey still form part of the castle. But it has been added to and adapted, serving as a family home for the St. Aubyn family for about 400 years. The National Trust now owns the castle, but the St. Aubyn's have a 999-year lease from the Trust to live there and run the tourism businesses on the island. The house is full of history—secret staircases, Civil War armor and weaponry, Victoriana, and the views from the cannons on the roof are pretty spectacular. It's open year-round, except for short closures over holiday periods. Getting there is a big part of the fun: it's a 10-minute walk across a stone causeway that floods at high tide. But don't worry, you can cross by boat when that happens or, in the winter, by amphibious vehicle. Just wear sturdy shoes, as it's a steep climb to the top.
Sennen Beach, on Cornwall's west coast about halfway between Lands End and Cape Cornwall, is the home of one of Cornwall's oldest and best surfing schools. The white sand beach, wrapped in cliffs, provides a sheltered spot for beginners, improvers and intermediate surfers to hone their skills. But don't be fooled—these are not merely nursery waves. The beach is exposed to the full Atlantic swell that builds up along the Gulf Stream from Florida, more than 4,000 miles away. Depending on the weather, experienced surfers can have quite a ride. The beach has a rental shop with everything you need for surfing, paddleboarding, or simply taking in the sunshine. There's also a bar, cafe, restrooms, and parking.
The Crown Engine Houses that stood in for Wheal Leisure, in the recent BBC series "Poldark," are at the Botallack mining site, part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage site on Cornwall's Tin Coast. The engine houses, here seen from the top of the site, are actually at the bottom of the cliffs. The miners followed veins of tin and copper out under the sea and extracted arsenic during the mining process. There's more information about the site in the Count House, where there is also a cafe. The paths are reasonably stable, but if you are worried about the hills and uneven surfaces, the Trust now offers all-terrain mobility vehicles, called Trampers, that anyone can hire.
Did you know that a cape is where two large bodies of water divide? Neither did we, but Cape Cornwall is where the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea part ways. At one time, Cape Cornwall was considered the westernmost point of Britain before geographers discovered it was Lands End. But this peninsula, with steep paths down to a small fishing harbor and the chimney stack of an abandoned mine, is much more fun to visit than the tawdry attraction Lands End has become. After taking in the salty air, the wild meadows and the seabirds, hike cross country for a little over a mile to the arty village of St Just. Warm up over a cuppa and then visit a few of St. Just's excellent galleries and craft shops, including the Jackson Foundation, the Bank Square Gallery, or the Makers Emporium.
Cornish tin was traded across Britain as far back as 4,000 years ago. So it may surprise you to learn that the last commercial tin mine in the area closed in 1990. Don a hard hat and explore the most significant preserved mining site in the country. You can go underground to 18th-century tunnels dug by boys, see the heavy machinery used in the 20th century and visit a museum that relates the history of metal mining in Cornwall. But what we found most impressive was a model representing the hundreds of tunnels that followed the narrow veins of ore—often well out to sea under the ocean bed. Over hundreds of years, the landscape was positively swiss-cheesed with holes.
The Minack Theatre, in Porthcurno, about four miles from Lands End, is cut into the top of a cliff overlooking Mount Bay. Since 1932, amateur and professional companies, youth theaters, choral groups, and dance companies have performed to the sounds of crashing waves below and the sweep of the Lizard lighthouse across the bay. Every year, more than 100,000 people watch performances here and another 170,000 visits to see this world-famous venue. It's a remarkable experience for both audience and performers.
The world's first submarine telegraph cable connected Ireland to Newfoundland in the mid 19th century. But very soon after, the British Empire needed to communicate with its far-flung territories and trade connections. Cables went out to India, France, Spain, Gibraltar, and even Australia. And most of them came ashore near Porthcurno in Cornwall. The telegraph station there became the largest in the world. In World War II, tunnels were dug from the beach to the station to protect the cables and the cable operators. In 2010, after several years as a training college, the telegraph facility reopened as The Telegraph Museum. It's a fascinatingly geeky place where you can learn about the history of telegraphic and telephonic communications over submarine cables, visit the telegraph tunnels where operators worked during the war, find out how the wires are laid and maintained, and marvel at the size of the cables then and now. (Yes, despite satellite communications, most day to day communication between continents still travels via submarine cables.) The Telegraph Museum is not far from Minack and makes an excellent way to spend the afternoon before seeing a show.
Mousehole (pronounced Mousel, by the way) is a tiny fishing port a few miles south of Penzance. Its harbor, embraced by the seawall with just a small entrance, is about as picturesque as it gets—a perfect place to add to your Instagram portfolio. It's peppered with little boats that sit on the sand at low tide. On one side, near the village parking, there's a small, clean beach that's perfect for toddler paddling. Visit in December to see the harbor Christmas lights, famous all over the south of England. The locals and the fishermen spend a whole year planning the decorations along the seafront and on the boats themselves.
Vogue writer Jo Rodgers called Mousehole "the most charming little town on the English seaside." Part of that charm is down to the independent shops, galleries, and cafes that are hidden away among its tiny winding lanes. Service is invariably friendly, and you might make a unique discovery, like delicious locally made ice cream at Hole Foods Deli and Cafe near the harbor.
Every town and village in Cornwall has its own Cornish pasty baker with a crowd of loyal fans. This semi-circular turnover is filled with beef, potatoes, onions, and turnips, liberally dosed with pepper and crimped along its curved side. It's probably the original takeaway lunch and is indelibly associated with Cornwall so, whatever you do, don't leave the region without trying one. We liked the award-winning traditional beef pasties from the Cornish Bakery on Fore Street in St. Ives. They sell them with a variety of non-traditional, sweet, and savory fillings as well. (The "a" in pasty, by the way, is pronounced like the "a" in the word "have," so whatever you do, don't ask for a "pay-sty.")