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September 25, 2007
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Walking West Cornwall - Weekend Report

Striding out along England's most superlative coastline.

Fisherman's cottage - St. Ives
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Cornwall stands at the tip of Britain - and at the tip of that tip is the Land’s End Peninsula, England’s far south and furthest west. It’s on the granite headlands and rugged cliffs around Land’s End that the Atlantic breakers first strike, and it’s over the peninsula's lichen-encrusted dry-stone walls and eerily ancient moors that the Atlantic gales first blow. Centuries of exposure have given birth to a spare, pared-down landscape of dwarfed wind-blown trees and silent heaths anchored by tight-clustered, hunkered-down villages of grey granite stone.

A place apart, of the three elements that rule Cornwall’s far west, the land is the least. Skies are huge and mobile; while water is all around. Even when out of sight, the salty tang to the air speaks of the ocean against which the peninsula struggles like a great stone ship.

For information on organising your own weekend walking the Cornish coast click here.

Penzance – proud local capital

Positioned on the lee of the first sheltered bay, Penzance is the peninsula’s capital and only real town; a solid Victorian fishing port of hard-working Methodist roots. Breathing protestant austerity, it better matches the mood of the surrounding cliffs and moors than the soft frivolity of a more traditional seaside resort. Crowned by the gleaming rotunda of the 19th century Market Hall, workmanlike terraces of fishermen’s cottages slope steeply in close-bunched ranks down to busy harbour and still-working boatyards. But interspersed with the sobriety come also touches of exoticism, gentility and a glamour now tentatively re-awakening - the impossible Pharaonic façade of the Napoleonic-era Egyptian House, a bevy of snug flag-stoned inns old enough to have been raided by Spanish pirates, the ubiquitous sub-tropical palm trees in flourishing health, and the streamlined alfresco lines of the deco pool, poised dramatically on a wave-washed spur. Even the cavernous maw of the huge terminus to Brunel’s Great Western Railway recalls irresistibly the lingering romance of a truly long journey by train.

Railway to recovery

It was the arrival of the railway in 1859 that made Penzance and the remote villages stretching west to Land’s End. Built to provide ready access to London for Penwith’s fish and early-season daffodils and potatoes, the trains also delivered increasing numbers of Victorian holiday-makers. Intrepid pioneers came first, seeking an adventurous new destination far removed from the tried-and-tested south coast resorts of Brighton, Bognor and the like. But rave reviews and improved facilities soon turned this trickle into a flood of newly-leisured well-heeled urbanites. Inspired by tales of luminous skies and lambent sea, along with the bourgeoisie came the first of the rather more bohemian artists who were to make the far west of Cornwall – Newlyn and St. Ives especially – into the country’s most celebrated hotbed of creative talent, bar only London itself.

Although much of the 20th century was less than kind, over the last decade the Land’s End Peninsula, like the rest of Cornwall, has enjoyed a phenomenal renaissance supported by fast new roads, cheap air links into Newquay airport, and a clutch of regenerative prestige developments such as the Eden Project, Tate St. Ives and the National Maritime Museum Falmouth.

Together, these have transformed the county’s former dog-eared traditional profile. No longer the tired and struggling setting for a budget summer fortnight of dubious happy-camper family fun, Cornwall now self-confidently struts the stage as a classy year-round playground where waterfront ‘residences’ sell for multi-million pounds and international cruise liners regularly call.

Fortunately, this metamorphosis has been matched by a remarkable flowering of contemporary hotels and restaurants – exemplified by Olga Polizzi’s Tresanton and Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant, but going much deeper and drawing on a revival of local talent as well.

Three coasts of walking

While it would remain a stretch to paint Cornwall as a year-round beach destination (and in truth you play hit-and-miss with the fickle Atlantic weather at even the most torrid times of year), with decent facilities now in place, the county makes a peerless three-season destination for walking some of England’s finest, most rugged coastline – a coastline that comes to a fitting and spectacular conclusion in the towers, buttresses and spray-wracked reefs of Land’s End and the cliffs running back east on either side.

Pretty much all of the Land’s End peninsula offers superlative coastal walking (and its entire length is skirted by the well-maintained South West Coast Path National Trail), but there are distinct local nuances that offer real variety, as well as superb quality in the scenery on view.

In the west, the seaboard from Cape Cornwall to Gwennap Head takes the force of the Atlantic swells head-on. Not surprisingly, this stretch of coast includes some of Cornwall’s most tortured and battered headland bastions – most famously, but far from exclusively, Land’s End itself – as well as the glorious sandy sweep of Whitesand Bay.

In contrast, the peninsula’s southern shore, from Porthgwarra to Penzance and onwards to St. Michael’s Mount, mingles its stark capes and towering grey cliffs with a softer, sunnier tableaux. Intimate coves, tinkling brooks, hidden coppices, and, in spring, carpets of wild daffodils and narcissi can all be found along this largely roadless coast.

The north is different yet again. Cut off from the rest of the peninsula by a bleak line of tor-capped hills, remote, evocatively-named hamlets such as Morvah and Zennor sit on a high, narrow shelf of semi-abandoned pastureland, seemingly marooned between serrated sea cliffs and inland melancholy moors, haunted by distant Celtic ghosts. Only at ludicrously picturesque St. Ives does this loneliest and eeriest of coasts relent into what is quite possibly the most perfect of classic Cornish seaside resorts.

Revival and pampering

Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a walker, with breathtaking sea views almost from start to finish, an instant sense of freedom and well-being in the fresh, salt air, and – if you’re lucky – the delicious warmth of the sun on your back, the West Cornish coast gives a perfect introduction to the country’s most popular source of gentle exercise. More than this, while seasoned hikers can enjoy stretches of coast every bit as challenging as a day on the hills of the north, there are also plenty of opportunities for much gentler rambles (and cheating short cuts) that put some of the very finest scenery well within the reach of even the, well, less-than-fit.

So whether you’ve never visited before, or haven’t been since childhood, a weekend striding out along the best of the West Cornish coast makes a liberating and relaxing fresh-air break that’s guaranteed to wake you up, send you to sleep, and return you home feeling healthier and far more refreshed than when you set out. What’s more, with an exciting revolution in local dining and bed-linen of pressed Egyptian cotton, you can banish all notions of dry-crust pasties and malodorous B&Bs; Cornwall these days offers serious indulgence along with its unchanging treasures of outstanding scenery and glorious peace and space.

For information on organising your own weekend walking the Cornish coast click here.

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