If you are to colour Cornwall, then mix a hundred shades of green, a dozen of blue and as many shades of grey. The grey is for the granite that provided the building material for houses, barns, cathedrals and drystone fences over the centuries. The blue for the waters of the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean that wash its 500-kilometre coastline. And the green for its valleys and hills that stretch to the horizon.
Cornish men and women are possessed of a fiercely independent streak, born of the harsh life that was their lot when they were either fishermen, tin miners or subsistence farmers. The tin mines have closed, the abandoned red-brick engine houses that once drove the pumps and lifts now a stark reminder of the wealth that once flowed from the deep shafts. The fishermen still put to sea but in much-reduced numbers, the days of massive catches of pilchards long gone thanks to large commercial fishing fleets.
It is tourism that now powers the Cornish economy, with more than five million visitors a year drawn to its charms, as we are set to discover, embarking on a small group tour with the appropriately named Back-Roads Touring Company.
Driving the few hours south-west from London, our group eschews the motorways and major roads. Instead, we wind our way along narrow county lanes and sunken roads with branches brushing the sides of the Back-Roads Touring mini-bus, the roads so narrow that if we encounter another vehicle, it means someone has to blink and reverse into the nearest lay-by.
We head out across the Wessex plains, passing through fields of hay and skirting the edge of Salisbury Plain, on through the neat fields of Somerset and a steady ascent up onto the Dartmoor moors, where the gorse and heather and granite outcrops contrast with carpets of green and gold farmlands below.
There’s a lunch stop at the medieval city of Wells, with time to see the soaring towers of its famed cathedral, its stained-glass windows one of the largest collections in England.
We spend the night in a 200-year-old inn on the banks of the River Dart in Devon where sheep graze in the garden, and half a dozen aggressive geese patrol the courtyard.
A stone footbridge crosses the river, its surface worn smooth by the passage of the Dartmoor ponies, laden with tin ore from the nearby mines, that crossed it for centuries. The next day, we head down the coastline of Cornwall, which is studded with small fishing villages where natural harbours carved in the granite over the millennia have supported small communities.
Port Isaac is one, a steep stone path leading down to a maze of narrow streets and small stone houses with common walls, but differing from so many others of its ilk in having achieved international fame courtesy of the television series Doc Martin. As the fictional Portwenn in which the program is set, Port Isaac attracts its share of fanfare — on the day we visit there are crowds of tourists held back by security staff as actor Martin Clunes goes through his paces.
We spend a few nights at Falmouth, a harbour town and once the first port of call for sailing ships making the long passage across the Atlantic. Our hotel room looks out across the harbour where a hundred or more yachts and small fishing boats ride at anchor on a calm, sun-drenched summer’s afternoon.
We meet a friend from Australia who moved to Falmouth from Brisbane five years ago, and she regales us with tales of storms that roar in from the Atlantic and send towering seas crashing over the breakwaters. “I’ve been in houses where the waves have been crashing against the windows,” she says.
We spend the night at Mevagissey in a small hotel looking out across a bay, and the next day descend what seems like a thousand steps to the fishing village below. It smells of salt and seaweed and boats. A brass plaque at the dock honours a fisherman recently drowned when his boat was lost in a storm, the inscription reminding us that the sea can be a harsh mistress.
It seems there is a pub named Ship Inn in every fishing village in Cornwall and Mevagissey is no exception. I duck to make my way through the low-set doorway and move past the Dogs Corner, where a gang of hounds sprawl on sofas. We order a drink and are regarded with mild curiosity by pooches and patrons alike for a few moments before the two-legged locals return to their pints and the dogs resume dozing.
Cornwall is a corner of England that is possessed of its own character, existing in another universe to the rest of the country. Its rugged coastline contrasts with the soft shades of its forests and rolling hills with earth, sky and ocean combining to form a charm that is as unique as it is embracing.
The writer travelled as a guest of Back-Roads Touring Company