There is something in the air in Cornwall. It is the smell of the sea, of faraway lands, of distant people living distant lives. It is the smell of the tropics, Caribbean aromas washed in on the Gulf Stream.
Cornwall is not like the rest of England. Once you cross the Tamar you enter a semi foreign land. Familiar but different. Perhaps this is because Cornwall has always been a seafaring region, for a long time more closely linked by water with northern France, Spain and beyond than with the centre of British power in London.
Perhaps it is because of the county’s mild climate, as the warm waters of the north Atlantic drift flood into every cave and inlet of its coastline, staving off the winter frosts and nurturing palm trees and other sub-tropical plants.
It may also be the people, whose identity is unmistakably Cornish, not English. Though their language may have dwindled to a matter of well protected record, now spoken only as a second tongue, the Cornish remain England’s last Celtic bastion.
Cornwall is England’s final determined kick into the Atlantic, its crooked limbed landmass surrounded by the bubbling, gurgling and sloshing of the ocean. It is the southernmost point of mainland Britain, with the Lizard sitting more than 100 miles further south than London, at about the same latitude as Dieppe in France.
It feels remote. The further west you sail, the more removed from the cares and concerns of the rest of the country you appear to be. Once west of the Lizard, you feel exposed, like you need to take one last gulp of grass sweetened air before you are swept out into the Atlantic. There is good reason for this. Once past the Lizard there are few places a yacht can find shelter in heavy weather before setting off from Land’s End, with only Newlyn and Penzance offering deep water harbours – and the latter only accessible for three hours around high tide through a lock gate.
It is easy to forget just how incredibly far away from the rest of England Cornwall is. From Bristol, which most would consider to be the ‘West Country’ it takes as long to drive the length of the tapering south west peninsula to Falmouth as it does to cross the whole rest of southern England back to Dover in Kent – as far south east as one can go before driving off the white cliffs and into the English Channel.
That could explain the easy charm of the Cornish people – certainly on the south coast. They are happily getting on with their lives, detached from many grimmer realities of modern Britain.
From Fowey in the east to Penzance in the west, the Cornish have a natural laidback friendliness of the sort that sees you enter into tête à têtes with shopkeepers, bartenders, bin men, people in front of you in queues, people behind you in queues. The North is often lauded for this, so perhaps it is simply in inverse proportion to your proximity to the great city of London – although that is deeply disloyal to my Kent origins.
The south Cornish coastline is less cosy than Devon, it is more rugged and exposed, but equally beautiful. It offers the roaming sailor plenty of idyllic rivers and natural harbours to explore and moor or anchor safely. Evidence of Cornwall’s maritime heritage can be seen everywhere, for those who look.
We started in Fowey which is a treat for any visitor, on land or sea. For a sailor it has the added advantage of being a deep river channel with a simple entrance possible in almost all weather and offering shelter in most conditions.
We glided downwind from the River Yealm to Fowey in the baking sun with the gentle breeze dropping off completely by mid-afternoon. We had smuggled Rupert onboard with us, determined to prove to him that sailing could be more fun than his shivery childhood memories suggested. Success seemed assured as he cooled off, swimming with a line off the back of the slowly drifting boat in the impossibly blue water, dodging the odd jellyfish.
Fowey is a beautiful town, with a rich history of seafaring both as national champions in the Middle Ages, supplying more ships and townsfolk to fight for the kingdom than any other port in the western channel, and later as enemies of the state when King Edward IV confiscated their ships due to their piratical zeal.
Clearly they were rather good pirates as Fowey is a town built on historic affluence with beautiful properties climbing up the steep hill above the water. Its charm has inspired literary classics from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Daphne de Maurier’s The Loving Spirit and it remains a much loved destination today, with 7,500 yachts visiting every year – and a small but growing number of cruise ships.
Still a working commercial port, Fowey can become impossibly busy in the height of summer, with the Fowey Harbour Commission working overtime to maintain order. Luckily we just beat the rush, arriving about two weeks before any of the schools broke up.
One big benefit of Fowey’s popularity is that there are plenty of good pubs and eateries – we chose The King of Prussia for a combination of both.
A lovely walk took us around the wooded river estuary, views glimpsed through the trees, from the ferry crossing to Bodinnick up the Pont Pill creek to Lanteglos church then back down the hill to pretty Polruan, across the water from Fowey. From there we caught another short ferry back across the river. Another meander from Fowey towards the river mouth passed the sheltered beach at Readymoney Cove which was a perfect swimming spot, with St Catherine’s Castle standing on the headland above it. We returned there more than once to cool off after wandering the sweating tarmac of the town.
Fowey was a perfect place to spend a happy weekend, drinking, eating, walking and swimming. When Monday arrived, before we got too comfortable and settled in for good, we headed west for the River Fal – one of the UK’s greatest natural harbours.