From the splendor of the moors to small fishing villages, the resplendent turquoise waters and the mariner legends, discover what dreams are made of in southwest England
It certainly doesn’t look like England,” I overhear an English woman tell her husband. I am in Cornwall staring at the white sand beach of Porthmeor in St. Ives. The turquoise water laps ashore while children build sand castles and adults sunbathe beneath the gaze of stone buildings. The whole scene looks more like Hawaii than the southwest coast of England. The sheer surprise that waters of this hue, and vistas this soul-stirring exist in this country is a refrain I hear many times during my trip from visitors and locals alike. Beginning in Devon with its pastureland and romantic moors through the north coast of Cornwall I enjoy a drive that skirts old tin mines, a relic from a time when this was a major industry in the area, fishing villages, seaside hotels and restaurants.
Here I go daydreaming again. Of course, it is not difficult to let my imagination wander while contemplating the stunning view of Plymouth’s Marina at Sutton Harbour. The water and sky blend magnificently into aqua blue with what seem to be some of the best cruising waters I have ever seen. Plymouth is a place for day dreaming, though its name, a metonym since medieval times for seafaring, fishing and tin trading became forever associated with colonization when, in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers left for America destined to establish the second English colony.
Positioned on the Atlantic coast, its old quarter – The Barbican – is a warren of quaint, cobbled streets (the most in all of the UK), cafés and restaurants along the water’s edge. Plymouth’s most iconic landmark the lighthouse Smeaton’s Tower dominates the Hoe, a large public space, where I imagine Sir Francis Drake playing a game of bowles (known as pétanque in France and bocce in Italy) while waiting for the tide to change before sailing out with the English fleet to engage with the Spanish Armada. Yet, history, proudly displayed in plaques and monuments about town is also found in hidden treasures like the small Victorian garden I stumble upon, perhaps once a splendid, cultured, secret garden.
Lunch at The Old Boathouse Café located in the fisherman’s arches on the Mayflower Steps, is my first foray into proper British fish and chips. It does not disappoint – crisp, hot and delicious.
Plymouth Gin Distillery also known as the Black Friars Distillery has been in operation since 1793 and is the only gin distillery in the city. Hazel, my guide for the Gin Connoisseur’s Tour, is exuberant and knowledgeable. While a botanical mix of herbs and spices like juniper berries, sweet angelica root, lemon peel, cardamom pods, sweet orange peel, coriander seeds, and orris root permeate the base spirit, it is the local Dartmoor reservoir water (which is naturally filtered as it runs through peat over granite) and 155-year-old copper still that make it like sipping history.
My home for the next two nights, Boringdon Hall Hotel, is inviting and alluring with its dramatic Elizabethan architecture. My room, on the ground level with a lavish four-poster bed, has an idyllic view of the garden. I awaken to the sound of birds chirping outside my window and decide to take a walk on the grounds. Being a flora and fauna fanatic, I am keen to inspect the pink and green lichens glistening in the morning dew on high stone walls, past mature hedges, overhanging cypress trees and a cornucopia of flowering plants I have never seen before. The Great Hall adorned with the figures Peace and Plenty and depicting the coat of arms of King James I is the setting for a full Devonshire breakfast – an array of pastries, croissants, fruits, smoked halibut and eggs.
For dinner one night I head to The Treby Arms in Sparkwell ten minutes from Boringdon Hall Hotel. I am eager to taste dishes made by the Masterchef UK series winner and executive chef Anton Piotrowski at his rustic Michelin starred country pub. Even with a packed restaurant, he tailors my three course meal when I request tweaks. The cauliflower and caramelized onion soup is accompanied by an oozing grilled cheese sandwich – delectable comfort food. Devon crab served with blow torched cucumber; pennywort granita and bitter lemon elevates the produce of the region.
Buckfastleigh is home to Riverford Organics which grows, packs and delivers vegetable boxes locally. Founded by Guy Watson who started delivering vegetables to 30 friends in Devon, the company has grown to include three other locations in Hampshire, Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire and delivers 47,000 boxes a week to homes around the UK from these regional farms. As I tour the farm with Ed Scott, I am intrigued by the organic innovations: introducing vials of insects that feed on the aphids and aid tomato pollination; placing bee hives into the massive polytunnels (tunnels made of plastic fastened to metal or PVC used to extend the growing season) every summer. The farm also houses Riverford Field Kitchen restaurant where I have one of my best meals in Devon. Showcasing the array of vegetables from the farm my meals ends with a long communal table of to-die-for ‘puds’ (desserts) lined up in a show of sweet perspective – brownies with chunks of nuts, Eton mess with fresh cream and rhubarb compote, lemon posset, custard tart, sticky toffee pudding, biscotti with custard, blueberry clafouti.
The road winds steeply as I drive to Dartmoor National Park. Once on the moor, the spectacular view of Haytor, a capped, exposed granite hilltop, immediately grabs my attention. I meet my guide John in the small town of Bovey Tracey for my first adventure in letterboxing, a mixture of treasure hunting and puzzle solving. John tells me that letterboxing originated on Dartmoor in 1854 when James Perrott left a jar for travellers who could leave letters inside and the next treasure hunter to find it would put it in the mail. As we climb toward Haytor, I see herds of cows amidst a patch of blue bells, groups of black faced sheep and the emblematic ponies. There are massive round granite structures left wantonly across the moors – grind stones that were either defective of left unfinished from 100 years ago John tells me. I love the stories, splendour, the history and the feel of the moors and celebrate, hands elevated toward the sky when I reach the highest point of our hike.
For a change of both transportation and scenery, I hop aboard the Dartmouth Steam Railway toward Paignton. The exhilarating trip through the countryside of South Devon and along the coastline of the English Riviera wedges me between the sea and the River Dart. Along the river route I notice the impressive Dartmouth College, the meeting place of Princess Elizabeth (at the time) and her future husband in 1939. The Dartmouth Steam Railway arrives in Kingswear, where I take a short boat trip aboard the Greenway Ferry to Dartmouth.
2015 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of one of the world’s most famous crime writers – Agatha Christie, whose private holiday home is called Greenway. The estate offers a glimpse into the personal space of a writing legend. Displays inside the ivory house include Agatha Christie’s collections of silver, botanical china, religious books and idols (some originating in India). The vast grounds of Greenway, exemplified by the wonderful river views from the boathouse are another reminder that this was once the novelists’ sanctuary.
The Lugger Hotel sits on the edge of Portloe, one of the many old coastal fishing villages that dot the Cornish coastline. This charming17th century inn is surrounded by cliffs and headlands that form part of the Cornish Coastal Footpath. On mornings, with not another soul in sight, I eagerly hike to the top of slate outcroppings just to gaze at the teal waters, greenery, and stone buildings. Up here is another world.
From Portloe, I travel across to Bodmin Moor to see the famous Jamaica Inn, a stunning 18th Century coaching inn and the setting for Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name. Dollar bills from around the world line columns near the bar, where I meet the owner, Allen Jackson. He escorts me to a haunted room where a ghost visits occasionally. Apparently, he says, a couple left their video tape on by mistake overnight and when reviewing it saw a woman sitting on the dresser stool combing her hair. The Inn is a local icon and one of Cornwall’s most famous smuggler’s inns.
Standing out with its whitewashed exterior next door to the hilltop Parish Church, The Old Inn, is the only public house (pub) in the village of St Breward.
It comes as no surprise that an English vineyard would be bordered by rosebushes. Camel Valley Vineyard has been producing wines in Cornwall since 1989, when Bob Lindo and his wife Annie planted their first eight thousand vines. Today, second generation winemaker Sam Lindo has joined the company awarded the Trophy for Best International Traditional Method Sparkling Wine in 2010 in Verona, beating out the likes of Bollinger and Roederer.
Padstow, the small fishing village on the north coast of Cornwall, gained much of its present popularity from Rick Stein, the itinerant television chef who chose the town as his base in the 1970s. Whole blocks are dedicated to his various culinary businesses while locals are keen to praise him (he has nearly single-handedly put Cornwall on the epicurean map). I sign up for cooking classes at Stein’s Padstow Cookery School, ecstatic that Singapore chili crab is the dish head chef/lecturer Mark Puckey has chosen to prepare today. A glass of Morande Reserva Gewürztraminer is offered as Puckey smoothly cuts the crab into manageable pieces, then sautés the seasoning. With expert movements, the crab dish is done in minutes. Before I know it, it is my turn, and I put on my apron and set to work cutting up the massive local crustacean. I taste the claw of the completed dish which is too large to finish by myself. Luckily, my new friend sous Chef Aarran Lightholder packs the crab which I deliver to some friends I had met earlier who are delighted to share this sumptuous dish. Afterward, I visit nearby The Seafood Restaurant (also owned by Rick Stein) where his passion for local seafood shines.
The Headland Hotel & Spa is a mesmerizing, terracotta Victorian structure overlooking Fistral Beach and Towan Head, in the coastal town of Newquay. Imposing and majestic, it has played a starring role in several film adaptations including Roald Dahl’s The Witches starring Angelica Houston. Indeed, a film crew from Germany is setting up a scene from a Rosamunde Pilcher novel when I arrive.
My room is snug and stylish, with windswept views. A sad and hungry looking seagull has taken up residence outside the ledge of my window and I vow to bring him some food, but for now I just want to hit my comfy Hypnos bed.
Though a thick fog (and accompanying wind) has washed in overnight leading the film crew to don winter jackets, it is a sight to behold and a phenomenon I wanted to experience since I started my trip. I grab my umbrella and head out, realizing that I have over 3,000 miles of thundering Atlantic Ocean coastline before me. Fistral beach is considered one of Europe’s finest surfing beaches, though today surf boards stand idle against a shed, their form nearly obscured by the fog.
I am pulled toward the tip of a white building barely visible in the distance. The weather has deterred others and I have the entire area to myself. I discover wild flowers I am unfamiliar with, and make my way to the gazebo, a refuge on a windy day and a place of comfort to just stare out at the wild ocean.
I have an appointment at Cornwall’s largest ‘Five Bubble’ rated spa at the Headland, and Jade gives me an excellent deep tissue massage. I relax in the spa’s heated pool with jet stream and bubble seats. I lounge at the spa for most of the day enjoying the Swedish sauna, Cornish salt steam room, aromatherapy showers and the hot tub. Later at The Restaurant at Headland, I have a lamb dish cooked to perfection.
Tintagel Castle, the famed “King Arthur” castle towers above the mystically named Merlin’s cave. The colour of the water here is surreal as is the cloud formation that hangs above the pedestrian bridge that links visitors to the ruined castle.
For lunch I head to St. Moritz Hotel close to Daymer Bay near Trebetherick village where I have Spanish shrimp, feta salad and Eton mess.
St Ives feels like a reverie, and I can see why the seaside town is widely regarded as the jewel in Cornwall’s crown. This is not the Great Britain many of us imagine with its white sand beaches, gigantic black rocks and unreal azure waters it could easily be mistaken for Hawaii. In this astounding place the ocean is never out of sight and when the tide goes out hundreds of boats are lopsided waiting to regain composure in their familiar watery bed. St Ives itself arcs around the harbour – I see families playing on the beaches, muticoloured wind breakers in tow. I explore the winding cobbled streets, finding treasures in small independent shops, galleries, restaurants, pubs and bars. With the benefit of the warmth of the Gulf Stream, St Ives also enjoys a mild sub-tropical climate.
For lunch at Carbis Bay Hotel, a 30 minute walk from St. Ives, I dine beachside. My lunch features the ever-present seafood (in a handmade pizza, and in a summery dish of steamed mussels) with Cornish cider.
One of the most picturesque walks is on my way to the Tate St Ives museum. The building echoes the shapes of the former gasworks, including the rotunda that forms the heart of the gallery. Neighbouring Barbara Hepworth Museum features stone, wood and bronze carvings that lie in situ in the garden.
The Sloop Inn is a four minute walk from Tate St Ives. The 14th century public house is affectionately known as “a classic old fishermen’s boozer.” I am delicately nudged toward the delicious mussels and tagliatelle dish by my waiter Tanner. This pub may be known for its ales, but the food deserves equal mention.
Of course, a visit to Cornwall would not be complete without stopping for cream tea. As butterflies flit about the garden at Rosemergy’s Cream Tea House, I fill soft buttery scones with scoops of homemade jam and thick, ivory clotted cream washed down with a warm cup of tea.
After dinner at the Godolphin Arms, when the tide is low (it is completely covered when tides are high), I am able to walk onto the small island of St. Michael’s Mount, a former Benedictine monastery.
I overnight at Mount Haven Hotel, in Marazion which has a refreshing and rejuvenating ambiance typified by the welcoming statue of lord Ganesh the remover of obstacles. I sleep with my camera next to me as I know I have the best room in the house and am excited to get a shot of the sunrise at St Michael’s Mount. Owner Orange Trevillion has carefully curated a warm team including , Louis and Rosie. For breakfast, I enjoy muesli with homemade fruit compote, smoked haddock with scrambled eggs accompanied by a fresh flakey croissant (oh so good). Seeking adventure (for this nature lover), I turn to the surrounding garden with its palms, bananas and many other sub-tropical plants.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.