After the elegant surroundings of Georgian Bath, it was time to leap even further back in time to the ancient land of Cornwall. The southwest county of England is characterized by windy moors, towering cliffs, surf-friendly beaches, impossibly high hedges, thick accents, and yes, the magic of King Arthur. It comes alive in the summer with British tourism, but in the cold winter months it is comparatively empty. What a perfect time to explore!
Cornwall is essentially impossible to travel solely by public transit, so for this short four day leg, we opted to rent a car. Clayton had been mentally planning for driving on the other side of the road for quite some time, so made the transition with ease. But we were soon to find that driving on the opposite side of the road was relatively easy compared to actually navigating English roads. Getting through small villages and country backroads is a feat in and of itself. I usually save the details for the logistics post, but it’s hard to fully describe our experience in Cornwall without talking about the driving, in all its hair-raising, nail-biting glory.
Rather than head straight to our AirBnB in northwest Cornwall, we took a small detour to see an ancient stone circle. We had opted to not see Stonehenge – it would have been a logistical nightmare to get there using public transportation, and after doing some research, I was floored by just how many stone circles there are in England. Stonehenge is easily the most famous and impressive with it’s megaliths still in arches, but you pay a hefty price to see it, both monetarily and in crowd navigation. I still would like to see it someday, but the Stanton Drew Circles were to be our first prehistoric stone circle of the trip. Located in Somerset, they are the third largest complex of standing stones in all of England. The Great Circle alone is 113 meters in diameter, and has 26 stones still standing. Recent magnetic surveys have discovered that rings of wooden posts once stood in the inside as well. After a succulent Sunday Roast at a nearby pub, we plugged the stone circle into our “sat nav” (aka GPS) and hit the narrow road. We followed some some twists and turns in the outskirts of the village and found ourselves in someone’s barnyard. One seven-point turn later, a friendly local out gardening pointed us in a different direction…into someone else’s barnyard. But luckily this one had parking signs for Stanton Drew.
There was an honesty box and the gate to the field where we dropped our £1 fees for visiting. Then we passed through another gate, this one to keep the cows in. Not much land goes to waste in an island nation, so we were especially careful to navigate the cow pats as well as the monoliths.
The monoliths were simply breathtaking. Best of all, the site isn’t well known, so we were one of perhaps three families there. The sun was on it’s way towards the horizon, and the stones cast long shadows across the grass. Unlike Stonehenge, you can walk into the circle and right up to all the stones. It was a sobering experience to stand so close to such ancient history, and think about the people who went through so much trouble to put the stones there for reasons still unknown. While some stones still stood proudly erect, others had long since fallen on their side and were collecting pools of rainwater in areas of erosion. Someone had left roses on a particular stone, which was rather touching.
Wary of a long drive ahead of us, we hopped back into the car and set off south. Once on the highway, it’s as if we were driving across the States. However, any sense of the familiar and safe abruptly vanished as we turned off the main road to start the search for our AirBNB. With the sun gone, anything outside the beam of our headlights plunged into darkness. The narrow two-lane road twisted and turned through farmland, and we passed through several small towns where everyone seemed to be asleep already. I held my breath whenever a lorry drove by, vividly imagining being run off the road and spinning out a ditch.
I laugh at those fears now, because we soon had to turn off that road onto the country roads leading to our AirBNB.
Any fear of being driven off the road was now completely gone. There simply wouldn’t be anywhere to go. Ten-foot hedges made up the sides of the road, and our side mirrors brushed the leaves on either sides as we drove on. Our headlights showed a bit of the road in front of us, but mostly just tall hedges going on and on and on. Coming up on turns, it felt like there was nothing in the world but hedge. We felt like we were speeding along, and I squealed at Clayton to slow down, (something I would do often over the next few days). “I’m doing 20mph” he’d patiently respond, which goes to show how much perspective can mess with you.
And this, my friends, is a two-way road. Luckily we didn’t run into any other vehicles going the other direction that night (ha ha…), so our first encounter would be in daylight. The locals are really used to it. Provided you are going slow enough, it’s safe enough and there isn’t a problem. There is a certain etiquette – if you have to pass, whoever had a pull off point closer to them is the one that needs to reverse. Unless the other car has someone behind them, or is a truck or tractor of some kind. It’s fairly intuitive, and we never had any issues. Still, I can’t say that my heart rate was ever normal on a Cornish road. That might take months of getting used to. But I admired the economy of space and the ability of the locals to navigate them, that’s for sure!
Our AirBNB was in a tiny community in the middle of swaths of farmland. We were staying with a family with three very loud young children and a quiet cat. Luckily the kids went to bed early and we were out all day touring, so it worked out fine. Each day for breakfast we enjoyed sourdough bread the mother had made the night before, and it was easily the best sourdough bread I’ve ever had. It was so rich and hearty, a few slices with some jam were enough to keep us full to late lunch. My mouth waters now remembering it.
Our first stop in Cornwall was St. Nectan’s Glen, a woodland walk and waterfall glen near the coast. Many consider it a spiritual site, and it’s beauty alone makes it well worth a visit. We parked our car at what we hoped was a free parking lot in view of the coastline and followed signs for the waterfall on foot. It was a lengthy trek to get to the falls themselves, and the path first led up through a hamlet with several old stone houses then plunged down into a ravine. The deep-set valley was protected from the strong coastal winds, allowing for a completely different landscape. We were surrounded by an old forest, and we felt as if we had stepped right into Camelot. We passed a log that I thought had really strange fungi growing on it, but with closer inspection realized that people had stuck hundreds of coins into it. These “wishing” logs would appear throughout our hike, some of them in the glen by the waterfall itself. We finally arrived at the entrance to the waterfall hike, which was part of a larger retreat center. We bought our tickets from a friendly gentleman at the gift shop. As he kindly allowed us to trade our day shoes for wellies, he cheerfully shared some information with us about the local flora and fauna. I mentioned that it must be really nice to work in this area, with nature and birdsong as your backdrop all day. He sighed contentedly and responded “how could it get better than this?” He was pleased to point out that there was more trail available to us due to recent works in the glen. In cutting back an invasive species of plant, they’d revealed another view of the waterfall and provided extra trail for visitors. Win-win!
The waterfall hike itself is still a short one, but it leads you down into the falls themselves. The waterfall comes down the valley, through the forest, and cuts a whole in the rock before plunging down into a pool and continuing on towards the sea. We waded in, deep enough the render the wells useless against wet socks, and admired the view through the mist. We were surrounded by wishes and prayers – there were small rock cairns sprinkled all over, ribbons tied to trees, even some small plaques of more committed wish-makers. I admit, I pushed a coin into a log and let my wish join thousands of others. Hopefully the coins are collected eventually and go towards maintaining the site.
We returned to the gift shop, my boots squelching with each step. The gift shop sold pairs of socks for £1 each….very clever. They made a sale out of me that day.
Back to the car, then on to the next destination, Tintagel. It was a sobering moment when I learned that it’s pronounced “tin-tah-gel” not “tin-ta-gull”. Like many, I grew up reading legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in Camelot, as well as the mysterious, magical Avalon. Tintagel Castle is allegedly where Arthur was conceived, a structure perched precariously on a cliff face on a small rocky island just off the coast. Merlin’s Cave, a sea cave, is just below. A famous statue of King Arthur also graced the island, standing tall and lonely for an eternal guard duty. Although access to the island would be closed due to renovating the bridge, it would have been a shame to not walk the coastline and admire the view.
We stopped for lunch in the village of Tintagel itself. Being the off-season, many shops and restaurants were closed, which was to be expected, if not slightly disappointing. Still, it was better than masses of tourists, and we were glad to contribute to the off-season economy in any way we could. We’d heard that the disparity of income between the summer and winter months was striking. After some delicious hot soup in a friendly cafe, we drove up to park at St Materiana’s Church. Wary of the “Beware of Adders!” signs, we toured the small 12th century church before continuing down the coastline towards the castle. The wind was extraordinary – howling and bitterly cold. We quickened our steps to keep the blood moving. As we progressed along the cliffs, we encountered geological phenomenons as the landscape created wind tunnels unlike anything I’ve ever walked through before. We clung on to our hats to pass through the worst bits. A happier phenomenon was a brilliant rainbow crossing over from the mainland to the castle in the distance. It was almost too picturesque.
We finagled our way around the coastline to get as many views of the castle and Merlin’s Cave as we could, soaking it all in. It was easy to see how such a landscape could inspire an epic fantasy. The waves crashed coldly into the rocks below, and the sun hit the castle ruins causing them to glow with a golden aura against the backdrop of green grass along the hillside. We spied a lone seal braving the waves in the cove below, right near the entrance to Merlin’s Cave. I shivered under my many layers and imagined swimming in those rough looking waters, amazed at the resilience of animals in their natural habitats.
We bid King Arthur and Merlin farewell and hiked back to the car, just in time. Farther south down the coast a massive wall of raincloud was quickly making its way towards us. Enough exploring for the day.
Another countryside slumber and sourdough bread breakfast later, we returned to the coast by way of Port Isaac. For those of you who are as big of fans as British television as I am, you may recognize the name. Port Isaac is a sleepy little fishing village on the north coast of Cornwall – or at least it used to be sleepy, before it became famous as Port Wenn from the BBC series Doc Martin. Now, tourists flock from all over Britain and the United States to see where the grumpy GP lives and works. Happily, it was the off-season, so we wouldn’t have to fight crowds. The village itself was quaint, small, and exactly like I imagined. If you’re a devoted follower of these ramblings of mine, you’ll recall that I visited another filming location of one of my favorite shows of all time, As Time Goes By, in London. Even though I could only see the building exteriors then, it was very special. Here in Port Isaac, most filming for Doc Martin is done outside, so I could literally be on the set, so I was ecstatic. We walked the narrow streets, watched fishermen haul in catches, laughed at local dogs chasing ducks (they got away safely, no worries), and enjoyed a pub lunch where many villagers hang out on the show. We spent some time in the cove searching for colorful rocks washed up onto the shore, and found quite a pretty handful. We hiked up past Doc Martin’s cottage, which was being renovated as a B&B. We continued up the hill until we passed the town limits, and explored some fields on the coastline. I was, naturally, very wary of where the cattle were in the open fields. We enjoyed the wild coastline views while catching our breath after climbing the steep, muddy grade. Back in the village, we wandered around some more to see familiar sites like Aunt Ruth’s cottage, Louisa’s home and schoolhouse, and the pharmacy. It’s almost surreal to see the show now and know how all the pieces of the village fit together. Did it ruin the magic? I’m not sure, but I don’t regret visiting. Perhaps if I’d seen the filming itself, it would ruin the magic for me, but instead, I can just imagine that Doc Martin and Louisa were on holiday during my visit.
Our final day in Cornwall was to be our most wild. After seeing so many footpaths and hearing so much about the English and their walks, we decided to do a full day hike across Bodmin Moor. Doubtless, you have heard of these mysterious and infamous “moors”, be it from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”, Winston Graham’s Poldark, or Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Moorland is characterized by high elevation, low-growing vegetation, and acidic soil. Some moorland was caused by human activity, including extensive deforestation thousands of years ago. What all this means in present day are huge swathes of rolling, exposed hills, good for livestock and for hiking.
Our starting point was St. Breward, near an old English Pub. The Old Inn was a huge bonus for me – it was another filming location of Doc Martin, and the owners were extremely amiable and gave us several tips for the trek. We bought some sandwiches to fuel us during the hike and set off, using an extremely helpful app called iWalk Cornwall as our guide. Each hike on the app costs a euro or two, but provides incredibly detailed directions as well as history and facts about things you see on the hike. It’s more than worth it. Over the next few hours, we trekked through livestock fields, climbed over stone fences, jumped across boggy streams, and detoured through neolithic ruins. We even found some gorgeous mushrooms, to Clayton’s utter delight.
The landscape of the moors is unlike anything I have ever seen. Rolling hills go on seemingly forever, with dark brown, deep green, and beige vegetation. In some parts, numerous low stones broke up the vegetation, but they were well on their way to becoming moss-covered themselves. As we walked, one thing I couldn’t help but think about was the wind. As much as novels may attempt to describe it, there is truly nothing like actually experiencing the crushing loneliness of the moorland winds. Whistling, frigid, constant. And there is simply no escape. We took a detour from the mapped out hike – per the recommendation of the inn-keep – and climbed up a tall hill with stunning panoramic views. Locating a little niche in the boulders, we hunkered down to enjoy our cheese and pickle sandwiches. Even nestled into the rocks, the wind was present, though we’d escaped as much of it as we could. Now I understand that Cornish idiom “going Bodmin” for going crazy. It’s easy to see how someone can be driven mad by that constant, howling wind.
Our hike took us past some monuments from the Bronze Age. Large boulders from house foundations remained, and I imagined what it must have been like to live out here with the constant wind. Perhaps at that time, there were more trees to break up the landscape. The most notable historical site we encountered on the walk was King Arthur’s Hall, dating from the Neolithic era. Although it has such an epic name, it was more likely used a cattle enclosure in ancient times, with the legendary name bestowed during the 16th century. Still, it’s history gave it eminence, and we felt the crushing effects of time as we wandered through the ancient stones.
By the time we’d returned to the inn in St. Breward, we were chilly, fatigued, and famished. Rick Steves, my favorite travel writer, says his favorite part of English walks are arriving at country inns, chilly and damp from the elements, then cozying up with a beer by the fire in the snug as his glasses steamed up. I completely understand this now. We ordered some afternoon teas and nursed the mugs to warm up our fingers, exhilarated yet exhausted from our adventure.
Cornwall is a magical, mysterious place. There is still so much to discover – we only skimmed the surface. Although I appreciate traveling there without the summer crowds, I would like to see it in the warmer months, solely for the possibility of hiking without that crushing, frigid wind. But there is something to be said about standing on a hilltop in the moors, gazing past the Bronze Age ruins into the beyond, with nothing but your thoughts and the sound of the wind in your head. For such a small island, you can feel so utterly removed, and it’s a very special feeling. Glimpses of solitude while traveling can be so rare, and it’s a joy to catch them. Sadly our time in the United Kingdom had come to an end for now, but there was no better way to cap it off.