A Day In: West Cornwall

The last stop on the line

Hello and welcome to the 64th issue of Place! As (some) of the world reopens, we are returning to our “A Day In” where we take you on a walk through a part of the world thats perhaps inaccessible to you at this uncertain moment. This week’s destination? West Cornwall. We invite you to put the key in the ignition and come on a drive to the coast with us.

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A Day In: West Cornwall

There’s something about the places at the end of the line. The destinations that are the final destination. It’s not that they are necessarily remote or inaccessible, but they require you to go the full distance, to fully commit in one direction and not look back. Once you arrive, there’s nowhere further to go; your journey is your own. 

West Cornwall is one such place. Located a five hour direct train ride from London or a six-hour car journey through increasingly narrow roads, it’s at the very tip of England, past where most of the crowds drop off in carnival-esque tourist towns for a domestic holiday. Far away observers have called Cornwall the “Hamptons” of England, and in some ways this is true: It is a frequent weekend destination for those from the capital seeking some local sun and over the years has transformed from quiet farmland and fishing communities to a tourist playland. But if you go all the way to the tip, where the cliffs jut directly into a seemingly limitless Atlantic Ocean, where green fields meet brisk turquoise waters and the single track hedge-lined roads twist into subtropical valleys, there is a bit of quiet, mystery and reward in going the distance.

While holidays usually allow for a bit of sleeping in, at some point it is worth it to get up with the sun and the fishermen. Fishing is inextricably linked to Cornwall with its coasts butting up against rich waters on all sides, though the economic fortunes that have come with it have come and gone. Before the late twentieth century, fishing went on virtually unchecked, nearly wiping out populations of pilchards and hake. Quotas and more stringent regulations were introduced over the coming decades, and control over fishing waters became a battle cry for conservatives in the Brexit debate, despite fishing only making up .1% of the UK economy. Still, fishing remains a key part of the economy of the region -- the harbour at Newlyn, a village tucked onto a hill on the outskirts of Penzance, is one of the largest deep sea fishing ports in England. If you get up early enough you can watch the portly trawlers chug out into open water.  

Despite being home to plenty of early risers, most cafes open closer to 9 am, so make a coffee at home, pack it in a thermos and take it with you. From the Newlyn’s harbour you can also see the ethereal St. Michael’s Mount in the distance - a medieval castle and church perched on the top of a tidal island, accessible by a stone path only when the waters ebb.

There’s no reason to stray too far from the coast (and it would be difficult given it’s always a short drive away). A morning walk along the South West Coastal Path in any direction will give you a feel for the area’s unique topography. It is less of a hike and more of a meandering walk - there’s only one track with the ocean always at your side. But that doesn’t mean it hurts for scenery. Heading due west from Newlyn, you’ll hit Lamorna Cove and the craggy Logan Rock. Drive a bit further up the coast and you can dip into the turquoise waters at Porthcurno, Pedn Vounder or one of the other beaches tucked between the dark rock (though keep an eye on the tides - many of the best spots are only accessible for a few hours when waters are low). 

Though the beaches may look tropical, it’s still the Atlantic - average water temperatures in the summer only reach 18 degrees Celsius / 64 degrees Fahrenheit - but once you get over the shock, it’s easy to spend a few hours paddling in the calm coves. 

If you’d rather a more active interaction with the ocean, head further north to the sleepy village of Sennen, renowned for its gentle beach break - a perfect place for beginner surfers. While the UK may not be the first place that people think of when it comes to surfing, it’s been on the radar of surf-seekers since the 1960s for its access to open Atlantic swells. A wetsuit is typically needed (and it’s important to shuffle in the shallows to scare off weever fish, which burrow in the sand and sting waders’ feet with venomous spines on their dorsal fin).

Perranporth, another village up the coast, is also a surfer favorite with deep caves for those who’d prefer to explore on shore. That coastline, however, may not be as natural as expected -- there’s evidence that the rocky arches are the remnants of honeycombs of 2000-year-old tin mining tunnels that have been eroded away over time.

In the afternoon, it’s time to head to West Cornwall’s most famous village: St. Ives. It is one of the area’s most popular holiday spots, teeming with tourists lining up to get a Cornish dairy ice cream cone, laze on one of the town’s five beaches, or meander the tiny streets with overgrown flower boxes. It would be easy to potter about without a plan, stopping in local shops, sipping a coffee or indulging in a cheeky mid-afternoon pint, but there’s one place that should be on your itinerary: The Barbara Hepworth Museum.

Barbara Hepworth was an English painter and sculptor who made a home in St. Ives after the second world war (and after a stint in Paris hanging out with Jean Arp and Pablo Picasso). She set up a studio, yard and garden tucked off a street in the town centre, where she could work in open air and space. Today the studio is a museum showcasing her abstract wood, stone and bronze works in an all-white, light filled loft and placed about a verdant garden. Her working studio remains largely as it was when she died in 1975, dozens of chisels of varying sizes laying askew, chore jackets hung up on the door, a hunk of half-carved rock in the corner, forever waiting for its final shape to be unveiled. 

Cornwall has been a haven for artists for decades -- Newlyn also has a famed artist colony and school. The light scattered off the water on all sides, the rugged landscape and study of life that isn’t seen elsewhere, has served as inspiration. “When the sun comes out in Cornwall, the landscape fills with colour, the light pours over the vegetation filling each leaf with radiant colours and cool waters into Mediterranean delights,” said artist John Dyer.

At this point, a day of coastal walks, surfing and village hopping will necessitate a hearty evening meal, and seafood is a must. One option is always to head to the local fishmonger and let a grizzled fisherman with scales still stuck to his hair point you to the best catch of the day. When fish is this fresh you don’t need to be a master chef to prepare it well - a little salt, pepper and lemon is all it takes. 

However, there are a handful of seafood bars that take the dishes to the next level. Mackerel Sky Seafood Bar in Newlyn is nestled next to a creek, with tables outside and tall windows in the small dining room in case the weather turns gray. The menu is tasting plate sized, which is ideal for trying scallops, mussels, crispy sole and salt-and-pepper squid in one go. Across the road, Lovetts serves natural wine and cocktails, a new entrant to the town that for centuries run on less sophisticated fare. 

Nightlife isn’t particularly wild, but as with any English town, the pubs are always worth a pint or two. Order a Korev, the local lager, and take a look around. You’re at the end of the line. Why not stay awhile?

-Karis Hustad is the co-editor of Place and a magazine reporter based in London.

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