Cornwall offers serenity at England's end
Cornwall's combination of rustic serenity, rugged coastline and quaint fishing villages surpassed John Manley's expectations
WITHIN minutes of leaving the A30, the dual carriageway that functions as northern Cornwall's spine, we are on a single track road that is sunk at least a yard below the surrounding landscape. Never mind this year's budget cuts, it's like the verges here haven't been tended to for a generation or more.
While ordinarily when driving this state of affairs would see my blood pressure soar, the effect here is quite the opposite: I slow the car down, drive carefully into each blind corner and prepare to pull over – or even reverse – if we encounter a car coming the other way.
We'd left Co Down nearly 48 hours earlier, sailing overnight in relaxed mode with Stena on the Belfast-Liverpool ferry. If you're looking to travel to Cornwall from the north by car, bringing dog, bikes, body boards and all else that you can fit in, then this is the quickest route, albeit involving a five hour-plus drive down through England. We broke up the journey with a visit to Alton Towers (see panel) and a surprisingly pleasant overnight stay in Bristol.
Twenty minutes after leaving the A30 – but less than a handful of miles as the crow flies – I swing a left down a bumpy lane leading to The Mowhay – our home for the next seven days and nights. It's an old stone house, sympathetically restored and furnished comfortably but not lavishly. With a TV, wi-fi, shower, bath and fully equipped kitchen there's everything a family of four could want yet thankfully the accommodation retains a stark, mildly austere feel, such as the wooden benches either side of the kitchen table, that only add to its rustic authenticity.
Outside there are ducks, hens, five Jack Russells and an ageing collie, all of which belong to the property's owners Mike and Julie, who live nearby but far away enough to allow visitors adequate privacy.
A retired farmer from Gloucestershire who has scaled down his acreage and moved a 100 miles west, Mike plays the friendly but unobtrusive host, who is happy to supply freshly-laid eggs, eating-out advice, maps and horse rides for the kids, alongside his views on where the world is going wrong. For a farmer, one-time master of the hunt and former Tory councillor, he's a pretty enlightened bloke.
Less than 150 yards across the field from the Mowhay is an ancient woodland, where on the banks of a stream you'll find a makeshift playground-cum-assault course complete with rope swing tied to the branch of huge oak. Thomas Hardy's Wessex never extended into Cornwall – this is more Daphne du Maurier country – but nestled between two downs, with sheep baa-ing contentedly on the organic pasture by day and owls hooting after dusk, you really do feel far from the madding crowd.
Luckily though, it's not too far from the A30, as where Cornwall differs from what I'm used to is that it doesn't lend itself greatly to driving. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it adds to the charm, but compared with the parts of the west of Ireland or the Scottish Highlands it's busy traffic-wise, yet the roads can be especially narrow away from the main routes.
Touring is therefore off the agenda – hurrah! – as is parking close to the harbours in the numerous fishing villages we visited, where effort is taken to retain Ye Olde English character, with narrow streets not conducive to modern traffic levels. Fowey, on what's called the ‘Polperro Heritage Coast', is particularly notable in this regard, as are Portmellon and Padstow.
You'll be delighted to hear that other forms of getting around rather than the car are encouraged – walking, cycling and surfing being three particularly popular ones.
For walkers there's the uplands of Bodmin Moor, along the coastal paths – northern or southern – or the Saints Way, a 30-mile trail running the breadth of the county through countryside punctuated by pre-historic remains, trout streams, quaint churches and chocolate-box riverside villages.
Cycling-wise the big attraction is the Camel Trail, which runs along the Camel Valley from Wenford Bridge via Bodmin and Wadebridge to Padstow on the estuary, where Rick Stein has a substantial seafood restaurant feeding scores of hungry cyclists, walkers and coach parties. Newquay and other spots along the rugged north coast have built a strong reputation as surfing destinations and landmark beaches like the breathtakingly beautiful Whitehouse Bay offer big waves most days and lifeguards throughout the summer season.
Whereas the north and west of Cornwall offer plenty of energetic, outdoor activities, the tourist in search of something less strenuous may be drawn to the south of the county around St Austell. While the coast is typically picturesque in the this part of Cornwall, the landscape inland bears the scars of the county's clay-mining past.
However, it is one such disused clay pit that the Eden Project, now one of the area's biggest draws, sprung to life a decade-and-a-half-ago. A must-see not just for gardeners but for anybody with an interest in natural history, regeneration and sustainability, this impressive site is among many family-oriented attractions that make Cornwall the perfect holiday destination.
:: John Manley and his family travelled on Stena Line's Belfast to Liverpool service. The crossing time is approximately eight hours, with a choice of day or night sailings. Experience the recently refurbished ships with lounges, kids' play areas and a choice of cabins. Those looking to book a cabin for their crossing can do so from £25 per cabin.
You can travel with Stena Line from Belfast to Liverpool by foot from as little as £20 single or by car from £89 for single car and driver. Book via stenaline.co.uk, call 08447 70 70 70, or see your travel agent.
John and family visited Alton Towers for the day. Theme Park tickets available from £37.80 for an adult and £33.30 for a child when booked online at altontowers.com seven days prior to visit. Hotel stays start from £25 per person per night based on four sharing on a B&B basis when booked online.
They stayed at the converted 18th century Mowhay, situated between the north and south coasts, nine miles from the nearest beach. For this and hundreds of other properties see holidaycottages.co.uk.
There has been some adverse publicity about Alton Towers this year following the rollercoaster crash that subsequently saw teenage girl's leg amputated. Yet the problems with the Smiler ride did not deter my children and the big kid I'm married to, who weeks after the accident were eager as ever to enjoy the popular theme park's many attractions.
Located in rural Staffordshire in the English Midlands, the expansive resort is renowned for ground-breaking, world-first rollercoasters. Even with some of the more hair-raising rides temporarily closed for safety inspections or due to breakdowns, there was still no shortage of thrills to be had in early July, with new ride Rita proving the most thrilling and scream inducing. Air, and the spookily-themed TH13TEEN also proved big hits.
Elsewhere in the resort you're bound find something to suit your tastes, whether it's the aquarium, the water park or the spa.