A fierce wind is wailing in my ears, buffeting me back from Cornwall’s cliff tops like a nightclub bouncer and warning me away from the deadly drop to the sea (writes Amy Laughinghouse). Although a storm is erupting like an angry rash on the radar, I press on stubbornly (some might even say stupidly) towards the Bedruthan Steps - hulking rock formations that dominate the beach below.
Descending moss-slimed stairs for a closer examination, I’m left breathless by my perspective from the puddle-ridden sands. Although the tide is receding, an optical illusion makes the expanse of ocean appear as an ominous wall rising between these towering stones, ready to crash without a moment’s notice. Casting one last furtive look behind me, I retreat to higher ground, happier with my birds’ eye view from the South West Coast Path above.
An exhilarating hike along this muddy trail, which flirts with Cornwall’s bluffs and beaches for 300 miles, is my first introduction to the wave-lashed shores that make this county a heaven for surfers and a haven for hikers. Unlike England’s gently undulating - if rather damp - interior, the isle’s extreme western edge is altogether more wild and unpredictable.
In Cornwall, even a peaceful village can quickly turn savage, and I’m not referring to torch-toting mobs with a grudge to bear. One of the most famous examples of Cornwall’s temperamental nature is the flash flood that swept through Boscastle on August 16, 2004.
A sinuous asphalt ribbon leads to the village centre, where white-washed gift shops, art galleries and bakeries hawking hearty Cornish pasties huddle around a timid stream trickling towards the harbour. But Graham King, the proprietor of the Museum of Witchcraft and a member of the Coast Guard, remembers the summer day when the scarcely discernible whisper of the river turned into a roar. Reclining at his desk above the museum, flanked by more than 3,500 books on magic, witchcraft and folklore, he gazes into the distance and launches into the tale.
“There had been a lot of rain, and I noticed the noise of the river, the tension in the air,” King recalls, rubbing his woolly grey beard. After warning a woman with a baby away from the river, he rang the Coast Guard and reported, “We have a dangerous situation developing.” Within 15 minutes of his call, it burst its banks, forcing folks to scramble into the surrounding hills.
At first, most people - particularly visitors - were remarkably nonchalant. “People at the museum were asking for their money back because they had to leave,” King says with a bemused smile. “At the café, they were saying, well, I’ll finish my cup of tea when I come back.”
But as the torrent grew stronger, trees and cars were swept away. Amazingly, there were no fatalities, although some buildings were destroyed and helicopters had to winch many residents out of windows to safety. “It was very unpleasant,” King concludes with a slight frown, in the most classic of British understatements.
Flood dissipation mechanisms have since been put into place, and King expresses no inclination to leave Boscastle. “You can feel the magic,” he insists. “When you’re coming down the valley, you can feel it’s special, with the beautiful wild seas. It’s a very elemental place.”
An unconditional appreciation of nature in all her moods is something that seems to unite the residents of Cornwall. At Tintagel Castle, a short drive from Boscastle, guide Keri Dean cheerfully surveys the waves crashing below the cliff top ruins. “The sea is really kicking up today,” she notes with satisfaction. “It’s dramatic. And when it rains, it’s atmospheric. We’ve got a line for every sort of weather,” she laughs.
A stiff breeze nearly blows away Dean’s words as she explains that King Arthur was supposedly conceived here—or rather, within the walls of whatever structure stood upon this high outpost before Richard, Earl of Cornwell, built the castle in the early 13th century.
In its heyday, it was a pimpin’ royal pad, sprawling across a narrow ridge. Now, it’s a maze of low stone walls and archways, separated by a valley and connected by so many stairs that, were the place actually habitable, you would seriously have to think twice about descending them to collect the mail or fetch that forgotten pint of milk from the store.
The moody atmosphere has fuelled Arthur’s legend and inspired artists and poets. “Tennyson has it that Arthur was washed up in Merlin’s Cave,” Dean says, gesturing towards a beach which leads to a black hole cutting through the cliffs. Turner painted the castle, and Charles Dickens also paid a visit.
Leaving the ruins behind, I continue up a gravel path to the bluff top, where a verdant plain of grass stretches out before me like a prairie. As I approach its inhospitable boundary, where waves froth against grey rock below, swift-moving clouds suddenly part to reveal piercing blue skies. An elusive shaft of sunlight, seeing its chance, darts through to illuminate the silvery currents sluicing through the sea.
Merlin and magic aside, I am spellbound. I stand rooted to the spot, overlooking the edge of the world, another willing captive of Cornwall’s mercurial charm.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly into London and take a train to Cornwall.
Information: VisitBritain, www.visitbritain.com. Visit Cornwall, www.visitcornwall.com. Boscastle Visitor Centre, www.visitboscastleandtintagel.com.
Where to stay: The Headland Hotel, Fistral Beach, Newquay, Tel: +44 (0)1637 872211, www.headlandhotel.co.uk. This 104-room, four-star hotel presides over Fistral Beach, surfing capital of the UK. Amenities include a 9-hole golf course, tennis courts, a heated swimming pool and sauna. Guests can also choose from 40 cottages on the property. Rooms from £79.
The Scarlet Hotel, Mawgan Porth, Tel: +44 (0)1637 861800, www.scarlethotel.co.uk. A triumph of modern design, this 37-room, adults-only hotel, which opened in September 2009, seems torn from the pages of Architectural Digest. Priding itself on its ecological sensitivity, the hotel boasts an outdoor rainwater pool and a roof topped with sea thrift. An Ayervedic spa features another pool, and plate glass windows and a spacious deck offer coastal views. Michelin award-winning chef Ben Tunnicliffe heads the restaurant. From £180.
Where to eat: Fifteen Cornwall, Watergate Bay, Cornwall TR8 4AA, Tel: +44 (0)1637 861000, www.fifteencornwall.co.uk. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver opened the restaurant in 2006 to train disadvantaged youths as apprentice chefs, but the food is anything but amateur.
The Wellington Hotel, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0AQ, Tel: +44 (0)1840 250202, www.boscastle-wellington.com. This traditional British pub serves up heaping portions of hearty classics like sausage and mash, fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding. Upstairs, a more formal restaurant mixes French and British fare.
What to do: South West Coast Path, www.southwestcoastpath.com/main/walks. The path stretches 630 miles from Minehead in Devon to Poole in Dorset, encompassing 300 miles in Cornwall.
Tintagel Castle, Tel: +44 (0)1840 770328, www.english-heritage.org.uk/tintagel.
The Museum of Witchcraft, Tel: +44 (0)1840 250111, www.museumofwitchcraft.com. Claims the world’s largest collection of witchcraft related artifacts.
About the author
Amy Laughinghouse is an ex-pat travel writer living in London. She’s been told that her surname is actually English—although she has yet to meet one British person willing to claim it.