England’s southwest is simply spectacular. Here the past is ever-present – prepare for close encounters with iconic stone circles, Iron Age hill forts, and Roman baths. Blockbuster stately homes border romantic castles; serene cathedrals frame sumptuous Georgian cityscapes. The landscape immerses you in the myths of kings Arthur and Alfred the Great, and the writings of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and Daphne du Maurier. But the southwest also has an eye to the future. Here you can tour alternative eco-towns, pioneering restaurants, and cool surfer hang-outs, and sleep in campsites peppered with chic yurts and retro campervans. Then there are three wildlife-rich national parks, fossil-studded shores, England’s best surf spots, and a coastline flecked with exquisite bays, towering rock formations, and tranquil sweeps of sandy beach. It all gives you a bit of a dilemma – with England’s West Country you won’t know what to do first.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Britain’s littered with beautiful cities, but precious few compare to Bath. Home to some of the nation’s grandest Georgian architecture – not to mention one of the world’s best-preserved Roman bathhouses – this slinky, sophisticated, snooty city, founded on top of natural hot springs, has been a tourist draw for nigh on 2000 years. Bath’s heyday really began during the 18th century, when local entrepreneur Ralph Allen and his team of father-and-son architects, John Wood the Elder and Younger, turned this sleepy backwater into the toast of Georgian society and constructed fabulous landmarks such as the Circus and Royal Crescent.
If ever there was a British city on the rise, it’s Bristol. Once a center for heavy industry, over the last few decades, the southwest’s largest city has reinvented itself as a hub of culture and creativity. From Clifton’s iconic suspension bridge to Brunel’s groundbreaking steamship, the SS Great Britain, it’s a city that’s awash with historical interest. But Bristol is also known for its offbeat, alternative character, and you’ll find a wealth of art collectives, community-run cafes, and music venues dotted around – not to mention murals left behind by the city’s most notorious son, the mischievous street artist Banksy. Throw in the revamped harbourside, the landmark new M Shed history museum, and a fast-growing foodie reputation, and it’s little wonder that Bristol was recently named Britain’s most liveable city. Gert lush, as they might say around these parts.
Hampshire’s history is regal and rich. Kings Alfred the Great, Knut, and William the Conqueror all based their reigns in its ancient cathedral city of Winchester, whose jumble of historic buildings sits in the center of undulating chalk downs.
Calm, collegiate Winchester is a must-see. The past still echoes strongly around the flint-flecked walls of this ancient cathedral city. It was the capital of Saxon kings and a power base of bishops, and its statues and sights evoke two of England’s mightiest myth-makers: Alfred the Great and King Arthur. Winchester’s architecture is exquisite, from the handsome Elizabethan and Regency buildings in the narrow streets to the wondrous cathedral at its core, while its river valley location means there are charming waterside trails to explore.
The world-class collection of maritime heritage at Portsmouth more than demands a day trip. Here you can roam around three stunning historic ships, a submarine, and an impressive cluster of museums. Nauticalia done, the city’s Point district tempts with cobbled streets and ancient pubs, the Spinnaker Tower delivers jaw-dropping views, and the port makes a prime launchpad for the Isle of Wight.
With typical, accidental, English irony the New Forest is anything but new – it was first proclaimed a royal hunting preserve in 1079. It’s also not much of a forest, being mostly heathland (‘forest’ is from the Old French for ‘hunting ground’). Designated a national park in 2005, the forest’s combined charms make it a joy to explore. Wild ponies mooch around pretty scrubland, deer flicker in the distance and rare birds flit among the foliage. Genteel villages dot the landscape, connected by a web of walking and cycling trails.
The quaint country villages of Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst are separated by just 4 miles. Their picturesque accommodation options and superb eateries ensure they’re atmospheric bases from which to explore the New Forest.
ISLE OF WRIGHT
On the Isle of Wight these days there’s something groovy in the air. For decades this slab of rock anchored off Portsmouth has been a magnet for family holidays, and it still has seaside kitsch by the bucket and spade. But now the proms and amusement arcades are framed by pockets of pure funkiness. A brace of music festivals draws partygoers, just-caught seafood is served in kooky fishers’ cafes, and cool camping rules – here sites are dotted with eco yurts and vintage campervans. Yet still, the isle’s principal appeal remains a mild climate, myriad outdoorsy activities, and a 25-mile shore lined with beaches, dramatic white cliffs, and tranquil sand dunes.
Pack your yachting cap – the hilly Georgian harbor town of Cowes is famous for Cowes Week in early August – first held in 1826, it’s one of the biggest and longest-running sailing regattas in the world. Fiberglass playthings and vintage sailing boats line Cowes’ waterfronts, which are lopped into East and West Cowes by the picturesque River Medina. The island’s capital, Newport, is 5 miles south.
The nippiest foot-passenger ferries between Wight and Portsmouth alight in Ryde, a workaday but appealing Victorian town rich in the trappings of the British seaside. Next comes the cutesy village of Brading, with its fine Roman villa, and photogenic Bembridge Harbour, which is fringed by sandy beaches. Further south lie the twin resort towns of Sandown and Shanklin, boasting promenades and hordes of families wielding buckets and spades.
The Victorian town of Ventnor slaloms so steeply down the island’s southern coast that it feels more like the south of France. The shops in the town’s winding streets are worth browsing and the seafront is well worth a stroll.
Steephill Cove’s tiny, sandy beach is fringed by buildings that range from stone cottages to rickety-looking shacks. Beach finds festoon porches dotted with driftwood furniture and draped with fishing nets; a tiny clapboard lighthouse presides over the scene. It’s all studiedly nautical, but still very nice.
Rural and remote, Wight’s westerly corner is where the island really comes into its own. Sheer white cliffs rear from a surging sea as the stunning coastline peels west to Alum Bay and the most famous chunks of chalk in the region: the Needles. These jagged rocks rise, shardlike, out of the sea, like the backbone of a prehistoric sea monster. West Wight is also home to arguably the isle’s best beach: sandy, windswept Compton Bay.
Holiday hot spot Dorset offers a checklist of charms. Its shoreline is one of Britain’s best and boasts the Jurassic Coast – a World Heritage Site flecked with sea-carved bays, crumbly cliffs, and beaches loaded with fossilized souvenirs. Swimming, kayaking, and hiking here are memorable indeed. Inland, Thomas Hardy’s lyrical landscape serves up vast Iron Age hill forts, rude chalk figures, fairy-tale castles, and must-see stately homes. Then there are resorts alive with party animals, golden beaches flanked by millionaires’ mansions, and sailing waters that have hosted Olympic events. Time then to add Dorset to your holiday list.
If one thing has shaped Bournemouth, it’s the beach. This glorious, 7-mile strip of soft sand first drew holidaymakers in the Victorian days. Today the resort attracts both elderly coach parties and youthful stag parties – on Saturday nights fancy-dress is everywhere; angels in L-plates meet men in mankinis. But Bournemouth is more than just a full-on party town. It also boasts some hip hideaways, great restaurants, tempting water sports, and in Boscombe, 2 miles east of the center, a suburb with a cool urban-surfer vibe.
In the quaint old port of Poole, there’s a whiff of money in the air: the town borders Sandbanks, a gorgeous beach backed by some of the world’s most expensive chunks of real estate. Big bucks aside, Poole also boasts excellent eateries and is the springboard for a raft of water sports and some irresistible boat trips.
The massive, shattered ruins of Corfe Castle loom so dramatically from the landscape it’s like blundering into a film set. The defensive fragments tower over an equally photogenic village, which bears the castle’s name and makes for a romantic spot for a meal or an overnight stay.
In Lulworth Cove, the coast steals the show. For millions of years, the elements have been creating an intricate shoreline of curved bays, caves, stacks, and weirdly wonderful rock formations – most notably the massive natural arch at Durdle Door. The charismatic hamlet of Lulworth Cove is a pleasing jumble of thatched cottages and fishing gear, which winds down to a perfect crescent of white cliffs.
With Dorchester, you get two towns in one: a real-life, bustling county town and Thomas Hardy’s fictional Casterbridge. The Victorian writer was born nearby and his literary locations can still be found among Dorchester’s white- and red-brick Georgian terraces. Here you can also visit Hardy’s former homes and see his original manuscripts. Add cracking archaeological sites and attractive places to eat and sleep and you have an appealing base for a night or two.
If you had to describe an archetypal sleepy Dorset village, you’d come up with something a lot like Cerne Abbas: houses run the gamut of English architectural styles, roses climb countless doorways and half-timbered houses frame a honey-colored, 12thcentury church. But this village also packs one heck of a surprise: the Cerne Giant; a vast chalk figure of a naked man.
At just over 225 years old, Weymouth is a grand dame of a resort with a couple of tricks up her faded sleeve. Candy-striped kiosks and deckchairs line a golden, 3-mile beach; chuck in cockles and chippies and prepare to promenade down seaside memory lane. But Weymouth is about more than just that sandy shore; the town boasts a bustling harbor, some superb seafood restaurants, and easy access to the water sports centers of the neighboring Isle of Portland.
The ‘Isle’ of Portland is a hard, high comma of rock fused to the rest of Dorset by the ridge of Chesil Beach. On its 150m central plateau, a quarrying past still holds sway, evidenced by huge craters and large slabs of limestone. Portland offers jaw-dropping views down on to 18-mile Chesil Beach and the neighboring Fleet – Britain’s biggest tidal lagoon. Proud, and at times bleak and rough around the edges, Portland is decidedly different from the rest of Dorset and is all the more compelling because of it. The Isle’s industrial heritage, water-sport facilities, rich birdlife, and starkly beautiful cliffs make it worth at least a day trip.
One of the most breathtaking beaches in Britain, Chesil is 18 miles long, 45 feet high, and moving inland at the rate of 15 feet a century. This mind-boggling, 100-million-tonne pebble ridge is the baby of the Jurassic Coast. A mere 6000 years old, its stones range from pea-sized in the west to hand-sized in the east.
Fantastically fossiliferous Lyme Regis packs a heavyweight historical punch. Rock-hard relics of the past pop out repeatedly from the surrounding cliffs – exposed by the landslides of a retreating shoreline. Lyme is now a pivot point of the Unesco-listed Jurassic Coast: fossil fever is definitely in the air and everyone, from proper paleontologists to those out for a bit of fun, can engage in a spot of coastal rummaging. Add sandy beaches and some delightful places to sleep and eat, and you get a charming base for explorations.
Sherborne gleams with a mellow, orangey-yellow stone – it’s been used to build a cluster of 15th-century buildings and the impressive abbey church at their core. This serene town exudes wealth.
Wiltshire is rich in reminders of ritual and packed with not-to-be-missed sights. Its verdant landscape is littered with more mysterious stone circles, processional avenues, and ancient barrows than anywhere else in Britain. It’s a place that teases and tantalizes the imagination – here you’ll experience the prehistoric majesty of Stonehenge and the atmospheric stone ring at Avebury. Add the serene 800-year-old cathedral at Salisbury, the supremely stately homes at Stourhead and Longleat, and the impossibly pretty village of Lacock, and you have a county crammed full of English charm waiting to be explored.
Centered on a majestic cathedral that’s topped by the tallest spire in England, Salisbury makes an appealing Wiltshire base. It’s been an important provincial city for more than a thousand years, and its streets form an architectural timeline ranging from medieval walls and half-timbered Tudor townhouses to Georgian mansions and Victorian villas. Salisbury is also a lively, modern town, boasting plenty of bars and restaurants, plus a concentrated cluster of excellent museums.
Welcome to Stonehenge, Britain’s most iconic archaeological site. This compelling ring of monolithic stones has been attracting a steady stream of pilgrims, poets, and philosophers for the last 5000 years and is still a mystical, ethereal place – a haunting echo from Britain’s forgotten past, and a reminder of those who once walked the ceremonial avenues across Salisbury Plain.
Overflowing with vistas, temples, and follies, Stourhead is landscape gardening at its finest. The Palladian house has some fine Chippendale furniture and paintings by Claude and Gaspard Poussin, but it’s a sideshow to the magnificent 18th-century gardens, which spread out across the valley. Stourhead is off the B3092, 8 miles south of Frome.
Half ancestral mansion, half wildlife park, Longleat was transformed into Britain’s first safari park in 1966, turning Capability Brown’s landscaped grounds into an amazing drive-through zoo populated by a menagerie of animals more at home in the African wilderness than the fields of Wiltshire. Longleat also has a throng of attractions, including a historic house, narrow-gauge railway, Doctor Who exhibit, Postman Pat village, a pets’ corner, and a butterfly garden. Longleat was the first English stately home to open its doors to the public.
With its geranium-covered cottages and higgledy-piggledy rooftops, pockets of the medieval village of Lacock seem to have been preserved in mid-19th-century aspic. The village has been in the hands of the National Trust since 1944, and in many places is remarkably free of modern development – there are no telephone poles or electric street lights and the main car park on the outskirts keeps it largely traffic-free. Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular location for costume dramas and feature films – the village and its abbey pop up in the Harry Potter films, Downton Abbey, The Other Boleyn Girl, and BBC adaptations of Wolf Hall, Moll Flanders, and Pride and Prejudice.
While the tour buses head straight for Stonehenge, prehistoric purists make for the massive stone circle at Avebury. Though it lacks the dramatic trilithons of its sister site across Salisbury Plain, Avebury is just as rewarding to visit. It’s bigger and older, and a large section of the village is actually inside the stones – footpaths wind around them, allowing you to really soak up the extraordinary atmosphere. Avebury also boasts an encircling landscape that’s rich in prehistoric sites and a manor house where restored rooms span five completely different eras.
EXMOOR NATIONAL PARK
Exmoor is more than a little addictive. Even when you get home, your mind could well return to its broad, russet views. In the middle sits the higher moor, an empty, expansive, other-worldly landscape of tawny grasses and huge skies. Here picturesque Exford makes an ideal village base.
The southern gateway to Exmoor National Park, Dulverton sits at the base of the Barle Valley near the confluence of two key drivers: the Exe and Barle. A traditional country town, it’s home to a collection of gun sellers, fishing-tackle stores, and gift shops, and makes an attractive edge-of-moor base.
Tucked into the banks of the River Exe at the heart of Exmoor, Exford is a delightful medley of cottages and slate-roofed houses clustered around a village green.
Centered on a scarlet-walled castle and a medieval yarn market, Dunster is one of Exmoor’s oldest villages, a tempting tangle of cobbled streets, babbling brooks, and packhorse bridges.
The coastal village of Porlock is one of the prettiest on the Exmoor coast; the huddle of thatched cottages lining its main street is framed on one side by the sea, and on the other by houses clinging to the steeply sloping hills behind. Winding lanes lead to the charismatic breakwater of Porlock Weir, 2 miles to the west, with its arching pebble beach and striking coastal views.
Tucked in amid precipitous cliffs and steep, tree-lined slopes, these twin coastal towns are a landscape painter’s dream. Bustling Lynmouth sits beside the shore, a busy harbor lined with pubs and souvenir shops. On the clifftop, Lynton feels much more genteel and well-to-do. A cliffside railway links the two: it’s powered by the rushing West Lyn river, which feeds numerous cascades and waterfalls nearby
Devon offers freedom. Its rippling, beach fringed landscape is studded with historic homes, vibrant cities, and wild, wild moors. So here you can ditch schedules and to-do lists and hike a rugged coast path, take a scenic boat trip, or get lost in hedge-lined lanes that aren’t even on your map.
Well-heeled and comfortable, Exeter exudes evidence of its centuries-old role as the spiritual and administrative heart of Devon. The city’s Gothic cathedral presides over pockets of cobbled streets; medieval and Georgian buildings and fragments of the Roman city stretch out all around. A snazzy new shopping center brings bursts of the modern, thousands of university students ensure a buzzing nightlife, and the vibrant quayside acts as a launchpad for cycling or kayaking trips. Throw in some stylish places to stay and eat and you have a relaxed but lively base for explorations.
It may face the English Channel, rather than the Med, but the coast around Torquay has long been dubbed the English Riviera; famous for palm trees, piers, and russet-red cliffs. At first glance, Torquay itself is the quintessential English seaside resort in flux, beloved by both the coach-tour crowd and stag- and hen-party animals. But a mild microclimate and an azure circle of bay have also drawn a smarter set and Torquay now competes with foodie-hub Dartmouth for fine eateries. The area also boasts unique attractions that range from an immense aviary to a surreal model village. Add an Agatha Christie connection, fishing boats, and steam trains, and it all adds up to some grand days out beside the sea.
An appealing, pastel-painted tumbling of fishermen’s cottages leads down to Brixham’s horseshoe harbor where arcades and gift shops coexist with winding streets, brightly colored boats, and one of England’s busiest fishing ports. Although picturesque, Brixham is far from a neatly packaged resort, and its brand of gritty charm offers an insight into work-a-day life along Devon’s coast.
Home to the nation’s most prestigious naval college, the riverside town of Dartmouth is surely one of Devon’s prettiest, awash with pastel-colored, punch-drunk 17th- and 18th-century buildings leaning at crazy angles, and a picturesque harbor stacked with yachts and clanking boat masts. It’s distinctly chic these days, but it’s still a working port, and the triple draw of regular riverboat cruises, the art-deco house of Coleton Fishacre and Agatha Christie’s former home at Greenway make Dartmouth all but irresistible. Dartmouth is on the west side of the Dart estuary. It’s linked to the village of Kingswear on the east bank by fleets of car and foot ferries, providing a key transport link to Torquay.
Totnes has such a reputation for being an alternative that local jokers wrote ‘twinned with Narnia’ under the town sign. For decades famous as Devon’s hippie haven, ecoconscious Totnes also became Britain’s first ‘transition town’ in 2005, when it began trying to wean itself off a dependence on oil. Sustainability aside, Totnes boasts a tempting vineyard, a gracious Norman castle, and a mass of fine Tudor buildings, and is the springboard for a range of adrenaline sports.
For decades, some have dismissed Plymouth as sprawling and ugly, pointing to architectural eyesores and sometimes palpable poverty. But the arrival of high-profile chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Mitch Tonks, and ongoing waterfront regeneration begs a rethink. Yes, the city, an important Royal Naval port, suffered WWII bomb damage, and today it is still sometimes more gritty than pretty, but Plymouth is also packed with possibilities: swim in an art-deco lido; tour a gin distillery; learn to kayak; roam an aquarium; take a boat trip across the bay; then see a top-class theatre show and party till dawn. And the ace in the pack? Plymouth Hoe – a cafe-dotted, wide grassy headland offering captivating views of a boat-studded bay.
Dartmoor is Devon’s wild heart. Covering 368 sq miles, this vast national park feels like it’s tumbled straight out of a Tolkien tome, with its honey-colored heaths, moss smothered boulders, tinkling streams, and eerie granite hills (known locally as tors). On sunny days, Dartmoor is idyllic: ponies wander at will and sheep graze beside the road, making for a cinematic location used to memorable effect in Steven Spielberg’s WWI epic War Horse. But Dartmoor is also the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and in sleeting rain and swirling mists you’ll understand why; the moor morphs into a bleak wilderness where tales of a phantom hound can seem very real indeed. It’s a haven for outdoor activities, including hiking, cycling, riding, climbing, and white-water kayaking, and there are plenty of rustic pubs and country-house hotels to hunker down in when the fog rolls in.
While surfers in Cornwall head for Newquay, bros and bro-ettes in Devon make a beeline for Croyde. Devon’s north coast receives essentially the same swell as Cornwall’s, but the scene is a lot less brash than around Newquay: here, the thatched cottages and pubs of the old village sit happily alongside the surf shops and wetsuit-hire firms. It’s a fun, friendly mix, and ideal for some seaside fun.
If there’s anywhere that sums up the faded grandeur of the British seaside, it’s surely Ilfracombe. Framed by precipitous cliffs, elegant townhouses, crazy golf greens, and a promenade strung with twinkling lights, it’s a place that sometimes seems pickled in a bygone age. But look beneath the surface and you’ll find there’s another side to Ilfracombe – it’s a favorite hang-out for the artist Damien Hirst, who’s donated a controversial statue to the seafront, and is now home to some intriguing eateries. St-Tropez it may not be, but Ilfracombe deserves a look.
Clovelly is the quintessential, picture-postcard Devon village. Its cottages cascade down cliffs to meet a curving crab claw of a harbor that is lined with lobster pots and set against a deep-blue sea. A clutch of impossibly picturesque inns and B&Bs makes it even harder to leave.
With its pastoral landscape of hedgerows, fields, and hummocked hills, sleepy Somerset is the very picture of the rural English countryside and makes the perfect escape from the bustle of Bath and the hustle of Bristol. Things certainly move at a drowsier pace around these parts – it’s a place to wander, ponder, and drink in the sights at your own pace. The cathedral city of Wells is an atmospheric base for exploring the limestone caves and gorges around Cheddar, while the hippie haven of Glastonbury is handy for venturing on to the wetlands of the Somerset Levels and the high hills of the Quantocks.
In Wells, small is beautiful. This is England’s smallest city, and only qualifies for the title thanks to a magnificent medieval cathedral, which sits beside the grand Bishop’s Palace – the official residence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells since the 12th century. Medieval buildings and cobbled streets radiate out from the cathedral green to a marketplace that has been the bustling heart of Wells for some nine centuries (Wednesday and Saturday are market days). Film buffs might also recognize it from the hit British comedy Hot Fuzz – the film’s final shoot-out was filmed here.
Ley lines converge, white witches convene and every shop is filled with the aroma of smoldering joss sticks in good old Glastonbury, the southwest’s undisputed capital of alternative culture. Now famous for its annual musical mudfest, held on Michael Eavis’ farm in nearby Pilton, Glastonbury has a much more ancient past: the town’s iconic tor was an important pagan site and is rumored by some to be the mythical Isle of Avalon, King Arthur’s last resting place. It’s also allegedly one of the world’s great spiritual nodes, marking the meeting point of many mystical lines of power – so if you feel the need to get your chakras realigned, this is definitely the place. Whatever the truth of the various legends swirling around Glastonbury, one thing’s for certain – watching the sunrise from the top of the tor is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
You can’t get further west than the ancient Celtic kingdom of Cornwall (or Kernow, as it’s known to Cornish speakers). Blessed with the southwest’s wildest coastline and most breathtakingly beautiful beaches, this proudly independent peninsula has always marched to its own tune. While the staple industries of old – mining, fishing, and farming – have all but disappeared, Cornwall has since reinvented itself as one of the nation’s creative corners. Whether it’s exploring the space-age domes of the Eden Project, sampling the culinary creations of a celebrity chef, or basking on a deserted beach, you’re guaranteed to feel the itch of inspiration. Time to let a little Kernow into your soul. Since 2006, Cornwall’s historic mining areas have formed part of the UK’s newest Unesco World Heritage Site, the Cornwall & West Devon Mining Landscape.
Just a scant few miles across the Devon border, Bude is a breezy seaside town with a bevy of impressive beaches, as well as a lovely seawater lido built in the 1930s. The town itself isn’t much to look at, but the stunning coastline on its doorstep makes it worthy of a stop.
Perched on the cliffs above a cluster of white-sand beaches, and packed with enough pubs, bars, and dodgy clubs to give Ibiza a run for its money, Newquay has become the summer venue of choice for beer boys, beach bums, and surf addicts alike, all of whom descend on the town in their droves in summer. Newquay is also the capital of Cornish surfing, and if you’re looking to learn how to brave the waves, this is the place to do it.
Even if you’ve seen St Ives many times before, it’s still hard not to be dazzled as you gaze across its improbably pretty jumble of slate roofs, church towers, and turquoise bays. Once a busy pilchard harbor, St Ives later became the center of Cornwall’s arts scene in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the town is still an artistic center, with numerous galleries and craft shops lining its winding cobbled streets, as well as the southwestern outpost of the renowned Tate Museum.
Beyond St Ives, the coastline gets wilder and emptier as you near Cornwall’s tip at Land’s End, the westernmost point of mainland England, where the coal-black cliffs plunge into the pounding surf, and the views stretch all the way to the Isles of Scilly on a clear day. Look for the historic Longships Lighthouse, on a reef 1.25 miles out to sea. From Land’s End, follow the coast path west to the secluded cove of Nanjizal Bay, or east to the old harbor of Sennen, which overlooks the glorious beach of Whitesand Bay, the area’s most impressive stretch of sand.
Overlooking the majestic sweep of Mount’s Bay, the old harbor of Penzance has a salty, sea-blown charm that feels altogether more authentic than many of Cornwall’s polished-up ports. Its streets and shopping arcades still feel real and a touch ramshackle, and there’s nowhere better for a windy day walk than the town’s seafront Victorian promenade. Along the way look out for the elegant sight of Jubilee Pool, the town’s lovely outdoor lido, recently restored. The nearby harbor of Newlyn is still home to Cornwall’s largest fishing fleet, and the harbor is filled with bobbing boats of every shape and description.
Once notorious as a smugglers’ haven and an ill-famed graveyard for ships, the rugged Lizard Peninsula offers Cornwall’s wildest coastal panoramas. Wind-lashed in winter, in summer its heaths and cliffs blaze with wildflowers, and its beaches and coves are perfect for a bracing swim. The main town is Helston, famous for its annual street party, Flora Day, held on 8 May. Pretty villages are dotted along the peninsula’s coastline: the old harbor of Coverack, the beaches of Mullion, and the idyllic thatched-cottage cove of Cadgwith are well worth a visit. Towards Lizard Point lie the dramatic satellite dishes of Goonhilly Downs and the beautiful National Trust beach of Kynance Cove, which has to be one of Cornwall’s most photogenic beaches. Along the peninsula’s northern edge runs Helford River, lined by creeks and inlets that famously inspired Daphne du Maurier’s smuggling yarn, Frenchman’s Creek. Several local companies offer kayaking tours.
Few seaside towns in Cornwall boast such an arresting location as Falmouth, overlooking the broad Fal River as it empties into the English Channel. Backed by green hills and blue water, Falmouth is crisscrossed by cobbled lanes, salty old pubs, and trendy cafes. It makes an ideal base for exploring Cornwall’s south coast and has a wealth of bars and bistros, a trio of beaches, and the nation’s foremost maritime museum. Though it’s now mainly supported by students at Falmouth University in nearby Penryn, the town made its fortune during the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to lucrative maritime trade – the deepwater offshore is the third deepest natural harbor in the world, and the town grew rich when tea clippers, trading vessels, and mail packets stopped here to unload their cargoes. Falmouth is still an important center for ship repairs – you can look over the dockyard cranes as you head to Pendennis Point.
Centered on its three-spired 19th-century cathedral, Truro is Cornwall’s capital city. Once a busy river port and one of Cornwall’s five Stannary towns (where tin was assayed and stamped for export), these days it’s a busy commercial city, with a lively center dominated by the usual coffee shops and chain stores. Remnants of the city’s elegant Georgian past can be seen on Lemon St and Walsingham Place.
In many ways, Fowey feels like Padstow’s south-coast sister; a workaday port turned well-heeled holiday town, with a tumble of pastel-colored houses, portside pubs, and tiered terraces overlooking the wooded banks of the Fowey River. The town’s wealth was founded on the export of china clay from the St Austell pits, but it’s been an important port since Elizabethan times, and later became the adopted home of the thriller writer Daphne du Maurier, who used the nearby house at Menabilly Barton as the inspiration for Rebecca. Today it’s an attractive and increasingly upmarket town, handy for exploring Cornwall’s southeastern corner.
Tucked into the long curve of coast between the Fowey River and Plymouth Sound, Looe is half historic fishing port, half bucket-and-spade resort. Split into East and West Looe and linked by a historic arched bridge, it’s a pleasant base for exploring Cornwall’s southeastern reaches, and has some lovely beaches nearby.
It can’t quite boast the wild majesty of Dartmoor, but Bodmin Moor has a bleak beauty all of its own. Pockmarked with heaths and granite hills, including Rough Tor and Cornwall’s highest point, Brown Willy, it’s a desolate place that works on the imagination; for years there have been reported sightings of the Beast of Bodmin, a large, black catlike creature, although no one’s ever managed to snap a decent picture. Apart from the hills, the moor’s main landmark is Jamaica Inn, made famous by Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name – although it’s disappointingly been modernized since the author’s day.
ISLES OF SCILLY
While only 28 miles west of the mainland, in many ways the Isles of Scilly feel like a different world. Life on this archipelago of around 140 tiny islands seems to have changed in decades: there are no traffic jams, no supermarkets, no multinational hotels, and the only noise pollution comes from breaking waves and cawing gulls. That’s not to say that Scilly is behind the times – you’ll find a mobile signal and broadband on the main islands – but life ticks along at its own island pace. Renowned for glorious beaches, there are few places better to escape the outside world. Only five islands are inhabited: St Mary’s is the largest, followed by Tresco, while only a few hardy souls remain on Bryher, St Martin’s, and St Agnes. Regular ferry boats run between all five islands. Unsurprisingly, summer is by far the busiest time. Many businesses shut down completely in winter