As we drove the Danbury Surf across the impressive Tamar Suspension Bridge into Cornwall, we enjoyed a great view of Brunel’s beautiful wrought-iron railway bridge, spanning the mighty river beside us. We got our £1.50 toll ready, then discovered that you only pay to leave Cornwall at Saltash, what a good start.
The Tamar Valley is beautiful up-river; a steep-sided gorge, thickly wooded, with villages built in the local stone. We’d return to discover more of the Tamar’s secrets, but we’d been driving all day so we pressed on to Looe’s pretty Tregoad Park campsite.
Enjoying the harbour lights.
We drove into Looe for a meal at dusk, enjoying Doom Bar, a delicious beer from St Austell. As we ate in the Harbour Moon, lights popped on all around Looe harbour and in the houses up on the cliffs on each side of the river. It was a magical setting for a walk: we wandered towards the harbour mouth and then gasped at the silhouette of a huge seal, reclining on the rocks in the dark. He didn’t move, so we approached and discovered it was if fact a lifelike bronze statue of Nelson, the much-loved Looe Island seal who’d once turned his back on the wilds and chosen this as his home.
The next morning we drove back into Looe, past Nelson the seal, to Hannafore Point. You can park on the seafront for free here, with a great view of Looe Island. It’s now a nature reserve, teeming with life, including grey seals. There are boat trips and guided walks, but we were happy just to explore the beach, make lunch and go for a walk along the cliff path.
Taking a train back in time
We’d wanted to visit Morwellham Quay - the World Heritage port, copper mine and open-air museum in the Tamar Valley, ever since it was featured in the BBC’s Edwardian Farm series. Our second day was overcast: perfect for it! If you want a meaningful collision with history, this spot will do it. Malc and I walked happily into Ruth’s cottage, as featured in the television series, admired the pumpkins growing up the wall of the Edwardian greenhouse, then followed signs to the mine.
We piled into bench seats in the cages of two open train trucks, with about 20 others, listened to safety warnings, then held on tightly as it rattled off down the wooded valley, plunging into the copper mine. Our guide scandalised us with spotlit tableaux and tales of miners, some only ten years old, walking five miles to work, then mining for eight hours. The number of jobs available declined when cheaper copper was imported from America, so the mine owners switched to arsenic production, which was no better for the workers. Miners had a short, hard life in those days and it made us feel privileged to live in the modern world.
Chilled in every way by our history lesson, we warmed up with hot soup in Morwellham’s Inn. “Rope-making next!” said Malc, enthusiastically, so we joined another couple in a barn, smiling at the costumed Edwardian schoolmistress teaching her charges close by. We’d expected a demonstration, but were soon roped in (literally), twisting strands of hemp, then having a tug-of-war to stretch it, so it would hold the twist. Malc came away with a souvenir piece of the rope. Next, we went to the Edwardian shop and bought sweets from a jar, then had a look over the boat that once took the copper ore down-river for processing.
Blue sky the next morning lured us three miles east to Seaton beach. It’s one of those quiet spots where people walk their dogs, and a mum and her little tot had built a big sandcastle out of the grey volcanic sand. It’s accessible to all, with good parking and no steep steps.
We brewed up in our campervan and used the posh loos, while those without ‘vans took a gantry bridge across the River Seaton and had coffee in a higgledy-piggledy beach café. This wasn’t my perfect beach, so we drove east.
Suddenly we were both saying “Wow!” repeatedly, as we found ourselves on a spectacular drive along a narrow cliff top road, past naval firing ranges at Portwrinkle and on to Finnygook beach, named after the wreckers of old. At last we’d found the perfect Cornish beaches of my imagination: Whitsand Bay, Sharrow Point and Finnygook, complete with white sand, mighty rocks and surf.
Discovering Wreckers’ Beach
We parked next to the ghoulish sign for Finnygook café and followed a steep path and open steel steps down the cliffs, past the lifeguard’s lookout hut and pillboxes, to the beach. One couple turned back because their dog’s paws could have slipped through the steps.
We could see Rame Head on the peninsula to the east and we decided to explore right to the edge of the Tamar. The National Trust-owned Antony House looked appealing, but the sun was still shining; so we went to Cawsand, a quiet river quay beneath a naval fort, opposite bustling Plymouth. Luckily, Malc spotted a sign for Rhodri Cornish Clotted Cream Teas; he has a nose for tearooms! So we watched the passenger ferry arrive on the beach below and enjoyed our first ever Cornish cream tea together. It cost £7.50, but there were two big scones, so we shared it. Following the river inland, we passed the Edgecombe Country Park and Cremyll, another river quay. Then we discovered a beautiful hidden spot: St Germans Quay on the Lynher River, which was a viaduct carrying trains between Devon and Cornwall. What a peaceful spot it was, in the evening light. We headed back to Looe for the night and ate in the van.
We’d seen photos of the postcard pretty village of Polperro, so we were keen to visit this sheltered fishing village next. We knew that vehicles were banned from Polperro, except delivery vans and residents’ cars so we parked in the maion car park and walked down the valley to the harbour. There is a ‘tram’, but we enjoyed the walk past pretty cottages by the stream. Soon we were in gift shop territory, with many opportunities to buy tea towels, Cornish clotted cream fudge, shortbread, crafts, paintings and so on. “Later…” we said to each other, unwilling to burden ourselves with shopping so soon. Polperro’s narrow streets were bustling with people and the tide was out. Gulls hopped around the boats and the air smelt of the sea. We walked out along the harbour wall, then realised we couldn’t cross to Polperro Heritage Museum and café from there, so we walked further out, climbing and scrambling up the cliffs at the river mouth. Unlike the river Tamar or Looe, this river is only navigable within Polperro itself, but its small scale is part of the charm. Buildings jut out at odd angles and there are stone steps going up behind a pub to the cliff. Time flew as we explored, and we bought souvenirs, a Cornish Pasty and a Cornish crab.
Our first taste of Cornwall had given us an appetite – and the next day we looked forward to heading west, to Fowey.