Cream of English counties

By Ivor Baddiel, July 9, 2008
Follow The JC on Twitter

A cottage holiday in beautiful North Cornwall has more to offer than just cream teas

 

The path down to Tintagel Castle on the North Cornwall coast cuts down through cliffs to a tumultuous sea which thrashes against impassive rocks and gaping caves, one of which is meant to be the home of legendary wizard, Merlin.

It’s an impressive landscape and, as one approaches the supposed birthplace and home of King Arthur, it’s possible to imagine all manner of magic and mystery.

Is that a voice I can hear calling to me from the babbling brook? What manner of potion was cooked up with the strange purple flowers dotted along the way? Then, having wound down to the bottom, ready for the steep climb up to the actual castle, there is a sign, which reads as follows:

“This castle was built at least 500 years after a real or fictitious ‘Arthur’ fought the Saxons away to the East in the 6th century. An Arthur may never have come to Tintagel, but it was probable that at about that time Tintagel was the stronghold of the kings of Cornwall.”

In an instance the myth of the castle is shattered, the rug has been well and truly pulled from under its feet, as well as the feet of the village’s olde shoppes which sell “magic” trinkets by the truckload. But, it matters not a jot. Tintagel oozes charm; it is a delightful little village, and so what if the only mystery is why so many people believe the load of Tommy rot about King Arthur.

Everything centres on the castle, which, be warned, involves a scarily steep, arduous climb to reach, but it is more than worth it. The well-preserved remains are dotted on both sides of two cliff tops joined by a bridge but the views are stunning. There’s also a worksheet for kids which kept my two admirably amused.

Tintagel was just one highlight of our stay in an area that, as well as selling itself as a land of myth and legend, boasts 60 miles of Atlantic coastline, beautiful beaches and sumptuous countryside, nestled within which are towns and villages that have plenty to offer and, at times, raise “quaint”, to new heights.

Home for the week was a traditional Cornish cottage in Trewarmett on the outskirts of Tintagel. It was a lovely two-bedroomed retreat, seamlessly melding a quiet, dreamy sense of history, with all mod cons.  The kitchen seemed to have been recently refurbished and upstairs, fresh linen and more pipingly hot water than one could possibly require awaited us, so we could bathe and bed down in comfort after a long day’s exploration.

It was also the perfect base from which to explore the region, starting with the beaches. With the weather on the changeable side (how unusual for England), I wouldn’t say we were beach bums for the week, but we did get to three: Polzeath, Rock and Daymer Bay.

Polzeath is by far the most popular and touristy, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a very large beach with a stream running down the middle that provides a marvellous place for the kids to paddle and mess about.

Rock has a reputation for being a bit posh, which in my book is a reason to go and, far from being looked down upon by the yacht club members, I can only report that it is friendly and the beach is magnificent. It is less overrun than Polzeath with the feel of a large oasis, which is what you want from a beach.

However, ask the locals where to head to and they recommend Daymer Bay. And it’s easy to see why. I wouldn’t say it’s undiscovered, but with only one shop and café, numbers are inevitably low. It’s also relatively confined, making the water especially calm. But it doesn’t appear on any maps, so head to Rock and keep your eyes peeled for signs.

If you want more from your holiday than lazing around on a beach, there are a multitude of alternatives and, very high up on the list comes cycling the Camel trail. Some time ago Cornwall County Council converted 11 miles of disused railway beside the River Camel from track to trail, linking the towns of Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow. Motor vehicles are banned, leaving the path free for cyclists, walkers, joggers or even amblers.

Hardier types can attempt the whole thing, but we decided to join at Wadebride and head to Padstow.

However, the trail has become hugely popular. So much so that, having failed to book in advance, our first attempt to hire bikes was a failure.

Second time round, however, we booked; all kinds of bike are available and I went for a tandem with my daughter behind me, whilst my other half pulled our son in a trailer.

Then we were off on a ride that was simply stupendous, not least because it is completely flat, leaving you free to marvel at the sheer beauty of the River Camel and its surrounds. The whole experience really is idyllic; exercise, fresh air, no cars and stunning scenery. What more could you want?

I’ll tell you what; a delightful little harbour town in which to scoff lunch, a bill that Padstow fits perfectly. It is a lovely place, with its shops and cafés set out in horseshoe fashion around the harbour and, of course, one or two of Mr Rick Stein’s establishments. Actually, he has four: chippie, restaurant, deli/pattiserie and  hotel. We sampled the chippie’s fare and our fish and chips were well worth the queue and not overly expensive.

Fully refueled we headed back to Wadebridge, a less quaint town, but home to the area’s cinema — a popular destination when it buckets down.

We also found time during our stay to visit Port Isaac and Boscastle. The latter suffered some £300-million worth of damage when a flash flood swept through in 2004. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and most buildings have been repaired, in particular the visitor’s centre where you can see footage of the flood. The village is very pretty and also has a Museum of Witchcraft, a fascinating curio well worth a visit.

Port Isaac is another little gem tucked away beneath the cliffs. The trick here is to park your car up top and walk down, following the coastal path. The roads become increasingly narrow as you wind down, and, though it is possible to get there by car, I wouldn’t advise it; the walk is easy and very pleasant.

We chose Port Isaac for our traditional cream tea, an unashamed pleasure which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the odd misgivings as to what the clotted cream was doing to my arteries. In general, there’s less to see and do in Port Isaac than in Boscastle, but it has a unique charm and is worth a stroll.

At the end of the day though you can’t fully escape King Arthur, who worked his magic by mystically attracting us to The Arthurian Centre in Slaughterbridge. This somewhat off-the-beaten-track place is a real find. There’s an exhibition, a film and brass-rubbing for children. But, the highlight is undoubtedly a countryside walk and “Grail Trail”, through the archeological site, battlefield and woods and along the banks of the River Camel, where you’ll find nothing less than King Arthur’s stone itself. Okay, so there isn’t a sword embedded in it, and the inscription gives no indication it was anything other than a supporting pillar for some structure that once stood nearby, but hang it all; I believe it.

And ultimately, that’s the charm of the area. It might sell itself on legend, but it’s so beautiful you won’t care if it all turns out to be, well, mythical.

 

Travel facts

Ivor Baddiel and family stayed in Jubilee Cottage, from the Cornish Traditional Cottages portfolio (01208 821 666; www.corncott.com). One week costs from £258 to £630

    Last updated: 3:10pm, September 10 2008