For the late May bank holiday last year we took a road trip down to Cornwall from East Sussex, driving through Thomas Hardy country and Poldark country. One year later, I’ve finally finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the entire Poldark saga, and am ready to relive my holiday.
Our road trip to Cornwall was a less daunting alternative to the complex spaghetti junctions, cliff-edge roads, and steep country lanes that we encountered on our road trip to Snowdonia via Birmingham a few years ago. If you’re inspired by this itinerary, I would recommend that you get an annual National Trust membership. We visited many National Trust properties on this trip, and if you own or rent a car you should consider becoming National Trust members, as you are never far from a National Trust site in England, and many of their sites are only accessible by car. Some sites are best visited as a day’s outing, while others make educational and picturesque pit stops.
From East Sussex to Somerset
We departed from East Sussex for our ultimate destination Cornwall, but the scenery really gets interesting in West Sussex, after you pass Brighton, when you see the chapel of Lancing College, the largest school chapel in the world, which dominates the South Downs National Park landscape. Next, you pass the market town of Arundel, the medieval castle of which you can glimpse from a distance. The drive through Hampshire to Dorset on Day 1 of our trip was the most tedious part of the drive west to Cornwall, and each time 2 highway lanes merge into 1, there was a traffic jam. This added an hour onto Google’s estimated journey time. We broke off from our drive at 2 National Trust properties, refreshed ourselves, and learnt a lot about Thomas Hardy.
Hardy’s Cottage – a National Trust property in Dorchester, Dorset
In this quaint thatched cottage originally built by his grandfather in the late 17th century, the novelist Thomas Hardy grew up with his 3 siblings, parents, and paternal grandmother, fell in love with his home county Dorset which features as the antiquated Wessex in all of his works, and tasted his first success as a writer with his novels Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From The Madding Crowd. Considering the size of the family, it would not have been as pleasant living in the cottage as it was for us admiring its exterior, but as visitors we were pleased to learn how they scrubbed the stone slabs with tea dregs, brushed their teeth with a paste made from chalk and soot, and how Thomas experienced what I call “a Heracles moment” when a snake slithered into his cradle and his mother found them sleeping soundly together, the snake lying atop his baby chest. A believer in fate, he later attributed his love of animals to this moment. Nearby is a hill from where Thomas saw a hanging, a moment that parallels the finale in Tess of the d’Urbervilles when Angel Clare watches Tess being hanged.
Max Gate – a National Trust property in Dorchester, Dorset
Thomas’ first wife Emma, who came from a wealthier family than Thomas, felt the same way as we did about the cottage, and so he designed his own home just 10 miles away, a brick house with the modern facilities of his day, called Max Gate. His family being builders, bricklayers and masons, it was a logical step for him to train as an architect, and he would have been known as a respected architect if he had not dedicated his life to writing. Here Thomas lived in a sort of ménage à trois with Emma and a helpmeet, Florence, an adoring fan of his novels who inserted herself into his life by befriending Emma and creating a secretarial role for herself to assist Thomas. This turned out so well that couple grew more enamoured of Florence and less enamoured of each other, and Thomas married Florence after Emma’s death. However, it was a bittersweet victory for her, as Emma became in death the muse that inspired Thomas’ most poignant poetry. In one of the most romantic gestures I have ever encountered, he had on a desk in one of his studies a perpetual calendar, which he fixed at the date of Monday 7th March, the day he first met Emma in Cornwall.
The Haymaker Inn – a B&B in Chard, Somerset
Look out for haybales in fancy dress on the way to Chard! We saw coverlets in the design of a sheep and a pig. Chard is home to James Gillingham, a craftsman who became the principal artificial limbs fitter to the Admiralty in WWI, and John Stringfellow, tho conducted the first powered flight with an unmanned vehicle in 1848. On the western outskirts of the village laid our resting spot for the night, the Haymaker Inn: an affordable and comfortable B&B with a resident ghost called Victoria, an 18th century barmaid over whom two men fought a duel and killed each other. We were simply looking for a convenient pit stop en route to Cornwall, and yet we enjoyed our stay here so much that we were looking forward to our night’s stay on the way back home before we had even reached our holiday destination!
From Somerset to Cornwall
We were chasing the last patch of sunshine and dry weather on Day 2 of our trip, as the clouds began to gather during our break at Jamaica Inn in Bodmin Moor. On our drive through the moor, also a National Park, we saw lots of pools either side of us, which were less like lakes and more like ponds; not how I imagined the Arthurian Dozmary Pool where the Lady of the Lake was said to have lived. Dozmary Pool itself is not viewable from the A30, but if it is anything like the other pools we did see from the highway I reckon it wouldn’t take much to drain the ‘lake’ and find Excalibur.
Jamaica Inn – a pub and hotel in Bodmin Moor, Cornwall
Now a far cry from the sinister haunt of the smuggling days depicted in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn, this family friendly resort-pub in Bodmin Moor has a photo corner, a gift shop, a museum about Daphne du Maurier and smuggling, and a packed activity schedule that features guided tours, murder mysteries, and ghost hunts. From here, you can hike to Dozmary Pool and you can bike the Camel Trail to Padstow to dine at Rick Stein’s flagship restaurant. We arrived by chance on a Mark’s Ark day, and I hugged an albino yellow Burmese python.
Queer Cornish place names
Making a polite escape from the tarantula that was up next for holding, we chased the single bright patch in the otherwise thunderstorm-grey sky down to Kynance Cove on the Lizard Peninsula. We drove past Launceston, Bodmin, Indian Queens, Truro, and Helston, home to the largest helicopter base in Europe. Indian Queens is named for Pocahontas, who is said to have stopped in the village on her tour of England – however, it is more likely that she never set foot in Cornwall. There was a place near Bodmin called Chybucca, which sounded like Chewbacca from Star Wars, and another place called Warleggan, like George Warleggan from Winston Graham’s Poldark novels.
Kynance Cove – a National Trust property on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall
We parked in a field next to some cows and a calf, and walked down to the cove. The landscape was deep green and gray landscape as one would expect of the Atlantic coast of the British Isles. We had a cream tea there, whilst sheltering from the rain and reading Poldark novels. Ironically it was here that I read in Warleggan about the paucity of fair weather in Cornwall in May, which is “wet and windy” and Demelza (the heroine) hadn’t seen sunshine in May for years. Up until then I had imagined that a typical day in Cornwall would be spent lying in the sun on a sandy beach. A plump, no-doubt cream-tea-nourished robin ventured inside the café to peck at our crumbs.
Porthleven – one of the prettiest harbours in Cornwall
In this most southerly port in Great Britain and the English home of one of the Dambusters, Guy Penrose Gibson, is a large density of award-winning restaurants. Don’t think, as we made the mistake of doing, that you can eat at one on Sunday without booking in advance though. If you do, I’d say that it is still worth a stop by even without a table booking. There are boutique shops and restaurants housed in retired salt cellars and china clay stores, and children jump from atop the harbour walls in their wetsuits into the water for a thrill. Also, the Costcutter store by the parking lot is great for souvenir shopping and stocks Cornish Fairings, different types of Cornish cheese – Cornish Yarg, Helford White, Cornish Smuggler, Miss Muffett – and cushions in the form of pasties.
Turk’s Head Inn – a pub serving Cornish fare in Penzance, Cornwall
The oldest pub in Penzance is said to date from 1233 when Turks invaded Penzance from Jerusalem after being excommunicated by Pope Callixtus. It was the 1st pub in England to be named the Turk’s Head, and its most famous landlord was Thomas Holloway, founder of the Royal Holloway College, at the time a pioneering institute of higher education for women. We dined in the 17th century old cellar, where contraband was unloaded after traveling up the Smuggler’s Tunnel (behind a wooden door). The first floor had a priest hole and the second a fisherman’s loft, and there used to be a cell at the back of the building to lock up drunken troublemakers. After a half-hour wait – we were lucky to find a table anywhere that evening – we had a meal of hake on glass noodles in crab broth with bonito flakes and megrim sole with Cornish new potatoes, called “Cornish earlies”. We drank Betty Stoggs Bitter, a Skinner’s Ale that is brewed in Truro.
Keigwin House – a B&B in Penzance, Cornwall
This B&B is situated just out of the centre of Penzance, next to Penlee Park where the works of the Newlyn group of artists are exhibited, with the seafront at the end of the street. It has homely rooms with an exciting box full of local sweet treats – Cornish fairings, Cornish hot chocolate – and ample free street parking space all around. I liked their method of ordering breakfast: on a slip of paper similar to the ones we use to order dimsum.
Cape Cornwall – a National Trust property in Penwith, Cornwall
Until the first Ordnance Survey made 200 years ago, Cape Cornwall was believed to be the most westerly point in Cornwall (it’s actually Land’s End). It has been protected since Heinz (of baked beans and ketchup fame) bought the land to gift to the National Trust. We headed to Cape Cornwall in the morning of Day 3 in thick fog. Instead of the dolphins, seals, and even a basking shark that you might see on a clear day if you were lucky, we saw only white. We called it a wrecking day.
Levant Mine – a National Trust property in Penwith, Cornwall
We arrived just in time for the guided tour at 11am. This was just as well as we had a better understanding of Cornish mining by the time we visited the prettier Botallack Mine, which since the BBC aired Poldark is known more for the scenery. The man-engine at Levant Mine, which raised and lowered miners in a shaft, was the longest-serving man-engine in Cornwall until the disaster on 20th October that killed 31 miners and ended the era of man-engines there. Miners worked up to 314 fathoms (equivalent to a third of a mile) deep so the man-engine was a godsend for those who previously had to get to work by climbing lots and lots of ladders. The man-engine hasn’t been preserved, but there is a beam-engine that has been conserved by ‘the Greasy Gang’ and is still being operated today to let you hear the sounds of the steam and the turning of the water wheel that miners would have heard as the copper and ore were being hauled up. Cornish miners were renowned internationally for their skill, and were specialists at digging tunnels out into sea.
Botallack – a National Trust property in Penwith, Cornwall
After the tour at Levant Mine, we walked the 20 minutes along the coast to Botallack, where we saw the cliff-side mines and the arsenic calcination tunnel where the by-product of tin ore refining was collected. Sadly, conditions down the tin mines were so unhealthy that tin miners had a shorter lifespan on average than the collectors of poisonous arsenic. Buy a pasty at Levant Mine before you set off and eat your miner’s lunch on the walk to Botallack, since by the time we arrived at Botallack they had sold out of pasties. Our walk to Botallack was in brilliant sunshine, which turned the ocean a rich azure, but the clouds returned on our walk back to Levant Mine.
Penzance – the regional business centre and birthplace of Humphry Davy
We surrendered to the taciturn weather that day and instead of hill-walking to see the megalithic quoits, we returned to Penzance. We strolled down one of the longest promenades in the country, spotted St. Michael’s Mount illuminated by sunshine from heaven as if by divine command, took a photo of the gold postbox dedicated to Helen Glover, gold medallist at the London 2012 Olympics, and watched seashell collectors at play from Ross Bridge, getting another dose of Poldark. We attempted to drive to Mousehole through Newlyn, but the roads became so steep and narrow after Newlyn that we did not make it down into Mousehole harbour. For supper we dined at seafood and lager specialist Blacks, where we paired our seafood platter with Polgoon white wine recommended on the English wine week menu.
Lizard Peninsula – the most southerly point in Britain, with a National Trust carpark
Our first port of call on Day 4 was the Lizard Lighthouse. First built in 1619 against the local people’s wishes – the locals benefited from the spoils of the shipwrecks that the new lighthouse prevented – it claims to be the largest lighthouse station in the world – the building, grounds and network considered – and also to have been the inspiration for the Two Towers in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As impressive as this sounds, their emergency lightbulb for the huge lantern is just an ordinary household lightbulb. Don’t leave without buying an ice cream in the gift shop as it comes topped with a chocolate lighthouse! We then shared a pasty as big as a plate in the most southerly café in Britain, and ordered a heavy cake to take away. Outside, there were binoculars mounted on tripods, looking out to the English Channel. They’re not the equipment of private individuals but are actually fixed by volunteers of the National Trust, to help us spot the local wildlife, so don’t be shy and go up to a binocular to have a look! We saw a grey seal lying on and offshore rock. Don’t do what I did and move the binoculars though – I thought we had to use the binoculars to find the wildlife ourselves – otherwise the volunteers will have to redirect them again.
St. Michael’s Mount – where Jack cut down the beanstalk and killed the giant
The weather had not improved, so we abandoned all hope of sunbathing in Kynance Cove, and headed to St. Michael’s Mount before it shut. The causeway was open, so we walked to the part-time island, past children rockpooling and crab-hunting, making it just in time for the last entry at 16:15. Up, up we walked, past the well where the Giant who lived at the top of the beanstalk is said to lie and a heart-shaped rock that’s also said to be the heart of the Giant – though it’s smaller than a human heart – until we reached the house of the St. Aubyn family. We didn’t have enough time to truly appreciate the house, but a highlight was the suit of samurai armour in its armoury.
Rick Stein’s restaurant in Porthleven – book half a day in advance
We finally ate at Rick Stein’s restaurant on our last night in Cornwall, which shortly afterward suffered a fire. We ordered from their set menu: my Mum had mackerel with pickled rhubarb on little gem leaves to start and mussels in white wine broth for her main, while I had Amritsari fish to start and Goan cod curry for my main; I tried a bit of my Mum’s dessert of chocolate pavé with peanut powder and salted caramel sauce. I would recommend her menu choices over mine, as they were more delicate in flavour.
From Cornwall to Somerset
Day 5 of our trip was a day of many wrong turns. A road block in Penzance meant that we had to exit the town the long way round. Our journey to St. Austell was also poorly marked, with us missing the last, crucial roundabout exit because it was signposted ‘football ground’ instead of the more appropriate ‘Eden Project’. The approach from the east may have been better signposted.
The Eden Project – Cornwall’s biggest (and most poorly signposted?) attraction
Our first thought upon arriving at the Eden Project was: “this is the largest car parking space we have even seen in the UK”. There were numbered sub-zones within top-level zones named after many different fruits – we parked in plum zone 2. We therefore expected a huge crowd and ticket queue, but this was not the case. We explored the outdoor gardens, then had a saffron bun each in the food hall, washed down with Pukka echinacea tea – there’s a Pukka tea stand just outside the food hall that educates you on the different types of tea, where they come from, and their benefits. The saffron bun was the texture of pannetone and very moreish. Afterwards, we explored the biomes for which the Eden Project is famous, and sampled a cup of baobab smoothie in the rainforest biome. While the rainforest biome was more fun to explore – there’s a ‘cloud bridge’ where you can experience the sensation of being in the misty rainforest canopy – the mediterranean biome had my favourite plant of the day, the kangaroo paw. Elsewhere there were half term retro games in the arena, and a giant egg sculpture with a fibonacci pattern in the exhibition building. We took the road train back up to the entrance hall, and bought a bottle of Eden wheat beer as a souvenir. As we drove out of St. Austell, heading for the Haymaker Inn in Somerset, we passed what looked like mini volcanoes; these are the mounds of waste from the clay pits that used to dot the landscape. The Eden Project is actually a repurposed clay pit.
From Somerset to East Sussex
After a long drive on the longest continuous road (the A30) we’d ever been on in the UK – our SatNav the day before said “follow the road for 75 miles” – my Mum needed a break. I ialso needed a break after being given a fright by the TV in our hotel room turning on suddenly as I was reading Poldark in bed; it turned on to the Horror channel, of all channels! Apparently the TV was slightly faulty, and it probably wasn’t Victoria the ghost. Anyway, our plan for the day was to drive down to the coast and along Chesil Beach on the way back home. This we did, stopping once on a layby from where we got a panorama of two-thirds of Chesil Beach, and driving through the quaint village of Abbotsbury with its palomino stone cottages.
Cogden Beach – with a National Trust carpark
The beach here, just east of Burton Bradstock, is tranquil as it is harder to get to. We sat here for half an hour, I skimmed a few stones, then we walked along the path where the pebbles meet the grassy slopes, amid sea kale and sea pinks. Pebbles on this stretch of Chesil Beach are mid-sized.
Burton Bradstock – with a National Trust carpark
We came here primarily to use the toilet, but then lingered here. From the headland here, you can see a stretch of the western end of Chesil Beach. You can also dine on lobster at the Hive Beach Café, one of the premier seafood eateries in the Dorset. Pebbles on this stretch of Chesil Beach are large and the waters fairly calm.
Portland Beach – with a visitor centre and a departure point for boat trips to the lagoon
Here at the easternmost section of Chesil Beach, the pebbles are small and smooth, and the waves tall and loud. Nearby is a lagoon that’s only accesible by boat tour as it’s a wildlife protection zone; look inside the visitor centre however, and you will see a wildlife webcam. We saw terns incubating their eggs, right atop the pebbles.
Food that feature in Poldark
What we found and ate:
- Cornish scones and clotted cream
- Cornish pasties
- Heavy cake
- Saffron buns
What we failed to find:
- Cornish splits
- Stargazey pie