Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean from the very southwestern corner of the UK, Cornwall is one of the country's most popular tourist destinations and the ancient Celtic kingdom is blessed with some of the most rugged and staggeringly picturesque coastline in the whole of Europe. Mile upon mile of golden sands compliment the skeletal shells of the mines which were at the forefront of the lucrative Cornish tin mining industry create the picture of the county which most people in the UK are familiar with, but Cornwall overflows with so much more than just its beaches and industrial heritage. Dreamy fishing hamlets still in operation showcase Cornwall's other main historic industry, while the village of Tintagel is entwined with the legendary mythology of King Arthur and his knights. Mining, fishing and farming have always been Cornwall's historic staples but in recent years the county has shifted away from, but not lost touch with, its traditions to become one of the UK's most energetic, creative and visionary regions. The futuristic biomes of St Austell's Eden Project, with their banana, coffee and bamboo plants, bring a taste of the tropical rainforest to Cornwall while media and technology companies are eager to market the county as the 'UK's Silicon Valley' and alongside Europe's main surfing hub, Newquay, Cornwall has something for everyone. From a cable station linking Europe to the New World, to fascinating smuggling and fishing hotspots, we explore some of the very best of what Cornwall has to offer.
Well over a century before media and technology companies began dreaming of Cornwall becoming the 'UK's Silicon Valley', one of the most revolutionary technological advances in history came to the small fishing village of Porthcurno, in the extreme southwestern corner of the county. In 1870, the Eastern Telegraph Company changed Porthcurno forever, transforming it into the centre of the British Empire’s communications network. Zodiac House became the hub of operations, and later in the year the first underwater telegraph cable – the precursor to modern fibre-optic cables – was installed, connecting Porthcurno to Bombay, via the Persian Gulf and Karachi. The Eastern Telegraph Company’s dream of instant communication had become reality by the turn of the twentieth century, with telegraph cables connecting important worldwide commercial outposts. From Vancouver to Hong Kong, from Lisbon to Madras, it was the very first global network. Image Credit: Reading Tom (Flickr)
The cable network soon became a vital tool for Britain’s imports and exports and the first major commercial operation in which it played a key role was the establishment of trade monopolies from Burmese rubber estates and the coffee plantations of Brazil in the late 1870s. As the scale of the cable network – or the ‘Octopus’, as it was nicknamed – grew, so did the need for greater numbers of telegraphers to operate the machinery at each point in the system. Employment for the Eastern Telegraph Company often meant an opportunity to journey to exotic lands and some of the items acquired from overseas are on display at the museum, such as pair of solid gold earrings from Korea, a wooden Tiki sculpture from the Pacific island of Vanuatu and an intricately carved statue of a Chinese businessman. Areas of the globe which also held particular appeal to the Eastern Telegraph Co.’s employees were Bali, Java and the Cocos Islands, where telegraphers were stationed to assist in the export of rice, coconuts, vanilla and other spices to Europe. This became regarded as a particularly “exotic” posting and the Telegraph Museum’s photographic collection shows telegraphers having the time of their lives.
St Ives is one of Cornwall's most popular destinations and the town has also historically been home to some of the county's most famous artists and sculptors. The rugged coastline and the mining and fishing industries have long been depicted in famous Cornish artwork, but St Ives' Leach Pottery is arguably the most unique artistic complex in the whole county. The pieces on display resonate with the pottery style of Japan, the country which first sparked artist Bernard Leach’s fascination in the early part of the twentieth century. The Pottery’s Japanese-style climbing kiln was the first of its kind in the western world when it was built by engineer and master potter Tsueneyoshi Matsubayashi in 1923 and many of the pieces in the gallery are finished with the traditional Japanese tennaku glaze. The complex also exhibits preliminary etchings and engravings seen on much of Bernard Leach’s early pottery, many of which were sketched and drawn first before being transferred onto clay. Leach first sketched his pots and increased his mastery of brushwork by studying the volumes of Chinese exercises, used for centuries in the training of painters. Image Credit: Jordanhill School D&T Dept (Flickr)
Bernard Leach was born in Hong Kong in 1887 and his father was a colonial magistrate. Spending his early years in Japan were what inspired Leach's passion for art and sculpture and the story of his fascination with Oriental pottery is also showcased in the gallery. Displays document his passion for Standard Ware pottery, a style rooted in the traditions of the ‘old vernacular pottery’ of the west and the traditional pottery styles of Song dynasty China, stretching back as far as the tenth century. In addition, Bernard Leach’s affinity with the Far East and its influence on his Pottery’s ‘east meets west’ ethos is not all one way traffic. In 2009, the Japanese embassy in London hosted an exhibition focusing on the work of Leach and his contemporaries creating an international link connecting Cornwall and Japan through pottery.
Roughly halfway between Porthleven and Mullion on the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula, Dollar Cove is a stretch of beach near the Cornish village of Gunwalloe. As its name suggests, the cove is famous throughout the county for the treasure which has been either washed up on shore or claimed from the rocky shallows around the beach. The treasure which makes Dollar Cave famous is part of the wider story of a Spanish galleon by the name of San Salvador which sunk off the coast in 1669 after running aground on the area's notoriously rocky waters. Legend has it that the San Salvador was carrying a cargo of around two tonnes of Spanish silver coins, each for the amount of one Spanish Real. The Real was the currency of Spanish colonies in both the New World and the Philippines and so chances are that the coins, which the locals claim still wash up on the beach to this day, were minted from Spanish silver mined somewhere in the Americas in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
Just along the coastal path inland from both Dollar Cove and Church Cove, Gunwalloe's St Winwaloe Church is one of the most historically rich religious buildings in the whole of Cornwall. In roughly 1332, Gunwalloe became a chapel parish of Saint Breaca, an Irish Catholic saint who lived in the fifth or sixth century and became venerated across the Celtic areas of Britain. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the chapel had become a classical three-hall Catholic church and Cornish archaeologists have unearthed dozens of religious artefacts at the site, including a carving depicting the Cornish Saint Norman, which was found holding an alms bowl with an image of the Catholic tree of life from the Garden of Eden story. In January of 1527, Saint Anthony, a treasure galleon belonging to the King of Portugal, was wrecked off the nearby coast and experts believe that gold and silver claimed from the wreck helped pay for St Winwaloe Church three famous screen panels, one depicting the crucifixion and two others which once depicted all twelve of the Apostles. The church was renovated completely in 1870 and 1871 and today represents one of the best places examples of Cornish Christian architecture.
The whole of the Cornish coastline is peppered with tiny fishing villages and Port Isaac is one of the county's most picturesque. Located on the north coast between Wadebridge and Camelford, Port Isaac's name is derived from its original Cornish name of Porth Izzick meaning 'Corn Village', a name in turn derived from the coastal hamlet's status as a corn trading port from before the advent of Cornwall's rail network. In addition to corn, Port Isaac also saw local coal, slate, salt, limestone and timber pass through for export to Europe. Today, Port Isaac's narrow and winding streets, white-washed cottages and slate framed Cornish houses make it of the most popular villages for tourism the county and its 'Squeezy Belly Alley' is widely believed to be the narrowest alley in the entire of the UK.
When Cornwall's railways were established, Port Isaac shifted away from its corn trade and became an important fishing port and lobster and crab pots can still be stacked up on the shore to create that classical image synonymous with so much of Cornwall's historic fishing industry. Commercial fishing and fish-processing are still an important part of life in Port Isaac and the village is also home to a group of recording artists known as 'The Fishermans Friends'. Port Isaac's historical pier dates back to the time of Henry VIII and in more modern times, the village has become famous throughout the UK as the official filming location of the BBC television series 'Doc Martin', in which it is known as the fictional Port Wenn. Many believe the name Port Wenn was invented solely by the producers of the show, but it is in fact the old name for the nearby village of Port Quin and the original, 1970s version of Poldark was also partially filmed in Port Isaac.
The village and former fishing port of Boscastle, in Cornwall's far north, is home to the famous Museum of Witchcraft which offers arguably the most unique and originally themed day out in the county. The museum was officially opened in 1951 and just inside the entrance sits a large and surreal ceramic statue named ‘Hare Woman’, sculpted in the 1960s by multi-talented artist Lionel Miskin. A Turkish protection charm called a Nazar Boncugu is also housed in the museum and among its thousands of curious and often haunting and macabre exhibits is a collection of wooden, wax and fabric voodoo dolls which were once used by magicians in an attempt to use spiritual force to kill Rameses III, by sticking pins and other sharp objects into wax effigies of the Pharaoh and his counsellors.
On the second floor of the Museum of Witchcraft, visitors will find a square disc forged from copper with dimensions of roughly six inches. Produced at the start of the 17th century, inscribed with a curious combination of Pagan runes and Roman symbols, the Mars Talisman was once the property of an English soldier fighting against the Spanish Empire, in the war between the two kingdoms spanning from 1585 to 1604. Inspired by the astrological magic of the late renaissance period, the charm was used by the soldier as a means for protection from harm in battle, drawing on the powers of Mars, the Roman god of warfare, as well as cosmic protection from the Moon, Scorpio and Aries which are drawn from the 'Magic Seal of Mars' detailed on the back of the artefact. The soldier carried the talisman at his own risk, however, as the discovery of the use of a magical object at this time meant almost certain execution.
Located literally at the 'end of Cornwall' and just looking out across Plymouth Sound towards Devon, Cawsand is one of the most popular holiday villages in what was until relatively recently known as the 'Forgotten Corner of Cornwall'. Throughout its history, Cawsand has been joined at the hip with the village of Kingsand and there has always been strong debate about whether or not each village was part of Devon or Cornwall. Factually, Cawsand has always been part of Cornwall, with Kingsand considered to be part of Devon, and a tiny stream, which still flows under the road outside the Halfway House pub, was the historic dividing line between both the villages and the counties. In 1844, Kingsand officially declared itself to be part of Cornwall and today a white-painted house displays a black sign reading 'Devon-Corn', marking the exact spot where the division once was.
The story of Cawsand is one immersed in parallel and intertwined histories of fishing and smuggling. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cawsand was one of the main hubs of Cornwall's maritime black market and one the county's main smuggling hubs. A fleet of over 50 smuggling vessels regularly operated out of Cawsand Bay and over one thousand casks of rum and Plymouth gin were landed on the shores of the village every year. So storied is the village's smuggling history, that one of its main four pubs was located in the main square and was even named 'The Smugglers Inn', before changing its name to the 'Cross Keys' in the early 2000s. On a much less devious note, Cawsand's fishing history is even older than its smuggling tradition and all along the shoreline which fringes both Cawsand and Kingsand, the remains of old fish storage houses, used for the drying and processing of pilchards and affectionately known as 'Pilchard Palaces', can still be seen today as a relic of the villages' historic and richly storied fishing heritage.