Discover Cornwall by a 4-day trip from London

Carbis Bay
Mexico Towans Beach, St Ives Bay (next to Carbis Bay)

Let’s start with a quick intro: “Cornwall is a county on England’s southwestern tip. It forms a peninsula encompassing wild moorland and hundreds of sandy beaches, culminating at the promontory Land’s End. The south coast is home to picturesque harbour villages such as Fowey (see below). The north coast is lined with towering cliffs and seaside resorts like Newquay, known for surfing.”

So… after a few years living in London, we decided to finally visit Cornwall, which is -arguably- one of the most beautiful counties in the UK. If you live in the UK, you normally hear only good things about the “West End”, at least in touristic terms. The trouble is that it’s not very close to the capital, and it is not cheap neither. So you can actually go to Spain or Italy or even France for a similar price and time. Nonetheless, it well worth visiting as you will see in his post.

As there is plenty of information and posts about the best things to do in Cornwall, I will organise this post in terms of our -very tight- schedule. Our plan was to visit as much as we could in a long weekend… so from Thursday morning to Sunday evening. This was not an easy challenge, and we had to leave some places out, but we enjoyed our trip a lot and we visited the main places in the county. I hope it helps.

Thursday. Oxford, The Costwolds and Bristol

So the first decision in our schedule was where to stay and what to visit on our first day. Some people in our team wanted to visit Oxford (with its colleges, its river and so on), and others had never been in The Cotwolds, so we decided to visit those places in our way to Cornwall.

In Oxford, we visited the most beautiful colleges: Christ Church, St Edmund Hall, New College and Oxford College. This was only a quick look from the outside, and some of us entered one of them. We then had lunch at the Head of the River pub, which is also a hotel, overlooking the River Thames.

Clifton Suspension Bridge
Clifton Suspension Bridge

Our next stop was the picturesque town of Bibury, one of the most popular villages in The Costwolds. After that, we visited Castle Combe, my favourite town in the area. I will write a full post about them soon… for now, I can say I totally recommend them both.

Finally our last stop to spend the night before heading to our main destination. The chosen city was Bristol, which is a vibrant city with many places to visit. We stayed at Future Inn Bristol, a very good and well-located hotel. More than enough for a night. But this was just a stop, so this time we only visited the most popular attraction, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We did it the next morning, in our way to Cornwall.

Friday. St Michael’s Mount, The Minack Theatre, St Ives

The next day was the most challenging of all. We had the longest route of the trip and 7 places to visit. We knew very well that our schedule was super tight, so we removed the first two stops over breakfast: Kynance Cove and Porthleven Harbour (if you do have enough time, don’t miss them!).

So we headed to our first Cornish attraction, St Michael’s Mount. It is a small tidal island in Mount’s Bay, which is linked to the town of Marazion by a man-made causeway of granite setts, passable between mid-tide and low water. There is a castle and a chapel that can be visited as well. Historically, St Michael’s Mount was a Cornish counterpart of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, with which it shares the same tidal island characteristics and the same conical shape, in spite of being much smaller.

St Michael's Mount
St Michael’s Mount

Our second stop was The Minack Theatre, a very popular open-air theatre, constructed above a gully with a rocky granite outcrop jutting into the sea (minack from Cornish meynek means a stony or rocky place). It is located at Porthcurno, 4 miles (6.4 km) from Land’s End. It has appeared in a listing of the world’s most spectacular theatres.[4]

The theatre is currently used from Easter to September for a full summer season of 20 plays, produced by companies from all over the UK and visiting companies from the US. The theatre is open for visitors throughout the rest of the year. So be aware that you need to book well in advance if you like to see a play (official website here). If the theatre is not open for visitors, you can only see it from the distance after a short walk on the cliff, as you can see in the picture below.

Below the theatre, you will find Porthcurno Beach, and you can actually descend from a footpath next to the entrance. The view from the top of the cliff was quite impressive, even that it was not sunny. I recommend visiting this beach if you have time.

An additional clarification is regarding the roads. Some of them are tiny and hilly, so be careful while driving.

The Minack Theatre
The Minack Theatre
Porthcurno Beach
Porthcurno Beach

At this point, we decided to leave 2 other places out of the schedule: Sennen Cove and Godrevy Lighthouse. And we drove to the most popular town in Cornwall, St Ives.

St Ives is a seaside town that lies north of Penzance on the coast of the Celtic Sea. It is now primarily a popular seaside resort, notably achieving the title of Best UK Seaside Town from the British Travel Awards.

You do not need a lot of time to see the town; however, it gets crowded during summer so better to plan your visit. The town has tiny streets and limited park space, so this is something to consider. We left the car at the Porthmeor parking, next to the beach of the same name, and then walked our way to the port/pier. Once there, you will see plenty of options to enjoy Cornish pasties, fish and chips, crab and other seafood. If you want to visit more beaches, Porthgwidden and Bamaluz are beautiful.

St Ives Town
St Ives Town
St Ives Beach
Porthmeor Beach, St Ives

So after a well-deserved dinner (fish and chips), beer (Korev) and ice cream we drove to our stop for the night. We stayed in a hotel in a town nearby (Camborne), called Hotel The John Francis Basset Wetherspoon.  It is owned by the popular chain Wetherspoon, for which some people have strong opinions. I have to say it was a very good hotel and strategically selected, as it is close to St Ives and Carbis Bay, our main area for the next day. I also had the cheapest beer in ages, for £1.5, and it was one I like a lot: Whitstable. (Check our London FAQs, in particular, “What are those places with strange people, funny carpets, no music and cheap booze?” fore more info about the chain).

Saturday. Carbis (St Ives) Bay, Padstow, Port Isaac, Tintagel Castle

Happy with the hotel and weather forecast, we woke up early on Saturday, had breakfast and headed to the large and sandy Carbis Bay. But hold on… There are a couple of things to clarify here. Sometimes people refer to St Ives Bay as Carbis Bay. The latter is a small seaside resort and village, with a train station, quite a few hotels and B&B and also a beautiful beach of the same name.

The former (St Ives Bay) is a (proper) bay on the Atlantic coast, in the form of a shallow crescent, some 4 miles or 6 km across, between St Ives in the west and Godrevy Head in the east. So there are many beaches and places to visit on the bay. We were heading north so we decided to park and spend some time at Mexico Towans Beach (see picture below). It is a quieter spot, with more than enough parking space, a surf school (named Shore) and a tiny Cafe (Blue Bay, built in a container). The beach was extensive, with thin sand and plenty of space for all kind of activities.

Carbis Bay
Mexico Towans Beach, St Ives Bay (next to Carbis Bay)

We spent a couple of hours at the beach so we discarded our scheduled next stop, Newquay. And after driving for about an hour we reached Padstow. This fishing port is small enough to walk it out in a couple of hours. Its harbour is small but beautiful. It is also a popular foodie destination, with great crab and seafood eateries such as Rick Stein’s restaurant.

Padstow Town Car Park is a good place to leave the car. You can then walked to the harbour and visit some shops and restaurants on your way up. For a quick Cornish pasty, I would recommend The Chough Bakery, and The Shipwrights Inn for a beer.

There are a couple of popular footpaths in the town. The South West Coast Path runs on both sides of the River Camel estuary and crosses from Padstow to Rock via the Black Tor ferry. The Saints’ Way long-distance footpath runs from Padstow to Fowey. And the most popular is Camel Trail, which is  17.3-mile (27.8 km) long and follows the course of the former railway (see above) from Padstow. It is open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders and suitable for disabled access.

Padstow
Padstow

Our next stop was the even tinier town of Port Isaac. With a population of 721, this fishing village has served as a backdrop to various television productions, including the ITV series Doc Martin, and is home to the group Fisherman’s Friends, sea-shanty singers. There is no much to do, and most tourists seem to be Doc Martin’s fans.

You can visit some fictional places such as the pharmacy (a gift shop in real life), the school (The Old School Hotel) and the protagonist’s home, which is actually “Fern Cottage” and is available for rent on Airbnb and similar websites.

The town is quite hilly so you will need to walk down… and up. The closest car park is St. Endellion, and the alternative is Port Isaac Main Car Park.

Port Isaac
Port Isaac

Our last stop for the day as Tintagel Castle. This medieval fortification has a long association with legends related to King Arthur. This began in the 12th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth described Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception in his fictionalized account of British history. It has been a tourist destination since the mid-19th century. Owned by Charles, Prince of Wales as part of the landholdings of the Duchy of Cornwall, the site is managed by English Heritage.

It is adjacent to the village of Tintagel (Travena), and there is a mile-long walk to get there. We parked at The Wootons Inn, which is also a pub and had some great tables to have a drink during the sunset.

There was some construction taking place during our visit (a new bridge), so better to check and book in advance.

Tintagel Castle
Tintagel Castle

And finally, after a very long day, we got to our hotel for the night, Tredethy House. It is an elegant English country house built in the Tudor period, offering spacious bedrooms (not all of them), many with views of the grounds and garden. The house hosts beautiful, colourful plants, trees and flowers all through spring, summer and autumn.

The breakfast was quite good, including Italian ham, fresh, local bread, warm croissants, cereal, jam, fresh fruit salad and yoghurt. One important clarification is that there is no restaurant at all, which was on the description and was misleading. Fortunately, there is a very good gastropub nearby called The St Mabyn Inn.

Sunday. Eden Project, Fowey

The delicious breakfast at Tredethy House prepared us for the day ahead, with the focus on the marvellous Eden Project.

This project is one of the most popular attractions in Cornwall. The complex is dominated by two huge enclosures (see picture below) consisting of adjoining domes that house thousands of plant species and each enclosure emulates a natural biome. There are plenty of activities, places to visit and thing to do within the park. Please see our “Visiting Eden Project” post for more information.

I have to say that some members of the travel team were sceptical about Eden, but we all concluded that it worth visiting with no doubt.

Eden Project
Eden Project

We then drove one more time to a hilly and small seaside town. We also decided that this was our last stop before heading back to London. So we removed two stops for our original schedule: Polperro Beach and Exeter.

The last fishing village of our trip was one of the most popular in the county, Fowey. This town has been in existence since well before the Norman invasion. The estuary of the River Fowey forms a natural harbour which enabled the town to become an important trading centre.

The harbour is beautiful and it is surrounded by pubs, restaurants and shops. There are ferries across the river to Polruan (foot) and Bodinnick (vehicle). There are many historic buildings in the town, including the ruins of St Catherine’s Castle, while Readymoney Cove possesses a local beach.

Fowey
Fowey

Appendix. Cornish food

Traditional Cornish Pasty
Traditional Cornish Pasty
Crab and Crayfish salads
Crab and Crayfish salads

The Cornish pasty is the most famous food in the county. It is made “by placing an uncooked filling, typically meat and vegetables, on one half of a flat shortcrust pastry circle, folding the pastry in half to wrap the filling in a semicircle and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.”

The traditional Cornish pasty has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in Europe since 2011. It is filled with beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (also knows as turnip) and onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, and is baked.

Other traditional dishes are crab sandwich, saffron bun, Hevva cake, Pilchards, scons and clotted cream tea (there seems to be a dispute with Devon about its origins) and ice cream.

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