• Debbie Howells

The inspiration of Cornwall


It was the sea that drew us to Cornwall that first time, as it does many. Glassy, barrelling surfers’ waves that rolled in over gently sloping sand to break onto empty beaches. We shivered in our wetsuits, breathed salt-laced air to an elemental soundtrack of wind and the ocean. Above us, grey skies, the cries of seabirds, driving rain, which instead of disappointing, somehow only added to the wildness of where we found ourselves.

Narrow, twisting lanes linked the beach to the cottage where we stayed, cosy with soft beds and thick, solid walls, heat thrown out from a wood burner; views onto rain-soaked fields where cattle grazed, on hills that gently sloped to meet the sea. For that first week we were there, the rain barely let up, but even so, I was seduced by the dramatic rocks, the bleakness of the landscape, the wildness of the ocean. Meanwhile, my children were seduced by the surf, to the point that it was the start of an enduring passion that’s taken my son, Tom, all over the world. There’s a photo of him from way back, a tiny figure standing with his surf instructor in a foamy sea that looks anything but inviting. It was the first time he felt the allure of the ocean, how it constantly changes, testing the dedication of the most seasoned surfers.

The craggy coast of North Cornwall is a land of contrasts. On balmy summer days, there is serenity to be found under a warm sun, just the hint of a breeze against your skin, the sea benign, the same clear blue shade you’d find in the Caribbean. But when the weather rolls in off the Atlantic, it’s like inhabiting another world, where the wind is restless and the sea wild, with steel grey clouds and black waves crashing against the rocks. On one of those rain-lashed days, if you take the footpath from Port Quin towards Doyden Castle, exposed to the full force of the wind, the thundering of the waves against the rocks below reverberates through every cell of your body. Out here, pitched against the might of the elements, it’s a reminder of how small we really are.

Another day, take the footpath from Polzeath that rises steeply, giving you a birds’ eye view of the beach before taking you around the headland, skirting around dunes to the wide sheltered sands at Daymer Bay. Find tiny St Enodoc’s church, where Sir John Betjeman is buried. Walk a little further to the quiet village of Rock, then take the ferry across the River Camel, which forces a slowing down, offers a perspective only afforded by being waterborne. When you reach the other side, it docks a short walk from the harbour town of Padstow, with its lively buzz and resident sea gulls that watch you from every vantage point (try looking for them next time you’re there). A network of cobbled streets lead away from the harbour, a treasure trove of shops, galleries and cafes in which to while away many an hour.

The tourist attractions and gourmet restaurants draw the crowds, but the Cornwall I love is one of escape. Of coast paths that are rough underfoot, where on one side, stone-walled fields stretch inland, while on the other, sheep somehow graze on impossibly steep slopes that crumble into the rocks below. You can walk for miles without seeing another soul, your mind running free. Watch watercolour sunsets. Explore lanes connecting the many hamlets and villages, edged with more stone walls overgrown with grasses, that in spring are painted with wildflowers. Wonder at jagged rocks and caves and secret beaches. Cradle a mug of hot chocolate in frozen hands after an early morning surf to beat the crowds. Enjoy fish and chips, so much tastier for being eaten on the beach, under layers of jumpers and a dark night sky lit by stars.

Whether you’re surfing or body boarding, or sitting on the beach watching the experts catch a wave, then ride it effortlessly to the shore, it’s mesmerising. Meditative, my son Tom tells me. Just you, your board and the sea, while you wait patiently for the perfect wave. The north coast is populated with surfing beaches, varying from Fistral’s wide sands, to the sheltered shores of Polzeath. There’s tiny Epphaven, a fifteen minute walk from a quiet lane along a stony footpath, before you climb down rocks onto the sand, which if you’re lucky, you’ll have to yourself. To name but a few – there are scores.

In between, tiny hamlets nestle within coves sheltered by the hills. There are stories, too. The handful of picturesque cottages that are Port Quin are picture-postcard, belie the tragic events which took place long before, when the men of the village went out fishing, only to be wiped out by a storm.

Further along the coast is the traditional fishing village of Port Isaac, the Port Wenn so famously featured in Doc Martin, where narrow sloping streets densely packed with characterful cottages lead down to the harbour front. You can park on the beach. Just don’t get caught out by the tide.

Since that first holiday, I’ve returned many times. I like to think I’ll keep going back. There’s an ease in revisiting familiar places, in the anticipation of the known, and there’s excitement in the discovery of the new, which perhaps is what Cornwall excels at. It’s the proximity of the sea, being surrounded by the changing nature of the sky, the light, the water, so that there are always new vistas, formerly unseen horizons.

As well as it’s outrageous beauty, it’s a landscape known for its richness in history, a land of wreckers and smugglers, of witchcraft and King Arthur, with an atmosphere that’s sparked many a writer’s imagination: Daphne du Maurier, Winston Graham’s Poldark, Rosamund Pilcher, as well as a whole host of contemporary writers, including myself among them. My latest book, The Death of Her, is set not just against the backdrop of this mystical coastline, but inland too, in Cornwall’s more secluded, lesser known heart, amongst the farmland and woods that cover vast swathes of countryside. If someone wanted to hide away from the world, I can truly imagine that here would be the perfect place.

Maybe that is the draw of Cornwall. To share its beauty while allowing us to hide in plain sight for a few days, away from the realities of our everyday lives, while its clean air and crystalline water flush away what makes us jaded with life; magically recharging our bodies and our minds.

*Note to readers of this article. We have noticed this Cornwall blog has been viewed a lot recently, both in the UK and around the world. We have no idea how people are finding the article but we're very happy they are! We would love to know if there is a published link or some other mention - we hope so as it seems to be working. Please leave a message below if you are happy to let us know how you came across this particular blog, or email us at hello@howellshenson.com Many thanks, Debbie and Martin. February 2020.

My latest book, The Death of Her, is out now in paperback and is available from bookshops and Amazon.


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