Whole worlds from poems and novels come to life in Cornwall — and several ghost stories are resurrected too.
There’s much to do, see, and explore in Cornwall, which has the longest stretch of coastline in Britain. Day-trippers can discover tiny Cornish fishing villages, smugglers’ coves, spectacular beaches and sweeping bays, dramatic cliffs and coastlines, plus beautiful moorland and countryside.
My husband and I reached our bed-and-breakfast accommodation at Boscastle, a small village in the parish of Forrabury and Minster on the north Cornish coast, late in the evening. This beautiful medieval harbour and the surrounding coastline have been designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. One of the few remaining unspoilt harbour villages in the region, Boscastle has been for centuries little more than a picturesque gaggle of stone buildings, immortalised — in a quiet way — as Castle Boterel in the Thomas Hardy poem.
It used to be a hive of trade activity between Wales, Bristol, and the south of England. Heather, our affable hostess, recalls the floodwaters that raged through its streets in 2004, sweeping away cars and buildings and violently uprooting trees.
Normalcy, and holidaymakers, returned eventually. But even after the passage of years, the mood turns sombre on August 16 — the day a downpour triggered the flash floods — and the villagers give quiet thanks that, miraculously, no lives were lost.
The next day, we headed to Bude on the north coast, close to north Devon. With eight main beaches and dozens more coves, this stretch is popular with surfers — Widemouth Bay is a good place for beginners as well as experts. Walkers will enjoy the beach here, and dogs are welcome too.
By afternoon, however, the weather worsened and it started to pour. Weather forecasts predicted relentless rain and gale-force winds over the next few days. We escaped to the nearby St Juliot’s church.
Thomas Hardy, as a church-goer told us, met his first wife, Emma Gifford, in 1870 when he was still working for an architectural practice and was helping restore this church. His courtship of the rector’s sister-in-law inspired his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes.
Both families opposed the match. Emma, penniless and over 30, stood by her choice, and encouraged her unpublished fiancé to pursue his literary ambitions. Success came in 1874 with Far From the Madding Crowd — and the couple were able to marry.
The following morning was one more in a string of grey, stormy dawns in the blusterous north Cornwall summer. We didn’t want to huddle in the lee of beach rocks or check local papers for museums. If the weather was going to play the wild card, we would go out and meet it halfway. But where should we go?
Somewhere inland, then, where we had never been before. How about Bodmin Moor? Our B&B had a dog-eared paperback copy of Jamaica Inn, which I had raced through at the speed of knots. Daphne du Maurier’s smuggler yarn had young Mary Yellan as its innocent heroine, and creepy Francis Davey, albino vicar of Altarnun, for a sinister villain. But the chief protagonist had been Bodmin Moor, “a silent, desolate country, vast and untouched by human hand”.
In the end, we had to abandon our plans to walk due to the incessant rain. We decided instead to visit the historic Jamaica Inn pub, which has been a tourist magnet for over 250 years, at its isolated spot on Bodmin Moor. Built in 1750 as a coaching tavern, travellers using the turnpike between Launceston and Bodmin rested here after crossing Bodmin Moor.
Smugglers took advantage of its remote location to stow away illegal goods, and the inn now boasts an extensive collection of smuggled artefacts. Daphne du Maurier was inspired to write her novel after she lost her way in the thick fog while horse-riding on the moors and sought refuge at the inn.
Jamaica Inn feels as wonderfully spooky as you might hope. Today, it is still a mass of cobbled courtyards and shadowy low-beamed rooms, but the atmosphere in the bar and 17 bedrooms is much more inviting. There have been many “reports” of paranormal activity over the years — footsteps pacing the corridors uneasily at night; clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobbles outside; and sightings of a notorious smuggler who died nearby, and a punter who was murdered on the inn’s doorstep and whose body was found on the moor. The Ghost Society reportedly made an in-depth investigation and found a ghoulish presence in two of the bars, the restaurant, and one of the bedrooms!
Our last stop was the attractive fishing village of Port Isaac. The narrow, winding streets are lined by old, whitewashed cottages and slate-fronted Cornish houses. From the Middle Ages until the middle of the 19th century, it was a busy port handling imports and exports, including coal, timber, pottery and slate. We had a stunning view of the coast from our car park.
As we drove back to the B&B, we found it increasingly difficult to negotiate the narrow streets. Heather later told us that Port Isaac is famous for having one of the narrowest thoroughfares in Britain — the aptly named Squeezy Belly Alley!