England’s Improbably Sunny Corner

Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Travel Writer

Did you know there are palm trees on the English coast? Neither did I. Like most of us, my mental image of the U.K. was shaped by earlier experiences in gray, rainy London and gloomy Scotland, and by the perpetual sodden chill in countless British novels. Can you imagine “Wuthering Heights” under a sunny blue sky?

Blue skies, palm trees and flowering vines are exactly what you’ll find, however, in Cornwall, England’s improbably sunny corner. Together with miles of sandy beaches, it’s the quasi-Mediterranean climate that draws painters, surfers and vacationing families to this county on Britain’s southwest peninsula.
Wedged between the English Channel and the cold blue Atlantic, Cornwall is a fantasy landscape of quaint fishing villages, Italianate villas and fairy-tale castles. Lush, flower-strewn coastal paths wind along the rocky shore, whose sandy cliffs, green bluffs and cold, clear waters recall Martha’s Vineyard or Cape Cod (as do place names like Truro and Falmouth). I’m always struck by how close Old England feels to our New England, right down to the unpredictable weather patterns: a gorgeous summer day can deteriorate into a purple-sky squall in an instant, and even the warmest days are sweater weather.

In this maritime climate, an age-old agricultural tradition has lately given rise to a much-hyped foodie scene. Gourmands are descending from across the U.K. to sample farmer’s markets and restaurants, where the spotlight is on local fish, wild herbs and greens, and artisanal aged cheeses.

But even with its new culinary cachet and largely unspoiled coastline, Cornwall is less popular than it ought to be. Brits and other Northern Europeans tend to prefer the Mediterranean, and the discount-airline phenomenon has only intensified the trend, with Mallorca now just as close as Newquay, Cornwall’s transit hub. Cornwall is a good 300 miles from London, best reached by one of numerous British airlines or by a five-hour high-speed train ride.

It may seem like a car would be de rigueur in this rural setting, but visitors here are increasingly embracing rusticity and going car-free. They’re renting bikes, exploring trails on horseback, catching trains or cruising by ferry boat from town to town. The Cornwall tourism people have compiled a wonderful list of car-free itineraries, complete with resources for trip planning.

The result of all these trends is that today’s vacationers will find an unhurried pace and a crowd-free scene in Cornish villages and on near-empty beaches. You’ll have coves and castles virtually to yourself to ponder at leisure, all while choosing from a great variety of lodgings — from grand old resort hotels to romantic bed-and-breakfasts to rental cottages.

In the process, you discover a culture with Celtic roots and a proud mining heritage that stands apart from mainstream England. The famous Cornish pasty evolved as a portable miner’s lunch; a kind of doughy empanada with meat filling, it now pops up in nouveau incarnations at every turn. The impenetrable Cornish language is spoken by few these days, but is nonetheless everywhere in such mellifluous place names as Lostwithiel, Portscatho and Tintagel.

Reminders of this area’s ancient, pre-Christian history lurk around every grassy bend. Driving through lush green fields, you might come upon mysterious, Stonehenge-style structures and Iron Age fortifications that date back tends of thousands of years; many of these, like Rumpscliff Castle in Polzeath, are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. And in spring festivals like this week’s St. Ives May Day (May 2) and nearby Helston’s Flora Day (May 7), the dances, costumes and bluebell adornments draw on local pagan customs.

So it hardly surprises that Cornwall’s Jewish community is known as Kehillat Kernow. The name is a Hebrew-Cornish mashup that, roughly translated, means “Cornish Jewish community,” and its 80 members are proud of their ability to blend cultural influences: Orthodox and intermarried members worship together at the Reform-affiliated Cornish shul. Formed in the 1990s, the congregation holds biweekly services in the capital city Truro, welcomes visitors, and plans to acquire its own building soon.

If Cornwall’s northern coast is wilder, and its south coast a bit more built-up and commercial, then the western end of the peninsula has a distinctly arty vibe. St. Ives, in particular, has long been a haven for visual artists, who are drawn to the area’s brilliant light, abundant space and expansive views of sea and sky; the village makes a great home base for exploring the west end’s many museums, parks and beaches.

In addition to small galleries specializing in coastal scenery, St. Ives is home to the Tate St. Ives — a Cornwall outpost of the venerable Tate Britain and Tate Modern museums in London. The Tate St. Ives aims to be not merely a London offshoot, but a thoughtful, evolving showcase for the Cornish artistic tradition. Its building faces the picturesque Porthmeor Beach; large glass windows display the sea alongside art installations, and a restaurant features local cuisine.

Traveler’s Resources:

Cornwall tourism information:
www.visitcornwall.org
Tate St. Ives Museum:
www.tate.org.uk

Minack Theatre:
www.minack.com
Jewish Community of Cornwall:
www.kehillatkernow.com

St. Ives, in Cornwall’s western end, has long been a haven for visual artists. Hilary Larson

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