A fierce wind is wailing in my ears, buffeting me back from Cornwall’s cliff tops and a deadly drop to the sea with all the force of a nightclub bouncer. Still I lurch stubbornly (stupidly) onward along the muddy path toward my goal, the slope-shouldered stone giants known as the Bedruthan Steps, hunkered menacingly on the beach below.
England may be better known for the gently undulating hills of its more civilized interior, but here on the isle’s extreme western edge, nature is altogether more wild and unpredictable. With 300 miles of the South West Coast Path hugging Cornwall’s wave-lashed shore, it’s heaven for surfers and a haven for hikers.
Today, with the tail end of a storm erupting like a rash on the radar, the elements are particularly insistent. Black clouds battle furtive sunbeams, and salt-tinged air gives my cheeks a ruddy glow–a Cornish facial at no extra charge.
As I descend the moss-slimed steps to Bedruthan Beach for a closer examination of its rock formations, the ocean appears eerily like an ominous wall rising between the towering stones, ready to tumble forward without a moment’s notice.
As recently as New Year’s Day, one man did disappear off a beach in Porthleven, washed away by the vicious storms that struck England’s coast, and others nearly met a similar fate while walking along a surf-battered seawall in Mullion Cove.
With a shudder, I scramble back up the stairs, my heart pounding with effort and anxiety until I’m half a mile south along the relatively level cliffs. Though I’m now high up on the bluffs, with a blooming carpet of purple and gold spreading out before me, I doubt I’d be safe in the worst of storms.
BOSCASTLE: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
In Cornwall, even a peaceful village can quickly turn savage, and I’m not referring to torch-toting mobs with a grudge to bear. One of the most famous examples of Cornwall’s temperamental nature is the flash flood that swept through Boscastle on August 16, 2004.
The town reveals itself coyly, bit by bit, as I descend along a sinewy asphalt slope. To the right, a deep valley gouges the wooded hills, to which quaint cottages cling tenaciously, their roofs barely visible above the street.
When the road abruptly flattens, I find myself in the center of the village, the main street lined with white-washed shops overlooking a river that is barely more than a timid stream trickling towards the harbour.
But Graham King, the former director of the Museum of Witchcraft and a member of the Coast Guard, remembers the summer day when the scarcely discernable whisper of the river turned into a roar. In the office above the museum, surrounded by more than 3,500 books on magic, witchcraft and folklore, he gazes into the distance and launches into the tale.
“There had been a lot of rain, and I noticed the noise of the river, the tension in the air,” he recalls, rubbing his short, woolly gray beard. After warning a woman with a baby away from the river, he rang the Coast Guard and reported, “We have a dangerous situation developing.” Within 15 minutes of his call, it burst its banks, forcing folks to scramble into the surrounding hillsides.
At first, most people—particularly visitors—were remarkably nonchalant. “People at the museum were asking for their money back because they had to leave,” King says with a bemused smile. “At the café, they were saying, well, I’ll finish my cup of tea when I come back.”
But as the torrent grew stronger, trees and cars were swept away. Amazingly, there were no fatalities, although some buildings were destroyed and helicopters had to winch many residents out of windows to safety. “It was very unpleasant,” King concludes with a slight frown, in the most classic of British understatements.
Flood dissipation mechanisms have since been put into place, and King expresses not the faintest inclination to leave Boscastle.
“You can feel the magic,” he insists. “When you’re coming down the valley, you can feel it’s special, with the beautiful wild seas. It’s a very elemental place.”
An abiding, unconditional appreciation of nature in all her many moods is something which seems to unite the residents of Cornwall.
MERLIN SLEPT HERE…MAYBE
At Tintagel Castle, a short drive from Boscastle, guide Keri Dean cheerfully surveys the crashing waves that pound the beach below the cliff top ruins.
“The sea is really kicking up today,” she notes with satisfaction, as we hustle up countless wooden steps towards the castle.
“It’s dramatic. And when it rains, it’s atmospheric. We’ve got a line for every sort of weather,” she laughs.
Strong gusts threaten to blow away Dean’s words as she explains that King Arthur was supposedly conceived here—or rather, within whatever structure stood upon this high outpost before Richard, Earl of Cornwell, built the castle in the early 13th century.
In its heyday, it was a pimpin’ pad, sprawling across a narrow ridge. Now, it’s a maze of low stone walls and archways, separated by a valley and connected by so many stairs that, were the place actually habitable, you would seriously have to think twice about descending them to collect the mail or fetch that forgotten pint of milk from the store.
The moody atmosphere has fueled Arthur’s legend and inspired artists and poets. “Tennyson has it that Arthur was washed up in Merlin’s Cave,” Dean says, gesturing towards a beach which leads to a black hole cutting through the cliffs. Turner painted the castle, and Charles Dickens also paid a visit.
Leaving the ruins behind, I continue up a gravel path to the bluff top, where a verdant plain of grass stretches out like a prairie. As I approach its inhospitable boundary, where waves froth against gray rock below, swift-moving clouds suddenly part to reveal piercing blue skies. An elusive shaft of sunlight, seeing its chance, darts through to illuminate the silvery currents sluicing through the sea.
Merlin and magic aside, it’s spellbinding. I stand rooted to the spot, overlooking the edge of the world, another willing captive of Cornwall’s mercurial charm.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The Headland Spa Hotel, Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall TR7 1EW, Tel: +44 (0)1637 872211, www.headlandhotel.co.uk. This 104-room, four-star grande dame sits right on Newquay’s coast, presiding over Fistral Beach, surfing capital of the U.K. Public spaces, which include a large dining room overlooking the ocean, reflect the grandeur of the last century, when the hotel welcomed such illustrious guests as Edward VIII, King George VI, and King Edward VII. Amenities include a 9-hole golf course, tennis courts, a spa and heated swimming pool. Guests can also choose from 40 one, two or three bedroom cottages on the property.
The Scarlet Hotel, Tredragon Road, Mawgan Porth, Cornwall TR8 4DQ, Tel: +44 (0)1637 861800, www.scarlethotel.co.uk. A triumph of modern design, this 37-room, adults-only hotel, which opened in September 2009, seems torn from the pages of Architectural Digest. Priding itself on its ecological sensitivity, the hotel boasts an outdoor pool filled with rainwater and a roof topped with sea thrift. An Ayervedic spa features a pool, and plate glass windows and a spacious deck take full advantage of the coastal location. Michelin award-winning chef Ben Tunnicliffe heads the restaurant.
Where to eat: Fifteen Cornwall, Watergate Bay, Cornwall TR8 4AA, Tel: +44 (0)1637 861000, www.fifteencornwall.co.uk. Working with community leaders, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver opened the restaurant in 2006 to train disadvantaged youths as apprentice chefs, but the food—served up in a comfortably chic setting on the beach—is anything but amateur. Menus, which focus on fresh fish and seasonal produce, change daily.
The Wellington Hotel, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0AQ, Tel: +44 (0)1840 250202, www.boscastle-wellington.com. With its low wood-beamed ceiling and well-stocked bar, this traditional British pub serves up heaping portions of such hearty classics as sausage and mash, fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding. There’s also a more formal restaurant mixing French and British fare upstairs.
What to do: South West Coast Path, www.southwestcoastpath.com. The path stretches 630 miles from Minehead in Devon to Poole in Dorset, encompassing 300 miles in Cornwall. This guide helps you plan walks of varying lengths and difficulty.
Tintagel Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall PL34 0HE, Tel: +44 (0)1840 770328, www.english-heritage.org.uk/tintagel.
The Museum of Witchcraft, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0HD, Tel: +44 (0)1840 250111, www.museumofwitchcraft.com. Claims the world’s largest collection of witchcraft related artifacts.