It’s no wonder we’re all yearning to go, writes Sarah Marshall.
So many fond childhood memories are decorated with images of Cornwall: sliding barefoot over silky moss while twirling nets in rock pools; colliding with frothing, angry waves then sprinting to the shelter of a windbreak; breathing sea air, licking lips and delighting in a taste tangier than a packet of salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps.
For most of us, England’s glorious southwest coast will be forever seen through rose-tinted glasses, so it’s no surprise we’re all grappling for a slice of sure-fire summertime nostalgia in these uncertain times.
Cornwall is set to be one of the most popular staycation holiday destinations this year, with honeypots like Falmouth and St Ives already experiencing a surge of visitors on sunny days.
Just take a casual scroll through Instagram: from families swinging buckets and spades, to avid hikers stretching lockdown legs, and even glamorous trendsetters swapping Mustique’s cocktail bars for the surf shacks of Polzeath – everyone is migrating west.
Accompanied by two friends, I’m off on my own adventure, determined to find some secluded spots. Eager to explore both coast and countryside, I’ve chosen a base inland at Southern Halt holiday park, close to the village of Dobwalls, not far from the southeast fringes of Bodmin Moor.
It’s an area where winding roads weave through a labyrinth of hedgerows, lined with open-air larders selling fresh eggs, jams and sweet, ripe tomatoes in exchange for coins dropped into an honesty box.
Tucked behind meadows and farm fields, a collection of wooden cabins is scattered around a landscaped area of gardens and ponds; some are available for rent, others can be purchased as holiday homes. Set in the far corner and smelling of sweet pine, my two-bedroom property is shielded by tree boughs and wildflowers – providing much more privacy than other plots on the site.
Given a code to unlock the front gate and access a door key, I sidestep any human interaction to enter my temporary home. Named iGames, the new build has been designed as a play arena for adults and kids. A blacked-out indoor cinema has reclining lazy boys with cup holders, while a games room features a pool table, darts board and arcade machine hosting Eighties classics like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Although these retro references might be lost on a younger crowd, they elicit whoops of joy from my 40-something gamer friends.
Dinner is prepared in a kitchen looking out to a glinting golden barley field and eaten on an open deck, washed with sunshine at the right times of day. When we can’t muster the effort to cook, there’s the option of a visit to The Old Mill restaurant on sister site Stonerush (about 20 minutes’ drive away).
Recently reopened with social distancing measures in place, the cosy, calm waterside space serves a menu of decent local dishes. Numbers are limited, surfaces are constantly cleaned, and one-way systems have been put in place. Yet staff still manage a friendly, upbeat greeting – even if smiles are hidden behind masks.
Then it’s back to the lodge to score a bull’s eye, rescue a digitalised damsel, or watch an Attenborough documentary in full HD.
Creature comforts provide amusement, but Cornwall’s real entertainment lies outside.
Rising from lime green grounds and exposed to big, open skies, Bodmin Moor’s prehistoric stones are blotted with slow-growing lichens and wrapped in mystery. A unique sight in England, three adjacent stone circles make up The Hurlers, thought to be Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial and funerary monuments, which can be found a 10-minute drive from Southern Halt.
Whatever their purpose, powers from the past have certainly carried into the present. Walking around the ring-a-ring of granite roses, I’m struck by the stillness. There’s something so reassuring about rocks: solid, reliable, seemingly impervious to time.
A short walk away, in a quarry surrounded by 19th century tin and copper mining debris, granite tor the Cheesewring has a similar effect. The stack of miraculously balanced flat stones is supposedly a result of weathering, but I prefer a legend suggesting it was the work of a giant’s hand.
Only a few people drift across the moor, and although there are more crowds when we visit fishing village Polperro later that afternoon, it’s a fraction of the number typically expected at this time of year.
Squeezing between the higgledy-piggledy pile of cottages where buoys dangle from doorways and washing lines are strung up like bunting, I overhear local publicans and restaurateurs discuss whether they’re going to bother opening this year. Pacing the quayside, disappointed seagulls look equally fraught, lamenting a lack of gullible victims to mug.
Although not great for the economy (or greedy birds), a lack of tourists does have one benefit: given space to breathe, Polperro becomes much more than a postcard setting; it has a life of its own.
Other Cornish sites, however, are already filled to their capped brim. The myth-and-mist-cloaked castle of Tintagel on the north coast is only allowing 900 visitors a day. Thanks to a new bridge installed by English Heritage last year, it’s easy for people to spread across clifftop ruins made famous by tales of King Arthur.
Although only remnants of the site remain, gaps can be filled with imagination. Regardless of whether there’s any truth to stories of the sword in the stone, it’s still fun as an adult to make believe.
Tickets aren’t required to explore caves below the castle, so to avoid inevitable crowds, we head further north along the coast towards Bude, in search of a quieter beach. While obvious map-marked spots are busy, less conspicuous coves and pebbly shores are undisturbed. After driving along narrow back roads almost overtaken by vegetation, we reach a steep drop looking out to the sea. Taking a roller-coaster bend to the bottom, we find the only possible parking spot available on a grass verge.
Aside from its mighty boulders, Millook Haven Beach is empty. Hungry waves gorge at the shoreline, but hunkered into the folds of Penalt cliff, we still find calm in pockets where smuggler’s may once have hidden their treasures.
Peaceful, wild, still harbouring so many secrets – this is the Cornwall I remember from childhood. What a relief to know some things will never change.