Since moving to the UK I have heard endlessly about Cornwall, Cornwall, Cornwall. In fact, the region is referred to with such precise “specialness” that at one point I began to wonder if perhaps it was its own nation like Wales or Scotland and I had somehow missed that in all my education. It felt like a stupid question, but when I charged ahead with it the was always something along the lines of a laughing, “Depends on whom you’re asking.” That answer may contain its own type of insight, but it didn’t actually explain anything.
For two years I endured the anticipation of seeing Cornwall until finally breaking the seal last weekend. From the moment our taxi approached the village of Helland’s single-lane, stone viaduct with the sign marked “Weak Bridge”…yet rolled right over it with a mumble of “It was built for carriages, you see”, I had a little smile on my face like a kid who’s spied a present wrapped and waiting on a hidden shelf.
Port Isaac: One of the Most Remote Villages in the UK
Sweet Mr. T was in charge of this trip, and it became clear pretty quickly that “we” hadn’t done much planning. (Which I am totally game for. However, I do like to know if we are winging it!) Hubby told me we were staying in a place called Port Isaac, but clearly I was not the only one ignorant to the fact the nearest town is 10 miles away, as we did not rent a car. (Thank goodness for Cornish kindness, as several people offered us lifts throughout the weekend, saving our hides on several occasions.) Nor did we realize Port Isaac is particularly famous as the setting of a popular TV show (Doc Martin) and a number of movies. Our B&B owners must have thought we were idiots.
But they say “God looks after babies and fools”, which must be true because we sure landed in a spot so gorgeous I can see why William conquered this island. The heart of Port Isaac is built into the arc of a hill that spills down into a cove, from where the only place to look is up. Way up. (Photo above) What you’ll see is the silhouette of cows at the top of the crown to one side, and a few white breezy buildings to the other – few enough that they are guests of the land rather than colonizers.
You could walk the village from end-to-end in five minutes but, as the (not-at-all unexpected) gruff old man perched at the bar liked to snip at diners who approached to pay their bill, “This is Cornwall. Slow down.” Clearly, that’s what this almost-country is for: sipping, chatting, relishing. Post Isaac debuted lanes as cobbled, small and cute as they come. (Some even required us to squeeze sideways.) Buildings have their corners carved in from neck-level down to allow for the passage of insistent cars. It is tempting to think a village this small and idyllic could only be so if still “undiscovered”, but even John Wesley found his way to preach in Post Isaac (and an excuse to return about a dozen times).
Post Isaac actually straddles two coves, and a cliffside path takes you the “long way ’round” to the residential one. Crossing that you can walk another wild finger of land, scrambling on rocks all afternoon, dipping into water so blue it belongs in the Caribbean, peeking into the multiple cave-lets that dot the base of the cliffs.
I hear that all of Cornwall echoes the essence of this one coastal enclave, and for that I can see why the region seems synonymous with halcyon British childhoods. Though my first taste was brief, I came to understand that my earlier notion (of wondering if it was also a country) was not as idiotic as I first feared. It is reminiscent of the Welsh situation: it has its own language (devolved from Welsh, in fact), traditional foods (Cornish clotted cream and pasties, anyone?) and rugged coastal landscapes. It certainly has its own cultural identity, judging by the names they have for “foreigners” (by which they mean the English).
“But then why don’t the English go on about Wales in the same way?” you might ask. (Or is that just me?) The answer is, I don’t know. Perhaps it is simply because Cornwall is not officially separate, so it feels like more of an “us” and less of a “them” (at least to the English). I have no intention of jumping into the political fray but suffice it to say that it is not obvious why Wales gets to be its own country and Cornwall does not.
I recently asked a number of British acquaintances about their view on the uniqueness of Cornwall, and I got furrowed brows and answers like “I think it’s been documented to have a special kind of light falling on its landscape.” Urm, well. I’m not sure about that one, but I can see why it’s a treasure the English would like to keep for themselves.
The Edge Cafe – For a start, this place is home to the best cheesy garlic bread I’ve ever tasted. Overlooking the Eastern port is lovely cafe with views you’ll wish you could eat up and take with you. But the food can hold its own. From take-away coffee and sandwiches to a proper “this table reserved” dinner, don’t be fooled by the casual friendly atmosphere. This is seriously good food.
The Smiling Sardine – A couple doors from The Edge, this cottage-y place is friendly as a kind neighbor. I wanted to sit and talk with the owners all day. Not having the views of The Edge, the Sardine might draw you in less automatically, but it serves food all day, and perfect coffee. You can tell by looking at it that this is a place for some stellar seafood.
The Old School Hotel – Post Isaac is plentiful with B&Bs, but the refurbished old school house is easily my favorite. This isn’t just a gimmick; it really is the old schoolhouse, and your rooms tell the story. Rooms are named by the subject once taught in each (French, Biology, Physics…), boasting views in three directions. If you’re not lucky enough to sleep here, it also has a lovely bar/cafe/restaurant. (The prices are a tad steep but the food fantastically presented.)