Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Magical Cornwall
- The Land of Poldark
- A First-Time Visitor Discovers Cornwall
- North Cornwall: The Trail Begins With Nampara
- Where the TV Series Comes Alive
- Wild Moor Ponies and Poldark’s Countryside
- Poldark Family’s Nampara Cove
- Britain’s St. Michael’s Mount is a Must-See Twin
- Back on the Poldark Trail to Hidden Beaches and Cornish Pasties
- Penberth Cove
- Hiking the Southwest English Coastline
- Eating Pasties
- Poldark’s Tin and Copper Mines – Once They Were Real
- About Those Pasties
- On the Way to St. Ives
- Perranporth—Where Surfing Began
- Cornish Foodie Finds
- Finding Celtic Crosses
- Getting Lost on the Moor
- Places Not Seen
- Getting to Cornwall from London
First-date butterflies. That’s what it felt like stepping into the quaint train station in Truro, Cornwall’s ancient county seat. This was the first of four full days on the west coast of Great Britain.
Not only a first trip to Great Britain but a chance to walk the locational footsteps of sites used for filming the wildly popular television series based on Winston Graham’s Poldark novels produced for Masterpiece Theater on BBC and PBS. Landing in Cornwall for a destination vacation was a perfect antidote to the crowds in overpriced London.
With beaches in Cornwall, Great Britain’s land’s end duchy is a top British vacation destination. Just a few days in the Georgian and Victorian countryside, and it is eminently apparent why. Sprawl for an afternoon on the sunny, soft sandy beaches and become enchanted for life.
More than four million people visit Cornwall annually, and Visit Britain estimates that about 500,000 are from the U.S. That’s less than a quarter of all Americans visiting the United Kingdom.
Read More: Best Countries to Visit with Kids
Cornwall is a land of magical rolling green moors, roving herds of wild ponies, lushly thick hedges, and the best golden sand beaches in England—perhaps in all of northern Europe. Stay at a Cornish country inn or American-style motel, dig into the famous Cornish pasties, and visit somewhere many Americans have yet to discover.
“I came to Cornwall years ago,” said Karen Colam of Perranporth and proprietor of Poldark’s Cornwall personal touring company on the Atlantic Ocean side of the county. “I never left.”
Cornwall served as a place of solace and respite for years. The English have arrived in droves since train service from London was established in 1859. Think of Cornwall as the United Kingdom’s Côte d’Azur without the price tag. There are many beaches to visit in Cornwall and even more cliffs where visitors stare out to sea—as people have since the earliest inhabitants.
The Land of Poldark
The duchy pops up in many books beyond Graham’s Poldark. Cornwall stars as a setting in several Sherlock Holmes stories during the Victorian years. The famous detective heads there for rest and recreation to escape the stresses of London. One of its larger cities, Falmouth, is still the home to Lord Falmouth and his family.
Jack Farthing, the actor playing George Warleggan in “Poldark,” told PBS that the best cliff for staring out to sea was Gwennap Head, one of our destinations. He said, “It’s just so dramatic and amazing.”
“Many films were set in Cornwall,” said Colam, who was also a set location advisor to the TV series. “Poldark is probably the best known and most watched. They filmed all over the county.”
There are 19 places in Cornwall where Poldark was filmed over its four seasons, a series of towns, villages, and coves that mirror the places and lives of Georgian Cornwall between the end of the American Revolution and the third decade of the 19th century. We couldn’t get to them all in four days, so we spent our time in the main sites on the West Coast and south county.
A First-Time Visitor Discovers Cornwall
“This is your first time in Cornwall?” asked Richard, the taxi driver taking me from the Truro train station to the seaside town Perranporth, about 11 miles west. “I’ll take you there on the back lanes.”
Navigating a narrow road less than two lanes wide, Richard deftly dodged oncoming traffic.
“We have three kinds of roads in Cornwall,” the driver said as we zipped between towering roadside hedges. “There’s the highways, the roads, and the country lanes.”
Seven million people watch Poldark episodes (now streaming on Amazon Prime) starring hunk Aidan Turner and the stunningly beautiful Eleanor Tomlinson every week. Today, hundreds of tourists still follow the flock to the pristine Poldark filming locations shown in the 18th-century and 19th-century Cornish soap opera.
Several tour operators take visitors to various filming locations, but having worked on television production and with her personal connections, Colam’s Poldark’s Cornwall tours have access where others do not.
North Cornwall: The Trail Begins With Nampara
The first stop on the trail had to be the Ross Poldark charming manor house, Nampara.
Although not its real-life name, Nampara is a real privately-owned house and farm in the St. Breward—Bodmin Moor area. Its grounds are not open to the public except through special arrangements with Poldark’s Cornwall.
We pulled off a country lane and up the long sweeping drive into television fantasy. While the manor house looked just like what’s seen on the TV series, the sweeping coastal moors near Newquay were used to represent Nampara Valley and Poldark family holdings.
The rolling, green moor is everything you’d expect from an English countryside farm.
We walked around the estate, seeing in real life what we had seen in many episodes. No matter how much hope was generated by our group, Turner did not come racing across the moor on his horse, and Tomlinson did not await his return at the ancient wooden gate.
Everything else about the setting was just like watching real life on television or watching television in real life.
Where the TV Series Comes Alive
The 12th-century manor house grew outward around a grass and wildflower courtyard of continuous outbuildings and walls.
“The television series used that wall as the marketplace for the village,” said Colam. Pointing across the courtyard, she added, “Those are the stone steps where Ross (Poldark) would find Judd (his household help) drunk from a day at the tavern.”
We walked across the grassy, wildflower-punctuated courtyard towards the front of the house and were greeted by a trio of honking white geese. Cattle grazing in a pasture, the horses watching curiously over the fence, a dark stone country manor, and it was all a blur of storybook settings, the television show and everything the English countryside is supposed to be.
Wild Moor Ponies and Poldark’s Countryside
While more expected in the American West, we passed a herd of wild moor ponies grazing and resting in the warm sun as we headed to Port Issac for lunch and the building used for Dwight Enys’s medical practice and home.
Port Issac is nestled into the hillside with narrow streets and a delightful collection of ancient houses, many dating back to its medieval growth spurt and the more modern dating from the 19th century during its fishing heyday. The town is still an active fishing port with less activity than during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Poldark Family’s Nampara Cove
Now that we saw Nampara, the setting for Nampara Valley, it was time to see the Poldark Family’s Nampara Cove.
“He’ll try to get anyone to throw his ball,” said Willam, the owner of the gray-muzzled lab that just dropped an ocean-soaked tennis ball at my feet. “No ‘I’ in ‘Willam.’ He still thinks he’s a puppy when it comes to balls.”
We were a short dunes-climb from the car park at Porthcothan Beach, a soft white sand cove. This beach served as the set for Nampara Cove and was used for swimming scenes and the dramatic shipwreck salvage scene. Willam let the ball sail into the surf edge while his dog and two others chased after it. Cornwall is dog heaven.
From the cove, we headed south with a quick look at the Bedruthan Steps, a beach overlook in the Padstow area. In the van, we traveled through medieval and Georgian towns with names punctuating the Poldark series and other novels.
Britain’s St. Michael’s Mount is a Must-See Twin
The following day, we headed toward Cornwall’s south coast and the historic market town of Marazion. The town is also the home of St. Michael’s Mount, the brother castle-on-an-island to Normandy’s more famous abbey, Mont Saint-Michel.
Just as with its Normandy twin, the castle – open to the public but still occupied by its noble family – is accessible on foot during low tide and only by boat at high tide. Stay on the island too long, and the causeway to the mainland is underwater.
Incorporated in 1257, Marazion has been the coastal market town of Cornwall longer than any other, according to the town’s official history. Its name is a blurred pronunciation of the two weekly markets on its main streets.
It also has the best fudge I’ve tasted in its tiny fudge shops lining the main street in town.
Back on the Poldark Trail to Hidden Beaches and Cornish Pasties
After lunch and loading the van again, we returned to the Poldark Trail with Colam telling stories of the castle and the town. The next stop was the important filming site of Penberth Cove, also a National Trust Historic Site. Portions of the village were used for the Poldark village of Sawle.
This tiny fishing village at the head of the cove was a walk back in time. After parking along the road, we walked the lane past a storybook thatched roof medieval house and into the fishing village. The warm air was filled with the fragrance of newly cut grass as we passed one of the homes on the lane where its owner was cleaning off his mower. His dog came up to walk partway with us towards the ocean.
This village is so authentic that the production designer for the series, Jeff Tessler, said that the cove is not a big tourist spot – there are no cafes, kiosks or stores – it’s just tucked away and awkward to get to.
In the tiny cove, several memorable scenes were filmed for the television show: Rowenna walking across a stone path (as did we) to her wedding; Caroline stumbling upon Dwight bathing in a stream (we didn’t); the dilapidated cottage where Demelza’s drunken father lives (on one side of the cove) and the marketplace on the other.
Porthgwarra, outside of Penzance (no pirates spotted), was where Demelza watched from the clifftop as Ross skinny-dipped in the cold waters. It’s also a National Coastwatch site dating from World War II, where the Royal Navy watched for enemy ships or submarines approaching the English Channel from France.
We walked a segment of the Southwest Coastal Path, a 600-mile trail from the Atlantic Coast in Cornwall. Posing at the Zawn Rinny Cliffs and trekking to the boulders at Tol Pedn-Penwith, known as Gwennap Head, we passed the “wizard-hat”-shaped cones, one red and one black, that when aligned, mark the passing from the ocean into the English Channel.
Hiking the Southwest English Coastline
Looking out to sea on the headland at Hella Point, a pair of passing hikers also stopped and looked out over the North Atlantic.
“It’s quite the view,” said Norman, dropping his backpack on the side of the trail. He and his wife Cathy were hiking the Southwest Coast Path on their way to Land’s End, about four miles from where we stood. They started the day in Mousehole, where Rowenna’s cottage scenes were filmed, and hiked about ten miles. “We’ll make it to Sennan Cove to camp tonight.”
We chatted a little longer, and they pulled on their packs and headed north while I wended my way down the narrow, soft dirt path to the village.
Seeing the Caribbean-colored turquoise waters at the Porthcurno Beach, we hiked down the cliff and lined up at the Porthgwarra Cove Café. The tiny cottage served us traditional Cornish pasties, which we devoured at the picnic tables on its neat lawn with other diners and a collection of delighted dogs.
The traditional pasty (PASS-tee, not PAY-stee) is a folded pie-crust turnover with savory on one half and sweet on the other. Made with lamb or beef, potatoes, onions, and root crops, the turnover was sealed with a thick curled crust as a “handle.”
When we went to the mines, Colam told us why the thick pasty handle came to be. (More on that below.)
Poldark’s Tin and Copper Mines – Once They Were Real
The last stop for the day was as important as seeing Nampara. We went to the mines. Three play heavily on the program: Wheal Grace, Wheal Leisure, and Wheal Grambler.
Wheal, which means “work” or “workplace” in Cornish, only references mines. Scenes with the three mines were filmed at Botallack Mines National Trust Historical Site on St. Agnes Head.
The chimney at the abandoned but genuine Wheal Edwards was used for Grambler when shot from one direction and Grace from the other. Wheal Leisure, the old Owles & Crowns Mine, is perched on the cliffside—scenes shot in a sea cove cave represented underground settings, such as when Francis drowned. We wandered through the “labyrinthine condensers,” a series of brick tunnels used to cool smoke so that arsenic from tin and copper mining would adhere to the walls to be harvested by the Cornish miners.
There wasn’t time to walk north along the beautiful St. Agnes Head portion of the Southwest Coastal Path the nearly one mile to the Levant Mine, Tressiders rolling mill—now a museum—and engine houses, so we headed south to St. Just.
About Those Pasties
This hazardous mining work has a role in the design of the famous Cornish pasties. The turnover meals had a thick, curled crust “handle.” This tradition provided a handle for the poison-contaminated miners’ hands. They would hold the curl, eat the pasty, and toss the crust away.
“Tossing that crust was part of a miner superstition,” Colam told us while driving from our lunch to the mines. “The earth makes knocking noises, and the miners believed these were caused by underground creatures called ‘knockers.’ They believed if they left the crusts for the knockers, they would have good luck in the mine.”
She said the mines were inhabited by rats and mice, who wolfed down the arsenic-poisoned crusts and died.
“While ‘feeding’ the knockers,” said Colam. “The miners were practicing rodent extermination.”
On the Way to St. Ives
From the mine, it was off to see if we would see the man with seven cats and seven wives on his way to St. Ives. The beautiful coastal town was picture-perfect.
We stopped to have a pint in the pub at the Sloop Inn. The publican served his first brew here in 1312, over 910 years ago. We sat at the tall-backed booth across from the original bar and cut the heat of the warm afternoon with local ales—served ice cold, which dispelled the stories I heard about warm British beer.
Perranporth—Where Surfing Began
On the third day in Cornwall, I was left to wander the streets of Perranporth and enjoy its famous beach.
“The best beach in Great Britain,” Gladys told me as we sat on a bench on the walkway just above the beach where Bolingey Stream meanders across the sand and into the Atlantic Ocean. “It’s a couple of miles long at low tide. When the tide comes in, it’s split in two, so don’t get caught on that part.”
She pointed past Cotty’s Point toward the collapsed cliff at Ligger Point.
“Beyond Ligger Point,” she added. “You’re on the beach at Holywell Bay. They filmed some of the TV series there, too.”
Perranporth’s long, languid beach has another claim to fame. It’s where European surfing began back in the early years of the 20th century. The town’s Perranzabuloe Museum has an exhibit of the sport’s origin.
Cornish Foodie Finds
Wandering through town, I enjoyed a double scoop of Cornish ice cream from Pavillion (sic) Ice. Cornish ice cream isn’t just ice cream; it’s thickly rich and filled with natural flavors. I had a scoop of mocha and deep, dark, rich cacao in a waffle cone.
That night, I went for Cornish pub food at Seiners Arms. The evening had a wind-driven chill, and the bangers and mash with a coddled apple dessert was just the right choice for the night. The pub had polished oak furniture, windows looking out to sea, and a warm, friendly staff. It was a perfect complement to the day.
Finding Celtic Crosses
The last full day in Cornwall was a true bucket list checkoff joy. Ever since college, I have seen posters and stories about Celtic crosses. Early morning, Colam, her two dogs, and I set out across the moor north of Perranporth to see a real Celtic cross.
Colam, having walked her dogs and me to St. Perran’s Celtic Cross, had to leave to pick up tour clients.
“Remember these paths, love, because these are the furthest two places you can get through the hedge,” she said while walking off with her pups.
“I can do this; I’ve got GPS,” I shouted after her. “I’ll be there when you return.”
There are six known Celtic crosses in Cornwall. Some have all four holes punched through the stone. St. Piran’s cross has three and an impress for the fourth. Some, said Karen, have only the impresses.
This one was erected in the 600s, and later, the “modern” St. Piran Church was built nearby in the 900s. There isn’t a “1” missing from those dates; we’re talking of a church and cross erected more than 1,600 years ago.
Having finished taking pictures in and around the cross and ruins of the church, I decided there wasn’t time to march across the moor to the location of St. Piran’s Oratory, his first church built in the 500s. I was told there wasn’t much to see as the National Trust had allowed it to deteriorate.
Getting Lost on the Moor
I started back towards the road, suddenly realizing I had not turned on my GPS “breadcrumbs” and had no idea which path to take.
I dropped into a gully and lost sight of the powerlines that were my target. Multiple paths crossed and converged, merged, and departed. I was now entirely on my instincts.
Although I would have eventually made it to the road, finding the gate through the hedgerow would have been a different story. There were paths everywhere.
With his black dog, John was merging onto my path, heading the same way.
“Is this the path to the road?” I asked.
“No, you’ll never get through the hedge on this one,” he said. “Come with me; I’m heading to the coffee shop at the crossroads.”
“I need to meet my ride at the far gate,” I said.
“I’ll show you where to pick up the path then; come along,” he said as we started walking west. I asked about his day.
“When ya was young, ya’d say, ‘Me knees is good,’ and now at our age, ya say, ‘Good knee, bad knee,’” Richard laughed as I petted his dog.
If there is a vacation heaven for dogs, it’s Cornwall. Even the pubs invite them in with “dog beer” (chicken broth, often with chicken chunks). Almost every restaurant has signs saying, “Dogs welcome.”
We came to a split where one path led across the moor and the other into a heath. I plunged into the towering shrubs at John’s direction and left the open moor behind me. At last, I could see the powerlines marking the road. A zig and a curve, and there was the gate. I even beat my ride to the post.
Places Not Seen
One place we didn’t visit was the National Trust historic harbor at Charlestown. In the television series, the port and its tall ships served as the harbor of Georgian-era Truro. This was the town to which Andrew Blamey and Verity Poldark eloped before he set sail to sea.
On nearly the southernmost tip of Cornwall, Kynance Cove, near the Lizard village, is another of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty throughout Cornwall. Maps will show “AONB” to designate the area, and some maps will include star-quality ratings. Church Cove rates four stars in the Gunwalloe area near Helston, where two other coves, Dollar Cove and Fisherman’s Cove, were all used for filming various scenes.
A visit to Cornwall may want to include some of the other historic areas in the duchy, such as St. Austell, or in North Cornwall, places like Gull Rock.
In the Cotswolds, several outdoor scenes, such as the manor house Trenwith, were filmed north of Cornwall.
It’s known for its beautiful beaches, a lengthy network of hiking paths (trails, in U.S. parlance), pub grub, and the famous Cornish pasties. With modern chain-style motels, luxurious historic inns, and quaint country cottages, Cornwall has a variety of places to stay. My trip was based out of Perranporth, a coastal holiday town, but there is lodging throughout the county. My recommendation is to stay on the coast, but there are bargains inland.
Getting to Cornwall from London
Cornwall is a four-and-a-half-hour train ride on the Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Truro. You can go first class—it’s about £40 (US$51) more than the standard class and worth it for the seats, drinks, snacks, and comfort).
To get to Paddington Station, you can take a nonstop train, Heathrow Express, from a platform just up an escalator from immigration from London Heathrow.
At Paddington, you cross the platform, get into the Truro-bound GWR, and visit Cornwall by train, traveling well over 100 miles per hour. In England, the metric system is used—except for distance; it’s miles.