A journey east of some 200 miles will take you out of London to the wild, rugged coastlines of Cornwall, steeped in nautical history and cloaked in dramatic landscapes, an area of historic shipwrecks, Celtic folklore and industrial heritage. Take the M4 from London and Heathrow Airport towards Bristol then pick up the M5 down to the city of Exeter in Devon. Here you will join the A38 as it twists its way towards Cornwall, crossing the border over the River Tamar at Saltash where the road bridge runs parallel to the famous Royal Albert Bridge built in 1859 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to take the Great Western Railway and its trains into the heart of Cornwall.
The whole area is immersed in Celtic heritage, the Cornish language is of Brythonic origin so it is similar to the Bretons in North West France or the Welsh. A language, culture and music that arrived with settlers that were living here centuries before the Romans conquered Britain. Cornwall has a land mass of 1,375 square miles (3,562 square kilometres) and over 400 miles (650 km) of dramatic coastlines. As you head into the roundabout at Trerulefoot take the A374 left and head southwards and make a right turn on the A387 towards the fishing port of Looe. Essentially two villages in one with East Looe ahead of you as you drive towards the sea and West Looe on the other side of the Looe Bridge which carries the A374 over the River Looe itself. Parking is available in East Looe at the car park just before the bridge. Although an important fishing village over the centuries, its main industry now is tourism. Apart from fishing, local granite and tin were exported from here and both boatbuilding and textiles were major employers. The beauty of Looe can be seen by the cascade of little cottages descending down to the pretty harbour and river mouth.
Continue west from here on the A387 towards the breathtakingly beautiful village of Polperro. The tightly packed fishermen's cottages and little stone walled harbour is a scene so evocative of an era where time has stood still. The village sits at the foot of a cliff ravine with the main parking area at the top. After parking, walk down the road known as The Coombe to the harbourside, alternatively there is the Polperro Tram which is an electric minibus that shuttles from the car park to the centre. The walk, however, is fairly flat and takes no more than 15 minutes.
Apart from the obvious fishing industry, Polperro has a long asscociation with smuggling especially in the late 18th century when taxation on certain goods were at their highest, namley spirits and tobacco. The little Polperro Heritage Museum on the harbour front specialises in the history of smuggling and fishing through photographic records. Take a stroll along the harbour, wander down the sea front path known as The Warren, past the pretty whitewashed cottages and along some of the narrow backstreets. Behind the Blue Peter Inn you can walk a short stretch of the South West Coast Path to a rocky viewpoint that overlooks the village, harbour and ocean, it will also provide a great photo opportunity.
From Polperro head out west towards Polruan, driving just above the National Trust owned Lantic Bay. It is a bit of a hike from the National Trust car park just before Polruan to get you to this part of the coast, but the reward is a dramatic windswept cove with a sand and shingle beach amongst low cliffs crowned with gorse and hawthorns. Expect a walk of just over an hour there and back but the beach and views are spectacular. There is a ferry in Polruan that crosses the River Fowey estuary into Fowey itself but it is for foot passengers and cyclists only. To cross the river by car make the short journey north to Bodinnick. The crossing departs every 20 minutes and takes just a couple of minutes to cross the estuary, it is currently £9 for camper vans, cash only.
Like Looe, the town of Fowey was a major Cornish fishing port and also undertook the distribution of clay, tin and stone for export. China clay is still brought down here by train to be offloaded at the larger jetty at nearby Carne Point and there are still numerous fishing trawlers heading in and out of the estuary. If you leave Fowey on the B3415 on New Road Hill to head left on the A3082 you can take this to St Blazey then join Cornhill Road and Bodelva Road to the Eden Project.
One of the numerous redundant China Clay pits that cover the Cornish landscape has been given a further use, this time as an educational facility and visitor attraction known as the Eden Project. Developed in the 1990s the huge domes contain plants from diverse environments and climates from around the world. Look out for the rainforest biome with its rope bridge, mediterranean biome with over 1,000 species of plant life, the country's longest zip wire and spacious outdoor gardens.
Leave the Eden Project and head south to the A390 and turn right towards St Austell, eventually taking the B3273 down a wooded valley following the St Austell River which runs to the left of you. This is the Pentewan Road which takes you to the coast at Pentewan and back inland where you will take a right turn to the Lost Gardens of Heligan. These beautiful gardens are, thankfully, no longer lost. Initially created from the 18th century onwards by the Tremayne family who still own the estate, the gardens contain multitudes of colourful plant life, over 350 rhoodendrons and 70 camellias. After the Second World War the gardens were left to decay and were forgotten about. However, restoration began in the 1990s and they are now open to the public, with an impressive collection of species including the Cornish palm and the popular Monkey Puzzle trees. In many ways the word "lost" would seem to imply that these gardens had been left uncultivated and the designs, flowering and forna had disappeared but by using the word "lost" it also brings to light how old methods of horticulture have been revived here at Heligan including rare fruits and vegetables grown in the kitchen garden.
Leaving Heligan Gardens you can head north on country lanes to Hewas Water to pick up the A390 to journey west to Cornwall's capital and only city, Truro. The dominant building here is St Mary's cathedral which was only completed as recently as 1910. Its delightful Gothic style adds a bit of a 'French rural town' feel to Truro and then some of the Georgian stone residential terraces nearby evoke an image of the city of Bath. Head up Lemon Street with its 18th century houses and visit Lemon Street Market with its boutique shops and cafes. Make sure you find time to stroll around the beautiful Victoria Gardens just to the west of the city centre. The Old Bridge Street car park will be the most convenient place to park the camper van.
Take the A39 out of Truro, this road will take you directly into the bustling port of Falmouth. Drive down to the Wells Lane short stay car park which is good for 3 hours. Enough time to explore the town and harbour. Although its harbour remains busy, its chief income today comes from tourists with most of them using Falmouth as a base to visit the spectacular beaches around here. However, most day visitors will continue to the eastern edge of the town, past the docks, to visit the historic Pendennis Castle. Built from the 1540s on the orders of Henry VIII it has been part of England's coastal defences for centuries and has been refortified on numerous occasions. Today it resembles more of a barracks than a fairytale castle. Nevertheless this imposing structure has a varied history going right up to the Second World War and is now open to the public. Various items of artillery are on display both inside and out on the battlements. Parking is available. If you don't wish to step inside the castle you can take a circular walk around the outside following the ramparts and stopping at Pendennis Point to admire the view. The road also runs next to the path so you could drive it, parking is available at Pendennis Point as well.
From the castle car park head out on Hillhead Road towards Gweek. You will now be on those typical Cornish country roads with a single track with passing places, high stone walls alongside rolling green pastures. The sea almost always in view just over the hillsides. Just after Gweek turn right on the B3293 to gain access to the A3083. After a short drive you will see a sign pointing left for Cadgwith. Be careful here as the sign is not very prominent. It will take you down a narrow country lane to this most beautiful village with thatched cottages and beach-launched fishing boats. Park on the left in the designated car park and take the narrow path between the houses down to the beach, notice the little blue metal church of St Mary, built in 1895, as you walk down the steep steps down to the harbour. Cadgwith is a working community with crab, lobster and mackerel the catch of today's small fishing fleet, long since replacing the traditional haul of pilchards the village was built upon. Freshly caught fish can be purchased on the harbourside, including dressed crab. The cottages here are made of local rock, faced with clay and straw, coated in white paint and topped with thatch.
Return to the A3083 and head down to Lizard Point, this National Trust area of cliffs and sandy coves is the most southerly point in Britain. Both the Lizard Peninsula and Lizard Point derive from the Cornish word Lysardh which actually means High Place. There is very limited parking at the very end of the road so look out for the larger National Trust car park to the left on the way to the lighthouse. A footpath takes you via the lighthouse and then down along the cliff path to Lizard Point itself. At this most southerly location you can walk down to the shore and to the old lifeboat station. On the clifftop is a gift shop and a cafe with outdoor seating with spectacular views over the bay. Enjoy a drink and a snack while watching the waves crash over the rocks below you. Alternatively back in the village of Lizard itself grab an 'award winning' Cornish pastie. Sold all over Cornwall and almost always 'award winning' this decicious snack is made with beef and vegetables in a pastry case, oozing with juices and served hot. The beef is usually accompanied with pototo, swede and onion but this can vary from bakery to bakery.
Drive back up the A3083 as far as Penhale then take a left on Meaver Road to the delightful Mullion Cove. Take a left in Mullion itself down to the little harbour. Like many of these tiny Cornish fishing ports you will find the parking area just above the village where you then walk the last half mile or so down to the seafront. This rugged but picturesque little fishing community is steeped in stories of smuggling and shipwrecks and if you look out to sea you will get your first glimpse of Mount's Bay. Drive up to the Mullion Cove hotel for a higher viewpoint over the Ocean.
Head back up to Mullion and turn left on Poldhu Road to Cross Lanes to pick up the A3083 towards Helston. Turn left on the A394 into Helston, the most southerly town in Britain, the old Market House here serves as a very interesting local museum, if you have an interest in shipwrecks, smuggling, and the history of the local fishing and farming communities then you will find a stop here worthwhile.
Continuing on the A394 bear left on Turnpike Lane into the town of Marazion. Here you will find the tidal causeway which will take you across to St Michael's Mount. The Slipway car park in Marazion is where you will leave the camper van and, depending on the tides, either walk for about 15 minutes or take the ferry over to the island.
This companion to Mont Saint-Michel in France has many similar characteristics. It is a tidal island and started life as a monastery in the 8th century. Since 1659 has been the ancestral home of the St Aubyn family although much of the island and its properties were donated to the National Trust in 1954. Visitors have a choice of a guided tour of the house or a gardens only ticket. There is an extra charge for parking in Marazion.
From Marazion head west on the A394 which meets the A30 to take you into Penzance. Although Penzance is a well known Cornish town and tourist hub it is worth continuing down to Newlyn or onwards to Mousehole to get away from the crowds. Newlyn is a fishing village on the western edge of Penzance. It was here that the Mayflower called to pick up supplies in 1620, the last time many of those on board ever saw England. Today the town is full of stalls selling fresh fish from the large market along the Strand. Up to 600 fishing vessels and 40 different species of fish arrive here daily at Newlyn Harbour. Nearby Mousehole is a little more picturesque, and is just a little further around on the coast road. The old granite fishermen's cottage give a dark, moody grey look to the town rather than the brightly painted houses in some of the other ports, but this adds charm in its own way and the harbour is very photogenic.
Leave the shoreline and drive up the lane known as Raginnis Hill which will get you onto the B3315. Be aware that this road out of the village has some tight narrow turns. Turn left here and head towards Porthcurno and the Minack Theatre. The charming village of Porthcurno nestles in a little valley and is famous the world over for its part in the development of early telecommunications with a cable wire station operating from here by 1870. A lot more information can be found if you choose to visit the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. Also spectacularly located, cut into the cliffs, and with stunning views over the ocean is the Minack Theatre, created and built almost singlehandedly by Rowena Cade from the 1930s. Although performances are usually done in the warmer months, from Easter to September, visitors can view the theatre and its stunning backdrop all year round. From here return to the B3315 and head west to Land's End.
You are now travelling along the western edges of the island of Britain along the B3315 towards the very end of the country, not just Cornwall but of England itself. As you approach the appropriately named Land's End look out for the Longships Lighthouse shrouded in sea spray and clinging to a rocky outcrop down below the cliffs. Here at Land's End the little white painted First and Last House has been joined by a number of other tourist attractions over the years and it has become a bigger complex of tourist shops and food outlets over the years. Get a rather overpriced Cornish pastie, then pay to park the campervan, walk down to the clifftops and maybe pay to have your local city, and the distance to it, put on the famous Land's End signpost.
You can get away from the crowds by following the coast road north past Maen Castle, a name given to a local cliff formation, and look down to the shipwreck on the beach, the RMS Mulheim that ran aground in 2003, now pitted and reddened with rust, then onwards to tranquil Sennen Cove with its long sandy beach, a pleasant change from some of the more prominent pebble beaches in the area.
Pick up the A30 briefly then the B3306 which will allow you to continue along this dramatic coastline. Now and again you may have seen the remains of old tin mine workings, old stone buildings with chimneys dotting the landscape, Cornwall was a huge producer of tin and copper, having had its origins back in the 12th century. However, it really became a larger industry from the 16th century, employing thousands of local people until the last mine closed in 2008. It is therefore quite appropriate that the next stop is the Geever Tin Mine museum where you can put on your hard hat and explore the mine. It is surrounded by a 67 acre museum site with mine buildings and industrial machinery and gives a fascinating insight into this important way of life that truly shaped Cornwall. The museum is open Sunday to Thursday.
Continue on the B3306 through the attractive villages of St Just and Zennor, the latter involving a short diversion off the main road, and then onwards to the delightful town of St Ives. The railway station car park is the best place to leave the vehicle. This was once part of a much larger railway terminal but with the rise of the motor car and decline in railway useage the terminal buildings and sidings were turned into a car park and the train now arrives on a little single track at the edge of the parking area. Nevertheless the view from the car park is the same view holidaymakers saw when they arrive here from London by steam train in days gone by.
The wonderful little community of St Ives nestles on a strip of land either side of a headland known as the 'Island' with the ancient stone church of St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, perched on top. Fine sandy beaches can be found on the north and east shores and artists sell their works from little cottage doorways down narrow whitewashed alleys. It has been a popular centre for artists since the railways came in the 19th century and just as Van Gogh headed to the south of France to benefit from the brilliant light to aid his colourful paintings, so many decades later, in the hopeful post-war years of the 1950s abstract artists settled in St Ives to take advantage of the bright lightscapes and natural beauty that surrounds the area. The town became a world-famous artists commune from this time onwards.
Appropriately, St Ives was chosen to be the location for a new Tate Art Gallery in 1993, the gallery has also taken over the former gardens of sculptor Barbara Hepworth and visitors can combine a visit to the Tate with a chance to see the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. A wonderful collection of art set within a stunningly beautiful coastal town. Enjoy a leisurely stroll along the narrow streets populated with Cornish Pastie shops and artists galleries.
From here take the road around Carbis Bay to Lelant where you can turn left on the A30 which you follow to Three Burrows then peel off left on the A3075 towards Newquay. This is the surfing capital of Britain and one of the top locations in Europe. Not surprisingly you will be sharing the road here with vehicles carrying surfboards strapped to their roof or in a trailer behind. The two long beaches, Fistral and Watergate will be full of surfing fanatics. The long sandy beaches are perfect for a stroll and Newquay Zoo, which opened in 1969, is another popular attraction. A quieter location at the edge of the town is along King Edward's Crescent to the 14th century Huer's Hut with its whitewashed stone walls and chimney. A precarious set of stone steps takes you up on the roof. This little building was used as a look out for a huer who was responsible for looking out to sea to spot pilchard shoals.
Sticking to the B3276 coast road you will then drive north to Padstow, an enchanting fishing village on the mouth of the Camel River and famous for its May Day celebrations. Also foodies will love celebrity chef Rick Stein's restaurant and hotel. The most popular dish being traditional Fish and Chips. Park at Lawns Road car park and take the steep path down to the harbour. Wander down the narrow streets to the jetties and watch the catch of the day being off loaded. Expect to see yet another collection of 'award winning' Cornish pastie shops.
Leave Padstow on the A389 towards Wadebridge then take the B3314 northwards to Port Issac which fans of the TV series "Doc Martin" will instantly recognise. Since 2004 the film crews have been out and about in this gorgeous fishing village filming the popular show which started out after the movie "Saving Grace" was filmed here in 2000. The Doctor character, played by Martin Clunes, was popular enough to warrant his own spin off TV series. Parking can be found at the top of the hill before you enter the village itself and parking staff in Hi-Viz jackets will try and sweep you along into it. You will then find you have a fairly long steep walk down to the harbour. The best thing to do is ignore the parking attendants and continue past the car park along New Road for a short distance to the St Endellion car park which is much nearer to the centre of the village!
Port Issac means port of corn and grain which was exported from here long before the 16th century pier was built during the reign of Henry VIII. Today pilchard fishing is the main industry alongside crab and lobster catching with tourism and filming bringing in additional revenue to the village. The St Endellion car park is also almost next to the neighbouring harbour of Port Gaverne which is a much quieter smaller location. Drive through here on the clifftop road towards Tintagel.
Just further north on the B3314 the winding road will take you closer to Tintagel and Boscastle. Branch off this road and take the narrow lanes towards the coast. Tintagel is the reputed place of King Arthur's birth and many folklorists and history fans visit here to cross the bridge over to Tintagel Castle, which as antiquarians will point out is largely 14th century and not from the 6th century when Arthur was believed to have been born. Nevertheless it's a stunning location perched on top of impressive cliffs with angry waters crashing against the rocks below. Romantic ruins huddle along the edge of the land and its easy to imagine the legends and myths of King Arthur being linked to this site.
Nearby Boscastle lies down a narrow ravine, its importance was valued in the 16th century when its harbour was constructed, completed in 1584, the only safe landing place and port for many miles along this part of the Cornish coast. Most property here is owned by the National Trust which isn't surprising as the village is full of charming old stone buildings, look out for the old Smithy which now houses the Information Centre and check out the quirky Museum of Witchcraft. The twisting road takes you down to the main car park and it is a flat walk through the village along the banks of the River Valency to the picturesque harbour.
From Boscastle join the A395 heading east, just before Launceston you will reach the A30 to take you back towards the M5 and onwards to London.