In south Cornwall, even in the dead of winter, you can feel the mildness in the air. The first daffodils are out in December, camellias bloom at Christmas, and by February the subtropical gardens at Trebah and Glendurgan are already aglow with the miracle of the Cornish spring.
Tregony is where it all begins, on the upper reaches of the Fal. This is the gateway to Roseland, that beguiling peninsula of woods and creeks and National Trust beaches between St Mawes and Veryan Bay.
Crugsillick, Polhendra, Mellangoose, Ruan Lanihorne – let the poetry of its Celtic place names entice you along the back roads. In these lost lands between the woods and the water lies the true and mysterious heart of Cornwall, still dreaming of its Dark Age saints.
Out of season it is as quiet as a prayer, its wooded valleys cobwebbed with lanes that burrow like badger runs between the trees, plunging down one-in-four gradients to emerge at last beside one of the tidal waterways whose salty fingers thrust far into the hinterland beneath the overhanging oaks.
These are rias, the drowned river valleys that are south Cornwall’s most characteristic feature. Formed when sea levels rose after the last Ice Age, they are a powerful reminder of what global warming could bring; and for me they always exude a special magic, especially in late autumn when the smell of fallen leaves combines with the tang of the tideways to bring on a nostalgia that cuts to the bone, recalling the Cornwall of my childhood.
Beside one such creek on the Fal estuary hides St Just-in-Roseland. Is there any village with a lovelier name? Or a more tranquil last resting place than its waterside churchyard, wrapped around with palms and camellias?
Sooner or later every road leads down to the coast, to the little fishing village of Portscatho whose cottages are as dazzlingly white as any in a Greek island village, or to Portloe, a cleft in the cliffs where the Lugger Hotel stands with its feet in the sea on a slipway covered in crab pots.
In the gaunt headlands of the Nare and the Dodman there is grandeur, but the south coast is gentler than the north. Its bays and coves are safe and sheltered, and even the light is subtly different. On the north coast you stand with the sun at your back but here at midday it shines before you, beating a path of hammered silver to the horizon.
True, north Cornwall may have the surf, but the south has a distinctive style, and nowhere more so than at Rosevine, where the Driftwood Hotel – a vision of blue-and-cream Cape Cod clapboard – overlooks a quiet stretch of cormorant rocks and shining sand. If it’s quietness and comfort you are after, with fine dining and personal service, the Driftwood hits the spot.
The South West Coast Path runs past the bottom of the garden – a temptation too good to miss – so I follow it down to Portscatho’s pocket-sized harbour, tunnelling through jungles of wind-bent sloes.
The strand line at Porthcurnick was strewn with limpets, but the sands themselves were deserted, although the Plume of Feathers, Portscatho’s 17th-century pub, was full of ramblers.
At St Mawes, by far the best-known resort in Roseland, a high tide was slopping over the roadway. This is where visiting yachtsmen come to splash out at the Tresanton, one of Cornwall’s swankier seaside hotels; but those on a more modest budget might prefer to board the passenger ferry to Falmouth. The return journey costs only £10 (£5.50 for children) and the trip alone is worth the fare – a 20-minute cruise across the finest sailing waters in the South West.
At the Prince of Wales Pier, I step ashore and make my way along Market Street towards the National Maritime Museum on Discovery Quay. There’s a real buzz about the town nowadays, helped by the presence of 10,000 university students, and the museum itself is the perfect destination for a wet or gloomy day. Among its exhibits is a pair of storm-damaged doors removed from the Bishop Rock lighthouse in 1994. Although they are of solid bronze, the waves crumpled them like paper, a chilling demonstration of the sea’s unimaginable power.
On the other side of the quay, Rick Stein’s thinking person’s fish-and-chip restaurant offers top-quality seafood at affordable prices. A superb fish soup costs £8.95.
Another ferry links Falmouth with Truro, but – alas – no longer runs in winter. The journey by boat takes just over an hour and begins on the open waters of Carrick Roads. Once you have passed Restronguet Point the wind dies, the hills close in and the oaks steal down to the water.
Upstream of the King Harry Ferry, mothballed container ships lie at their moorings, looking as out of place as blocks of flats among the pristine woodlands. On the west bank is Trelissick, one of the National Trust’s flagship gardens, and on the other side stands the 500-year-old Smugglers Cottage at Tolverne, formerly a tearoom.
The creeper-clad cottage has a claim to fame, for it was here that General Eisenhower addressed 27,000 American troops before they embarked for the D-Day landings. His chair is preserved in an upstairs room.
Cruising up the Fal’s sheltered waters, it would be easy to imagine that the whole of south Cornwall is as gentle as this, but a trip to the Lizard will soon change your mind. Here on the southernmost point of mainland Britain stands the Lizard Light, warning shipping to steer clear of a savage coast whose names alone – Vellan Drang, Ogo Dour, the Manacles – are enough to strike dread into the heart of any fogbound mariner. Deep South this may be, but when the winter storms come beating in it is as wild as anything the Atlantic can throw at you.
I went there on a glorious day, but even then at Kynance Cove a big sea was running, the swell exploding in huge shell bursts against the serpentine rocks of Asparagus Island. Out of the wind with my back against a rock I sat and picnicked while gulls wailed in the abyss below and a pair of choughs – breeding again after an absence of 50 years – whirled and tumbled in the updraughts. Quintessential Cornwall at its best.
Where to stay, eat and visit on a south Cornwall holiday.
The Driftwood Hotel, Rosevine, is right up alongside the best seaside hotels in Britain. A Michelin-starred restaurant, private sea-facing terraces and a private beach make this the perfect venue for pretty much everyone.
The Nare Hotel, Veryan-in-Roseland, is one of Cornwall’s finest, offering spacious bedrooms, traditional decor and a sunny south-facing position on the Roseland Peninsula.
Lugger Hotel, Portloe. Situated so close to the water that the sea bass cooked so perfectly for supper might have swum within a few feet of the kitchen door.
Plume of Feathers, Portscatho. Home-cooked ham in sandwiches of heroic proportions attract locals and walkers in equal measure.
The King’s Head at Ruan Lanihorne. Hidden in the backwoods of the Fal estuary. Serves the best beef for miles around. See kings-head-ruan.co.uk
Roseland Inn, Philleigh. Sixteenth-century oak-beamed traditional rural Cornish pub near the King Harry Ferry. Open fires and real ales. See roselandinn.co.uk
Rick Stein’s Fish & Chips, Falmouth. Best cod and chips ever from the nation’s favourite TV chef. See rickstein.com
Out and about
Caerhays Castle, Gorran. Glorious floral tribute to the 19th-century plant hunters. Its 40 hectares of woodland gardens overlook Porthluney Cove and contain a national magnolia collection. Gardens open daily from February 20 onwards. See caerhays.co.uk
Glendurgan, Mawnan Smith. Spring comes early to this wildly romantic valley garden plunging down to the Helford River. Open daily from mid-February onwards. See nationaltrust.org.uk
Trebah, Mawnan Smith. Glendurgan’s lush neighbour is one of the world’s best gardens: a 10-hectare subtropical ravine filled with tree ferns, magnolias, ponds and waterfalls. See trebahgarden.co.uk
Tregothnan, Truro. The tea once sold at Tolverne was grown on the nearby Tregothnan estate, the first place in Britain with its own plantation. The first bushes were planted in 1999 and thrive in a climate akin to Darjeeling’s. The estate can be visited by prior appointment for tastings and tours.
Trelissick, Feock. About 300 metres from King Harry Ferry on the west bank of the Fal. Magnificent 16-hectare garden surrounded by 150 hectares of woods and parklands overlooking the Fal. See nationaltrust.org.uk