Rosie Paterson and Kate Green battle it out in this age-old debate while offering up their top tips on how to make the most of the one which you chose to visit.
Surfing versus sailing, Betjeman versus du Maurier or coast versus coves: Country Life helps you decide whether north or south Cornwall is for you.
There’s an unashamedly rugged feel to north Cornwall: the undulating dunes, jagged cliffs and surf-bashed beaches. The weather is notoriously unreliable (it may rain most of the time, but the waves will be fantastic), so the palm trees that flourish in the south give way to sea thrift here.
Many have tried to tame it. In Pad-stow and Port Isaac respectively, Rick Stein and Nathan Outlaw serve up food worthy of a visit alone; in Rock, the construction of glass and wood-clad homes (Gordon Ramsay is mid build as I type) is as regular as the tides and the popularity of luxury hotels, including the St Moritz and the Scarlet, shows no sign of abating.
These attempts at gentrification have, however, done little to dull north Cornwall’s wild charm. This is a landscape that doesn’t care if you trudge across the carpet with sandy toes, salty hair and ice-cream-stained jumpers, after a long day surfing off Polzeath or crabbing on the quay in Padstow. It is shrouded in Arthurian legend: rocky Tintagel is best seen on a windy day, when the sea crashes into Merlin’s Cave.
You will return to those 40 miles of dramatic Atlantic coastline (from Bude to Perranporth) again and again, catching mackerel from a red-sailed Cornish shrimper and gathering samphire, your daily life forgotten in its clean, bracing air.
Where to stay
The insta, west of Bodmin Moor, in the village of the same name, is a must for short stays or guests wishing to escape the more crowded coastline. The village is delightful. It was once home to Capt Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame; the picturesque church, with salted graveyard and clink, still stands proud.
The inn itself celebrates the best of Cornish produce, including scallops and locally farmed sirloin, which will set you up for a ride or walk across a moor as wild as it was when Daphne du Maurier wrote Jamaica Inn. Rooms are bijou, but determinedly elegant. It’s a small-village triumph.
From £150 per night, or £210 inclusive of dinner, excluding drinks. Visit www.sttudyinn.com for more details.
While you’re there
- Visit Treyarnon Bay beach for its natural ‘swimming pool’ that appears at low tide amid the rocks to the north, near surfing Mecca Constantine Bay
- Walk to the Bedruthan Steps , a series of large rock stacks – a giant’s stepping stones, according to legend – only accessible down a steep flight of steps
- Explore the 18-mile Camel Trail, an old railway line from Padstow to Bodmin by bike or on horseback, stopping for a glass of Camel Valley wine
- David Cameron holidays in Trebetherick, an area immortalised in the poetry of Sir John Betjeman, who is buried at nearby St Enodoc’s Church
- Visit the St Endellion Easter Festival, near Port Isaac, on April 13–21, for music by Haydn, Mozart and Duruflé
One moment, the view is of the Hayle Estuary, where dumpy little turnstones and smartly marked oyster-catchers potter, to Godrevy Lighthouse, inspiration of Virginia Woolf; the next, it’s one of the finest in England, that of St Michael’s Mount at Marazion. This is the joy of Cornwall, the only English county that can be crossed in 10 minutes.
Carbis Bay, Hayle, a birdwatcher’s dream, and the friendly little train chugging to and from St Ives can technically be claimed by Cornwall’s north coast, but they’re also touching England’s toe, that wondrous piece of wild coastline circling west to Penzance.
This is where the Newlyn School was born when Alfred Munnings, Laura Knight and Augustus John came to paint at Lamorna; where the extraordinary cliffside Minack Theatre heroically stages Shakespeare in tempestuous weather; where former MI5 employee Derek Tangye retreated in the 1960s to grow daffodils and write the ‘Minack Chronicles’. In 1748, John Wesley preached at Zennor and, during the First World War, D. H. Lawrence rented a farmhouse there and wrote Women in Love.
It’s the area in which Barbara Hepworth created her otherworldly sculpture garden, at St Ives, and where landscape artist Kurt Jackson, at St-Just-in-Penwith, produces light-filled paintings of sea pinks and silver seas.
Patrick Gale, married to a beef farmer near Penzance, Winston Graham, Helen Dunmore and Daphne du Maurier are novelists who express beautifully the particular romance of south Cornwall.
Travel up the south coast towards gentler, but no less exhilarating coast-path walks, from the Helford Estuary to Falmouth (10 miles) or Portloe to Mevagissey (12 miles) past the camellias at Caerhays and around Dodman Point. There are pretty estuaries, enterprising beach cafes and lush gardens. Go by train for restfulness and in winter for selfish peace.
Where to stay
What makes the Carbis Bay cliffside hotel and spa special are the luxury lodges tucked below, from which you can step out onto the private Blue Flag beach. From above, they look modest, but unfold Tardis-like and come with sauna pods, hot tubs, gardens, homemade cake for tea, the soothing sound of waves and, in our case, even a friendly seal.
From £1,200 a night, with full breakfast or hamper. Visit www.beachlodgesstives.co.uk for more details.
Mount Haven, Marazion, is a modern, friendly, comfortable, 19-bedroom boutique hotel owned by the St Aubyn estate and favoured by walkers (and their dogs). Its money-can’t-buy USP is the ever-absorbing view of St Michael’s Mount; the causeway is a 10-minute walk away.
Room rates start at £100, visit www.mounthaven.co.uk for more details.
While you’re there
- There are numerous churches, but St-Just-in-Roseland offers a meditative peace and St Uny’s, Levant, an atmospheric coastal graveyard
- Visit St Michael’s Mount (below), a National Trust property managed by the St Aubyn estate, which has been, variously, a fort, monastery and family home. Tours are imaginatively conducted, lunch in the Sail Loft cafe is excellent (try the haddock rarebit) and treasures include samurai warrior armour, a model of the mount made of Champagne corks and (horribly fascinating) a mummified cat. It’s open now, for half-term, and the season proper starts on March 24
- Read Penmarric (Susan Howatch), Rebecca or Frenchman’s Creek (Daphne du Maurier), The Promise of Happiness (Justin Cartright) and the ‘Poldark’ novels by Winston Graham
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