Quaint villages to wild coastal beauty – Devon and Cornwall have it all

Quaint villages to wild coastal beauty – Devon and Cornwall have it all – England

Judy Niemann

When our young English friends Caroline and Graham Richards learned we’d be driving through Devon and Cornwall on our next trip to England, they asked if we’d like company.

We’d still have to rent a car, as theirs wasn’t suitable, but Graham would drive and we’d share the cost of gasoline. Don could sit back and enjoy the scenery instead of concentrating on “keeping left” as he’d done during our two years in England with the U.S. Air Force and on subsequent driving vacations in England and Ireland.

First stop, London

We arrived at Gatwick on a nonstop American Airlines flight from Dallas early on Oct. 21, 1997. We like Gatwick because we can check in at Victoria Station for our return flight and have the airline transport our checked bags to the airport, leaving us only our carry-on bags to handle on the half-hour train ride to the terminal.

My first stop at any foreign destination is the automatic teller machine (ATM) to withdraw from my checking account back home a few hundred dollars in local currency. Our initial expense was two one-way tickets on the Gatwick Express to Victoria ([pounds]15/$25).

We spent our first two nights in a small but newly decorated room at Tophams Ebury Court Hotel ([pounds]230/$382, including full English breakfast ordered from the menu). Just 3 1/2 blocks from Victoria Station, the Ebury is an easy walk with wheeled luggage.

Caroline and a colleague, in London for a trade show, drove us to her home in a small village in Cambridgeshire for a 2-day stay.

Slow road to Falmouth

Saturday, we loaded the car and headed for Falmouth, on the east coast of Cornwall, along with everyone else in England, or so it seemed. The bumper-to-bumper traffic was moving at a snail’s pace when we reached the M5 north of Bristol. We never learned if an auto accident or roadwork caused the delay, but it took over an hour to travel the last 14 miles to Bristol.

Hoping traffic would clear while we ate, we lunched at McDonald’s just off the motorway in Bristol, but it was nearly two more hours before we could resume a normal speed. Night had fallen before we reached the Falmouth Beach Hotel, where Caroline had booked us.

Though a bit crowded, our room had a king-size bed, two lounge chairs, television with remote control, tea- and coffee-making facilities and a balcony with a view of the beach. Our package cost [pounds]360/$605 for four nights, including breakfast and dinner, both buffet style, and use of the neighboring hotel’s gymnasium.

The Lizard peninsula

Don and I arose early each morning and walked through the garden to exercise next door before meeting our friends for a hearty English breakfast.

We left shortly after 9 a.m. to explore the Cornish coast with Graham at the wheel and Caroline navigating, following an itinerary they had put together. On the narrow roads, Graham frequently had to back up until he found a spot wide enough for an oncoming car to pass.

The first day, we explored the Lizard peninsula, the southeastern corner of Cornwall. As we visited numerous villages and coastal coves, I thought of Daphne du Maurier’s “Frenchman’s Creek” and searched in vain for ghostly smugglers’ ships.

In the fishing village of Cadgwith, Don and I tasted our first Cornish pasties, the traditional “sandwich meal” which tin miners carried in their shirt pockets instead of lunch buckets, and shared our lunch with the resident dog.

We continued to Lizard Point, England’s southernmost spot, where we laughed as flying seagulls stalled against the strong coastal winds.

At Kynance Cove the long, steep path was difficult for my arthritic knees, but the wild beauty of the cliffs and rocky shore made it worth the effort. At Mullion Cove, we walked on the jetty and watched an artist capture the scene on canvas.

In our hotel dining room that evening, many of the English women line-danced to the live country western music, but I could only watch, never having learned the intricate steps.

St. Michael’s Mount

The next day we explored the shops of Falmouth, purchasing prints by one of Caroline and Graham’s favorite artists, and strolled the sandy beach at Praa Sands before heading for Marazion and one of my must-see sites, St. Michael’s Mount.

We walked along the stone causeway from shore when, before I could climb up to join the others at the boat landing, the incoming tide broke over the causeway steps and me. I got drenched even more as the prow of the small boat that ferried us across the water dipped into each wave.

The castle atop the mount still serves as a private home but is now a National Trust property with much of the building and grounds open to the public. My knees got another good workout climbing the steep path and countless steps.

When we left the mount, the causeway was completely under water. Our boat, its waterproof covering now drawn up to shelter us from the waves, dropped us on shore.

To Land’s End

In Mousehole, Don tried his first chip butty. I had already tasted one on an earlier visit to England, but we all joined him in this unusual sandwich of chips (French fries) between two pieces of white bread. I’ve heard that it originated during the meat shortage in World War II England.

Next we drove to Land’s End, another “must see.” Don and I had once visited John O’Groats in northeastern Scotland and I was determined to see its opposite point in southwestern England.

Caroline had warned me the area now has an amusement park atmosphere, but I was still enthralled by its wild beauty as we battled the fierce winds to keep our footing.

Cornwall’s west coast

On our final full day in Cornwall we covered the west coast from St. Ives to Newquay. When we arrived in St. Ives, the tide was out, leaving the boats in the harbor high and dry, but the sandy beach served as a launching pad for one kite flyer whose wind-filled kite occasionally lifted him into the air.

Little remains of Cornwall’s tin mines, but Caroline and Graham wanted us to see the skeletons of the Wheal Coates mine above the coast near St. Agnes. As the sun dropped lower in the west, we visited Newquay and the Bedruthan Steps.


The next morning we checked out of the hotel, fueled the car and headed for Cornwall’s historic fishing village of Polperro, a former smugglers’ haven and now a tourist mecca.

You can ride into town from the car park in a horse-drawn carriage or small double-decker bus, or walk the short distance alongside a cool stream and whitewashed cottages. At the House on Props we ate a traditional ploughman’s lunch, a bit pricey at [pounds]18.30/$30.50 for four, including beverages.

On to Devon

In Devon we stayed in Goodrington in a 2-bedroom holiday fiat owned by Caroline’s cousin. The cost of [pounds]25/$42 for two nights’ accommodation did not include linens, but Caroline had brought them along.

Our first priority was rounding up enough 50p and [pound]1 coins to keep the electric and gas meters running during our occupancy. When Graham dismantled an extra bed in one of the bedrooms, we discovered several coins on the floor, one of which was an all-important older 50p piece. The size of this denomination has changed and only the older, larger coin works in the meter.

That evening in Torquay, Caroline and Graham ordered a delicious East Indian meal with numerous interesting accompaniments.

Don and I walked about three blocks to the beach on our first morning in Devon. Even at 7 a.m. we were greeted by many people walking their dogs.

Dartmouth excursion

After a breakfast of tea, toast, canned fruit and cereal from provisions Caroline and Graham had purchased nearby, we drove to neighboring Paignton where Don and I boarded an old-time steam train for the 7-mile, 30-minute ride to Kingswear. Caroline and Graham drove ahead and were already in line for the car ferry to Dartmouth when our train chugged into the station.

Our primary destination was Slapton Sands, where a Sherman tank memorializes approximately 1,000 Americans who were killed, wounded or lost at sea during Operation Tiger, part of the D-Day landing rehearsal.

The American government erected an obelisk elsewhere on the beach in tribute to the thousands of local residents who temporarily evacuated their homes and farms during the exercises.

Most days, you can meet Englishman Ken Small, who fought for 13 years to rescue the tank, also a casualty of the training, from its watery grave and convince the American government to recognize it as a memorial. He chronicled his struggle in a book, “The Forgotten Dead,” which he sells to interested visitors from the trunk of his car.

After a tour of Dartmouth Castle and a return ferry ride across the River Dart, we watched night fall and the lights flicker on the water as we strolled around Brixham. Later we traveled along dark, narrow country roads bordered by tall hedgerows to the Old Bickley Inn for dinner.

Winding down

Friday morning, after eating and packing the car, the four of us took a final walk along the beach, tossing scraps of leftover bread to the feathered beggars we encountered. But before heading for London, where Graham and Caroline were dropping us, we still had a lot of Devon to see.

We returned to Brixham to see this Mediterranean-look village by daylight and to shop for artwork, then drove up the hill from the harbor to Berry Head, a grass-covered promontory with a panoramic view of the sea.

Driving through Dartmoor National Park, we spotted an occasional wild pony and saw several more ambling around the village green in picturesque Widecombein-the-Moor, a hamlet dwarfed by its medieval church’s tower.

We stopped at the top of the moor for an in-car picnic lunch of Cornish pasties, a sausage roll (my favorite English snack), Eccles cakes and bottled water we had purchased in Brixham.

Alas, it was time to head for London. Undaunted by the Friday night crowds, Graham patiently maneuvered our car through Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar square to the St. James Court Hotel, where we bid our friends farewell.

The St. James ([pounds]587/$975 for four nights) provided a luxurious finale to our trip and was a short taxi ride ([pounds]3.40/$5.65 plus tip) from Victoria Station and our American Airlines check-in.

Our Budget rental car cost [pounds]179/$295 for eight days, Although we – made 30 miles per American gallon, we spent over $50 every time we filled the tank at nearly $1.08 per liter.

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