We recently returned to Nottingham after having the best few days in England’s spectacular southwest. And now I’m wondering why the heck I’m still living in landlocked Notts when I could be spending every day looking at incredible coastline like this:
But then I remind myself that it took us seven and a half hours of driving to return to Nottingham via the accident-packed M5, along with the hours spent on those narrow little one-lane roads in Cornwall, and decide it’s best to stick to being a tourist there instead.
Somehow, I’ve managed to be in this country for four years before finally making the trek down to Cornwall. I have always wanted to go, but I also have a never-ending list of places in Europe to cross off, and oddly enough, it’s cheaper (and often a lot quicker) to fly to another country rather than stay somewhere in the UK. I mean, when you can fly to Prague in two hours for just £20 and pay just £40 per night for a really nice Airbnb, driving for 5+ hours just to pay £100+ per night for a glamping van without its own toilet just doesn’t seem so appealing.
Although I hadn’t made it to Cornwall before, I did make it to its next-door neighbour, Devon for a very quick weekend break in November 2017, just six months after moving here. We stayed in the lovely little seaside town of Paignton, part of what is known as the English Riviera, and enjoyed walking along the promenade and checking out the pier… but mostly, I marvelled at the sight of palm trees in England and was baffled by how mild the weather was. It was the beginning of my first winter in England, and I had no idea the climate here was so warm that palm trees can flourish!
We stayed just one night in Paignton, before checking out the Jurassic Coast and spending some time at Charmouth Beach. Set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this beach is renowned for its fossils, particularly in the winter months thanks to the rough waters.
On the way to this gorgeous area, we even stumbled across a little piece of Canada in England – Wolford Chapel. As we were driving through the English countryside on the A35, I suddenly spotted a tiny little Canadian flag on a sign on the side of the road, pointing to a narrow road… and I couldn’t not investigate further. So we followed the flag signs, and discovered this tiny little chapel in the middle of nowhere, with a maple leaf flying on the flagpole.
As it turns out, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, is buried here alongside his wife and children. The couple purchased the 5000-acre Wolford Estate, erected the family chapel, and were buried here after he served five years as the head of the British Administration in Upper Canada. If you haven’t heard of Simcoe before, he founded York, now the city of Toronto, and abolished slavery there as well.
The deeds and property of the chapel were gifted to the Ontario Heritage Trust in 1966 and still remains Canadian territory to this day. It may not look like much, but for a Canadian expat, any little bit of home away from home makes this gal happy.
So that was my first little taste of Devon. A whirlwind trip that just made me want to explore the area even more, although I wouldn’t return until almost four years later.
Nevertheless, thanks to Covid-19 restrictions forcing me to stay in this country, I finally made it down to Cornwall this past week. I have heard many horror stories of summertime travelers being hung up in traffic for hours on end, thanks to the massive influxes of tourists trying to navigate the narrow, winding roads. So, I knew to stay away during the school holidays. We departed on a Tuesday afternoon and hit absolutely no traffic the entire way thankfully, getting to our Airbnb in Saltash Passage in record time.
This trip was extremely exciting. Not just because it’s Cornwall – one of the (if not the) prettiest parts of England – but because the thought of going anywhere after a year and a half of being cooped up thanks to Covid-19 brought on a tiny sense of normality, finally. As we made our way southwest, our excitement continued to grow until we finally hopped out of the car and did a little dance. Seriously, I couldn’t help myself. I felt like how our cows must’ve felt when being let out to pasture for the first time in the spring after a long winter.
If you haven’t heard of Saltash Passage, it’s likely because it’s a tiny village outside of Plymouth with next to nothing around it. Except for the tranquil River Tamar, where a ferry linking Plymouth and Saltash on the opposite side operated until the late 1960s.
Our Airbnb was seated at the bottom of Normandy Hill, aptly named as it was a route walked by American soldiers during WWII, making their way to the Vicarage Road Camp in St. Budeaux. And that’s about all the random facts I know about the place.
Our Airbnb was tucked under the Royal Albert Bridge which connects Cornwall on the Saltash side to Devon on the Plymouth side. It provided a perfect base for exploring for us, alongside these beautiful scenes from our little balcony.
We arrived in the evening but decided we had enough time to go check out the Rame Head Heritage Coast, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Cornwall, just a short drive away from our Airbnb. The views over Whitsand Bay along the way are stunning, and we enjoyed a five-mile walk around the peninsula, stopping to see the medieval church of St. Michael’s Chapel, Queen Adelaide’s Grotto, and the tiny town of Cawsand along the circular stroll.
The next morning, we headed out early to Polperro, down the Cornwall coast. It’s a pedestrian-only town, so we parked and walked the ten-minute route into the fishing town. Of course, the tide was out when we arrived, so the picturesque little harbour wasn’t as awe-inspiring as most of the images on Google. But it’s still an idyllic, traffic-free village to wander through and enjoy breakfast at.
It’s one of those places where it appears as though time stands still. Many of the buildings here date back to the 13th century, making it easy to picture the fishermen hauling in barrels of fish and smugglers carting in contraband back in the day… and there’s even a Museum of Smuggling and Fishing to show you photographic proof of Polperro’s notorious heritage.
Polperro Beach was the highlight of the visit, even at low tide. The small beach sits in front of Willy Wilcox cave – a favourite spot for smugglers apparently – and is sheltered by the cliffs surrounding it.
After our splendid morning stroll through Polperro, we headed to the city of Plymouth. I had been eyeing up the Tinside Lido for quite some time – it’s been voted one of the top 10 outdoor pools in Europe several times since its opening back in 1935 – and was excited to finally go for a swim in the outdoor saltwater pool overlooking the sea.
After working up an appetite swimming, we carried on walking along the water’s edge past the Royal Citadel, a fortress dating back to the 17th century as a defense against the Dutch. It is still in use today by the British military, so you can only check it out on certain days with a booked guided tour.
We stopped for lunch at Dutton’s, a takeaway spot where we enjoyed delicious local draught and crab rolls at picnic tables overlooking the sea/Plymouth Harbour.
Plymouth Harbour is well-known for being the spot from where the pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for America way back in 1620. They spent their last night before their departure in the Distillery Building, which dates back to the 14th century and was once a Black Friars monastery.
Founded in 1793, the Plymouth Distillery is England’s oldest working gin distillery. Also known as the Black Friars Distillery, thanks to its connection with the monastery, they proudly sport an image of the Mayflower on their labels as a tribute to the pilgrims.
The Barbican area, along with Sutton Harbour, is the real heart of the city, home to the largest area of historic buildings and stories in Plymouth. The harbour is the authentic port of the city, settled way back in 700AD and gets its name from Sudtone – Plymouth’s original name.
The Barbican was luckily, relatively unscathed from the Blitz during WWII, making it the area with the highest concentration of cobbled streets in Great Britain, alongside 100 listed buildings like the historic Elizabethan House.
The Plymouth Hoe is the city’s main green space which looks out over the coastline. There are memorials for soldiers of WWI and WWII alongside important citizens like the English explorer Sir Francis Drake, plenty of grassy area for picnics, and a quirky tribute to The Beatles… The copper, Hollywood-style bum-prints of the Fab Four are found here, recreated from the famous image of them sitting on the hillside while filming the Magical Mystery Tour in 1967.
Before leaving Plymouth, we hit up Devil’s Point Park for a quick one-mile walk around the park and Royal William Yard. Found at the southwestern tip of the city where the River Tamar joins up with the English Channel, here you can go for a dip in the Devil’s Point Tidal Pool (a concrete seawater pool), join the many paddle boarders, or just sit and watch the boats sail by.
We headed out to the opposite coast the next day, to see the famous Tintagel Castle and some of the surrounding area. We made our way to Boscastle first, another tiny fishing village with a natural harbour and some pretty amazing views.
The original plan had been to stop at St. Nectan’s Glen waterfalls on the way to Tintagel Castle, but the area was so busy we could barely drive through there, let alone find a parking spot. So we skipped it and carried on into Tintagel where we saw the Old Post Office before heading into the English Heritage site of Tintagel Castle.
The medieval fortress dates back to the 5th century and is known for its links to King Arthur – according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, this is the place where King Arthur was conceived. Although the castle itself is mostly in ruins, the natural beauty of the area made it worth the visit.
With that said, you can skip the £17 entry fee for the castle and admire the ruins from afar… There is a bit of historic info on the few boards dotted around, but honestly, I was expecting more than some ruins, a bridge, and a statue of King Arthur for an admission price that high.
Nevertheless, the scenery is seriously breathtaking. The rugged coastline is enchanting. That may sound a bit exaggerated but honestly, I kept finding myself just staring from the top of the cliffs, mesmerized by the waves crashing below. The setting is spectacular, but can be reached without the entry fee so my advice is to save your pennies if you ever make the trip yourself.
One important note if you plan on visiting: if you want to be able to walk on the beach and check out Merlin’s Cave, make sure you check tide times first. It is only accessible during low tide, so I made sure to book our tickets when we could actually take a stroll into the so-called home of the legendary wizard, Merlin.
You’ll find this cave directly beneath the headland that Tintagel Castle sits on, stretching 330 feet, all the way from one side (Tintagel Haven) to the other (West Cove). The beach has a couple other caves too, plus a lovely little waterfall.
After our tour of Tintagel, we headed farther down the coast to Padstow. Another fishing port with some beautiful sandy beaches, the place is a popular tourist destination. So much so, that when we drove into the tiny town, the main car park was overflowing and so were the streets. There were hordes of people; families standing right smack-dab in the middle of the street with their children… it was insanity. I cannot imagine what this place would be like during the school holidays or on weekends – we were here on a Thursday in June and there were too many people to even bother stopping.
So, we saw Padstow from the busy streets as we slowly made our way through the pedestrians, and carried on to our next destination… the National Trust site Carnewas at Bedruthan Steps. But instead of going to that car park, I stopped at the Park Head car park instead, and we made our way to the Pentire Steps Beach, where we had the place entirely to ourselves.
The tide was rolling in and bringing the fog with it, but we enjoyed the unspoilt beach and peacefulness of being away from the crowds until we got kicked off the sand by the waves ushering us back up the cliff to the car.
After our drive back to our Airbnb area, we were famished and decided to head to Foreign Muck – a restaurant serving up American and Mexican grub. If you’re ever in Saltash for any reason, it’s well worth a stop. The food was delicious, the servers all incredibly friendly and helpful, and their local beer and ciders on tap were all fantastic.
We spent our last evening wandering around Saltash and Saltash Passage, enjoying the sunset over the river with the sailboats bobbing along. We had been debating all week whether to extend the trip or not, but the swarms of people that day had put us off wanting to stay over the weekend when even more visitors were sure to arrive, plus the weather was forecasting rain for the foreseeable future.
So, the next morning we packed up and headed to the North Sands beach in Salcombe for a relaxing morning before making a pit stop in Bristol to meet our friends and eventually, getting back to Notts after a truly terrific few days in the stunning southwest of England.