Wild West Cornwall

Daily Express, October 20, 2007

PUREST OF PLEASURES IN BRITAIN’S WILD, WILD WEST

Drama natural and theatrical are on the menu as DUNCAN CRAIG heads to the far tip of Cornwall for an unforgettable short break

I WAS the first to spot it: a lone dorsal fin bearing down on us, one of the true universally terrifying sights. A second emerged, then three more, and before long our 12-man inflatable was all but surrounded by sharks.

Our pilot Rory and faintly piratical guide Paul leapt into action, one turning the engine off, the other reaching excitedly for his notepad. What are you doing?! “They only have very small brains,” Paul announced by way of reassurance. Now, I’m no expert but I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to come down to a general knowledge quiz.

The western tip of Cornwall is full of surprises. The big toe at the foot of Britain has long enjoyed a reputation for natural beauty. But nothing prepares you for the sheer abundance and variety of stirring landscapes and seascapes and its eye-catching – even heart-stopping – wildlife.

The locals view their county as a country; it’s more like a different world. And a couple of miles offshore from Penzance on a half-day marine wildlife cruise, we had run into some aliens from a prehistoric era.

Fortunately, our circling friends turned out to be basking sharks, the Homer Simpsons of the shark world – ponderous, lethargic and only really interested in accumulating (non-human) food.

We did a sweep of Land’s End and as we turned for home, three pairs of normally reclusive Risso’s dolphins leapt in and out of the water imperiously on a trajectory less than 40ft away. Then the tour de force, a 30ft minke whale which slid silently under the boat as we held our collective breath. “What a day,” beamed Paul, his wild hair flapping in the breeze.

For my partner and I, it had begun at 7am with a knock at the door of our sleeper train berth. A pot of tea was delivered, along with the news of our imminent arrival in Penzance. This was baffling. Just a few minutes earlier, seemingly, we’d been in London Paddington, twisting and turning under thin bedding in our narrow, carpet-walled bunks, wondering how on earth we were going to get even a moment’s sleep.

Sharks only have small brains, Paul said by way of reassurance. I’m no expert but I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to come down to an IQ test

Now, apparently, we were there. It was like being in a clunking, juddering teleportation device – furnished in the Seventies.

Slightly incredulous, we slid open the window shutter above the tiny basin. There, sure enough, was St Michael’s Mount rising majestically from the eerily still waters of Mount’s Bay, its ancient castle catching the first shards of dawn light.

I located the cycle carriage where we had stored our bikes as we embarked in London just before midnight and we wheeled them off the train with eco-consciences as clear as the bracing Cornish morning.

We were pointed in the direction of the Mackerel Sky Café for breakfast, where we devoured fresh kippers and scramble, washed down with Cornish Earl Grey – the only tea made in England (should the Cornish ever concede that geographical detail).

This sustained us through the wildlife cruise and an afternoon amble around Penzance, before we took the cycle path a couple of miles east to idyllic Marazion and the Mount Haven.

Perched high on the outskirts of the village in sub-tropical grounds, the Mount Haven’s strongest asset is clear: the view of St Michael’s Mount, to which the village is joined at low tide by a snaking causeway, was there through our balcony doors as we took an afternoon snooze in our compact but airy top-floor room. It was there too at dusk, a sinister silhouette visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the bar as we sunk into deep ­leather sofas, a local drop in hand.

We could even see it – floodlit now – from the chic ground-floor restaurant where we feasted on butter-soft fillet of Cornish beef, fresh seafood and lemon meringue tartlet.

But as blessed as the Mount Haven is with its location, there is no hint of complacency; its contemporary decor – all tweed carpets and angled spotlights – belies a wonderfully old-fashioned welcome and first-rate service.

My partner was uncharacteristically lost for words – her verbosity returning as we plunged into the startlingly icy water

Rising early, we freewheeled down through the village to the seafront, from where daytrippers were being ferried across to explore the medieval castle and cobbled harbour of the Mount. But if this is arguably the region’s top attraction, Porthcurno Bay is not far behind. The two are some 16 miles apart, the first half of which, with its undemanding terrain and unrivalled views, must surely rank among the UK’s premier cycle rides.

Sucking in the sea air we cruised back through Penzance and on to historic Newlyn. Herring gulls and gannets soared overhead as we stopped to admire a duo of Atlantic grey seals waddling over mystical St Clement’s Isle, a short distance offshore. A gentle climb and we swept into picturesque Mousehole, with its neat little harbour and fisherman’s cottages.

The second half of the cycle, heading inland, is scenically uninspiring but the reward is a whooping descent into the most beautiful bay this side of the Caribbean. Surveying the vivid turquoise sea of Porthcurno, my partner was uncharacteristically lost for words – her verbosity returning as we plunged into the surprisingly icy water.

With our return sleeper not leaving until 9pm, there was plenty of time to explore Minack Theatre, built high into the bay’s western headland. This “theatre under the stars” has an excellent visitor centre above the 750-seat auditorium telling the story of the redoubtable Rowena Cade, who devoted her life to the project.

The season lasts from May to September and this year everything from HMS Pinafore to The Tempest has been played out to a backdrop of crashing waves, indifferent seabirds and the occasional dorsal fin.

The Minack provides the plays, nature – as throughout west Cornwall – the drama.

* GETTING THERE: Elemental Tours (01736 811 200/www.elementaltours.co.uk) offers three-hour boat trips from £35 adults, £30 children.
Mount Haven Hotel (01736 710 249/www.mounthaven.co.uk) offers doubles from £70pp per night (two sharing), including breakfast and dinner.
First Great Western Sleeper (0845 700 0125/www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) operates Sunday to Friday between London Paddington and Penzance; twin berths from £129 return.
Cornwall Tourist Board: 01872 322 900/www.visitcornwall.co.uk