The Wild (South) West
With around 5million tourists visiting each year, the high capacity of humans doesn’t lend well to the idea of Cornwall as one of the U.K.’s wildest places. It’s more likely to conjure up images of ice creams on the beach, surfers, cream teas and rain pounding on camper-van roofs, and I guess that’s a fair assumption. With Cornwall’s mining industry finished and the fishing industry facing its struggles, Cornwall very much relies on tourism as its biggest industry, but just because it doesn’t have the vastness or grandeur of the North’s high peaks, and barren landscapes doesn’t mean it isn’t wild. It’s just got its own version of wilderness.
We’ve spent a lot of time in Cornwall over the past couple of months, and when we weren’t off travelling the northern parts of the U.K, Cornwall has always been a frequent visit for us. Whether it’s the rugged north coast, with dramatic coastlines that mirror epic tales of myth and magic, or it’s the quieter south with picturesque villages and thriving woodlands on the banks of emerald estuaries, we have certainly bared witness to its wild spaces.
Just the other morning we were at Praa sands on the southern coast, a popular beach, in-between Falmouth and Penzance. It’s one of our favourite stop overs; a cheap place to stay for the night and it overlooks the beach. Which means first thing in the morning you can open the back doors and watch the rolling waves breaking on the golden sands without even having to leave the bed.
This particular morning wasn’t spectacular, both the sky and the sea were grey and calm, no clouds bubbling and no waves churning. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it certainly made wildlife watching easier. With no chop we could easily pick out the black shapes of cormorants diving for fish, or the head of a seal just out from shore, curiously watching a paddle boarder glide through an iron sea.
It was the gaggle of birds further out that caught my attention, a huge collection of gulls had formed, with a few gannets thrown into the mix. Something was going on out there. I replaced my coffee cup with binoculars and followed the gaggle out at sea. The waters below the birds were fizzing with activity; a sea broken and splashed with white, the surface practically frothing, as huge grey shapes leapt and flipped from the depths below. Bottled-nosed dolphins. A huge pod of them cutting swiftly through the waters and putting on quite a show.
The waters here are teeming with a huge array of impressive marine wildlife; from basking sharks, to sun fish and everything in between. In Fowey, a very well to do harbour village, you’ll find a tiny aquarium that houses some fine examples of Cornwall’s marine life. The tanks house specimens brought in by local fisherman – unexpected catches in their nets; octopi, a conga eel, a sponge crab and a huge bull husk are just some of the residents. The swathes of snakelocks anemone with their long lilac and green tentacles rippling in the pulse of the water, give a glimpse to the colourful wilderness below those clear Cornish waters.
Whilst the marine and coastal habitats of Cornwall are spectacularly wild, that’s not all it has to offer. There’re the rugged open moors that stretch out under big expanses of sky, where ravens haunt the eerie remains of tin mines silhouetted on the horizon. As impressive as they are they aren’t my favourite wild places of Cornwall.
My favourite parts of Cornwall, where you can really feel the wilderness creeping in to every corner, in every trickle of bird song, wrapping itself round rocks and running through the bubbling streams, are the woodlands. Whether they line the paths where trees meet the turquoise waters of the estuaries, or they skirt the edges of patchwork farmer’s fields, they all have an ungovernable, wayward feel to them. Stepping into these incredible lush environments where the foliage twists and tangles with deadwood, and the air is a mix of fresh springs and mossy earth, wildness takes it’s ownership.
We recently visited St Nectan’s glen on the north coast just passed the mysterious Tintagel. In my opinion this is one of the best examples of Cornish woodland, with a magical 60ft waterfall as it’s centre piece. The mile or so walk from the car park by the roadside, leads you passed old stone buildings and into what feels like another world. A narrow path climbs steadily from the valley floor; hugging a fast-flowing stream that practically sings as it tumbles over rocks, rushing to the sea. Thick ferns line the way, and bird song trills from the ceiling of trees overhead, as you climb up to the tearooms and entrance to the waterfall.
There is a small charge to visit the waterfall, but it is a must. It’s not like other places where the main attraction is off limits and can only be seen from a viewing platform behind a fence. This is a totally immersive experience, and wild is all about immersion.
In order to actually see the waterfall from the valley floor you need to wade into those fresh flowing, crystal waters and walk to it. If you wanted to, you could even stand under the cascade of water pouring through the keyhole in the rock. Now that’s pretty wild.
I’m certain that if Cornwall wasn’t one of the U. K’s wild spaces, then it wouldn’t have inspired as many people as it has. There are countless books, stories, and television programmes based in this little part of the South West, not to mention the countless painters, sketchers, sculptures and photographers that take their inspiration from this phenomenal landscape. It has all the makings of a wild destination, you just need to look past the numbers of people.
You certainly can’t blame anyone for wanting to visit Cornwall, it really does have everything, and it easily makes wildness accessible for everyone - whether you want to explore the coast path, ocean depths, rugged moors or lush forests. And if you can look past the throngs of people, out to the steely blue sea or into the dark green of the undergrowth you will certainly be rewarded with Cornwall’s own brand of wild.