Xenia Taliotis meets the pretty Cornwall villages that have inspired artists for centuries

It's windy at the top of Pendennis Castle. Were I not weighted down by that morning's cornish pasty, a bulky thing filled with what might once have been perky vegetables, I'd have been blown clear across the channel to France.

As it is, my belly is ballast and the battering a price worth paying for the views, which, on this clear day, stretch far and wide.

England's wife-hungry king, Henry VIII, chose well when he positioned the castle on Cornwall's Fal Estuary in 1540 — the perfect position from which to spot and stop potential invaders. And Pendennis did just that for centuries, even seeing action in World War I, when New Zealand soldiers were garrisoned here to help protect England, and again in World War II.


Decommissioned in 1958, it now entertains many of the five million tourists who descend on England's most southerly county each year. I visit on the one free day in an otherwise packed seven-day itinerary with Back-Roads Touring.

I've been coming to Cornwall since I was a child and have holidayed here with family, friends, boyfriends and even alone. But an escorted coach tour is a new experience.

As it turns out, it's also a delightful one. First, because our party is small — the company limits groups to 18 and we're an intimate eight; second, because there are three other solo travellers besides me, and third, because we're given a remarkable insight into this ancient land thanks to our guide, Helen, who knows every tuck and fold, every gnarled and ancient forest, every wide and winsome beach and every arterial back road leading to the heart of what the Celts called Kernow.

In the 18th century, Polperro's deep caves made it the perfect place to stash contraband brandy, gin and tobacco. Photo / Supplied
In the 18th century, Polperro's deep caves made it the perfect place to stash contraband brandy, gin and tobacco. Photo / Supplied

Falmouth is our base for three nights, our central point for drives around the toe of Cornwall. We've come to it via Port Isaac, a beautiful fishing village with tile-hung cottages, where television's second-most-famous doctor, curmudgeon Doc Martin, lives; Padstow, where we have a stupendous lunch at Rick Stein's seafood restaurant, and Land's End, where we stop for the obligatory sea-spattered, wind-whipped shots beneath the sign pointing to John O'Groats, 1400km thataway, and New York, 5100km the other.

Captivatingly pretty villages are as integral to the Cornish landscape as its coastline and there are several more on our itinerary.

These include Fowey, described by poet Robert Bridges as "the most poetic-looking place in England", where pastel-coloured cottages and centuries-old fishermen's cottages line steep narrow streets, and Polperro, which was once at the heart of Cornwall's "free trade" — read smuggling — in the 18th century, its deep caves the perfect place to stash contraband brandy, gin and tobacco.

But this trip is about so much more than gazing at scrubbed-up perfection, so detours take us to Cornwall's social, literary and mythological past. To the skeletal remains of tin mines on Botallack's storm-scarred cliffs, where the little museum reminds us that "there was no vision of hell not daily visited by miners" and to quirky cafes for a slice of old England with your cuppa; to author Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, and to Bedruthan Steps, the staggered sea stacks at Carnewas named after the giant who used them as a short-cut across the bay.

In between the site-seeing, there's time to daydream. Driving west from Falmouth, my gaze soars to the unwonted vast and luminous skies that have for centuries inspired and attracted British artists to this part of the county.

James Whistler, Walter Sickert, Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost are among the many who painted in or around St Ives. We get there on a train from St Erth, along what could well be the most scenic track in Britain, grabbing window seats to watch oystercatchers plucking lunch from the sand and gulls wheeling high above.

St Ives has more galleries than you can shake a paintbrush at, but for my money nothing can beat the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

I have a never-waning love for Hepworth's work and there is no better place to see her immensely powerful, sensuous pieces than at the studio where she lived and worked from 1949 to her death in 1975.

About 35 people live on St Michael's Mount - a tiny island which is also Cornwall's most famous landmark. Photo / Supplied
About 35 people live on St Michael's Mount - a tiny island which is also Cornwall's most famous landmark. Photo / Supplied

Twenty minutes or so from St Ives is St Michael's Mount, Cornwall's most famous landmark, which I last visited as an 8-year-old. Back then, my dad could still walk and I could sprint and the climb to the top was a breeze for both of us.

What I didn't know then was that people — about 35 of them — live on this tiny speck of an island and that its castle is a family home as well as a public attraction.

The walk to the summit — actually less arduous than it looks — is rewarded by entry into the fine 14th-century castle, its lovely sub-tropical gardens, which are tended by gardeners who abseil down the granite rocks to weed and plant, and spectacular views across the bay.

Gardens are big in Cornwall and some of the UK's finest are here, but we forego those and visit England's only tea plantation, at Tregothnan. The estate has been growing tea since 2000 and selling it commercially since 2015 to, among other countries, India, China and Japan.

It's a fitting emblem for Cornwall — enterprising, innovative and full of surprises.


Getting there:

flies A380 services daily between Auckland and London-Heathrow, via Dubai.

Further information: Back-Roads Touring Co has 50 European tours on sale until August 31. Their seven-day Corners of Cornwall tour, is priced from $3149 pp, a saving of $350.