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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.
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.