Kate Taylor follows three Cornish rivers south: first she crosses the mighty River Tamar, the gateway to Cornwall, touring the south coast to pretty Looe.
Brunel's bridge over the Tamar
As we drove the Danbury Surf T5 camper van across the impressive Tamar Suspension Bridge into Cornwall,we enjoyed a great view of Brunel’s beautiful wrought-iron railway bridge, spanning the mighty river beside us. We got our £1.50 toll ready, then discovered that you only pay to leave Cornwall at Saltash: what a good start.
The Tamar Valley is beautiful up-river; a steep-sided gorge, thickly wooded, with villages built in the local stone. We’d return to discover more of the Tamar’s secrets, but we’d been driving all day, so we pressed on to Looe’s pretty Tregoad Park campsite.
LOOE HARBOUR HIGHLIGHTS
We drove into Looe for a meal at dusk, enjoying Doom Bar, a delicious beer from St Austell. As we ate in the Harbour Moon, lights popped on all around Looe harbour and in the houses up the cliffs on each side of the river. It was a magical setting for a walk: we wandered towards the harbour mouth, then gasped at the silhouette of a huge seal, reclining on the rocks in the dark. He didn’t move, so we approached and discovered it was a lifelike bronze statue of Nelson, the much loved Looe Island Seal, who’d once turned his back on the wilds and chosen this as his home.
The next morning we drove back into Looe, past Nelson the seal, to Hannafore Point. You can park on the seafront for free here, with a great view of Looe Island. It’s now a nature reserve, teeming with life, including grey seals. There are boat trips and guided walks, but we were happy just to explore the beach, make lunch and go for a walk along the cliff path.
MORWELLHAM QUAY: A TRAIN BACK IN TIME
We’d wanted to visit Morwellham Quay, in the Tamar Valley, ever since it featured in the BBC’s Edwardian Farm series. Our third day was overcast: perfect for it! If you want a meaningful collision with history, this spot will do it.
Malc and I walked happily into Ruth’s cosy cottage, as featured in the television series, admired the pumpkins growing up the wall of the Edwardian greenhouse, and then followed the signs to the mine. We piled into bench seats in the cages of two open train trucks, with about 20 others, listened to safety warnings, then held on tightly as it rattled off down the wooded valley, plunging into the copper mine. Our guide scandalised us with spotlit tableaux and tales of miners, some only ten years old, walking five miles to work, then mining for eight hours. The number of jobs available declined when cheaper copper was imported from America, so the mine owner switched to arsenic production, which was no better for the workers. Miners had a short, hard life in those days and it made us feel privileged to live in the modern world.
Chilled in every way by our history lesson, we warmed up with hot soup in Morwellham’s Inn. ‘Rope-making, next!’ said Malc, enthusiastically, so we joined another couple in a barn, smiling at the costumed Edwardian schoolmistress schooling her charges close by. We’d expected a demonstration, but were soon roped in (literally), twisting strands of hemp, then having a tug-of-war to stretch it so it would hold its twist. Malc came away with a souvenir piece of the rope. Next, we went to the Edwardian shop and bought sweets from a jar, then had a look over the boat that once took the copper ore down-river for processing.
Blue sky the next morning lured us three miles east to Seaton beach. It’s one of those quiet spots, where people walk their dogs, and a mum and her little tot had built a big sandcastle out of the grey volcanic sand. It’s accessible to all, with good parking and no steep steps. We brewed up in our campervan and used the posh loos, while those without ’vans took a gantry bridge across the River Seaton and had a coffee in a higgledypiggledy beach café. This still wasn’t my perfect beach, so we drove east.
SCENIC COAST DRIVE: WHITSAND BAY, SHARROW POINT, TREGONHAWKE AND FINNYGOOK
Suddenly we were both saying ‘Wow!’ repeatedly, as we found ourselves on a spectacular drive along a narrow clifftop road, past naval firing ranges at Portwrinkle and on to Finnygook beach, named after the wreckers of old. At last we’d found the perfect Cornish beaches of my imagination: Whitsand Bay, Tregonhawke, Sharrow Point and Finnygook, complete with white sand, mighty rocks, and surf.
WRECKERS' BEACH AT FINNYGOOK
We parked next to the ghoulish sign for Finnygook café and followed a steep path and open steel steps down the cliffs, past the lifeguard’s lookout hut and pillboxes, to the beach. One couple turned back, because their dog’s paws could have slipped through the steps.
We could see Rame head on the peninsula to the east and we decided to explore right to the edge of the Tamar.
CAWSAND RIVER QUAY & A VIEW OF PLYMOUTH
The National Trust house Antony looked quite appealing, but the sun was still shining, so we went to Cawsand, a quiet river quay beneath a naval fort, opposite bustling Plymouth.
Luckily, Malc spotted a sign for Rhodri Cornish Clotted Cream Teas; he has a nose for tea rooms! So we watched the passenger ferry arrive on the beach below and enjoyed our first ever Cornish cream tea together. It cost £7.50, but there were two big scones, so we shared it.
EDGECOMBE COUNTRY PARK & ST GERMAN'S QUAY
Following the river inland, we passed Edgecombe Country Park and Cremyll, another river quay. Then we discovered a beautiful hidden spot: St Germans Quay on the Lynher River, which runs into the Tamar. Above our heads was a great viaduct carrying trains between Devon and Cornwall. What a peaceful spot it was, in the evening light. We headed back to Looe for the night and ate in the ’van.
POLPERRO VILLAGE AND HARBOUR WALK
We’d seen photos of the postcard-pretty village of Polperro so we were keen to visit this sheltered fishing village next. We knew that all vehicles are banned from Polperro, except delivery vans and residents’ cars, so we parked in the main car park and walked down the pretty
valley to the harbour. There is a ‘tram’, but we enjoyed the walk past pretty cottages by the stream. Soon we were in gift-shop territory, with many opportunities to buy tea towels, Cornish Clotted Cream fudge, shortbread, crafts, paintings and so on. ‘Later...’ we said to each other, unwilling to burden ourselves with shopping so soon.
Polperro’s narrow streets were bustling with people and the tide was out. Gulls hopped around the boats and the air smelt of the sea. We walked right out along the harbour wall, then realised we couldn’t cross to Polperro Heritage Museum and café from there, so we walked further out, climbing and scrambling up the cliffs at the river mouth.
Unlike the river Tamar or Looe, this river is only navigable within Polperro itself, but its small scale is part of the charm. Buildings jut out at odd angles and there are stone steps going up behind a pub to the cliff path. Time flew as we explored, and we bought souvenirs, a Cornish pasty and a Cornish crab sandwich on our way back to the ’van.
Our first taste of Cornwall had given us an appetite for more – and the next day we looked forward to heading west, to Fowey.
Good campsites in South Cornwall
Whitsand Bay Holiday Park, Torpoint – High on the clifftop, this campsite is perfect for you if you like the look of that spectacular beach. There's an indoor swimming pool and many other good facilities for families. There are luxury lodges and touring pitches, a shop, bar, club house, sauna and a children's play area. Check facilities, availability and book Whitsand Bay Holiday Park here.
Looe Bay Holiday Park -Parkdean Holidays. Ideally situated for your holiday in the Looe area, this holiday park offers comfortable static holiday caravans and fabulous facilities and entertainment for all the family. There are no touring pitches. The receptionist was friendly and helpful and offered lots of local tourist information and leaflets. Check facilities, availability and book Looe Bay Holiday Park here
Seaview International Holiday Park, St Austell, Cornwall. This five-star holiday park has almost 200 touring pitches for 'vans and tents as well as some holiday homes. Facilities include a shop, takeaway food, a children's play area, wi-fi, and room for rallies. It's just half an hour from The Eden Project - another 'must-see' destination in South Cornwall! Check facilities, availability and book Seaview International Holiday Park with Caravan Sitefinder
Tregoad Park Touring Site - This friendly independent campsite is ideal for visiting Looe. It's only a short drive from here to Polperro in the west and Seaton and Whitsand Bay in the east.
More good campsites in Cornwall
Looe is a great place for a harbour stroll at night and if you're there in September, book tickets fir the annual Looe Music Festival. There’s also a museum in the Guildhall and old Gaol, revealing Looe’s fishing and mining past.
Open: mid-March to 31 October
Ruth’s cottage, named after the presenter of the BBC’s Edwardian Farm series, showed the past in a good light, as did the village shop and the costume museum, where we couldn’t resist dressing up in Edwardian finery
All along Whitsand Bay are wonderful rocky coves, but there are treacherous currents and in the past, wreckers and smugglers haunted this coast, luring ships onto the rocks. These days, it’s all smiles in Finnygook Café with its views of Rame Head and the English Channel. Lifeguards keep watch over some of the beaches and flag up the safer spots for bathing and surfing
East of Looe is Seaton, an accessible seafront and stretch of silver volcanic sand. If you’re there in the evening, visit The Smuggler’s Inn for a down-to-earth old pub in a pretty spot
Tregonhawke Beach and Clifftop Café
Sun, sand, surf andSam’s café await down on wonderful sandy Tregonhawke beach. At the top is Clifftop Café, selling delicious doorstep sandwiches
Looe Harbour Long-stay car park in Millpool, West Looe. No height barrier, pay-and-display. Toilets.Looe Island On-street parking if you head for the dead end/start of the coast path; pay-and-display carpets.PolperroThe main car park is fine for cars but a bit pricey for campervans. Tip: park further out and take a bus or walk back to Polperro.Finnygook BeachPay-and-display in small car park next to the café, public toilets opposite.Whitsand BayPay-and-display car park at Sharrow Point. Portaloo (currently locked). Height barrier: 2.4m. And a few free spots beside the road at Tregonhawke. Customer toilets in Clifftop Café.
All car parks: Cornwall's website
Beaches, riptide warnings: Cornwall Beach Guide
FOOD AND DRINK
Seafood, Cornish Clotted Cream Teas and Doom Bar beer from St Austell are my top local delicacies, but Cornwall offers a cornucopia of international cuisine as well. Most pubs offer good food and there’s a tearoom
every few yards in Looe and Polperro.
Tredinnick Farm Shop, Widegates, Looe PL131QL
Local cider, bottled beers, meat, cheese, vegetables, delicious preserves to take home as gifts, plus plants.
Website: Taste South East Cornwall
ESSENTIAL INFORMATION ABOUT CORNWALL
Next blog: Kate heads west to Polruan, Golant, Fowey, The Eden Project and more