Cornwall Holidays: A Step Back in Time
Mark Bibby Jackson returns to a scene in his youth to become reacquainted with the charms of Mevagissey and its windswept coastline while on his Cornwall holidays.
In our pampered existence, glamping seems to be all the rage, but at times it does us no harm to go back to basics. Unfortunately, for me the image of holiday parks and camping sites is tainted by Carry On Camping, and more recently an episode of Vera, so it comes as a pleasant surprise as we drive into the grounds of Heligan Caravan and Camping site in Cornwall. Blooming spring flowers greet us, and the view across the valley towards the sea is spectacular.
Not that there is anything basic about Heligan, or at least in the three-bedroom holiday home we are booked into. The kitchen is fully equipped, the living area spacious with a good TV, and one of the bedrooms even has an en suite toilet. You feel that Barbara Windsor and Syd James would have approved. Perhaps this is one of the great Cornish secrets.
Camping in Heligan, Mevagissey
Heligan is three miles from the fishing village of Mevagissey and slightly further from the beach at Pentewan, both are easily accessible by a path that runs from the camp site and down the valley – turn left at the railway bridge for Pentewan and keep on going for Mevagissey.
I came to Mevagissey before as a youth struggling with the tragic inevitability of King Lear for my A Levels. Then we had taken a timeless National Express from London, but now we drive – a sign of increasing affluence. To an extent the fishing village has withstood the test of time – and doubtful memory – well, however the former fishing village has sufficient boutique shops and tea rooms to lure the wayward Easter holiday maker.
Thirty-odd years ago the Coastguard Cottages in which we stayed seemed isolated in their promontory high above the harbour, now they have been engulfed by comrades offering similar accommodation.
Mevagissey harbour has a familiar appeal. Fishing boats bob up and down gracefully sheltered from the storm waging out at sea by the sturdy walls. We battle the near 30-mile-per-hour winds along the front to the Wheel House, a wonderful seafood restaurant, where we enjoy a magnificent smoked mackerel pate and fish stew before the self-indulgence of homemade Bakewell tart with custard.
The Wheel House is undergoing something of a refurbishment with rooms being added and plans of a wet fish counter so that people can buy their fish to barbecue back at the holiday camp. The owners have their very own fishing boat – the Nautilus – so you are assured the fish is as fresh as the weather permits – I doubt many fishermen risked the seas during our brief windswept sojourn. The meat is also bought from select, local farms.
Previously, the place used to be a smugglers’ inn with tunnels running underneath to cottages behind where contraband was kept safe from the prying eyes of customs’ officials. Now, the restaurant has a much more respectable air, although I’m sure the extremely friendly and helpful staff will provide some rum if the spirit takes you.
Old Curiosities and Lifeguards
The following day, having survived the night’s gale, I walk along the path back to Mevagissey, along the way I pass a sign informing me that the long-horned cows are dangerous and to keep well clear, or perhaps it is the marauding sheep it is referring to. After coffee at the pleasant Tea on the Quay with its excellent harbour views, I walk to the Mevagissey Museum recommended by the staff at the Wheel House the previous evening.
A veritable curiosity shop of memorabilia awaits. Three floors are jam packed with artefacts demonstrating the seafaring history of the village, with a strong emphasis on the coast guards that risked their lives in order to save others. I am informed that up until the 80s when I last came, the economy of the village was predominantly fishing-based, but as the industry declined this was replaced by tourism.
Free of charge, donations kindly accepted, the museum is an ideal break from the elements and a good way to while away some time, especially for the kids who can join the treasure trail detecting secrets along the way.
The waves are still crashing against the sea walls as I emerge from my safe haven and so decide to hide once more in the Fountain Inn, which I am assured by the woman who works in the museum, is the local for locals. A 15th Century inn with the town’s longest serving landlord, a traditional fire welcomes all waifs and strays, as does the fantastic fish and chips, although the prawn tempura was a tad disappointing – perhaps Japanese doesn’t translate well into Cornish.
Watching the Waves
Reinvigorated we take to the road and explore the area as the rains settle in. A sign says the beach at Pentewan is private – and most of it is dominated by Heligan’s sister holiday park –, but a short stretch of sand is reserved for me and the howling gale. Foam spumes across the beach as the waves crash onto land and I feel reinvigorated after my lunchtime pint of the all-pervasive St Austell ale.
The previous evening our taxi driver had recommended Charlestown and it is to here that we proceed next, only to discover the town famed for its shipwreck museum is engulfed by fellow tourists. I prefer neighbouring Porthpean with its narrow shore bombarded by the relentless waves.
Instead, we carry on driving without purpose towards towns beginning with Tre while avoiding the traffic that engulfs St Austell. Gorran Haven is a delightful town with a small front, but the stand out is Portmellon, famed for the waves that come crashing over the road, ensuring your vehicle gets a salt water wash regardless of whether you want one or not.
Watching the waves crashing over the road, I am reminded of my Faroe Islands travel adventure, as I stare transfixed by this wonderful spectacle.
The drive back seems tame in comparison, but amid the winding country lanes, we detect signs for The Crown Inn, a 16th Century Inn, in the hamlet of St Ewe, less than two miles from Heligan. It is to here that we return later that evening, and dine next to the welcoming wood fire.
Checking reviews online, we are reassured by the number of stars it attracts, and are not disappointed as our food arrives. A wonderful fresh crab salad is followed by moules marinère and a fish curry that claims Malaysian heritage but could equally orientate from Thailand or even Cornwall. Despite its questionable origins, the curry, like the mussels, excels. And we are left to return to our temporary home refreshed, reinvigorated and replenished, our somewhat chaotic Cornwall holidays an undeniable success.
To book either a luxury holiday home at Heligan or reserve a plot for camping, click here. Alternatively, if camping doesn’t appeal on your Cornwall holidays, book a hotel or apartment through our comparison engine, which scans all the major booking sites.
Cornwall Holidays Photo Gallery
Things to do on your Cornwall holidays
For more ideas on what to do on your Cornwall holidays, visit the official tourism site. Cover image, c. Matt Jessop, courtesy of Visit Cornwall.