Cornwall has always felt so different to me, somehow. Its contrasts and incongruities leave me with the sense that it’s not actually a real place at all. It feels more like a place conjured up in the imagination of a writer of fiction, somewhere plausibility and reality can be eschewed in favour of the suspension of disbelief.
This wild, pretty coastal county is so very English with its beautiful Norman churches and delightful thatched cottages. Undulating green fields are traversed by hedgerow-lined lanes and meandering coastal paths look down on the sandy beaches and coves below. There are ancient pubs and travellers’ inns and whitewashed cottages with wooded shutters painted in jolly colours. Little boats bob gently in the waters of the estuaries when the tide is in and rest quietly, forgotten, on the beds when it’s out. All so undeniably and charmingly English.
But then again it feels so very not English too. Hidden creeks lead to clandestine worlds where groves of palm trees are found and the sea is as clear and green as the Caribbean. Secret gardens lay undiscovered for decades, muffled beneath thickets of Himalayan Rhododendrons. Cafés that would feel more at home on the Gold Coast of Australia peer down from the beach tops and nautically striped beach clubs have more in common with the Cote d’Azur than the south coast of England.
In Cornwall it’s possible to feel completely at home in in a place that seems rather foreign. Or perhaps it’s the other way round, sometimes it’s hard to tell. And one of the places in this wonderful county where I feel this contrast the most is in the chic little village of St Mawes.
St Mawes is formed of an orderly line of mismatched cottages sitting across the shimmering estuary from Falmouth. It is looked over, and perhaps looked after, by the atmospheric lighthouse at St Antony Head. In the centre of the village is a little harbour with a pasty shop and a ticket office for the little ferry boats that criss cross to the Roseland Peninsula and Falmouth. There are gorgeous Victorian villas, adorable thatched cottages and even a 1950s petrol station that is now an artists’ studio. The houses have pretty sub-tropical front gardens and there are plenty of nice places to eat and drink.
Sitting at the heart of this lovely village is one of the very best hotels in Britain, Tresanton, the sister hotel to our beloved Hotel Endsleigh. Here Olga Polizzi has created an idyllic, timeless and stylish retreat and to me it feels like the most wonderful meeting of the French Rivera, the 1930s world of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming’s Jamaican estate Goldeneye. Arriving at Tresanton gives you the curious feeling that you could be anywhere in the world, at any time at all in the last one hundred years. With exquisitely furnished rooms, each overlooking the sea, a beautiful dining room with a magnificent view and crackling log fires in June – just because it happened to be raining – it’s the most fabulous place to spend a summer weekend.
And that’s without even mentioning the swimming. One of the real treats of staying in St Mawes is being able to swim from your accommodation. All you need to do is cross the road and wander down the stone steps to the beach. A swim before breakfast and again before dinner became our habit when we were there and there’s nothing like it for building up an appetite and working off some of the calories from all of those cream teas and pasties.
St Mawes is very well-placed for discovering some of the treats this pretty county has to offer. To the east lies the Roseland peninsula with the brilliant Hidden Hut café where the cooking and the eating takes place outside above the beach, regardless of the weather. In the other directions are any number of fantastic sub-tropical gardens and the extraordinary estuary-side Church of St Just in Roseland with its palm trees can be reached by foot. To the southwest is the Helford river and Daphne du Maurier country. For a while I had been planning on running a Bleak House Experience in Cornwall this September but wasn’t entirely sure exactly where it should be. I found plenty of suitable houses in pretty seaside villages but nothing quite felt right, nothing was quite Bleak House enough. But as we drove down the winding hill into St Mawes this June I realised before I’d even climbed out of the car that this was it, this was the one, this was where I would find the perfect house.
By dinnertime that evening I’d found the most wonderful house to rent and it is now booked, and is ready and waiting for us to arrive in three month’s time. It’s separate from Tresanton, but in the same way it’s connected to it and has definitely inherited much of the style. And you can join me there, on the 23rd September, and mark the end of summer in a place where the summer refuses to leave.
In the last year I have run six Bleak House Experiences and they have transformed my business and my life. Here is a recap and celebration of the first wonderful year.
An insight into how Lauren Keim and I we put together a very special Bleak House Experience celebrating Virginia Woolf’s much loved book Mrs Dalloway.