The Eco Traveler: Exploring Wild and Wonderful Cornwall

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When someone mentions Cornwall, what springs to mind? Craggy cliffs, sandy beaches and cream teas? Smugglers’ coves, Arthurian legends and the Pirates of Penzance?

Cornwall is all of these things but it’s also a stylish destination for an eco-friendly holiday. Brits have known this for years but travelers from the rest of the world don’t tend to make it as far from London as the South-West. They’re missing out. Cornwall is both one of the most beautiful and wild parts of Britain, yet also one of the most cosmopolitan and creative.

You don’t have to sacrifice style or your eco-principles for a moment. Cornwall abounds with bed & breakfast establishments, which are generally clean and comfortable and a good way to support the local community. If you are looking for something special, there are plenty of classy options such as these luxurious eco-cottages on the Lizard Peninsula.

Despite what you may have heard about English food, there’s no reason to eat badly on holiday in Cornwall. Every town has its local gems, whether it’s a full English breakfast at the local café or the famous Cornish cream tea with scones, jam and clotted cream. Cornwall is famous for simple food like pasties or fish and chips, but the county also boasts world-class restaurants, including three Michelin-starred establishments. Best known is Rick Stein’s empire of fish restaurants (sustainable, of course) in Padstow.

For culture vultures, a trip to St. Ives to visit the Tate Art Gallery – with a stunning view over the beach – and nearby Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is essential. You can also catch a play at the Minack Theatre, which is actually carved into the cliff-top in Porthcurno near Penzance.

As an eco-lover, I’m most inspired by the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the wonderful bio-domes at the Eden Project, both near St. Austell on the eastern side of the peninsula.

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The Lost Gardens of Heligan are vast, with inner flower gardens and vegetable patches and outer gardens that give way to wild meadows. There’s even a full-blown rainforest in a gully with a special sub-tropical micro-climate – amazing to see palm trees and feel warmth and humidity in England! As you ramble about, you’ll occasionally come across weird and wonderful features such as sculptures made from little hillocks planted with greenery. Most thrilling is the sense of secrecy and discovery – the gardens were abandoned, overgrown and completely forgotten during the First World War, then rediscovered by chance and restored in the early 1990s.

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Tim Smit, who worked on the restoration of Heligan, was also the driving force behind the Eden Project. The history of the Eden Project is a wonderful example of the difference that one person can make (although Smit would be the first to point out that he didn’t do all of this on his own). The site started life as an exhausted china clay quarry and now it’s a valley filled with giant bubble-like greenhouses. Construction of the domes was a notable engineering project in its own right. Today, the domes are filled with lush greenery and each dome houses plants from a different climatic zone such as the tropics or Mediterranean climates, which include Australia and California. The entire place is a fantastic living museum of the world’s plants, with a particular emphasis on crop plants. Recently they added a new exhibition and education centre called The Core with the roof modeled on a sunflower and a 70-tonne granite sculpture called Seed that works as a whispering wall. The food at the Eden Project is mostly sourced locally from Cornwall and is organic and fair trade where possible, and the gift shop is full of inspiring books and fun but green gifts (such as a hemp Frisbee). The Eden Project is owned by the Eden Trust, an educational charity aimed at teaching people about what nature offers us and how to look after it. (If you like what they do, you can donate here). Rather than just preaching to the converted, the Eden Project deliberately reaches out to all groups in society. In summer they host the Eden Sessions, a season of rock concerts in summer with performances from bands such as Oasis, the Kaiser Chiefs and the Raconteurs, and in winter they appeal to families with an ice-skating rink and Christmas festival.

Cornwall does have an airport but the best way to get there from London is via train. It’s much faster than driving and more comfortable – there’s even a sleeper service from London to Penzance (via other Cornish towns) and the crew will wake you up with a simple breakfast and your choice of tea or coffee before you reach your destination.

From Europe, you can take the ferry from France and Spain directly to Plymouth, on the Cornish and Devonshire border and the main railway line to Penzance. Once in Cornwall, you can hire a car if necessary but it’s easy to get around by public transport, including the local railway network and extensive bus service. (You also get discounts at the Eden Project if you come by public transport, bicycle or on foot).

Rather than manic touring, the best way to get the most out of Cornwall is to choose a location and stay there, perhaps walking to the next town via the beautiful South-West Coast Path.