There is so much more to discover in Cornwall beyond the well-known tourist destinations but it can take years of accumulated local knowledge and a great deal of planning to find those secret spots. But for those seeking something different and unexpected, perhaps some peace and quiet away from the crowds, here is our guide to some of the off the beaten track delights that Cornwall has to offer.
Whether it is a hidden eatery, 2000 year old ruins, a wildlife experience or a quiet woodland walk that you seek we have it covered!
A quiet mile of sand
Carne and Pendower beaches
The Roseland peninsula as a whole remains one of Cornwall’s hidden treasures, a narrow finger of rolling farmland stretching out into Falmouth Bay dotted with tiny villages, ancient churches and quiet sandy beaches. Two of the finest are Carne and Pendower on the edge of Gerrans Bay. At low tide these two beaches become one beautiful flat stretch of sand roughly a mile in length.
These are safe beaches for swimming and water sports including some good areas for snorkelling too (just be aware that there is no lifeguard service). Carne beach is also one of the few beaches in Cornwall where dogs are welcome all year round and the ramp does make it wheelchair accessible.
Much of the coastline here as well as the beaches themselves is cared for by the National Trust so if you get tired of relaxing on the sand or swimming in the sea there is plenty to intrigue you within walking distance, including an Iron Age hillfort, Cold War bunkers and staggering coastal vistas.
The nearby village of Veryan, just a short walk away, makes for an interesting destination. It is home to five perfectly-formed round houses with thatch roofs. Said to have been built by a missionary for his daughters, they were constructed with no corners so that the devil would have nowhere to hide.
The journey to these beaches, whether you jump on the King Harry Ferry or use the inland route, takes you down some of Cornwall’s most impressively narrow and winding roads but that just makes getting there half the adventure!
Picture perfect village
This picture perfect harbour has more than a little history to share, from its humble beginnings as a china clay port to becoming the stunning backdrop for film and TV productions such as the BBC’s Poldark. Although this recent fame is starting to draw a few more tourists, Charlestown still remains one of Cornwall’s lesser known villages but it certainly has lots to offer those that take the time to visit.
As well as the picturesque harbour itself, there is the wonderful Charlestown Shipwreck Museum, a literal treasure trove of over 8,000 artefacts salvaged from wrecks around the Cornish coast and beyond. The Old Workshop housed in a converted sail loft sells a fascinating array of antiques, collectables and crafts. There are also a number of excellent restaurants and cafes dishing up meals that showcase delicious local produce and of course the ever-tempting Tallships Creamery, a family run ice cream shop producing homemade ice cream, sorbets and fudge!
For those looking to stretch their legs, there are a couple of lovely beaches beside the harbour too and the village also makes an excellent starting point for walking along the coastline of St Austell Bay.
Hidden clifftop art installation
The artist Terence Coventry lived close to the seaside village of Coverack for more than 30 years and before his death he converted three meadows on his clifftop farm into a free sculpture park. Today, in those grassy fields overlooking the sea, you will find about 25 astonishing monumental sculptures.
These huge artworks which include animal and human figures are both a celebration of his work as an artist but also his rural life as a farmer. There are rooks, owls, swallows, bulls, cows, horses and dogs as well as people and his work captures their movements and mannerisms. As you move amongst them the sculptures morph from recognisable figurative silhouettes to abstract shapes and back again. This park is a truly wonderful and surprising gift to come across while walking and makes the perfect place for a picnic.
Off the beaten track coast adventure
Cornwall has seen its fair share of shipwrecks and many astonishing stories of bravery and tragedy permeate local history. There are at least 5700 known wrecks in Cornish waters and certainly many more that have been forgotten. Thankfully modern navigational aids mean that these disastrous events are now few and far between but they do still happen.
In March 2003 the RMS Mulheim was on a voyage from Cork in Ireland to Germany when human error caused her to hit rocks at a small cove called Gamper Bay between Sennen and Lands End. The crew were all saved but the clean-up of the spilled cargo of plastic chippings took weeks. Each year the sea claims more and more of the wreck but she still makes quite a spectacle and it is possible to walk along the coastal path to peer down at her from the cliff tops, which makes for a very dramatic scene indeed. (It is possible to climb down to the wreck but this is dangerous and not advised.)
Evidence of Cornwall’s ancient past, barrows, stone circles, standing stones and quoits, dot its most rugged regions like Bodmin Moor and Penwith. In the far west you can discover Chysauster and Carn Euny, two of the best preserved Iron Age villages in Britain. At both of these sites you can walk amongst the remains of stone courtyard houses that were built around 2000 years ago.
These are substantial structures with multiple rooms, post holes, doorways and fireplaces still visible. At Carn Euny you can also go inside the fogou, an incredible subterranean tunnel and chamber built for a mysterious, unknown purpose. Both villages are cared for by English Heritage and Chysauster has a small visitors centre.
*Top Tip: Membership of Cornwall Heritage Trust is very reasonable and gives you free access to all English Heritage sites in Cornwall.
Meet Cornwall’s champion trees
Pinetum Gardens is a real hidden treasure often overlooked by visitors. Set over 30 acres, the gardens are divided into ten distinct areas including the Water Gardens, Arboretum, Cottage Garden and Japanese Garden. These carefully maintained spaces were 40 years in the making and contain a staggering 6000 different varieties of plant. Green fingered or not, these gardens are a secret oasis of calm!
One of the main attractions are Pinetum’s nine different champion trees. ‘Champion trees’ are notable trees identified and added to a database compiled by the Tree Register. This charity registers the most exceptional, rare and historically significant trees in Britain and Ireland, it is very unusual to have so many ‘Champion Trees’ in just one garden.
Among the floral superstars are a Banksia tree from Australia, a Buddleia from Mexico and an extremely rare Persimmon tree from China. Visitors can also explore the famous ‘Pinetum’ after which the gardens are named, which features an amazing 80 varieties of conifer including the enormous Giant Redwood from America.
A forgotten industrial past
This quirky location lies in an area that was once called the richest square mile in the world. In the 18th and 19th centuries the area produced thousands of tons of copper ore and attracted miners and their families from all over Cornwall. Gwennap Pit is a preaching pit that was created in 1806 when a depression created by the mining was terraced with concentric circles of stone and earth.
The pit was used by the local Methodist movement and could comfortably seat 1500 people although when the preacher John Wesley gave a service here he is said to have attracted a congregation of 32,000.
Off the beaten track art
Penzance is becoming an increasingly popular place to visit. The stunning seaside promenade, thermal heated sea pool, quirky shops and tempting cafes are all drawing people to this ancient market town. If you are looking for some artistic inspiration however the elegant Penlee House is a gallery celebrating the artists of West Cornwall.
Once a family home built in 1865 the gallery holds many works by artists of the Newlyn School including Norman Garstin, Walter Langley, Lamorna Birch and Stanhope Forbes. There are also regular special exhibitions showcasing individual Cornish artists.
Alongside the art collection is a fascinating museum holding historic collections spanning 6000 years of the area’s history and a huge photographic archive by the famous Gibson family from the Isles of Scilly.
A wild experience
This wonderful local charity provides rescue and care for seals that find themselves in trouble around Cornwall’s coast. The aim is to rehabilitate these endearing creatures and get them back out to enjoy an ocean life as soon as possible. The sanctuary also has a number of permanent residents who for various reasons aren’t able to return to the wild.
This makes the Cornish Seal Sanctuary the perfect opportunity to see the resident grey seals and common seals up close as well as the rescue pups and convalescing adults. There are a number of different pools each with its own community of seals and underwater viewing windows to see them at their most agile.
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is also home to a number of Humboldt penguins, beavers and sea lions who all make wonderfully entertaining creatures to watch, especially at feeding time!
Off the beaten track eats
As the name suggests you will find Sam’s on the Beach just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge on Polkerris beach. This little restaurant which is housed in a restored RNLI Lifeboat House serves up the best that the sea has to offer as well as some spectacular views.
Sam’s is one of those hidden places, tucked away down miles of winding backroads, that is well worth all the effort to reach it. It is also situated on the coastal path and Gribben Head, a favourite with author Daphne du Maurier who lived close by, is within easy reach on foot. For the more energetic, or those wanting to work off their delicious meal, a few more miles of breath-taking views across St Austell Bay and you can be in Fowey.
A hidden woodland walk
This woodland walk is tucked away near the village of Ponsanooth and it is hard to imagine that this beautiful place was the site of a gunpowder works for around a hundred years. Now managed by Cornwall Woodland Trust, Kennall Vale is the picturesque valley dotted with the ruined remains of this industrial past which only adds to its unusual atmosphere.
The River Kennall pours through the woodland, tumbling over boulders and shooting from old stone channels once used to power the waterwheels. The path weaves through the trees to a water filled quarry and ivy-clad buildings now reclaimed by nature.
The whole scene is just lovely, so that whether you decide to visit for the autumn colours, the bluebells in spring or during the winter when the river roars from the falls in a haze of spray, there is always something to catch your eye.
Hidden outdoor theatre
Outdoor theatre is an essential part of our Cornish culture and at Trebah you will find a beautiful custom built entertainment space surrounded by stunning subtropical gardens. The historic Trebah estate is one of the great gardens of Cornwall and sits in a sheltered valley close to the Helford River.
Miles of footpaths wind down to a small private beach and you can discover 100 year old magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias as well as a magnificent giant Gunnera forest, and tucked away in the heart of it all is the Trebah Garden Amphitheatre. Although Trebah Garden is passionate about supporting Cornish performing arts, they also welcome national and international artists to this inspirational location.
Despite the amphitheatre providing a brilliant stage, some shows by their design spill out into the gardens too, taking advantage of the lush surroundings to provide stunning backdrops for promenade performances.
A seaside escape
Bude is Cornwall’s most northerly town and has been a popular seaside resort since Victorian times. This dramatic stretch of coastline has long been known for its unusual geology, excellent surfing and outstanding natural beauty. Today it makes a lovely get-away because it is often missed on the usual tourist trail as the crowds head to the more well-known destinations further south.
Bude’s 91m long semi-natural Sea Pool was first opened in 1930 to provide safe swimming for all. It is one of only a few tidal pools remaining open across the country. For the less confident swimmer or those with young children this is an ideal haven away from the Atlantic rollers. Swimming here is free and there are floatation aids available, as well as deck chairs and brightly painted beach huts for hire in the summer months.
Weird and wonderful heritage
Situated in the picturesque harbour of Boscastle on Cornwall’s north coast is one of the UK’s most unusual and unique museums. Established in 1960 The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic holds an incredible collection of over 3000 objects and 7000 books. It is considered to be the world’s largest collection of paraphernalia and artefacts related to ritual magic and witchcraft.
There are numerous displays over two floors containing an eclectic mix of weird and wonderful items covering all aspects of folk magic and the occult. From Aleister Crowley’s ritual chalice, divination tools and voodoo dolls, to charms worn by soldiers in World War I, this museum is a riot for the senses and famed for its strange exhibits.
Above all, however, the museum’s aim is to educate and dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding the history and practice of magic, so it makes a surprisingly educational place to visit too.
The best of the rest
Crowns Engine Houses, Botallack – photogenic clifftop engine houses as seen in Poldark.
Newlyn village – historic and picturesque Newlyn is home to the largest fishing fleet in Cornwall.
Wheal Martyn Museum – the UK’s only china clay museum, explore the heritage and wildlife trails with working waterwheels and peer into the enormous working pit.
Hurlers Stone Circles – the only grouping of three Bronze Age stone circles in England.
Grebe beach, near Mawnan Smith – a real local’s favourite, one of the hidden beaches near Falmouth.
If these hidden treasures have inspired you to explore more of Cornwall why not find your perfect home away from home and browse our holiday cottages in Cornwall.