North Cornwall (Bude to St Agnes to A30)
The Atlantic coast of Cornwall faces north-west across the Celtic Sea towards the south coast of Ireland. Bude is the first major seaside town as we enter Cornwall from Devon (ENGLAND), and the North Coast stretches west and south for more than forty miles (65km) until we reach St Agnes, where we might say we are entering West Cornwall. This northern section of the coast is breathtakingly beautiful, with craggy cliffs and vast expanses of golden sand, sheltered fishing ports and villages clinging to the hillsides. The area is popular with adventure-seeking watersports enthusiasts and surfers as well as for the family bucket-and-spade-type holidays. The South West Coast Path and the raw, untamed granite moors inland beckon to walkers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. Slate sea cliffs rise to 732′ (223m) in places but in others tumble down to form gentle rolling hills and dunes. These incredible natural vistas are complemented by what are perhaps the trendier towns, shops and attractions in the county.
Though Kernow is oft associated with granite, this bit of the coast is characterised mostly by slate rock, foreboding grey but sometimes interrupted by a beautiful rippling pattern of green and purple serpentine rock. This is particularly prolific in the Camel Estuary, North Cornwall’s only major inlet, where we can also find the sought-after Blue Elvan type of greenstone that gave the village of Rock its name. Exceptionally, Pentire Head is formed mostly from “pillow lavas”, which are boulder-shaped extrusions of molten magma squished out through the Earth’s crust.
The distribution of attractive places in the northern half of the Cornish peninsula is heavily skewed towards the sea. There are superb coastal towns and villages every few miles along the coastline, while a smaller number of charming villages lie inland – hardly any on Bodmin Moor. There are of course several larger market towns lying on or close to the “spine” of the county.
North Cornwall’s Towns and Villages
Working our way along the coast from east to west, the first town of note is the wonderful seaside resort of Bude, with its three separate surfing beaches, a seawater swimming pool, and a historic canal which doubles as a boating lake. Bude also enjoys an unusual number of pubs and restaurants and an unusually “Riviera” atmosphere for this part of Cornwall.
West of Bude, the lovely Widemouth Bay is one of the broadest surfing beaches in the UK, with ample parking and cafés, toilets and showers of the kind that only surfers can love – i.e., cold and outdoors. Crackington Haven, not much further down the coast, is both a sheltered surf spot and a lovely little village. The Cabin Café is wonderful!
A little further inland, Camelford sits high above the sea and is a lovely location from which to explore the coast. It’s said that King Arthur met his demise in a battle nearby, and Arthurian myth and legend abides all around. It’s also a good sized market town with excellent facilities.
Nearby Tintagel and Boscastle both lie right on the coast. Tintagel has the Arthurian and pagan legend bit in spades, while also majoring in traditional beach paraphernalia, while Boscastle is a particularly beautiful little port with abundant history and a Museum of Witchcraft – go, it’s really good!
Diving inland again we find Delabole, a place with an interesting and well-hidden history. There are some lovely local pubs and plenty of pleasant walks in the area, too. The Delabole Slate Quarry is one of the biggest holes in Europe, 425′ deep (129m) and a mile and a half (nearly a kilometre) around. The slate has been used as a building material for over 600 years. A two-mile walk to Tregardock Beach can reveal some serious surf, not for beginners or the faint of heart.
Port Gaverne is a quaint and quiet harbour, unchanged for hundreds of years, from which Delabole slate once used to be shipped, and pilchards were processed in their thousands. Very sleepy now, but right next door to Port Isaac, a still working port with a lot more bustle, famous as the location for the TV show Doc Martin!
Continuing our journey down the coast, Port Quin is a favourite with those who want to get away from the crowds. Until recently a ghost town and still without any shops or facilities at all, you won’t be troubled by tourists. The walking from here is spectacular, and there’s climbing, coasteering and kayaking to be had through Cornish Coast Adventures. Or just enjoy one of the most beautiful secluded coves in Cornwall.
The Camel Estuary cuts deeply into the north shore at this point – surprisingly the only major estuary or inlet on this entire section of coast. With Polzeath and Rock on one side, Padstow on the other, it’s a famous haven for watersports of all kinds, remaining tidal for many miles upstream to Wadebridge. Above the tideway, the river reaches almost to the fascinating and historic town of Bodmin before bearing off to its source on the moor.
Back at the coast, we can leave the estuary and round Trevose Head with its futuristic lifeboat station, dropping down south-west to Mawgan Porth. This is a lovely little village, one of the few that can claim to be on the main coast road rather than near it, and has an equally super beach. It also boasts proximity to Watergate Bay, Bedruthan Steps, Treyarnon, Constantine and Porthcothan, making it for the beach lover perhaps the best small destination in the area.
Newquay is next and has much to commend it. From surfing to nightlife, events big and small, myriad shops and businesses and a pumping surf and music fuelled vibe make this the favourite destination for the young and young at heart.
Perranporth is a smaller but equally sought after destination, with its village, wide expanse of sand, surf spots and a broad spread of dunes behind. It also has the only beach bar in the UK that is actually in the middle of a beach; The Watering Hole, though threatened by waves and storms and floods, endures defiantly like some latter-day King Canute. Only it’s a pub. Not a king.
St. Agnes, the last place we’re going to mention on this bit of coast, is on the quiet potentially the coolest place in Cornwall. Seemingly sleepy, and arguably it is so, but it has surf, stunning bays, a friendly community and as much going on as you want. Read our blog extolling its virtues, here…
Particular Things To Enjoy in North Cornwall
While Cornwall can boast many, many top surf spots – at least seventy-five at the last count – it’s safe to say that this stretch of the coast is blessed with a greater number of easily accessible surfing beaches than any other. It’s one of the reasons that North Cornwall is such a popular destination for surfers. And of course, the south and west coasts are never too far away, should conditions change!
Most of the beaches in North Cornwall are sandy, making them very child-friendly, and many of them are safe for swimming and ideal for families, being close to car parks and other facilities. Almost every coastal town or village in North Cornwall has a beach within walking distance and many others not more than a short drive. Most of the beaches are dog-friendly, although some do not allow our furry-friends in the high season between Easter and October.
The coastline of North Cornwall is some of the most spectacular in the world. Atlantic waves roll in to the sandy beaches, and the imposing cliffs – the predictably named High Cliff near Crackington Haven is the tallest, towering 732′ (223m) about the ocean. Much of the area is popular for climbing and coasteering, but make sure you have an experienced guide to tell you where is safe to explore – these rocks and seas are treacherous in the extreme!
Cornwall might not be famous for its roads, but it certainly should be. The demands of the tourist traffic and a good deal of investment ensure that they are in excellent condition, but it is their character that is most notable. The A39 Atlantic Highway runs down the north coast, to join in West Cornwall with the equally wonderful A30, which has seared its way across Bodmin Moor further inland. Both are among the best non-mountainous driving and sightseeing road sections in Europe.
The history of the Cornish coast is a litany of boatbuilding, fishing, smuggling, wrecking and sometimes piracy, and nowhere can you understand this long-held culture better than from the many quaint and beautiful harbour villages of the north coast. In fact, no fewer than six of our “must-visit” Cornish ports lie on this part of the county; Bude, Boscastle, Port Isaac, Port Quin, Padstow and Newquay are all iconic micro-ports that are teeming with character, history and things to do!
The North Cornwall section of the South West Coast Path includes some of the toughest and most challenging routes in its 630 (1008km) mile length, but also some more gentle ones, and some easy access walks like Glebe Cliff at Tintagel, Stepper Point near Padstow, Bedruthan Steps, or Boscastle Harbour. The latter are short loops (less than a mile) suitable for people with mobility challenges, pushchairs, wheelchairs and mobility scooters. The place to place routes are generally in the region of 10-15miles (16-24km). You can read our detailed page on the SWCP here…
Of course, the coast isn’t the only place that walking is worthwhile! North Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor is a fantastic “get away from it all”, with its rugged landscape of granite tors and stunning views across the county. There’s a sixty mile (96km) route called “The Copper Trail” that circumnavigates the moor, or you can stride up the highest tors, visit some of the many stone circles or megaliths, or take an easy and family friendly waymarked trail, some of which are cycle trails, too!
Cardinham Woods belongs to and is managed by the Forestry Commission. There are waymarked trails throughout the woodland, and it’s lovely for an afternoon family stroll along the river – relatively flat and extremely pretty. For the more energetic visitor, there are challenging mountain bike routes including the seven and a half mile (12km) “Bodmin Beast”.
This inland lake and cycle trail on the edge of Bodmin Moor is the go-to destination for any number of watersports and adventures, including cable wakeboarding which is a great introduction before you brave a boat wake on the sea. Check it out!
Suitable for walking but mostly used for cycling, the flat and level Camel Trail runs along an old disused railway line. The section from Padstow to Wadebridge is the most popular, but it then continues to Bodmin and on to Wenfordbridge near St. Breward on Bodmin Moor.
Tintagel and its Castle
The coastal town of Tintagel is one of the most-visited places in Cornwall, and its castle is a place of myth and magic, where the legend of King Arthur was born. For our comprehensive page about Tintagel, click here…
Standing in the very middle of Bodmin Moor, the famous Jamaica Inn was immortalised by the book of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier, and hosts a museum dedicated to the author. It was once the only safe overnight halt for coach travellers or those on horseback or on foot, as they traversed the exposed and somewhat boggy and misty uplands. The inn is still an ideal place to take a break as you cross the moor, by road or on foot.
While many visitors instinctively look to the west of the county as they plan a visit to Cornwall, you will find that the North Cornwall region has much to commend it. A richly rewarding region to explore – we find here the remnants of Cornwall’s mining industry, the still thriving maritime activities, and the history of some of the inhabitants’ more nefarious pastimes – smuggling, wrecking, and outright piracy. All the while, surfing, sailing and family beach fun is on your doorstep.
If you’d like to come and visit North Cornwall, there are many cottages to rent in the area through Cornish Traditional Cottages, at any time of the year.
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