South Cornwall (Saltash to Falmouth to A30)
The south coast of Cornwall looks towards France and the Channel Islands across the English Channel and the Celtic Sea. As we leave Devon (ENGLAND) at the mighty Tamar Bridge, either on the A38 road or the ancient Brunel railway bridge right next to it, we are heading into the Cornish town of Saltash. Alternatively, there’s an old chain ferry which carries both cars and pedestrians across the “Hamoaze”, the mouth of the Tamar, to Torpoint, or one can use the Cremyll foot ferry on the edge of Plymouth Sound. In the latter two cases, we are landing on the Rame Peninsula, Cornwall’s incredibly beautiful but largely ignored corner, with tidal inlets, cliffs and sandy beaches, unspoilt farms and villages and a superb country park in the grounds of Mount Edgcumbe House.
Plymouth is the meeting-place of two Devon rivers, the Plym and the Tavy, and two Cornish ones, the Tamar and the Lynher. The latter is also called the St German’s River. It’s quite unusual to have so many major rivers come together like this (although it happens again at the other end of the region near Falmouth), and it makes for a very attractive and exciting geography at the Cornwall/Devon border. This border is delineated by the Tamar, in fact, and its vast and luscious wooded valley is one of the crowning glories of this part of the world. It can be enjoyed by canoe or kayak, or from the Tamar Valley railway line which runs from Gunnislake all the way to the mainline station at Plymouth.
The South West Coast Path and the raw, untamed granite moors inland appeal to walkers and wildlife enthusiasts in equal measure. Slate sea cliffs along the south coast rise hundreds of feet out of the sea in places, making for stunning vistas, but in others bow down to form gently rolling hills and valleys, secluded and out of the wind.
Though Kernow is usually associated with granite, and indeed it is a granite intrusion from which the higher ground is formed, the coast is characterised mostly by slate rock. This is typically greyish brown but is occasionally interrupted by a beautiful rippling pattern of green and purple serpentine rocks. The south coast beaches are generally made up of somewhat coarser sand and shingle than the north and west, broken up by the distinctive rock ledges that geologists call “wave-cut platforms”.
The distribution of attractive places in this bit of the Cornish peninsula is as usual heavily weighted towards the sea. There are coastal towns and villages every few miles along the coastline, but a smaller number of settlements are found inland – unsurprisingly hardly any on the forbidding Bodmin Moor. There are, of course, a number of the larger “market towns” lying on or close to the central spine of the county.
South Cornwall’s Towns and Villages – Coastal from East to West:
Saltash is sometimes known as The Gateway to Cornwall, at the other end of the Tamar Bridge (both road and rail) from Plymouth in Devon. It’s not exactly the seaside but lies on the estuary directly opposite Devonport Dockyard with its submarines and other warships. It does feel very rural, however, with a nature reserve and the Tamar AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
Millbrook, Maker and Rame itself are on the stunning Rame Peninsula, villages of enormous historical and cultural interest neighbouring the twin seaside towns of Kingsand and Cawsand, famous for many things including piracy and wrecking. The Rame Peninsula and Rame Head are regarded as the forgotten corner of Cornwall – read all about it here…
Portwrinkle and Downderry are fishing villages with lovely beaches and rockpools. Portwrinkle has a small harbour but no shops at all, though the nearby village of Crafthole can provide, and Millbrook, Kingsand and Cawsand are not far away.
Looe is one of Cornwall’s most popular coastal resorts with locals and tourists alike. It has a beautiful sheltered harbour at the mouth of the Looe river which divides the town, and several beaches adjacent. Polperro is a slightly smaller but similar town to the west, with an unusual park and ride scheme because the streets are unsuitable for traffic!
Fowey and Polruan sit on opposite sides of the River Fowey near St Austell. Seemingly untouched by time, they are lovely unspoilt towns with an unusually exclusive vibe and are fantastic places to holiday in Cornwall.
Polkerris is better known for its beach and Napoleonic harbour defences than the village, but a lovely holiday spot with a watersports centre, great pub and restaurants, and excellent proximity to larger Fowey and Charlestown.
Charlestown is the harbour made famous by many films and TV shows, where tall ships are usually to be found (and very often film crews). It also has small beaches at lower states of tide, and is a very interesting place to visit, with nice hostelries and a somewhat quirky Shipwreck Museum.
Mevagissey is a stunningly picturesque twin harbour fishing village. Its narrow streets and alleyways are filled with nautical gift shops, pubs and restaurants, and it’s still a working harbour where you can buy fresh fish direct from the boats. The passenger ferry across the bay between Meva and Fowey is one of the most uplifting boat trips we know of.
Portscatho is a super little village, once a thriving port and still home to a few working boats. It has a number of shops, galleries and pubs and fantastic sandy beaches nearby, including Porthcunick, home of the famous Hidden Hut restaurant.
St Mawes is best described as delightful, a village at the mouth of the Percuil on the tip of the beautiful Roseland Peninsula. The 16th century St Mawes Castle stands proudly above the whitewashed fishermen’s cottages that line the harbour.
Mylor is formed by several settlements, including Mylor Bridge, around the northern part of Falmouth, which is not a city but is one of Cornwall’s largest conurbations. Together with Penryn to the east, they boast a number of marinas and ports all around the vast natural harbour and the waterway known as Carrick Roads, the conjunction of no less than five major Cornish rivers.
South Cornwall’s Towns and Villages – Inland in no particular order:
Bodmin is the largest inland town in this part of Cornwall. Actually, it’s kind of in the middle of the county, not knowing whether to call itself North or South. Liskeard is much the same size. Indian Queens is small, but well known to those who passed through it on the A30 trunk road before the dual-carriageway was built – originally a coach or post house, the pub called the Indian Queen gave it the name. This is dubiously ascribed to Pocahontas who some believe stayed there on her way to London, but a more likely story is that of a Portuguese princess, whose appearance gave locals to believe she was an Indian. But it may simply have been named after Queen Victoria who was Queen of India.
St Neot is a valley village on the edge of Bodmin Moor. It enjoys an exceptional community spirit and is well placed for the many attractions of the moor including Jamaica Inn and Dozmary Pool. Nearby is St Cleer, another friendly town with pubs and shops and a wealth of industrial relics.
Particular Things To Enjoy in South Cornwall
The Eden Project, near St Austell at roughly the midpoint of this part of Cornwall, should rightfully be one of the wonders of the world. As well as its multiple ecosystems housed in innovative biodomes, it has spectacular art installations and hosts a variety of musical performances including the very popular “Eden Sessions”. They also sell very good pasties and host the World Pasty Making Championships.
The unusually mild climate of South Cornwall means that gardens flourish even without the greenhouses of Eden. From Antony House, Ince Castle, Trematon Castle and Mary Newman’s Cottage in the east to Lamorran, Tregothnan and Trelissick in the west, there are several dozen gardens that are open to public enjoyment, many featuring exotic plants not commonly seen in the UK. The Lost Gardens of Heligan is particularly famous and mysterious.
The history of Cornwall is entwined with the mining and maritime industries, and both of these relied heavily on its harbours. Nearly every coastal town in the county has some sort of harbour, and they are exceptionally pleasant places to holiday or just to visit for a day. We have compiled a page on some of the very best, seven of which can be found on this stretch of coastline. *link
The coastline of South Cornwall is rugged and spectacular, with cliffs and jutting headlands, islands and arches, but also has many splendid beaches varying from perfect golden sand to shingle, pebbles or rock. The seas are generally calmer on this coast, making most of the beaches safe for bathing, but caution must be exercised in stormy weather or where signs indicate strong currents. Talland Bay, between Looe and Polperro, is one of the absolute gems, as is Whitsand Bay to the east.
Most of the beaches of South Cornwall are entirely doggy-friendly, although some legislate against our furry friends in the high season between Easter and October. A small number few have rules about times of the day or keeping dogs on leads. It’s certainly not a problem to get to a beach that doesn’t, however; take a look at our detailed page about canine capering in Cornwall, here… There are only a small number of beaches in Cornwall that apply an all-year-round ban on dogs. Most of these are privately owned beaches that allow some public access. Since there are only eight, we may as well list them here without further ado; they are, in alphabetical order, Carlyon Bay, Charlestown, Duporth, Looe, Millendreath, Pentewan, Polruan Back and Polruan Quay. All the others allow canine visitors to some degree or another, and the good news is that the majority (currently 88) of the total (we think) 142 beaches welcome our animals at any time.
While Cornwall is famous for its many excellent surf spots – we know of more than seventy-five at the last count – the South Cornwall region is not blessed with consistent large sure. There are however a lot of good spots for beginners and children that are advantageous for their safety and their lack of crowds. Whitsand Bay is popular, as is Pentewan and Falmouth’s beaches, but there needs to be some component of swell from the south or at least a huge swell from the west that will “wrap around” to deliver some waves to the south facing beaches.
The South Cornwall section of the South West Coast Path includes a wide variety of terrain. There are challenging hikes on the Rame Peninsula and between Seaton and Fowey, interspersed with more moderate ones and many easy walks as well. The SWCP website breaks them down into manageable day or half day outings, or why not check out our special page on the subject, here…
While many visitors typically look to the western tip of the county or the more famous hotspots of the north coast, we find that the South Cornwall region has much to commend it. It is a really rewarding region in which to holiday – seeing many remnants of Cornwall’s mining industry, the ever thriving maritime activities, and the history of past inhabitants’ more nefarious pastimes – smuggling, wrecking, and piracy. South Cornwall is also easily reached from the airports and population centres of southern England and beyond.
If you’d like to come and visit South Cornwall, we have many cottages to rent in the area through Cornish Traditional Cottages, at any time of the year.
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