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Geographic Tuesday: Cornwall – Much more than England’s Pointy End

April 24, 2012

Cornwall, England (c 1900)

Great Britain is a geographically diverse island.  About the only major landforms missing are glaciers and deserts.  Think of it as a land where the extremes have been removed, leaving only the good parts.  In the Southwest of the country lies Cornwall.  It is one of England’s unitary authorities, think of it like a county in a US state.   The land in Cornwall is upland, exposed granite surrounded rolling hills but the whole of it juts out of the ocean with craggy cliffs and a rugged shore, interspersed with stretches of course sand beaches.  It is impressive to say the least.

Way back, when I was a kid and we visited England for the first time.  This was around the time the currency changed from the old system of pounds, shillings, pennies, and farthings, to today’s decimalized system. Back then, I could not tell if I paid about 50 cents or 5 bucks for a cup of tea.  Back then, getting to the Southwest and Cornwall was not as easy as hitting today’s M5 then jumping on A38.  For us, it was many missteps down hedgerow lined lanes, until at last, there it was – Cornwall, more specifically, Penzance.  We had arrived at England’s pointy end.

Cornwall sticks out, thumb-like into the Celtic Sea.  Lashed with winds and storms coming in from the Atlantic, the weather in Cornwall is always subject to change at a moment’s notice but the gulfstream provides Cornwall with England’s most moderate temperatures.  Walking along a cliff’s edge when a squall blows in is awesome.  It well illustrates the power of nature and humbles even the most confident of souls.

Still, there is much more to Cornwall than geography alone.  It is what the Cornish have done with their geography that makes the place special.    Everything from the ruins of Tintagel Castle (with its connection to the legend of King Arthur) to St. Michael’s Mount (where legend says a giant named Cormoran lived) and even further back to in time to the Merry Maidens Circle.  The circle is the mythical place were nineteen young maidens were turned to stone for the high-crime of dancing on Sunday.  The Stonehenge-like circle predates Christianity so

Tintagle Castle

we can reasonably question the veracity of the tale, much to the relief of young maidens everywhere.

No visit to Cornwall is complete without learning something of the Cornish people.  While there is debate about a precise history, the Cornish trace their roots back to the original Britons and Celts.  Much of the culture of Cornwall is influenced by this heritage.  They even have their own language, a derivative of the Celtic language, which thrived until the late 19th century.  Today Cornish is recognized in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages[i].

When I visited Cornwall, I feel in love with tea-treat buns and the national dish of Cornwall, the D-shaped Cornish Pasty.  A tea-treat bun is a large, aromatic saffron bun flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, and currants.  Sometimes they are even dusted with powdered sugar!!  The pasty is made with meat, swede turnips, and onions.  They are similar to the empanadas made throughout Central and South America.

My favorite place in Cornwall is the Bedruthan Steps.  In another legend about giants, it seems Cornwall has many, many giant legends, the step were created by a race of giants to use as stepping-stones from the cliff top to the sea.  Another version has them playing a form of quoits and tossing the stones about.  The stones, by the way, are measured in feet and weighed in tons.  Regardless of how the stones came to be, I would tell you the geologic reason but it is sort of boring and takes the mystery out of

Bedruthan Steps

it all, the cliffs and beaches around the Bedruthan Steps are breathtakingly beautiful and provide and great spot for a picnic, if you don’t mind the breeze that whips up with little notice.

Simply put, Cornwall is a place you will want to see.  It has charm and warmth, as well as buckets of historic sites to explore.  If you are planning a trip to Europe, put Cornwall on the “must see” list.  Just as on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish, all that visit Cornwall become Cornish and own the lore of the Celts, at least for as long as the visit to England’s pointy end lasts.


[i] BBC News. BBC, 11 June 2002. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/2410383.stm>.

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