The Tip of England
Cruises around north Western Europe oftentimes make detours
across the English Channel to dock at the south coast ports of the UK. However,
ports like Southampton, Dover and Portsmouth don’t have much to offer the
cruiser – they hardly represent England at its best. So, more often, ships put
in at one of these locations and then bus cruisers to the county that form
England’s ‘toe’ – Cornwall – which has a great deal to see but not much in the
way of cruise ports.
You might not think it as you look around, but Cornwall is
actually England’s poorest county. That’s because all the old industries that
kept it going for years, notably fishing and tin mining, have disappeared, and
the county is now almost entirely dependent on tourism to earn a living. The
legacies of the old ways live on, however: Cornwall is still the spiritual home
of world mining, something that harks back to the days when it supplied the
world with tin. There’s a say in mining communities that world over: find a
hole in the ground and you can be sure a Cornishman is at the bottom of it.
Cornwall is the most southerly county in the UK, and, although
it’s not as sheltered as other parts of the country, which means it’s regularly
lashed by Atlantic storms, the climate in general warmer and sunnier than in
more northerly parts.
In recent years the number one tourist draw in Cornwall has been
the Eden Project. Started around at the turn of the millennium by a team led by
a local environmentalist Tim Smits, this is far, far more than simply a theme
park. The stated aim of the project is to teach people about the variety and
range of the natural environment and to work to conserve the natural
environment of earth for future generation.
Just about every plant species you can possibly imagine is
represented at the Eden project. The whole site is built in the basin of an old
china clay pit. Right in the west point of the pit, are the two ‘biomes’ that
have become Eden’s trademark. These are transparent, steel and plastic domes
each of which has a carefully controlled internal climate. One simulates a
moist, tropical environment, the other a warm, dryer Mediterranean one. Each
one contains a huge selection of plants, and each plant is labeled with any
medicinal use that it has – continuing the theme of humans working hand in hand
with the environment to the mutual benefit of both. In the souvenir shop you
can buy environmentally-aware gifts, such as pencils made from recycled plastic
cups, and mouse pads made from old car tires. It’s difficult to do justice to
Eden in words: it is so much more than a museum. In many ways it’s a life
experience, and that’s what draws the crowds.
Tim Smits is also the guiding genius behind the Lost Gardens of
Heligan, another major tourist draw. Heligan is completely different from the
Eden Project. Set above the tiny and picturesque fishing village of Mevagissey,
the gardens are a complex of pools, hidden valleys and walkways that used to
belong to Cornwall’s wealthy Tremayne family. They were ‘lost’ in the sense
that after the First World War, when the family fortunes declined, they fell
into disrepair. During the mid-nineties Smits and a team of dedicated
volunteers took up the challenge of restoring them to their former glory, and
today wandering around Heligan is a wonderful, mysterious experience.
Mevagissey itself is well worth a look around, although it can
get awfully crowded in the summer months. While you’re here it would be a good
idea to sample the local cuisine. The food in Cornwall is rather like the sort
of fare you’ll get elsewhere at restaurants in the UK: excellent, whatever the
French tell you. The county’s distinctive dish is the Cornish pasty. This meat
and vegetable pie is made by folding the ingredients up in a bag of pastry and
baking the resulting packet in an oven. Cornish pasties were originally
invented as an ideal lunch snack for tin miners. Tin is toxic, so miners would
hold the pasty’s crimped edge between their fingers. When they’d eaten it, the
edge could be discarded.
Cornwall, no matter how crowded, is a delightful place. Most
cruise lines that run excursions from the south coast ports along to the county
tend to do so in the spring months, before the UK national tourist season
really heats up. So grab your hat and your Cornish pasty, and prepare for an
adventure in one of the most exotic – and, to outsiders, little-known – areas
of the United Kingdom.