There are no pirates in Penzance, but there is David, on loan from London. None of us are quite sure what David does; he used to be the lead singer in a band called Tribal Nation; now he lives on Berkeley Square in the capital. He spends 18 weeks of the year in the south of France and four weeks visiting Cornwall’s newest tourist hotspot, Penzance.
Tonight David is serving the dinner at Chapel House, a boutique hotel within an impressive Georgian building that was formerly a bohemian arts club. Two years ago he was here stripping wallpaper over a chilly new year with owner Susan, a long-time friend who moved to the south-western tip of the country from London with the dream of renovating and running an upmarket B&B. Now it’s the start of a hot summer and places at Susan’s weekly dinner are booked up. David makes himself useful, dishing up local turbot to the communal table and pouring wine while Susan puts her saffron bread-and-butter pudding in the oven. Afterwards, the pair join the guests for more wine and animated conversation – there’s a reason this home-from-home has been voted the country’s best B&B, and word is spreading (this week’s punters are British, German and Austrian).
Penzance has become good at attracting outsiders. In fact, in recent years it has been experiencing something of a transformation. First, a string of sophisticated new lodgings opened: across the road, Artist’s Residence, a design hotel with outposts in London and Brighton, attracts a younger crowd with an eye for eclectic interiors. Then came the restaurants: The Shore, run by Rick Stein alumnus Bruce Rennie, and the Tolcarne Inn, an authentic Cornish pub with food by Michelin-starred chef Ben Tunnicliffe. And that’s without mentioning the “Poldark effect”. Since the BBC reincarnated its popular 1970s drama series last year, Cornwall has seen a 155% increase in visitors. Penzance, along with the ever popular St Ives, has become a base to explore Poldark country at its best.
With a baby on the way, my husband and I have come back to the area where we both holidayed as toddlers – call it our final infant-free escape or a foolish preview of the staycations that lie ahead. The first day, filled with glorious weather, seems cut out for the Poldark trek, so we make our first stop Porthgwarra, the cove where actor Aidan Turner took a semi-naked dip in the sea in the first series. In his honour, we sit at the tiny cafe on top of the cliff, decimating a large cream tea.
It fuels us for the walk to Porthcurno, an easy hike along the coastal path. In early summer sun, the beaches here could pass for the Caribbean, so it’s hard not to feel smug. As we reach over the headland we spot a seal basking on the rocks in the almost turquoise waters. That afternoon we head up to the Minack open-air theatre, on top of the cliff – there are productions here come rain or shine but it’s worth buying a day ticket (£4.50) just for the views.
Afterwards, it’s a short drive to Levant Mine, the Unesco world heritage site that poses as Poldark’s fictional Tresiders Rolling Mill. We emerge from the depths where Cornish miners extracted copper by candlelight in time for a stroll along the coast at sunset.
Back in Penzance that night, Susan recommends some pubs in the area. We go to the Admiral Benbow, filled with tacky maritime treasures, followed by the Turks Head, a whitewashed 13th century inn with an underground tunnel once used to smuggle pirates’ bounty. Both are on Chapel Street, home to a rundown Chinese, ramshackle antique shops and the Exchange, a contemporary arts space with glass running the length of its facade.
The next morning we head down to the harbour and soon find ourselves at Jubilee Pool, the town’s triangular art deco lido on the rocks. This large seawater pool took a battering in 2014’s winter storms and reopened after a £3 million restoration – today it’s filled with regulars, including a group of women who meet here for stand-up paddleboarding but spend most of their time laughing and falling in.
Over the coming days there’s much more to do: watch the surfers at Sennen, wade out to St Michael’s Mount and sample Newlyn crab and other delicious food. It’s hard to rival the Tolcarne Inn, where pints of lager and packets of crisps are served at the bar alongside impeccable fish dishes (we choose monkfish with tomato fondue and grey mullet with orange beetroot). There are more baby-free nights of luxury at Artist Residence, where my husband drains pints in the beer garden, plus an impromptu meal at the Honey Pot, where we enquire after the homity pie.
“It’s delicious, is what homity pie is,” is all the Cornish waitress will say, before disappearing to tend to a mother and daughter who have dropped in on their way home from school. We watch as they order the homity pie and an ice-cream sundae. In Penzance, we’ve found, people tend to have pretty good taste, so we take their cue.
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