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St Enodoc Church sits in the middle of the sand dunes overlooking Daymer Bay, under the shadow of Brea Hill. You have to reach it by foot and there are only enough tiny wooden pews inside to seat around 80 people. The crooked spire is barely visible because the dunes are almost level with the tip of this 12th-century treasure, nestling quietly in the middle of a lush green golf course. When I see local groundsmen wandering past, I marvel at how lucky they are to see the place I love more than anything in the world almost every day.
I grew up on the edge of Bodmin Moor in South East Cornwall, an altogether more bleak landscape than the pretty one surrounding St Enodoc. But every summer my younger sister, my parents and I would pile into a cream VW Combi van with an assortment of dogs and travel to the North Cornish beaches, from Bude to Newquay, to camp out for the school holidays.
This was the early eighties, no one wore wetsuits and we swam in the turbulent but beautiful sea every day and walked a million miles along the cliff paths. We always returned to visit St Enodoc church and in the visitors book I would write about how I dreamed of marrying there.
The peculiar sense of peace it brought me was unexpected, for we are not a religious family. I loved every nook and cranny and adored it even more as I grew to cherish the poems of Sir John Betjeman who was buried there in 1984. The way he writes about Cornwall – “the golden unpeopled bays, the shadowy cliffs and sheep-worn ways” – captures the spellbinding majesty of Cornwall. More importantly, his words always symbolise family, which is what Cornwall means to me.
I left the county I grew up in as a 16-year-old wannabe journalist, heading to a traineeship on a London paper from which I have worked my way to a decade as Editor-in-Chief of ELLE.
But despite leaving Cornwall so early, I did return to marry my husband James at St Enodoc in 2000. I wanted to start married life in the place my heart belongs. And six years ago we bought a second home on the cliffs overlooking Polzeath Beach (Hayle Bay) where we now spend all of our four children’s school holidays. We rarely go abroad.
The tide that sweeps me back to Cornwall is both magical and melancholic. I don’t know if there is something in the extraordinary purity of daylight that has attracted artist after artist to the county which provides an inexplicable but addictive magic. Or maybe it’s simply a longing for the stillness of listening to the sounds of the sea I love so much. I think the contrast between my slower days there and my busy North London working mum life is the key.
All I know is that if I so much as mention going somewhere else on holiday – even hotter, more exotic climes – all our kids look at me with horror, as if I’ve said let’s get rid of the TV.
When I first took my husband to visit 20 years ago, there was little in the way of gastronomic delights or well-organised activities. It was rustic, lovely but a little unfriendly. Ironically, we were once refused service at a lonely petrol garage in the middle of nowhere because we weren’t locals. Padstow was a fishing village with a new chef called Rick Stein in town and Rock, the haven for young Royals on the Camel Estuary, was yet to become one of the most expensive postcodes in the UK.
The now-booming tourist industry pays homage to the Cornish landscape and in particular its beaches, so I don’t mind that it costs more to get a latte at the Polzeath beachside café Cone Zone than Oxford Street’s Selfridges.
The tide that sweeps me back to Cornwall is both magical and melancholic
My favourite time to be in our Cornish bolthole is winter, even though many attractions close down between November and Easter. I enjoy the wildness of the warm but blustery weather and swim in the sea more then than in the busier summer months. I’m learning to surf and I like to run the few miles home along the cliff paths and across the dunes to clear my head. We always have a houseful of guests – locals and Londoners – and we never miss the annual St Minver Fair, a treasure trove of bric-a-brac and brilliant homemade cake.
It can rain for days but we stay inside and play games (there is a wonderful Oxfam in nearby Wadebridge where someone seems to hand in a summer’s worth of games every time the season ends, and we pick up all the classics for £1 each.)
We tend to avoid more touristy places like Padstow nowadays, where the queues for fish and chips can some times take an hour, and Port Isaac, which has become crowded since it shot to fame on Doc Martin. We go instead to neighbouring Port Gaverne, where a breathtaking cliff drive leads you into the smallest pebbly inlet for lunch at the The Golden Lion. They welcome our children in a way that many pubs do not.
We spend lazy mornings in The TubeStation café on the hill in Polzeath where there is a mini skate ramp and super-friendly service. They do savoury crêpes for breakfast and when it’s sunny you can see right across the bay and people watch for hours. There are some good celebrity spots as this is where David and Samantha Cameron holiday too. Occasionally I have dodged paparazzi sitting in wait for other well-known names on my way back along the cliff after early-morning surf practice. But no one stands on ceremony in North Cornwall, not even the Prime Minister. I go from sitting in the front row and wearing all the latest fashions in London to rarely wearing shoes in Cornwall. And that’s my favourite feeling: wandering the small path from our house to the beach barefoot, my four kids following behind, treading in the long-gone footprints I myself left as a small child.
The place to stay
We rent out our beachside cottage through Rural Retreats, which has some unique beach-view properties on its books (our cottage is called Pentewan.) Polzeath has some of the most modern and luxurious second homes to rent, but the more expensive Rock can also accommodate a wide range of groups. The Port Gaverne Hotel is a special place to stay for those less beach-inclined. And the St Moritz Hotel offers suites, rooms and cottages. It also has a brilliant Cowshed Spa and both an indoor and outdoor pool. Plus wellies to borrow for summer visitors who underestimate the Cornish rain!
Best breakfast view
Blue Tomato café in Rock, or the balcony at The Rock Inn. Neither of these places serves spectacular food but the view across the Camel Estuary to Padstow is stunning, and I say this as a woman who has travelled to every continent in the world (yes, even Antarctica). If you want really posh nosh, head further south to the Watergate Bay Hotel or The Beach Hut. Or even Jamie Oliver’s sumptuous Fifteen.
Polzeath wins hands down for me. The bay is safe but big. It’s sheltered and the sand is golden. Due to National Trust rules of minimal development the small seafront of shops has remained the same since I was a child. Wetsuit and surf hire is easy. The lads who run the four beach trampolines are ridiculously friendly and have watched all our children grow up. Geoff mans the bouncy castle and little golf course and the local Spar supermarket is better stocked than my local Primrose Hill shops. Nearby Daymer Bay is a windsurfers’ paradise and dog walkers’ haven. We often picnic here and watch the sun go down over the bay’s stiller waters. And no trip home is complete without a mission to find tiny Cowrie shells at Trebetherick beach.
The big surf
The most patient and accomplished surf instructor I know teaches at Polzeath. I have spent years finding the right person to learn with on Cornwall’s many beaches, and was overjoyed to find George Stoy and his team of well-trained instructors. He specialises in one-to-one lessons and small groups rather than the mass group mentality which exists across many surf schools. Even if you have never set foot in water before, ring George’s Surf School and you’ll be up on a wave before you know it. Plus the fun games the team have developed for kids keep them engaged and learning even in the rain.
Best coffee pitstop
The Tubestation. Polzeath. Check out the art gallery next door. It’s an eclectic mix of work by local and further afield artists with some lovely pottery. This is where the surfers go, while kids enjoy the mini skate ramp and homemade cake.
Sea Side at St Moritz. This relaxed but extremely glamorous 1920s-style modern hotel has got luxury nailed. The café has the view, while the more formal restaurant and bar is some way from the sea. Food here is delightful, served indoors overlooking the pool and Greenaway Bay.
Best cream tea
Trevathan Farm, St Endellion. If you want to see and taste a Victoria sponge cake better than anything Nigella could make, this is the place. Though be warned – the cakes are huge! This place has a zip wire, a family of wallabies and in the summer the sunflower fields are beyond romantic if you take a date. Strawberry season is a lovely experience too – pick enough to make jam or take them home.
Where the sea meets the river
You cannot leave North Cornwall without cycling along the River Camel. Hire a bike at Wadebridge and then pedal slowly to Padstow. Watch swans in the creek and see the super yachts glide into Rock. And the water skiing instructors at Camel Ski School in Rock will show you the easy way to do this fun sport. You can go mackerel fishing from the ski school too and if you really want to get wet, try the banana inflatable. No one stays on!
Best sunset dinner view
The Waterfront restaurant, Polzeath. The food and the service here is hit-and-miss but who cares? The view of the beach is amazing. Plus they love children and patiently put up with the chaos we bring, as well as making sure couples get the romance needed as the sun sets over the beach. I had my surprise 40th birthday here.
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