Yes, it really was a case of love at first sight when I clapped eyes on Cornwall. Even though I was barely two.
I can only think that it must be some kind of accident that I wasn’t born there, because that’s exactly where I feel so at home.
One of my earliest memories is sitting in the back of my mother’s Austin Westminster alongside my sister, with my grandmother in the front passenger seat, and us all driving down the old A4 road behind my uncle and aunt and their two boys, my cousins.
Bliss: The fishing town of Looe in the south-east of the county. Fern used to stay here as a child during family holidays
It must have been around 1960 when I was two or three years old and we were travelling down to Cornwall for our summer holiday. It felt as if it were taking forever to get there, the hot sun and crowded roads torturing us with anticipation. Having finally fallen asleep in the stuffy car, I would awaken when we were driving across Dartmoor.
My mother would point out the prison and warn us about escaping convicts, show us the granite quarries and, passing the boglands, joke that we mustn’t get out of the car or we would fall into the bog and never be seen again.
Our destination was Looe in the south-east of the county, where we would stay in The Dolphin, a tiny self-catering apartment.
All smiles: TV presenter and author Fern Britton (above) said Cornwall is where she feels ‘so at home’
YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW THIS ABOUT CORNWALL…
Cream tea debate
The Cornish are particular about cream teas. Scones must be split and then spread with jam first, followed by cream. In Devon, they do it the other way round.
There are more than 150 beaches in Cornwall on a coastline that stretches for some 250 miles — longer than any other English county.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the water off Cornish beaches is about 4c warmer than in other parts of Britain.
Most southerly point
The Lizard peninsula is the most southerly point on mainland Britain and is home to one of the country’s best beaches, Kynance Cove, with its turquoise water and rocky cliffs (and crowds — get there early to be sure of a parking spot).
According to the Office for National Statistics, only around 550 people are fluent in Cornish. At the language’s peak in the 14th century, there were more than 38,000 Cornish speakers.
More than 120 million Cornish pasties are produced each year, contributing more than £300 million to the local economy.
Britain’s No 1 cask ale, Doom Bar, is named after a sandbar at the mouth of the estuary of Cornwall’s River Camel, where many ships foundered.
Raise a toast
Camel Valley Vineyard is the first English wine producer to be granted a royal warrant — and its sparkling wines have been shortlisted in the International Wine Challenge. Cheers!
All the children would be sharing the same room and we would throw our bags on to our beds and run across the road, straight to the beach. It was bliss — the sand would feel cold under our feet, having cooled after another hot day. We would paddle in the sea and delight in thinking we had two whole weeks ahead of us.
We always had the same spot on the sandy beach — a special little bit in between two rocks you would have to clamber over when the tide was in. I was always sent to get four 99 ice creams from Bassett’s cafe, which is still there.
When we tired of the sand and sea, there were rock pools to explore. Mum used to chuck in sixpences or little plastic rings she had secretly bought from the gift shop for us to discover amid the hermit crabs and shrimp. She didn’t admit this to me until I was grown up, and it was unbelievably exciting to find such treasures.
There used to be two speedboats that visitors could hire to go round the bay. One was named Superstar and driven by a woman, Vikki, who is now retired. She would always take me on her boat and I wanted to be a speedboat driver just like her. The boats were long and lean with enough space for 12 people.
After a day at the beach, if you didn’t fancy walking over the harbour bridge, you could get the tiny passenger ferry from east to west Looe. It’s still there.
When I was older, I used to spend hours on the quay by myself fishing for crabs. I’m sure my mother was somewhere keeping an eye on me, but I felt absolutely free.
Those holidays continued all through my teenage years and, when I finished my A-levels, my friend Rowena and I camped outside Looe — my first ‘adult’ holiday.
After going to drama school to train as a stage manager, I decided, at the age of 22, that I wanted to get into television. So I wrote to every radio and TV station I could find and, amazingly, I landed a job in Plymouth and realised I could live over the Tamar Bridge in Cornwall. It was a dream come true.
I eventually bought a house, a tiny cottage in the village of St Dominick. I lived there with my two cats and was so happy driving back over the bridge at night to go home.
The harbour town of Padstow is the ‘perfect base from which to explore the surfing coast,’ writes Fern
In the village, a farmer’s wife would make her own clotted cream. The ‘paperboy’ was a woman, Pearl, who delivered the newspaper into a drainpipe stuck into a hedge 100 yards up the road.
If you ever fancy a quiet half-hour, nearby Halton Quay is the perfect place to sit and contemplate with the River Tamar flowing silently past.
For North Cornwall, which is equally beautiful, Padstow is the perfect base from which to explore the surfing coast. Padstow has seven exceptional bays around it, so there is a beach for everyone (I surf, well bellyboard, badly) and all of them are family-friendly. Keep your eye on the local surf news for the best waves.
The cliff paths provide a range of circular routes — some through woodland, and others by rivers, both perfect for observing wildlife.
Just ten minutes south of Padstow by car, there’s a tiny cove called Diggory’s Island. Hard to reach, but worth it. When the tide’s out, it looks like a football stadium, minus the fans of course.
A few years ago, there was no one around, so my niece and I took off our clothes on the spur of the moment and swam.
Padstow is proud of restaurateur and chef Rick Stein, his first wife, Jill, and everything they’ve done to promote the town. Their various restaurants and apartments have created employment and revenue for the economy. Rick’s bistro, St Petroc’s, serves up the juiciest steaks in town.
Family-friendly cycling: The Camel Trail is a disused railway line that has been turned into a flat 18-mile cycle and pedestrian path
NORTH CORNWALL’S BEST BEACHES
This wide expanse of sand, about four miles west of Padstow, sweeps up to dunes with hardly a building in sight. The waves are powerful — it’s popular with surfers — and there are rock pools to explore.
One of the best surfing beaches in the country, with Atlantic rollers crashing on its sandy shores on the edge of Newquay. Surfing lessons are available.
Sloane Square-on-Sea — but it’s a thrilling setting, framed by towering cliffs, with a good surf school.
Another brilliant surf spot, just across the River Camel from Padstow. Polzeath’s golden sands were a haunt of poet Sir John Betjeman. Nowadays, you might bump into David Cameron, who often holidays there.
Secluded and warm, this peaceful spot west of Padstow always proves popular with families.
Try to rent one of the much-coveted apartments around the harbour. Then you can ditch the car and not worry about parking — impossible at the height of summer when Padstow is thronging with visitors.
One of my favourite places to eat is The Basement, owned and run by David Flide, a member of the local lifeboat crew. The food is excellent and it serves the best coffee in town. In my view, the finest baker is The Chough Bakery, which has won heaps of best pasty awards and makes excellent bread, too.
Having eaten all that hearty food, you might want to work it off. Look no further than the Camel Trail, a disused railway line that has been turned into a flat 18-mile cycle and pedestrian path.
Hire a bike and cycle from Padstow to Wenfordbridge, Bodmin and Wadebridge. The latter is charming. Despite having the kind of shops one would find in any big town, plus a cinema, it manages to retain its Cornish character.
Walking on Bodmin Moor is one of life’s great pleasures. Visit Dozmary Pool, a small lake just south of Bolventor, with claims to be the home of Excalibur. According to legend, it is said that King Arthur rowed out to the Lady of the Lake to receive the sword.
Stop for lunch or a reviving drink at the St Kew Inn in nearby St Kew. My friend Sarah runs it — so I’m biased — but I think its food and drink are worth sampling. Also nearby is the Camel Valley Vineyard, Cornwall’s largest, which consistently wins awards for its sparkling wine. In addition to running tastings and vineyard tours, it has two holiday cottages to let.
Padstow’s crazy-golf course has recently been renovated and the views from its cafe are the finest in town. On a Sunday morning, go up there early with the newspaper and have a coffee and a scone.
Another idea would be to take the ferry from Padstow to Rock and have breakfast or lunch at the Blue Tomato Café. It feels like a real outing, because you’ve come by boat.
Try a tipple of locally brewed Doom Bar beer. If you’re feeling seasick after the short trip, ask for a drink of lovage, a delicious local herb drink you mix with brandy, to settle your tummy.
Lots to offer: Cornwall has beautiful beaches with body boarding (above)
FOUR OF THE BEST PLACES TO STAY
The Scarlet hotel
This design-led spot with a spa is perched at the top of a cliff facing out to sea, about half way between Newquay and Padstow.
B&B doubles from £250, scarlethotel.co.uk
Watergate Bay hotel
With steps down to the beach and a 25-metre pool, Watergate Bay Hotel occupies a fantastic location — plus Cape Cod-style rooms and a buzzing cocktail bar.
B&B doubles from £190, watergatebay.co.uk
What a great little hotel — tucked away on a backstreet with six sumptuous suites and a downstairs honesty bar.
B&B doubles from £300, paul-ainsworth.co.uk/padstow-townhouse
St Moritz Hotel
Situated between Rock and Polzeath, this large Art Deco hotel faces the sea and offers comfortable rooms, a spa that uses Cowshed products and a pool ideal for children.
B&B doubles from £130, stmoritzhotel.co.uk
You don’t have to stay in an expensive holiday apartment. If you’re on a budget, or simply like camping, there are some great campsites.
For our first ten years together, my husband Phil and I had a second-hand static caravan on the cliffs at Mother Ivey’s Bay Holiday Park, on the cliffs outside Padstow.
The site doesn’t have a clubhouse, but it’s great for families and has its own beach.
I’ve now written eight novels all set in Cornwall. Number eight is The Newcomer. I invented a town called Trevay, inspired by Padstow, and, in my mind’s eye, I can walk the streets of Trevay now.
I have another village called Pendruggan, which is more like the smaller Cornish villages I have lived in. I know what it’s like to live in a small place knowing everyone’s business and enjoying community events together.
At this time of year, the Cornish hedgerows burst into life with primroses and snowdrops, followed by bluebells and cow parsley, then red campion and wild garlic — the scent is delightful, particularly in the evenings.
Of course, you don’t have to endure the long car journeys I did as a child.
Fly direct from Heathrow to Newquay, or take the Night Riviera sleeper train from Paddington to Penzance.
I still love to go abroad — and I enjoy exploring other parts of Europe — but Cornwall is just joyful. I don’t care that the weather is a mix of hot and cold, wet and dry.
In my television world, it’s considered rude not to wear make-up, but in Cornwall, no one bothers — you live in bare feet and no slap.
No one locks their doors and people nip in to chat (and there are plenty of yarns to tell). People just appearing like that could be disconcerting but, to me, it’s all part of the charm.
- The Newcomer by Fern Britton is out now, published by HarperCollins at £12.99.