Best of the Lizard Peninsula
Jutting southwards approximately 10 miles into the Atlantic Ocean is the Lizard Peninsula and the most southerly point in mainland Britain. Although to call it off-the-beaten-track might be something of an exaggeration, there is a remote feel to the Lizard, and beyond a few of the better-known villages it still offers plenty to explore.
Something of a geological freak, the Lizard is a complex mix of rocks, the best known of which is serpentine. The peninsula is said to have been created by the sea floor being pushed up and colliding with the Cornish coast hundreds of millions of years ago. As a result not only is this stretch of coast fascinating for geologists, but it is home to some amazing scenery.
Aside from a few B roads, which join the main villages and ferry tourists to the Lizard Point, the area is criss-crossed with single track lanes. These all seem to go to the same places or nowhere at all, but this all part of the beauty of the Lizard. If you have good enough map-reading skills though there are a wealth of varied and wondrous places from hidden coves and beaches to wooded valleys and barren landscapes. Throw in a scattering of ancient and industrial history covering five-thousand years and there some great things to do on the Lizard.
Enough has probably already been written about the wonders of Kynance Cove, with its crystalline turquoise waters and staggering rock formations. The photo above should tell a thousand words and allow me to move on to some of the other gems around the Lizard coast.
Generally speaking the Lizard has a sheltered east coast and an exposed west coast which takes as much of a pounding from the Atlantic Ocean as most north coast beaches. Also affecting the character of the beaches is the local geology, with the southern tip being distinctly rockier.
Aside from a handful of secret coves, the pick of the bunch are the sandy beaches of Gunwalloe, Poldhu and Polurrian on the west coast, and Kennack Sands and Coverack on the east. Further exploring will reveal any number of little coves between these spots.
If it weren't for the fact that the Lizard Point was the most southerly point on mainland Britain the whole peninsula would probably be very different. It is hard to imagine that many visitors making it far beyond Helston or Falmouth except for the pilgrimage to tick this geographical extreme off the list. However, it is, and as such has been a landmark for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The Lizard Point has always had a strong association with shipping. It is the first landfall for many ships approaching from the Atlantic, and whilst providing a useful reference point it also warned of the treacherous waters around these parts. Extending far beyond the cliffs of Lizard Point are extensive shallow reefs which have claimed numerous ships over the years. The Lizard lighthouse, which dates back to the 1750s, doubtless saved many lives and now has an interesting visitor centre.
The Lizard Point itself is quite a dramatic spot with its tall rugged cliffs plunging into the Atlantic. Stretching out beyond the headland jagged rocks rise above the surface of the ocean like bared teeth warning passing shipping to stay well clear. But the cliffs here also have a softer side with Spring and Summer heralding in a covering of flowers such as hottentot fig, thrift and samphire. The cliffs here are also a great place for spotting some sealife such as seals, dolphins and the occasional basking shark.
Situated on the eastern coast between Lizard Point and Coverack is the particularly pretty little fishing village of Cadgwith. Dating back to medieval times the village started out as just a collection of fish cellars in a sheltered coastal valley with a shingle cove and good protection from the prevailing south westerly gales. Since those days fishing has always played an important role in Cadgwith. Even today you will see a fleet of small boats pulled up on the beach - the village's harbour.
Inhabited since the sixteenth century, Cadgwith still has a good number of original local stone and thatch houses, which is quite unusual elsewhere in Cornwall. These cling to the steep valley sides with all roads leading to the "harbour".
There are two beaches in Cadgwith, separated at high tide by a small headland known as 'The Todden'. Deep-sea diving excursions to offshore wrecks known as The Craggan and The Boa are popular, as is the Cadgwith Cove Inn, thought to be more than four hundred years old.
Situated on the eastern side of the Lizard, not far from Coverack and St Keverne is the working dairy farm at Roskilly's. Home to a herd of over 100 Jersey cows this 40 acre farm visitors are welcome to watch the twice daily milking, although surprisingly the 4.30pm session is more popular than the 5am! There are also a host of other animals to see, such as pigs, goats, sheep and chickens. You can feed most of the animals and bags are available from the shop next to the restaurant.
However, it isn't really the cows, or the organic milk that they produce, that make Roskilly's famous in these parts. It is the ice-cream, and the multitude of flavours it comes in. There are over 30 to choose from including some quite leftfield varieties such as sour cherry, marzipan and Hokey Pokey - whatever that might be! Probably the best way to have your ice cream is in a sundae (see photo above). These are truly gargantuan!
As well as ice cream there is a full menu and during the summer food is served in a leafy courtyard which is a lovely setting of an evening. If you feel the need to walk off your over-indulgence you can explore the ponds, meadows and orchards on the farm, along with the Old Withy Woods.
If ice cream for breakfast isn't your thing, I'd highly recommend Fat Apples cafe near Porthallow. It's a quirky little spot with lots of outdoors seating and the best breakfasts around. If you are looking for something more substantial then head over to the other side of the Lizard and the Halzephron Inn for some of the best pub grub in Cornwall.
Tucked away behind Chynalls Point, on a relatively sheltered stretch of coast is the charming village of Coverack. Despite its remote location this is one of the most popular spots on the Lizard. With a decent-sized, partly sandy beach and a pretty little harbour backed by white-washed cottages Coverack encapsulates everything you would expect of a Cornish village.
Coverack was built at a time when there was a thriving pilchard industry in these parts. Although those days are gone, a number of small boats still work the crystal clear waters here.
Aside from the beach and harbour the main attraction is the Paris Hotel, the perfect place to sit outside on a summer's evening. The name of the hotel comes from one of the many ships that were wrecked on this part of the coast - the ocean liner SS Paris. Unlike many of the other shipwrecks in this area the ship ran aground on Lowland Point, and not the notorious Manacles Reef.
Cornwall enjoys the reputation of being the warmest part of the United Kingdom (and a lot of people misinterpret this as having the best weather!). Not only this, but many spots along the south coast are host to subtropical microclimates, and this includes swathes of the Lizard Peninsula. Combined with stunning coastal scenery, it is not difficult to see why the area is home to some of the finest, and most unique, gardens in the country.
Perhaps the best known of the gardens in this neck of the woods are the neighbouring Glendurgan and Trebah. Both occupy valleys which spill down to the far bank of the picturesque Helford River and the similarities don't end there. With a plethora of subtropical plants, mature trees, woodland walks and a beach at the end it is almost impossible to choose which to visit. I'd have to say for avid gardeners Trebah probably edges it, and the view down the valley beyond the iconic palm trees is spectacular. On the other hand Glendurgan offers some great exploring and a fantastic laurel maze which dates back to 1833. Also, the beach and village of Durgan are worthy of a visit in their own right. At the end of the day, whichever (if not both) you visit, you will not be disappointed.
Also on the Lizard is Bonython Estate Gardens. Not as well-known as the area's other gardens this beautiful 13 acre estate centres on an 18the century manor house. There are lakes, woodlands and a variety of more formally planted gardens that will particularly appeal to gardeners. Over the past 20 years the current owners have built upon the traditional design with an array of innovative planting making this one of the most fascinating gardens in Cornwall.
The village of Mullion itself is pleasant enough, if not a little unremarkable. In general anyone not from the immediate area will probably be using the name as shorthand for Mullion Cove, which occupies a narrow inlet at the foot of the cliffs half a mile southwest of the village.
Now owned and managed by the National Trust, the cove is home to a small harbour and clutch of cottages. The sturdy, solid granite walls of the harbour date back to 1895 when it was built to protect the small pilchard fleet. On a calm summer's day it is hard to imagine why these stone walls would need to be quite so thick, but come here during a winter storm and it's a very different scene. The fact is, bar perhaps Portreath, this is most exposed harbour in Cornwall taking the full force of the ocean.
Beyond the harbour, Mullion Cove offers some impressive scenery. To either side are towering cliffs of schist and serpentine whilst just off shore is a further geological oddity Mullion Island. This huge lump of trefoil-shaped rock is actually the result of volcanic activity many millions of years ago. These days the island is a well known breeding spot for cormorants, shags, guillemots and kittiwakes.
To best appreciate the cove you should take the cliff path in either direction to get a view over the harbour and island beyond. The cliffs here are also host to an array spring flowers such as squill and rarities including Green-Winged orchids. It is worth keeping your eyes peeled for sealife too with seals and the occasional dolphin spotted around here.
Set on the northern edge of the Lizard, between Helston and Falmouth, is the pleasant little village of Constantine. The setting is lovely, just a short stroll from the creeks of the Helford and a stone's throw from Trebah and Glendurgan. However, none of this is really sufficient to warrant more than just a passing glance.
But, tucked away in what appears to be just a typical village shop is something quite extraordinary, and very much unexpected. For Constantine Stores is something of a TARDIS, with the most enormous collection of booze imaginable stashed away at the back of the shop. What you will find here is actually the largest collection of spirits anywhere in the south-west.
A family-run business for over 60 years, the shop first became known for its selection of fine whiskies from around the world. Currently there are over 1,000 varieties on sale along with a vast array of artisan gins, rums, cognacs, armagnacs and other high-end tipples.
Whilst maybe not your typical souvenir shop, for anyone who enjoys a wee dram this is one not to miss if you're in the area.
The water around the Lizard is some of the clearest to be found in Cornwall, and the relative shelter offered on the eastern coast make this a great spot for diving. Whether you are just looking for a spot to snorkel or are an experienced open water SCUBA diver the abundance of sea life in these Cornish waters will not disappoint.
Visibility is generally pretty good off the Lizard at around 30 metres on a good day, and half that most of the rest of the time. From shallow reefs to impressive drop offs the rocky sea floor here has some excellent sites. The best known of these are the notorious Manacles reef just off the coast near St Keverne. This expansive reef is best known for its finger like pinnacles which rise straight up from the sea bed 80 metres down. Hidden just below the surface they have claimed well over 100 ships throughout the years. The remains of these ships remain scattered around the reef with the best known being the passenger liner SS Mohegan which went down int 1898.
In addition to wreck diving there's a fair bit of interesting marine life to see. From sea fans and lobsters to cuckoo wrasse and conger eels lurking in the crevices. If you dive in the summer you might even catch a sight of the world's second biggest fish, the huge basking shark, which migrates through these waters.
A number of dive centres operate from the Lizard offering diving trips and courses.
Take in some history
Like the rest of Cornwall, the Lizard is home to some fascinating historical sites. However, as a result of the local geology the area's history is slightly different. Whilst the Lizard shared the boom years of the pichard fishing days it didn't benefit from the tin and copper mining that turned Cornwall into one of the most important industrial heartlands in the world.
For the Lizard, the closest it came to the mining boom was in the 1800s when serpentine was quarried and worked here. Serpentine is fairly rare in most places and only found miles below the Earth's surface, however, on much of the Lizard it is the main stone. During Victorian times the dark greens and reds of this rock struck a chord and made it popular. In response production in the area began with the establishment of the Lizard Serpentine Company (L.S.C.). With five quarries the L.S.C. also established a factory at Carleon Cove to cut and polish the stone. The remains of these works can still be seen in the little cove.
The Lizard shares the same ancient history with much of Cornwall and there are a number of ancient sites. Most notable of these are the Dry Tree Menhir, which forms an interesting juxtaposition with the satellite dishes of Goonhilly, and Halliggye Fogou. The fogou is a sizeable underground passage set on the Trelowarren Estate. Believed to date back to the Iron Age the purpose of this tunnel is still unclear, but it is a truly impressive structure given its age.
Perhaps where the Lizard's history sets itself apart most notably is in modern times with the peninsula being at the very vanguard of the communications era. It was from Poldhu, on the west of the Lizard, that the first transAtlantic radio signal was sent ushering in the age of radio. The modest wooden hut used for the experiment is still in existence and now owned by the National Trust.
The Lizard's groundbreaking role in telecommunications didn't end with Marconi. In 1962 the Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station was opened, going on to be the largest in the world. The huge, iconic dishes are visible from miles around, which is not surprising considering the larges (Merlin) measures over 100 feet across and weighs in excess of 1,000 tons. Originally built to beam and receive satellite communications Goonhilly ceased operation in 2006. Although its future is currently unclear the possibility of the dishes being used fro space exploration are being investigated.