With its intense awareness of its landscape and its sense of a continuing history, south-east Cornwall has a unique atmosphere, finds Chris Waywell.
As we pushed through the door, our eyes lit upon a scene. Through air that appeared smoky, although it was not, a man gestured with a carving knife at a huge cuboid joint of meat: ‘That’s a quarter of a bullock, that is!’ he cried, before he and his candlelit throng fell upon it, amid repeated toasts in bumpers of red wine and what was later revealed as ‘brandy and lovage: that’s Michael’s drink’.
Unhinged eighteenth-century super-hospitality
Michael Jones, proprietor of The Rod and Line in Tideford, is an institution in south-east Cornwall, providing a kind of unhinged eighteenth-century super-hospitality. His restaurant is theatrical in an unselfconscious way: it’s basically a pub that serves fish the same day it’s caught in nearby Looe and beef from a local herd, and has live bands and a very loyal clientele. In the previous 24 hours it had been recommended to us by our hosts – organic farmers Robert and Gill Hocking – two cab drivers, a man we met on a railway station and Peregrine, tenth Earl of St Germans.
It had come to symbolise this part of the West Country and seemed, at that moment, possibly the centre of the world.
‘From the Rame Peninsula to Fowey, and south of the A38’ was how one local pragmatically defined this corner of the county of Cornwall, 6,000 acres of which comprise the Port Eliot estate, home, among other things, to the annual literary-cum-arts festival. Caught between the high ground of Bodmin Moor to the north and the steep coastal cliffs and shallow river valleys to the south, the area boasts a micro-climate and feels like a beneficent fiefdom.
Life in the slow lane
‘Living here, especially during the winter months, we feel detached from the rest of the world,’ explains Robert Hocking. ‘Things move at a slower pace.’ Hocking’s family have been here for more than 300 years. With his wife Gill he runs Buttervilla, an organic farm on the Port Eliot estate that also offers B&B, where my wife and I were staying. The region and its heritage inform both the Hockings’ sense of identity and their business. ‘We have tried to live a lifestyle based around a love of our Cornish environment. A large part has been producing as much of our own food as possible, so we have grown a wide range of crops, hunted for fish and game, and kept animals.’
The circle of Buttervilla Growers Robert and Gill established along with local farmers currently supplies Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen chain, among others, with heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables. Hocking, though, is much happier seeing himself as a hippy than a latter-day certification merchant: ‘We never mention “organic”,’ he says. ‘It’s sometimes seen as a label that just means more expensive.’
For all its seeming remoteness, this bit of Cornwall is easy to get to and explore. The village of St Germans, where Port Eliot house is, is served by direct trains from Paddington, thanks to the earl who insisted a station was built there as the railways pushed west across his land in the nineteenth century. As you cross the Tamar estuary between Devon and Cornwall on Brunel’s extraordinary Royal Albert Bridge, it’s hard to believe that you’ll find much that is unspoilt beyond it. Though his railway cuts through the landscape it does so harmoniously, in places enhancing it. As branch lines sprang from the trunk, the painterly and poetical were accessible to all: Cornish tourism was born.
A fresh catch in Looe
From St Germans we caught a train to Liskeard, and then the Looe Valley branch line to the fishing town. If ever there was a reason to shun the car, this line must be it: snaking down the soft valley, it runs beside the river as it broadens to the port at its mouth. The catches from Looe are among the most prized in the country for their freshness: the draught and tides mean that boats must go out and return on the same day. (A similar quirk is thought to have been significant in the preservation of Port Priory, later Port Eliot, as seaborne raiders would not risk getting beached in the shallow tidal estuary there.) Looe, however, has not been Padstowed. Most of the families there on our visit were local, and it seemed to strike a happy note of crab stalls and clotted cream without overdoing the Caarrrnishness (though we found a bookshop with an entire section on ‘wrecks’, one of the prime draws down here in the 1800s). There’s a beautiful beach, a ‘banjo’ pier and a sweetshop run by a Kiwi liquorice fanatic (Tiger Treats, 3 The Quay, East Looe).
‘It’s got no class, Looe: it’s the lowest common denominator.’ Lord St Germans was, I suspect, sounding out our townie preconceptions as well as demonstrating that as an unreconstructed member of the aristocracy he didn’t have to temper his opinions any. He was decently giving us tea later that day in the Stewards’ Room at Port Eliot, as the ‘Big’ or ‘Great’ – I forget which – Kitchen was ‘full of old biddies’.
Diversification is a fact of life for the contemporary landed gentry, so presumably his cod-sardonic disdain for the cookery school downstairs was for our benefit. In fact, in championing the arts at Port Eliot, Lord St Germans – whom the poet Heathcote Williams described as having a ‘whim of iron’ – sees himself, quite rightly, as part of a tradition: ‘Cornwall has always welcomed artists.’
Reynolds, Soane and Brunel
In the eighteenth century the fashionable likes of Joshua Reynolds came to the house, before, in something of a (costly) coup, Edward Lord Eliot enlisted the architect John Soane to remodel his pile in 1804. The results are some stunning rooms with Soane’s trademark attention to eccentric detail. The most remarkable of these is the Round Room, later decorated under Lord St Germans’s encouragement with a mural by Plymouth artist Robert Lenkiewicz, who died in 2002 with only £12 in cash, owing £2 million, but whose surviving works fetched £5 million.
Brunel was in some ways Soane’s successor: an engineer-artist, who saw progress and possibility as romantic. His elegant viaduct across a corner of the Port Eliot estate is to be the backdrop of Martin Scorsese’s outdoor cinema at this year’s Port Eliot Festival, and it seems appropriate that the great admirer of Powell and Pressburger should have found such a magical and bizarre corner of England for his screenings. St Germans was enthusing about this as he saw us off the premises, before he halted at the door: ‘Where are you going now? You must go to The Rod and Line…’
A Cornish Arcadia
So, Arcadia? Well, maybe. Much as you might deplore the idea of contemporary feudalism, there is no doubt that the Port Eliot estate is a focus of local identity, but you feel it incredibly strongly in almost everyone you meet in this part of Cornwall, from Robert Hocking’s ‘counter-horticulture’ to the take-us-as-you-find-us welcome in The Rod and Line.
The next day, Robert drove us along the Rame Peninsula as the sun burnt off a morning mist. Lush fields gave way to sheer cliffs and the waves crashed on to an uninterrupted sweep of miles of pale sand. We walked up to the National Coastwatch Institution post (‘Come in and say hello’), and on to the tiny St Michael’s Chapel on Rame Head beyond. The immensity of light and sense of place was overwhelming.
First Great Western trains run direct to St Germans from Paddington, with a journey time of around 3 hours 45 minutes. Advance returns from around £40.
Robert and Gill Hocking’s Buttervilla Farm (Polbathic, St Germans, 01503 230315) is about a mile from St Germans village. They offer laid-back hospitality, an honesty fridge of wine and beer and a superb organic breakfast, including Cornish hogs’ pudding. B&B doubles: £85.
The Blue Plate (Downderry, 01503 250308) offers excellent local fish and a dash of urban sophistication, plus some good Cornish wine. Dinner for two with wine: around £65.
Now in its ninth year, The Port Eliot Festival literary and arts festival goes from strength to strength, broadening its remit this year with comedy, music, film (Martin Scorsese’s Paradiso outdoor cinema), readings, talks and panel discussions. It’s England’s greatest garden party.
Camping tickets: £140. July 21-24.
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