Doc Martin Country: A Week in Cornwall

Note to self: if we ever get back to Cornwall again, we rent the smallest car we possibly can. Driving down to Cadgwith Cove in Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula, the roads grow more and more narrow, bound by hedges and walls, until they are barely wide enough for our little Ford Focus to pass through.  To make matters worse, these roads have traffic going in both directions.  How, you might ask, does that work? An interesting dance is created in which one of two cars going in opposite directions looks for a small place in the road to yield a bit more space for the other car to pass. Somehow, it seems to work, but not without stress for two Americans trying not to knock the paint off of a rental car.

Searching for the real Portwenn

John and I are big fans of the British TV series, Doc Martin, and we love the Cornish coastal scenery in the series. So, when we were making plans to visit England, a Cornish coastal town was definitely on the list. We knew we did not want to stay in Port Isaac, which is the real-life version of the fictitious town of Portwenn in the series. We could imagine loads of tourist buses – the place now even has a restaurant with a celebrity chef!  So, we decided to look for a place to stay in a different seaside town.  Given how many seaside towns there are in Cornwall, it amazes me that we found Cadgwith Cove, which is not dissimilar to Doc Martin’s Portwenn, only it’s not on the North Coast as is Port Isaac; it’s on the Lizard Peninsula, just a couple of miles from the southernmost point of England. 

Cadgwith, it turns out, is not only an absolutely beautiful place with a fun pub and a small beach town feel, but is also one of the last remaining small-boat fishing villages in England. The summer population of Cadgwith includes a handful of beach visitors in holiday cottages, a few people staying in the small pub, walkers on the South Coastal Trail passing through, and the local population. 

Our first full day in town also happened to be the Saturday of Cadgwith’s annual Folk Day held at the Cadgwith Cove Pub and featured Morris dancers from Penzance (as in the Pirates of Penzance), lots of music with sing-along from the gathered crowd, skits, and recitations, but mostly singing and music. It was wonderful and the most fun we’ve had lately.

The Fisherman’s Apprentice

In our holiday flat, we discovered DVDs from a BBC TV series from 2012, The Fisherman’s Apprentice.  The series is hosted by Monty Halls, a British marine biologist and TV personality who filmed this series about small-boat fishermen in Cadgwith. In the program, Halls went out with the local fishermen on their boats and explored the technical, physical, and economic challenges these fishermen face. As with so many industries, their way of life that has been around for centuries is being threatened by larger boats and large-scale fishing practices. In addition, much of the area catch is crab, and demand for shellfish lags behind demand for beef in England, a country that has a long-held tradition of the Sunday Roast.  Much of the crab is exported to France, increasing costs in the industry. In their on-film interviews, the fishermen lamented rising costs, falling prices of their catch, and increased cost of housing on the Lizard as it becomes a more popular holiday spot. One of the fishermen on film also runs a small fish counter near the cove in the afternoons and we bought fish from him several times. He had voiced complaints in his interviews about the negative effects of tourism for the fishermen in the village. No wonder his reception of us was polite but distant.

Because the Fisherman’s Apprentice series is local to the town and because Cadgwith is so small, we saw the fishermen who were featured in the program around town regularly. On top of that, Monty Halls himself stayed in the very flat that John and I were in and some of the filming was done in the living room of our flat. Never before have I watched a program on television and the person speaking is sitting in the exact same room where I am watching!

In addition to The Fisherman’s Apprentice, we also watched a movie, Ladies in Lavender, that was filmed in the area and features Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.  It has a beautiful soundtrack played by violinist Joshua Bell.

Exploring ‘The Lizard’

The Lizard Peninsula, is so named from the old Cornish An Lysardh which means either “old court” or “headlands.” There is so much to do here. We have taken coastal walks along the South Coast Trail, which extends more than 600 miles,  visited the beautiful beach, Kynance Cove, and enjoyed a guided nature walk near Lizard Village where we spotted, among other things, Choughs (pronounced “Chuffs”), which look like blackbirds, only with red beaks and feet.  Our guides on the walk were a local couple, Alex and Mike, who among the first to rediscover the Lizard Choughs in the mid-1990s after their disappearance from the area since the 1940s.

A Chough, with its distinctive red beak

We also visited the small museum where Guglielmo Marconi sent history-making radio messages from the Lizard to the Isle of Wight 186 miles away in the late 19th Century. His little radio hut became a private property and, for many years, served as the home of a music teacher who lived and taught lessons there. After she passed away in the 1990s, she left it to the U.K. National Trust, who didn’t realize its historical significance. A local historian brought the history of the building to their attention and it was transformed into a museum about twenty years ago.

Slowing it down

Our introduction to the Lizard via the one-lane roads should have let us know that this is a place designed for slowing things down. We think that this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this part of the world: people take time to enjoy an ice cream or a beer at the pub and just watch the boats and seagulls, or take a coastal walk with stops along the way. 

A man we met from Ruan Minor, just up the hill from Cadgwith, told us a story about American tourists he encountered who were on a sweep through England at an accelerated pace. He laughed, saying that they had allocated only a half-day to see Cornwall.  He added, dryly, “around here you can spend a half-day stuck behind a tractor.”

4 thoughts on “Doc Martin Country: A Week in Cornwall

  1. Love Cadgwith! Keep going…even though we miss you guys in BR. The photos are beautiful and the stories take me there. 🤗


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