In the ‘mizzle’ (a Cornish word for drizzly rain and mist) of Cornwall, Jacob Little finds a peaceful, community-focused world away from the summer crowds.
It’s winter. The Cornish wind whips around the crooks and crevices of the county’s boundaries, infiltrating all the empty spaces, where there are no people. From the tops of the desolate moors in Bodmin to the far reaches of Sennen beach in the very west, the whistling replaces the laughter of the millions of excitable holidaymakers that travel here each summer.
Many months ago, every square inch of these spaces were being taken in, admired and photographed by people from around the world—police even had to turn people away from some spots to stop the congestion turning into an issue of safety. Now, in the depths of January, the seasons return these areas to the land and sea.
I’m walking down old paths that have seen generations of different footsteps in the far west of Cornwall. Out to sea, beyond the indistinct, foggy, gray horizon, a rain shower silently tracks towards the coast. It moves over me and I redo the zips on my waterproof and secure my wooly hat. Below, I can see an ancient landscape of brick-lined fields—small square patches of farmland unchanged since the Iron Age, and still home to small-scale family farms.
This proxmity to nature is the lure for many. For Steve Crummay, owner of adventure company Explore in Cornwall, it’s about getting as close as possible to the elements. “There’s a glorious emptiness that is just waiting to be explored,’ he says.
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Between these fields and the looming granite cliffs, the winding Southwest Coast Path meanders around the edge of the county. Aside from the odd outcrop, there’s little shelter here, and the winter winds feel all-encompassing. “There’s nothing better than miles upon miles of empty clifftop path,” adds Steve. “I love listening to the wind and rain thrashing the windows whilst planning tomorrow’s adventures.” And as I walk from Zennor south towards the town of St. Just, a town and civil parish which can comfortably lay claim to being the furthest westerly settlement in England, I couldn’t agree more.
There are, indeed, very few people to be seen, but every so often, a local tractor or car from a nearby village will pass, their lights beaming through the ‘mizzle’—a Cornish phrase for a mixture of drizzly rain and mist, often of a winter’s evening. Signs of life are found in equal measure out to sea, with a small smattering of lights belonging to fishing boats cutting through the gloom and rolling with the rising swell.
The joy I feel in Cornwall in the winter is not only because it feels mine again, but because it feels closer to the communities that make it what it is.
A few miles down the path, I reach the old mine stack at Geevor Tin Mine, and am reminded of stories of miners here—miles out into the ocean, hundreds of miles down, with the water crashing across the seabed above them. I begin to see other signs of life, but in winter in this part of Cornwall, they’re indistinct and hazy.
Small farmhouses in the distance with lights on, the faint glow of a collection of street lamps burning outside the familiar warmth of a village pub. This is where you’ll find life here in winter—small enclaves of community gathering to keep warm both literally and in spirit.
Further down the coast path, towards St. Just, and it begins to get dark. Portheras Cove, a small beach below, stands in the shadow of the Pendeen Lighthouse, which keeps watch over this part of the Atlantic with its light shining majestically into the winter gloom.
I stand looking at the beach where a few seals appear to say hello. The waves crash and with nobody to hear them but me, the isolation is intoxicating. I walk on to St. Just, a small, artistic and brave outlying community hunkering down for the long evening by drawing their curtains, shutting up shop or meeting each other for a late afternoon pint. In what’s often a heaving area during the summer, I had seen two dog walkers on my whole journey.
The joy I feel in Cornwall in the winter is not only because it feels mine again, but because it feels closer to the communities that make it what it is. The county is not just a collection of beautiful landscapes; like anywhere else, it’s also a working community. People travel here, yes. But people live here too.
Speak to the lone farmers, the disenfranchised fisherman and the local drinkers in the pub—those who sometimes hide away during the summer months—and you instantly get a sense of the county without Instagram clouding its reality.
And many visitors are slowly beginning to recognize the benefits of traveling to Cornwall in the winter, to feel this sense of connection and community. ‘My four winters in Cornwall were about renewal, like coming home to yourself, says Catherine Hunt, who runs a wellbeing foundation. ‘It allowed me to feel fully revived for spring.’
Perhaps because of its isolation and its limitation, it has to function better than other parts of the country, in order for people to survive and make a living. From this, a hard-worn love for your neighbor is borne.
Community, in its truest sense, is represented by the farmers’ markets that keep going with a small handful of local growers. It’s the two people who sit at the bar until closing time—not because they want to drink but because they want company. It’s the lone tractor ploughing the fields with no-one watching, and it’s the fishing boats heading out to sea to to put food on the plate for the restaurants who strive to keep going and make a profit all year round. It’s the numerous builders who work day and night to get not only holiday homes ready for the summer but build homes for the dwindling communities. Little by little, these people work all year to get Cornwall ready for everyone else to see, relishing the opportunity to make a living through the elemental, often brutal colder months.
Cornwall carries on when nobody is watching. Those of us who know the southwest of England well have become accustomed to news stories about overcrowding. Last year, with social media spreading the word faster than ever about the beautiful beaches and coastline, visitors were even discouraged from heading to the more popular stretches due to overcrowding and safety issues.
We’ve reached the peak of what’s possible geographically. Cornwall is long and thin. There is, by necessity of space, only a few roads that span its length, and these get dangerously congested. In my mind, traveling, exploring and living mindfully in these times is to explore the boundaries of not only our physical space but also our sense of empathy. We learn the most about a place when at the limits, and this goes for seasonality too.
Speak to the lone farmers, the disenfranchised fisherman and the local drinkers in the pub—those who sometimes hide away during the summer months—and you instantly get a sense of the county without Instagram clouding its reality. As we continue to move towards ever uncertain times, this is the only kind of traveling rural communities will be able to sustain.