There are many things for which Cornwall is famous: wind-blown cliff-tops, white sandy bays, crumbling tin mines, the Cornish pasty. But a new spotlight is shining on this ancient Celtic kingdom thanks to the smash-hit BBC series Poldark, which is set and filmed here, and has transmitted the county’s charms to a global audience.
Based on Cornish author Winston Graham’s historical novels, written between 1945 and 2002, the story traces the fortunes of the Poldark dynasty during Cornwall’s 18th and 19th century mining boom (tin and copper, as well as tungsten, arsenic and silver, were all extracted) with a particular focus on the brooding, troubled Ross Poldark.
First adapted for television in the 1970s, Poldark’s recent big-budget makeover has proved a massive hit thanks to its rollicking plots, cracking cinematography and the smouldering good looks of its cast, particularly Aidan Turner, who plays Ross and is now notorious thanks to his shirtless scythe-wielding in season one.
But the cast are mere understudies to the series’ real star – the spectacular Cornish scenery that’s on display in almost every frame. With the series now in its third season, here’s a run-down of some of its most memorable locations, from golden bays to smugglers’ coves and wild headlands to windswept moor.
This small granite port a couple of miles from St Austell has provided a ready-built backdrop for several harbour scenes. Originally built to serve Cornwall’s china clay industry, which was based around St Austell and Fowey, the port has now found a new lease of life as a filming location. It’s been used in countless films and costume dramas, including Poldark – admittedly with a bit of help from set-dressers and CGI to add period detail. While you’re here, drop into the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre (shipwreckcharlestown.com), which traces the harbour’s maritime history and also displays lots of flotsam and jetsam collected from nearby shipwrecks.
You don’t need to be a cinematographer to spot the photogenic qualities of Porthcurno, a couple of miles south of Land’s End. A deep, sloping wedge of white sand framed by granite cliffs and the blue Atlantic, the beach is one of the most beautiful in Cornwall. It provided the location for a memorable Demelza Carne dream sequence in season one. It also happens to be home to Cornwall’s most stunning theatre, the Minack – an Ancient Greek-inspired amphitheatre carved into the clifftops by a redoubtable theatre enthusiast called Rowena Cade. It’s still regularly used for summer performances.
Nowadays it’s mainly frequented by surfers and second-homers, but a hundred years ago the coastal village of St Agnes was one of the epicentres of Cornish mining, and the countryside is littered with abandoned stacks and rocky mining valleys cloaked with heather and gorse.
Various sites around the village and nearby St Agnes Head have been used to represent the Nampara Valley, a key part of the Poldark family’s estate – notably the iconic cliff-top mine at Wheal Coates above Chapel Porth, now owned by the National Trust. The Chapel Porth Café is a lovely spot for lunch, too.
This tiny, cliff-backed cove looks so picture-perfect you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a studio set. It was used for a risqué scene in which Ross goes for an impromptu dip while his future wife Demelza spies on him from the cliff-tops. You can swim here too, but be careful of swells and currents – and afterwards, don’t miss warming up with a mug of hot chocolate at the cute Porthgwarra Cove Cafe, where cast and crew refueled during filming.
Botallack to Levant
Another area rich with mining heritage and littered with photogenic mining ruins – including the cliffside, sea-sprayed workings of Botallack and the 19th-century Levant Beam Engine, believed to be the only one of its kind still working in the world. Unsurprisingly, it’s cropped up regularly in the series, largely since Levant Mine doubles as Poldark’s fictional Tressiders Rolling Mill. From Levant, you can hike along the coast path to Botallack and the ruined mine at Wheal Crowns, or if you prefer to dig deeper, you can also take an underground tour of an actual tin mine – it only closed in 1990 – nearby at Geevor. For lunch, drop in to the excellent Gurnard’s Head (gurnardshead.co.uk) near Zennor for some hearty grub and local ale.
The rugged cliffs, wheeling gulls and booming surf of the Lizard peninsula are a favourite for hikers, bird-watchers and photographers, and they’ve barely changed since the era in which Poldark is set.
They’re also a natural fit for big-sky scenes, and Ross Poldark is often glimpsed riding along the clifftops around Predannack Wollas during seasons one and two. The nearby National Trust-owned Kynance Cove was used as a double for Nampara Cove, and it’s a glorious spot for a picnic lunch – or you can drop by the eco-friendly Kynance Cove Cafe for a crab sandwich and some homemade cake.
Also on the Lizard, near the village of Gunwalloe, this quiet beach is home to a medieval church dedicated to St Winwalloe. Once a hideout used by smugglers and free-traders, the beach’s past was brought back to life when it was used for a memorable sequence in season one, in which a shipwreck is plundered by locals for booty. At the nearby beach of Dollar Cove, legend has it that there’s treasure to be found from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon – so definitely a place to bring along your metal detector.
Stark and wild, and spotted with granite rock-stacks known as tors, Cornwall’s ‘roof’ is a landscape that radiates natural drama – something the makers of Poldark exploited by using Bodmin Moor as the location for Ross’s lonely cottage at Nampara, not to mention numerous scenes of the lovelorn hero galloping against suitably moody skies. Equestrian activities notwithstanding, the main reason to visit is the chance to hike to the top of Cornwall’s highest hill, Brown Willy.
A location of a different kind: this popular beachfront town on the north coast was Poldark author Winston Graham’s home for more than four decades, and he wrote most of the novels here. A memorial seat on the cliffs above Perranporth Beach commemorates the writer’s literary achievements – it’s on the coast path near Droskyn Point, but it’s a bit tricky to find, so you may have to ask a local or consult a map. It’s also a fitting spot to conclude your Poldark tour: staring down over golden sands framed by craggy cliffs and white-horse surf, it’s not hard to see where Winston Graham found his inspiration.