Great British Drives: north Cornwall coast in a classic Land Rover

Land Rover Series 3 (1972) - owned by jeremy taylor
Gently does it: green-laning in a 1972 Land Rover Series 3 Credit: Jessica Saunders

The woman sat across the table is quite serious – she’s definitely seen fairies around these parts. Down here in Cornwall they’re known as “piskeys”, mischievous vagabonds who allegedly steal babies and even the occasional cow.

The bar in the Golden Lion at Port Isaac remains hushed as the speaker goes on to explain the spirits of the tin mines. “Knockers” were the fairy miners, who warned workers of coming disasters and helped them find rich seams to exploit.

It’s a storyline that has yet to feature in Poldark – or Doc Martin, also filmed in the county - but I’m prepared to keep an open mind. And besides, a scholarly new book on fairies claims that 44 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed have actually seen the little folk at play.

Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies – 500 AD To The Present dives into the hidden world of fairy folklore. There has been a tidal wave of new sightings in recent years, while the world’s first Fairy Census highlights the best places to experience genuine Tinkerbell “activity”.

Among them is Cornwall, soaked in folklore and tradition. While Tolkien is said to have found inspiration for the Hobbit from hedgerow fairies at his aunt’s house in Worcestershire, and Yeats met a fairy queen in Ireland, Cornwall is a gossamer-winged hotspot.

Off the beaten track: Valency valley near Boscastle Credit: alamy

There’s no guessing where one might pop up next but woodland is a favourite. The north coast of Cornwall has plenty and for a day-long, whistle-stop tour of the inaccessible sites I’ve brought my ancient Land Rover. We plan to scrabble over some rarely used ancient byways in the search for Neverland.

Green laning involves a rufty-tufty four-wheel drive tackling the roughest of these tracks. Go unprepared and you’re more likely to meet an angry farmer than magical folk, or become stranded in the middle of nowhere. Consult the Green Lane Association for advice and locations.

A set of purpose-designed off-road tyres with dep tread will come in handy, too. You might carry a spare, but the potential for punctures from rocks and flints is immense.  

Badge of honour: the Land Rover's overdrive is courtesy of Fairey, obviously Credit: Jessica Saunders

My 46-year-old Land Rover has already lived with the goblins of Dorset and the fairies of Ireland. It’s taken five hours to reach Cornwall from Oxford at a steady 55mph but now the Series III is about to come into its own. Even the cabin is infested with little wings, because a nest of wasps has taken up residence in the air vent.

Byways are few and far between along this section of the north coast – head south to Truro for more challenging routes. However, there are a few tracks further north from Port Isaac, near Tintagel, and the one we are heading for close to Boscastle, at Tresparrett.

The overgrown lane is a haven for butterflies that take to the air as we slowly edge forward. High up near a cliff edge, I can see the sea to my right and a few distance wind turbines to the left. We are in the middle of a heatwave, so any hope of fun in the mud is quickly forgotten.

The natural harbour at Boscastle, which has the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic alongside Credit: MARK MECKLENBURGH/Headline Photo

There is no sign of a fairy either, so we head down the B3263 past Boscastle to St Nectan’s Glen. According to the woman in the pub, this place is famous for fairy sightings. Deep in the woods, the River Trevillet has carved a route through the slate and created a quite magnificent waterfall.

I can imagine Disney-style, tutu-clad folk wafting through the ferns here. The area is steeped in the legend of King Arthur, too, while piles of flat rocks left near the cascade of water are known locally as the fairy stacks. It’s just a shame the coastline has the less magical air of a caravan park.

According to the new survey, fairies come in all shapes and sizes. Little people have been seen dancing at a rave in Glastonbury and on the runway at Heathrow Airport. They like to travel, too, so I’m heading to my favourite beach near Treligga, a few miles farther south down the B3314.

Tregardock Beach on Cornwall's Atlantic coast, viewed from Tregardock Cliff Credit: Michael Dutton/Alamy

As special places go, Tregardock beach is about as magical as it gets. Only accessible on foot – not even a Land Rover could manage those steps down – the lengthy footpath passes through a lush valley that offers dragonflies and grasshoppers but not a fairy daytripper in sight.

I would be happy with just a pixie sighting at this point, so I turn the Land Rover north and we head up the Atlantic Way, via Camelford and Davidstow, to Lesnewth. The single-track lanes here are captivating, passing through a ford and on to the ancient, vaulted ceiling of St Juliot church.

St Juliot's church at Lesnewth near the lush valley of the River Valency Credit: P Tomlins/Alamy

Novelist Thomas Hardy was sent to plan a restoration of this remote building in 1870. He met his future wife Emma Gifford and the breath-taking location inspired some of his greatest, romantic poetry.

Exhausted after a long day bouncing around in a Land Rover, I give up my fairy hunt and return to nearby Helsett Farm. Rustic and quirky, it’s one of a scattering of smallholdings in the parish and now offers self-catering holidays in a very traditional setting.

The evening sun through the trees sends ghostly shadows dancing over the Delabole slate tiles. It feels like little has changed here for centuries. The fairies may have moved out but this place is about as magical as it gets.

Cornwallscottages.co.uk (Helsett Farm); Magical Folk by Simon Young & Ceri Houlbook (Gibson Square, £16.99); glass-uk.org (Green Lane Association)

THE FACTS

Land Rover Series 3 SWB (1972)

PRICE NEW £1,002

PRICE NOW £15,000 (good condition); £25,000 (top condition)

ENGINE 2,286cc four-cylinder

POWER 70bhp

TOP SPEED 68mph

ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 29sec

FUEL ECONOMY 15mpg (est)

For tips and advice, visit our Advice section, or search car reviews in our A-Z Car Finder