Once upon a time in the West Country

Glorious, unpredictable, wet - Cornwall is the archetypal British summer holiday destination. But what's it like out of season? Brian Viner heads for Rock to find out

Moments after the 1999 European Cup final in Barcelona - and if you're wondering what this has to do with Cornwall in February then bear with me, patience is always needed when getting to Cornwall - the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was interviewed by a television reporter. United had just snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with two improbable injury-time goals against Bayern Munich, and an almost bewilderedly euphoric Ferguson was still reeling from the drama of it all. The only way he could articulate his feelings about the wondrous unpredictability of his beloved sport was to splutter: "Football, bloody hell!"

Which brings me to the wondrous unpredictability of the Cornish weather. Every August for the last seven years, with my wife and three children, I have spent 10 days at the Treglos Hotel overlooking Constantine Bay, near Padstow. It has become a sacred family ritual, part of which is to peer at the horizon and say: "Actually, I think it's getting brighter." This stretch of coast seems to defy not only weather forecasters but even weather patterns. A couple of years ago, while the rest of Britain sweltered in a heatwave, we shivered in a clammy mist. A cloudless sky at eight on the most windless of mornings can be leaden by noon.

Not even local sea dogs get it right. When a Padstow fisherman licks his forefinger and holds it up to the prevailing wind, then mutters: "It'll be on the chilly soide all day tomorrow, there's a nor'westerly comin' in," we veterans of seven summers go straight out to buy a high-factor sun cream. This unpredictability thing, you see, can cut both ways. And it certainly worked in our favour over February half-term. We spent three days in Rock, across the Camel estuary from Padstow, and enjoyed more consistent sunshine than we have ever had in August. I texted my sister in Suffolk and she was freezing. We were on the beach getting tanned. Cornwall, bloody hell!

We stayed at the St Enodoc Hotel in Rock, which felt a betrayal of both Constantine Bay and the Treglos, albeit a fairly chaste, Brief Encounter-style betrayal. We won't be transferring our summer affections to Rock, even though the St Enodoc Hotel has much to recommend it. Not least the food, which was absolutely splendid. And the views over the Camel, which were stunning, and would have been even more stunning but for the wind farms on distant hill-tops. While doubtless doing marvellous things energy-wise, wind farms scar the landscape of this part of Cornwall. It never fails to trouble me, driving over the brow of a hill in search of a celebrated pub or cream tea, to be confronted instead by masses of faintly sinister twirling things. It's like stumbling upon a t'ai chi class for huge, faceless robots.

Back at the St Enodoc, it was oddly pleasurable getting used to the ambience and rhythms of another Cornish seaside hotel. The place manages to be both chic and comfortable, which is not an easy trick to pull off. We liked it very much.

However, our fellow guests all seemed to hail from the upper-middle classes, who are as buttoned-up on holiday as they are having tea at the Hurlingham Club. As we were entering the dining-room with our three children, we bumped into a couple leaving the dining-room with their three children, who looked roughly the same ages as ours. It was an opportunity at least for a smile. But with practised skill they managed to avoid eye contact while ushering Henry, Piers and Clementine, or possibly Edward, Humphrey and Clarissa, onwards and outwards. The English, bloody hell!

In the summer, Rock is famously overrun by grown-up Humphreys and Clarissas, and I can be as rude as I like without causing them any offence, because while you're reading this, they're reading the Daily Telegraph (Humphrey) and the Daily Mail (Clarissa).

The men sail, go golfing and play FTSE under the table outside the Mariner's pub, while the women play tennis, golf, and organise Pimms parties. Most of them either own or rent holiday homes, and indeed there are some handsome properties dotted among the conifers between Rock and Polzeath. The rest, I would guess, stay at the St Enodoc Hotel. There is another hotel in Rock but by all accounts it is somewhat unreconstructed, hence its local nickname: Bates Motel. Otherwise, there are a few B&Bs, some pubs, the Rock Sailing Club and a rather funky beach-side café called The Blue Tomato, but not much else to sustain the summer invasion.

Visiting out of season, then, makes perfect sense, especially if you can arrange to be kissed by that elusive Cornish sun. We spent a blissful morning walking across St Enodoc golf course to the ancient St Enodoc Church, where Sir John Betjeman is buried. "We're going to visit a Norman church where a famous poet is buried," we told the children. "Is it Michael Rosen?" asked our nine-year-old, Joseph. "He's not dead, dumbo," scoffed 11-year-old Eleanor. "So what? Maybe he was buried alive," said Joseph, who likes the last word.

Everyone, at least once in a lifetime, should walk over the dunes to St Enodoc Church on a sunny day. Betjeman's final journey there, in 1984, was in less hospitable conditions, through strong winds and driving rain. But it was still worthwhile. There cannot be a more picturesque place in which to spend eternity, weather permitting. And the tiny church itself, with its cockeyed, weatherbeaten spire, is marvellous. In the visitors' book I noticed the following, written in a childish scrawl: "This is a wicked church with groovy stained-glass windows." Betjeman would have liked that.

Full of the joys of not-quite-spring we walked back across the golf course, and by the side of an undulating green I tried to make sure that the children stayed quiet and still as a portly man stood over a 20ft putt. But instead of putting he looked up, and I braced myself for a bollocking. "If this goes in I'll give you kids a pound each," he said. Truly, February sunshine works wonders on the spirits, if not on the aim. He missed by a yard.

That afternoon we crossed to Padstow on the five-minute ferry (£3 return for adults, £1 for children). Ask Padstonians what the best thing is about Rock and cheekily they will tell you it's the view. But sometimes Padstow is best seen from afar. In August a great, mooching multitude descends from every campsite, rental home and hotel for miles around. Padstow is simply everybody's idea of a day out when it's too miserable for the beach. In our family, and doubtless many others, the very word is synonymous with light drizzle.

It was a revelation, therefore, to find Padstow simultaneously bathed in sunshine and unclogged by day-trippers. I noticed, really for the first time, the upper storeys of the buildings around the harbour: normally I'm shuffling along with my eyes fixed on the heels of the person ahead so I don't step on them, And with Padstow being so much more socially varied than Rock, they turn out to belong to a pugnacious welder from St Helens. Now I can report that the buildings are wonderful. Roskilly's ice-cream shop has a Georgian frontage, while Pompa's restaurant is Art Deco. I had no idea.

We completed our afternoon with the mandatory trip to Rick Stein's delicatessen, where we bought a jar of fig chutney that will remain unopened in our pantry for months, if not years, to come. Then we caught the last ferry back to Rock, thrilled that we had chosen to spend February in Cornwall and looking forward to an evening of trying to make eye contact with other guests at the St Enodoc Hotel.

The Viners stayed in a family suite at the St Enodoc Hotel. The off-peak rate is £135 per night B&B for up to five people; in July and August the price rises to £295. A double room out of season costs £105, based on two people sharing (01208 863394; www.enodoc-hotel.co.uk)

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