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A magical history tour

In conversation with Karen Colam, whose tours of Ross Poldark’s Cornwall give a unique insight into the world of Winston Graham’s acclaimed novels.

Words by Hannah Tapping

Karen Colam’s background is as diverse as it is venerable, spanning charity management, West End wardrobe supervisor and even co-ownership of a Cornish boat building company. Now, her luxury boutique hotel, The Bolenna provides a base for guests to experience Poldark’s Cornwall, a bespoke and immersive tour experience that digs deep into Graham’s locations, as well as tapping into Karen’s encyclopaedic knowledge of wider Cornwall.

Can you tell me about your background?

I have lived in Cornwall for over 30 years, slowly moving further west with each house move. I settled in Perranporth more by accident than design, and it was on moving here that I realised one of my favourite stories of all time had not only been written here, but was also set in the area. So, I began to get to know the story in greater depth; in the beginning there was no intention of doing anything with it, it was just for my own interest. At the time I was running a successful business with my younger daughter Holly, however, a personal family tragedy meant that we had to take a step back and reconsider our way forward.

A chance meeting was to be the catalyst for the next chapter in the story. Over a cup of tea, I got chatting with someone who was doing some extras work on a period drama. I was curious as to what they were making. They mentioned the name Aidan Turner, whose acting career I had followed over a number of years, and it was a lightbulb moment. I knew then that this would be one of the biggest things that had ever come to Cornwall and immediately went upstairs and bought the domain there and then for £10.19, much to the bafflement of my family, who thought I was mad!

How did Poldark’s Cornwall progress from here?

I liaised with the production company who let me visit the film sets on numerous occasions as well as consulting with Winston Graham’s estate to ensure they were happy with me owning the domain. I set up a fan page on Facebook called Aidan’s Maidens, as well as business pages. After a while, such was the success of the group that some of the Maidens were also invited on set. The coverage extended well beyond the production of Poldark. I was invited to review the weekly showings for BBC Radio and was lucky enough to interview Aidan himself. I started to show visitors Poldark’s Cornwall and people came, and still come, from all over the world to experience the locations; some well-known and some lesser-known secret spots unique to our tours.

In 2019, a private house came for sale in Perranporth and I bought it with a view to turning it into a luxury, boutique hotel that would provide a base for what had become a successful tour business. Due to Covid, the first few years of operation as a hotel have been a challenge, but we were, from the start, determined to make it the best hotel we could. The Bolenna now boasts wonderful rooms, an excellent restaurant and wine offering and the best cocktails in town.

What can visitors expect on a Poldark’s Cornwall tour?

While it’s not a pre-requisite that our tour guests stay at The Bolenna, it does give us the gift of time to spend with guests outside of touring. Perranporth is the perfect location in Cornwall to have everything you need within walking distance, including a beach. It is less than five minutes to jump onto the A30 and it’s halfway down the county so you can easily head north to Bude and Tintagel, east towards Plymouth, or west to Land’s End and Penwith, all within an hour. For touring Cornwall, Poldark-related or otherwise, I recommend May, June, September and October to experience the best of everything we have to offer. There’s no such thing as planning too early or having the first chat with us to arrange your visit, and we offer bespoke tours dependent on what the individual, couple or group wants. Nobody needs to drive the lanes for themselves as we provide a full chauffeur service. And the best part is that the Poldark locations are just a door-opener, as we interweave them with other amazing places. In terms of itinerary, I always ask clients, “what was the thing you first fell in love with?” – it might be the crashing waves and the drama or they might be fascinated by the history and then it’s important to focus on the more historical and heritage aspects of the county.

I think what’s important about the Poldark story, is that it is very much part of Cornwall’s DNA. Reading into the complexities of Cornwall can be quite an arduous process, but I think there’s a simpler way; if anybody wants to get a real flavour of how Cornwall came to be what it was, and what it has become, the Poldark story is the best way of doing this. It’s a very relatable, understandable history of Cornwall, touching on politics, sociology and theology, all wrapped up in a rather lovely story.

Our chefs in the hotel are happy to pack up picnics for our tour guests and, of course, there is always a pasty or a cream tea stop to be had en route – ideally not on the same day! We pride ourselves on the authenticity of our tours being customer-led.

Do you have any favourite locations?

The place that most people want to go is the farm on Bodmin Moor that was used as Nampara. I have an exclusive agreement with the family that own it, where I can take guests there accompanied by myself. There’s also a walk down from Wheal Coates to Chapel Porth which is one of my personal favourites; as you go down into the valley it has the most dramatic backdrop. A heritage favourite of mine, which entails stepping away from the coast, is South Wheal Francis Mine. It’s incredible to see a development of this size still in such good condition. To stand on the grate above the main mine shaft is a really awe-inspiring experience and it makes you feel the human stories. I always think that these are what make Cornwall special; more so if you visit them when the light is best, whether that be that dawn, under the midday sun or at sunset.

What do you feel makes Poldark’s Cornwall unique?

It’s a combination of our experience, knowledge and attention to detail. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in terms of itinerary. Our strapline is ‘eat, stay, tour, more’ and when we return to The Bolenna at the end of the day, the ‘more’ is where guests are able to take advantage of our own wellness suite, yoga studio and hot tub; or perhaps experience a guided cold-water swim across Perranporth Beach with a personal instructor.

Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, Karen has been inspired by the wonderful guests she has toured over the years, many of whom have been women. She is currently writing an online mentorship program to inspire women into making inspirational life changes.


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