Miles of sands that make Newquay the surfers’ capital
Superb surfing beaches, punctuated by craggy headlands, sweep northwards from Perranporth to way beyond Newquay. They are seen at their most dramatic when huge waves, driven by stiff westerly winds, thunder ashore and send their salty spray far inland. But there are also bays and inlets where gentle streams tumbling down from the inland hills wash the sands and the booming surf is just a whisper around a headland.
According to Cornish legends, this hum-mocky wilderness of sand and marram grass covers the city of Langarroc that was buried because its inhabitants became lazy, greedy and immoral. Similar stories are told in other parts of Britain where drifting sand has undoubtedly buried farms, villages and even small towns since medieval times.
A large holiday camp nestles in the dunes close to a cross which guides walkers to the site of St Piran’s Oratory. Piran was a Celtic monk who is said to have sailed from Ireland on a millstone and became the patron saint of tinners, and of Cornwall. The tiny oratory, built in the 7th century, vanished beneath the sands for many years and was uncovered by a storm in 1835. It was later protected by an outer shell of concrete, but attracted vandals and now lies beneath a great mound of sand. The spot is marked with a stone bearing St Piran’s name.
Holywell village’s holiday homes and caravans are hidden from the delightful bay by high dunes. A broad but shallow river meanders seawards past the southern end of the sand-hills and is punctuated by stepping-stones in two places. Immediately south of the beach, Penhale Sands are part of the ‘desert’ which runs for almost 3 miles to the outskirts of Perranporth. The dunes are part of a military training area, but the clifftop path may be walked unless red flags are flying.
Holywell lies 2 miles to the west of Cubert, a village whose tall church spire can be seen for miles around and serves as a landmark for those heading for the bay.
FISHERMEN’S WATCH TOWER
Until the late 19th century the huer was an important man in Newquay. From his house above Newquay Bay he would watch for the reddening of the sea which indicated that pilchard shoals were in the bay. His name comes from his call, ‘Heva! Heva!’ (’Found! found!’), which sent the fishermen running to their boats.
This attractive little bay, known locally as Polly Joke, amply rewards the 10 minute walk from the car park at West Pentire. The sandy, stream-washed beach, owned by the National Trust, nestles between low cliffs whose rocks give way to gently sloping headlands patchworked with fields. Seals breed on The Chick, a rocky islet off Kelsey Head.
The sands of Porth Joke and neighbouring beaches are rich in minerals which act as a natural fertiliser. Their value was officially acknowledged as long ago as James II’s time, when an Act of Parliament gave local farmers permission to take sand from the foreshore.
Sheltered from the prevailing winds by Pentire Point West, this beach at the seaward end of the River Gannel’s estuary offers a broad expanse of low-tide sand backed by high and extensive dunes. Swimming is safest at high water, but bathers should avoid the Gannel at all times. A small boat ferries walkers across the river to Newquay. The car park behind the dunes is reached by a lane from Crantock, a village whose old-established charms have not been completely submerged by more recent developments.
SANDY HAVEN Newquay’s old harbour, still used by small craft, dries out at low tide, leaving a sandy beach for sheltered bathing.
The town that is now Cornwall’s biggest resort and Britain’s foremost surfing centre grew up around a ‘new quay’ whose building was sanctioned by the Bishop of Exeter in 1439. Fishing and smuggling became important sources of income, but local ships also traded with ports as far afield as North America. Gigs powered by teams of oarsmen raced out to pilot vessels safely into the harbour – and gig races held during the summer months still rank high among Newquay’s many holiday attractions. One of the craft, named after the town, was built in 1812 while two of her rivals also date from the 19th century.
Another link with the past is provided by the small, quaint, whitewashed Huer’s House which stands on a cliff above the harbour. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the sea often seethed with immense shoals of pilchards, a lookout was posted to keep watch for the fish and to guide boats to them by shouting instructions through a horn 1 yd long. One memorable catch in the 1860s is said to have been worth £20,000 – a fortune in those days – and there were enough fish to load 1,000 carts.
The arrival of the railway in 1875 was the most important event in Newquay’s history. Although built to carry minerals and clay to the thriving harbour, the line also brought the town within easy reach of Victorian travellers at a time when seaside holidays were becoming increasingly popular. Large hotels were built on the high cliffs above the series of beaches whose sands, surf and safe bathing are the main reasons for Newquay’s enduring popularity.
The town’s other great natural asset is the fact that its beaches face in every direction other than east, making it easy to find shelter on blustery days. Towan Beach, Great Western Beach, Tolcarne Beach and Lusty Glaze are washed by the waters of Newquay Bay and reached by steps or ramps cut into the cliffs. By contrast, Fistral Beach faces due west and is backed by low dunes which lead to a golf course. Another change of mood is provided by low-tide sands which fringe the River Gannel’s estuary on the town’s southern outskirts.
Surfers wishing to use Malibu boards, defined as being more than 5 ft long, must register them at the Municipal Offices at the junction of Manor Road and Marcus Hill, or on beaches with areas specially designated for the boards.
Seaside attractions include indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a museum, a zoo and an aquarium. There are boats for hire on a boating lake, fishing trips for shark, bass, pollock and mackerel, and fishing from the beaches for bass. Surfboards may be hired and there are sub-aqua and sailing clubs.
An old lime-kiln beside the beach is a reminder that this was a thriving little port until railways captured much of the coastal trade in the 19th century. Limestone was shipped in from South Wales, burned and carted inland to ‘sweeten’ Cornwall’s acidic soil.
Swimmers should avoid the north side of the sands, where a river runs to the sea past Trevelgue Head. Strong westerly winds force waves and spray up through a ‘blow hole’ in the headland.
Steps run steeply down from Whipsiderry to a sandy cove, sheltered by high, vertical cliffs, where the beach is completely submerged at high tide.
A path to Trevelgue Head can be walked in less than 10 minutes. It passes Bronze Age burial mounds, then crosses an impressive series of banks and ditches which made the headland a fortress during the Iron Age.
Low-flying aircraft from the St Mawgan RAF base roar over the surfers who flock to this long, sandy beach with its backdrop of crumbling cliffs. At low tide the beach runs for more than 2 miles from Trevelgue Head to Griffin’s Point, but there is only one access point for cars. The beach witnessed a miniature ‘civil war’ in 1869 when ‘rescuers’ intent on loot unsuccessfully tried to prevent a beached ship being towed to safety by a steam tug. Surfboards may be hired.
The remains of a settlement believed to date from the 5th century AD are hidden away behind Mawgan Porth’s beach. The sands are washed by a stream which flows down from St Columb Major through the wooded Vale of Mawgan. A clifftop path takes walkers past Berryl’s Point before dropping steeply down to the secluded sands of Beacon Cove. Surfboards may be hired, and there is fishing from the beach.
A reminder of the hazards of this part of the coast appears in the churchyard in St Mawgan, a village 2 miles inland hidden at the head of a deep wooded valley. A simple wooden tablet shaped like the stern of a boat commemorates nine men and a boy who froze to death in a lifeboat after their ship sank in 1846. Headstones in the churchyard show a wide range of variations on the Celtic cross introduced by the saints who came to the West Country in the 5th century.
A long flight of slippery and extremely steep steps plunges down from the grassy clifftop to a dramatic beach where low-tide sands are punctuated by immense rocks. Legend has it that the rocks were stepping-stones used by the giant Bedruthan; more prosaically, they are granite stacks left isolated on the beach by the erosion of softer rocks around them. One rock is known as Queen Bess Rock after its resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I, when viewed from the right angle. This is one of the most memorable stretches of coast in Britain, but explorers must keep away from the crumbling cliffs and take care not to be trapped by the rising sea. Swimmers venture out at their peril after passing an inscribed stone at the top of the steps. It commemorates a man from Derby who was drowned off Bedruthan in 1903, and it was placed there as a warning to others by his friends ‘whose lives were mercifully saved’.
In 1846 the 220 ton Samaritan, outward bound from Liverpool with a cargo of fine silks and cottons, was driven ashore near Queen Bess Rock by an October gale. Only two of her crew survived, but there were rich pickings for local beachcombers.
The steps (open in summer) down to the beach were closed after becoming unsafe, but were rebuilt by the National Trust, which has an information centre near by.
A stream flows into the sea at the head of this long, narrow inlet, where shingle-speckled sand is backed by a small area of low dunes. Swimming is safest from the middle of the beach, and currents sweeping past the headlands make it dangerous to bathe at low water. A path over the low southern headland leads to Porth Mear, a secluded cove of rock and low-tide shingle.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Cdrnish Country Life Museum and Dairytand Sum-mercourt, 5 miles SE of Newquay off A3058.Working farm; museum with 19th-century farming equipment. Daily in summer.
Lappa Vaiiey Railway. St Newlyn East, 4 miles SE of Newquay, off A3075, Two-mile return journey along former GWR line, stopping at East Wheal Rose recreation centre. Daily in summer.
Trerice (NT), 3 miles SE of Newquay, off A3058 Elizabethan manor house, with fine ceilings, furniture and tapestries; lawnmower museum. Daily in summer.