Headlands and wide bays near the quiet Camel estuary
North Cornwall’s awe-inspiring cliffs are carved by many small streams, but the River Camel is the only ‘gateway’ through which tidal waters can flow far inland. Although huge sandbanks are uncovered at low tide, the broad and sheltered estuary is bright with boats during the holiday season. Near its mouth, broad sands provide fine surfing. West of the Camel stretch reefs of rock, while east of Pentire Point there are high cliffs with breezy footpaths.
Low cliffs sprinkled with a few houses shelter sands washed by a stream. Swimmers should keep to the centre of the beach, and conditions are particularly dangerous near the rocks opposite the car park. A natural swimming pool in the rocks provides safe bathing at low tide. Surfboards may be hired.
Fences and marram grass, erected and planted to prevent erosion, pattern the dunes overlooking this sandy, surf-washed beach. Contrary currents make swimming dangerous at all times, but signs indicate the safer areas. Rocky reefs make the adjacent Booby’s Bay hazardous when the sea is rough, and at high water. Dozens of rock pools are exposed at low tide.
A toll road climbs from near Harlyn to a car park at the top of Trevose Head, nearly 250 ft above the sea. On a clear day there are splendid views north-eastwards towards Hartland Point and southwards beyond Newquay. The lighthouse is open to visitors. Padstow’s lifeboat is based on the sheltered eastern side of the headland where the North Cornwall Coast Path skirts Mother Ivey’s Bay. The bay – a mixture of rocks and low-tide sand – is said to take its name from a formidable old woman who claimed any wreckage found on the shore.
The discovery of a large Iron Age cemetery in 1900 made Harlyn Bay famous in the archaeological world, but the museum built on the site was demolished in the 1970s to make way for houses. Most of the relics may now be seen in Truro’s museum. The horseshoe-shaped bay, half a mile across, faces north and the sandy beach, washed on its eastern flank by a stream, is often pounded by surf. A volunteer rescue service, equipped with a high-speed inflatable rescue craft, is stationed on the beach in summer.
The village street slopes gently down to a sandy beach, crossed by a stream, with low cliffs and scattered outcrops of rock. The surf can be impressive, but swimmers should keep to the centre of the beach because strong currents sweep round the northern headland. The path over the headland passes Round Hole, which appeared when the roof of a sea-carved cave collapsed. Another path leads to Newtrain Bay, where rocks give way to sand at low tide. Surfboards may be hired.
The roots of this little fishing port go back to the 6th century, when St Petroc sailed down from Wales and founded a monastery. It was sacked by Viking raiders in AD 981. The role of the saint in founding the town was later recognised when the Guild of St Petroc was founded by local merchants and ship-owners.
A 15th-century church dedicated to the saint stands on high ground, framed by trees, and looks down on the town’s network of narrow streets and old, colourwashed buildings which lead to the harbour. Fishing boats and pleasure craft are watched over by the Court House, used by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century when he was Warden of the Stannaries of Cornwall.
Despite the dreaded Doom Bar sandbank at the mouth of the estuary, Padstow was the most thriving port on Cornwall’s northern coast in the days when virtually all trade went by sea. The harbour handled cargoes ranging from fish and wine to slate and ores from local mines. Some ships unloaded timber from North America and sailed back with Cornish emigrants seeking a new life in the New World.
Trade declined as ships became bigger and shifting sands made the River Camel increasingly difficult to navigate. The long-awaited arrival of the railway in 1899 was an
CORNISH GIANT AND WESTERN STAR The perennial Babington’s leek grows up to 6 ft high on stout, round stems and is found on cliffs and waste places only in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. In spring, grassy cliffs on the western coasts are studded with the bright blue stars of spring squill, a bluebell-like flower with narrow leaves. even greater blow to the port’s trade, although on the brighter side it did enable fish to be sped to London and other important markets.
An extraordinary incident took place during the First World War when a small fleet of Padstow boats were fishing off Pentire Point. A German submarine surfaced near by and ordered the fishermen to make for the shore in their dinghies. The submarine then sank all their boats.
A pleasant walk with fine views of the estuary runs from the harbour to the sandy beaches of Harbour Cove and Hawker’s Cove. Padstow’s lifeboat used to be based at Hawker’s Cove, but the silting up of the Doom Bar prevented easy launching at low water and the lifeboat station was moved to Trevose Head.
The little town is seen at its most lively and traditional on May Day, when the ‘Obby ‘Oss festivities take place. This ceremony, like the Flora Dance at Helston, is believed to have its origin in a pagan fertility festival celebrating the coming of summer. The ‘Oss is represented by a man wearing a black cape which hangs down from a wide circular frame. He wears a fierce mask, suggesting a heathen god, and a plume and tail of horsehair. As the townspeople sing a May Day song, the ‘Oss prances through the streets, preceded by a ‘Teaser’ and followed by dancers dressed in white and wearing spring flowers. At the end of the day the ‘Oss is ritually ‘done to death’, symbolising the passing of the old year- to be resurrected the following May Day.
A carnival and regatta are held in July, and a lifeboat day in August. Attractions include a tropical bird garden, a museum and an aquarium. Boat trips are available, as are water-skiing, sailing and windsurfing lessons, and fishing trips for sharks, bass and mackerel.
Sand, silt and the opening of a railway to Padstow in 1899 combined to end Wadebridge’s long history as a port. The old days are recalled by quays which flank the Camel below a bridge that dates from the 15th century. It replaced a dangerous ford overlooked by chapels where travellers could pray before crossing. The bridge’s piers are said to be built on woolpacks which provided solid foundations on the river’s muddy bed.
The Camel is seen at its best from a path which follows the abandoned railway line to Padstow and is never more than a stone’s throw from the estuary. The walk takes 2-3 hours and skirts Dennis Hill, where a monument commemorates Queen Victoria. The Royal Cornwall Show is held in Wadebridge in June.
The old quay at Rock is the main centre for sailing and water-skiing on the Camel. Its small, stone-built warehouse, originally used to store grain, is the headquarters of the Rock Sailing Club, where visiting ski-boats must be registered. The narrow road beyond the quay ends in a car park sheltered by dunes which run down to a beach with wide expanses of sand at low tide – and not a rock in sight. The beach is the departure point for a ferry service that has linked Rock and Padstow since the 14th century.
There are pleasant walks northwards over low cliffs, and a golf course extending to Daymer Bay and Trebetherick. Fishing trips are available, and sailing boats can be hired. There are sailing and water-ski schools.
A narrow, leafy lane runs down from the village to Daymer Bay where the sandy beach, backed by dunes, is framed by low cliffs. Bathing is safest at high water because of currents in the Camel’s tide-scoured channel. Offshore is the Doom Bar, a sandbank which claimed many ships when the estuary was an important commercial waterway.
Surfboards and speedboats are banned from the beach.
Polzeath and New Polzeath overlook the extensive sands of Hayle Bay, where westerly winds provide perfect conditions for surfers. The Greenaway, a short walk from Polzeath, is a pleasant expanse of springy turf above a rocky shore where the ebbing tide leaves many pools. Views across the mouth of the Camel estuary are dominated by Stepper Point, a lofty headland crowned with a ‘day mark’ tower built as a landmark for seafarers.
North of New Polzeath, where steps lead to the beach, paths to Rumps Point cross the banks and ditches of an Iron Age fort.
The 10 minute walk from the road to Lundy Bay passes a spectacular natural arch created when the roof of a sea-carved cave collapsed many years ago. The path swings down to a beach where tables of smooth rock give way to sand at low water. Walkers on the shore must beware of getting trapped by the incoming tide. From the path which follows the cliffs westwards towards Rumps Point there are wide-ranging views up the coast to Tintagel.
Headlands patchworked with fields sweep down to an attractive inlet where low cliffs embrace a beach of shingle and low-tide sand. The tiny hamlet, whose cottages are dashed with spray during north-westerly gales, was uninhabited for many years in the 19th century. Local tradition maintains that the women and children moved out after Port Quin’s fishing boats and crews were lost in a storm. In fact, most of the families emigrated to Canada when the antimony mines near Doyden Point were closed. On Doyden Point stands a 19th-century folly, Doyden Castle. It was built in 1839 by Samuel Symons of Wadebridge as a clifftop retreat where he could drink and gamble with his friends.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Bodmin Duke ol Cornwall’s Light Infantry Regimental Museum. Weekdays throughout the year,
Bodmin Farm Park, Fletcher’s Bridge, near Bodmin Animals, old farm implements Most days in summer.
Lanhydrock (NT) near Bodmin. 17th-century house. Gardens daily, house daily in summer
Pencarrow House and Gardens neat Bodmin. Georgian mansion. House most days in summer, gardens daily in summer,