The water lapped around my bare, exposed ankles, sending volts of iciness up through my legs. The surf roared, with spray whipping elegantly over the backs of the waves breaking aggressively a few hundred feet from the shore. It began to rain, lightly at first, although it soon progressed to a typical English downpour. Wind screeched across the top of the ocean, raging and ripping through the white-water. The grey, heavy clouds seemed to hug the horizon as I began the long, laboured walk through the breakwater to begin my paddle for the surf. It was a brutally beautiful day.
I agree, it is not exactly an inviting image. Rather, this type of weather conjures up ideas of hot chocolate, blankets, and log burners; the picture described above is hardly an advert for British beaches. But unfortunately, I have a slight inclination for surfing and outdoor activities in the most dramatic, or should I say “unpleasant”, weather conditions. Why, I do not know. However, despite the elements, this was the first morning of a surf trip along the north coast of Cornwall, but not one that included the cliché destinations that I am sure many of you may well be familiar.
No, this was an expedition that ventured deep into the rugged north Cornwall coastline, in a quest to uncover hidden spots in a place that has been so well trodden by tourists. By using the vehicle, or perhaps excuse, of a surf trip, we reconnoitred the area, and what we found was quite breath-taking. From hidden coves and quaint, secluded pubs, to clandestine surf breaks and enigmatic restaurants, it was a journey of pure discovery (and not to mention a lot of surfing). This is Cornwall. Rediscovered.
"It was a snorting, screeching day, but the surf conditions were magnificent"
After hastily checking the final details and adding the last few remnants of apparatus that we would need for our voyage, we closed the doors on the car and set off. From our base in Exeter, we motored down the A30 to our first stop, and where the surfing odyssey would begin – The Strangles. A beach that is relatively unknown, some may even say secret, The Strangles is a microcosm of the entire north Cornish coastline. Extremely rugged, dramatic and raw, the small, sandy beach is guarded by titanic cliffs. The beach even plays host to allegedly the highest cliff in Cornwall, towering at over 700ft. Yet despite the striking landscape, the beach is accessible, and it is easy to see how in the summer it offers a quaint cove drenched in sunlight.
This, however, was a fever dream in comparison to the conditions that I have previously alluded. It was a snorting, screeching day, but the surf conditions were magnificent. So naturally we wasted no time in wriggling into our wetsuits, and charging down the narrow, winding footpath to the beach. It would be wise of me to mention however that The Strangles is not a beginner/intermediate friendly beach, so if you heed our advice and decide to surf here, make sure you know what you are doing.
After tearing around in the 5ft swells for a good couple of hours, the exertions of battling the elements and rips had started to take its toll on both our shoulders and stomachs. By this point, bedraggled and fatigued, we made our way up the toiling path, quickly changed, warmed up, and fired up the car and naturally looked for somewhere to indulge in a late lunch. On our route down towards Chapel Amble, where we would be staying for the night, we managed to find exactly the type of establishment we were hoping to discover: a true Cornish pub. As we sped round the narrow, snaking Cornish roads, we suddenly found ourselves in St. Kew, and what did we find?
The 15th century namesake Inn, which served as the idyllic, pleasant retreat we needed from the elements. Cosy and traditional, the St. Kew Inn had a roaring fire that welcomed us, indulgent food, and beers aplenty; it was the quaint Cornish pub personified. Had it not been for the dreary weather, we would have been inclined to explore the tiny, picturesque hamlet of St. Kew, however, by this point the rain had now turned torrential, and so we headed towards Chapel Amble to try and find a suitable spot to park our converted-mobile-camper-car. We settled down for the evening, and quickly dropped off to the pita-pata of rain on the roof, in the hope that the next day would bring blue skies.
"Mist hung low across the fields, whilst the piercing sun reflected on the morning dew"
Our prayers were answered. As we rose that morning, the early morning sunlight streaked through the windows. We rapidly packed up, munched through breakfast, and escaped before the farmer found us parked in his lay-by. From there we traversed the country roads in what was a beautiful spring Cornish morning. Mist hung low across the fields, whilst the piercing sun reflected on the morning dew. Having grown up on a diet of Cornish summer holidays, it is mornings like this that brought about feelings of fuzzy nostalgia, alongside realisations about how fortunate we are to have such a sandy playground so close to home.
The morning conditions beckoned in a day made for surfing and with the gentle off shore winds, we headed to a location we knew would be pumping: the rather amusingly named Booby’s Bay. Separated from the well-known Constantine Beach by a small jutting headland, Booby’s Bay is a wave paradise as the tide retreats. We had picked our timing as when we arrived, not only was it deserted, but also the tide was on its way out. In its wake, it had left a golden plateau of sand that shimmered in the dawn rays. The surf was bigger than the day before, although the gentle offshore breeze had mellowed the swell out, and the right-hand reef break was breaking cleanly. We quickly dragged on the damp wetsuits and got stuck into the surf; the ocean all to ourselves.
After what seemed like endless hours of fun, we decided to call it a day. The waves at Booby’s were firing on all cylinders, however, similar to the day before, we were driven out of the water by the pangs of hunger and thirst. And so, this time, in desperate need for a refreshing beer, we searched out The Pig at Harlyn, a 5-minute drive inland from Booby’s. There will be a good number of you that have heard of The Pig, or at least some of its siblings. A hotel-cum-restaurant-cum-pub, The Pig is an eclectic, charming, quirky, coastal retreat that is supremely welcoming. The bar lounge offered a relaxing abode, where we enjoyed a couple of well-earned beers, before moving on. By this point the afternoon was moving on, and because it was shaping up for a stunning sunset, we decided to navigate to one more beach for a short, sharp surf to admire the twilight.
This time we headed to a lesser-known cove, that had easy going waves, which was welcome news for both of us now that our shoulders were tender. The place in question was Porthcothan, just a few miles south from Constantine. It proved to be a brilliant decision, as the vista that greeted us was stunning; a palette of golds, purples and blues on the horizon, as we paddled out for the last time that day. It was a fleeting burst in the breakwater, and after about 45 minutes, we both decided it was time to find dinner.
After a rapid turnaround, we headed off in the car down to Watergate Bay to where we planned on dining for the night. This time pubs were off the cards, and rather we visited celebrated Cornish chef Emily Scott’s restaurant - Emily Scott Food – right on the front at Watergate Bay. This was a real gem, and it was a place I wanted to visit for some time. With clean, Scandi interiors, it was a complete change to the snug outfits we had called on prior. Dishes like Padstow Crab with Pickled Heritage Carrot and Brown Crab Hollandaise, and Gurnard cured in Citrus Vodka with Blood Orange, Sea Buckthorn and Jalepeño, can be expected and it was a true Cornish culinary experience; one that was certainly needed after the action of the day…
The next day followed a similar routine. Quick breakfast and scarper from our lay-by for the night. That day we unfortunately were not treated to the serene morning panorama, or weather conditions. Grey and overcast, it was not looking promising. The wind was also non-existent, and we were conscious that there may be a shortage of good swell. However, we left with optimism and ventured to a beach that often gets overlooked in favour of the Newquay powerhouses of Fistral and Watergate: Crantock Beach. Just south of Fistral, the beach sits adjacent to a river mouth, and is known for being an excellent place to escape the crowds further up the coast. The beach is sandy, with large, grassy dunes overlooking the Atlantic, whilst the surf is excellent for beginners, right up to experts.
Whilst this sounds all rather nice, when we arrived, it was quiet and a little flat. The waves had evaporated overnight, and all we were left with were 2-3ft dishwater. But that did not stop our enthusiasm. We geared up and gave it a good go for about an hour, however, that was as much as we could manage. As the hour progressed, the surf dried up and we were forced out of the water, tinged with disappointment. That said, we still had one more place in mind that we wanted to journey to as part of our three-day surf and exploration voyage. So we changed and packed up for the last time and began the drive down to Hayle for to seek out a secret gem known for its seafood and fish dishes.
Black Lobster, found at South Quay in Hayle, is the place in question, and has built up a following for its superb dishes, as well as from its attractive, pretty location. As we ambled down to the beach shack that housed the eatery, it was easy to see why it was local hit. Spilling out onto a spit of beach, jutting out into the estuary, the location was picturesque enough, and that was before even poring over the menu. Options at Black Lobster change daily as their dishes revolve around what is fresh that day, so quality is assured. As we ordered and sat down on the sand, sipping our beers, the sun peaked from behind the dense cloud. You began to get the impression that the Cornish summer was laying its foundations, and at that same time we were both beginning to think about our next trip down to the south-west to sniff out more of this treasure laden region. But until next time, happy hunting…