A few years ago, I stumbled across a photo of a lovely beach on Twitter. I was surprised to learn that the turquoise water, golden sand, and immense cliff were in Cornwall – I had no idea England was so beautiful. Now I stood beside the woman who took that picture, seeing the view with my own eyes.
I’d traveled from southern California to attend the Global Wave Conference, and my Twitter friend Rebecca had graciously invited me to stay in the faux-old stone farmhouse she shared with Chris. On the five-hour trip from London, I passed modern windmills, rolling green hills dotted with sheep, and signs for castles. But driving on the wrong side of the road from the wrong side of the car was mentally tiring.
The streets became smaller and smaller until finally I rolled down a lane barely wider than my rented Renault Captur and pulled up beside my friends’ van. They’d already loaded up with boards and gear, and were itching to go surf. “It’s going to be dark soon,” Rebecca said. I quickly pulled my 4/3 wetsuit, hood and booties from a suitcase and climbed into the van behind my friends and two large well-mannered dogs.
The streets became smaller and smaller until finally I rolled down a lane barely wider than my rented Renault Captur
Getting to Penhale (Perran Sands) Beach involved many twists and turns down narrow lanes. We passed though a holiday caravan (i.e. trailer) park before pulling up in a vaguely-defined dirt lot ringed by similar surf vanagons. A meandering trail though drooping grasses, like the ones Californians use to decorate their yards, led us near the edge of the clifftop. Far below, small waves broke along a two-mile stretch of sand. We didn’t look for long because the sun was falling toward the horizon over the Celtic Sea.
With a borrowed 5’8″ surfboard under my arm, I followed my friends down a steep trail that finished with a skidding semi-walk down the side of a dune to the beach. The view from the water was just as spectacular as from the top of the cliff – I felt immersed in the beauty and the wild nature of the Cornish coast. We stayed out until nearly dark, and I was last to leave the water.
The climb back up the cliff was a thigh-burner and helped to calm my shivering from the cool water and cooler air
The climb back up the cliff was a thigh-burner and helped to calm my shivering from the cool water and cooler air. Although the weather was like northern California winter, with crisp sunny days, my friends said it was more typically windy with rain. Each of the next two mornings, I steered my rental car away from the farmhouse and traveled half an hour north to the conference site, at one point fording an inches-deep stream.
From the Bedruthan Steps Hotel in Magwan Porth, I could observe the area’s substantial tide swings on the coast below. The beach went from covered in water to immensely wide and back again. On the last day, renowned big wave surfer Greg Long gave an inspiring keynote speech before sprinting toward the beach after the conclusion of the conference, a cheap foam longboard under his arm, smiling like a stoked grom.
During a lunchtime walk, I saw an older woman carrying a traditional British bellyboard across the sand. The swell had dropped and the short-period waves weren’t enticing for stand-up surfing, but Rebecca had bellyboards and I wanted to try that century-old pastime, brought to England by Hawaiians. A bellyboard, also known as a paipo, is a wood plank, narrower and longer than a modern bodyboard, with a nose that curves gently upward. The bellyboard somewhat reminded me of a sled, and I had a brief thought of using it to ride down the dune to the beach.
Rebecca gave me tips on how to ride: Hold the board toward the back end, push off the sandy bottom and jump into the wave as it arrives, then pull your body forward onto the board. After a couple of tries, I caught whitewater and rode to the shallows. A bit later, I made it onto the smooth face of a wave, which put a smile on my face. Again, we stayed out till the light grew dim, and had only the lingering glow of last daylight to guide us up the cliff.
According to a surf guide I flipped through later at my friends’ house, the north end of Penhale is the only place in Britain the author had ever seen a shark. I was glad I hadn’t read that before I twice stayed out past dark. Not that we don’t have sharks in California, but I’ve never seen one, and never want to.
My friends dined on items unlikely to be found on an American menu
Once we’d changed back into street clothes, Chris steered the van down dark roads to the larger town of Newquay (pronounced “new-key” – who knew eh?). The surfing capital of Cornwall was sleepy in mid-October past the end of the season, with most of the shops dark, but the lights of an Australian restaurant called Bush Pepper beckoned us in. My friends dined on items unlikely to be found on an American menu – kangaroo and pork belly – while I enjoyed a quinoa and macadamia nut loaf on my last night in western England.
Cornwall called to mind the lonely stretch of coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. It had a similar wild feel, with golden sands and cliffs, but more of all that – higher cliffs, wider beaches, and more wild. The area’s seeming remoteness and ruralness were a surprise to me. Except perhaps for the far north of California, no place in my home state seems so removed from the bustle of urban life. Indeed, Cornwall was like no place I’ve ever been. The memory of bellyboarding under a glorious sunset in view of towering cliffs will stay with me forever.