The beaches of Cornwall, and some facts

Cornwall is a land defined by its spectacular coastline of more than 300 miles, where an immense, restless sea collides with towering cliffs, sheltered coves and long, sandy beaches. It’s regularly voted the UK’s favourite holiday destination with successive generations of families creating magical memories of sunny summers on the beach, while recent years have seen an increasing number of people visiting in off season, taking advantage of a balmy climate where summer lingers late and spring comes early.

Clinging to the westerly tip of the peninsula is the small, granite land of Penwith which, surrounded on three sides by the sea and almost completely cut off from the east by a river, is virtually an island, a separate country, just as Cornwall itself is almost separate from England. It’s a land where myth, history and landscape frequently blur, a timeless place where an ancient terrain blends harmoniously with the works of man, from the chambered tombs of the Neolithic era, the stone circles and standing stones of the Bronze Age, and the cliff castles of the Iron Age, and on through the centuries to the more recent reminders of those Cornish staples of fishing, mining, and farming. It’s a land of piskies and giants, witches and wizards, and smugglers and wreckers, where even the names have an arcane, enigmatic quality: Bamaluz, Pednavounder and Nanjizal, Porthgwarra, Clodgy, and Progo.

Many fascinating places can be found inland, in the small villages or on the moorland that makes up most of the land mass of Penwith, but it’s the spectacular coastline that attracts most visitors to this south-western tip of Britain, and this book provides a guide to all the accessible beaches of West Cornwall, from Godrevy, at the north-east corner of St. Ives’ Bay, around to Porth Sampson on the south coast, close to the headland of Cudden Point on Mount’s Bay. It includes not only all the well-known holiday hotspots but also the tiny, rugged coves where solitude is almost guaranteed even at the height of summer.

Many of these coves are only accessible by walking along the scenic South West Coast Path, which can make reaching them an adventure in itself, but it’s only by sampling such secret delights that the authentic atmosphere of West Cornwall is revealed, a place where it’s easy to imagine the smugglers of old slipping silently ashore or, on blustery days when the full force of the Atlantic comes pounding in, helpless ships drifting calamitously close to the rocky headlands.

St Ives has many beaches and you will be spoilt for choice. But did you know these facts about beaches to begin with?

A beach is the land along the edge of a body of water that is made up of a number of specific materials including sand, pebbles , stones, rocks and shells. Literally, it is the end of the land, which is appropriate given that this book features the Penwith peninsula, also known as the Land’s End peninsula, which in Cornish translates as ‘Pedn an Wlas ‘: the end of the land. Some beaches are steep, others gently sloping and they can be of any size or shape. On the coast, beaches can form anywhere the ocean meets the shore as, over millennia, waves scour the coastline, creating flat areas which accumulate sediments that wash down from surrounding uplands, as well as those eroded from the ocean floor and tossed up onto the shore by wave action. Coastal winds and storms push sediments up beyond the reach of the waves and a beach is born.

Sand is made of minerals such as quartz and feldspar. Quartz is the most common on the majority of beaches because it’s very hard and durable and so is able to withstand both the effects of constant wave action and being transported by river to the coast. Another common mineral is muscovite, a member of the mica family, which tends to lie flat on the surface of the beach and, despite usually making up less than 1% of the grains, is easily seen as it sparkles in sunshine and immediately after waves recede. All of these minerals are found in the granite that makes up most of the Penwith peninsula. The colour of the sand on any particular beach usually reflects the geology of the surrounding area and the makeup of the adjoining ocean floor.

Most beach materials are the result of weathering and erosion caused by water and wind scouring the land. The continual action of waves beating against a rocky cliff, for example, may cause it to crumble and, given enough time, huge boulders can be worn down to tiny grains of sand. Sea shells are another ingredient found in sand after they are broken up by the waves; a good example of this is Porthcurno beach which consists mainly of crushed white sea shells with little of the granite which can discolour it. Beach materials can travel long distances, carried by wind and waves; as the tide come in, for instance, it deposits ocean sediment which might contain sand, shells or seaweed, and when the tide goes out it takes some of the sediment with it. The amount of sand on a beach can vary greatly; winter storms can remove great swathes of it right down to the underlying rock, while during spring the sand can be deposited again, recreating a sandy beach. This phenomenon occurs to some degree on all beaches and in West Cornwall, Nanjizal and Portheras Cove are examples of where it can most obviously be seen.

The material found on a beach is influenced by many things, notably the geology of the area, the prevailing weather conditions and the shape of the coastline. The size of the particles that make up a beach are often a reflection of the energy of the waves that hit the shore; in low energy environments, such as the shallow bays around Penzance, the result is that very fine particles, such as silt, are deposited, while, in contrast, high energy beaches are usually characterized by larger particles such as pebbles or boulders, as all the smaller particles are washed away. Some beaches are naked bedrock, boulders or pebbles instead of sand because the current has removed smaller, easily dislodged particles. As time passes the rocks or pebbles are smoothed and rounded by the unrelenting action of the waves.

A major feature of the coastline is the effect that tides have, particularly upon a beach. Tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and, to a lesser extent, the sun upon the earth. When the moon is directly overhead its gravitational force pulls water towards it, causing a bulge in the ocean that creates a high tide. At the same time it also pulls the earth away from the water on the opposite side of the world, thus creating another high tide there, and these bulges cause the sea to stretch in areas where the moon is not overhead, creating low tides. Combine that with the rotation of the earth and the moon and the result is two tides roughly every 24 hours.

Beaches are best visited at low tide and especially at a low spring tide. This has nothing to do with the season of the year but is the name given to the time when the tidal range – the difference between the high and low water mark – is at its greatest. Spring tides occur during full or new moons when the sun, moon and earth are in alignment, with the result that the sun’s gravitational pull is added to that of the moon, creating a higher than average high tide and a lower than average low tide. Seven days after a spring tide the moon and sun are at right angles to each other and the bulge in the sea caused by the moon is partially cancelled out by the gravitational pull of the sun, creating a neap tide, the period when the difference in the tidal range is at its lowest.  

Weather conditions can also affect tides as strong offshore winds move water away from the coastline, thus exaggerating a low tide, while a strong onshore wind can push water onto the shore, causing low tides to be less noticeable and high tides to be higher. High pressure weather systems can also push down sea levels, causing lower tides, whereas low pressure system can cause tides to be higher than predicted.