Starting mileage: 16279 km
Day started: 10:00 / 10:00
Day ended: 23:30 / 22:00
A laid-back couple of days, as we slowly head out of Cornwall, spent splashing about in the sea, playing with surf boards and body boards and being generally cool.
At the end of day 20 we returned to Sennen Cove for a two-hour lesson in surfing: the first time either of us even so much as held the full-size board. It is a measure of our newbishness that the names like Sennen Cove or Watergate Bay meant nothing to us: places which are among the most highly recommended surfing spots in England, especially for beginners. We only learned about the Sennen school by accident, as it was along the route from Land’s End; we found Watergate the next day trying to get to a restaurant.
Smart Surf is one of the tiny surfing schools that dot the coastline; Cornish surfing tradition is far older than it may seem: it was first tried by gentlemen returning from trips to Hawaii in the early 1900s, and the popularized by ANSAC soldiers stationed in Cornwall during WWI. Sennen Cove is a small harbour village, not as famous and crowded as St. Ives or Newquay, so the lessons are more intimate, and cost only £25 pp. The instructors are not only very good and charismatic teachers, they are also absurdly good-looking, which is always a bonus; the guy who taught us, Lew, is also a burgeoning actor.
I had imagined that learning to surf even in the most basic ways would take ages. In fact, two hours turned out enough for an averagely fit person to learn not only to catch a wave, but stand on the board and slide a few meters before spectacularly wiping out. M. managed the trick swiftly; it was a testament of my own lack of any physical fitness whatsoever that I failed to stand properly even once, and had to throw in the towel in the end, due to cramps and exhaustion. Looks like I need to grow a few more muscles than I’m used to; it was all tremendous fun, though.
The next day we headed for St. Ives, Cornwall’s capital of art. Any number of truisms has been said about this town’s light and colours, and they are all true: in the summer sun, the white-washed walls and pastel roofs of St. Ives make it look just like a bit of Provence; and if you can’t get to Arles or Cassis to get your fix of painting, St. Ives is your second best bet.
Famously, the town houses the only Tate Gallery outside London and Liverpool. At the moment, the place is slightly disappointing, holding only tiny, five-room big temporary exhibitions; the next phase is supposed to show off its larger collection of paintings (including ones by Peter Lanyon). It does have the most stunning location for an art gallery though, with the beach and the sea forming the backdrop for the works of art inspired by the local landscape.
A note on the Cornish place names is in order. St Ives is named after “Saint Ia”, a 5th century Cornish missionaress. Cornwall is full of these saints, who apart from a handful of regional patrons are not worshiped, not recognized and oftentimes not known at all outside their local parish churches. These saints – and there is a surprising number of women among their ranks, mostly foreign princesses – hail from the obscure, dark age of the Celtic church, between 5th and 7th centuries, of which so little is now known. Of some of these saints nothing at all can be said for certain, as was the case of Senara, the patron saint of Zennor, a small village we stopped at before Ives.
Zennor’s chief claim to fame these days is the Mermaid Chair, a 600-year old wooden carved bench end, and the accompanying legend of the Zennor Mermaid. According to the leaflet presented in the church, the mermaid image (re-interpreted as double nature of Christ), holding a mirror and comb, stems from the representation of Aphrodite – although I could find nothing to confirm that for certain; if so, it would be a remarkably ancient link to a small parish church in rural Cornwall.
There are a few more points of interest in the village, quite a lot in fact, considering its size: a folk museum, a working mill which sells its own flour, a backpackers hostel and an ice-cream making farm, The Moomaids of Zennor.
We spent most of the afternoon on the Porthmeor Beach under the Tate Gallery, playing with the bodyboard we’ve been carrying around since London (and almost lost hope of ever using). Not as exciting or cool as a surfboard, and allowing for only the briefest of rides unless you’re really skilled, it does make the usual splashing in the water a bit more challenging and it’s very popular among kids and adults alike.
From St Ives we took the long, straight and fast A30 (cyclists are advised to avoid it: a few days before our journey, two End-to-Enders were killed by a truck) to Newquay, or more precisely, to Fifteen at Newquay, a famed restaurant established on Jamie Oliver’s charity concept which had worked so well in London.
We were certain the GPS had fooled us again, as we drove into Newquay, through Newquay and past Newquay, back into the empty fields, with no building in sight. Two miles north of the town we finally descended into the deep valley of the Watergate Bay. The first thing we saw was the beach, the huge waves and dozens of surfers making the best of the weather. The restaurant we were searching for turned out to be hidden away at the end of the car park, overlooking the beach.
As we ate a selection of antipasti (the only thing we could afford this time; it is still a Jamie Oliver restaurant after all), watched the waves through the window and felt the muscles ache, we decided to stay one more day in Watergate Bay – as many before us must have, for as we have learned later, this place was one of England’s finest and most popular surfing beaches.
We divided the next day between chores, a shopping trip to Newquay (the town itself is a typical, crowded seaside resort smelling of chippies and surfwax, with nothing of interest in it apart from the mentioned beaches, surf shops and Aussie bars) and beach. M. hired a beginners surf board (£7,5 for 2-3 hours); I decided to stay with our bodyboard, and get the most out of it. It’s not as easy as it looks!
There are two campsites just above the Watergate Bay, in Tregurrian village; we stayed at one that belongs to C&CC. It’s quite expensive – £21 per night with hook-up – but it’s clean, well kept, in prime location (10 min walk down to the beach, 10 min bus ride to the town & sea view), with all the facilities you may need (including wetsuit shower) and a fairly stocked shop.
The noise from the nearby Newquay Airport may be irritating to some, but having lived near Heathrow for several years I barely noticed it, and in fact I enjoyed a bit of plane-spotting on day two, as the airport is now home to Classic Air Force, Cornwall’s living air museum.
Fixed a wonky accelerator pedal by tightening a loose screw. Yay for simple repairs!