TravelDeparture Gate: Cornwall, UK
“Do you even get waves in England?” is the stock phrase that most British surfers are met with when they travel abroad and meet surfers from more well-known surf locales. And their answer is yes, because even though British waves and surfers don’t get any exposure in the international surf media there is a buffet of breaks available that makes it a worthwhile destination, particularly if you are planning a European surfari and the best flights are in and out of London.
Cornwall, the county in the far south west of the UK, is a peninsula that sticks out into the North Atlantic. Whilst being a county of England, it is a Celtic region with strong cultural links to Wales, Ireland, Brittany (France) and Scotland. It is an area characterized by its granite cliffs, interspersed with sandy beaches and small, sheltered coves, and has 300 miles of coastline along its north and south coasts. Cornwall faces the Atlantic Ocean, and whilst the continental shelf is further offshore than it is further south in France, knocking some of the power out of the swells, it receives the same swells as the rest of the west coast of Europe with an effective swell window from south through nor’west. The predominant winds are the onshore south westerlies, however when a high pressure sits over the UK warm, easterly winds blow offshore. During the winter months large swells are possible (although often accompanied by bad weather), and the breaks along the south coast come into their own, or surfers seek out the sheltered spots on the north coast. From spring through autumn, surfers can expect anything from knee high summer peelers through to long-range hurricane swells in the early autumn that are several times overhead. The UK has a large tidal range (approximately 7 metres) and many spots are tide dependant.
Starting in the far north of the county, the following guide travels west down the north coast before turning east at Land’s End and including several of the south coast breaks.
The town of Bude, just south of the Cornwall/Devon border, has several “town” beaches and a thriving local surf community. Crooklets and Summerleaze both work through the tide but like most Cornish beach breaks, are better around low to mid tide, on the push. Crooklets is west facing and far more consistent, whereas north-west Summerleaze beach (alongside the harbour) is more sheltered and needs a larger swell to start working.
A few miles down the A39 “Atlantic Highway” is Widemouth Bay, a wide beach with fingers of reef (characteristic of this stretch of the coast) that is very consistent. Continuing south there are various roads and lanes leading to the coast, and several semi-secret spots that come into their own on large swells. Get yourself an Ordnance Survey map or spend a few minutes on Google Earth, and they will become apparent!
The next “name” spot is Trebarwith Strand just south of Tintagel and it’s castle, long associated with the legend of King Arthur. Trebarwith Strand is at the end of a narrow valley, and is a low tide beach backed by rocks and cliffs. The waves here are peaky, hollow and powerful, with strong currents.
Polzeath, on the northern mouth of the Camel Estuary is a popular beach and surf spot, with several surf shops and cafes at the back of the beach. It is a large, flat, sandy beach and at low tide it is a long walk to the water’s edge. Popular with tourists, surf schools and longboarders, the waves here are often quite fat and slow. It is very consistent and, if the wind is from the north west, Polzeath’s large headland makes it one of the few sheltered beaches on the north coast. It’s also a good option in strong onshore winds.
On the opposite side of the estuary, near the famous foodie harbour town of Padstow, the headland at Trevose creates a small peninsula and the beaches around it provide lots of different options depending upon conditions. Harlyn faces north, so only breaks on larger swells and gets busy when west-facing beaches are maxed out, but has a fast and hollow right hander that breaks off the slab at the easter end of the bay. On very large swells, there is also a fast and hollow left at the opposite end of the bay. On the other side of the headland, there are a number of different options for surfers at Constantine Bay. The northern end, known as Booby’s Bay is usually a quieter option. The small rocky point that separates Booby’s from Constantine has a hollow right off it from mid tide pushing, and there are various beach break peaks along the length of the beach throughout the tides. At high tide there is often a good shorebreak. At the southern end is a large expanse of reef, with a hollow lefthander breaking into the bay in several sections.
The next beach south, Treyarnon, is a little more sheltered but offers fun beach breaks waves.
Following the coast road as it runs along the top of the cliffs (it is worth a stop to look at the amazing rocky coastline at Bedruthan Steps), the next beach settlement is Mawgan Porth where, between the high cliffs on either side, the beachbreak offers peaky rights and lefts and long rides. The north end can be particularly good, but be aware of unpredictable currents.
Watergate Bay is a long stretch of beach at low tide (at high tide, the beach is confined to the area in front of the restaurant and hotel), with good parking and access. There are multiple peaks along the length of the beach with good rights and lefts, with the quality of the sand banks increasing and the size of the crowd decreasing the further north you walk or paddle from the main access point by the car parks. On a shoulder high swell with light winds, the north end of Watergate attracts surfers from all over Cornwall for it’s wedgey peaks.
Newquay is often billed as the “surf capital” of the UK. It is a popular tourist town, but is also the home to one of the most consistently good beach breaks in the south west, much of the UK surf industry and media, and many of the UK’s professional surfers. Having had a reputation for tacky tourism and being a destination for bachelor/bucks/stag and bachelorette/hen parties, Newquay has been reinventing itself and there are now some great cafes and bars, and a vibrant local surf scene once again. The town beaches (Lusty Glaze, Tolcarne and Towan/Great Western) are increasingly sheltered beach breaks the further west you head. In the holidays and summer, they are very crowded. Fistral Beach, separated from town by the golf course and overlooked by the iconic Headland Hotel on the headland to the north, is the UK’s spotlight beach break. Fistral is a swell magnet and is very consistent; there are multiple peaks to spread the crowd out, with the north end (and Little Fistral) often being slightly bigger and better. There are rights and lefts, but the rights are usually longer and slightly better shaped. Whilst it works through all stages of tide, it is better and often hollow at low tide.
On the south side of the Pentire Headland (the southern edge of Newquay) and on the other side of the River Gannel, is Crantock. Despite being within sight of Newquay, having to drive around the river reduces the crowds, and the large, dune-backed beach is a family favourite. The sandbanks depend upon the river, but you can count on a fast righthander breaking off the rocks at the northern end, and a sandbar across the river-mouth that is often a popular option with longboarders. On large swells there can be a very good left at the south end, under the pink pub and the shelter of the West Pentire headland. In late spring and early summer, this headland is carpeted with wild flowers and poppies.
Perranporth is another long (several miles) stretch of beachbreaks. The small town is at the southern end, and the best wave is the left that breaks at the far southern end under the cliffs at Droskyn. Droskyn can get hollow and powerful, and holds size. The rest of the beach offers multiple peaks, best at lower tides. As you head north up the beach it is backed by high sand dunes and the Perran Sands holiday park. You can park in the holiday park (be sure to pay for a ticket, even if you are there before sunrise, as they have private parking wardens who enforce fines) and walk down the large dune to the peaks at Perran Sands which are good on a mid to high tide, or to really escape the crowds walk north from here up to Penhale Corner where the sandbanks in the shelter of the cliff can be excellent, particularly when the swell is shoulder to head high. Just be sure to save a little energy for the arduous walk back up the high sand dune!
Continuing south there is another stretch of high cliffs before dropping down to the small town of St Agnes, the home of a vibrant surf community, leading marine environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage and cold-water surf outfitters Finisterre. Trevaunance Cove faces north-west so is better on large swells or when seeking shelter. It can get crowded thanks to the large population of good local surfers, and the fact that it offers up steep, hollow, right handers and fast lefts. It’s also a great spot for bodysurfing.
The stretch of beach the other side of St Agnes head is separate beaches at high tide that link up at low tide. Chapel Porth is at the end of a beautiful narrow valley, protected by The National Trust. On a very small swell with a long period and light winds, Chapel offers incredible beach break peaks, with long, hollow and powerful rights (low tide only). There are several named peaks as you walk the low tide stretch of sand towards Porthtowan. Porthtowan (PT, to the locals) has good parking and cafes/bars behind the beach, and powerful beach break peaks that work right through the tides. At low tide you can walk around the southern headland to surf Lushingtons, a consistently hollow beach break.
From Porthtowan the coast road bends briefly inland, around the old military airfield, reconnecting with the coast at the village of Portreath. The harbour wall at Portreath is a very popular spot with bodyboarders, as the waves bounce off the wall and wedge up into large, hollow right handers suitable for experienced surfers only.
From Portreath the coast road runs along the top of another long stretch of high cliffs and inaccessible coves (known as North Cliffs), before dropping down into Hayle Bay at Godrevy, with the picturesque town of St Ives visible on the far side. Godrevy is looked after by the National Trust and is the site of an enormous seal colony in the lee of the headland, and an iconic lighthouse. There’s plenty of parking, which is good because Godrevy’s user-friendly waves (even when it gets very big) are popular. Godrevy has well defined peaks and shallower faced waves, so holds size and is surfable on large swells. From Godrevy the beach follows the bay south and is backed by sand dunes at Gwithian (where there is a large car park and access) and holiday parks, all the way to the Hayle River mouth several miles south. There are multiple good beach break peaks along this stretch and some well defined breaks, with the size of the waves diminishing the further south you head into the shelter of the bay. On the far side of the rivermouth, Hawkes Point (accessible from Carbis Bay on the St Ives Road) is a winter spot that starts working on large swells, and is sheltered from south westerly winds.
The picturesque town of St Ives, famous as a destination for artists and the home of many art galleries, occupies a headland with the north facing beach of Porthmeor, under the Tate Gallery (on the site of an old gas works), being its prime surf spot. Towards the north end of the beach a submerged old boiler from a shipwreck forms a good sand bar, and the high tide berm means that as the tide pushes in there can be a fun shorebreak.
The winding coast road from St Ives towards Lands End is a classic “road trip” route with stunning coastal scenery. Just before reaching Lands End is the village of Sennen (on the top of the hill) and Sennen Cove (at the bottom of the hill). Sennen is the home of some of the UK’s best surfers and an amazing group of longboarders, and that is in part down to the quality of the waves here. Gwenvor, the northern part of the “3” shaped bay, is one of the most exposed beaches in Cornwall and is therefore incredibly consistent. It’s a good beach break, with a very fickle (almost mythical) right hand point in the northern corner. You can park at the top of the cliff and walk down, or walk around the headland from Sennen. Sennen Cove has a large car park and restaurants/cafes/shops and a surf school. The waves get larger the further you head up the beach towards Gwenvor (the southern end being nicknamed “kiddies corner”, with a great bank sometimes forming at the north end by the headland that separates Sennen from Gwenvor. Sennen can offer everything from punchy, hollow beach breaks through to fun noseride-friendly peelers, depending upon the sand banks and stage of tide. The water here is often very clear and a bit cooler than further up the coast.
Rounding Land’s End the south coast of Cornwall heads off eastwards. There are no regular surf spots to speak of until you get off the Penwith peninsula and are the other side of Penzance, although in the depths of winter there can occasionally be a good left hander at the insanely picturesque Porthcurno, and a “once in a blue moon” right hander that breaks on ten-year winter swells along Newlyn harbour wall. The south coast of Cornwall tends to have its day in the winter, when large swells and/or northerly or nor’westerly winds make for prime conditions. You can score small log-able waves in front of St Michael’s Mount on Marazion beach if the stars align, and you’d struggle to find a more picturesque backdrop to a surf. Praa Sands (pronounced “Pray”) is a beachbreak with shapely peaks that is best on mid-tide – it can be rippy at low tide and dumpy at high. Praa is the “go-to” south coast beach break when the north coast is blown out, so can get busy. Just to the east is the harbour town of Porthleven, which is where all of the storm-watchers and photographers go when huge winter storms send enormous waves crashing up over the clock tower. ‘Leven is the UK’s premier reef break, consisting of a main peak just to the west of the harbour mouth and several other peaks west of that. The main peak is a short, hollow and powerful right hander and, on the right swell direction, a longer but equally hollow left. At high tide it breaks close to the rocks on the shoreline, and on low tide it gets very shallow. The same goes for the next peak west, named Wrestles. When waves are breaking at Porthleven it will almost certainly be crowded with a tight-knit and very competent local crew who live and breathe this wave taking turns, and Cornwall’s contingent of professional surfers and barrel hunters from all over the southwest waiting in line for their chance at a wave. As such, it is best left to experienced surfers. On these days, there will almost certainly also be a sizable crowd of photographers (both professional, and photography students from the nearby university at Falmouth) lining the cliff top and along the harbour wall, all taking the same photo from the same angle.
Heading east of Porthleven takes us into deep-winter and serious goose-chase territory.
For anybody interested in surfing in the UK, Cornwall offers the best bet for scoring good waves thanks to it’s range of breaks along two coasts, and large North Atlantic swell window. It’s possible to get all four seasons in a single day, so a visit could enjoy sunny weather, offshores and a long-range groundswell or unsurfable storm swell, wind and rain, or flat calm. Surf or not though, it is a great place to visit with a beautiful coastline punctuated by picturesque fishing villages, historical sites, and an incredible food and drink scene. Cornwall has long been a popular seaside destination, and the tourist infrastructure means that there are accommodation options ranging from campsites to beachfront mansions, lots of incredible places to eat and drink, and lots of options for flat day fun. Several famous chefs have restaurants in Cornwall, and the top spots are booked out months in advance, but there are also some incredible cafes and pubs to choose from. For any visitors from outside of Europe, quaint fishing villages such as Port Isaac (the setting for TV series Doc Marten) and Mousehole, or the picturesque towns of Padstow, or St Ives are a must.
If it’s flat, take a guided SUP or sea kayak tour along the stunning coast of Port Isaac Bay with Cornish Rock Tors, or visit the beach at Porthcurno and swim in aquamarine waters. For those with an interest in history, or just stunning scenery, St Michael’s Mount and its causeway or the castle at Tintagel are great destinations, as are any of the beautiful stately homes now in the care of The National Trust, such as Lanhydrock House (where there are also excellent cycle trails).
Cornwall has a rich heritage of fishing and mining, and one former opencast mine in central Cornwall has been transformed into The Eden Project; an incredible environmental visitor attraction featuring huge biomes that house a rainforest ecosystem and a Mediterranean ecosystem. It is easy to lose a day at the Eden Project, and in the summer they also host music events on an outside stage. Hopefully though, you’ll be treated to good waves for the duration of any visit and struggle to fit in anything other than surfing, refuelling, and sleeping. With the UK’s airports being international hubs, and an easy entry-point to Europe for English speaking visitors, any surfer planning a trip to France, Spain, Portugal and even Morocco would be well advised to bookend their trip in the UK, and if doing so, to include a side-trip to Cornwall into their plans.
- WHERE: Fly to London (LHR or LGW) and then either get a connecting flight to Newquay in Cornwall (NQY), catch a train, or hire a car.
- WHEN: April to October
- WHY: Variety of waves (many of which are user-friendly beach breaks), picturesque scenery and villages, history and culture.
- HOW: A high volume shortboard/fish, and a longboard.