The Medicine of Mothecombe

Mothecombe Beach, Flete Estate, South Devon

November 17 2017

“…as he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart: How shall I go in peace and without sorrow?

Then the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul.”  (Kahlil Gibran)

In times of turbulence and torment there is no better tonic than a trip to the beach, moreso with a toddler in tow. And there is no better beach than Mothecombe, also known as Meadowsfoot.

Mothecombe jewell .jpg

A jewel of a place; hewn from the Devonian slate of the South Hams and multifaceted, reflecting the many vistas of the countryside hereabouts. For within the gaze lie rugged moorland, rollercoaster fields and rustic woodlands that dip down into the timeless tranquility of the Erme estuary.

Mothecombe Rabbit Field.jpg

And of course, there is the sea. The soothing sea. The balm of the ocean.  And today, all that is clasped in a setting of the finest gold. For although this is mid November and the air is chilled, the sun has forgotten the season. She shines upon us benevolently as we dine alfresco and enjoy a lunch of local seafood and the gift of a good grape harvest at the Old Schoolhouse.

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The path to the beach crosses rabbit-peppered fields, then dips down through a delight of trees where the last blackberries are withering; their juices long sapped by the onshore breeze..

Mothecombe Wood.jpg

Glimpses of paradise greet us through peephole clearings before the horizon expands and sand at last presses up between our toes.

Mothecombe first sand

As usual we are alone. Access is not particularly easy and in all but the heights of July and August this is a place of peace. A place to swim naked.


Today the sweetness of summer hay has passed and the high hedges no longer crush the crested lanes. It is only eight degrees above freezing, but the wind is kind and the sea is slight.

I find a perfect rocky changing room and strip off – albeit a little gingerly! Then the dash to the water; clear as glass and equally cutting. Recent storms have woven ridges and ripples into the sand as I wade up to my waist.


A sharp intake of breath. I dive, deep and long into the next wave. Surfacing, I savour the fizzing freshmint feeling of the chill that coils all around me. Impossible to describe. The endorphin rush that I have craved for the past two weeks since my last cold water swim.

My fix.


I drink it in – savouring the salt too, for I love its cheeky tang. The tide is rising but the beach shelves gently, so I am never far out of my depth as I relax into my stroke and begin to swim out. Out beyond the breakers. Where I can float and gaze and think and dream. A place of wonder. A place of prayer.

I think of the films that have been set here – notably Sense and Sensibility and Du Maurier’s Rebecca. A beachouse clings to the cliff and beyond, a remnant of war.


Here the Home Guard sat and waited for an invasion that never came. And here they blew a hole in the tidal pool. Gently bobbing, I ponder why, but explanations are as sparse as the clouds in the perfect blue above me.

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Lying still, the water around me warms, but the slightest movement unmasks a concealed chill. I languish longer than I should, gazing at the long-deserted pillbox, imagining the lonely vigil on a wild Westcountry night.

Suddenly my own early warning system jangles into life. My left fourth toe buzzes urgently then descends to numbness. The way it always does when it is time to retreat. I twist into the cold current and slowly swim back towards the excited chatter of my granddaughter.

An hour of precious beachtime memory-making follows.

An hour of discoveries and delights.


Mothecombe sandcastle delight

As we begin the ascent towards home, Alexa’s legs falter and she is lifted onto my shoulders. Clutching a feather in each hand, she begins to gently flap her wings. “We will fly back Grandad” she chuckles.

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But I am already far above her – soaring in the thermals. Circling and content in this world of Salcombe Smokies and Sauvignon Blanc. Of sandcastles and shell collections.

Borne up and lifted high by the innocent laughter of a child.


Watch the Wall My Darling …

Lantic Bay, Cornwall

13 August 2017

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.


Three centuries ago smuggling was the blood that pulsed through the granite veins of Cornwall. A life blood – nourishing and sustaining every part of a poor and lawless county. Few had no trace or taint of this blood on their hands. For some, ‘free-trading’ meant life itself.

For in many a fishing community, the difference between success and starvation lay in ‘silver darlings’ – fickle shoals of pilchards that swam close to the Cornish coast as summer days began to shorten. Heva! Heva! would be the cry when their silver sparks were spotted and all around would spill into the sea for a welcome harvest.

Silver Darlings

But if the shoals stayed away, the salting barrels remained empty.

A situation made worse by crippling taxes, levied to pay for England’s military campaigns against American independence. Taxes on spirits soared, tea and tobacco became prohibitively expensive. But most serious of all was the crippling cost of salt – forty times its value. And without salt, the fisherfolk could not preserve whatever they managed to catch.

So they turned their sights towards the ocean: towards a new harvest….


A tax-free trade from France.

Alcohol, tobacco and a host of luxuries, smuggled ashore and spirited away into the Cornish night. A very profitable catch…

And my homeland, the south-east of Cornwall, is soused in tales of smuggling: some tall, some true. Many an isolated cove and cliff-clung community still harbours memories and mementoes of smugglers, long after the tides have claimed their sandy footprints.

lantic last view

Lantic Bay is such a place. Shaped like the moon that lit the men and mules as they descended the steep footpath from clifftop to shore, this crescent of sand and shingle was a perfect place to land contraband. Inaccessible and almost invisible to the prying eyes of the excisemen.

As I stumble and slip towards the beach in brilliant sunshine and a balmy breeze, I am in awe of the men who trod these paths, in the ebony grip of a midwinter night. Silent and sweat stained. Sinews straining. Stealthy and sure-footed.

And they were many. For smuggling was about communities: covert and close.

Here at Lantic Bay, one hundred smugglers were confronted by men from the Excise. A skirmish ensued and one of the preventive men lay unconscious. But no-one was ever convicted – no one could ever be – not by a Cornish jury!

For everyone had a part to play – squire, parson, publican and magistrate – all stored the contraband that was hauled and manhandled up from the shore. At nearby Talland, the priest was said to raise the dead in the midst of night, so honest villagers stayed away from the churchyard, fearful of the dark shadowy figures seen moving in silent procession towards their ‘resting place’.

At the very least, gentle-folk would turn their backs on the business: seeing nothing, hearing nothing.

Blind eye

But on this August afternoon, the only sight is the sand and shingle, the sun and the sea. The only sound is a rhythmic lapping along the tideline. The only vessels anchored offshore are yachts gently bobbing in blue waters and today the only danger comes from an occasional jellyfish.

View boats 2

It is a good swim, clear and cool, but caution is required, for rips are common and the sea here should be avoided in all but fine weather on an incoming tide.

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Th beach is quiet. Few venture to this remote place. Lying back on the sand, I drift and drowse in the gathering heat. Creak of wood, flap of canvas, a muffled oar.

So far away ….

Lantic sands

Cry from on high, like a cliff top lookout. I wake with a start! A gull is circling, weaving the thermals like fine french lace.

A westerly wind is gathering and fingers of sand are reaching from the sea to grip the grasses marking my route home.

Lantic Daisies

It is growing late. The cliffs rise above me and, although unburdened by barrel, brandy or baccy, I am still breathless by the time the gorse-sharp track yields to an unfolding softness of emerald grass.

Sitting at the summit, I pause awhile, enjoying the tang of salt and sense of satisfaction.

Lantic Bay from clifftop

And there is admiration too. Admiration for the grit and guile of my my Cornish kin who cheated hunger and injustice.

There is little smuggling here now; Lower taxation, a reinforced Customs and Excise Service and the rise of Methodism put an end to the free-traders.

But their legacy remains and today it is the history of smuggling that brings a valuable cargo to this still poor county – the trundle and tread of tourism.

For in this place of mist and mystery, the muffed murmurs of yesterday still echo all around…

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

[Rudyard Kipling] 






The Talland Boiler

Porth Tallan

October 26 2014


It is not the sight of the sea, but the stench of the seaweed that takes my breath away as I round the last steep bend into Talland Bay.

Black, russet, amber and brown. Heaped high and shining in the lazy drizzle of an October afternoon. The putrid reek claws at my throat and I swallow hard.

Beyond, under a grey sky, lies a small grey beach that grates and groans to the rhythm of a grey sea, skulking skywards into a grey mist.

All is grey. All is grim.

My spirits are damp as the day. Heavy as lead.

This is far from the scene I imagined: Quiet, unspoiled, beautiful; an Aegean idyll in South East Cornwall …



I slip, trip and slide across to the rocks that slice this smuggler’s haven in half – Rotterdam Beach to the east and Talland Sands lying westward. Here, at least, there is colour in a scattering of deep, crystalline pools.



But little life – the anemones are closed on Sunday and, like a parson at the door, a hermit crab peers blankly out. An occasional shrimp flusters by, then all is still again. Limp and languid and lifeless.

Clambering on, I finally spy the reason for my visit. Exposed by the lowest tide….

A rusted boiler.



All that remains of the ‘Marguerite’ – a French trawler who lost her bearings during a south-westerly gale in March 1922 and foundered on the rocks. Heavy breakers crashed over the doomed vessel, but the crew of 21, including a ten year old boy, were all rescued by the lifeboat ‘Ryder’ thanks to the skilled seamanship of Coxswain Thomas Toms. The locals also tried to ‘rescue’ the 50 tons of fish on board – but were distressed to find that the prized catch had been turned pink by carbide contamination from the ship’s lighting!


The clouds are lifting a little now and, like a crack in cast iron, the horizon reappears as a sliver of ochre. The wind is rising with the tide and I sense that the opportunity to swim will soon fade with the day.

Returning to the sand and shingle, littered with pebbles of pink and purple, I avoid a recent rockfall and toss my clothes away from the reach of the sea.

Where a wonderful calm sweeps over and suffuses me. A warm, silky saltiness that triggers a relaxation response as intense as it is instant.



The sea always feels like an intimate friend and so, although I often swim alone, I never feel lonely. There is both a delicious freedom and a tender togetherness in swimming out and out. In rising and falling with the swell. In being a creature of the deep.

I can understand why Peggy Oliver wrote:

‘..Where salt breezes act as balm

To my troubled mind to bring me calm.

And so when times are hard to bear

I dream that I have journeyed there

For every single worldly care

Can cease at Talland Bay.’

My solitude is shattered by a group of girls. Students I would say. They appear from nowhere, swim around me for a few minutes in an excitement of chatter, and, like a pod of playful dolphins, are suddenly gone again.

All is silent and special once more.

It is just me and the waves.



And the distant tower of St Tallanus.


Polly Joke

Porth Joke 

July 30 2015

Sometimes a name in itself is sufficient to invite exploration.

Polly Joke is such a name.

As soon as I saw those words in my ‘Secret Beaches of the South West’ guide I knew that I would go there.

The detail did not matter. The name did.

So on a sun-soaked afternoon in late July, I find myself parking in a field and stepping out on the half mile trek through poppy-peppered cornfields, rolling downwards to the sea.


Polly Joke is a name of endearment and familiarity, used by the locals. But to most this is Porth Joke; a north westerly facing inlet beach between the prominent headlands of Kelsey Head and Pentire Point West on Cornwall’s Atlantic coast. Completely undeveloped, this is a natural gem; geographically only a handful of miles – but galaxies apart – from nearby trendy Crantock and the crass commercialism of Newquay.

The walk to the beach is also a thing of beauty, passing blackberries that are beginning to swell with Autumn promise, graceful grasses and golden grain. Bees, bugs and butterflies abound.


A gentle drone and rhythmic breaking of distant waves – their crashes; a ragged remnant of a recent unseasonal gale.


For the last hundred metres of my descent, the business of bees is gradually replaced by the clamour of children and I realise that I will not be alone this day.


How naiive to think I would, for this is peak season. But nonetheless, there is no feeling of crowding – no confusion of windbreaks – no radios – no barking dogs. Just a happy murmur of childhood, softened by an Atlantic lullaby.

Crossing the chilled stream that traverses the apex of the beach, I choose a spot on the edge of the dunes – all marram and thistle and wisps of hot sand coiling to the tune of an onshore breeze.


The general advice at Porth Joke is to avoid swimming except in the calmest of conditions and then only on the rising tide. This is on account of the strong swell, lively surf and strong rips that feature prominently in the cove.

But today, despite a recent force 8, the swell is manageable and the tide rapidly consuming the vast, almost flat expanse of sand, so I wade into the gorgeously warm (18.5C) and clear waters.


Heading out, through a straggle of weed and past a handful of optimistic body boarders, I am soon swimming alone in the surf, which is lively and playful.

I dive into the first wave; indigo at it base and rising through turquoise to the purest white foaming crest.


Tossed about in its heart; powerless as a grain of sand, I break free from its grip and explode back to the surface.


My sense of conquest is short-lived, for I am instantly battered around the back of the head and flung forwards by its accomplice – stealthily creeping up on me from behind.


I feel salt gush into my nose and mouth, see a kaleidoscope of spinning blues, hear the rush of the wave above me and the shuffle of sand below. …before I again escape and rocket back into fresh air.

And it feels so good. Like a toreador, I emerge to face the relentless charge again and again …


An hour surges past like the relentless breakers, leaving me bobbing in a timeless place.

The beach has contracted and a trickle of families are embarking on the uphill trek towards home.

I face the shore and launch into each advancing wave, surfing on my stomach until the water is again shallow, warm and tranquil.

And where sea and river meet, amidst the turbulence and change, I see a shape outlined in foam.

Perfect …


The Awakening


October 28th 2014

‘Don’t wait any longer. Dive into the ocean. And let the sea be you.’ – Rumi



0650 and I was awake, bemoaning the fact that my brain had forgotten this was a holiday. Rolling over, I squeezed my eyelids tight against the morning – but it was a futile effort.

For a seed had been sown. An idea.

A thought of a swim. A dawn dip.

And it would not go away. Like an infant that, once birthed, will not be set down. Mewling and insistent.

So within five minutes I was up and online: Tides favourable. Weather fair. Banana peeled and mug of strong tea brewing.

Another half hour and I was five miles from my family, pacing downhill, past slumbering cottages in the still blue October dawn.

Lansallos, the Llan or hamlet of St Salwys, lay silent as the Celtic hermitage from which its name is derived. The 14th Century church stood stark against the skyline as I descended onto the woodland path that sucks one towards the sea.



For it is a force that cannot be resisted; a primordial attraction. Reverse evolution. A draw back into the ocean.



And never was that pull more keenly felt than on this morning.

Like an eloping lover descending on knotted sheets, anticipating a covert embrace; an illicit thrill filled me as I kicked virgin leaves and followed the song of the sea.



A siren song that called and coaxed through shaded wood and dew-drizzled meadow.

Until there she was. Opening before me. Lazily stretching beneath a duvet of low cloud. Wanton. Waiting. A soft mist sealed our tryst as I sank into the sand.

How far this shore felt from my visit only a week before. Then the sun shone and a small throng milled along the tideline.



There a New Age woman had come to me trailing twin daughters whose dresses flowed like the tide. Each child held a lead and each lead harnessed a rabbit. Bunnies on the beach. We had talked about swimming and how October was the ideal month for a dip. There was a spontaneity and freedom in this woman – a kindred spirit.

And was that spirit high above me, in the circling of the gulls, as I peeled off my clothes and walked brazenly into the water? Into the delicious enveloping that is sea and solitude. Seduced by the surf; a consumation in the currents that pulled me deeper into the heart of the bay. A gathering in. A coming home.



Laying back and looking up into the crack of lemon light that spilled out through a sullen sky, I soared on seabird wings and recalled how a passage in the film Jonathan Livingstone Seagull had, long ago, been my raft on darker seas. ‘Dear Father, we dream…’



Beyond the breakers, I floated in a sinusoidal swell. A rhythmic rising and falling. Submitting to the uncertainty of the sea. Wonderfully vulnerable. A rolling arousal and a tender intimacy. The spectrum of sensation so well known to those who choose to swim naturally – as creation intended.

To the west, the high spring tide lashed lazily against storm-weary rocks, casually tossing fronds of weed into the spume that tripped across the shallows and onto the sand.



Always mindful of my position, I registered that I too was being drawn towards this spat in a relentless steady drift. So I dived into the stout heart of the next wave and was somersaulted onto the shore where I lay amid the salt and shells, listening to the clash and rasp of surf on sand. Where the ocean clawed back her waters, like a jilted lover saving face.



The onshore breeze was warm and comforting as I stood facing seaward, slowly drying. There was no need for a towel. No-one was coming. No-one would come.

The black silhouette of a cormorant perched before me – wings outstretched – motionless as the moment we were sharing.

Winding back up through West Coombe, I exchanged the confusion of the sea for the steady chatter of a brook, like an excited friend recounting her adventures in Cornish meadows. Tall hedges brimmed with berries as I shuffled through a carpet of sycamore, inhaling its musty glory.



Bleating sheep and lowing cattle heralded a gradual awakening all around.

Delicate birdsong drifting from the highest boughs was punctuated by the raucous cry of a rook. The rough essence of Cornwall.

Like a shard of ore coursing through her rock.

Like the spirit coursing through her people.

A Mermaid’s Curse

Doom Bar, Cornwall

September 7th 2014

More than sixty winters have flowed in and ebbed out of Padstow since my father launched his teaching career in this once tough coastal town. Nestling at the mouth of the Camel estuary, and hardened by the relentless howl of Atlantic gales, this was then a close-knit fishing community.



And these were lean times for my parents. But throughout the dark months of December and January, frequent parcels of food and bundles of driftwood for the fire were quietly left on the doorstep of the new teacher and his young pregnant wife.

For the motto of the Cornish people is Onen hag Oll – One and All.

This was a time long before the arrival of designer beachwear and chic restaurants, when cottages crawling up the hillside housed local families and the fish on the harbourside was iced, not battered.



In those distant days, the booming sound of a maroon ricocheting down the narrow alleyways heralded the launch of Padstow’s lifeboats. Then the village would fall silent in anxious expectation.

At the school, children would become unsettled – so unteachable that classes were dismissed. For everyone was related to someone on the lifeboats, or had a loved one who harvested the sea, and all knew only too well the dangers of her restless tides.


O’ d’you hear the seas complainin’ and complainin’ whilst it’s raining?

Did you hear it mourn in the dimorts, when the surf woke up and sighed?

The choughs screamed on the sand,

And the foam flew over land,

And the seas rolled dark on the Doom Bar at the rising of the tide. 

[Alice Gillington 1863-1934]



More often than not launches were for vessels foundering on this Doom Bar – the very name piercing cold through the hearts of the mariners who plied the waters of An Mor Keltek – the Celtic Sea. Many captains would prefer to face the fury of a north-westerly gale out in the ocean rather than attempt to navigate the treacherous and narrow passage that led to the calmer waters of the Camel.

This sprawling sandbar was likely formed during the reign of Henry VIII; folklore has it that the sands were spread at the behest of a dying mermaid. Murdered by a Padstow man, her curse sought to seal and stifle this tiny port.

And to a large extent she succeeded. It is estimated that over 600 vessels were lost here over the last two hundred years alone, particularly when squalls – known locally as ‘flaws’ – sprung up over Stepper Point and mercilessly drove vessels onto the waiting sands.

It is said that the mermaid’s wailing cry may still be heard, moaning with the wind, whenever lives are lost on the Doom Bar.



But the only cry to be heard on my first visit were the lazy calls of an occasional gull, drifting in widening circles, riding the balmy thermals of an early September evening.

Having taken the narrow headland road north from the town, I left the car in a field at Lellizzick and trekked down through an almost Mediterranean landscape towards the beach at Tregryllas.



Within a handful of minutes I was emerging through woodland and out onto a blanched carpet of fine white sand, wholly deserted aside from a brace of abandoned lobster pots.



The softness of the sand made walking difficult and it held onto the heat of the day like an oven. Along the high tide line, a community of sandhoppers was emerging from its hidden slumber to feed on organic debris cast aside by the tide. Keen to avoid an irritating bite, I quickly skipped through their territory to where the sands were smooth, dark and still damp from the receding sea.

Jettisoning my clothes, I waded in and was instantly struck by the uncommon warmth of the water; shallow and sun-drenched throughout the afternoon, the estuary had become a vast solar panel.



I had to wade quite some distance before the crystal waters afforded sufficient draught in which to swim, but soon I was heading across the Doom Bar and out towards Daymer Bay and the village of Trebetherick on the opposite shore of the estuary.



Here lies the grave of Sir John Betjeman, a former poet laureate, buried in the tiny churchyard of St Enodoc. This ancient church – known locally as ‘Sinking Neddy’ – was itself once entombed beneath shifting sands. Every year, priest and parishoners were lowered in through a hole in the roof. By holding this annual service, they ensured that St Enodoc remained a place of worship.

I have always enjoyed the works of Betjeman, particularly his writings about the county he loved. His view of this area was lighter and less troubled than Gillington’s. I particularly admire the passage within ‘Summoned by Bells’ – his epic early autobiography in blank verse – in which he recounts an excited schoolboy journey on the train from Waterloo to a holiday on these shores.


 ‘On Wadebridge Station what a breath of sea

Scented the Camel valley! Cornish air,

Soft Cornish rains, and silence after steam’


It barely seems thirty years ago that I stood looking at the flowers heaped on Betjeman’s newly-dug grave…

But this was a happier evening. A time to play with the setting sun. To paint patterns with the bright palette of colours squeezed out across the water: aureolin, raw sienna, ochre. A loose wash, liberally spattered with the pigments and hues of a western sky.



The salt and slight swell carried me back to the carefree days of my own childhood, spent around the beaches and bays of Cornwall. As if a sensory trigger had been pulled deep in my subconscious, I recoiled to some distant, undefined moment. Back to a time of sun oil and sinking sandcastles. To the taste of Kelly’s ice-cream and the feel of a proper wooden surfboard. To sea urchins and empty shrimping nets that caught nothing but my hopes.

The memory was but a transient sensation, so gossamer thin and fragile that it almost dissolves in the telling.



As the tide swept on and out of the estuary, like children flooding from the school gate, I turned and struck back towards the beach until the water was barely ankle deep and I was forced to walk the final hundred metres across the sands. I made a mental note to be more aware of this risk when swimming in the buff!



But thankfully the beach was still empty, and soon I was settling down to a snack of sushi and the only appropriate ale for the occasion.



Behind me lay Hawkers Cove, barely more than a silhouette now. Here, stood a row of former coastguard cottages where the actor Edward Woodward lived out his latter years.

And nearby, the long-abandoned lifeboat station stood sentinel over the bay, its slipway rusted to the colour of the setting sun.



Sitting among the dunes until the last dregs of day had faded like midnight embers, I watched the waxing moon, almost grown to her full glory.

An opal in the clear dusk sky.

Heading back through dying light, towards an inn and supper of fresh local mackerel with warm bread, I fancied I could hear the boy Betjeman; newly arrived and alive with anticipation…


‘The carriage lamps lit up the pennywort

And fennel in the hedges of the lane….

… As out of Derry’s stable came the brake

To drag us up those long, familiar hills,

Past haunted woods, and oil-lit farms and on

To far Trebetherick by the sounding sea.

Oh what a host of questions in me rose:

Were spring tides here or neap? And who was down?

Had Mr Rosevear built himself a house?

Was there another wreck upon Doom Bar?

New Year Spray


January 1 2015


The garish midnight fireworks had long-since faded into the grey of the morning sky, heavy and overhung as the previous evening’s revellers.

An urgent clatter of windchimes at the bedroom window heralded an unpromising day for a dip, not least because a swell had been gathering in the Channel for some time. Checking-in with the Met Office revealed a steady force 6 gusting to gale 8 with a band of rain due later, so I knew that the sea at Lansallos would be more than a little lively.



Nevertheless, I had been looking forward to renewing my friendship with this very special ‘auld acquaintance’ and the call of the cove was irresistible, whatever the weather.

The tide was set to be favourable during the late afternoon and the horizon was brightening, yellow as saffron, by the time we emerged from the gloom and mud of the woodland path and out onto the narrow promontory that overlooks Lantivet Bay. Narrow, precarious and windswept, with sheer and significant drops to either side, this did not feel like a clever place to be as I bowed and braced into the wind.



But it was simply too beautiful. Majestic, charged waves were clattering against the rocks, unleashing explosions of sound and sending cutting sprays of saltwater across the grey sand and shingle of the beach.

Breaking wave


I was surprised by the number of spectators huddled below – about fifteen souls – wrapped in scarves and mufflers against the onshore gusts, but clearly eager to blow away cobwebs and all memories of the night before. Descending through the narrow passageway, reputedly hewn through the slate cliff by free-traders (smugglers) and out onto the sand, I headed away from the crowd and towards the isolation of the eastern side, where I know the rocks have been softened and shaped into fine seats by centuries of swirling tides.

With an urgency, nurtured by two month’s abstention, my shoes and socks were shed and I was wading into the water; at 12 degrees as warm as the air and far more inviting than any hot bath. I’m not sure why I bothered to roll up my trousers, for soon I was overwhelmed and overcome by the relentless surge of the sea – soaked and satisfied, drunk on ozone and thrilling to the sensation of foam on my face and sand streaming in rivulets, out and through my toes as they clutched deep into the shifting sediment.

Lansallos NYD paddle


I observed the currents, watchful for rips, but in truth the sea was a cauldron of wave and counterwave, chop and cut. There was no calm water, no sandy trails to warn of danger. The whole bay was agitated, restless, like an orchestra excited into a conductor-less frenzy, a wild cacophony of sound, worthy of  Schoenberg or Stravinsky.

The light was failing as the last onlookers turned their backs on the sea and headed towards home and perhaps the comfortable aroma of a log fire. But the scent of the sea was in my nostrils and I sensed it was now or never. Shedding my clothes, I skipped into the wonderful wildness of the water, diving deep into the heart of each breaking wave. Into the place where sound is muffled and reality suspended. Where fronds of weed dance in a melee of blue, white and turquoise and where each rush of the tide is matched by a rush of elemental joy.



This was no epic swim – it was too dangerous to venture far from the shore, but it was a carefree playground, a place to be tossed and twirled and, like Marley who was always close at hand, a place to keep coming back for more.



As the bland palette of shoreline hues faded and merged into grey uniformity, it was time to head for home, so I launched into the base of the biggest breaker I could see and allowed myself to be bundled back onto the beach where a flask of hot chocolate was waiting.

Much later, standing in the shower, the taste of salt again flowed across my face as I savoured its delicious tang and the memory of my New Year’s Day swim.

And I pondered the year ahead, resolving that regardless of whether the way may be calm or turbulent, I will immerse myself in it and love – (or at very least, learn from) – every trough and crest …




In the Wake of Rebecca

Polridmouth, Cornwall

October 31 2014


‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’

An unmistakable opening line.

Few with a knowledge of twentieth century literature would fail to recognise this as the first sentence penned by Daphne du Maurier in her masterpiece ‘Rebecca’.

.’du Maurier

This tale, set on the Cornish coast, is as deep and dark as its oceans, with a narrative crafted around stormy nights and equally tempestuous relationships.

Du Maurier fell in love with Cornwall when her parents bought Ferryside,  a cottage adjacent to the slipway at Boddinick and facing across the estuary to Fowey beyond. Although intended as a holiday home, the young Daphne soon shunned her Hampstead family mansion, preferring to stay by the sea and embark upon a literary career.



Years later she moved to Menabilly, inspiration for the fictional Manderley, and the starting point for my pilgrimage into the world of du Maurier and Rebecca.



‘No-one would ever hurt Manderley. It would lie always in it’s hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by the woods, safe, secure, while the sea broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.’

Parking in a field on the very boundaries of Menabilly and as the autumnal late afternoon sunshine began to falter, I started my 3/4 mile descent towards the bays, passing fields, farms and a quaint call to honesty …




It had been a balmy day; at 18 degrees the warmest Halloween on record, but the wind was freshening and a brackish tang blew in from the sea.

Soon the red and white stripes of the Gribben (or Gribbin) came into view. This commanding tower, 26m high, was erected by Trinity House in 1832 as an aid to navigation. Although never lighted, its bright colours served as a daymark to shipping, identifying Gribben Head – (Cornish: an Gribyn) – the promontory separating St Austell Bay from the Fowey estuary.

In their latter years, Daphne and her soldier husband Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, would stride out to this headland on most days, scaling a steep clifftop path to savour the dizzying vista.


The bay was a place I knew well through both film and page, but I had never before set foot on its sands. This was a journey I had yearned to make, but still I feared disappointment. Would it be the secluded, almost mystical cove of my mind’s eye or a sewage outlet heaped with rotting kelp? ( I had read that it can be weedy here.)

I need not have fretted, for Polridmouth (Pridmouth to the locals) was as perfect as I had hoped and imagined:


Ahead spread a wide, horse-shoe bay, bisected by a rocky outcrop and bordered by cliffs twisted into dramatic convulutions. The tide was at half ebb, spume drifted across the sand, shingle and shale of the beach. Wavelets rode across emerging rocks.


Nestling between woodland and sea, like the wading curlews, lay a lone cottage; inspiration for the fateful fisherman’s hut in Rebecca.


Donning the red cap I use for identification when swimming alone in the sea, I strode into the waves, through water that still clung to the heat of summer, and struck out across the bay.

Shafts of sunlight sparked across the gathering swell, portends to the force 8 gale that was fast approaching from the west. The Gribben became a distant silhouette as three, four, then six ducks crossed the twilit sky in noisy formation.


The beach was deserted now, so I hooked my shorts on a fiercely surf-sharpened outcrop and swam further and deeper, my slow and leisurely lull being only briefly interrupted by the shock of weed wrapping around my legs – I have never quite shaken off my childhood fear of jellyfish!

Looking towards the horizon, I floated and rolled, bobbed and was buffeted, drifted and dreamed, like the seals that sometimes claim this beach as a lido. I was swimming where and how du Maurier swam (often twice in a day) and, despite the solitude of the livening sea, I never felt alone.

A yacht slid quietly across the skyline.

And was Rebecca laughing?


This was a long and luxuriant bathe. I did not want it to end, but the waves were growing higher and the sun was dipping lower, so reluctantly I headed for the sand.


Tracking back uphill towards Menabilly, I heard the wind gathering behind me and, to use a Cornish expression, it was ‘ragging for rain.’

But the taste and feel of salt remained all about me.

I was still far offshore, floating somewhere, deep in the pages of a book…

‘If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.’

‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier


This blog was posted on December 19th 2014.

On this night 33 years ago, the lifeboat Solomon Browne put to sea in 100mph winds and 60 foot waves at Penlee, a little to the west of Polridmouth.

The ocean was so wild that the Coxswain would only allow one crew member from each family to answer this call to mariners in distress.

They never came home.


Their memory sails on…


July 5th 2014

Lansallos is a very special place. And never more so than when my children are home and we embark on an expedition! So come late afternoon, with the tide falling and the barometer rising, we packed a barbecue and headed west into the emerging sunshine.
Lansallos translates as Lannsalwys in Cornish and is more correctly known as West Coombe Beach after the valley at whose base it nestles. Principal amongst its many charms is the fact that it is rarely busy. And there are several good reasons for this. Firstly, until recently, this small secluded cove has only been known to locals and a handful of others. Secondly, it is reached by long narrow lanes – the sort with grass growing down the centre. A single green line in the middle of the road definitely means ‘no overtaking’!

And lastly, there is the approach. A 1.3km track descends through woods that, although alive with bluebells and the scent of wild garlic in late spring, can become a challenge on the return journey when children are tired and fractious. We have learned to travel light!

The beautiful, but steep, descent towards the sea

The beautiful, but steep, descent towards the sea

The final drop down to the quartz sand and shingle beach is the most steep. Passing beside a narrow promontory liberally sprinkled with thrift, one descends through a deep gorge cut into the grey rock. Although weather worn, the tracks of a thousand cartwheels remain as visible proof that this was once a smuggling cove in the days when Cornwall was wild, unruly and despised by the more ‘genteel’ folk to the east of the Tamar. (No change there then!)

In the tracks of smugglers

In the tracks of smugglers

So accompanied by the sound of Reed Water, a crashing waterfall and by my 86 year old mother whose glinting eye had revealed a steely determination to visit the ocean so beloved by my parents in younger days, we set foot onto the sheltered horseshoe sands and gazed out across Lantivet Bay, now part-drenched in early evening sunshine.

Late sunshine on West Coombe Beach

Late sunshine on West Coombe Beach

There was a surprising swell, lively waves breaking with an aquamarine, almost Mediterranean hue. This holiday theme continued on entering the water which was far warmer than expected and soon we were swimming towards the mouth of the cove and leaving the heavily folded cliffs behind.

A lively swell

A lively swell

This was my first sea swim in many a month, rivers and lakes having been my more recent companions, but the buoyancy and tang of the salt water felt good as I kicked, dived and floated under a clearing sky.

Enjoying Old Briney

Enjoying Old Briney


Proud father syndrome!

Proud father syndrome!


Looking to the horizon

Looking to the horizon


In my element

In my element


Then, like truculent teenagers in a fifties diner, three frisky waves burst in, flashy and brash, hot on each other’s heels, competing to impress by crashing the loudest against a fiercely toothed outcrop to the west of the bay. We were nudged and jostled, pushed and hassled. Picked up and dropped down. Generally roughed about. But it was a great ride, so we rose and fell at the whims of the swell until the sight of blue smoke wisping up from the beach signalled our call to supper just as the air began to chill and cliff line shadows lengthened.

Pebbles at the high tide line

Pebbles at the high tide line


The sinking sun

The sinking sun


Supper calls

Supper calls