Cornish beaches

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.


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.

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 …





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