Category: Nature

Sea and skies

Waves crash against rugged shorelines and the air takes on a crisp, invigorating chill. Cornwall unveils a different kind of magic during the autumn and winter months. The season for a change of pace, a chance to embrace the coastal environment and relish precious downtime.

Summer by the sea has much to offer, then as the days shorten and the landscape shifts into its next season mode, it’s time to slow down, stretch out and look up.

You can’t beat the autumn and winter for stargazing. From September through to March, the stage is set for the perfect conditions to gaze at the stars.

Starry skies over Gwennap Head, West Penwith

Image credit: Graham Gaunt Photowork

Bodmin Moor is among the best locations nationwide to turn your eyes skywards. In 2017, the majestic granite moorland was awarded an International Dark Sky Park accreditation – the first to be given to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in the UK. This means that night-time levels of artificial light are extremely low, creating pitch-black conditions in which to admire celestial sights. And with ancient monuments all around – from stone circles to burial mounds – the past feels within touching distance. To see the stars in a dark night sky as our ancestors would have done thousands of years ago is an awe-inspiring experience.

A second Cornish region recently gained the same accreditation. West Penwith – ranging from near St Ives to St Just to Mousehole was added to the roster in 2021. Unlike Bodmin Moor, West Penwith is a sweeping coastal habitat, which offers the opportunity to enjoy dark skies from a clifftop vantage point and picturesque ruins of tin mines silhouetted against the sea.

“And as the shower’s peak on 14–15 December coincides with the crescent moon, the sky will be left dark, meaning viewing conditions should be perfect. Moonless nights offer the best opportunity for stargazing – if you want to admire the Milky Way, for instance, time your viewing with the new moon.”

Sights to see

With luck, you may see the spectacular colour of the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, when the night sky is filled with dancing shades of pink, green, yellow and violet. Though only rarely seen further south than Scotland in the UK, the colourful phenomenon graced Cornish skies twice last year.

Image credit: Graham Gaunt Photowork

The cosmic calendar is filled with must-see events this winter. On 28 October, the UK will witness a partial lunar eclipse, as the moon passes through the earth’s shadow; turn your eyes to the skies at 21:15 for the maximum eclipse.

In December, the Geminid meteor shower will see up to 150 meteors per hour dashing through the night sky, making it one of the best displays to see this year. And as the shower’s peak on 14–15 December coincides with the crescent moon, the sky will be left dark, meaning viewing conditions should be perfect. Moonless nights offer the best opportunity for stargazing – if you want to admire the Milky Way, for instance, time your viewing with the new moon.

On 22 December comes the winter solstice: the shortest day and longest night of the year. This needn’t be gloomy – far from it. The annual Montol Festival in Penzance on 21 December aims to revive ancient pagan traditions to joyous effect. Six days of celebration – including storytelling, folk music and mask- and lantern-making workshops – will lead up to the main event on 21 December, in which a procession of picturesquely-costumed figures parades through the town.

Image credit: Bella Bunce

Sea views and swims

The winter months are the perfect time for bracing coastal walks. The South West Coast Path along the rugged cliffs and hidden coves of north Cornwall offers breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. Bundle up, bring your camera, and set out for an invigorating hike.

You might even catch one of the season’s most dramatic spectacles: storm watching. Head to a cliffside viewpoint and witness the power of the ocean as it crashes against the cliffs and sends waves soaring into the air. Then there’s the prospect of taking it all in from a beach side retreat, or retreating back there for a mug of cocoa after facing the elements.

Image credit: Bella Bunce

For keen swimmers or those game for a short cold water dip, secluded sea pools offer protection from the wildness of the waves, and local favourites include Bude Sea Pool and Treyarnon Bay Tidal Pool, near Padstow. For something less exhilarating and more relaxing the geothermal pool at Jubilee Pool in Penzance is open all year round, filled with seawater that’s been geothermically warmed to a toasty 35 degrees.

“During winter, hundreds of thousands of starlings gather here to swoop in their impressive formation – known as a ‘murmuration’ – at sunset.”

Winter wildlife

Winter is an excellent time for wildlife enthusiasts to visit. As mainland Europe freezes, the Cornish coast becomes a hub for both resident and migratory bird species, including puffins, gannets, and razorbills. Look out, too, for flocks of brent geese and wigeons arriving from the Arctic, seeking refuge in the mild Cornish climate. The cliffs provide ideal vantage points to spot these majestic creatures as they soar along the coastline.

Image credit: Graham Gaunt Photowork

Some of the best places to bird-watch include the internationally-important Maer Lake Nature Reserve near Bude, Middle Amble Marsh and Walmsley Sanctuary, both near Wadebridge, and Windmill Farm Nature Reserve on the Lizard. And to combine heritage sights with natural wonders, you can’t do better than a trip to St Michael’s Mount in Marazion, near Penzance. During winter, hundreds of thousands of starlings gather here to swoop in their impressive formation – known as a ‘murmuration’ – at sunset.

You may even be lucky enough to witness seals and dolphins playing in the brisk waters. Grey seals haul themselves ashore to have their pups in autumn and winter, and there are spots around the coast to observe seals at this time of year from safe vantage points. Bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and harbour porpoises are frequently seen off the Cornish coast year-round.

Whether seeking adventure, carving out some precious downtime, or looking for both, the autumnal and wintery coast has something to offer every traveller.

Make your escape, experience #coastalwonder.…

Fascinating finds and foraging

Seeking samphire beside the estuary and seaweed in rocky pools. Julia Bird of seaweed pressers Molesworth & Bird and Caroline Davey of Fat Hen reveal stories of coastal discovery…

The oldest fossilised seaweed, discovered in 2020, was found in one-billion-year-old rocks in northern China, making seaweed millions of years older than the distant ancestors of our land plants. Today there are over 650 different species of seaweed around Britain’s coasts which have for centuries been a source of fascination for artists.

Anna Atkins’ British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, published as a serial between 1843 and 1853 is a collection of cyanotype prints of seaweed. This early form of photography using paper treated with a light-sensitive solution that turns blue on exposure to light is thought to be the first published book illustrated with photography.

For Julia Bird, a Victorian collection of pressed seaweeds discovered by her business partner Melanie Molesworth in an antique shop over 20 years ago was the beginning of her journey to start foraging for seaweed along the Cornish coast, aiming to capture its ephemeral beauty through pressing.

Image credit: Matt Austin

I’m a lifelong collector of nature really,” says Julia. “I’ve always collected whether it’s flowers or lichen or stones. And my whole life has been sort of sea orientated; I’ve always been a sea swimmer.”

“The fine beautiful samples that we choose to press need water to support their form, so you only notice them if you’re in the water. I’m fascinated by the beauty and variety.”

After moving to Cornwall in the early 2000s, Julia started experimenting with pressing seaweed she had foraged when out swimming. I started looking for seaweed and bringing it home and learning how to press, which of course back then there was nothing out there, you know, in those days. My first press was probably in 2004.”

Pressing ahead

After running a children’s shop in Fowey for 15 years, Melanie’s encouragement to start publishing her seaweed pressings finally came to fruition after Melanie moved, along with her collection of Victorian seaweed pressings, to Dorset. Discovering that the nine framed seaweeds in the collection were from the Dorset coast, the two long-term friends decided to team-up and created a calendar of prints from pressed seaweed for 2018.

And they haven’t looked back since. Molesworth and Bird can be found in Lyme Regis and online year round, and between April and the end of September in Fowey. Inside their shops hang limited edition prints and an ever-changing collection of unique pressed seaweed, gathered along the south west coastline.

Fascinating finds

“We can’t really see what’s beneath the sea surface. There’s a whole diverse and amazing world down there that we should all respect. Just walking along the beach you don’t see the beauty of seaweed because everything dries up really quickly,” says Julia.

Image credit: Matt Austin

“The fine beautiful samples that we choose to press need water to support their form, so you only notice them if you’re in the water. I’m fascinated by the beauty and variety,” says Julia. “And learning about what a superfood they are, how each species has its own combination of vitamins, minerals and proteins.”

For Julia, revealing the beauty of this “garden under the sea” has an important role to play in restoring and protecting it. “For me, it’s partly if you know there’s a beautiful world under there you can foster that respect and love we need to maintain it and look after it.”

Image credit: Matt Austin

Other water worlds

For Caroline Davey of Fat Hen, the wild cookery school, summer is all about the estuary and salt marshes. “This time of year is when marsh samphire is coming into season, that’s June to September. There’s also sea purslane, sea blight and sea arrowgrass, which is like coriander; these are all species that grow in estuaries and salt marshes.”

Image credit: The Fat Hen Cookery School

Caroline is running a number of coastal Fat Hen foraging courses this year, including a recent foraging walk along the coast path followed by a four-course lunch at the Gurnards Head near Zennor in west Cornwall, and a foraging walk, wild picnic and wild spa day near the Helford river on dates in June, July, September and October. All revealing hidden tastes and produce growing wild around the coastline.

She says it’s a time of abundance across the countryside beyond the sea: the plant fat hen – the vernacular name for chenopodium album – found across the country is in season, including its coastal relative spear-leaved orache, which can be used as a spinach alternative.

“I’ve just been picking hawthorn flowers and blossom for tea; they’ve been massively in bloom recently.”

In bloom

Caroline says wild cabbage – which grows on clifftops around the coast – is coming into flower now with the leaves and flowers able to be picked.

“And of course there’s plenty of flowers through the summer. The flowers of rosa rugosa or Japanese rose are absolutely fantastic. It’s not strictly wild: it’s planted as a coastal hedging plant and it escapes into the wild. You can also find black mustard flowers, sea radish flowers, sea cabbage flowers and elderflowers.

“I’ve just been picking hawthorn flowers and blossom for tea; they’ve been massively in bloom recently.”

And as the flowers fade, there are seeds to be scavenged. “Sea radish at some point soon will be forming seed pods and if you catch them early enough they’re like three or four bobbles in a row with the taste of a crunchy radish, perfect for scattering on salads.”

From estuary banks to clear blue pools, reveal fascinating finds along the coast.

Find your place by the sea, a walk from door to shore