As we mentioned in our introductory Cornwall facts article, there is an impressive amount of coast in the region. The 296.2 miles of coastline are regularly put to very good use by locals and holidaymakers alike; from those fishing for a living to those seeking the biggest waves on a surfing holiday.
If you are considering a Cornish break, chances are you will be planning to indulge in some kind of sea-related activity, so we have put together this handy guide to what you need to know, and what you might like to do, as well as some of the many myths and legends focused on Cornish waters.
Cornish Myths and Legends
Cornwall, like most areas with a rich history, has plenty of local myths and legends which have been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. Did you know that King Arthur and Jack the Giant Killer originated in Cornish folklore?
By nature, myths and legends tend to contain very little of the truth, but they do provide some excellent entertainment. For that reason, here are some of the best sea-related lore we have come across while investigating all things Cornwall.
Have you heard about the lost land between the Isles of Scilly and the western coast of Cornwall? According to popular legend, one man escaped from a town which suddenly flooded and disappeared into the depths. As the man survived due to being out hunting on his horse, the family crests of those said to be his descendants feature horseshoes.
Mermaid of Lamorna
Similar to the tales of sirens rife in myths from various cultures and regions, this mermaid simply sits on a rock and sings, in an attempt to lure unsuspecting sailors and fishermen to an aquatic end.
Mermaid of Padstow
There are a few slightly different versions of this legend but, in one of the most common, the Mermaid of Padstow sat on a rock at Hawker’s Cove, and fell in love with a local man. Sadly for the mermaid, when she attempted to lure her beau into her lair, he shot her to escape the water. An alternative version suggests that it was the Cornish man who fell in love with the mermaid, shooting her when his advances were rebuffed, with another telling how a fisherman mistook her for a seal and shot her. Whichever version you tell, the mermaid always gets shot, resulting in a catastrophic storm. According to legend, the Doom Bar was created during this storm.
Mermaid of Zennor
While this tale also involves a mermaid falling for a local man, that is where the similarities end. The Mermaid of Zennor was said to be a mysterious, yet outstanding, singer at the nearby church. When the man followed her home one day, neither being was ever seen again. Folklore has it that a ship once dropped anchor in the sea, near where the two vanished, only to have a mermaid appear and request that the anchor be removed from the door of her home, so she could return to her children.
Mysterious Ship of Porthcurno
Rather than meeting its seemingly inevitable end against the rocks of Porthcurno, this mysterious galleon instead sailed away across land before disappearing forever.
Strange Lights at Sea
Spotted during the First World War, these lights allegedly appeared strategically to lure German ships to a watery end.
Whooper of Sennen Cove
On clear days in Sennen Cove, a sudden mist would descend from nowhere, accompanied by an odd whooping sound. Apparently, the whooping serves as a warning of impending storms which may have disastrous consequences for fishermen.
Boat Trips and Water Sports
If you don’t fancy getting your hands dirty, and potentially all of you quite wet, why not skip the fishing, as suggested in a previous article, and opt for a scenic boat trip instead? Cornwall has plenty of them to offer, and a wealth of stunning scenery to take in.
If the wet doesn’t bother you, there are also numerous water sports facilities available, where you can get involved in all manner of fun.
The Aqua Park at Retallack Resort is the first inflatable water park experience in the South West. Obstacles, trampolines, balance beams and slides – how far can you make it without falling in?
Billed as “awesome activities that bring you face-to-face with the elements”, these two Cornish adventure centres offer all manner of adrenalin-inducing experiences. From sailing and kayaking to raft-building and bouldering, there’s bound to be something to tickle your fancy.
The most southerly diving centre in the UK, Kennack Diving offers a range of diving experiences and PADI courses.
Located near the Devon and Cornwall border, Roadford Lake offers kayaking, windsurfing and sailing, as well as walking routes, archery, high ropes and plenty more for all the family.
This Bodmin Moor adventure centre offers kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, cycling and high ropes.
Those visiting the Stithians Lake adventure centre can take part in stand up paddling (SUP), kayaking, windsurfing and sailing. The calm waters make it ideal for beginners.
Windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, SUP and pedalos are amongst the activities on offer at Upper Tamar Lake, near Bude.
Visiting Tresco Island? Why not take part in some sailing, diving or coasteering?
How does a cream tea at sea sound to you? If you like the idea, have a look at the trips offered by Cornish Day Sailing. What a fantastic way to take in the sights and history of Falmouth!
Fancy a wildlife tour off the coast of Penzance? Choose from a range of options, all taking in the dolphins, basking sharks, ocean sunfish and various other marine life in the Cornish waters.
Fishing trips, seal cove safaris, shark & minack cruises, birdwatching trips and more – all available from the Penzance-based Mermaid Pleasure Trips.
Based in Newquay, Paddlefish Adventure runs deep sea fishing trips, family-friendly mackerel fishing, coastal cruises and bespoke boat trips.
Surfing in Cornwall
No guide to the sea in Cornwall would be complete with a sizeable mention of surfing. The sport is almost guaranteed to be one of the first things to pop to mind when you think of the region, perhaps behind those delicious pasties we’ve already mentioned. Those interested in fishing may not be too enthused about the sheer volume of surfers taking to Cornish waters during peak summer season, but there’s a very good reason why they flock in their droves – the Cornish surf is outstanding!
If you’re completely new to surfing, have a look at this video before you start planning to hit the waves.
What you need to know about surfing in Cornwall
- For the best surfing experience, you should try to avoid July and August, when anywhere with remotely decent waves will be incredibly crowded. May and June offer great surfing and much more manageable numbers.
- Beginner and intermediate surfers should seek out the more sheltered beaches, such as Widemouth and Gwitihian, whereas those in search of a bigger challenge may prefer Porthleven. The areas in and around Newquay are well known for excellent surf, but this does mean they get particularly busy.
- Remember to choose a wetsuit that’s appropriate for the weather and temperature you will be surfing in. While board shorts will be fine for a very short stint in the water, you’ll need a shortie wetsuit for longer sessions on hot summer days, and probably a full length wetsuit the rest of the time. If you’re brave enough to expose yourself to British seas during winter, you’ll need at least a 5/3mm wetsuit, if not a full hooded 6mm version.
- Despite the popularity of the summer months, the best waves (and therefore, best surfing) can be found between late autumn and spring. Is outstanding surf worth braving the cold?
- You will also need to pay attention to the waves and what kind of board is most suited to them – fish, short board or long board? As Cornwall is so rife with surfers, it’s generally quite easy to obtain reasonably-priced second-hand boards locally. If you’re a beginner, it’s definitely better to approach a surf school, where the equipment can be hired and an experienced instructor will ensure you’re using the correct one
Where to surf in Cornwall
We’ve compiled the following list of some of the popular surfing spots in the region to make it easier for you to find your perfect waves. Bear in mind that the ratings are quite subjective, and are intended solely as a rough guide – you’ll know your ability and tastes better than anyone, so should do your own research before deciding which direction to head in.
- Constantine (Advanced)
- Crantock (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Crooklets (Advanced)
- Fistral (Intermediate/Advanced)
- Gwithian (Intermediate)
- Harlyn (Intermediate/Advanced)
- Kynance Cove (Intermediate)
- Lusty Glaze (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Marazion (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Mawgan Porth (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Perranporth (All Levels)
- Polzeath (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Porthleven (Advanced)
- Porthmeor (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Porthtowan (Intermediate/Advanced)
- Praa Sands (Beginner)
- Sennen (Advanced)
- Watergate Bay (All Levels)
- Whitsand (Beginner/Intermediate)
- Widemouth (Intermediate)
Beginner? Where to learn
As we mentioned earlier, Cornwall is home to plenty of surf schools, so there is sure to be one close to your chosen holiday destination. To get your search off to a strong start, here are ten of the surf schools recommended by Visit Cornwall.
- Big Blue Surf School, Bude
- Cornwall Surf Academy, Holywell Bay
- Discovery Surf School, Whitsand Bay
- Extreme Academy, Watergate Bay
- Falmouth Surf School, Falmouth
- Gwithian Academy of Surfing, Gwithian
- Harlyn Surf School, Padstow
- Kingsurf Surf School, Mawgan Porth
- Newquay Activity Centre, Newquay
- St Ives Surf School, St Ives
Many of the surf schools offer a range of water sports, such as SUP, kayaking and coasteering, so be sure to allocate plenty of time to trying a few. When in Cornwall…
Top surfing tips for all levels
- While the surf schools mentioned above are all reputable and above-board, if you are considering any others, make sure to check their credentials. This applies to those seeking advanced lessons as much as to beginners. Recommendations are the best way to source a school, but look out for ISA and Surfing GB accreditation
- Make sure you have the correct clothing and equipment for the temperature, weather and swell on the day. Again, a reputable surfing school will keep you right.
- Start off on calm, shallow waters. There’s no shame in making your mistakes in a beginner zone, and there’s far less chance of injury
The Surfing 101 video from earlier in the guide fits in quite well as this bit too – especially if you learn better from videos than from reading pure text.
If you want surfing tips tailored for an intermediate or advanced level, there are tons of resources available online. A quick search will reveal more than enough to keep you going.
Seabird Spotting in Cornwall
While you are exploring the Cornish surf, beaches, fishing and everything else the region has to offer, don’t forget to spend some time appreciating the local wildlife. The sea safaris we mentioned earlier in the article are an excellent way to get closer to some marine life (although you must bear in mind that sightings cannot be guaranteed), but you can keep an eye out for these seabirds no matter where you are. Great news for those with no sea legs!
How many of these can you tick off before you leave?
We’ve created a downloadable checklist with pictures, that is available here, of the seabirds found in Cornwall.