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A walk to the north end

Wide open spaces, solitude, teeming with wildlife: Watergate Bay’s far north end promises rich rewards for those who make the long trek across the sand. For Watergate Bay CEO Will Ashworth and friend, guide and former beach ranger Tim Uff, it’s also rich with memories. The day after a special trip up memory beach together, they talk peregrine falcons, great balls of fish, a hidden smuggler’s hole, running through 10ft deep foam, giant starfish, tequila bars in the rocks and more…

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WILL: My earliest memories are of the north end of Watergate Bay beach. I remember my parents working really hard in the summer. But when they finished work we’d grab a hotel picnic, which was in a little white paper bag, and try to get to the north end before the bag collapsed. Then I’d spend hours playing in the rock pools – either just larking around, or trying to catch blennies, gobies, crabs and everything else, with my little bent pin with a limpet on the end to lure them in. That place has a remarkably vivid and strong set of memories for me.

Being so isolated makes it really special. You only go there to go there; it’s not on the way to anywhere else. And because it’s more than a mile from the hotel, few people walk all that way, particularly with children and beach gear and food and everything else. So you can find these coves where you’re there by yourselves all day. There’s just a sense of space which is quite unlike anywhere else I can think of in Cornwall.

There are sandy coves if you just want to sunbathe; rocky coves where you can find sea glass and do a bit of treasure hunting; the most amazing rock pools for swimming or finding sea life… And then, right out on the headland, the big mussel beds, which at spring low tide exposes some pretty awesome-sized, beautifully clean North Atlantic mussels. With all of those things together, if anybody was to say, “Where would you like to go right now?” it would always be to the north end of Watergate. That’s for me, anyway.

You can find these coves where you’re there by yourselves all day. There’s just a sense of space which is quite unlike anywhere else I can think of in Cornwall.

TIM: Yes. And the surf down there is a little bit bigger than out the front, and less crowded. So I’ve always surfed the north end. That trek up and down there with longboard in the wind is always a mission but it’s always worth it when you get there.

I didn’t actually arrive in Cornwall until I was 21, apart from holidays with my parents – so my experiences were very different to yours. My first experience of the north end was being walked up there by a bunch of locals working in the hotels, for a party – it was called the ‘Magic Rock Festival’ (the rock at the end is called Magic Rock). During the day it was a surf competition and then in the evening it was a party. A good friend of ours had a tequila bar and we set it all up down there. So very different first experiences!

Within a couple of years I was working down at Watergate. I first met your brother, Henry, when he was turning what was then a little plastic-seated café into the first Extreme Academy café, and my wife was a kite-surfing instructor working with Dreya Bennett [née Wharry – former kite-surfing world record holder]. And then I became the beach ranger for a few years, when you and I met, through the Watergate Bay Environmental Tourism Trust (WETT, established in 2000), which I headed as the ranger. We used to clean the beach and do rock pool safaris for families.

Everybody’s always been proud of the north end of Watergate, how beautiful it is, and trying to look after it I suppose. It’s a very special place.

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WILL: Yes WETT was a remarkable collaboration between the Council letting us take over the running of the grass car park and using the revenue to provide lifeguarding, beach cleaning and a sense of destination – trying to steward that incredible environment in a way that hadn’t happened before then. You were instrumental in giving it life and soul.

TIM: I just tried to make it a nice place. We ended up burying telegraph cables and things like that, did some wildlife signs and put them on the slipway and on the coastal paths, to show people what to look out for. We saw most of it yesterday actually, we were pretty lucky. Peregrine falcons, blennies, crabs…and Will nearly tripped over a giant starfish.

WILL: It nearly ate me whole. I had to be wrestled out of it...

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TIM: Yeah we should have some good photos to play with! Another thing we touched on yesterday was the time about 20 years ago when I discovered a smuggler’s hole, just around the corner in the next cove. When you surf the north end and you look up at the cliffs, there’s a little square hole. It intrigued me for a few years, and so I decided one day, with a few friends, to go and have a look. There was an old smuggler’s path running down to the cove; a bit sketchy – you wouldn’t do it now, without being roped up. But we got to the entrance and there was a big metal stake and a rope going into this hole. So we climbed inside and then a space about your average size living room was carved out inside the cliff.

There was a hole in the bottom, covered in old planks of driftwood, which we moved aside and then dropped some stones down, and you could hear them dropping into the cave below. So I think the boats used to come in and then they’d pull the booty up, probably tea chests and barrels of brandy and all sorts. There are also a couple of mining holes down there, so it could also have been something to do with mining – but we’re pretty sure it’s smuggling. There were two tunnels going up to the back, which I think they were trying to get under the coast path to the fields so they could escape the customs men… It was probably late 18th century. All quite exciting.

That giant starfish nearly ate me whole. I had to be wrestled out of it...

WILL: A bit Indiana Jones! When we were excavating out the foundations to build Watchful Mary we found a hand-dug mineshaft. It wasn’t particularly big – maybe a metre and half diameter. But it was a hell of a thing when the digger driver put his bucket through it, and there was a gaping hole. They must have gone straight in through the cliff and found a seam of tin or something…

TIM: Well, before they invented the beam engine to pump the water out, the only mining they could really do was to follow the seams of tin inshore from the coast – otherwise digging down, you’d hit the water tables. So some of the earliest mines were like this. It’s similar at Bedruthan Steps and along towards Whipsiderry – there are lots in the cliffs there as well.

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WILL: When you did your beach safaris… I remember they were really popular.

TIM: Yeah, I had about 80 people once. But you’ve got to be very on-it with the tides and not get too carried away, spending too long exploring. I remember once carrying a child under each arm, encouraging families to get a move on, because one of those big swells kicked in and the sand had moved.

WILL: Yes, the number of times up at the north end, we were having too lovely a time to want to leave as the tide came up. Sometimes we just decided to stay down on the beach and scramble back up the cliff, although I wouldn’t recommend it!

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TIM: Probably my top memory of doing those beach safaris was being with a group of about 30 people, all mesmerised for about 20 minutes by four peregrine falcons that had caught a pigeon. The two adults were training the two young ones; swooping down, grabbing this pigeon, dropping it and letting the youngsters then catch it. Then they’d drop it and the adults would come down. And the noise that a peregrine falcon makes echoing all round. It was just amazing.

We found a dead pilot whale once, too. And we also rescued a seal pup. We’d been watching it for 12 hours – we had a little group of us that went to just check it was alright. They say if you can see the bones of a seal pup then it’s undernourished, and we could see its hip bones sticking through. So we gathered it up in two fishing crates, put it in the back of the old pick-up truck and drove it all the way down to the Seal Sanctuary at Gweek.

My son, Archie, is 18 now. At six months old he was in the pick-up truck going up and down the beach, helping me clean the beach. He had his first wetsuit at six months, and we used to walk him in a back-pack doing the beach safaris. Now he’s just finished a two-year course at Darwin College in Newquay doing Wildlife and Conservation.

WILL: With my children, it always starts with, “Oh god, do we have to walk all that way?” But they always love it when we get there. There’s something they’ve called The Caribbean, which is a series of interconnected rock pools. They get on their bodyboards and paddle around all these rocks in what is a giant rock pool, which has been a luminescent blue colour in all this incredible weather we’ve had recently. We took a kayak up there once too…

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TIM: Oh yes… When my children were young we took them up there on our big kayak, and as we were heading round to the Beacon Cove we were joined by the pod of dolphins that live around this coast. We had our dog in the kayak with us as well; it was quite a strange experience having dolphins around the kayak and the dog looking at them as well!

There’s some amazing wildlife to be seen around there. Only last year we saw a sun-fish. And we were diving down picking up spider crabs…in the middle of a great ball of fish at one point, with gannets diving around us. All this wildlife is just there off the tip of Watergate – you don’t have to go far out to find it.

The fulmars – which are in the petrel and albatross family – live on the cliffs all around the coast of Cornwall. You always hear that chattering sound. That and the oyster catchers; the high shrill of the oyster catchers when you’re walking along and you surprise them in a little cove… That’s the sound of Watergate for me.

When my children were young we took them up there on our big kayak, and as we were heading round to the Beacon Cove we were joined by the pod of dolphins that live around this coast.

WILL: There’s no question that the noise from the birds is always present. But that constant background noise of the waves… It’s extraordinarily peaceful, somehow. I could go to sleep in about 30 seconds if I lay on the beach with a towel under my head. I find it incredibly restful. I don’t know if it’s because it transports me back 40 years, or what it is. I’ve always found it to be the most soporific of noises and noisescapes.

TIM: At the other end of the scale, once I was surfing at the north end, around 1996/97 I think, and there was a huge roaring sound. A Concorde came over the cliffs, taking off from the one time it’s ever landed at RAF St Mawgan. Apparently it did an emergency landing there and it took off over the cliffs. That sticks in my mind as another amazing experience there.

Oh, and sometimes you get the foam… It’s basically plankton – the froth you get as it’s smashed together on the beach. I remember one year we had a big storm and it was about 10ft high across half the beach. Everyone thought it was great fun to run in and out of – then they realised that it absolutely stank of fish! I couldn’t drive on the beach that day because so many people were running in and out of the foam. I’ve never seen it like that since.

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WILL: Would that have been because it was in the summer or autumn when there was much more plankton in the water?

TIM: I think it was autumn, yeah – one of these big storms. I remember being in the hotel in one of those storms; we’d gone up there to hide, and the winds were nearly 100 miles per hour. They’d put a big lump of wood between the patio doors and the bar in the hotel because the doors were flexing so much that they were worried they were going to come in.

WILL: That must have been 2008 – when we lost the old Beach Hut… But those storms wash up some interesting flotsam and jetsam too…

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TIM: Yeah, we’ve found fishing boxes with Russian and Chinese writing on. Oh, and the LEGO lost at sea… In the 1990s, a big cargo ship lost a container and it was full of LEGO – witches sets, dragon sets, lifeboat sets... After the big storms of 2014, when all the LEGO had basically spent 10 years stuck in the sand dunes along the coast, the storms ripped away all the sand and the LEGO started floating around again and hit the press. We even had bookings from people in Canada coming over for a few days LEGO hunting.

WILL: There are also the natural delights to be found, for dinner… I remember as a kid going and getting mussels off the rocks at very low tide, and coming back onto the beach where there was a proper barbecue going… Just a pot of water, I think my father probably had a bottle of white wine close at hand, and just doing a very rustic Moules Marinière, without the cream. And boiling tiny prawns, literally straight out of the rock pools.

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TIM: Foraging now has moved on a lot from when we were kids... You can go along the cliffs now and pretty much pick a full meal up with all the wild plants and vegetables growing there. Samphire, alexanders…some people will pick limpets, those little dog whelks I showed you yesterday, and little periwinkles…

WILL: Sounds a bit chewy. I think I’ll stick with the mussels thanks!

If you decide to discover the north end’s delights for yourself, be sure to check the tide times first. Walking to either extremity of the beach should only be done on an ebbing (dropping) tide, or two hours either side of low tide.

Find out more about the tides and looking out for tidal clues.

Tim Uff now runs Tour Cornwall – offering bespoke private tours by a team of experienced guides. @tour_cornwall

Listen to the recordings of limpets grazing in rockpools at the north end of the beach, recorded by David Attenborough’s sound man Chris Watson in 2019.