A surf-lover’s guide to Cornwall
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
I wasn’t born in Cornwall, but I’ve lived here for 20 years. I grew up in Norfolk, and when I was little our family used to spend holidays in north Cornwall, which is quite dramatic, with big headlands and a romantic smuggling, seafaring heritage. I remember racing into the freezing sea with our polystyrene surfboards and then piling into a hot bath, tummies rubbed raw, teeth chattering.
I discovered proper surfing when I was 16 and it became my identity. It can be hard, cold, windy, rough; but on its day it’s the best thing in the world. The ocean has always been my driver, so in 2002 I decided to move to Cornwall and start Finisterre, a sustainable outdoor clothing company. Our office is in the old engine sheds at Wheal Kitty, a former tin mine in St Agnes, 400m from the crashing north Atlantic. You’ll always find boards by the door, wetsuits, dogs.
St Agnes is craggy with lots of coves and big swells. You really feel the cycles of nature, the weather, the drama. It’s a big deal when the swallows start arriving – they remind me the world is still turning. It is much quieter here in winter, home to many amazing characters linked by their love of the sea, from the group of women who swim every day after school drop-off to the hardy surfers.
I get into the water at least three times a week. I’ve got a beautiful surfboard from nearby maker Cord, run by a local second-generation shaper called Markie. Another local, James Otter, carves bespoke boards out of wood. They’re both artists of their craft. I’ll often surf at Chapel Porth Beach, just the other side of St Agnes Beacon, and warm up afterwards in the little beach café there. Or I’ll pop into a great coffee shop in St Agnes called The Sorting Office.
After an evening surf I might go to The Taphouse for a good beer, or the 17th-century Driftwood Spars down by the water. It’s your classic Cornish pub with a fire, carpet on the floor, lifeboat photos on the wall. We also love Night Hatch, run by a phenomenal chef who moves around, posting his location on social media. He makes delicious spicy street food with a side of cold beer and vinyl. You just grab it and sit on the ground.
Further south, Porthleven has some of the best waves in the country, with a great reef break. There’s quite a creative surf crowd here and a growing foodie scene. We’ll get excellent moules-frites from The Mussel Shoal and sit on the pontoon in summer. Origin Coffee is cool too, a like-minded B Corp-certified business with its own roastery.
With my children, aged four, seven and 14, we’ll go to a feast night at Nancarrow, a family-run working farm. We’ll eat food cooked on an open fire, seated at long tables in a big converted barn. Or we might drive up to The Pig at Harlyn Bay, especially during the off-season. We’ll get a shepherd’s hut and light the fire, falling asleep listening to the Atlantic gales raging outside.
My kids love taking what they call “the beach train”, this tiny, magical two-carriage train that chugs right along the coast to St Ives. We’ve spotted seals and dolphins from its windows. From the station you can walk into town to pootle. We’ll always pop into the lifeboat station to see their big boat. I love the romance of the RNLI and I’ve been a volunteer crewman at our station in St Agnes for 20 years. It’s a D Class station with just a small dinghy, but it is also a really tough one and we often have to launch through the surf.
To get out into the wilds of Cornwall, you go west of Penzance. It is pretty remote, untouched. Penzance is cool. You can feel the history in the streets. I like a tiny café called The Honey Pot, which is down a little wiggly lane, and the outdoor Jubilee Pool, which has a section that is geothermally heated so you can swim year-round. For supper we’ll head to 45 Queen Street, a fun bar and restaurant in an old warehouse. Gin is the thing here, and they make their own.
Back home, in the evening I might walk up to St Agnes Head, a beautiful spot high above the cliffs and the old Wheal Coates engine house. You can see all the way south to St Ives and right up to Trevose Head in North Cornwall. It’s pretty special.