Below is an article of mine published in ‘Canoe Kayak UK’ magazine a few months ago. Hope it’s of interest…
A paddler’s guide to Lands End
It’s autumn 2007, and I’ve just completed 49 separate chapters of a guidebook to the fantastic sea kayaking in South West England, totalling about 70000 words. This was a long job, yet I’m still not finished. The final chapter left to write is the chapter on Land’s End in Cornwall. I’ve kept on putting it off, always finding excuses. The problem is, finding words to do it justice. Eventually, I grab a couple of bottles of Doom Bar (splendid Cornish beer) from the fridge and sit in front of my computer. I prod the keyboard with one hand and swig with the other. I bash out ‘Chapter 27: Land’s End’ in a couple of frantic hours, and then sit back and make a few victorious air punches. Having skimmed over what I’ve written, I ponder for a few moments and then add a final few words;
‘the best sea paddle in the South West’.
Anyway…what I thought I might do in this here article, is try to justify that statement. To attempt this, I’m just going to throw a random and disjointed assortment of information, anecdotes and tall tales your way.
The clue is in the name
The clue is in the name, but for those who don’t know, Land’s End is the extreme west point of England, where Cornwall runs out. West of here, there are only the tiny Isles of Scilly (45 kilometres) and then the next landmass is Canada (3500 kilometres). Incidentally, the proper name for Land’s End is Pedn an Wlas. I have no idea how to pronounce that, but neither does anyone else; unfortunately there are no native Cornish speakers left.
Most folk think of Land’s End as the specific spot where lycra-clad cyclists get photographed beneath a whimsical ‘mileage to faraway places’ sign, before embarking on a masochism-fest pedal to John O’Groats in Scotland. They might not know that the cyclists have to cough up significant monies just to stand beneath that sign, and that it’s the focal point of a rather tacky and utterly mis-sited children’s theme park. Thankfully, this crappy dump goes unnoticed by those paddling below and thankfully, is the only blight on the much larger and utterly magnificent Land’s End peninsula.
The Land’s End peninsula points west between St Ives on the north coast, and Mount’s Bay on the south coast. Whilst every part of this peninsula merits at least an A+, the very best paddling of all is found within the few kilometres north and south of Land’s End itself. A paddle between Sennen Cove and Porthgwarra offers something approaching Sea Kayaking Nirvana. Smooth granite cliffs, jagged islets, beckoning tunnels, foaming reefs, translucent surf, sandy beaches, intimidating tide races, abundant wildlife and even a rusting shipwreck await exploration.
My first sighting of Land’s End was in 1997, when MC Hammer was cool, and Princess Di was alive (for another fortnight, anyway). I’d bought a sea kayak on a whim and paddled from Bournemouth, wearing a t-shirt and using a holed nylon spraydeck. When I eventually I reached Cornwall I was still alive, but still totally clueless. I wasn’t sure where I was finally headed, but liked the sound of Land’s End. Be careful what you pray for. Early one morning I launched and paddled past Penzance. I soon spotted an offshore buoy which I now know marks the Runnel Stone. This is where the cliffs turn north a few kilometres south of Land’s End, to directly face the open ocean. It’s also where two seas collide; the English Channel and the Celtic Sea. My day became a lot more interesting. My memory of the next hour is of gripping the paddle in tight-sphinctered terror as I battled through swells; where had these epic waves appeared from? The blindingly obvious answer is, ‘the Atlantic Ocean’…but don’t laugh; you had to be there (with my 1997 level of innocence and ignorance) to grasp why this was all a bit of a jolt.
The thing which sets the cliffs of Land’s End apart is the geology. Whether or not you usually get excited about granite, prepare to be astonished. This peculiar rock weathers into distinctive ill-fitting angular blocks, like Brobdingnagian cubes of plasticine squeezed crudely together. Only, lots more attractive than that sounds. What’s that, you want to know why it does this? Apologies, I haven’t a clue; ask an actual geologist (I did look on the internet, but there were too many long words). Anyway, the upshot of all this for paddlers, is some truly unique formations to explore and play. Perhaps the most distinctive are the two remarkable stacks located just south of Land’s End; The Armed Knight is a delicate serrated ridge which improbably defies the full force of the Atlantic, whilst Enys Dodnan is a monolithic island pierced by an awe-inspiring natural archway.
It’s late evening and the sun is an amorphous mass of molten metal as it merges into the Atlantic, punctuated only by the lonely offshore lighthouses of Wolf Rock and Longships. With their jointed buttresses and pinnacles, the cliffs around Land’s End resemble soaring fortresses with castellated spires. The granite around and above us is set ablaze by the golden light, with quartz, feldspar and mica sparkling brilliantly.
Incidentally, if you think that I’m laying the adjectives on a bit thickly in this article…then I’m guessing that you haven’t paddled here yet.
Subject to considerable variation
“Is it just me, or are we paddling against the tide? I thought you were supposed to be checking this stuff beforehand?”
Atlantic swells hitting Land’s End get an unimpeded run-up, all the way from Brazil. A clue to just how big the waves get here can be found in the yellow lichen which marks the splash zone on the cliffs. Suffice to say, it’s a very long way above sea level indeed. Perhaps consider checking the weather and swell forecast before venturing forth on this serious trip?
Some things are harder to predict. Beardy nautical types use the boringly-reliable Admiralty Pilot books to predict tide flow times. These hefty tomes are a nerd’s dream, crammed with numbers and other data. Yet, amazingly, where Land’s End is concerned they simply give up. Their description is one short sentence long, and uses the word ‘probably’ twice, alongside the phrase ‘subject to considerable variation’. Hard as it may be to believe in this information-rich age, you’ll just have to take a punt on the tides and hope that your guesstimate is right. Pretty well everyone who paddles around Land’s End inadvertently finds themselves battling upstream at some point. The key to tackling this uncertainty is to expect and accept it; Land’s End is no place for control freaks!
We’re only five minutes’ paddle out of Sennen Cove, when Heather shouts, “Basking shark!” She gives a running commentary as we draw nearer. “It’s a small one…two metres long, to judge by the fins”. Soon, we too spot the unmistakable dorsal fin, followed closely by the tail fin, swishing the surface in sinuous curves as the shark hoovers up plankton just beneath the surface. We stop paddling, but the shark now approaches us. “Two metres” proves to be a comic misjudgement of scale; the shark is half as long again as our kayaks, and emphasises its awesome length and mass by repeatedly swimming beneath and brushing against their unnervingly fragile hulls. No one moves. Or breathes.
MV RMS Mulheim
According to the testimony of the Chief Officer of the MV RMS Mulheim, he was alone on the bridge on 22nd March 2003 when he accidentally caught his trouser leg on his chair, tripped and knocked himself out. He claims that when he recovered consciousness, all 4000 tonnes of ship and cargo were seconds away from making intimate contact with Land’s End. You couldn’t make any of this stuff up…probably. The Marine Accident Investigation discovered that the ship’s officers had plotted no course or chart positions for the ship’s voyage.
This shipwreck resides in Castle Zawn, just north of Land’s End. Despite a decade of battering by Atlantic swells, enough of the Mulheim is still intact to dwarf approaching paddlers. This isn’t an ideal place to land, on account of the bouldery beach and copious amounts of scrap metal thereabouts. In any case, paddling up close to (or even boarding) this rusting hulk is definitely in ‘Don’t try this at home’ territory. But all that said, it has been done…
I paddle gingerly into the high-sided cave known as Zawn Pyg, unsure what to expect inside. Thankfully, the water within turns out to be completely calm. I pass through to the far end, where this tunnel opens out to the sky again, at a perfect natural swimming pool. I turn around and paddle back. I encourage Claire, “It’s fine, go check it out!” No sooner has she entered the tunnel, than a sneaky rolling swell trundles beneath my kayak. It steepens and builds as it reaches the tunnel mouth, then explodes into a morass of foaming white which seemingly fills the entire cave. Oops.
There is no sign of Claire, and the dreadful realisation dawns on me that I should probably do something to help. The problem is, I have absolutely no idea what. Eventually and unexpectedly, she emerges from the zawn…inexplicably unflustered, unharmed and with an intact kayak. I have no idea how she survived the oceanic maelstrom which I’d just witnessed, but mutter something about having been just that very moment about to paddle in and ‘rescue’ her…
Paddlers who get excited about deep dark tunnels will be in their element (but should probably Google ‘Freud’). The granite geology of Land’s End means that there are numerous vertically–sided passageways like Zawn Pyg to explore. Land’s End itself is pierced by a passage, notable for the strong tide flow passing through. Further south, a truly epic tunnel (go search for it!) leads into the cliff for over a hundred metres before veering sharp right in darkness and stretching for another hundred…before re-emerging into daylight. Note however, that these caves will often be occupied by the local seal population. Be especially carefully around pupping time, between late August and September.
It’s five in the morning, and two of us are paddling in pre-dawn light through the tide races at Longships, surrounded by hundreds of swirling birds. “Wow, just look at them!” I shout, “Puffins! Guillemots! Gannets! Fulmars! Petrels! Razorbills! Incredible!” My friend looks back at me, bemused and possibly pityingly. “Seagulls. I see seagulls.”
The Longships are a 500 metre long chain of rocks, located a couple of kilometres directly offshore from Land’s End. This reef has often been compared to a passing ship, as the 43 metre high Longships Lighthouse gives the impression of a tall mast.
Land’s End is an exposed place to paddle in the first place; paddling that little bit further out to Longships increases this commitment significantly. You’ll need to ferry glide carefully through several successive tide races, each seemingly larger and steeper than the last…but it’s absolutely worth paying the rope out this far. On arrival, you’ll be checked out by the locals, the grey seals. These fellows laze on rocks, or float idly in the eddy pools whilst food floats past on the tide races…a natural sushi bar. On our last visit, we experimented with snorkels to roll over and watch the seals in the glassy-clear water. What we actually saw was a lot of seaweed, but our efforts clearly kept the residents amused.
Having written a guidebook about this stuff, I occasionally delude myself that I ‘know’ Land’s End. On this day however, I’m lucky enough to be paddling with a local, and it’s him giving me the tour. We’re in Nanjizal Bay. The word ‘grand’ barely seems adequate to describe Nanjizal, but that’s what I’m going with, as it’s now past midnight. To my south is the tunnel of Zawn Pyg, whilst the cliffs to my north are known as Diamond Horse Cove, because their quartz veins resemble diamonds. All of this stuff, I know. What I didn’t know until shown today, was that the sand spit in the centre of this granite amphitheatre forms clean peeling waves at certain states of the tide, waves which allow long rides before petering out safely into deep water; pretty convenient if you fancy surfing a fragile sea kayak. I retrieve my helmet from the back deck, wait for my turn behind Mike, and accelerate down a glassy and transparent wave face…
This article focuses on the Land’s End peninsula between Sennen Cove and Portgwarra, the part which includes Land’s End proper. The entire peninsula offers outstanding sea kayaking, however. The paddle along the south coast from Penzance to Porthgwarra takes in some stunningly attractive fishing villages, with the sandy bay of Porthcurno being a highlight. North of Land’s End, the paddle to St Ives past Cape Cornwall is a long and committing trip along surprisingly wild coasts. The granite gives way to dark and foreboding basalt, and the cliffs are topped with ghostly ruins of tin mines.
South West Sea Kayaking by Mark Rainsley – planning details and information, available from www.pesdapress.com.
West Cornwall & Land’s End Peninsula Guidebook (from ‘Friendly Guides’) by Neil Reid – great little guidebook, including excellent maps.
www.landsendweather.info – live weather reports and webcam showing sea conditions.
www.southwestseakayaking.co.uk – more photos and information, from the author.