THE SEAT OF STORMS
THE BATTLEGROUND BETWEEN CORNISH GRANITE AND THE FEARSOME FIRE POWER OF THE ATLANTIC HAS SHAPED SOME OF OUR MORE INTERESTING WAVE RIDERS. THERE’S A UNIQUE QUALITY TO EVERYTHING ‘OUT WEST’. WRITER PETE GEALL KNOWS IT WELL, LIFEGUARDING THE BEACHES AND SURF
Pete Geall takes us on a poetic tour of the magical land west of Penzance.
Once every while, a dead Gannet seabird washes up on my local beach, down in this far west corner of Cornwall. Its spinal column severed by the force of colliding with the water at speed, whilst attempting to feed on a specific fish, identified individually out of an entire shoal.
There is something glorious about each of those birds, locked forever in that defining moment: wings tightly clasped around their youthful breast, oily eyes fixated into the unknown depths and onto its quarry. So often the end of things is characterised in decline. But those birds, in the peak of their salad days, meet a most poetic and presumably immediate end. A slender margin for error, a cigarette paper between life and death; their fate sealed by a few degrees or a divine gust of wind - and thus their occasional arrival on my beach is assured.
Yet still, what of the fish? The fish deemed prey in the gannet’s myopia of hunger, whilst the others in the shoal drift mercifully into the periphery. That fish has survived a dive attack that few others do, and yet it can’t contemplate either its luck in surviving or its misfortune in being chosen in the first place. This story, in case you were wondering, is about that fish.
As a surfer growing up in Cornwall you get used to be dive-bombed from a young age. Tourists come to roost during the summer months, before returning to the presumed riches of urban Albion, leaving a vacuum of seasonal unemployment and high property prices in their wake. What is left though, can’t be taken away. Consistently average, occasionally excellent year-round surf that with careful application, can open the doors to a hidden Cornwall. Beneath the summer glam and sham, are fleeting moments of exquisite beauty that will always live on.
When I think of West Cornwall, I see and feel granite. Big flakes of the stuff, managing to simultaneously crumble away into the sea and stand firm to the frequently changeable moods of the West Atlantic. Seams of quartz, feldspar and
Beneath the SUMMER GLAM and sham, are fleeting moments of EXQUISITE BEAUTY that will always LIVE ON
the WESTERN peninsula of Cornwall had been revered for SPIRITUAL value for EONS
mica woven through boulders, rising and forming ridge-lines up the west facing coast like sleeping dragons lying dormant in the cliffs. Then, when it is time, falling back down to spawn bays out of the shattered remains. Down on the beaches you can look out across the sea and surf, safe in the knowledge that the myriad of problems that define this strange, Brexit shaped land are all firmly behind.
It is no wonder that the Romans named the Penwith peninsula, where no one place is more than 4 miles from the coast: ‘Bolerium’ or the
‘Seat of Storms’. A granite promontory in which this land receives the sea and weather; reeling and occasionally revelling in the spoils of the ocean.
“The ripbank is going to be chronic-iiicccc.” Screeches Bert Wright, self-styled local shredlord, stretching the word chronic until it takes on an almost melodious tone. He is right though, it is fairly chronic-iicc. We watch on as the 7.2m tide starts to fill our local bay with water and swell in the warmth of an early summer’s day. The energy is palpable - the water rushing over a fortuitous hump of sand that has formed mid beach next to an old shipwreck. We watch on as the mass of tide and swell entering the bay from the west is forced to exit at the northern end of the beach, causing the jet blue water to collide, course and rip through the unnamed sandbar, pumping sand arterially through the 4ft groundswell. The relentless, elemental rawness tempered by the gentlest huff of southerly breeze holding the rights open. This stretch of exposed sand is often overwhelmed by the conditions thrown at it in the winter; the longer days heralding an opportunity to hold its own again.
Before surfers had woken up to its wide swell exposure, the western peninsula of Cornwall had been revered for spiritual value for eons, peppered with significant neolithic settlements and burial sites. Ancient peoples believed that the souls of the dead followed the setting sun beyond to the unknowable western sky - It made logical sense to place graves at the end of the land.
It has also suffered at the hands of man’s greed or ineptitude. Like most of Cornwall, the landscape has been endless ripped apart in the
SHELTERED A number of COVES were used by smugglers to host illicit goods arriving BY SEA
search for mineral wealth. In more recent times the coastline has played host to one of the largest national environmental disasters of the 20th century, when the Oil Tanker ‘Torrey Canyon’ sank in 1967, coating the beaches and wildlife with viscous gloop. An early wake up call to the potential negative impacts of our insatiable appetite for cheap oil.
The piratical, anti-authoritarian streak that runs deep through many a Cornish narrative has always been strong this far from the administrative centres of county and country. A number of sheltered coves were used by smugglers to host illicit goods arriving by sea. Occasionally the sea would deliver a wrecked ship. A cruel chaos, that at the very least would provide for the local community.
The coast has been endlessly painted and admired for its scenes of beauty, spawning an entire artistic movement that poured scorn on the notion of war, instead choosing light, love and a simple life over hurt. Nowadays it is also part of a very modern Cornish dance of give and take; with tourism and associated gentrification dominating the conversation.
In a way this ‘Seat of Storms’ is a small petridish of concentrated Cornwall, a place so full of contradictions, that the blend of fact and fiction is less important than the sum of its parts.
The footpath that leads to Cape Cornwall from my house in the small town of St Just, heads through a number of fields. The path, once worn bare by the shuffling feet of miners on their way to toil in the shafts of Cot valley takes a meandering route through the patchwork fields, before reaching its terminus at the end of the land. Isn’t it strange how left to their own devices, people don’t always choose to take the path of least resistance? Instead of taking the faster, direct route through the fields, the path has taken on a strange zig-zagged appearance. Now everyone, namely dog walkers and German tourists on hiking holidays, follow this way without so much as a grumble. The flock following the unnamed shepherd before.
In contrast, one of the unique things about surfing culture, is the persistent hum of folks choosing to do things on their terms, against the grain. Choosing not to stick to the common path, but forging their own or even just blissfully ambling in no real direction at all.
“Not so high Pete, you need to sit lower in the face.”
Local stylist Mike Lay is trying to elucidate the finer points of placing a single-fin log in trim down the spring-tide, pointbreak-esque sandbar out in front of the lifeguard hut. Slapping the water after another graceless ride, I find myself getting increasingly frustrated at my pitiful efforts to avoid pearling the weighty ‘hog’ as soon as I try the merest hint of a cross-step. In waves of consequence I can hold my own with surfers
like Mike on a shortboard, but right now the seemingly simple task of trimming a longboard along a knee high wave is evading me. He smiles at me knowingly, it is not as easy as the crew of talented longboarders who reside in these parts make it look.
Mike is at the vanguard of a movement of surfers, who choose not to be defined by the boards they ride, but their actions in and out of the water. One of the last fully professional surfers in this land, his sponsors caring not for his competitive ranking but what value he can contribute to their brand through multi-craft surfing skill, love of travel and the rare ability to convey through words, a surfing life beyond ordinary.
I watch Mike grab the log and make the most of the feeble swell I had floundered on earlier that morning. In his element beneath the cliffs of Escalls, weaving delicately through the summer crowds, soaring high above the slop and detritus of supermarket purchased bodyboards. His timeless version of surfing transcending the futile drudgery of a ‘three-to-da-beach’, jock mentality that has defined and arguably bogged down British surfing in the past decade. The cream always rises to the top.
With the arrival of school holidays, I spot the young crew of local rippers feign enthusiasm and glee as they push paying tourists into 1ft reforms at Sennen whilst head high sets peel provocatively down the north end of the beach. Up and down this county, Cornish surfers young and old, forcefully grinning as they push learners into waves come rain or shine. Surfing, as commodity, has become a mainstay of the local tourism market; modern visitors placing such high value on participation and experience.
Yet, those surf instructors know something
that only a few of those temporary indulgers will ever understand, namely that surfing on these shores takes more than the glib satisfaction of being cooed into waves whilst the surf school photographer captures your next social post. It takes dedication and resolve in spite of the often shitty surf, weather and all the challenges that go with trying to make a permanent home as close to the coast as possible.
Somewhere, out beyond the small island of St Michael’s Mount, situated in the sheltered lee of Penzance Bay is rumoured to be the lost land of Lyonness. A land that once was, and is no more. Lost in the mists of time, it is said that once a great city was lost in a biblical flood - a Cornish Atlantis if you will. Petrified wood can be found out in the bay on the lowest of tides, possibly the remains of a sunken forest of yore.
In a way, Lyonness represents the idealised version of Cornwall that exists in our minds. A home for us to project our desires and discard our petty annoyances at tourists, stretched infrastructure and lacklustre surf. A lost land, worth searching for and occasionally found on fleeting moments spent on the cliffs and beaches. Framed between pink sea thrift. A stiff easterly wind blowing your hair over your face as you look out over a well-travelled swell. A gaggle of friends sat on the sunny grass above the break, calling the chronic-iic rip bank the moment it shifts up a gear. Wrestling into your soaked 3/2 whilst trying to shove chocolate digestives into your mouth. A glorious struggle between time and tide.
Out in the water: Pulling water through your hands with each stroke, committing every ounce of your being into a buckled blend of swell, tide, refraction and rip. Standing tucked, fingers hovering over the brine; driving into a bottom turn, every inch of rail engaged. Hooking back or holding trim, placing your hand reassuringly in the face. You watch the water arch blue and turn square on the bank. Your friend hoots. A kook on a mini-mal falls out of the sky. Cornwall.
A LOST land , worth SEARCHING forand occasionally found on fleeting moments spent on the cliffs and BEACHES
From small perfection to victory at sea conditions the deep west rolls with it all.
It’s the granite out west that differentiates the area from the rest of Cornwall. Makes for sick backdrops in photos. This is Seb Smart in a sheltered stormy corner
Some spots make you work for the reward. But it’s always worth it
Local stylist Mike Lay spreads the creative vibes from home around the world and does sublime things on a log
Harry de Roth with speed to burn
Sam Bleakley: surfer, writer, filmmaker and all round legend Jayce Robinson in the shadow of a batholith, that’s right this was once underneath a volcano millions of years ago...