Covid Restrictions Apply.
This is my first Cornwall trip. It’s also my first Covid trip.
The idea was to take the train from London Paddington early in the morning so I’d get the most out of my first day in Newquay. Five hours from London via Plymouth to Par, I will change trains to Newquay. This is the longest I’ve had to wear a mask yet. It goes surprisingly well, and the horror stories I’ve read in the news about people flocking to Cornwall instead of going abroad this summer don’t seem to apply when travelling on a Monday. It’s no challenge to sit at a safe social distance until I reach my destination as there are not many people on the train.
I arrive at Newquay’s small end-of-the-line platform around 11 am. This presents me with a challenge I hadn’t thought through. Hauling my two-wheel luggage through Newquay’s high street towards my hotel, I can’t wait to leave my bag and go exploring until I can get the key to my room at the hotel’s Covid-friendly 3 pm check-in time. After ten minutes’ walk past surf shops, pubs and hotels, I arrive at my home for the next five days, The Best Western Hotel Bristol on Narrowcliff, facing the high street and overlooking Tolcarne Beach below.
As it turns out, I can’t leave my luggage because of Covid restrictions, so there’s nothing else to do than be thankful I am travelling light. I pull the noisy wheels behind me back through the town centre, past Great Western Beach and Blue Reef Aquarium on one side, and a Wetherspoon and Tesco on the other side. I reach the other side of Newquay, where there’s a restaurant I’ve wanted to visit. Why walk all the way across town when there are plenty other eateries closer to my hotel? Because I’ve seen on their online menu that they serve lobster and chips, a combination I’ve never had before.
Though pulling the luggage behind me is irritating, I decide to treat this as my daily exercise and a warm-up before tomorrow’s surf lesson. I walk up and down the hilly streets of Pentire, which is a primarily residential part of town. I walk past Newquay Golf Club and catch a glimpse of the town’s perhaps most famous beach, Fistral Beach. And finally, after one last final haul up a steep gravelly hill, which makes the wheels on my luggage cry out loud, I find what I was looking for: The Fern Pit Cafe & Ferry, which not only promised Lobster and Chips on their website, but also ‘arguably the finest views in Newquay.’ And who am I to argue? The views from the tranquil outside seating area are lovely and a perfect setting for my Lobster and Chips, which don’t disappoint. While eating, I people-watch small figures in the distance, paddling in the low tide River Gannel below. I also do a bit of birdwatching when two seagulls fight over leftovers on a nearby table.
I give the tired wheels on my small suitcase a chance to rest and take a cab back to the hotel for a Covid-friendly check-in, fully masked and socially distanced. I spend the rest of the afternoon at Tolcarne Beach – conveniently located five minutes walk from the hotel – exploring a cave or two, but mostly just enjoying the sand and saltwater between my toes and the sound of crashing waves ringing through the salty air.
The following day, it’s time for another long walk. With my suitcase firmly in place in my hotel room I walk east out of Newquay town centre towards Watergate Bay, where I will take my midday surf lesson from the Westcountry Surf School. It’s grey and hazy, and it doesn’t look particularly promising for a day spent on the beach, but I leave in good spirits, excited about the surf lesson – my first time on a surfboard. I walk past the Tesco Express, which will cater to my snacking needs for the rest of my stay here. I continue along the deliciously named Lusty Glaze Beach, and past the luscious Porth Beach. Then along the coastline, high above the sea’s noisy crashing waves, which I can’t see because of the foggy haze. I do see lots of green grass and yellow and white flowers.
Finally, the fog lifts just in time for my arrival, overlooking Watergate Bay, and suddenly I see dozens of surfers in wetsuits in the waves down below.
The surf school is located in a parking lot, where a couple of trailers function as office and locker rooms. I buy a coffee at the small makeshift cafe and sit down to watch the morning-class surfing on the beach below while waiting for my class at noon. When the time comes, I realise the first challenge is just getting the wetsuit on. The wetsuits live up to their name and are still quite moist when my group of six people struggle to shimmy into the clingy fabric. With a bit of help from each other and a lot of wiggling and pulling, we sort it out. Then it’s time to follow our surf instructor on the ten-minute walk down to the beach. Our instructor is recently back from the Bahamas (he says he returned because of Covid), and he looks the part of a proper beach-bum-surf-dude, which suits the occasion perfectly.
We pick up each of our massive surfboards and carry our boards for a few minutes down to a quieter part of the beach. I catch myself thinking that carrying the board will wear me out before we even get in the water. It’s not that heavy, but it’s bigger than me and difficult to carry properly. Once we find our spot, our instructor informs us of safety measures and takes us through the motions on land; we all have to jump on our boards and land in the proper position. Then it’s time to do the same in the water.
Pushing the board through every aggressive wave charging towards us proves to be exercise enough in itself. My arms are already tired before I even try to catch my first wave. About thirty meters from the shoreline, I stop and plot the action. I point the surfboard towards land, turn my back on the waves and look back for the next appropriate wave coming my way. I miss the first one – I’m not ready. I struggle to hold on to the board as it so desperately wants to glide along with the wave as it was meant to do.
Another wave is coming, and I decide this is the one. I walk a few steps with my board, and when the wave is close enough, I hold tight and jump on, landing perfectly on the board, lying down on my stomach, pushing up with my arms in a perfect Yoga Cobra Pose. The wave pushes the board, and as it surges forward, I jump up, landing on both feet, and I’m surfing. I’m SURFING!!!
Not for long, though. In about seven or eight seconds, I reach the shoreline, and I have to jump off the board. But I surfed. And I did it on the first try. I get a shout of acknowledgement from our instructor, who is helping one of the others out in the waves. I go back out, and for the next hour and a half, I catch a few more waves, sometimes they knock me down the moment I get on the board, and sometimes, I don’t even bother getting on the board when the wave comes, because I’m so exhausted.
But that’s life. Sometimes the sea will be calm, and sometimes you will find yourself in the middle of a storm. Waves will come and go. Some of them will knock you out, but sometimes you get to ride the wave. Sometimes you are ready when the wave hits, and you get to ride it out. And standing there in the middle of an onslaught of incoming waves, I feel calm in the knowledge that some waves will glide right through me, some will sweep me off my feet, and once in a while, I’ll get on top and triumphantly ride along. I know this won’t be my last surf session.
My body is beat after the surf lesson – without a doubt, the best workout I’ve had all year and a reminder that I need to exercise more to be better ready for the next time I go surfing. For the last two days of my stay, I walk with sore limbs high up on cliffs and way down at sea level, and I’m pretty sure no beach between Fistral Beach and Watergate Beach is left untouched by my feet.
Though the water here is good for surfing, it’s not as inviting for swimming. A bit too cold and a bit too wild. So paddling it is. I lunch twice at my ‘local,’ The Colonial, on Tolcarne Beach, where I read and people-watch, sip a Pina Colada or two and eat seafood (Seafood Curry, Catch of the Day).
Every day I’ve been here, I’ve woken up to grey, misty weather, which has lifted after midday, giving way to a bright sunny afternoon. On the last day, I have a train to catch around noon, so my final impression of Newquay is shades of grey. The view out of my hotel room window is so hazy that I can’t see the water, which is quite a contrast to the evening before, with a glorious sunset of yellows, oranges and reds settling over the calm sea.
Check-out is at 11 am, and I find a bench in a parking lot across from the train station, overlooking Great Western Beach. Well, it would have if it hadn’t been so foggy. The seagulls have their own conversation above me as I talk on the phone to a friend in Australia. I wonder if I’ll get to surf down there one day. We chat until it’s time for me to catch my train.
The train ride back to London is uneventful. For most of the trip on this Friday afternoon, there are fewer than ten people in the carriage, making social distancing as effortless on the way back to London as on the way to Cornwall. As I arrive back in London and disappear into the Underground for the tube that’ll take me back home, I know that this will not be the last time I return home from Cornwall.
Population, Cornwall: 565,968
Population, Newquay: 22,000
Warmest month: July (average 17.8C)
Coldest month: February (average 8.6C)
To Do in Newquay
– Blue Reef Aquarium
– Fistral Beach
– St Michael’s Mount