Along Cornwall’s dramatic coastline, sandy coves and smugglers’ inlets are set amid rugged scenery. The south coast is gentle with several meandering estuaries while the north is wilder and bears the full brunt of south-westerly swells.
The region, which has inspired writers and artists from Daphne du Maurier to Barbara Hepworth, has become very popular, but there are plenty of secret places if you want to escape the crowds.
Here Daniel Start, the best-selling author of Wild Swimming and Hidden Beaches (Wild Things Publishing), reveals his favourite places across Cornwall for river and sea swims:
The River Fowey drops in cascades down through dense, sessile oak woodland on the edge of Bodmin Moor. There are humid aromatic glens and the trees are draped with rare ferns, mosses and ivy. This area, known as Golitha Falls, is home to otters, which live among the river roots, and bats, which sleep in the old mine workings.
Where the main path ends, at the beginning of a series of shallow falls, pick your way further down one of the narrow trails. Wagtails criss-cross the stream and a small, gladed pool opens up a few hundred yards below, out of sight of any crowds.
Here, the young river Fowey flows through ancient oak and beech woodland. Small beaches before the river cascades down over boulders and several falls to form a small plunge pool with golden sand. Good bluebells in spring.
2 ½ miles W of Minions, then R at Redgate (signed Draynes/Golitha). Follow the path for 10 mins to top of cascades. Find a rough track which continues 200m down, beyond the mine ruins, to the shady secret pool at bottom. Slippery rocks!
Found in a hidden valley only a few miles from the Arthurian castle of Tintagel, deep in the shadow of the gorge, this ‘kieve’ – or basin – is part of an extraordinary double waterfall which for centuries was used for baptisms. St Nectan, the hermit who lived here in the hermitage around 480ad, was one of the holiest of Cornish saints.
It’s easy to see why this place was revered. The flow of the water has sculpted a deep cylindrical well and a perfect man-sized hole through which the water spills. This upper pool is out of reach, but the lower pool is deep enough for an exhilarating splash and plunge. The guardians of this site, who run the tiny tea shop above, don’t mind bathing as long as it is done with sincerity and respect.
This has long been a place of pilgrimage and immersion and it was here that King Arthur’s knights were baptised before they set out on their quest to recover the Holy Grail.
Find the track with a postbox, opposite a telephone box, off B3263, in Trethevey, 2 miles east of Tintagel. Bear right and follow it for 1 mile, past St Piran’s Well, down into the woods, and up along the pretty stream, finally climbing the steps up to the shrine entrance.
Downstream from St Nectan’ Kieve. Pretty stream path leading down to waterfall pools by sea. Look out carvings of labyrinths, possibly 3,500 years old, behind old mill.
Park on B3263, just E of Bossiney, at layby by turn off to Halgabron. Find footpath opposite.
For a real glimpse of smuggling coves visit beautiful Lansallos, which has an organic farm shop and campsite. From here a wooded glade leads to a tiny beach with a smugglers’ passage, complete with cart tracks worn into the stone. Or you can swim from adjacent Palace Cove – its old ‘quay’ is just steps hewn from the rock.
Enchanting walk down a pretty coombe from a charming hamlet. Smugglers’ passage hewn from rocks, waterfall and snorkelling.
Take path by church down through woods 15 mins to cove. Continue 500m W on the coast path to find tiny Palace Cove, where steps have been carved from the rocks to create a mini-quay. Or walk 200m E to find Parson’s Cove. Excellent NT d Highertown Farm (PL13 2PX, 01208 265211). s Cream teas and local beef / lamb at Barton Farm (PL13 2PU, 01503 272293). Lansallos is signed 2 miles W of Polperro by The Crumplehorn Inn.
From Newquay to Padstow the Cornish coast bears the full brunt of westerly storms and swells. Great caves have been pummelled into the cliffs and blowholes forced up through the ground.
Port Isaac, to the east, is one of the better-preserved traditional Cornish villages. Its whitewashed streets and alleys still bustle with fishmongers and pubs alongside the ubiquitous fudge and pottery shops, but neighbouring Port Gaverne has the best swimming.
Steps lead down from its little headland to a rocky inlet with wonderfully blue water. From here, if you are feeling strong and the sea is calm, swim around through the narrow pass beneath the spot where local lads jump and enter the lagoon in the far right corner. There are also huge caves in the cliffs a little further on. The Port Gaverne Inn is a gem of a pub with log fires for drying out after your swim.
Safe swimming cove but popular with lads who jump from the rocky promontories.
Adventurers can swim through channel, around headland into the huge sea cave beneath the cliff, R.
1 miles E of Port Isaac, signed off B3314.
Daniel Start is the author of:
Both £16.99, www.wildthingspublishing.com, available from all good bookshops.
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