At the western extremity of mainland Britain, Cornwall’s stunning Penwith Peninsula is ideal for a multi-hostel break of coastal hikes and catching waves. Niko Cionek discovers more.
“Surfing is about being yourself,” says Sam Smart, former runner-up at the British Surf Nationals and one of the instructors at Cornwall’s Smart Surf School. It’s a sunny morning, and we’re watching the waves roll onto the broad, near-empty sands of Sennen Cove. “It’s about looking back at the world with all its imperfections and saying ‘screw you – this is my time’.” He picks up his board and laughs.“The best surfers are the ones with the biggest smiles.”
With Sam, surf tuition comes quick, fast and colourful. I’m a novice, but he’s got me catching waves and standing up within an hour of us reaching the beach. I’m stunned. “Yeah! You’re tearing it up!” he shouts, when I first wobble to my feet. I’m not likely to be turning pro anytime soon – unless there’s a contract for repeatedly wiping out and swallowing seawater – but, wow, I can see how surfing becomes addictive.
I end up spending hours splashing around in the swell. When I’m not trying to ride waves, I’m gazing back at the hills and losing track of time. After all, escaping the everyday grind is what Cornwall is all about. I’m down here for a mini-break at two different hostels, YHA Penzance and YHA Land’s End, both of which are excellently placed for enjoying the county’s easy-going charms.
Penzance is my starting point. I hire a bike (penzancebikehire.co.uk) and pass my first full day buzzing around on two wheels. I take a long dip in the newly reopened Art Deco lido, the UK’s largest seawater pool, call in at the Penlee House Gallery and devour an unfeasibly good crab sandwich at the Mackerel Sky Seafood Bar in nearby Newlyn.
In the afternoon I cycle out to the Minack Theatre – the open-air playhouse created on a cliff side in the 1930s – to watch a performance of As You Like It. The 90-minute ride is a hilly one, but the scenic rewards are huge. I can also vouch for the fact that when you’ve got a curving Atlantic bay as a backdrop, you don’t mind when the occasional renaissance-era pun goes over your head.
Refuelled by pizza, sleep and a cooked breakfast at the hostel, I catch a bus out to Sennen Cove the next day (the double-deckers are open-topped from late May to mid-September, so represent a few quid well spent). It’s here I meet Sam and take my first steps into the world of wetsuits and breakers. Surfing’s been on my wish list for years, and Sennen Cove is a great place to start: the sands are clean, the headlands are lush, and looking out from the beach it’s next stop America.
Another great thing about the location is that it’s a short distance from YHA Land’s End (ninety minutes along the coastal path, or fifteen minutes on the bus). It was my first time at the hostel, so sitting in its garden and watching the sun set over the valley and ocean was some introduction.
A wise man once said that if you find yourself staying at a property on the South West Coastal Path, you’d be a fool not to get your walking boots on. I stride out the next morning, back towards Penzance. It’s a fine day, and the coastline snakes off to the distance in rumpled granite folds. Cornish choughs swoop, sparrowhawks hover, waves crash. I’m the happiest man in the West Country.
The walk itself can be as long as desired. From the hostel, short-distance hikers can stop at Sennen Cove or Land’s End itself, while travellers with trekking stamina can push on to Lamorna, Mousehole or even Penzance itself. All have bus connections. I settle for a midway point, the glorious beach at Porthcurno, where after five hours of sublime coastal walking I’m met by the sight of a dolphin pod frolicking offshore. A perfect moment? That’s Cornwall all over.
Smart Surf School 01736 871817 –www.sennensurfschool.com
Ever fancied volunteering? Sally Nutland spent a week doing just that with Hannah Marsland at the recently refurbished YHA Tintagel, on Cornwall’s north coast.
What was the experience like?
Surprising, inspiring and really rewarding! This was my first time as a Volunteer Manager and it more than surpassed my expectations. It’s a hostel for adventurers and we met so many different people, from first-time hostellers delighted by their discovery to veteran explorers of the South West Coast Path. Beyond the check-ins, shower cleans, and pride in a job well done, the real pay-off was being a part of people’s journeys, holidays and happy experiences.
What makes it a special hostel?
Location, location, location! The sea view and sunsets have to be seen to be believed and you’re right on the coast path. The proximity to the town is perfect. It feels secluded and quiet at the hostel, yet it’s only a ten minute walk to pubs, cafes and shops. The refurbishment has been cleverly executed too. The main space is a great place to mix and mingle.