Rugged, rambling, and jutting remotely out into the Atlantic from Britain’s southwest corner, Cornwall is a land on the edge. Its dramatic topography forces most wild inhabitants of the county to exist in similar fashion, living in unpromisingly bleak or weather-beaten surroundings that are often quite literally on the edge: whether of a cliff, quarry, moor, wooded valley or strandline. Fortunately nature does not shy away from extremes and, more importantly, she thrives on contrast. Edge habitats are amongst the most diverse and productive; they teem with life.
On our first evening in the county we attempted to join in with nature-on-the-edge, just for a few minutes, down on the beach at Porthtowan. But the cold, wind, and stinging rain was simply too much for us vulnerable apes, even wrapped up in waterproofs, and we soon fled to the warmth of our rented shelter. Behind our retreating backs fulmars wheeled and soared down the sheer edge of the cliff face whilst rock pipits skipped on the sandy beach amongst stolid unmoving black-backed gulls. Bad conditions don’t make life easy for the birds; nevertheless, they are far better equipped to defy them and carry on with the normal, necessary routines of life.
The next day the rain had blown through, but by way of compensation the wind howled with renewed ferocity. Coachloads of Land’s End-twitching* tourists were being scattered by it, strewn amongst the tat-merchants, cafes and photo-op spots. I steadied my scope and looked away out to sea. Huge breakers were whipping up onto the last rocks in England and pouring off in waterfall torrents, paying no heed to man’s attempts to domesticate what, offshore, is still a wild enough place – where it hasn’t been fished to destruction.
Yet this same wind that had bested man the so called ‘master’ was itself being tamed by birds. Gannets loomed into view first: huge, powerful, stark white against the azure sea, beating a path through the elements by sheer force of their two-metre wings. Employing a different but equally successful tactic, Manx shearwaters tacked with the wind, riding it with exquisite skill and skimming close to the ocean within inches of being taken by the waves.
Though the wind was ostensibly blowing steadily from a fixed compass point, no other coast of Cornwall that day seemed to offer any more shelter from it than did Land’s End. The cliffs east of Porthgwarra – facing south, rather than west – were similarly battered, and the only suitably sheltered picnic spot was already occupied by an alarmingly fearless, sandwich-thieving herring gull. Nor did the north coast prove any calmer: the sand from the beach and dunes at Godrevy was being cast up into a fine stinging spray along with salt from the sea.
As elsewhere, though, we found nature’s vigour unchecked. Bees patiently sat out each gust between snatched opportunities to forage for nectar from the profuse and diverse cliff-top flora. Less patiently, a fledgling rock pipit called persistently for food whilst perched precariously on a ledge. Of course, conditions that we think ‘difficult’ are a daily reality for such creatures as these, those that scratch a living on the edge of land and sea. Starting off with less than perfect weather was a perfect introduction to a week seeking the wild at England’s edge.
*I can’t think of any other reason to go there, apart from to say you have been. Much of the rest of the Cornish coast is at least as dramatic and memorable.
Photos (top to bottom): Cornish coast near Porthgwarra, a foolish birder on the beach, a photo opportunity, the attractive side of Land’s End, a thieving gull, red-tailed bumblebee on stonecrop, sea campion, sea bindweed, sheep’s bit.