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The Rugged Coastline of Cornwall

The Cornwall coastline is one which is very enigmatic of the British landscape. At over 650km (400 miles) long [1], it is characterised by rugged cliffs, scenic coves and the occasional picturesque seaside town or village. The county of Cornwall consists, almost solely, of a peninsula stretching out from south-west England into the Atlantic Ocean.

Unlike many coastal counties in the United Kingdom, it in a sense has ‘two’ coastlines – north and south – with the north side facing south-western Wales, and the south side facing north-western France. However, as both coastlines share very similar characteristics to one another – in terms of geology, landscape, port towns, villages and ancient buildings – both coastlines will be covered as if they are one coastline in this article.

The first thing that people often associate with the Cornish coastline is its distinctively tall and rugged cliffs. In the case of Cornwall, much of the coastline is made up of either hard Devonian slates or Granite intrusions; these hard rocks are very resistant to coastal erosion, allowing the very tall and majestic cliffs to remain in place, rather than being eroded easily. The fact that the rock is so resistant to the waves allows giant headlands, coves and coastal arches to form, and remain in place for many years. There are numerous points along the Cornish coast that host to such formations – for example, both Perranporth Beach [2] and Nanjizal Beach contain natural arches, with the former being a significant tourist attraction.

These are formed by wave action eroding into narrow headlands, slowly producing a natural archway, which are made incrementally larger over the course of thousands upon thousands of years. Eventually, these are eroded; when this happens, the landscape is changed significantly, leading to the formation of a single stack of rock protruding from the waves just off from the shore. A situation like this occurred back in 2014, when the Porthcothan Bay arch formation was eroded. Mourning its loss, local residents were quoted in the Daily Mail, saying that the beach had the appearance of a ‘demolition site’ [3] after the fall. Needless to say, there still remain many iconic cliffs and natural arches, and unlike some other parts of the British coastline, the coast of Cornwall will certainly not be losing its features any time soon.

There are also many small headlands that exist, as well as several larger and more significant ones. Lizard Peninsula Land’s Endand Land’s End are both very large Granite headlands that essentially act as mini-peninsulas, protruding into the Atlantic Ocean. The Lizard Peninsula is part of the ‘Lizard Complex’, which is geologically renown for being a section of the Earth’s oceanic crust and the underlying upper mantle, that has been uplifted to a point along the top of the Earth’s continental crust – this is known as an ‘Ophiolite’, and is a rather rare feature in the United Kingdom. As part of the coastline, this rock is very resistant to sea erosion, hence the reason for this particular mini-peninsula, which in of itself forms the southern-most point of British mainland.

I mentioned early on that Cornwall is almost solely a peninsula. This is because a small fraction of the county belongs to an archipelago – named the Scilly Isles – of five inhabited (145 in total) islands located around 40km (25 miles) off the southwest tip of Cornwall. These are islands formed by a large mass of Granite rock which outcrops above the sea surface here; it is because of the hardness of granite that the islands have remained for so long without being eroded. The coastline here tends to be a lot lower than the cliffs of Cornwall; however, it remains very rugged in places, and is punctuated by small coastal villages, including the largest town on the island, Hugh Town.

An article about the Cornish coastline would be incomplete without any mention of its beaches. Although it is a very rugged coastline, there are some intermittent sandy beaches. At Hale Towans Beach, near Saint Ives, cliffs are absent, with a 5km (3 mile) long sandy beach, and an extensive sand dune system behind the coastline. Similar beaches can be found at Perranporth and Bude, for example.

Since these are quite rare along the Cornwall coast, these are often large tourist attractions, particularly during the summer months. Surfing is also a popular pastime in Cornwall, due to the very high waves which often wash up on the coastline; this is, after all, the Atlantic Ocean. Sandy beaches are ideal for surfing as they are certainly far safer than at a rocky beach!

Some of the tourist attractions along the coast are not solely due to the geological magnificence. For example, people flock to Lizard Point not just for the coastline, but also because it is the most southerly part of the British mainland. Land’s End is also very popular; not only is this the most western tip of mainland Cornwall, but it is often used as a start (or end) point of races or challenges across the United Kingdom, which often finish (or start) in John O’Groats, in north-eastern Scotland.

There are also significant buildings along this coastline; Tintagel Castle, near,  Camelford a ruined castle nestled on top of the cliffs, with the ruins blending in with the landscape in harmonious fashion. According to the legend, this serves as the birthplace of King Arthur [4]. Saint Michael’s Mount is a medieval church and castle along the coastline of southern Cornwall, and therefore also serves as another popular tourist destination [5]. It therefore comes as no surprise that it is a great tourist destination, both within the United Kingdom and internationally, with tourists visiting from other parts of Europe, and even as far as the United States.

The various picturesque seaside towns and villages found along the Cornish coast also contribute to its charm and distinctiveness. Of the various towns, St. Ives is a particular highlight – this is a quaint small Cornish seaside town which looks like it is straight from a postcard. Amongst many other places, Mevagissey is renowned for its Pilchard industry, and boats a working harbour even to this day; it is characterised by its cob-and-slate buildings that are synonymous with Cornwall [6]. Other significant port towns and villages include Falmouth, Penzance, Newquay and Padstow.


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