Loe Bar in February

In winter, it’s as if everything is waiting. And, of course, it is. Waiting for spring. February is still winter, but trees already have buds ready to unfurl, early birds are beginning to pair off, on milder days overwintering butterflies and bumblebees make brief appearances to find food, and rosettes of plant leaves are beginning to unfurl from the earth. Spring is just round the corner.

One of the places I love to visit in the winter is Loe Pool and Loe Bar, near Porthleven. When I first came to Cornwall this sandbar, separating the waters of Loe Pool from the sea, was just down the road from me, and I’d be there at least once a fortnight. In my view, it’s best approached by parking at the National Trust’s Penrose Estate and walking down along the woodland path above the waters of Loe Pool. That way, your first sight of Loe Bar is from above, glimpsing hints of it through trees before the roar of waves announces your arrival at the seashore.

Loe Pool and Loe Bar
Loe Pool and Loe Bar

A walk along the bar is strange in winter. It’s wide enough that, if you walk along the middle, you can’t see both sea and lake at the same time, and with very few people about it feels as if you are on your own betwixt and between two landscapes, but belonging to neither. Occasionally a lone soul will be fishing at the edge of the sea, long poles poised skyward, sitting patiently. Move to the lakeside and there will be swans or mallards floating quietly on the water, against a background of bare trees on the far shore. Stand on the crest of the bar, however, and you’re nowhere, neither land nor sea, and, apart from the cold wind, it could be any season, winter or spring.

At other times of the year it feels different. Still beautiful, but also more immediate and lively, with children playing, walkers and their dogs, tourists and locals alike enjoying the warmth of the sand and sun. In summer, the woodland path down to the Bar is populated by joggers and cyclists (I used to jog there myself when I lived closer). I’ve met and chatted to loads of people as I’ve explored the Loe and Loe Bar, through rain and shine. It’s clear that a lot of people, like me, are very attached to this spot.

5/3/11 Loe Bar
Sea fishing from Loe Bar

And yet, it still feels like my spot, my first haunt in Cornwall and the one I keep coming back to. The house I lived in then that first winter, just outside of Helston, overlooks the Cober Valley. The view was wonderful. One of my first mornings there I spotted a pair of swans flying eastwards, heading towards Helston’s boating lake. That evening, back they flew again, seeking the west and the quieter waters of Loe Pool. And that’s what those swans did, every day. I used to watch out for them, and worry if I missed seeing them fly by. The image of the two swans has become something of a symbol for me of my earliest months in Cornwall. The small repetition of their daily flight, day in, day out, was mysterious, even mystical to my city-attuned eyes, but with familiarity became something comfortable and welcoming. I hope they’re still making the daily commute.

5/3/11 Loe Bar


The joys of an out-of-season beach café

One of my favourite things to do, whenever and wherever I am, is to sit and watch. Rather than seeking out the world, I like to let the world seek out me, or let it pass on by. One of my favourite places to do this is at a beach café. It doesn’t even need to be summer – indeed, preferably it’s one of the cooler, less populated seasons.

Maernporth Beach

I like to write down my observations when I’m out and about, doing my sitting and watching. I was going through my notebook recently, and came across some scribbles from a visit to Maenporth Beach. I’d even drawn a couple of sketches and, together with the words, I was reminded vividly of a lovely couple of hours I’d spent there last year.

Maenporth Beach nestles close to Falmouth on Cornwall’s south coast. Read the publicity material, and you will find that it is sandy, offering sunbathing, rock pooling and boating trips. There are views across the broad sweep of Falmouth Bay. There is, of course, also a beach café. Busy as hell in the summer, I was however there in early April, with no sign of sunbathers or rock-poolers.

After parking right next to the beach, I sniffed expectantly, but for some reason there was no strong smell of salt or seaweed. There was hardly any breeze, either – maybe the lack of sea-scent was linked to this – and I was doubly disappointed. Feeling cooped up back at home, I had left the house and my desk in search of a bit of bracing air and shoreline smells.

Ah well, there was still the café, with its quirky name: Life’s a Beach. As I approached, heart and taste buds set on a cappuccino, I noticed a black-and-white sheepdog sitting outside, proudly wearing a luminous yellow dog-coat. The dog did not register my presence at all. Its eyes were resolutely fixed on a grizzled man in waterproofs (definitely a local, you could tell not just by the accent, but also the look and self-confidence) standing chatting to a couple of visitors. Standing waiting to be served by the young man behind the bar, I saw the reason for the dog’s unwavering gaze: the dirty tennis ball clamped in its mouth. Please throw my ball, please throw my ball – I could almost read the dog’s thoughts.

Shells on Maernporth Beach

Cappuccino successfully bought, I perched at a table outside. The tide was out, and the sand glistened in the bleak sunlight. Ripples and rivulets meandered across the beach, capturing sparkles and forming patterns of incredible intricacy, temporary details to be lost with the water’s return. The sky was a fresh blue but somehow the beach beneath was grey and beige, and the sea beyond was dark. Now at last I began to smell and taste the sea as salt on my lips and sour seaweed scents mingled with the smoky flavour of the cappuccino. Distant gulls bobbing on the water were silent, but behind me in shrubs I could hear small birds singing – a robin, a blackbird, perhaps a wren. Beneath everything there was the muffled rush of the waves, breaking up into smaller cadences, crescendos and decrescendos.

Two horses and their riders – one older lady, one younger – burst on to the scene, trotting up and down at the tide’s edge, waves lapping at hooves, until they disappeared just as suddenly. A few minutes later and they were back, this time the horses being led without saddles. The riding ladies let the horses loose, and I watched amused as the animals, rather than charging away, rolled and rolled in the sand, all legs and hooves thrashing in uncoordinated abandon.

It was almost time to leave. I had come with no mind or need for company. I wanted to sit and reflect and be ‘in the now’. But company I got. The luminous sheep dog gave up on the waterproof man and joined me instead. Now I could see the black writing on the yellow dog-jacket: Beach Dog. Well, there’s an occupation that must be fun for your average canine. Being a sucker for a pair of soft brown eyes, I threw the tennis ball several times, grimacing slightly at the saliva-fuzzy feel.

As I left, returning to my car and the journey home, I could feel the dog’s entreating eyes boring into my back. Please throw my ball. Don’t worry, friend, I thought. This is a place where every visitor has time to throw balls for endearing sheepdogs.

Maernporth cafe sign