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

Basking Sharks

Ever since moving to Cornwall, I’ve been itching to see a Basking Shark. I even fell over and hurt myself on the coast path once because I was concentrating more on hopefully gazing out to sea than on where my feet were going. Basking Sharks are in My Cornish Ark (see my earlier post), and deservedly so for such an amazing big fish.

basking sharks at porthcurno
Basking Sharks at Porthcurno (Photo: Candiche)

And now, at long last, I’ve seen one! And not from the top of the cliff, but from a boat, really close. I was with a group of students from Exeter University’s Cornwall Campus – they’d been working on an end-of-term project considering the challenges in balancing growth and conservation – and we were all really excited, as none of us had seen one of these magnificent creatures ‘in the flesh’ before. At one point the shark was swimming slowly towards us giving us a clear view of its wide-open plankton-filtering mouth. Incredible!

A basking shark filter feeding.
A Basking Shark filter feeding (photo: Wikipedia)

Basking Sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) are the largest fish in the seas round our coastline, visiting us in spring and summer, and can reach up to 12 m in length. They might be big, but they are harmless, feeding as they do on plankton. They are also still somewhat mysterious, and we are only just beginning to understand their life history better. A protected species since the late 1990s, this would appear to have resulted in an increase in numbers compared to when they were hunted commercially for meat and oil in the twentieth century. Recent research confirms this, highlighting the seas of the South West coast of Britain as one of three Basking Shark ‘hotspots’.

Taking a wildlife boat trip out of either Penzance or Falmouth will give you a reasonable chance of seeing one at the right time of year. I took my trip with AK Wildlife Cruises from Falmouth Docks – you can follow them on Facebook for lots of information on sightings and comments from the knowledgeable team.

You can find out more about Basking Shark biology and conservation from The Shark Trust or the Marine Conservation Society. But do get on a boat and go looking!