Rolling waves, baffling birds and a surfing seal…an afternoon at Polly Joke

DSCF0657_edited-1Just five miles from Newquay. Enjoyed by surfers and dog walkers and those wanting an uncrowded beach walk. Worth a visit. No toilets or cafe. That’s the kind of information you get if you do an internet search for Polly Joke.

To say that this is underestimating the call and stark beauty of this small Cornish beach is itself an understatement. I visited a couple of weeks ago with two good friends, one of whom had been visiting the beach since a child, and the other for many years, whereas for me it was my first time. And yet for each of us there were new things to find, fresh wonders to experience, a sense of apartness from the stresses of everyday life.

Polly Joke
Land around Polly Joke (Photo credit: NickDeluxe)

We parked in the small National Trust car park nearby (turn off the road at the sign for Treago Farm), or you can park at West Pentire, a mile away. The National Trust owns the land around the bay, Cubert Common, which definitely sounds worth a ‘spring flower’ explore. But for now, on a brisk early-year day, you should go through the gate and head down the river valley towards the beach.

Polly Joke is derived from Porth Joke. A Google search turns up that ‘Joke’ either means ‘chough’ or, and perhaps more likely, that the name comes from the old Cornish words for Jackdaw Cove – Pol-Lejouack. We didn’t see either of these corvids – choughs (not likely!) or jackdaws (more possible) – but we saw plenty else.

You do in fact have to look hard. Isn’t it amazing how many creatures have adapted to merge into the background as much as possible. You have to be pretty alert and able to look beyond the “obvious” to see what is really lying there before your eyes. Literally lying there, in the case of one immature seal. Or rock. Until it hmmphed and lifted its back flippers to us. Definitely a seal.

Seal masquerading as a rock (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Seal masquerading as a rock (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

We also had to work hard to spot this bird hacking away at mussels on a rock. None of us being experienced birders, we only sorted later that it was a Turnstone. Can you spot it?

Turnstone attacking mussels (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Turnstone attacking mussels (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

And what about the surfing seal of the title of this post? Ecological ‘received wisdom’ is that animals do nothing energetic that isn’t focussed on survival gain. And yet we do find animals doing things for no obvious reason. For quite a while we watched an adult seal surfing, seeking out the decent waves, riding them into shore, and then repeating the show over and over again. One of us had in fact been there the day before, surfing alongside (probably) the same seal. It was hard to believe the seal was doing this for any reason other than sheer delighted fun.

Kestrel: Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Kestrel: Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

We ourselves had a bit of fun with a kestrel, that swooped over our heads and then hid itself in the cliff side. Poised with cameras, we waited for it to take off again, dreaming of an amazing in-flight shot. Not to be! It took off before we were ready, but we still enjoyed the drama and grace as it soared away. Here’s a rather fuzzy shot of it watching us from the cliffs.

Caves at Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Cave at Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

The beach itself is sandy, full of shells and small stones. Caves beckon, and ripples in the sand lead you on towards the northern Cornish sea.  I studied geology a few years ago, and one of the things I loved best was to find evidence of old beaches in the geological record – shell lines in rock faces, ripples preserved in rocks, cross-bedding reflecting the ebb and flow of tides. DSCF0660_edited-1

Here at Polly Joke those sand ripples are here and now – no different in form from those we can examine in rocks from millennia ago. We cannot escape our connection with the past – we are part of it, and it has structured our very being. Do not ever think we are separate from nature. It was then, it is now, and it is our future. We are as much a part of it as is the seal, the turnstone, the kestrel, the sea and the sand.

At Polly Joke, or Porth Joke, the Bay of the Jackdaw, or wherever, we are called to remember that.