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  • rshill1973

Winter in Cornwall - part 1

At the start of the year, we spent two weeks in Cornwall, staying at what is probably our favourite place in the world - Marazion.

For those who don’t know, Marazion ( is a tiny town right in the south-west corner of Cornwall, just a couple of miles from Penzance. It’s most famous as the location for St Michael’s Mount, an island which sits a few hundred yards off the beach. This beach is huge, and looking west towards Penzance, it sweeps away from you like the curve of a giant claw.

We first stayed in Marazion in 2006, after which followed an extended absence of many years. But over the last few years we’ve been regular visitors. We’ve never had a bad holiday down there, even when the weather has been less than favourable.

At high tide St Michael’s Mount ( is only accessible by boat. This small, conical island is crowned by a mish-mash of buildings from different centuries. The oldest parts of the church and castle date back to the 12th century. When high tide coincides with sunset or sunrise, the view out from the beach can be breathtaking. The mount stands in magnificent isolation, surrounded by the ever-shifting sea, framed by the pencil line of a barely discernible horizon.

At low tide you can walk over to the island on a twisting brick causeway. Closer to the town’s tiny harbour, the ebbing sea causes rock pools to emerge, Oystercatchers brave the crowds to feed, and scavenging gulls patrol the car parks.

Unsurprisingly, this is a favoured spot for tourists, photographers, dog walkers….lots of people really. We usually avoid the frenetic, claustrophobic heights of summer, preferring to visit in the spring or autumn. But this year was our first winter visit. And to our delight, the town was suffused with an emptiness which to us at least, was serene.

Tucked away at the eastern end of town is another beach. Even at low tide it’s only accessible from the main beach if you scramble across some large rocks that are slippery underfoot with green algae. This small beach is actually best reached from a steep flight of steps at the end of a narrow street. You can only walk along the beach and back again – there’s no pleasant circular walk with a cosy pub at the end. Perhaps for these reasons this beach is usually empty, or at most has a handful of dog walkers striding across its sands.

It was this beach that was my [very] local patch during our stay. I’d been looking forward to seeing a range of birds that I hadn’t seen here before (having previously visited at the wrong time of year). Many wintering species take advantage of the relative warmth and shelter of Mounts Bay.

The first weekend was dominated by divers. I saw all three species – Great Northern, Red-throated, and Black-throated. Being the scarcest of the three species, and very rare anywhere inland, Black-throated Diver in particular was really nice to see. Numbers of all three species were highest in the roughest weather, when blustery south-west winds delivered some very heavy rain. As the weeks progressed, and the weather became dry, sunny, and virtually Spring-like, the divers retreated further offshore.

Luckily there were always several Great Northern Divers to see, and these birds were often rather close to shore. Great Northern Divers are handsome birds, large and sleek. The angular face, thick bill, and red eye, which is crimson even in deepest winter, gives them a confident look. When they dive, they cleave the water with minimal effort. They can stay underwater for up to 3 minutes, which seems an eternity when you’re scanning the water. Despite this, they usually pop back up again in roughly the same area that they dived. Vertical progression, rather than horizontal.

Other birds on the waves included more common fare, such as Shags and Cormorants, gulls of various species, and the odd Fulmar. There were also plenty of Gannets, more common than divers, equally remarkable to look at. They have such a distinctive, angular profile in flight, their bodies looking front-loaded, the impossibly slender wings beating relatively quickly for such a big bird. In motion, I always think they’re working harder than they probably are. When gliding though, they are masters of the air, using whatever winds there are to bear them aloft, banking and turning on a 6ft wingspan.

Black-headed Gulls

For two or three days there was obviously a substantial shoal of fish in the bay, less than a mile offshore. For two consecutive nights, a couple of fishing boats came out to harvest the shoal. We tracked their lights across the water as they set off from nearby Newlyn. So close were the boats, that I was able to look at them through the scope from the cottage window. The boats tilted to one size as the weighty nets were hauled in, the bustle of activity on deck, and, seething around the decks, the frantic flapping of hundreds of gulls, looking like tiny feverish ghosts in the darkness.

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