Poldhu Cove

Poldhu Cove is a small cove with golden sand, situated between Mullion and Gunwalloe on the west coast of The Lizard Peninsula. The cove has a relaxed but intimate atmosphere, and in summer its sandy beach is popular with surfers, swimmers and sandcastle builders and for those wanting to explore rock pools and caves at low tide. In winter it is a popular venue for locals and visitors who, with or without their dogs, want to take a bracing walk in the sunshine or experience the magnificent waves on a stormy day. Whatever the time of year a beachside café provides a range of snacks and drinks. 

The Marconi Centre

The cove has plenty of other things to see and do: a popular surf school operates from the beach in summertime, whilst the sand dunes, reed beds and stream are important wildlife habitats all year round and attract a range of wildlife. The Marconi Centre, built near the site of the Poldhu Wireless Station at nearby Angrouse Cliffs, celebrates the achievements of communications pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. History was made here in 1901 when Marconi’s engineers transmitted the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal. For more information and opening times: http://www.marconi-centre-poldhu.org.uk/

Photo: The Marconi Centre at Poldhu ©National Trust Images/David Sellman

Facilities

  • Car parking:a large council-run car park is open all year round. It is Pay and Display Monday to Sunday, 9am–5pm from 1stApril –31st October. Free at other times.
  • RNLI lifeguards: from mid-May until late September, 10am–6pm daily. For exact dates please visit the RNLI website.
  • Bus service: the 34 service runs between Redruth and Lizard Village. For all stops and times: https://bustimes.org/services/34-pool-college-redruth-helston 
  • Public toilets:only open during the summer season.
  • Dogs: dogs are not allowed on the beach 10am to 6pm from 1stJuly to 31stAugust; they are very welcome at all other times and on surrounding footpaths at any time of year. Please remember to scoop that poop.  For more info click here.
  • Café:Poldhu Beach Café is open all year except Christmas Day and Flora Day (8thMay) for snacks and hot and cold drinks, to eat in or take-away. 
  • Activities: Swimming, surfing and paddling (please take notice of Lifeguards’ flags), beach games, walking, birdwatching, painting, sketching and fishing. 
  • Dan Joel Surf School is located by the café and open throughout summer (must be over 8yrs and swim 50m). All equipment provided. Contact 07974 941 575 or http://www.danjoelsurf.com/
  • Mullion Golf Club, the scenic and most southerly golf club in the UK is just under 1km away. Open for members and visitors. For more information and booking: https://www.mulliongolfclub.co.uk
  • For those wishing to spend a few hours walking from Poldhu Cove follow the South West Coast Path (SWCP) north from the cove towards Gunwalloe Church Cove, or south towards Mullion Cove. For more information: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/gunwalloeandhttps://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mullion-cove
  • Don’t forget to take all your rubbish home with you and recycle what you can.
Sea kayaking during the South West Outdoor Festival at Poldhu Cove ©National Trust Images -John Millar

Poldhu Cove cliffs

The cliffs on the northern side of Poldhu are comprised of Devonian slate, whilst on the southern side there are areas of paler sandstones, soft enough for the nests of migrating sand martins. About 380 million years ago, sediments eroded by seas and rivers formed the bed of a deep ocean between super-continents. Over time these muds were compressed into slates and sandstones and then gradually pushed up to the surface as the land masses began to fragment, relocate and collide to form the continents we know today. For further information: http://www.the-lizard.org/index.php/lizard-geology

Photo: Poldhu Cove cliffs on the northern side are Devonian slate ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The cove at Poldhu has been formed over many millennia by the sea washing away the sandstones and splitting the slates along fault lines. The weather has also played its part—the wind blowing the resulting sand inland to form dunes and, as sea levels have risen, these have been pushed further inland blocking water courses and leading to the formation of marshes and reed beds.  

The dune is characteristic of a bay dune, formed from sand trapped by the prevailing winds in the shelter of rocky headlands. The reed bed, along with the larger bed at nearby Gunwalloe, is an important wildlife habitat.   

©National Trust Images - David Sellman

Wildlife

Poldhu Cove is made up of a number of habitats—clifftops, rock pools, sand dunes and reed beds, each supporting a wealth of wildlife in all seasons. These environments have been shaped by The Lizard’s complex geology and its climate, which is generally wetter and warmer in winter than the rest of the UK. The proximity of the sea and exposure to the south westerly storms in autumn and winter cause many plant species to be low-growing or hairy, especially on clifftops.

Flora

In spring clifftops and walls are awash with colour—the pink of Thrift, the yellow of Kidney Vetch and the white of Bladder campion. In the short cliff-top grass the pastel blue of Spring Squill shows, along with the yellow and faint red flowers of Bird’s-foot Trefoil and the secretive beauty of Tormentil’s delicate yellow flowers. The delightfully named grasses Red Fescue, Cock’s foot and Yorkshire Fog thrive hereabouts. Alexanders grow in the hedges along with Gorse, Burnet Rose and Tamarisk trees, with wild carrot flowers abundant in summer. In areas of shallow soil look out for the tiny succulent English Stonecrop, and on the hedges bordering the road Valerian flowers, some deep pink and others white. 

 

Photos: left - Spring Squill, below left - A hoverfly feeding on Alexanders, below right - Kidney Vetch and Thrift

Vegetation at beach level includes Sea Beet, Sea Sandwort, Sea Holly and Scurvygrass, and in the crevices of the cliff face salt-tolerant plants such as Rock Samphire and Thrift. Also found here above the high tide line is Sea Knotgrass, a native perennial species found in coastal regions but very rare in Britain and classed as endangered. From June to October the pinkish-white flowers form clusters at the base of the leaves, which are grey-green and leathery with down-turning edges. 

Image: Sea Knotgrass. Caption: Sea Knotgrass; by Jean.claude, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons 

The stream and its damp margins provide the perfect growing conditions for Water-cress and Silverweed, along with the very poisonous Hemlock Water-dropwort. 

The foredune is dominated by clumps of Marram grass, essential for the stabilisation of the sand, but there are also more colourful plants such as the yellow-flowered Sea Mayweed, and Sea Bindweed with its fleshy leaves and pink flowers trailing over the sand. Further back grasses such as Red Fescue begin to take a hold, along with Ribwort Plantain, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Ragwort. Areas of the ever-present Bramble and Blackthorn, although not very attractive except whilst flowering in spring, provide valuable cover for nesting birds, reptiles and animals as well as sustenance for the larvae of a number of butterfly and moth species. The reed bed is dominated by the common reed, Phragmites australis

Photo: Sand dunes at Poldhu ©National Trust Images/David Sellman

Find out more information about many of these plants at: http://the-lizard.org/index.php/article-archives/florasp and http://www.seasonalwildflowers.com/sea-knotgrass.html

Fauna

The reed beds at Poldhu and Gunwalloe Church Cove are important habitats for birds. A number of species of warblers are thought to breed here—look out for the Reed and Sedge Warbler as well as the rarer Cetti’s warbler. Other small birds that visit include the Rock and Meadow Pipit and Pied Wagtails. You may be lucky to spot the shy Water Rail stepping primly amongst the reeds. In summer Sand Martins nest in the soft sandstone cliffs at Poldhu  and, along with Swallows, are often seen hawking over the reed beds for airborne invertebrates, as are bats at twilight. On late afternoons in winter, murmurations of Starlings are well worth waiting to see. The Kestrel is another frequent visitor and you may see the iconic Cornish Chough foraging for invertebrates.  

Image:  Swallows © Richard Birchett

The stream and reed beds attract dragonflies and damselflies, as well as amphibians, including the common species of toad, frog and newt. You might also see various species of mining bee in the sand dunes. On the clifftops you may see Common Lizards and Adders, as well as wild Rabbits.

A Painted Lady nectaring on Lesser Knapweed

Other invertebrates commonly seen include the Fox Moth, so named because the adult male is a red-brown colour, and the spectacular Cinnabar Moth. Butterflies are more often seen on a warm spring or summer days, when the Painted Lady is a particularly fine summer migrant that favours Poldhu. Find out more information here: https://butterfly-conservation.org/51-1349/fox-moth.html & https://butterfly-conservation.org/679-849/painted-lady.html

History and heritage

The Cornish meaning of Poldhu is ‘black pool’ and there is evidence that humans have lived here and shaped the landscape over many thousands of years. Bronze-age funerary barrows were erected on the headlands and clifftops, and nearby there are farms and estates with names that date back to medieval times, or are recorded in the Doomsday Book. Although fishing may not have been an industry local to Poldhu, communities nearby have historical links to pilchard fishing with seine nets. The west facing coast takes the full force of winter storms that rage across Mount’s Bay, storms that all too often, in the past, wrecked sailing ships along the coast. 

In the very early years of the 20th century, Guglielmo Marconi and his company built a high power radio transmitter on cliffs above the cove. Their aim was to use wireless telegraphy to contact North America, and this was achieved in December 1901 when a Morse code signal was sent from Poldhu Wireless Station and received at St Johns, Newfoundland. Wireless telegraphy, or radio, became not only an important means of communicating between countries but also for ships at sea, leading to improved maritime safety.

The building that housed the wireless station was dismantled in 1937. The land was donated to the National Trust, and today the Marconi Centre, a replica of the original station, celebrates Marconi’s world-changing technological breakthrough. Inside, a short video presentation, interactive displays and information panels tell the story of Marconi and his pioneering engineers. Outside, visitors can see the remains of the transmitter building and the concrete bases of the huge masts that supported the aerial. The centre is staffed by enthusiastic volunteers from the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club. Entry is free but donations are always welcome. For more information and opening times: http://www.marconi-centre-poldhu.org.uk/

National trust images David-s Sellman

Photo: The Marconi Centre at Poldhu ©National Trust Images/David Sellman

Nearby, on the South West Coast Path (SWCP), there is a granite monument erected in 1937 by the Marconi Company that commemorates Marconi and his achievements. ​Coincidentally, around 300 million years ago Britain would have been part of the same land mass as the North Americas. They were finally reunited in 1901 when those ‘dits and dahs’ (dots and dashes) of Morse code travelled the 2100 miles from Poldhu to Newfoundland. 

It is worth noting that during construction of the original station two Bronze Age barrows were levelled and a bronze dagger and urn were recovered. If you take the SWCP north towards Gunwalloe Church Cove you will pass another late Bronze Age site on the opposite headland. This consists of three ‘bowl’ barrows, measuring between 10-13m in diameter and 1m high. A bowl barrow was a common form of round barrow, often constructed in groups and found in prominent positions. Many date from 2400-1500BCE.  

On the headland a short distance from the Marconi Centre stands an imposing white building that used to be The Poldhu Cove Hotel, one of a number established in the area in late Victorian times, when Cornwall and The Lizard Peninsula became increasingly popular with tourists. Marconi and his engineers stayed at the hotel (it’s rumoured Marconi only chose sites for his wireless stations if there was a good hotel nearby) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife took a much needed holiday here in 1910. Such a remarkable location with its ever-changing sea and skyscapes inspired the author to use Poldhu Cove as the atmospheric setting for a Sherlock Holmes story called The Adventure of the Devils’ Foot. When Holmes and Watson visit Poldhu for a recuperative holiday they become involved in a mystery that may or may not have a diabolic source. In the story Doyle uses a cottage that he would have seen across the cove from the hotel as the ‘little whitewashed house’ where Holmes and Watson stay. Today it is a property called ‘Craig-a-Bella’ and is a holiday rental. When Granada Television filmed this story for the popular TV series The Return of Sherlock Holmes they used locations on The Lizard and the Penwith Peninsulas.  The hotel is now a care home. 

Photo: The Marconi monument at Poldhu ©National Trust Images/David Sellman

PS Of interest for lovers of the BBC’s drama series Poldark, a beach at nearby Gunwalloe is used as a dramatic setting for a storyline involving a shipwreck at night. See the Poldhu Walks page for a walk to Gunwalloe that details real shipwrecks that occurred along this stretch of coastline.

Beach

Poldhu’s scenic cove is west-facing and its sandy family-friendly beach is perfect for sunbathing, building sandcastles or playing games. It’s popular for paddling and swimming too and attracts surfers of all ages and abilities. There is a well-respected surf school on-site, and during the summer the added security of patrolling RNLI lifeguards. At low tide the rocks are covered with colourful seaweeds and dotted with barnacles and limpets. There are also rock pools with their little inter-tidal worlds waiting to be discovered; please treat them with respect. The sea creatures you find in rockpools will be small and delicate so must be handled carefully, if at all. It is important to always return them to the same pool as it is their territory, and also, gently, put back any rocks you have taken out as these provide shelter and shade. For more tips click here.

Image: National Trust-images John Mllar

The small dune system at the top of the beach was stabilised and replanted by the National Trust in the 1980s. Marram grass and timber stakes were used to help trap wind-blown sand that in turn encouraged other plants to colonise the dune adding further to its stability. The dune is now a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and provides a habitat for plants such as the rare Sea Knotgrass.

Image: Poldhu cove; view past dune to beach ©National Trust Images - David Sellman

If you look closely you may see aggregations of tiny holes in the soft banked sand made by solitary female mining bees who have excavated cavities in which to lay their eggs. In summer they can be seen going in and out as they collect pollen to feed their young, which benefit from a stable warm temperature under the sand. An often overlooked advantage of the dune is that, on a coast where there are frequent strong winter storms, it provides a natural sea defence for the land beyond the beach. For further information about the dune conservation at Poldhu: http://www.the-lizard.org/index.php/article-archives/conservation-articles/299-sand-dunes-unsung-heroes-of-coastal-defence

The reed bed across the road from the beach is a valuable ecosystem for a range of species, most notably birds, bats and invertebrates. As well as being of value for wildlife it also provides a filtration system for the stream, slowing the water down so that impurities settle before it makes its way across the beach to the sea.

Starling murmuration at Poldhu - Richard Birchett
Image: Starling murmuration at Poldhu_Richard Birchett. Caption: The starling murmuration over Poldhu © Richard Birchett

In summer Swallows may roost in the reed beds and in winter Starlings do likewise, their numbers boosted by winter migrants. The Starling murmurations provide a stunning wildlife spectacle, as they fly in tight formation over the cove and surrounding area before coming in to roost. The Starlings are susceptible to disturbance so are best viewed from a parked car or a vantage point.

The safeguarding of this important beach is undertaken by volunteers from the National Trust and Friends of Poldhu, a local group who also act as dog-rangers and organise regular beach cleaning. For further information: http://www.the-lizard.org/index.php/article-archives/conservation/278-friends-of-poldhu

Walks

Poldhu is an ideal place for walkers. The South West Coast Path (SWCP) passes through the cove and there are public footpaths criss-crossing the area. The coast path northwards goes along the clifftops to Gunwalloe Church Cove. It’s a short walk but packed with historical and wildlife interest and stunning views over Mount’s Bay towards St Michael’s Mount. The path can be slippery when wet but the going is generally easy. For more information about Gunwalloe: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/gunwalloe

Image: Gunwallow Church Cove ©National Trust - Juliet Turner

You can find details of a longer walk here: https://www.iwalkcornwall.co.uk/walk/poldhu_cove_to_cury

This walk includes a wealth of information about many of the interesting sites along the way as well local shipwrecks. 

South from Poldhu the coast path takes you to Polurrian Cove, with its wide sandy beach and interesting geological history. Further on you reach Mullion Cove and its picturesque harbour. For further information:    https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mullion-cove

Silver dollars shipwrecks and scenic views
https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/penrose/trails/silver-dollars-shipwrecks-and-scenic-views-walk

Walking at Penrose
https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/penrose/lists/walking-at-penrose

The picturesque harbour at Mullion Cove ©National Trust Images/John Millar
The picturesque harbour at Mullion Cove ©National Trust Images/John Millar
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