The north Cornish village of Watergate Bay, a few scattered cafés and guest houses in a steep treeless valley, is not a pretty sight. The beach is obscured by a line of roofs. The main feature of the village is a large car park. The approach to the beach is down a narrow, high-sided tarmac path, with the aspect and charm of an urban underpass. But all that is forgotten with the sudden appearance of the bay — miles of camel-coloured sand, knuckles of high cliff and, with its ceaseless come-hither sound, the distant white line of surf.
Obsessively, slowly, and about 20 years too late, I have been learning to surf. All winter I was practising my ‘pop’ on the study floor, thumbing through high-gloss surf mags (with names like Carve and Wavelength) and pretending that that kid tucking into a tube somewhere near Honolulu could soon be me. From the altogether milder, surfless southern Cornish coast where I live, I can reach the surf school at Watergate Bay in under an hour (01637 860543; www.watergatebay-hotel.co.uk). Amidst the cafés and beach shops is the wonderfully named Extreme Academy (‘The Extreme Academy is not a thing, or a product to buy, or a place to sit, or even something to learn …it’s a way of life.’) And if you should think surfing itself in any way qualifies as extreme, the Extreme Academy soon puts you right — to be truly extreme you must be kitesurfing, traction kiting, kite buggying, wave skiing, mountain boarding….
Now Jamie Oliver has brought his own brand of extreme dining to Watergate Bay. A couple of weeks ago, he opened Fifteen Cornwall (01637 861000; www.fifteencornwall.co.uk), only the second UK branch of his mission restaurants. With a grandstand view of the beach, the restaurant has clean lines and simple colours — with a dash of fuchsia-pink in its details. The room is large and airy, full of light and energy and a pleasing light drift of beach-sand on the floor. Everything is suffused with a slightly self-conscious, can-do vitality but the food is excellent (Italian provincial meets Cornish rustic). Ingredients are Cornish (Cornish mussels, Cornish crab, Cornish lamb, even Cornish tea grown at Tregothnan). The cooks are equally home-grown, young trainees from Redruth and Carbis Bay and St Austell. While there are one or two teething problems, they are very minor, and you can’t help hoping it will be a huge success.
Fifteen Cornwall is this year’s innovation. Almost every year now, some glamorous new attraction appears to set us locals scratching our heads with the excitement of it all. First there was Tate St Ives (www.tate.org.uk), then Heligan (www.heligan.com) and the Eden Project (www.edenproject.com) and the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (www.nmmc.co.uk). Olga Polizzi’s Hotel Tresanton has spawned a number of imitators but remains the benchmark for cool, understated style. Earlier this year she opened Endsleigh (not strictly Cornwall but only a few hundred yards from the border). The same delightfully unfussy atmosphere has been achieved amidst grounds of towering trees and river views — a perfect contrast to the windy pleasures of the coast. On the Lizard, the ancient estate of Trelowarren is bringing itself up to date with a series of very luxurious eco-friendly holiday properties.
But a decent restaurant here, a good hotel there do not explain Cornwall’s renewed appeal. Nor does it do anything to alter the duchy’s timeless, rough-edged, egalitarian charm. And perhaps that’s the secret. You can fly south to a gated resort on the Mediterranean, where the weather and food are more consistent, the architecture is more exotic and the water is warmer. It might even be cheaper and quicker to reach. But when they fall in your favour, the unpredictable elements in Cornwall give it the edge over almost anywhere. Choose a good day in June. Take a picnic along the coast above Bedruthan Steps, or west from Lamorna Cove or out to Nare Head or south of Mullion. Settle back in a spongy, clifftop hollow, amongst the bladder campion and thrift, and spend an afternoon in idle contemplation of the fulmars and gulls, the occasional flash of a gannet, and the limitless blue of the sea. And if that’s not enough, there’s always kitesurfing.