What attracts visitors to this dangerous stretch of coastline?
One reason is sheer visual drama. Look down on the five massive rocks lining the bay. At high tide you can watch thundering Atlantic waves pounding and shaping them in front of your eyes.
At low tide meanwhile you can see just how big these rocks are, as the tiny figures of people explore the beaches below.
The rocks are known as the Bedruthan Steps. The name once referred to a path down the cliff but transferred over time to include the rocks themselves.
Look closely at the rocks and you can make out horizontal bands. This is slate, which forms in layers like sheets of paper. These layers are densely packed so they break down slowly. The waves that batter the cliffs wear away the softer rocks first, leaving the slate standing in arresting gnarled stacks.
This dramatic scenery inspired a dramatic story. A legend developed that the stacks were stepping stones used by the devil or a Cornish giant called Bedruthan. This myth was encouraged to attract tourists but the first visitors explored here for less romantic reasons. The stacks are nine miles from Newquay; when Newquay became a resort town, early holidaymakers travelling to and fro stopped here to rest their horses.
Today most people visit the stacks by car. The rocks have changed too. The smallest, pointiest stack is called Queen Bess Rock as it is said to look like Queen Elizabeth I. If this isn’t immediately obvious don’t worry – the likeness has faded as the rock has eroded. In fact the Queen has lost her head!
Visitors come here for the mix of danger, intrigue and mythology. These all result from both physical and cultural processes. So though we're at the same spot as the first tourists, we are not seeing the same view.
Tiny figures dwarfed by the rocks © Rory Walsh RGS-IBG Discovering Britain
Queen Bess Rock in 1935 © Reverend E V Tanner, Geograph (CCL)
Profit and loss
While danger attracts tourists it has very real consequences here. Right of Queen Bess Rock is Samaritan Island, named after a ship that struck it in 1846. Some locals profited from looting shipwrecks, while smugglers probably carved the steps to the beach to take advantage of fast tides and secluded coves.
These cliffs were also mined for metals, including copper and lead. The cliff top café and shop are converted mine buildings; the shop was a ‘count house’, an office where miners were paid.
Subs and bombers
From the shop and café you may be able to spot a set of masts. These are the transmitters of an old RAF station, St Eval. It was built at the outbreak of the Second World War to observe submarines and planes in the Atlantic.
In the 1930s the writer DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda lived nearby at Porthcowan Bay. During the War they moved out of their seafront cottage, under suspicions that Frieda was sending signals to German submarines.
Frieda Lawrence, 1901
Wikimedia Commons (CCL)