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Beyond hell's cliff lies a cove of pure clean sand

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 22, 2012

A spring tide rolls up Church Cove close to St Winwaloe's and, in the background, pounds the Halzephron cliffs. Right, the sands of Church Cove on a calmer day and, below, the church of St Winwaloe

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There's something about the Lizard's west coast that has a brooding, almost menacing, feel to it even on a calm day. But in winter this is a place of maelstrom, noise and spume-flecked peril.

From Porthleven, at the base of the peninsula, south to Lizard Point itself – the wide sweeping beaches and tiny intimate coves share this sense of threat and foreboding – which is what makes them so wonderfully alluring for those of us who like our littorals to be windswept and wild.

Tame shores are for places like the Mediterranean. Windswept and wild is what the Westcountry, and Cornwall in particular, does best.

When there's a big gale blowing in from the Atlantic, the Lizard's west coast wears its true colours. Mountainous waves beat against the serpentine rock and even the cosiest of coves becomes the saltwater version of the Hadron Collider. You can almost feel the saline molecules being ground into one another and the sea seethes and rages.

At the northern end this peninsula coast begins with the great long sweep of Porthleven Sands, but eventually cliffs intrude and the sands are terminated at Gunwalloe. That, in itself, is a fascinating place in which to dawdle in lesser-known-seaside-mode – but today we continue south, past Halzephron Cove, around a gnarled point of rock called Pedngwinian and into Church Cove.

By the way, the name Halzephron backs what I've been saying abut the wildness of this coast – the prefix comes from the Cornish "als" – or Hell ("ephron" comes from the Cornish "yfarn" for cliff). And hell it is – or would be if you happened to be swashing about the base of the cliff in a storm. Many ships have come to grizzly ends below Halzephron Cliff.

But anyway, we're concentrating on Church Cove which, I'll grant you, is not the most secret of seasides we've visited in this series. Having said that you'll rarely see anyone on its pure clean sands at this time of the year and it is remote to everywhere but the villages of the Lizard.

It does, though – above all else – have that extra special sense of place that all the very best beaches can boast.

First and foremost there's the temple which gives the bay its name. Imagine a church made of wine. Yes, I know – the concept might be a difficult one to grasp, but I have come across the phenomenon a couple of times over the years.

For a start, there was a legend surrounding a tiny church built at the end of a precipitous and rocky peninsula close to where I used to live in a far-flung corner of Greece. The story was that a rich wine merchant was caught in a storm off the cape in a ship carrying a large quantity of his merchandise. He, like so many sailors down the centuries, dropped to his knees and begged God for deliverance – promising to build a church on the rocky promontory that was at that moment threatening his life, should he be saved.

Of course, saved he was – and so grateful was the merchant that he insisted that wine rather than water was to be used when mixing mortar for the church.

St Winwaloe's in Church Cove has a similar yarn, although I can find no direct reference as to who exactly mixed mortar with wine – or anything else regarding a miraculous rescue.

What I do know is that the place is dedicated to the Breton saint Winwaloe, the first abbot of Landevennec – and that it was originally a chapelry of Breage when first recorded in 1332.

There's also talk that a holy well was once sited near the porch – and, according to the Cornwall Historic Church Trust it is the only Christian temple in the county to be actually sited on a beach. Indeed, at high tide it is probably closer to the sea than any other church in the region.

When there's a blow from the west, spray must beat against its ancient door, which is situated just a few feet above and beyond the sandy acres of the horseshoe-shaped bay. Goodness knows what global warming and rising sea levels will mean for the place.

One of the oddest things about St Winwaloe is that its small tower is completely separate from the main building, being set snug against the steep inner bank of the headland.

It is an incredibly romantic place – if you were to shoot a movie about swashbuckling smugglers of yore, you could easily use the church as a location. The sense of romance is somewhat underlined by the wedding confetti which blows about in the wind near the gate – certainly it would seem to be a suitably enigmatic setting in which to get hitched.

The land around the cove is owned by the National Trust, which has been doing a fine job of preserving the area and allowing it to regain that special atmosphere. Apparently this wasn't always the case – until not too long ago cars were allowed down onto the beach, which would definitely have spoiled its unique ambience.

When Church Cove used to become one giant car park in summer it wasn't only the atmosphere that suffered – the vehicles were having a ruinous effect on the fragile environment. Now cars have been prevented from driving down and marram grass has been planted to stabilise the small area of low dunes.

As I say, no one knows if the story about a stricken sailor building the church is true – but certainly some very wealthy merchants did come a little too close to Church Cove for comfort down the centuries.

It is a fact that the King of Portugal's treasure ship – the St Anthony – went down near here in 1527 and that an unidentified Spanish ship reputed to have been full of gold was wrecked just north of the church in the 1780s.

Legends of gold, silver and grateful sailors have been associated with the location ever since – but then, it's that sort of place.

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