Stranded By-the- wind SailorDuring the depths winter, on cold & stormy days, one of things we like to do to blow away the cobwebs is to spend an hour or so walking along the beach at nearby Praa Sands. Praa Sands is situated on the south coast of West Cornwall, 5.5 km east of Marazion, it’s beautiful golden sand running for a mile along the rim of Mounts Bay. Very popular with holiday makers in the summer, the wide open spaces are much quieter during the winter.

 The pay & display car park at the western end of the beach, (one of two - be careful here the wheel clampers are always out in force), is bounded by a row of numerous large white cylindrical rock like structures.

Peat beds at Praa SandsThese are actually the remains of a cargo of cement washed ashore at Praa Sands in the mid 1950’s. The wooden barrels containing the cement were probably from the cargo of the Yewcroft wrecked off Cudden Point. Once they were plunged into the sea the barrels of cement became wet, hardening ashore they were subsequently stripped of their timber and put to use around the village.

Dropping down the slipway onto the beach and heading east along the shore you will soon become aware of a lengthy strip of what appears to be blackened sand which runs along the edge of the dunes as they drop away to the edge of the beach. For many years, having never paid to much attention to this 250 metre long feature, I had always assumed that it was the result of a major oil spill like that of the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967 which had such an enormous impact on the Cornish coastline.By-the-wind Sailor - Velella velella

However a closer examination will reveal that this black platform consists of layered fibrous material and is actually a 1,300 year old peat bed containing pollen evidence of a forest which once covered Mount’s Bay. Water still seeps out from the base of the dunes running across this unique feature of the beach and the winter storms which re-profile the sands on such a regular basis often give a more extensive view of the dark brown peat.

It is always worth carefully looking at the strandline of the seashore here as it will often reward the observer with the unexpected. Recently we came across the curious By-the-wind Sailor – Velella velella, 35mm long & 15mm wide with a 10mm high sail running diagonally along the length of it’s body and looking more like the shed skin of a man’s thumb print. The living creature actually looks a bit like a mini jelly fish and what we had found was just the empty husk of it’s body minus the trailing tentacles. However rather than being Jelly fish World War II pill boxBy-the-Wind sailors are actually tiny animals called hydroids that live in large colonies with each individual performing a different function.  Some individuals provide the float, some the tentacles to catch food, others the means to digestive the food.

When it is alive the inflated By-the-wind Sailor has a blue tinge and floats on the surface of the sea with it’s sail propelling it to wherever the wind may take it. Apparently the sail is twisted either to the left or right from birth and those which turn up on the north Cornish coast seem to be twisted to the left! (Do those stranded along the south Cornish coast swing the other way?!). Occasionally thousands are stranded on our shores together forming dense blankets.

Towards the eastern end of the beach the dunes give way to low cliffs that are being rapidly eroded due to their composition of earth & scattered rock sediment known as Periglacial Head, formed during the last Ice Age. The World War II pillbox that sat on theBlack Redstart cliff tops as recently as the late 1970’s now nestles in the shifting sands of the beach having survived the drop intact. Look carefully along the top edge of these vulnerable cliffs and even in winter you can see the holes where Sand Martins have nested during the summer months. Last winter saw a pair of Black Redstarts join the local Rock Pipits in taking up temporary residence here, making short flights off the cliff down on to the sand in search of food.

At the far eastern end of the beach granite cliffs rise up from the sea to form a towering headland known as Rinsey Head. Sitting right out on the end of this promontory is a large imposing house with fantastic views across the whole of Mounts Bay. Built during the depression of the late 1920s & early 1930s as a holiday home for the Gibbs family who were wealthy bankers & industrialists, the project was largely conceived as way of providing work for unemployed miners. It is said that many workers made the daily 24 mile round trip from the mining heartland of Camborne-Redruth on foot.

Rinsey Head Much of the granite for the construction was taken from the original Wheal Rinsey engine house which had been demolished, and some small scale quarrying from the cliffs themselves. Building commenced in 1929 and was completed by 1933. In 1987 the property was offered for sale at £165,000, before coming back onto the market again in 1994 at £350,000. Fifteen years on and I guess the price would have tripled at least, even in the current recession.

Praa Sands is just off the A394 Penzance to Helston road with pay & display car parking available at SW575282 & SW576281 at the Sydney Cove end of the beach. Public toilets are available in the more western of the two car parks. The area of beach available for walking may be very much reduced during extreme high tides.


A foamy tidal edge

Rinsey Head looking across Lesceave rocks

Nice place for a house!

Evening light at Rinsey Head

The pill box survived the drop from the cliffs intact

Not an oiled beach, just the exposed peat deposits at Praa Sands!

The peat layer at the base of the dunes

Close up of the peat deposits

Sand levels fall & rise during the winter months

Lesceave rocks

By-the-wind sailor


By-the-wind Sailor

Rock star in the making, before fame found it's way to his doorstep