The sustainable regeneration of an iconic seafront brings a cornucopia of experience, community and spirit to the Cornish Riviera.
Words by Hannah Tapping
The stretch of south Cornwall from Gribben Head to Black Head, taking in St Austell Bay and its villages and beaches, has oft been referred to as the ‘Cornish Riviera’. In its heyday during the early 1900s, this area was the summer escape of the well-heeled and became famous as the home of author Daphne Du Maurier. However, it wasn’t famed simply as a seaside destination as nearby St Austell’s China clay deposits were found to be the largest in the world and throughout the 19th century it employed thousands of Cornish men and women. Local landowner Charles Rashleigh, invested in the construction of a safe harbour for ships, as well as houses and factories for the workers, resulting in a population of some 3,000. By 1910, Cornwall was producing nearly 50% of the world’s China clay and the ‘Cornish Alps’ (pyramids created by the mining waste) stood sentinel as a reminder of the area’s industrial heyday.
Fast forward to today, and the majority of the China clay production has moved to Brazil, but its rich history still defines the local landscape in the form of the mining mountains as well as the clay pits that are home to the iconic Eden Project. Charlestown, which forms part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site inscribed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2006, now offers safe harbour to a historic fleet of Tall Ships and is owned by Eden Project co-founder Sir Tim Smit, bringing the area’s economy full circle.
Such was the diversity of St Austell, mining gave way to music and the leisure complex on the beach at Carlyon Bay, known latterly as Cornwall Coliseum, became one of the largest indoor venues of its kind during the 1980s. As a teenager, it was the height of cool to attend a music concert here; Carol Decker’s rendition of China In Your Hand in 1988 caused open-mouthed awe from myself and a gaggle of teenage friends as we attended one of the last major concerts before its demise.
Despite its iconic status as a music venue during this time, the beach itself couldn’t compete with the sailing waters of Falmouth and St Mawes, St Ives’ arty following, Newquay’s hip surf culture or the uber-chic second-home destinations of Padstow, Rock and Polzeath. It felt as if Carlyon Bay and St Austell were the poor, industrial relatives and as such, the area became overlooked and neglected for many years; a destination sought out by neither residents nor visitors. Local’s snobbery in Cornwall can be as tangible as that of its holiday makers and I’m ashamed to write that I was somewhat sceptical at the thought of a visit this summer. With the excitement of that T’Pau concert a faded memory, how would Carlyon stand up against Cornwall’s finest coastal locations?
I’m delighted to say that it's more than holding its own. The Carlyon Beach development is one of Cornwall’s biggest regeneration projects and is in the first phases of transforming a brownfield site into an exceptional coastal experience. Investment company, Commercial Estates Group (CEG) is set to invest £250M to create an unrivalled beachside resort that will put the area firmly on the destination map. CEG’s claims are bold: “Carlyon Beach will be carbon neutral in operation, achieve a 68% reduction in carbon emissions, deliver 200% biodiversity net gains, and be a high-profile example of delivering Cornwall Council’s carbon neutral 2030 objective.” The aim is to attract 223,000 new visitors to St Austell each year who will spend an additional £14.2M in shops and services annually, equating to a spend of £150M in St Austell over the next 10 years. These figures are huge, but if delivered will see the sustainable regeneration of the area back to its former glory, with 500 new homes plus shops, restaurants, cafés and a full range of leisure activities.
For those who have stayed away (myself sadly included) you may not know much about the Carlyon Bay. It actually consists of three beaches; Crinnis with its distinct rocky outcrop; Shorthorn where the Sandy River meets the sea; and the unbroken stretch of sand of Polgaver, home to a nature reserve. Unlike many of Cornwall’s most popular beaches, parking is easy, we find a space just above the slipway to the beach and wander down with beach bags over shoulders. My first impression is of an easy-going Mediterranean vibe, helped by the beautiful weather and the calm sea. I think it’s the nature of the sand and the way the beach ever so gently shelves towards the water that is reminiscent of a Spanish bay. Tarquin’s flags flutter gently on the breeze and all around are picnic tables where couples and families of all ages add to the murmur of the wind and the gentle lapping of the waves with quiet, content conversation accompanied by coffee and pastries in the shade of the parasols.
The expanse of Carlyon Beach is a safe haven for paddling toes and sea dipping. For the more adventurous, Cornwall Waverunner Safaris has a base here in the summer months. Paddleboard and kayak hire affords a serene way of exploring the coastline. Gliding over the tranquil clear waters, the seaweed below harbours a plethora of sea life as glossy fronds of kelp intertwine with sea spaghetti in an ethereal underwater garden. Adrenaline-fuelled jet ski safaris take in the coastline at a different pace but whichever mode of ocean transport you opt for, each reveals an exquisite view from the bay back to the beach, normally only afforded to bobbing seals and circling gulls. Embracing the outdoors, as has become our bent since Covid made it our safety net, Sweat Cornwall conducts boot camps on the sand, while sun prayers welcome Saturday mornings courtesy of Elm Yoga.
Returning shoreside, Carlyon has everything you could wish for in terms of a beach day. Large sail-like canopies cover a range of pop-ups that cater for all tastes. Pasties fly out from the ever-popular OGY1 Pasty Shack while Manor Made Cornwall’s stylish cake shed serves homemade bakes, the ubiquitous Cornish cream tea, sausage rolls, freshly brewed coffee and speciality hot chocolates. For something more substantial, and perfectly placed so close to the sea, the Harvester Seafood Shack has a daily catch menu from local waters including mackerel, scallops and mussels. Jasper’s Kitchen is a family favourite with handmade, stone-baked, freshly rolled pizzas joining gourmet burgers to sate post-swim appetites – followed, of course, by a trip to Callestick’s kiosk for that all-important Cornish ice-cream.
Grown-ups can quench thirsts at the Shoreside Bar, selecting from local beers, wines and spirits, plus adventurous cocktails to accompany the sound of music as it drifts across the sands from the covered pagoda where live bands entertain beach-goers into the evening throughout the season. While the sun might be setting on the summer we took pleasure from a little piece of paradise, that while discovered late in the season, gave us an insight into a corner of coastal heaven that will no longer be overlooked. As the regeneration project gains pace, we look forward to returning next year to discover ever-more new developments in the bay – a place where preconceptions have been overturned and dreams are destined to be made.