The world is filled with spectacular natural landmarks made more memorable by descriptive names that immediately convey an impression of their size (the Grand Canyon), shape (Table Mountain) or notoriety (the Dead Sea). Others reveal something about their position, but few more aptly than Land’s End, the most westerly point of mainland England.
A headland of Permian granite cliffs about 270 million years old, Land’s End juts out into the North Atlantic Ocean from the Penwith Peninsula and is frequently battered by storm force gales and giant waves. In December last year, Land’s End and the nearby coves and villages of west Cornwall were subjected to some of the fiercest storms ever recorded, with waves eight metres high lashing the coast and flooding homes.
The ferocity of these storms lies in stark contrast to Cornwall’s reputation for enjoying some of the sunniest weather in England – a fact that attracts thousands of holidaymakers from all over the UK and other parts of the world during the summer months. Cornwall’s popularity as a tourist destination and Land’s End’s position, effectively marking ‘the end of the (main)land’, mean it’s high on the list of must-visit sites in this part of England. For this reason, a Land’s End theme park was built in 1988, but it’s a tame attraction when compared to the natural beauty of the headland and the dynamism of the powerful waves that batter its rugged cliffs.
The view across the Atlantic from Land’s End is dominated by the presence of another landmark – the Longships Lighthouse. Towering above the sea two kilometres from shore, Longships is the name given to the group of rocky islets upon which a lighthouse was first built in 1795.
It was constructed on Carn Bras, the largest and highest of the rocks. Dozens of ships had been wrecked in these treacherous waters. Even after the construction of the lighthouse, the light from the original lantern was frequently eclipsed by waves during storms, making it unreliable to coastal shipping.
A taller replacement lighthouse – the current structure – was built in 1873. Even though it rises 35 metres above the water, the lighthouse continues to be swamped by waves when the sea is particularly rough. Despite the ferocity of these natural forces, Longships has remained unscathed, although, ironically, it was almost demolished by a ship in 1898.
With such a prominent position off the coast of one of the UK’s best-known locations, Longships is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the British Isles. As well as the lantern-topping waves that crash into its seemingly unassailable tower, the westerly aspect means that photographers are also blessed with the possibility of fiery sunsets lighting the sky behind a backlit or silhouetted lighthouse.
In addition, passing fishing boats or the Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat from nearby Sennen will often provide some additional foreground interest. Occasionally, a helicopter will also enter the view as it comes in to land on the helipad at the top of the lighthouse.
LEGENDS AND RELICS
Along with the prolific marine life to be found off the Cornish coast, the shipwrecks at Longships make it a popular diving location when the seas are calmer and visibility clear. The lighthouse is also equipped with a fog alarm that booms out every ten seconds.
The frequent fog and sea mists around Land’s End add resonance to the many myths and legends associated with Cornwall, most notably Tintagel Castle, the reputed birthplace of King Arthur. According to Arthurian legend, the country of Lyonesse, the home of Tristan, hero of the tale of Tristan and Iseult, sank into the sea between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, which are located 45 kilometres southwest of the mainland. This legendary lost land is also known in Cornish as Lethowsow, and derives from the Cornish name for the Seven Stones Reef, reputed site of the lost land’s main settlement, 24 kilometres off the coast from Land’s End.
More reliable evidence of past civilisations was revealed in February this year, when burrowing rabbits unearthed 8,000-year-old Neolithic tools from a Bronze Age burial mound near Land’s End. The wild rabbits’ excavations uncovered flint scrapers and arrowheads, prompting a thorough archaeological excavation by Big Heritage UK.
In May, the archaeologists reported that they had found evidence at the Land’s End site of an Iron Age hill fort and a Neolithic passage grave, as well as stone hammers, arrowheads and scrapers. The spectacular setting of Land’s End, along with its southwesterly aspect, evidently appealed to our distant ancestors, who made it a revered settlement and burial site long before it became the stuff of Arthurian legends and myths.
WRECKS AND EXOTIC SPECIES
Divers, many with underwater cameras, are drawn to the waters around Land’s End, Longships and the Seven Stones Reef. While no-one has discovered any evidence of the submerged country of Lyonesse on the reef, they will find the resting place of notorious oil tanker the Torrey Canyon. This ship ran aground on the reef in March 1967, spilling more than 145 million litres of crude oil and contaminating nearly 200 kilometres of Cornish coastline. Nearly 50 years later, it remains the UK’s worst oil spill.
Fortunately, the Cornish coast has long since recovered from the disaster. Today, the seas between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles boast some of the richest marine biodiversity in the British Isles and attract biologists, divers and photographers. Whales, seals and dolphins can be seen all year round and the basking shark – the world’s second largest fish – is a frequent visitor. Whale-watching boat trips are popular in the summer months and provide excellent opportunities for getting close photographic studies of these impressive marine mammals.
Summer also heralds the arrival of exotic species such as loggerhead and leatherback turtles and, more recently, the giant ocean sunfish. During one aerial survey in 2006, scientists counted 19 sunfish in two hours. Their recent influx is believed to be a result of the increasing abundance of jellyfish due to the warming of the ocean.
Macro enthusiasts will find much to tempt them on land. The southerly aspect of Land’s End, together with the maritime and temperate climate, has made it an important location for maritime heathland plants such as heather, bell heather, western gorse and cross-leaved heath. The headland has been designated an ‘important plant area’ by Plantlife, and some of the rare species to be photographed include hairy bird’s foot trefoil, yellow bartsia, hare’s foot clover and western clover.
The conditions that make the region attractive to plants have the same effect on butterflies. Cornwall boasts 43 species, made up of 37 residents, three regular migrants and three introduced species.
LONG DISTANCE VISITORS
It isn’t just the natural beauty, wildlife and local mythology that attracts tourists to Land’s End. Many of the 400,000 annual visitors are drawn to the landmark by the suggestion of distance that resonates with its name. Land’s End is a popular starting point for long-distance walks and cycle rides to John o’ Groats in northeast Scotland: the 1,400-kilometre road journey is the longest distance between two inhabited points in Great Britain.
Land’s End’s isolation is symbolised by a white-painted sign that indicates the distance to New York across the ocean and John o’ Groats to the north. While this sign is rarely left unphotographed by visitors, the true picture potential of this location lies in the magnificent sea and cliff views, and the abundant biodiversity and archaeological heritage to be discovered in the vicinity of this spectacular headland.
Make the most of the light. As it’s a headland, there’s always a part of Land’s End that’s lit during daylight hours, especially in summer, so choose your location according to where the sun will be at a particular time of day
Use a polarising filter. The sea is likely to feature prominently in many scenes, leading to plenty of stray light reflections from the water’s surface. A polariser will filter much of this out but also reduce exposure times by two stops
Check your histogram and meter readings. Coastal scenery with dark cliffs and bright direct sun results in high contrast levels. A high dynamic range setting can help solve this, but you will still need to meter from a neutral tone and lock that reading in camera
Photograph the horizon without a tripod. Sea views mean that the horizon will feature in the frame and handholding the camera invariably leads to a sloping horizon. Set your camera on a tripod and use a spirit level or grid screen to keep the horizon level in the viewfinder
Change lenses close to shore when the wind is blowing. Do so and you risk sea spray, dust and sand getting onto your image sensor, mirror box, or rear lens element. A good-quality zoom lens will reduce the need for changing lenses
Walk close to the edge of cliffs. That may sound obvious, but many areas don’t have warning signs and the ground around sea cliffs and headlands is notorious for crumbling underfoot
The End to End Cycle Route: Land’s End to John O’Groats by Nick Mitchell, Ciccerone, pb, £12.95
Mysteries of the Cornish Coast by Ian Addicoat and Geoff Boswell, Halsgrove, hb, £14.99
Celtic Cornwall: Nation, Tradition, Invention by Alan M Kent and Jan Beare, Halsgrove, hb, £2
Accessory option: Walking boots
Winding tracks, sea cliffs, heather moors and craggy rockpools abound in Cornwall, making a stout walking boot an essential piece of outdoor gear. A tough, breathable and waterproof boot such as the Meindl Toronto (£140) is perfect for tackling a variety of terrain. These leather boots feature a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex lining.
Lens option: Fast mid-range zoom
Many outdoor pros use a mid-range zoom lens as their standard optic. A 24–105mm zoom offers a wide-angle perspective for landscapes and short telephoto for portraits.
The Sigma 24–105mm f/4 DG OS HSM (£700) has a constant f/4 maximum aperture throughout the zooming range, as well as a built-in optical stabiliser and a hypersonic motor for silent autofocus operation. Available in Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Sony mounts.
Camera option: High resolution DSLR
With a 36.3-megapixel CMOS imaging sensor, the new Nikon D810 (£2,700, body only) has the most powerful sensor in its class, rendering sharper image detail than any other DSLR. With 51 AF-points and a 5fps maximum drive burst, the camera can produce a sequence of crisply detailed images at speed. An ISO range of 64–12,800 also improves the camera’s imaging capability in low light.
This story was published in the August 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine