Top 10 things to do in Bude

The resort town of Bude is situated in the top right corner of Cornwall, right next to the Devon border. It is quite a remote spot and sits on its own stretch of wild and rugged coast backed by miles and miles of countryside. For this reason it is largely self-contained, yet has not become too big, or too commercial.

People often like to compare Bude to Newquay - I don't really subscribe to this. Bude can be lively, but is nowhere near as raucous as Newquay. It has much more of a family / bucket and spade vibe. And while Newquay sprawls, Bude is quite compact and it doesn't take long to escape the crowds and find somewhere special to yourself.

Bude is first and foremost a holiday town, but it is also a quite quirky with some interesting history. However, what really makes it special is the setting with the Atlantic coast to one side and rolling countryside the other, making this a great base for exploring the far North of Cornwall.

Beaches

Bude breakwater view
Bude beaches view

Like all of Cornwall's resort towns, Bude is all about the beaches. There are miles of fantastic beaches here stretching from Widemouth Bay in the south to Duckpool and the Devon border in the north. All are a mix of rugged rocky cliffs, Atlantic waves and expanses of golden sand, although the town's main beach, Summerleaze, does deviate from this format a little.

This wide, deep beach of golden sand reaches almost to Bude's town centre, which makes it the most popular beach in town. That and the big car park right on the beach. This is a great family beach, although the waves can be a little frisky and currents unpredicatable. But fear not for Summerleaze is home to the Bude Sea Pool which offers safe swimming whatever the conditions. 

As the tide goes out Summerleaze joins up with neighbouring Crooklets beach, which is well known for its surf. Crooklets was home to the UK's first life-saving club back in 1953 and the tradition remains strong here.

Perhaps the best beach in the area though is Widemouth Bay (pronounced "widmouth"). This large stretch of wonderfully sandy beach is less than a mile out of Bude and has won numerous Blue Flag awards over the years. Along with plenty of facilities there is good surf and fantastic rock pools to explore.

Bude Castle Heritage Centre

Bude Castle & Bude Light
Bude Castle & Light

Set between the River Neet and Bude Canal, overlooking Summerleaze beach is the Victorian castellated mansion known as Bude Castle. Sometimes referred to as the "castle built on sand" this was once the home of eminent inventor Sir Goldsworthy Gurney. As the name suggests the mansion was actually built in the Summerleaze dunes on a raft of concrete, much against the advice of the locals. The house is still standing one hundred and eighty years on so this innovative building technique seems to have been a success.

Regarded as Cornwall's "Forgotten Genius" Gurney was responsible for a number of inventions. One was an early steam-driven carriage, the mechanism from which went on to power George Stephenson's hugely famous "Rocket" locomotive. However, perhaps his most successful inventions were both concerned with lighting; Gurney created limelight, the lighting used in Victorian theatres, and Bude light, an intensely bright oil lamp which used oxygen. The latter was used in the Houses of Parliament for many years.

Today the inventor's beachside mansion has become a museum. There is a large exhibition dedicated to Gurney and his inventions, while the rest of the contains the diverse collections from the former Bude Stratton museum. These cover topics from prehistoric times and the unique local geology to shipwrecks and the English Civil War. There is also an interesting exhibition on Bude's history as a holiday resort - its rise and fall and rise.

With free entry to this intriguing mansion and museum, the Heritage Centre should be more than just a rainy day option.

Bude Canal

Bude Canal
Bude Canal

These days the Bude Canal forms a picturesque backdrop to Summerleaze beach. The section towards the breakwater is one of the prettiest parts of Bude, with cottages to one side of the canal, the beach to the other along with what passes for the town's harbour.

The canal was built in 1823 primarily to carry lime-rich sand from the beaches over 30 miles inland to be used on the poor, acidic farmland around Launceston and Holsworthy. Given that this is Cornwall the canal was something of an engineering feat as it had to climb 430 feet within the first 6 miles. This was achieved by a building a series of innovative locks known as inclined planes where wheeled "tub boats" were hauled up the slopes by chain.

Tucked in behind the breakwater is the opening of the canal at the Bude Sea Lock. This single lock with its massive oak gates allowed vessels of up to 300 tons to enter the canal basin. Despite being damaged by storms several times over the centuries the gates are still fully operational and are an impressive sight.

Whilst the canal ceased operation in the 1890s, replaced by the railway, it has had a second lease of life. Large sections of the Bude Canal are now open to walkers and the first couple of miles can easily be traversed by boat, canoe or kayak. In addition there are various inland trails from which it is still possible to gain a first-hand impression of this unique waterway.

Bude Sea Pool

Bude sea pool
Bude sea pool

Located right on Bude's main Summerleaze beach is the 1930s sea pool. Given that all of the area's beaches face into the full might of the Atlantic Ocean and the currents can be strong this provides the perfect, safe environment for getting in the sea.

Part natural and part man-made the Bude Sea Pool is impressively large, measuring nearly 300 feet (90 metres) in length. That's longer than an Olympic swimming pool, so this tidal lido is big enough for even the most serious of swimmers. There are plenty of shallow parts of the pool and there is a seasonal lifeguard to keep even the youngest of bathers safe.

The pool was originally built with donations from a wealthy local family. These days it is as popular as ever although it has to rely on funding and volunteers from the Friends of Bude Sea Pool charity. 

What a lot of people don't know is there is another open air pool tucked away by the breakwater on the other side of Summerleaze. Tommy's Pit is a smaller pool which dates back to the 1850s when it was a men-only bathing pool.

Walking the Coast Path

The Strangles from High Cliff
The Strangles from High Cliff

The section of the Southwest Coast Path around Bude takes in some of the most dramatic and remote scenery of the entire Cornish leg. Characterised by high cliffs, plunging valleys and long sandy beaches this is demanding terrain, but well worth the effort. A good few of the highlights of the Bude coast are covered in this article, but plenty more can only be found by hitting the coastal trails. 

The coast on the border with Devon is particularly rugged and was once home to smugglers and wreckers. It was also the haunt of the eccentric vicar of Morwenstow, Reverend Robert Hawker and you can see his little wooden hut built into the cliffs. This is where he is reputed to have spent much of his time writing poems and smoking opium.

South of Bude the coast path continues its ups and downs as it heads towards Boscastle. It is testimony to how rugged the North Cornwall coast is that Boscastle was ever considered as a harbour, the idea of sailing a boat in here with anything but the calmest seas is frankly terrifying. But before you reach Boscastle there is a good bit of climbing to be done; the V-shaped valleys of Millook and Crackington Haven will lead you to the highest point on the Cornish section of the coast path, the imaginatively named High Cliff. Standing at 723 feet the clifftop views over the Strangles beach are quite stunning.

Surfing

Bude surf!
Bude surf

With its west-facing Atlantic coast, the Bude are picks up any swell going. In fact, the biggest downside is finding somewhere small enough to surf when a big swell is running, but this is generally only a problem during the winter. 

Although there isn't as much variety as much of Cornwall's coast there are some great surf spots in and around Bude, including one which on its day is possibly one of the best in the UK. For those just starting out Summerleaze is often the best spot as it is a little more sheltered than other beaches nearby. There are also a number of surf schools which operate from here, plus lifeguards and great facilities.

Moving up a level is Widemouth Bay which has waves suitable for all levels. While the main section of beach is sandy there is a rock section at the southern end with a reef break that attracts experienced surfers. On a similar level is Crooklets, or the "Bondi of Britain" as some like to call it. The waves here are generally better than neighbouring Summerleaze but also somewhat more challenging.

Further afield are Sandymouth, Northcott Mouth and Duckpool. At low tide these beaches are joined together forming a 4-mile strip of sand. Characterised by numerous rocky outcrops and with a remote air these spots can feel a little intimidating, but if you want to avoid the crowds and get some great waves this could be a good call.

A few miles south of Bude is the little-known, picturesque rocky cove of Millook Haven. Set at the foot of towering cliffs this spectacular spot is somewhat off the beaten track. However, when the wind and waves align Millook becomes home to a long barrelling left-hand point break that can hold big swells. Although it may be something of a secret, when this place works it is full of the best surfers around.

Devon

Clovelly Harbour - Devon
Clovelly Harbour - Devon

I probably shouldn't be recommending Devon on what is the Cornwall Guide but I will begrudgingly admit it does have some very nice bits. And the good news is that you won't have to travel far across the border to find some of Devon's finest.

If you do head back into England then the chances are you won't even notice crossing the border. The coastal landscape is very similar, and equally spectacular as you head north towards Hartland Point. This is a coastline of unforgiving, jagged rocks and sheer cliffs occasionally punctuated by a barely accessible cove. One such cove, just across the border, is Speke's Mill. This little cove is about as rugged as they come and only frequented by walkers and surfers, when conditions are right. The cove is probably best known for the waterfall which cascades over 60 feet down the sheer rock cliff face.

A little further along the North Devon coast is a real gem, the picture postcard village of Clovelly. Built into the steep slope of a 400 foot cliff the cobbled high street tumbles down through the village and woodlands to the ancient harbour. Quaint is an understatement and with no cars  allowed it feels unspoilt by the modern world.

Away from the coast Northwest Devon is very much rural. This is Tarka country, a landscape of rolling countryside, wooded valleys and winding rivers. It is also farming country and there are any number of market towns within an hour's drive of Bude that are well worth a visit and offer a welcome escape from the summer crowds on the coast.

Boscastle

Boscastle Inner Harbour
Boscastle Harbour

Located less than 15 miles to the south of Bude, and a 20 minute drive is the stunning harbour village of Boscastle. Even on such an exceptional stretch of coastline Boscastle stands out. The seaward entrance to the harbour sits between the ominously craggy twin headlands of Penally Point and Willapark, with the rocky islet of Meachard guarding the entrance. 

The harbour and village sit in a deep ravine that resembles a small fjord and is certainly not your typical Cornish landscape. Beyond the long, snaking entrance to the little harbour is the Valency Valley and here you will find the pretty village which does justice to its natural surrounds. A mixture of whitewashed cottages and slate houses, much of Boscastle dates back to the early 18th century when this was a thriving port importing limestone and coal, and exporting Delabole slate and other local produce. 

Today much of Boscastle and this part of the coast are owned by the National Trust. It is a fantastic stretch of the Cornish coast for walking and wildlife, however, accessible beaches are in somewhat short supply.

Geology

Sandymouth Beach - Bude
Sandymouth Beach - Bude Formation

Now I will be the first to admit I'm no expert on geology so I will spare us all from trying to be too technical. However, what I do know is that the Bude coast is home to some internationally significant geology - the so-called "Bude Formation". This is a staple of text-books from universities and oil companies across the globe as it represents such a fine example of the layering of rocks.

This story spans back around 300 million years to the days of "Lake Bude", which was located somewhere near the equator. This was when the UK enjoyed a tropical climate before it drifted slowly northwards. Over the millenia alternating layers of sand and mud were deposited to the bottom of the lake, eventually turning to rock. As were some fossils including Cornuboniscus budensis an extinct fish that has only been found in the Bude Formation.

At some point in the annals of time the north-bound Cornish coast collided with another massive landform causing what is in effect a crumple zone. The layered rocks were forced up into a mountain range the remains of which are what we see today; the striped rock formations in the cliffs all around Bude. Some of the most spectacular examples can be seen at Millook Haven where the layers zig-zag upwards to form part of the Crackington Formation. Also worthy of note is the "Whale's Back", a curiously warped layer of rocks by the breakwater in Bude itself.

Festivals

Note: at the time of writing most events have been cancelled for 2020 due to Covid-19.

Considering its remote location and small size, Bude seems to punch above its weight in terms of entertainment. As a rule you won't find the most exciting nightlife, particularly compared to Newquay down the coast, but rather than wall-to-wall drinking Bude is home to a number of long established and well respected festivals.

Probably the best known is the Bude Jazz Festival which generally takes place during the last week of August. This week-long celebration of jazz covers all styles from bebop to ragtime with over 150 acts taking part in previous festivals. Performances are held at various venues around the town, indoors and out.