A couple of summers ago, during one of the UK government's many on-again, off-again hiatuses from Covid lockdown, my partner and I did what everyone else in the country did: we headed to Cornwall. The sun shone the colour of clotted cream, the waves gleamed cornflower blue, crimson geraniums spilled from pots next to traditional granite cottages. So what, I asked myself, was I doing back here in the middle of winter, toes curled over the edge of a rain-slick cliff edge as I prepared to leap into the heaving grey swell below?
Well, for one thing, avoiding the crowds. Because if there's a downside to exploring Cornwall in July, it's the crush of people you're forced to share the place with. Want to swerve the gridlock traffic of Padstow? The round-the-block café queues at the Lizard? The crowded line-up in the Newquay surf? In summer, that takes planning.
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Not so in winter, when the tourists cede the land back to the locals, the waves empty and you stand a half decent chance of scoring a table at one of Cornwall's famously vibrant restaurants. Though the weather changes fast - sweeping in from the Atlantic to the north and the English Channel to the south - the sun often still shines, thanks to Cornwall seeing around 200 hours more daylight per year than the rest of the UK.
Of the idyllic spots we discovered that summer, roaming about in our van conversion, Gwithian Towans - an immense, spirit-freeing stretch of sand on St Ives Bay backed by hummocky dunes - was a favourite. Now, we had returned, this time off season, as guests of Three Mile Beach, a cluster of luxurious, candy-coloured beach houses set a stone's throw from the shore.
Though the temperature had barely nudged above 8ºC, this visit represented a serious upgrade - and not just because, with Three Mile Beach, we'd traded the inside of an old Vauxhall for the kind of weatherboarded barefoot luxury you'd more likely expect to find in Byron Bay.
At first light, the beach had been mostly empty, dune grasses gently shivering in the January breeze. A handful of wetsuit-clad surfers paddled in place, looking like the plump grey seals that sometimes haul out on the sand here. A couple of solitary dog walkers found each other, pausing for a chat. Summer's bucket-and-spade brigade seemed a world away. It all felt bright, wild and salty-fresh.
Rather than avoid winter's raw elements, we were here to actively embrace them, on one of Three Mile Beach's Cold Water Therapy retreats: three-night stays that include your own self-catered luxury beach house plus a private surf lesson, guided coasteering and a Wim Hof Method workshop and yoga session.
The point is this: as beautiful as Cornwall is, it's overrun in summer and underappreciated in winter. But at Three Mile Beach, which has ridden the UK's staycation wave since opening in May 2021, the location's outstanding natural beauty serves as a year-round inspiration.
The point is this: as beautiful as Cornwall is, it’s overrun in summer and underappreciated in winter
It starts with the architecture and design. If you've ever spent time in Nordic countries during winter and wondered why their penchant for bright, airy spaces that maximise the light never really took off in grey old England, Three Mile will come as a welcome surprise. Each of the 15 two-, three- and four-bedroom beach houses (four additional beach shacks are under construction, set to open in spring 2024) is characterised by open-plan living, acres of white wood, soaring windows and ceilings, wraparound timber decking and playful artistic touches.
Three Mile Beach is owned by Audley Travel's founder Craig Burkinshaw and his partner Joanne Le Bon, and their experience and well-travelled eyes inform every corner, from the hammocks, barrel sauna and sunken cedar hot tubs outside to the gleaming white Swedish log burners and artworks referencing the local surf scene and global tribal cultures within.
Every detail has been considered: from the drop down/foldaway widescreen TVs to the Ooni outdoor pizza ovens that are available on request, along with dough and a generous range of fresh and speciality toppings - everything from oyster mushrooms to English charcuterie. There are hooks on which to hang towels and soggy swimwear, storage for sandy shoes and mezzanine platforms where you can tuck yourself away in the rafters by a window with a good book. Wetsuits, surfboards and stand-up paddleboards can all be hired, though at times it feels easier to sink deep into one of the modular Camerich sofas instead.
But if you're channelling a Nordic lifestyle, sofas, sauna and hot tub sessions need to be earned. Which is how I found myself flying through the air one January morning, being led around the southern coastline, just outside the pretty 13th-century fishing village of Mousehole, by a crew from local surf company Global Boarders.
A tourist draw in the summer, renowned for its Christmas lights in December, Mousehole is less associated with outdoors pursuits such as coasteering - which involves getting from point A to point B via a series of cliff scrambles, ocean swims and rock jumps. After issuing us with hard hats, gloves and thick, hooded wetsuits, our guide, Chris, took us through a safety briefing before leading our group around this gloriously rugged section of Cornish coast.
Of our decision to plunge from 3m-high black rocks into the frigid English Channel, Chris put it this way: "Ninety-nine per cent of people will think it's total madness, but if you're the one per cent who do it, January is the best time to visit."
The excursion was memorable not just because I could actually still feel my feet at the end of it but for the fact that doing the apparently mad thing and leaping off a Cornish cliff in the depths of winter meant we were blissfully alone. In the safe hands of the Global Boarders crew ("Don't jump here, jump there… Wait for the swell to come through…"), we could pause to admire the rock formations and wildlife on the way, before enjoying the thrill of leaping, rolling like porpoises and clawing our way around a toothy piece of Cornish coast.
The Global Boarders team was on hand the next day, too, back on Gwithian Towans, delivering our private surf lesson right opposite Three Mile Beach. Here, said Chris, "from May to September, the waves are good and consistent. Outside of that, your ability to read the waves and surf reports becomes essential."
Again, in the spirit of the Scandi saying "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing", we found ourselves just fine in 5mm wetsuits, gloves and booties - only this time, our sauna and hot tubs were just over the hill.
All this fun didn't detract from the more serious goal of our time at Three Mile Beach, which was to gain some real-world health benefits from cold-water immersion, which, among other things, has been associated with reducing pain and inflammation, and helping with anxiety and self-confidence.
The most famous proponent of cold water's potential is Wim Hof, the Dutchman who has built a business empire on his Wim Hof Method, combining breathwork, cold-water immersion and meditation techniques. On our final day, Sam Boot, who has studied under the man himself, knocked on our beach house door. Together with his partner and yoga teacher Jana Virian, Sam owns Soul Sweats, which runs mobile Wim Hof and wellbeing workshops around Cornwall.
The first sign that things were about to get real was the delivery of an enormous metal, drum-like pool, rolled and dragged onto the decking out back next to the sauna. Filled with cold water, it was then topped up with cubes of ice. As Sam tipped each mini berg from the oversized ice trays, he spoke quietly about what to expect in the workshop: an introduction to the Wim Hof principles, followed by a guided practice of the Wim Hof breathing technique, then a yin yoga session led by Jana, and finally an immersion up to our necks in ice water.
This was a part of the weekend I'd particularly looked forward to. Yet staring at the bobbing cubes of frozen water on a cold January day, I couldn't help feeling an unpleasant anticipatory shiver.
Back inside the house, we lay on yoga mats as Sam walked us through the Wim Hof cycles of deep breathing and breath holds that triggered trippy feelings of disappearing into a warm black tunnel with mauve lights at one end in my case - and a nosebleed in the case of my partner. But as Sam's voice slowly seemed to fuse with the background sounds, and we felt the rhythm take hold, we became simultaneously lightheaded and overcome with a sense of calm. By the time we'd moved back outside and were standing together by the ice bath, we were ready - sinking in over our shoulders in a unified movement, with not a yelp between us. After one of the longest two minutes of my life, we stepped out and headed to the barrel sauna, skin on fire and experiencing a minor euphoria. Funny thing was, five minutes later we were ready to go again.
The Cold Water Therapy Programme starts at £475pp, based on six people sharing a three-bedroom beach house, and includes three nights' accommodation, a full-day workshop with Soul Sweats, a two-hour private surf lesson and a three-hour guided coasteering session, both with Global Boarders. threemilebeach.co.uk