A wonderfully simple, accessible and yet surprisingly addictive (did I mention free!?) activity continues to attract enthusiasts in Cornwall. All year round our sandy beaches are scattered with sea glass, but some boast a much richer bounty of the little translucent treasures than others, whilst their offerings also vary considerably in terms of colour, size and shape. Above, you’ll find 8 of the best sea glass hunting beaches on the Cornish coastline, showing the rewards from just an hour of beachcombing at each spot.
What is Sea Glass?
Next time you’re ambling along your favourite Cornish beach, divert your eyes down and train them on the sand or shingle around your feet. It probably won’t be long before you spot a piece. Pick it up and run your fingers over its contours.
The practice of blowing glass has been going on for over six millennia, but it wasn’t until the industrial revolution of the 19th Century that mass production of glass bottles, tableware and window panes was made possible by new moulding techniques and machinery. With mass production, however, came mass waste. Unwanted glass would be readily dumped into the sea or thrown overboard from ships. Out of sight, out of mind. Well…not forever. Dragged along the sea floor by tides and currents, some of the glass would return to shore. Here it would endure months, years or even centuries of tossing and tumbling over rocks, shingle and sand, breaking it up and smoothing it into pebble like shapes.
If you’re lucky, your piece of sea glass might have survived its turbulent ordeal just well enough for you to glean some clue about its original incarnation: Perhaps a few letters from an embossed trademark or the stem of a bottle top.
Now notice the frosted texture. Glass is created by melting together Silica (from sand), soda ash (sodium carbonate) and limestone. After as many as twenty years of exposure to salt water, the soda and lime begin to leach out of the glass, leaving tiny pits on the surface. As they escape and react with other elements, small crystals are formed in the pits, giving the frosted, or sugary appearance. Because of the time this process takes, the amount of frosting is a good indicator of the age of a piece of sea glass. It is also a good way to tell artificial sea glass from the genuine article as the effect is difficult to replicate.
Lastly, admire the colour. This is the most telling factor in determining the origin of a piece of sea glass and what serious beachcombers obsess over. Indeed, the colour can make all the difference when it comes to valuation, with the rarest colours sometimes fetching hundreds of pounds at auction. As you can probably guess, the most common colours in the UK are green, white and brown, coming from wine bottles, beer bottles and window panes. Harder to come by, but still likely finds during an hour or so of hunting, are cobalt blue (think old medicine bottles), lime green, black (very hard to spot!) and lavender.
Glass naturally has a blue-green tint to it and to turn it completely clear an additional chemical must be added to the mix. In the early 20th century this chemical was produced in Germany and so when World War II broke out Britain’s supply was cut and manufacturers were forced to use a substitute. This stand-in chemical, however, had the odd effect of of turning the glass lavender colour over time. So, if you find a piece it could well be from wartime Britain!
The rarest colours include red, orange and turquoise. Red sea glass is perhaps the most sought after due to the fact that gold oxide was traditionally added to the achieve the colour. Subsequently, it was very expensive to produce and only ever used for a few mass produced items, such as out-to-sea warning lamps. You may even be lucky enough to find a multi-coloured piece from a marble or decorative ornament. For more on the the rarity of sea glass colours globally see this handy guide.
So, if you now have an appetite for a bit more beach combing, then see above for the best sea glass hunting spots in Cornwall. I spent just an hour collecting on each beach. If you’ve got a favourite spot of your own that you’d like to share please write a comment below. Happy hunting!
5 Quick Hunting Tips
- Beaches near old harbours are ideal places to hunt sea glass because of the amount of maritime traffic they’ve seen over the years. Peninsulas and jutting headlands that catch currents are also great places to look.
- I love a good Cornish storm but more than anything I love to see what treasures they churn up from the sea bed and deliver onto our beaches. Once calm is restored, hit the beach!
- With a lot of casual and professional collectors out there (yes, some people make a living from selling sea glass!), obvious spots get thoroughly combed. So why not get off the beaten beach and find your own secret hunting ground. If safe, venture into beach caves and other less obvious spots.
- Its not easy to spot sea glass (particularly when your eyes are 6ft from the ground like mine) so don’t be afraid to get down low and have a thorough scan.
- One of the great things about sea glass hunting is that you can happily walk the length of a long beach without even realising it. This being said, you really don’t need to cover a whole beach if you have difficulty doing so. I’ve found just as many pieces whilst sitting in one spot and sifting through the sand around me.