Date: Saturday 15th March 2014 Distance walked: 13 miles Height climbed: 1949ft
The journey of three hundred miles begins with a single step.
Or two train journeys and a brief ferry ride from Admiral’s Hard in Stonehouse, Plymouth, where 18th century Naval architecture stands side-by-side with utilitarian dockside warehouses and tumbled together terraces. Past the marker beacon urging 10 knots by order of the Queen’s Harbour Master; past Drake’s Island off portside and the first glimpse of the sea beyond Plymouth Sound; up onto the slipway at Cremyll where the WELCOME TO CORNWALL sign was cordoned off at the top of the cracked quayside.
In fact it began even earlier, with a pre-breakfast rush to the train station only to discover that my meticulous planning had all been in vain: the Falmouth branch line was running to an alternative timetable due to engineering works over the weekend, except they’d failed to update the times on the National Rail website so I missed the train by about a minute even though I’d arrived early. So I waited for the next one, then waited again at Truro, trying to persuade myself that it wasn’t through my own negligence, lateness or laziness that my plan had gone astray. After all, missteps, detours and delays are all part and parcel of any adventure. It’s not their occurrence or absence that is important, but with what grace we deal with them and their consequences.
I was still fretting by the time I disembarked the ferry at Cremyll several hours later, and at least an hour and twenty minutes behind schedule. Almost all of the ferry’s passengers were headed for the country park at Mount Edgcumbe, a council owned country estate near Torpoint on the back toe of land that juts out between the Tamar Estuary – or the Hamoaze as it is known in its lowest reaches, composed principally of the Tamar, the Tavy and the Lynher Rivers – and Plymouth Sound. I followed them, as the South West Coast Path runs through the gardens and along the perimeter of the grounds for the first mile or so. I skirted the formal gardens and out towards the woodland walks where yellow and white daffodils covered the slopes under the trees. Up the first hill of the day. Through the trees I could see out beyond the mouth of the Sound where Plymouth Breakwater seemed to act as a physical manifestation of that usually metaphorical line between civilisation and open sea. Beyond that, Great Mew Rock off the point, the green fields of South Devon and a tint of blue behind the covering of white cloud.
At the top of the hill a gate lead into the wider estate. I was plunged into momentary dismay at the sight of the sign cable-tied to its bars:
MOUNT EDGCUMBE SOUTH WEST COAST PATH CLOSED DUE TO FALLEN TREES
Had I really come all this way, and gone through all that palaver with the trains to turn back now? The gate wasn’t locked so I went through anyway, feeling like a naughty school kid who’d managed to escape the assignment on a school trip. If they really didn’t want people to go through, I figured, they could have padlocked it.
I must have seen just a fraction of the damage this winter’s storms did to the trees in the park woods here. Soon enough after I illicitly passed through the gate the path ran up through a copse of pine trees: freshly sawn logs and tree trunks stacked either side of the path, a delicious resin heavy scent as I walked through; whole trees just to the side of the path, their root mass exposed like they’d just been pushed over. In the weeks that have passed since my trip groundsmen at Mount Edgcumbe have put together a Giant Man made from tree bits from the storm wreckage. And as I have seen for myself as I’ve made my way further west along the coast since, it’s not only trees that were badly hit this winter.
At only one point was the path genuinely blocked by a fallen tree, in the little indentation of the route above Fort Picklecombe, diverting me downslope by a few metres to get past. But even if an uprooted tree is completely dead it is not without value. A dead tree supports more life than a living one: its physical structure can still provide habitats for birds, small mammals and insects and a plethora of fungi, micro-organisms and invertebrates thrive on its decomposition.
Out of the woods and out of the estate I entered a gorse bush grassland with brick red soil and caught my first glimpse of the joint villages of Kingsand and Cawsand ahead. I ate my apple and suddenly realised I’d forgotten about being annoyed and was enjoying myself. The boundary between the two villages is barely discernible – a house called Devon Corn which I managed to miss commemorates the fact that until 1844 Kingsand used to be in Devon. Cottages cluttered together along narrow winding streets in the sort of picturesque manner that makes you feel like you’ve fallen in through the illustration on the lid of a biscuit tin. The smell of pasties made me think of lunch, but my later start and initial disquiet at the outset made me want to get on a bit further before I thought about stopping. Climbing up from the village the route became more wooded. Someone had wood fire going. The reddish soil turned brown. At the top of the hill I emerged from the trees onto the coast proper; into bright sunshine and a wide coastal vista.
Penlee Point. I decamped below the grotto above Penlee Battery, took my boots off and broke out the packed lunch. It was breezy but warm, one of those spring days that feels like an escapee from summer and gives everyone the appetite for more of the same to come in a few months time. To the east: Plymouth Sound and Devon – Wembury Point, the Great Mew Stone, Hilsea Point. To the west: Rame Head. And out on the horizon the tiny pinnacle, becoming clearer the longer I sat there, of the Eddystone Light. Yo ho ho, the wind blows free/ Oh for a life on the rolling sea.
I could have stayed sitting there with my trousers rolled up all afternoon, but I’d come out here for a reason so I put my shoes back on and made for Rame Head. A bright yellow square on the top of the land where the promontory met the coast resolved into a field of daffodils as I got nearer. Shaggy ponies were grazing the land alongside the path, unbothered by the passers-by to whom they were obviously well used. I petted one’s furry head and wished I’d saved my apple core, but I know better: don’t feed wild ponies, it gives them a taste for picnics and they get greedy and cheeky. Also they are there to do a job, grazing by ponies keep the sward a good length as they nibble the vegetation rather than pulling at it like cows and sheep do.
Rame Head was unbelievably windy. Two buzzards circled overhead as I descended to the 14th century mariners’ chapel. I put my coat back on but it was worth getting blustered for the miles visible along the coastline. This I will soon know by sight and under foot, I thought, looking west to Freathy, and Portwrinkle, the first pale patch of village; Looe Island; Pencarrow; what must be the Gribbin and then the Dodman judging by their shapes; and far, far ahead I thought I could maybe make out St Anthony Head, which I am used to viewing from the other direction across the river mouth from my home. Right out in the distance and very faint something protruding out very far south from the mainland – could it be the Lizard? How long before I reach these places that are so far away I can barely make them out on the clearest of days?
I crossed the road by Polhawn Fort just as an (empty) open-topped wedding car was heading away from the venue. Built as a pre-emptive defence against Napoleon in 1867 the fort never saw action and became known as one of Palmerston’s Follies because of its usefulness. Now for the usual extortions on your bank balance you can have exclusive use of it as a wedding venue. Looking back as I headed on north-west along the path I could see the crowd of guests gathered in the grounds of the Fort, for photos or speeches. You’d be taking a bit of a risk booking your wedding there in the middle of March, though, this part of the coast must be pretty desolate when it’s not bathed in glorious sunshine and summery temperatures under a cloudless sky.
It was hot going along the cliff path through Tregonhawke. The path wound in and out of the maze of chalets clinging to the cliffs like religious ascetics’ grottos before climbing up to the road. The steep cliff was feeling a bit like hard work in the first real sun I’ve seen for six months. My water was dwindling and my coat was bothering me being too long to tie round my waist I’d had to roll it round a few times and it was too chunky. My camera in my coat pocket was banging against my knee with every step. I ended up giving myself my first injury of the adventure as I ripped off the top of my thumbnail putting it into my rucksack.
Once up, the path follows the coast road right along through Freathy towards Tregantle Fort. Reaching a low point in the land to my right (north-east) I was surprised to see Plymouth sitting in the basin of the Tamar estuary over the other side of the hill. Having come 10 miles it feels like it should be further away, but I’ve looped all round first Mount Edgcumbe then the Rame-Penlee peninsula, there’s the Tamar Bridge I cross by train what now seems a lot longer than six hours ago. Step after step, into my rhythm now: auto-walking at a steady pace at the side of the road even though I was tiring. Concurrently wondering how I’d manage if it gets hotter than this in the summer, and relishing the pleasant discomfort of sunscreen, perspiration, and the mix of fatigue and the energising effect of the endorphins released through physical exercise. The long-missed warmth of the sun, the depth of the colour of the sky, the sea breeze.
Tregantle Fort was another of Lord Palmerston’s defences against French attack on the South West’s naval ports. Manned to a mere fraction of its capacity in the 1880s the fort became a military firing training base during World War One and is now used as a Royal Marine training base. The coast path traverses its grounds, but access is only granted on non-firing days: every other weekend and for most of August. Luckily it was open this week, though the path diversion by road is neither far out of the way nor too disheartening given the amount of road you end up walking on anyway along this stretch of the path. I passed through the high fenced gateway feeling slightly furtive after my gatecrashing at Mount Edgcumbe, even though it was definitely safe to enter. Through heathy grounds crisping under the sunshine like its late summer; and right along the edge of the fort. Skylarks audible but invisible overhead. Despite its military sturdiness and austerity I quite liked the fort. At least, like the Georgian naval architecture of the older Plymouth, this was more aesthetically pleasing than what I imagine the military would construct today.
Out of Tregantle’s strict instructions to stick to the path and obey the military regulations I was back on green and pleasant land again, high and sloping, the beach invisible below and the sea like a sheet of foil under the sun. I was ready for a break, sipping the cooling dregs of my tea as I tramped along, watching for a glimpse of Portwrinkle which had been hiding itself beyond the green lump of Skinner’s Ball Cliff since before Tregantle. Then I rounded the hilltop and there it was, a mere cluster of houses, a Victorian gothic-style hotel and a car park. A large golden retriever coming up from Finnygook Lane with its owner made straight for me, then just trod heavily on my foot and ignored me as he came past. I made straight for the cafe by the car park that’s so close to the edge of the cliff that some of it has fallen off. They were closing, but I squeezed past the board they’d wedged in the doorway to deter customers (after Mount Edgcumbe it would take more than that to put me off my path – especially where tea was the endpoint) and ordered a final and well-needed cuppa.
And then, just when I think I can sit down, I discover I have no service with which to phone for a taxi to get me to the station, so I add another fifteen minutes onto my day’s walk with wandering up and down above Finnygook Beach in an attempt to find some signal. I re-meet the lady with the retriever, who rushes up in recognition for a pat on the head (the dog that is, not the woman). 25 minutes later I’m being whisked away to St German’s station, up through the forgotten corner of Cornwall, round the wide meander of the tidal Lynher estuary, to St German’s station. I’ve made it: 13 miles down, only 287 to go. Inconceivably far in some respects, but now I’ve made a start it’s a reality rather than an itinerary. Nelson Mandela said that it always seems impossible until it is done. I’d rather paraphrase: it always seems impossible until it is Begun.
Not too long after I arrive I hear the hiss of the rails that signals the arrival of my train.
Even less time after that I’m still standing on the platform at the station in the middle of nowhere after my train has shuttled past-past-past at high speed without stopping, heading west without me.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]
In the spring of 2014 I set out to walk the coast of Cornwall. I started at Plymouth, crossed the River Tamar, which separates Cornwall and Devon, and began walking west along the south coast of the most south-westerly peninsula of the British Isles, and then east along the north coast until, 300 miles later, I will hopefully reach Marsland Mouth where a small river enters the Atlantic Ocean and I will step back into Devon.
Why? Because it’s there. Because I am here. Because I can, and because I want to.
What will be gained from the expedition? Unquantifiable experiences, an unimaginable amount of mud on my boots, clothes and face, and probably several thousand photos of sea views, rocks and flowers.
Other than that, who knows? Watch this space.
For more pictures here is a link to my facebook album for the first section of the coast path of Cornwall. Click the links throughout the text for more on the locations visited along this section of the walk.
Click any of the photos within the article for a larger version.
You may also like on Open the Curtains:
another sunny day in March in which I temper my usually smart walking pace to take in the ‘golden hour’ at my local nature reserve and realise why it sometimes pays to leave the camera at home