Date: 7th April 2014 Distance walked: 5 miles Height climbed: 669 feet
Looking back towards Looe Harbour from Hannafore Point was a grim prospect. We could barely see as far as Millendreath, eastwards along the coastline. Overhead the cloud rolled across the sky of the bay like a heavy grey duvet. None-the-less we set out along the road, westward bound towards Talland and Polperro, and through gate into a field; where Annie let the dog off the lead and I immediately plunged my foot ankle deep into mud.
We’d planned this for a while. (The walk, that is, not my foot in mud. I don’t know how I manage these things, and I’m sure if I did plan them they wouldn’t be half so effective.) I’d turned down a shift-swap at work, Annie had worked from home over the weekend so as to have the Monday free; I’d got the bus timetables, she’d got the lunch. We set off in the car with the weather worsening the further east along the A390 we went. By the time we got to Polperro, where we’d planned to leave the car at our end point, we were fogged in a ground level cloud and drizzle. It was the sort of weather that makes you want t stay indoors, watch films and eat crisps all day. If it hadn’t taken us so long to get there we both agreed that we would have preferred to turn back and do just that. But what could be more Cornish than weather like this? All the more appropriate to experience the Cornish coast in all its damp glory. As I pulled my waterproof trousers on over my jeans I began to wonder if I’d been spoilt on the first day: perhaps I’d never have such good weather on the coast path again?
It started improving almost as soon as we stepped through the gate (and me into mud) at Looe. We almost went the wrong way up a hill towards a chapel, whilst Luna the dog went mad chasing a terrier round the grassy slopes. (Luna is a whippet: wasted on cross-country; very dangerous over short distances. We have since taught her not to go so crazy at the start of a long walk as she absolutely knackered herself out within about ten minutes.) Annie made the first slip-up of the day on the muddy steps of the path (technically speaking my foot plunging into mud was not a slip so much as a deliberate step. And not so atypical of my usual walking style as regular readers will discover in forthcoming episodes…) But by the time we’d made our first ascent and gone as little as a quarter of a mile the weather had definitely improved. We made for the Hore Stone’s fingers of rock sticking up from the cliff on the corner of Portnalder Bay and stopped for a breather looking out over Looe Island.
Now the property of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and no longer inhabited, the island was bought by two sisters in the 1930s and they both lived out their lives there. It’s an attractive idea, living on your own island, especially one like this – nine acres of woodland, hill, grassland and shoreline, with a proper house and within fairly easy reach of the mainland. But then you start thinking of the logistics of it: getting supplies there, especially in bad weather. The island must have been completely cut off at the beginning of this year, even though it is so close to Looe. And however attractive that isolation appears to be, would it still be after a few months, a year?
Maybe I read too many island-based novels as a child. Famous Five, Swallows and Amazons: perhaps having an island, like those groups of children did, to escape to when needed is a better ideal than living on one full time? The cloud duvet had rolled back further, and now we could see up the coast where I’d walked on previous weeks: Seaton, Downderry, Portwrinkle; and the triangular headed Rame Had promontory. We passed parent and child party on the way, who must have been regretting their trainers even if it had stopped drizzling.
Talland turned out to be a little coastal hamlet with purplish beach, a few well-placed houses, church, and a beach cafe which had set up little beach huts to eat and drink in, each decorated in a different, if kitsch, style. Annie and I occupied the boat themed one – sailboat curtains, oars on the wall – and had tea and cake while Luna disinterestedly crumbled up and left a Bonio on the floor. Recent landslips in February meant we had to cut off a corner of the coast, going uphill by a road verged with white-flowering tri-cornered leeks; sheep in a field that looked like they had recently lambed, though no lambs were to be seen.
Once back on the edge of the coast we found we were squinting in the brightness, the sea like a sheet of dulled foil with slivers of silver where the light was breaking through the cloud cover. Just before Polperro we passed under a rooty tree roofing right over the path, and met an extended family who we tried to dissuade from taking a pushchair along the mud and steps of the path we’d just covered.
Then around the corner and there crouched the cluttered cottages of Polperro behind the harbour walls. This is the quintessential Cornish Fishing Village: exemplary not only in looks and character, but also in showcasing the nature of the problem with the Cornish housing market. Along the way Annie and I had been discussing the (im)possibility of purchasing a house – fantasising over how many rooms we’d need to accommodate our combined collections of books, clothes, dvds and furniture; as well as guest room, writing room for me and workshop for Annie who is a part-time jeweller. In all practicality a poky one bedroomed cottage would suit me just fine, and be a considerable upgrade from my current houseshare. We passed plenty, packed together like cottage Tetris, white washed with black, blue or green windows, two-part front doors, and nautical doorknockers shaped like ships or dolphins or a mermaid.
Absolutely all of them holiday cottages. So many in fact that when we came across one in their midst with windowful of rampant houseplants rather than the ubiquitous model seagull or sailing boat of the tourist lets, we applauded its owner. Most of the properties are tiny, awkward spaces; ex-fishermen’s cottages that by rights should be worth pennies, originating as homes to the lowest end of the working classes, yet now the working classes can’t get a look-in. We will no doubt be confined to the characterless new-builds on the outskirts. ‘Real’ Cornwall cannot be inhabited by the Cornish it would seem.
We were saved from something like regret by the thought that neither of us would be able to stand living in such a tourist hotspot during July and August, which cheered us up as we wound up through the narrow streets to the car. Luna flopped into her bed in the boot. Annie professed a desire to do likewise. I pulled off my waterproof trousers and remarked that after a mere five mile ramble my legs weren’t even aching. A buzzard wheeled over the green ravine of the Pol Valley. It was turning into a beautiful afternoon.
[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.
Looe Island, also known as St George’s Island or Enys Lann-Managh in Cornish (isle of the monks’ enclosure) is a marine nature reserve providing a haven for wildlife, with a variety of habitats. The island is part of the Looe Voluntary Marine Conservation Area (Looe VMCA). During the summer boat trips out depart from East Looe Harbour. Click here fo more information about the reserve and visiting.
For more pictures click here to see my facebook album of the trip.