Date: 9th April 2014 Distance walked: 7.1 miles Height climbed: 1611 feet
The cottages of Polperro sit jammed in the sharp cut of the Pol valley like pebbles wedged in a crack in the cliff. Past the mosaic mermaid with rosy cheeks, up the hidden steps behind the Blue Peter Inn and suddenly you’re out of the village, high up onto the cliff path, looking down at the harbour that’s concealed and sheltered behind the natural guard of cliff outcrop at the sea’s edge, the fingers of rock sticking up a bookend to the Hore Stones outside of Looe to the east. The transition to this bright spring day from the preceding cloud cover was as sudden as the few steps that take you out of habitation to unfettered coast; into the blinding blue and raw sunlight. It was too hot already and we’d only just made it out of the village. I was here with Luna the whippet, on loan while her mum went to work – she was to meet us at our endpoint, Fowey, just across the river from Polruan. I took her coat off, and her lead off, and my coat off, and my hoody off, and started to wonder why I’d put on so many layers; but when the weather forecast says 11°c you sort of expect it not to be as warm as summer, especially this early in April.
It was to be a day white-rimmed at the edges: paths bordered with stitchwort and three-cornered leeks, a blackthorn blossom edge to the cliff, a white flowering edge to every rock where the turquoise of the sea touched land. The cliffs were higher, the rocks more rugged – harder, aesthetically, that is, not physically or, well, geologically – the path harder too: steep ascents and descents and great racks of steps dropping down each rill cut, a plank footbridge at the bottom with a stream babbling through beneath. Ribboning contours squeezed close together and folded back on themselves, a deep orange band on the coast of the page.
Luna trotted ahead, waiting at each bend, each brow of each hill, every gate or footbridge; or heeled so close behind with her nose in the back of my knee that I kept kicking her in the face. Buzzards wheeled overhead. A handful of goldfinches scatter up from a leafless bush. Black blocks of rock. Fishing boats close to shore mirroring my trail, going back and forth from Polperro. Up ahead like a three-dimensional map the green snake of the path laid out where it zigzagged up through the scrubby vegetation not yet in bud. At Blackybale Point the double Z of folds in the slate and the angle of the stone wall at the cliff edge, a small rock arch like a secret window in the inner crease of the corner. Spring moving on one step at a time, one flora at a time, from my last walk. Sea campion, lime green bulbous heads. Pussy willow. The first thrift beginning to pink up. Round the corner the first sight of Gribbin Head, its red and white daymark just visible like a surveyor’s pole stuck in the tip of the promontory.
I’d never heard a bell buoy before. Down another flight of steps and I came to the wide stone pillar where the path strikes off inland to Little Lizzen which, though unmarked, stands as a landmark for the Udder Rock a mile offshore. From here I could hear the heavy ring like a church clock repeatedly striking the hour from Rock’s marker buoy. Whose arm hath bound the restless wave? Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep? It is an eerie sound, provoking an awe and sudden respect for the deep that is easy to forget in all the sparkly turquoise and bright sunshine. The sea is the ultimate wild place. Still only a couple of miles from Polperro I suddenly felt further from civilisation than I have been so far on the coast path, and despite having seen for myself the aftermath of the sea’s breaking work at several points along 28 miles of east Cornwall’s coastline, sharply aware of its immensity. I hid from the sunglare behind the landmark and wondered when I’d last seen another person. A raven honked. The bell tolled. O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.
Four mallards bobbed around in the cove below East Coombe where we stopped for lunch and a potter around the rockpools. Well, I did; Luna couldn’t figure out the rockpools and didn’t want to drink out of her dog cup so we sat higher up on a piece of slumped cliff and she rolled in the grass and looked at my pasty whilst ignoring her Bonios. All around the sound of moving water like a four-piece band. The slosh-rush of the sea that’s always in my ear, always to the south, to my left, a constant. The break of each individual wave. The running tap sound of the stream descending to the cove. The lower under-roar of the swell, like a baseline. Had I known what was ahead I might have saved lunch for Lansallos Cove, but the later start after the three train one bus mission of the morning meant I was ready for some sustenance.
And up again. They were not wrong when they labelled this stretch as strenuous in the official South West Coast Path guide. Lansallos Cliff rose tall above my right, a steep bank of violets going up, topped with crags in a way that reminded me of the Exmoor coast. A pair of stonechats. The warmth of the sun bringing out the scent of the gorse. The sea banded away from the coast like one of those nautical charts that shows depth in different shades of blue. Away to the west the sky clouding over, and above my head four ravens tumbling, my totem birds, never with me, nor following, nor guiding, but present on my periphery, punctuating my adventures into my favourite landscapes.
Lansallos Cove, the midpoint: ferns with curled noses, green-flowered arums, a tall pillar of rock with a thin pathway to the east and a wider cove to the west leading to soft grey sand and the smell of childhood beaches, a waterfall gushing down which totally transfixed the dog. Having just stopped I resisted the urge to flop down and take it all in, but noted it in my mental file of ‘Beaches To Return To’. Round Sandheap Point, over the dome of a green slope and down into a cloddy hollow with huge cow prints around a boggy spring with a stile-footbridge-wall leading through a glade of trees and up to more grazing where I was just about quick enough to stop Luna ingesting some sheep poo. The sky was more overcast now as we made on for Pencarrow, past Watch House Point, through grazing and scrub, past a solar panel for the electric cow fence. There were fewer steps now, though we were still high above the sea, and as rounded the craggy point of Pencarrow Head itself the golden beaches of Lantic Bay were revealed below(more for the mental BTRT file) with the Gribbin looking closer than ever as if it were just past the next bend in the coast.
Which it was, of course, except that beyond the 119m cliffs at Blackbottle which hide the village of Polruan until you are right upon it, is the Fowey estuary: a ria, or flooded river valley that reaches into the south coast of Cornwall. The flag was flying at the coastguard lookout. The tug boat was out. We rounded the southern side of the village and met a lady walking an old greyhound and a whippet. I had thought Luna would be knackered out by now, having climbed those hundreds of steps, steep hills, mastered gates, stalled at stiles, dismissed her dog treats and not drunk more than a couple of slurps of water all day. However there is still that store of secret energy reserved for going round and round and round in super fast crazy circles if we see another whippet.
When she’d finally had enough I put Luna back on the lead and we made it to the quayside to watch for the ferry’s return from Fowey on the other side of the estuary. It’s like a smaller version of the Falmouth estuary with which I am so familiar: more like St Mawes or Flushing, a narrower river mouth and everything on a smaller scale. I sat on a bench while Luna made friends with some boys and hovered up titbits that the seagulls had missed. She’d never been on a boat before, so I put her back on the lead and after walking quite nonchalantly on board as soon as I sat down she decided she’s been lead onto a horrible and monstrous vessel, jumped up onto my lap and cowered with her head in my armpit for the entire crossing. It was hard to know if – apart from the ferry ride – she’d enjoyed it as much as I had. She wasn’t afraid of the footbridges, as I’d been advised, and she had quickly started getting the hang of gates. Drinking from streams was a step too far at this stage, though, as were stiles. For myself this had been, I felt, what I’d always wanted from Cornwall: this landscape, this in somewhat unremarkable but totally breathtaking edgeland. This day summed up in seven miles the reason why I escaped here, each crook and nook of the coast revealing new points of intrigue, a short, but at the same time lengthy stretch of coastline quite empty in the human sense but full of too much to notice in one day. It was hard not to take too many photos, write too many notes, absorb enough flora, fauna, weather, water, rock. And this was only day four…
[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 photos from this section of the walk click here to see my facebook album.