Date: 15th April 2014 Distance walked: 11.5 miles (+detours) Height climbed: 2326ft
Six feet clang over the footbridge on the path between Par Moor and Spit Beach at quarter past nine on a fine April morning. Two in battered hiking boots, shoelaces knotted in three places to keep them on; four unshod, leather pads and too-long nails. Below the bridge and on either side as I make my way with Luna the dog down to coast on the other side of Par Harbour, are the metal boxes, pipelines, blocks and cylinders of the Par Docks china clay processing plant. Though a scene so removed from the rocky slopes between Polperro and Polruan that I felt defined the Cornwall coast of my imagination, this too, is what it’s all about. China clay, or kaolinite, named for the hill Kao-Ling in China where it was first discovered, is formed when granite decomposes hydrothermally. It is extracted by blasting with water canon, which dissolves the kaolin, which is then separated and dried in the processors at Spit Point. The tipped waste products that remain when the mineral has been extracted formed the mountainous landscape surrounding St Austell that is always visible on the landward side of this part of the coast, and made sand at Par Beach so fine and sparkly with its high quartz ratio.
It is a beautiful day, fresh and breezy, with the morning sun lighting the sea white-silver and casting the scenery of our last exploration into soft silhouette on the eastern edge of St Austell Bay. Away to the west, Black Head, which, barring mishaps, we will round today, before we meet Luna’s mum at Mevagissey this afternoon. Beyond that, the Dodman, which had first seemed so far away when I saw it on the horizon from Rame Head, but which has gradually been getting closer with every stage of the journey.
The path sticks to the top of the low cliff line all the way to Charlestown, but once we get past the golf course and it’s safe to let Luna back off the lead I take a detour down to Carlyon Bay, partly because the long stretch of beach looks so golden and inviting in the morning sunshine, and partly because I’m interested to see how the redevelopment process has progressed since I was last here seven years ago as a coastal environmental management student. The plan then was to develop the brownfield site right on the beach as a holiday resort with 500 apartments, a retail space and a hotel. Now Carlyon Bay appears to still be in limbo. The shell of an ancient nightclub remains cordoned off behind a wire fence line. A portacabin houses the public information as to what’s going on and the future plans. It’s a shame to see it suspended in a permanent state of dereliction: either knock down the old and open up the backshore, or rebuild and refresh. One way or another, this could be an attractive stretch of coastline that deserves to be more than a building site.
Just before Charlestown I come across my first clump of bluebells. They’re Spanish bluebells, though, not the native – and protected – English bluebells which appear slightly later. All in good time. The blackthorn continues to frill up the seaward hedges, and a glade of trees just before we descend to the harbour is frosted under with masses of the white-belled three-cornered leek.
The tide is fairly low, the narrow inlet of the harbour like a dry dock. A robin bobs about on a boat hull. There are no square riggers moored up here today, but the quayside cottages, the stacks of lobster pots and coils of ropes maintain the traditional olde-worlde harbour scene associated with Charlestown: a harbour created in the 18th century by Charles Rashleigh.
Up from the harbour the path passes through a woody glade within which the remains of the gun battery emplaced in 1793 to defend the newly built harbour can still be seen. A plaque tells how locals were formed into a company of artillery volunteers who regularly undertook gun drill here until 1896. Now it’s all green dappled shade underpinned with celandine ‘sun stars’.
Du Porth. Carrickowel. Porthpean. A private beach with posh steps. Forget me nots on the bank. A pink primrose. A white sheen on the sea and seagulls dotting the wet sand. Then Luna and I leave the more populous stretch of St Austell Bay and head south, up and out into the countryside towards Trenarren and Black Head and suddenly it’s different: we’re getting higher and higher above the sea to the left, sheep in the fields to the right, many steps with violets in their creases mounting steeply upwards, badger-holes in the path. The squeak squeak squeak of a kestrel. Bluetits in the hedges. Willows coming into bud. A cormorant out on Robin’s Rock and the sea tinned-pea green where it meets the brown blocks of rock in the nicks of the coastline below. Over the hedge to the right a brief glimpse of Pentewan and the coastline to the west in the dip before Trenarren. Then through sloping woods at Ropehaven before emerging into the sun and wind and unexpectedly looking down onto Black Head.
I walk out to the very end of the promontory, which, though it looked lower than the land behind, is still high up. It’s incredibly windy, the sea in the bay like chambray flecked with white threads. A slab of granite stands as a memorial to local historian, writer and poet A. L. Rowse.
THIS WAS THE LAND OF MY CONTENT.
Irrationally – or perhaps too rationally – I wonder whether it means the content of his work, or the abstraction of content as in happiness. Or both. I look back east across St Austell Bay, bracing myself against the breeze. How far away I felt from the accessible slopes of Gribbin Head; from the industrial infrastructure and processed sands of the china clay beaches of Par; from the rows of homes up the hillsides of St Austell; from the concrete steps of the private beach at Du Porth.
It’s too windy to sit out on the headland, and as it is lunch time I make for a cove on the western side of the promontory to be more sheltered where I think I’ve lost Luna for a terrifying moment until I discover she’s wandered off for a lie down and completely camouflaged herself against the stone of the beach. A text message arrives which is somewhat incongruous with the near-isolation of my location, but a testament to just how ‘remote’ this location is in reality: not very. It’s from an old acquaintance I went to school with – started school with in fact. The sense of remoteness suddenly returns, though in a different way. How far away do I feel right now from the Thames Valley, from Finchampstead and Bracknell and London, from the daily trawl of the bus journeys and school; how far from all the people with whom I spent so much time? How differently things might have turned out; how many other places might I have ended up… Right now, getting that message out on a limb of the Cornish coast I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. This is the land of my content.
I’d have liked to have stayed longer and basked on the warm stones, as is often the way when one stops to rest. But having a deadline for the endpoint means I am anxious to press on and not lose time – and as it turns out it was a good job I didn’t. Back on the official path and Luna and I round the wide and open hill between Black Head and Hallane. Somehow we divert ourselves from the main path and end up on a sheep track (or quite possibly cow track) which leads around the hill and down towards the top end of the field beyond a little herd of cattle – or so it seemed. Of course I don’t realise I’ve taken a diversion and am not heading towards a gate or stile at all, and as we pass the group of young bullocks the whole lot of them all decide to start walking close behind us. I’m quite fond of cows but Luna had never met one before and was getting nervous. It pops into my head that more people, apparently, get trampled to death by cows per year than are eaten by sharks. Resisting the temptation to run away – they can run faster (than me, though probably not faster than a whippet) and are bigger and heavier – Luna and I manage to make a swift exit over a hedge and into a lane. (Or rather I picked her up and put her over the barbed wire and then I fell somewhat ungracefully from the top of the hedge into the lane.)
The trouble is we are then in the wrong place to rejoin the coast path, and end up accidentally following a bridleway which takes us a long way inland. To be a little lost on a long walk is a good thing. Except it considerably added to the daily mileage, took a lot of time and probably tired the both of us out much more than was necessary considering how far we had to go and how hard the path ahead turned out to be. An attempt to short-cut across a field of long lush grass ends in an impasse of steep and impenetrable scrub so we retrace our somewhat lengthy steps back to Hallane and eventually I spot the little yellow acorn on a fence post denoting the right way to go.
We twist and turn around a few corners, cross a stream, pass a man with a motorised wheelbarrow on mini-tank tracks, see a tree stump carved into an unidentifiable and slightly terrifying dog-badger-beast, and find ourselves in a pleasant stretch up through early spring woodland, buds beginning to break on trees, primroses everywhere, a babbling brook crossing the path and faced with yet another flight of wobbly-legged steps. Luna merely stands on the lowest step and looks at me as if to say ‘do we have to, Aunty Merryn?’
Hard work. Legs weak and jelly-like. A sort of satisfaction of pressing on when you are physically tiring and being able to do it. This was just a taste of what was to come. At the crest of each hill there is the relief of being up, only to press onwards to see the next upward slope of the following vale lined with a perpendicular set of steps seeming as straight and vertical as a ladder set into the hill. And then the realisation that in order to climb up that we are going to have to go down something on this side first which no doubt looks pretty similar. When I was a kid I didn’t understand why grown ups thought down was as bad as, perhaps worse than up. Now I just have to try to ignore the noise my knees make as I descend.
Pentewan. A wide, pale beach backed by a sprawl of static caravans. It looks flat and inviting. I will take off my boots and walk in the sand, I think, maybe dip my toes in the sea and refresh myself, stop at what looks like a beach cafe to get tea and cake and give Luna a drink and have a well deserved rest.
When I get down onto beach, I find I can’t get across the small but shallow river snaking its way across the sand to the sea with boots on. The water’s icy, the sand sharp. Luna won’t come across. I have to go back and carry her over. I hobble over the sharp-sharp sand to the cafe. My feet have dried by the time i get there so I tie Luna to a bench and put my boots on so I can go in and buy us both some refreshments. A woman comes out. Is that your dog? I reply in the affirmative, although it’s not technically true. Well there’s no dogs on this beach. I apologise and explain I didn’t realise. Well there’s signs up everywhere. I try and explain I haven’t seen one coming in the way I did – which is true, I didn’t, it would have saved me what turned out to be my second doubling back of the day, once again no mean distance. I couldn’t go in the cafe and they couldn’t or wouldn’t sell me a bottle of water to take away. Having finished my meagre supply with the intention of buying more in Pentewan I am forced to retrace my steps – this time through the caravan park – back to Pentewan village at the other end of the bay to buy another bottle of water. Back again across the landward side of the beach, this time by road, until we rejoin the South West Coast Path at the top of the road on the way to Tregisskey. So much for looking ahead to Pentewan and anticipating a rest.
Back on track – literally – I break out the hot cross bun, my last remaining morsel from the lunch box, for a well-needed energy boost. I had been pre-warned that the stretch between Pentewan and Mevagissey is not long but is Hard. There are no surprises when Another Valley appeared at Portgiskey. Luna takes the descending slope faster than I think even she expected. I hoped she has the sense not to come back up again to meet me. Then up another green hill towards some houses and suddenly, thankfully, Mevagissey Harbour is close below us at the bottom of the hill.
A bracing east wind flecks up the sea, white on sapphire and emerald. Waves break over the top of the outer harbour wall. Behind the shelter of its double arms dozens of multicoloured boats are moored in rows, the quayside busy with holiday makers. It’s sunny but really cold now I’ve stopped moving. I treat myself to an ice cream (lemon curd) and sit on edge of harbour trying to find a spot out of the wind while we wait for Annie to meet us. A couple of days ago I bought a new lightweight wind and waterproof jacket and I congratulate myself on a successful and timely purchase. Luna however was shivering so I put my cardigan on her in the absence of a dog coat.
The next day Annie sends me a picture of Luna out for the count for the entire day on with the caption – You have killed my doggy! In all honesty the beast looks how I feel, though I’m creaking my way up and down the stairs doing a day’s work. In return I reply with a photo of the ladder steps, Luna a tiny speck at the bottom of Portgiskey valley.
[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.
A new public exhibition will be held this Friday 18th and Saturday 19th July at the Carlyon Bay information centre, showcasing up-to-date information and new plans for the development site at Crinnis Beach.
For more information on the story and conflicts of this beach go to the Carlyon Bay Watch website for full details of the history, current situation, and lots of pictures.
For more photos of this section of the walk, see my album here. As always, please click any photo featured for a hi-res version (you really can just about see the doggy by the gate at the bottom of the hill in the second-last photo!)