Date: 19th April 2014 Distance walked: 9.9 miles Height climbed: 1781ft
There was a beastly easterly driving into the coast from across the bay when we returned to Mevagissey. Annie had only realised once we’d arrived at our expected finish point at East Portholland to leave the car there that she’d left her jacket on the sofa at home. It was by no means a cold day and the sun was high in the sky, but the wind was sharp and relentless even within the relative shelter of the town let alone on the more exposed coast path, so before we set off we went in search of a cheap jumper or jacket. Annie ended up with a purple fleece that was at least less costly than the petrol (let alone the time) we would have used up returning to Truro for her jacket.
Eventually we got going, walking the southern quay of the inner Mevagissey Harbour where the multicoloured vessels and buoys bobbed in the relative shelter of the double harbour walls, to get to the steps up and out. Annie decided she was tired by the time we’d ascended to the small park, pausing to look back on what had been a strenuous walk for me and Luna from the jutting thumb of Black Head just five days earlier. The coast path follows the road for the first mile or so from Mevagissey to Portmellon. It was harder work somehow on tarmac than on what I have become accustomed to think of as the ‘path proper’: meaning footpath rather than pavement where it’s mud or rock or sand or stones or grass underfoot. Plus the very first section of a walk is always hard somehow. It perhaps takes a while to get into the stride of it, to warm up, to get those leg muscles moving and then lungs inhaling. A road sign advised BEWARE OF WAVES. As we drove through Portmellon in the taxi the waves had been overtopping the sea wall onto the road due to the combination of high tide and high east wind. Now the tide had lowered but pavement was still damp. We left the village along a residential lane with vamped bungalows with horses heads and big gates, and off onto the beaten track, across the grazed field and through the scattered herd of sheep woolly mutton chop sideburn heads, out towards Chapel Point, where we both agreed to aim to live when our ship comes in.
This was an open stretch of coast: grassland speckled with daisies mirroring the wave-flecked sea; low cliffs and little rock and sand beaches; bluebells spiking up but not quite ready to flower; hood up against the wind and hair blown in our faces when we tried to photograph ourselves. Wanting to call the colour of the sea navy but getting stuck on the tautology of it: navy blue being just that because of the deep dark blue of sea on which the naval force operates. It felt a bit like describing the sky as sky blue to say the sea was navy. Offshore the Gwinges – the outcrop of rocks too small to be islets – were ringed with white as we rounded the point towards Bodrugan’s Leap. A huge boulder, like those that are often called ‘giant’s hearts’ in this part of the world, sat on the edge of the path. Behind the boulder the path squeezed through a twist of gnarled and stunted trees, green with lichen and strung with sheep’s wool. As Luna and Annie emerged they startled the sheep responsible, who quickly made off to the other side of the field.
Gorran Haven was a brief reprieve from the wind as we made our way down through the village, past a house opposite the church with an Easter window display of painted eggs and yellow chicks. We hid in the beach cafe for a cup of tea before suiting up again for the next stretch. Around the next corner of cliff the path divided. Annie and I took one strand each, and Luna, momentarily panicked that one of us might be about to get lost or left behind dithered about whom she should follow and then ran backwards and forwards between us. I was on the lower path, which, I discovered, led to the long and near-empty white curve of Vault Beach. If there’s one thing I’ll take with me after I’ve finished walking the whole of the coast, it’s that I’ll know where to go to the best beaches. This seemed a particularly good one, slightly out of the way but not too far from a car park a little way up the coast path. I rejoined the main path and we walked a parallel curve to the white bay, the looming wedge of the Dodman now our next landmark.
Oh Jesus Christ! Annie groaned as we reached the top of the slope, the beach behind us beyond the blackthorn blossomed hedge. She’d caught sight of the cross that stands on the pinnacle of Dodman Point. I remembered that it was Easter Saturday, and here we’d found Jesus – or his cross at least. It’s easy to forget how linked Christ and the sea are historically – and I don’t just mean in a Sea of Galilee I-will-make-you-fishers-of-men kind of way. The sea was a perilous way of life for those who made it their livelihood: the fishermen, the sailors, the merchant and royal navies, ferrymen, privateers… People were more religious in the days of sail, but they had to be. There, but for the clutch of luck. Now the cross doubles as a daymark on this prominent peninsula. The first land we sighted it was called the Dodman… so the song goes. I’d been looking ahead to this point on the coast since standing on Rame Head on my first day in mid-March, with the fields of daffodils in bloom behind me and the hedgerows bare under the first hot sun of the year. I took a brief look back east along a coastline that from henceforth would be hidden from me, and the landscapes I had passed. I didn’t really know what to think, though it felt like the first big stage of the coast path was behind me already. So I turned the corner and joined Annie for a break on a hedgebank, with a daisy field at our backs and some wind-twisted trees on the flat grass in front of us. We were out of the wind now, sheltered by the bulk of the peninsula. I tried hard to fix the colours and the beauty of the scene on my mind: gulls flocking around a rock below, the specific blue of the sea. How beautiful was it? How can this be measured? I wondered too which of the many beautiful scenarios I have seen and will see will really stick, photographs aside, when I have finished. Westwards was a new curve of the coastline: Veryan Bay and Nare Head, with Gull Rock a new littoral omphalos on which to centre my focus.
As always when one stops on a the coast on a fine afternoon for a rest and to take it all in it was hard to get going again. The path wound along through scrubby vegetation, quite high up the cliff. There was no beach below us now, only steep drops to rocks, and dark craggy cliffs spiking up behind us. Huge chunks of rock from a recent fall cluttered the lower half of the cliff at Gell Point. This was a different landscape to the earlier wind-blown open grazing starred with daisies. But then, given that the prevailing winds are south-westerlies not this week’s unusual blast from the east it is understandable that this side of the Dodman peninsula is the more rugged. As if to reiterate the point of the ruggedness a raven cronked overhead. I pointed it out to Annie, who claimed she’d never seen one. We decided she probably had, but just hadn’t realised it as until they make a noise they often seem indistinguishable from crows and rooks. It pays to watch where you’re putting your feet, rather than the skies, on the coast path. Making my way downslope I skidded in a cow pat so competently that the whole side of one boot was smeared in it. I looked about for some leaves or longer grass to try and wipe it off. ‘Wait stay there!’ Annie shouted, hurrying ahead. I naively thought she might be going to help me out until she followed it with ‘ … I need to get as far upwind of you as possible!’
We’d been debating whether or not to stop at Hemmick Beach, the first wide cove of sand between slate cliffs, roughly where the peninsula joins the rough east-west line of the coast. I took the call that we would, despite the fact we’d not long had a break, so I could wash my stinky boot. It was warm now we were sheltered from the wind. The purple fleece was relegated to Annie’s rucksack. Luna looked warm and tired. Raven honks mingled with bovine moos, but we couldn’t see either creatures. Then, just above Hemmick I was pulled up short by Annie stopping in her tracks to pick up some shards of broken crockery for her jewellery making. Once we’d turned our attention to the path we started finding lots of clear chips of rough quartz too, and a large boulder at the edge of the track offered up an open vein of quartz through its slate from which we attempted – and sort of succeeded – to ‘mine’ some larger chunks.
I headed straight for the sea at Hemmick and swilled my stinky boot around in the shallows. Annie and Luna lay down on the sea wall while I aimlessly waved at someone completely different from the shoreline to point out some ravens swooping overhead.
To be a little lost on a long walk is a good thing – writes Thomas Clark in his famous poem ‘In Praise of Walking’. You might think it impossible to get lost on the coast path, you just, well, follow the coast. However, the official path often has diversions and alternatives running parallel to the main and most-trodden route, due to cliff erosion, vegetation growing up, navigability of the terrain. Sometimes through grazed sections it’s easy to mistake a sheep or cow path for the main track. Often you end up at the same place anyway, but sometimes it can go a bit wrong – as when Luna and I ended up in the cows at Hallane, and another time some years ago that Annie and I famously followed an alternative path above West Portholland that was supposed to form a circular route with the main coast path according to a National Trust map. It turned out to be a perilous impasse of gorse thickets with near-disastrous results. We got to the point where we could really go no further, decided to turn back and couldn’t see how we’d got there in the first place, when I slipped and landed in said gorse and punctured my brachial vein on a furze spine…
After heading up from the cove at Hemmick we wandered through more scrub-clad cliffs, the path winding ahead, the slopes clothed with trees and bushes in varying states of bare, leaf, and bud, like patches of different coloured lichen on a rock. Bluebells verged the narrow paths. At Lambsowden there seemed two possibilities of ways to go, and, as is often the case when you’re in the middle of nowhere on the coast path, no waymarkers with acorns and little yellow arrows to suggest the way. We took one way until the scrub closed in to such an extent that Annie said ‘this is starting to feel like a Portholland gorse bush situation is about to repeat itself’…
So we turned back, headed downhill to the open ground and took the other route, instructing a larger group of walkers who were about to make the same mistake having seen us descending and assumed we’d come from further west along the coast and that that was the real path.
Porthluney Cove appeared through the trees, the tide coming in up the deep reach of sand. Behind the small bay set back in its groves of trees the grey walls and turrets of Caerhays Castle were catching the afternoon sun, the flowering rhododendron specimens a splash of pink among the early greens of the landscaped grounds behind. We made way down and across a meadow, emerging on the road by the gothic castle gatehouse opposite the beach car park. Annie and Luna made friends with a skewbald whippet and his owner in the carpark. Families were packing up and the beach was emptying, the dedicated few still making the most of it in rolled-up trousers and hoodies as the shadows were beginning to lengthen from the west. After haring around for a bit with the new whippet Luna looked ready to drop, but was still not keen on drinking from her cup. The other whippet decided to help himself, before we headed off again, up the steep sloping road from the castle. It was cool and enclosed, high walled with trees that arched right over like a young holloway, an old man heading us off at speed to the top of the hill.
Here we took a left into another sheep field, onwards for another mile or so towards East Portholland. Gull Rock stuck up triangular in the blue of Veryan Bay, a series of tapered headlands fading into the distance, silhouetted in softening greys against the china blue sea and sky. Annie was flagging despite the frequent rests – though it was the longest walk she’d accompanied me on so far, and despite our late start and many brief stops we’d actually made really good time. She was worried that she was slowing me down, but I don’t think I’d have taken much less time had I walked by myself, and it was a pleasant change not to have to think about a transport deadline at the end of the walk.
The final few hundred yards of path hedged tight on either side was patchily tarmacked, and more strangely still, waymarked with official SWCP posts with their yellow arrows pointing straight on, as if there were another option other than to bushwhack through the scrub and plummet into the sea. At the final bend we could see the sunlight catching the car windscreens on the quay at East Portholland: we were nearly at our journey’s end. Down the steps and I heard the distinctive creak of fulmars. Annie wondered aloud how I knew so much about the wildlife, and I reminded her and myself that just a few weeks ago I didn’t know what a fulmar looked like, let alone sounded like without being able to see one. And then we were back where we’d left the car that morning at the row of cottages at East Portholland with their butter yellow doors and window frames.