Date: 24th April 2014 Distance walked: 9.9 miles Height climbed: 2073 ft
Too hot-hot by the top of the first hill up out of West Portholland. Roll up jeans. Peel the vest top from under my shirt. Swig some water. Reassure the dog who’s wimpering and wiggling her eyebrows and going back up and down the path to look for her owner who dropped us off on her way to work with a parting shout of ‘look out for gorse bushes!’
Seven years later and there’s little chance of making that same mistake again (see Coastlining 7 and scroll down to the part about being a little lost on a long walk). An alternative root would be more appropriate for the supposed side-shoot off the main path so hedged in with brambles and gorse and something that looks like it might be crocosmia. Paths stay open only so long as they are in use. There is little sign, however, that any extensive grazing has ever been implemented here, nor of maritime grassland becoming widespread and the ancient field systems more obvious.
Hard work to Portloe. Out of the treeline where the sun casts sharp branching shapes on the ground and the path dips down and away along the scramble of slate coastline, past Cellar Rock and May’s Rock and on, the path a green stripe through the scrub on the cliff edge.
Earth hath not anything to show more fair , I think, than Cornwall in the spring. Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty indeed. The verge either side a wildflower meadow: white stitchworts, bluebells, pink campion too bright against their clashing foliage background, too bright under the glare of the morning sun. Primroses raised creamy five-petalled heads on single stalks in their cabbagey clumps. Sea campion flowers fine as tissue paper with their cordial coloured bladders. Fair weather cumulus clouds like heavy-topped ice creams against the blue sky reflecting on the surface of the sea in a way I’ve never seen before. Everywhere the mass scent of bluebells and the smell of the sea mixed in a Cornish coastal perfume of sea-salt-hyacinthoides, tinged at the edges with a faint oniony hint of the spring alliums.
A few walkers pass us in the other direction. I remember the baggage transfer people suggesting I walk ‘the other way round’ and how I laughed at the suggestion that I’d keep meeting people coming in the other direction on narrow paths. A woman in her fifties with unkempt hair and a huge rucksack barely acknowledges me. I wonder if that’ll be me in twenty years or so, then think about how creaky my knees are now, then miss my mum who’s laid up 250 miles away inland awaiting an arthroscopy on one half of a pair of knees whose cartilage has completely disintegrated. She’d have loved this. Half a slow-worm curled in the middle of the path – minus its tail but still dead – made me think of her again: how we’d been sitting in the garden on holiday once and half a slow-worm dropped out of the sky. It had obviously been picked up by a seagull and shed its tail in self defence, presumably leaving the tail in the seagull’s mouth as it plummeted to earth and landed on my brother’s head.
Finally Portloe appears in its crevice of the cliffs, reached by a knee-high alleyway of three-cornered leek in full flower on either side of the path. The dew damp was refreshing on my bare legs. House with a horse head on its prow. I mean gable. A wooden seagull like a duck on a gatepost. Fishy smell in the steep and tiny harbour, stacked up with lobster pots and nets. Made for a bench up on the western side and felt like I’d already done a day’s walk rather than just two miles. Luna growls at a couple with a black Labrador and a ball-thrower. If I’d known what was ahead I would have allowed longer for that strenuous first part of the path. But I guess that’s the whole point: if I knew in advance what the coastline would be like there’d be little merit in the discovery of its qualities whilst walking it. A map can only tell you so much. That’s why it’s a map and not something else.
After Portloe, up to the Jacka, the high point on the cliff from which the tiny fishing village was barely visible and the Dodman promontory looked like a shelf on the horizon. A hairpin bend below someone’s garden in the shelter of some maritime pines at Manare Point. A stretch of boardwalk over a marshy section, then a double footbridge high over a stream. Reeds papery, lush vegetation, and squashy ground that boots would suffer in. Speedwell on a tussock, flowers like tiny veined saucers where the blue glaze has settled inwards from the rim. Wall steps and stile combination at the top of the hill confounding the dog. I lift the post to let her through the dog-gate and she squeezed under the stile instead. Lambs with docked tails. We’re level with the black lab couple now.
Kiberick Cove a clear turquoise. The need for a new adjective as every cove appears to be so. Gull Rock more an island close to: directly offshore to the south like a lumpen craggy cat belly down and looking at a mouse. Another stile stumps Luna completely. She won’t go over it. She can’t go round it. She can’t go under it. (She has to go over it….) Lies down like a child going I’m not doing it! So I leave her and head on in the hope that she’ll figure something out, but she just walks along the wrong side of the fence looking confused until I give in and hoik her over. The field smooths over the inner elbow of the land, bright green and studded like a starfield with celandine as far as the eye can see. Small trees bend at right angles towards the land like a woman bent over with her hair blown out. Maybe I’ll look like that by the end of the coast path. Half a dozen sheep graze further down. A lower level from a landslip six or seven years ago has created a smooth slope-step down to the cove, itself half-covered in rockfall from a more recent slip. The coast is continually moving.
A sense of remoteness. It is not often that I feel the coast of Cornwall is remote. Parts are quite bleak and it’s often ‘rugged’ but as I’m proving by doing this it’s very accessible, often with roads and settlements nearby and rarely a long period passes without seeing anyone else on the path. I’d scoffed at one of the guide books describing this stretch as having a wonderfully remote atmosphere. But here I am, feeling, well, remote. Or alone. Not in any way afraid or in danger but there’s an attractive uncomfortable-ness in the feeling. Above the cliff to my right a cloud of birds descending and ascending. Ravens, I thought, but as I draw closer I see more than half are gulls. The track I am following grows rougher, leading in and around gnarled gorse bushes and boulders. I scratch my calves before reaching an impasse. Perhaps my disquiet at my own remoteness had been a premonition that I was heading off-piste. This clearly isn’t the path. Once again I’ve been following a sheep-track into the Wilderness. It isn’t a coast path walk without a little unintended detour. Anyway how wrong can you go on the coast? I’ve only been prevented from following the coast round by density of vegetation. I retrace my steps until I see the couple with the black labrador up by the fence line at the top of the slope, so I head uphill and out of the Wild.
Rosen Cliff: grey, perpendicular, and high high up now. Peer over the edge and it’s sooo far down. The highest point I’ve been so far? It’s 95m above sea level according the contours on the map, but I discover by flicking back a few pages that I’ve been much higher several times: Rame Head 97m, the Dodman 110m, east of Polruan 119m and just before Lansallos 140m.
Nare Head (75m). Lunch (cheese and pickle sandwiches). Heart shaped boulder and a military bunker. Wide view of Gerrans Bay from crusted cliff headland at my near east, down through a lowering gradient and gentle farmland with the xanthine yellow of oilseed rape looking painted on in the patches of field, the pale townspread of Portscatho, and the St Anthony Headland (68m) looking quite low at the western rim of the bay. Beyond that the familiar backlog of shipping awaiting bunkering in Falmouth Bay. The next headland: the Manacles and Porthoustock? Or even the Lizard itself? I can make out the Goonhilly satellites. Squeaks and teezes of little birds heard but not seen. A single raven. A great black backed gull. Sunscreen stings the gorse scratches on my legs.
Along from Nare Head to Tregeagle’s Hole: a roofless four walled remains of a house perched on the shelf where the path descends suddenly to a footbridge over the stream responsible for the cleft, and up again. The slate cliffs with their black incursions and caves under this bright sun remind me of photos I took of the Tintagel coastline on the north coast many years ago on my first holiday to Cornwall. Wonder if it’s the same geology – I’ve just ordered a geological map so hopefully I can find out. (In fact this slice of the inner part of Nare Head – the tip is Dolerite – is the same Upper Devonian undivided slate as found at Tintagel Head.) Ox-eyed daisies. A cow field. Into the gentler, lower landscapes I had a preview of from the headland, and an easier walk than this morning’s ascents and scrambles. A brief step on the road above Carne Beach and Pendower. A summer holiday feel – maybe that’s the sunglasses and the smell of the sand from the beach. A ring around the sun like a translucent rainbow or the edge of a CD. Tim Robinson says that means a change in the weather’s coming. The Met Office says high level ice crystals refracting the sunlight.
Wild cranesbill in the dappled shade as we head back off road and onto the path. The next section through Tregenna towards Porthbean through beautiful meadows: cerise spires of early purple orchid, plantain flowers tall above the foliage, daisies demarcating the well-trodden parts. A meadow of fern crooks unfurling upwards in green clusters. A meadow of bluebells threaded through the lush grass. A meadow of campion and longer weeds. A meadow of dandelion clocks. Green alkanet (actually it’s blue). Posies in the crevices of steps down to Porthbean Beach where large flat boulder stones make for good seats and the sand is grey and coarse but so soft underfoot – in the way that brown sugar is coarse but soft to plunge the hand into at the same time.
Boots off. Sea freezing. Strandline littered with cuttlefish bones, shell halves and beadlets of sea plastic. A huge tangle of rope-net-twine-and-bits like Neptune’s dreadlock at the back of the beach. A ship comes into view from the west, all but its topsails raised: the Bessie Ellen, the last remaining vessel of a 700 strong fleet of wooden West Country trading ketches. A shell-whorl sculpture of slate pieces pushed end-on into the sand.
Up the wooden steps from the beach through a glade of trees and lacey wild garlic undergrowth and towards the coastguard station at Pednvadn. I overtake a group of people above Porthcurnick Beach discussing whether or not to go in the sea. (One of the guys wants to jump in and out quickly, one of the girls is willing to go in up to the top of her legs and the other girl is really not sure. Having dipped only my feet up to the ankles I would second the last girl’s gut instinct here.) Not long after I spot them in the water from the (not so-) Hidden Hut above Porthcurnick: the first girl holding up her dress and the boy in up to his shorts and looking absolutely bleddy freezin’. Luna – now wearing my cardigan again because the sea-waders are not the only ones who are looking absolutely bleddy freezi’ – growls at a man with crutches (along with stiles and water she also doesn’t like sticks…) who comes to talk to her anyway. He’s recovering from a rock climbing accident and has hitch-hiked from St Austell just to get tea and a brownie here.
A perfect evening by the time I reach Portscatho, just a quarter of a mile beyond Porthcurnick. Sitting above the harbour facing east while I pass the time before the bus arrives at the top of the village, I look back over the coastline I have walked, the blue line of the sea horizon is ruler straight and clear. The Dodman in near total eclipse behind Gull Rock. Nare Head looking much higher from here than it did when there. A teacher greets me: ‘Beautiful evening.’ It’s been a beautiful day. Indescribably so, however many notes I make and photos I take I never feel I can do it justice. A jackdaw has landed on the finial of the wall and is looking at me with his pale blue eye. Echoes bounce between the harbour walls below me from the children stretching out their Easter holiday afternoon on the harbour beach. Fair weather clouds cluster over the land, a ceiling of cerulean overhead. Sun warm in the way that glowing coals are after the ferocity of the fire.