Date: 3rd May 2014 Distance walked: 6.2 miles Height climbed: 919 ft
New boots squeak clean. Residents greet me like a local as I make my way back through the village of Portscatho along the road above the harbour that leads to a dead end that leads to a stile that leads to the coast path. It’s been raining and everything looks and feels and smells very green. The first hillslope outside the village is covered in rows and rows of posts and tubes for young trees – part of the Diamond Wood plantation I believe – the sprouting heads of which are just beginning to peek out of the tops of the tubes like forced rhubarb. It’s hard to imagine what this will look like covered in woodland, apart from completely different. I keep my wool layer on and shove my hands in my pockets. The dew and rain-damp beads on the glossy leather of my new walking boots like a chocolate bar taken straight from the fridge into a warm kitchen. I’ve been wearing them in at home and for short strolls in the evenings. It’s a short and easy walk today: a smooth mud-ribbon of a path over a low gently undulating coastline, heading homeward for me. The endpoint of St Anthony Head, with its white lighthouse nestled on its western edge, overlooks the Fal Estuary, on the other side of which is my hometown of Falmouth. I’ve walked most of this stretch before, but never at this time of year, and it’s interesting to see now how my familiar pieces of coast fit into the puzzle of the whole. In character this stretch is much like the latter half of the previous stage – from Pendower to Portscatho: verdant and less dramatic than some of the crags and coves between the Dodman and Nare Head, but with equally beautiful beaches.
It’s easy going and fairly level to Greeb Point, the low cliff sloping away to my left to the familiar slate edge. A landslip like a bite taken out of a cake with a wavering barrier of orange-holed mesh corralling us away from the edge. I put my first scuff on the shiny leather climbing over a granite slab stile. Towan Beach with its golden, heavy-grained sand full of black slate dots is empty. Except for the snails on its peripheral vegetation. There are snails everywhere today: all over the docks and the hefty stalks of the umbellifers whose heads are starting to break out of purple-lined cocoons. I see my first swallow. Summer is a-comin’ in. After Towan – which is Cornish for ‘sand dune’, though there are none here – a tall wooden post with triangular footholds stands in the corner of the coast at the edge of the path just as it starts to gently ascend towards Killigerran Head. It is the Wreck Post, erected so practice rescues could be conducted from the near shore. From here I pause to look back at the fading grey shapes of Nare Head, Gull Rock and the Dodman on the horizon, dull in comparison to the alternative primary colours of the spring flora at ground level. Deep biro-blue of bluebells, Barbie-pink ‘red’ campion, yellowy lime of the alexanders with their masculine name and masculine scent.
Up on Killigerran the sward is dusted with a paler blue-lilac color, like the chambray lining of my jacket. Tiny heads of spring squill, Scilla verna, are sprinkled everywhere: each composite flower a little, clover-like cluster of blossoms resembling tiny lilies. A couple of passing walkers interrupt my obsessive wildflower photography to inquire what they are, having never seen them before. (They are one of the few flowers I definitely owe to my ecology degree, having seen them first on a field trip to Dannonchapel on the north coast in one of my quadrats whilst attempting to assess the diversity of the clifftop grassland there.) They go on to effuse about the local bluebells and their depth of colour. I have to agree: local bias aside I find our coastal bluebells incomparable, and I’ve seen some woodland bluebell carpets in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire that are really breathtaking. Cornwall’s are smaller, stronger: a flora of poor and thin cliff soil substrate with an air too rich in salt, ground too rich in minerals, sea and sky too rich in blue. It seeps through somehow and bleeds into their blooms.
Then I turn the corner and find the first pale pink profusion of thrift clinging to the downslope of the cliff. Offshore are yachts out of Falmouth, onshore large party of walkers, all multi-coloured Regatta coats, from the car park above Towan Beach. I look west from the mini-headland of Porthmellin towards Porthbeor beach below the cliffs and can’t see the path down from the clifftop. It is only when I got to the footpath crossroads leading ahead to St Anthony, right to the hamlet of Bohortha, and left down to the beach that I realise why: a very-new fence blocks the path and a sign denotes how the cliff, like an elderly dependent, has ‘suffered a serious fall’ in the infamous winter’s storms, rendering it all but inaccessible. Round the next bend in the coastline I look down to where this end of the beach was last time I was here, finding its replacement a mass of dumped rock and rubble like a huge tip truck has emptied its quarry-load over the edge of the cliff.
Suddenly Falmouth appears across the other side of the river inlet over the inland dip to the north-west, grey and soft-of-focus under the clouds, Pendennis Headland like a tree-d island from this angle. Round the corner the black top hat of the St Anthony lighthouse peeps up from the other side of the point. Then I’m up on the highest point of St Anthony Head, surveying the wide panorama stretching north from Manacle Point all the way round to St Mawes and the Fal Ria in the north. Greyscaled under the overcast sky the headlands in between were nearly indiscernible, but I picked them out with familiar ease, having long been used to seeing them in all visibilities and weathers, knowing where they should be even if I can’t quite make them out: the other Nare Head, Rosemullion, Pennance; their bookend wind turbines at Goonhilly on the Lizard and Roskrow at the head of the Penryn valley; Falmouth’s town buildings looking very white, its docks sprawling and industrial from this angle.
Out at the lighthouse point cormorants populate the big rock that angles up out at the sea fringe like a jagged tooth; one great black backed gull ruling the roost at the top of the white marker post. The Bessie Ellen (see Coastlining 8) is going back and forth amidst the yachts, the fishing trips, the ferries. This is Saturday on the Fal. We all have our outdoor hobbies. Mine is on foot and on paper where theirs is afloat, though I’ll have to take advantage of someone’s watery expertise to get back to my house from here. Down below Place House in the landward crook of the headland I call for the ferry to get across the Percuil River to St Mawes. The mud of Cellars Beach gives off a wholesome dirt-salt and wrack scent. Overhead the beeches have just come into leaf. I am the only passenger, embarking from the well-named slipway, the concrete slicked with algae as it’s well below the usual tide line.
Back at St Mawes a whole boat-load await the ferryman, while I transfer to the Tamar Belle and make the short voyage across the Fal Estuary. And then I’m home, and feeling like, with seventy six and a half miles down, I’ve reached a bit of a milestone.
[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.
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A closer look at the Place – St Anthony Head section of the Fal estuary – further storm damage prevented me from taking the same route from the lighthouse back to the ferry but you can read all about it (in reverse direction) here.