Date: 9th May 2014 Distance walked: 8 miles Height climbed: ~1175 ft
It is light by the time I return to Swanpool, not bright daylight, but a cotton-grey pre-dawn that retires any expectations of an exciting sunrise to make up for the non-sunset of last night. As I reach the beach I look back over my shoulder and can see a blush behind the cloud cover. Crossing the road over the bar between beach and pool I make my way uphill and veer off-road and on-path towards the little patch of woodland on Pennance Point. Turning round at the highest point of the hill I survey the view I’m so familiar with, seeing it with fresh eyes for the first time at daybreak. You can see for 40 miles on a clear day: from Swanpool and its beach; the town; Gyllyngvase, the seafront and hotels; Pendennis Headland with the cranes form the docks peeking up from the other side of that peninsula; St Anthony Head on the other side of the estuary. In the distance the hills of the Roseland, and beyond, the mountainous slag heap moors around the St Austell China Clay district. Overhead the clouds are a pastelled blend of greys, lilacs, peaches, pinks. I keep one eye over my shoulder all the way along the flat clifftop path to Maenporth as the sunlight begins to strengthen, eventually half breaking through and throwing down sunrays over the silhouette of Pendennis Point, the sea like beaten metal.
At Maenporth the tide is low, exposing the smooth stretch of flat sand. A flock of birds at the edge of the sea take off just as I take a photograph. The large vessels still in the bay from the night before are no longer lit up and seem to sleep in the early morning still. I eat my breakfast on the southern cliff edge of the cove with a group of gannets spearfishing for theirs just offshore. There is never an indication of when they’re going to dive; then in a split second there’s a wig-fold-drop. I am close enough to see when they return up to the surface with a fish; far enough away for a delay between my seeing one plummet into the water and the sound of the SPLOOSH to reach me.
I am loathe to continue, until I remember that I can return here any time I like, at any time of day, even sunrise, with little effort. So I step onwards, through the field at the corner of the cliff and along the path towards Nansidwell that runs along the bottoms of the gardens of the houses in which anyone would dream to live. Sea views, clifftop gardens, and at the other edge of the footpath, a little gate to your own private beach. The meadow-gardens are everything you would expect for the second week in May: efflorescent, abundant, ablaze with red campion and bluebells. A faint rainbow sprays across the sky above one of the houses, followed by a spray of rain. As I zip myself into my jacket I realise that this is actually the first time it’s rained on me on my Coast Path Adventure, and even then it was over before it really started.
At Bream Cove a lady with an exuberant dog is probably the first person I’ve seen out this morning. It is 6.30am. Judging by the un-selfconscious way in which she is one-sidedly conversing with her dog when I arrive I think she’d say the same about me. This is a favourite end-point for a there-and-back-again walk for me, but I don’t stop this morning. After the rocky cove in the corner before the headland is the mud of Nansidwell’s grazing spiked with early purple orchids, and the green promontory of Rosemullion Head. Bluebell spears in the weave of the sward give a blue sheen to the cloth of the land like shot fabric catching its contrasting cross-thread in the light.
Out on the tip of Rosemullion I could see right across east to the Dodman if it weren’t for a huge shipping vessel covering that part of the view. But I don’t need to see it. I know where it is, what it looks like, how it feels underfoot: its starfields of daisies, craggy edges, slippy cow pats… Underfoot at the present are a tiny pink I can’t identify. (Thanks to my trusty ID guide I found out later it’s lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica.) Close to shore there’s a fishing boat with just its mizzen sail raised, two men in yellow hauling in lobster pots. I take the path at the bottom of the grassed dome of Rosemullion, onto the least-familiar, last-third of the path.
Another rainbow shines out brighter and better against the steely grey sky over Mawnan, followed by another shower over as quickly as the first before I make it to the woods above Mawnan Shear and below Mawnan Church. Here the steep slope is clothed with twisted tree trunks through which glimpses of a grey pebbled beach can be seen and the sound of the sea can be heard. Emerging from the trees to more grazing I can see the Helford River in the dip between two hills. It looks more like a lake so completely disconnected it seems from the sea. Then I find the sea again as I round Toll Point and find myself walking the coast of the stretch of water that is some way between sea and river mouth. Sunlight falling from behind me pulled the landscape of the southern shores of the Helford estuary into sharp focus: I would never normally see that stretch of coast lit from the east. If you want to really see a landscape that you are already familiar with, look at it in another light – literally. I thought I’d find it hard to walk and write this part of the coastline because I’ve done this route so many times before, so dragging myself out of bed at 4.45am was really worth it to get to see it in a way I never would have done otherwise. Open the door, I paraphrase to myself as I’m going along, and step outside if you want to know what it’s like. I’m looking forward to tomorrow because I’ve never walked that stretch of coastline I’m now looking at.
Porthallack is the first beach on the Helford Estuary. Although it’s still early I’ve walked a fair way already today so I stop for cheese and crackers and some more coffee on the large grey pebbles. The boathouse at the top of the cove makes me think of Rebecca much more than Polridmouth, though in reality I’m much closer to Frenchman’s Creek territory. The next beach along is Porth Saxon, wider, less bouldered, backed by a marshy area and a stream running down from the village of Mawnan Smith which is due north of here. The coast path continues west along the banks of the estuary, up through the buttercup and red clover strewn hay meadows of Bosloe with signs on the gates to advise keeping to the mown paths to help protect the oil beetles and ground nesting birds. Here’s another house I’d quite like to live in. This one’s owned by the National Trust and you can rent it for holidays. Then I reach Durgan which is an entire village owned by the National Trust (and you can rent them for holidays). The stone and slate cottage cluster is picturesquely fronted by the rocky river beach, and a gate at he back leads to the valley garden of Glendurgan. I consider going in but the gate is locked up and I can hear chainsaws or hedge trimmers being wielded within. Then I remember the garden doesn’t open until 10:30am so the garden team are probably getting all the gardening done that they can’t do with visitors underfoot.
The cows in the next field do little more than carry on chewing despite the fact they’re all over the footpath as I walk through. The calves are particularly adorable and I have to resist the temptation to go up to them as their mums regard me warily with their solemn eyes. The next valley is also a sub-tropical garden: Trebah, although its beach is private and I pass along the back behind a shoulder high wall. Looking over the top I’m facing directly down river out to sea where the sunlight has set a silver bar across the river mouth, as if to mark the point where the Helford ceases and the sea begins. The first of this year’s roses cover the garden wall on my right: single whorled in deep pink and white and stinking of summer.
An unexpected bluster hits me as I step from the path down onto the beach at Helford Passage, funnelling down the vale through the gap between the hills and trees up west ad inland towards Constantine. I pick some seaglass from among the pebbles of the beach. The ferry man is putting out his signs at his little booth outside the Ferryboat Inn. Everyone’s day is jut beginning and I feel like I’ve already achieved more than I normally would in an entire day were I to get up at a more reasonable hour. I wonder how much more I’d get done if I got up this early every day – except I’d have to start going to bed A LOT earlier, and I’m inherently an evening person so it would never work out.
I make my way up the road to catch the first bus of the day back home. It’s not even 9am.
[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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There are other lives we might lead, places we might get to know, skills we might acquire. We live in an age so completely self-absorbed that the ability to simply look, to pour out the intelligence through the eyes, is an accomplishment. The routines we accept can strangle us, but the rituals we choose give renewed life.
Click here to see more pictures of this part of the Coast Path (in reverse!) accompanied by more of Thomas Clark’s wonderful words from his poem ‘Riasg Buidhe’.