Date: 10th May 2014 Distance walked: 13 miles Total distance: 100 miles
Returning to Helford Passage on the first bus of the day I still arrive later than I had the previous day on foot from Falmouth. The wind’s gusting hellish downriver. I zip my coat right up as the boatman begins to ferry me over the short but choppy crossing to Helford village.
“At least it’s not an east wind.” My hair is already escaping and whipping all round my face.
“We wouldn’t be running if it was… few weeks back we were putting the engines in reverse and running right up onto the beach in those high winds.” I think of the waves spraying over the outer harbour when I was at Mevagissey.
“Going to rain later.” Trust a boatman to give you the shipping forecast. He has the same waterproof trousers as me, not that I’m wearing mine.
“Tha’s alright tho’. Don’t mind a bit of water…” I’d be in trouble in this part of the world if I did. Right on cue a wave splashes up over the bows and catches us both with its salty spray.
“Well, doubt that’ll be the last time that happens today so might as well start early.”
Helford village is like a scene from a biscuit tin lid. I stop at a well-stocked grocer-post-office for camera batteries before fording my first river of the day. It’s more of a surface-run of water over the road, hardly enough to wet my boots as the tide was quite low and there’s a bridge option for when it’s higher. But I’m a proper walker: and, as I’d just claimed to the ferryman, not afraid of a bit of water. I also know that my next river crossing when I reach Gillan Creek will afford (pun intended absolutely) a proper chance to get my feet wet.
The southern banks of the Helford estuary are thickly wooded. The path runs up through ramson carpets that give way to bluebells beneath the trees. You could almost forget you were on the coast path in the deep woody quiet except for the brief glimpses of little sandy river beaches to the north between the trees. Fungi lining logs at the path side. A sign warns that Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted and I wonder if they can actually do that. Through shoulder-high umbellifers then out of the woods at Dennis Head. Rosemullion Head, now almost directly north from here looks really low in comparison, and the weather looks pretty poor beyond it. The path goes right out to the end of Dennis Head, but I’m hoping to get down to Gillan Creek within two hours of the low tide so I cut across a field towards St Anthony-in-Meneage, its church appearing and disappearing at the edge of the harbour as the view is obscured and revealed between wavering cow parsley.
There’s a choice at St Anthony where Gillan Creek runs inward from the sea. At low tide either wade across between the sandbanks or take the longer inland route around the creek towards Manaccan and Carne. At high tide there’s a ferry that runs on demand to make a short cut across the creek mouth. It is nearly two hours past low tide, but from the hilltop above the village I can see the wide bows of the sand and gravel bar and the small amount of water going through looked definitely wadeable so I go down and have a look. Just past the church several fishermen are ensconced in fold-up chairs with their lines in the shallows. I head further up past the bend in the shoreline, unlace my boots, roll up my jeans, and ball my socks up in the toes of my boots with the thought that it would be terrible if they fell out midstream.
Underfoot it’s stony and seaweedy. The water is barely up to my calves and quite cold but not icy. I take about two steps when I put my foot on an algae-covered rock and slip. Next thing I know I am sitting in the river with my boots starting to go underwater. I grab them out quick, tip any water out that’s got inside (one of the many advantages of having leather-lined boots rather than padded ones: the water didn’t have a chance to soak in), quickly stand up and go as quickly as I dare with careful foot-placement to the middle sandbar. A glance back downstream reveals I am out of sight of the fishermen in their chairs, though I’m sure they’d have been sorry to miss it if they’d known. I then have to get across the other shallow stretch of the creek, which I manage without mishap, feeling mussel shells under my toes, then the mud and green algal coated black rocks of the other side of the creek.
Any triumph at having made it across vanishes as I can’t see a way out of the creek bed. I seriously think I might have to wade back over and walk all the way round via Manaccan, wasting all the effort and getting my feet (and trousers) wet for nothing. And the tide is steadily, if slowly, coming in. It has to be possible to get up the high creek bank somehow, though, otherwise it wouldn’t be suggested to wade across in the first place. However I find I can’t walk over the algal-slimed rocks in bare feet so I have to put my boots back on before I can look for a way up. Not that there’s anywhere to sit – though quite why I’m concerned about getting my trousers muddy after falling in a river I don’t know – so I sit on my rucksack and squashed my crisps in the process. The socks in the toe of my right boot are sodden. Luckily the left boot hadn’t got any water inside it and I always wear a pair of thick socks over a pair of thin socks when walking so I do at least have two dry socks to put on. It is only when lacing up my boots that the full comedy of the situation hits me and I start chuckling to myself as I pick my way gingerly over the rocks. I am suddenly reminded of the time my brother fell in a bog on Bodmin Moor (the story of which you can read here). He kept farting all the way home on the premise that the hot air would help dry his trousers out. As with many things my brother does I wasn’t tempted to follow his example. The first slipway leads only to a boathouse so I make for some steps further downstream, half expecting to come up in someone’s back garden. They seem to lead to a path that zigzags up through the undergrowth and eventually to some houses and what I hope is a permissive path up to the road. I meet a woman who obviously lives there and say hello as I pass. She does look mildly surprised to see me but doesn’t say anything, though perhaps this is more due to my dishevelled appearance and the fact that I am soaked from the hips down in a patchy sort of way that more suggests I’ve pissed myself than fallen in a river.
According to the map I ought to have continued straight round the coast towards Gillan Cove after coming up out of the creek into that lady’s garden. Maybe I was a bit flustered by the whole incident at the creek but I find myself on a residential road heading inland instead. It is only when I find myself – still on the road – ascending quite a steep hill that I realised I must be on that yellow lane marked with an arrow on the map, and therefore quite in the wrong place. I also realise at this point that my hand is bleeding – aside from ripping my thumbnail putting my camera back in my bag on the very first walk this is my first injury of the venture – I must have scraped it on a rock or something when I slipped over in the creek. I’m more anxious about not wasting any more time not being on the right path though, so retrace my steps, take a shortcut down a side road and stop for a breather once I reach the small beach at Gillan Cove. A pair of swans are picking about in the algae right on the shoreline. I have some thermos tea and tap into my mini first aid kit I’ve been carrying along to clean my bloody hand.
I am quite soon out of the woods and onto more open coastline. The weather has cleared over Falmouth Bay and the far off view beyond St Anthony was now clear: there was Porthbeor beach and further east, Nare Head, Gull Rock, the Dodman. I’m still heading east towards another Nare Point/Head: this time the sharp elbow-angle of the coast below the Helford-Gillan creeks north of Porthallow and Porthoustock. A thin wire-line separates me from the edge of the cliff, beyond it a bolster of flowers frilling the brink: sea campion, thrift, bluebells; whilst to my right, inland, flatter grazed sward speckled with daisies that looks flat and barren in comparison to those few feet of flora beyond the fence.
I suddenly become aware of a change in the landscape. It feels different. Ahead is the rise of a Nare Head after the lower lying Nare Point with its coastguard observation station, neither markedly differing from any other cliffs and heads I’ve seen so far. It is only when crossing a stile over hedge that intersects the path line that I identify what is different. Four slabs of rock jutting out from the hedge form steps up and over. This is a different rock, I think, then notice the colour of the mud in the foot worn hollow at the base of the stile, pinkier than the mud of my home stretch. I’d felt the change in geology before I’d consciously seen it. Not for the first time I find myself wishing my (barely existent) geological education had been more informative.
I meet some walkers coming the other way as I cross a grassy slope on Nare Head. A raincloud is threatening overhead and we exchanged the usual pleasantries of whether or not we are going to get wet. (Or in my case, wetter.) They are planning to ring for the ferry in advance and are interested to hear if I’d used it to get across myself. We’ve not long parted company when the shower hits. I contemplate my waterproof trousers but I have a feeling the rain won’t last long and don’t really fancy putting them on over my damp leg. In fact it was over almost as soon as it had started. I decided that if it really did rain then I might be better to just take my jeans off altogether and put the waterproof trousers on instead of trousers. If only I’d thought of putting them on before I attempted to wade the creek in the first place…
Porthallow is a narrow indent in the cliffline with a stony beach and a pub and a dubious weather forecasting stone hanging by a sign that described how to tell the weather by the state of the stone. Stone wet=rain, white on top of stone=snow, stone swinging=windy etc. It is clearly broken given the force of the wind blowing and the stillness of the hanging stone. I take my cue from its position in the lee of the wall and head to the other side of the beach where I can sit below the shelter of the cliff for lunch. Out of the wind it is pleasantly warm, and I am pleased to note that the fortuitous weather conditions are conspiring to dry my jeans.
After Porthallow the path diverts inland to Porthoustock, cutting off Porthkerris and Pencra Head. According to the map it looks like it would be possible to walk right around the coast, but none of the paths there are marked as permissive and the presence of both an MOD radar station and two disused quarries dissuade me from attempting it in case I ended up wasting too much time on a diversion. I have plenty of time to get to Coverack for the bus, but possibly not enough time to go two or three miles wrong on the way. So I walk by road out of Porthallow and take a left towards the enticingly named Fat Apples Café where I passed a tiny campsite, a duckpond and a collection of stone buildings with signs that promise tea and home baking, and follow the well-hidden path alongside an orchard heavy with waxy apple blossom.
Porthoustock is of similar size to Porthallow but of a more obvious industrial character. The beach and the carpark are one and the same, an expanse of grey pebbles in the space between the cliffs. The southern cliff is cut away in a huge vertical slice a few hundred metres back from the coastal edge, giving a sneak peek (or peak) of the quarry behind. I carry on back up the road towards Rosenithon. Walking along the quiet lanes is quite enjoyable, though I am sorry not to be able to walk right out to Manacle Point and look out at the Shark’s Fin rocks just offshore, as this marks the furthest visible part of coastline on the horizon from Falmouth. On one corner of the road inland of the quarry stands what looks like a stack of four or five huge rocks but is in fact one large rock formation: the Giant’s Quoits. An engraved slab propped at their base explains how they had stood for hundreds of years at Manacle Point but were re-sited here due to expansion of Porthoustock quarry in 1967.
When I finally reach Rosenithon I am looking forward to getting off the road, but once again walk right through the village without seeing where I am supposed to turn off onto the path. Coming back in from the other direction I spy the tiny yellow arrow which had been hidden from the other direction by a parked van. The path follows a stream through trees and then a reedy stretch towards the grey gravel and boulders of Godrevy Cove. Porthoustock quarry to the north is completely hidden behind the green slopes of cliff. The Manacle Rocks a mile or so offshore are hidden in a sea wind-whipped all over, not just where the rocks were. You can easily see why they’re so notorious for wrecking ships. I sit on one of the boulders for a break before making for the path that snakes up from the beach and on round the coast.
Whereas the diversions inland at Porthallow and Porthoustock avoided their respective quarries this path takes me right round the edge of Dean Quarry. It’s a good path: paved with small grade gabbro chippings and crushed glass underfoot and delineated by a line of boulders separating the walker from the workings, though apart from this and a few signs advising about sirens and blasting, there is little besides common sense to stop anyone wandering off into the quarry itself. Another sign by one of the pit pools informs of DEEP COLD WATER and tells you not to swim. I wouldn’t have thought many people would be tempted by the colour of the water to be honest. Stepped walls of quarry benches three or four tiers high rise up from ground level – or to ground level depending on which way you look at it – many well-greened with gorse, bramble and willow scrub, with heavy rubble piled at the bottom level. Wide roadways circumnavigate some of the pits and what look like loading bays or tips for different grades of aggreagate are still in place at the top of one slope.
Dean Quarry has been worked since 1890 with over 200 000 tonnes of gabbro being removed every year. The site is currently mothballed but plans planning permission is currently being sought to restart work here. As with all industrial ventures in rural coastal areas feelings are mixed about the propositions. Until 2005 the majority of aggregate was shipped out of the quarry from a jetty with a system of conveyor belts that loaded the stone directly onto vessels at high tide. The rusted structure is still in place but future proposals don’t include its renovation. Developers plan to transport up to 700 000 tonnes of rock by road out of the quarry, which is one of the main bones of contention with local protestors. Whilst the jetty was still in operation only 100 000 tonnes p.a. was moved by road. Not only is the increase in load a concern but the road links to and from Dean Quarry itself which either pass though an SSSI at Main Dale near Coverack along narrow roads with weight restrictions and cattle grids, or through the organic farm at Roskilly’s near St Keverne which is itself a major tourist attraction in the area.
I’m not familiar enough with the whole proposal and its alternatives to have formed an opinion as to whether or not the redevelopment should go ahead, but wherever resource extraction is undertaken there is always a conflict of interest between conservation and industry. The difficulty with the proposed expansion of Dean Quarry is the scale of the proposition. As the site has already been quarried it would seem better to restart extraction here than to start blasting at a new quarry somewhere else, but the site is relatively small and the massive upscaling of production as suggested by the current plans seems out of place for such a site in such an area. Even within the quarry itself there are several rare species to be found so that lack of Environmental Impact Assessment for the proposals does not bode well for any future provision for the landscape and wildlife here. However if such resources cannot be sourced through reclamation, industrial recycling and upcycling then they have to be extracted from the ground. If it’s not here then where else is going to be ‘spoilt’ to provide? One protestor who signed the petition asked why a quarry in Wales couldn’t supply the aggregate. But what about conserving the environment and landscape there, one wonders?
I digress, but it’s something that was brought to mind as I passed the blight of the china clay landscapes inland and along the coastline of St Austell bay, and this being Cornwall, is certainly something that will be revisited as I make my way around a coastline which has literally and metaphorically been shaped by its minerals industries. There is no straight forward answer to any argument for or against mining, wherever it is, and no perfect compromise either. I do believe though, that it is questionable whether an industry that lucrative can ever do enough in terms of environmental compensation and rehabilitation both during and after extraction.
Leaving Dean Quarry behind I head out to Lowland Point. It’s a different sort of promontory from any I have so far encountered, and aptly named. On the map it sticks out like a headland making a gentle right angle before the coast leans westwards towards Coverack and the Lizard Peninsula, but the lack of contours on the page reflect the flat but rocky terrain of its real life counterpart. The beach to my left is grey and pebbly, the coastline dotted with boulders and tumps of thrift, spring squill, terns flying, and patches of wetland sprouting yellow iris. There is no protection from the wind here. The sea is a beautiful but rough combination of deepest indigo, slate green and white. The sun’s out and it would probably be quite a hot afternoon if not for the wind.
The path becomes an enjoyable stepping stone track through squadgy wetland. The stones aren’t really placed regularly, if they’ve been placed at all, and at one point I step onto what looks like dry mud only to have my foot completely disappear in one swift sort of Vicar of Dibley-esque movement. I pull it out and my new-ish boot looks like it’s been coated in chocolate custard. There isn’t even any grass or anything I can wipe it off on so I just have to carry on with one foot heavier than the other. At least no one can say I’m not wearing my new boots in properly – though to be fair they’ve coped brilliantly with today’s challenges and have proved immensely comfortable even with the substitute odd sock combination.
I’ve been able to see Coverack ever since I rounded Lowland Point the village covering the next corner of the coastline reaching down to a point where its harbour wall curves round protectively in the lee of Dolor Point. I’ve made good time for the bus connection back to Helston but I’m not quite sure where the bus stop’s going to be and know from experience they can sometimes be quite far out from the village centre. I see a little shelter on the side of the road almost as soon as I’ve entered the village from North Corner. I realise I must look a right sight with my windswept hair and one foot entirely encased in mud. At least the wet trouser leg issue has resolved itself. I try and scrape a bit of mud off while we’re waiting for the bus and it arrives on time barely five minutes after I get there, making a close three point turn in the middle of the road by the shelter. Five minutes later a heavy shower rattles down on the bus roof and I’m even more glad I made such good time.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]