Date: 23rd May 2014 Distance walked: 10.6 miles Total distance: 110 miles
The tide was further out on my return to Coverack than it had been when I had arrived there on foot from Helford two weeks previously. The sort of beach of sand and stones that suggests it would have been a lot sandier before this winter’s storms stripped most of it back to reveal the underlying rock and pebble mix – a familiar sight along the beaches of south Cornwall so far this spring – was exposed. I was impatient to stride out, having spent far too long sitting on a bus then waiting at Sainsbury’s for another bus on which I sat for an even greater length of time in order to get here. Coverack and Falmouth are not far apart geographically but by road it is necessary to negotiate the complicated network of the North Helford to get here, it’s not possible to go in a straight line.
The village is centred around a little mini-peninsula, in the northern lee of which shelters the harbour behind the protective wall that extends round from the point of the land. Half a mile south a similar, slightly higher, slightly longer promontory projects eastwards into the sea, rough fingers of rock sticking up from its higher summit with a fort marked on the map. Although my un-archaeologically-educated eye can see no trace of it now, you can see how this would have made a good vantage point for a prehistoric fortification. I can see along the coast for miles myself, and even though I’m looking back along places I’ve walked within the last two months I’m not really sure what I’m looking at or quite how far I can see. Lowland Point was obvious in the near distance. As it was overcast but sunny at the same time (this is Cornwall, we do have oxymoronic combinations of weather conditions like that) the far distance was discernible but not sharply so. The Dodman? Gull Rock off Nare? Could that be Rame Head far far in the distance, the furthest point of land on my eastern horizon? I cast my mind back to that sunny afternoon in mid March when I stood at St Michael’s chapel on Rame Head, blustered about by the wind, looking west at the long line of barely discernible landform that reached so far south on the western horizon that it could only have been the Lizard Peninsula. That being so I could well have seen Rame Head from Chynhalls Point, which is about half way down the full length of the Lizard.
Leaving Chynhalls Point – from Cornish chy-en-alls, house on the cliff – I ended up doubling back on myself and coming out along a damp woody path with water issuing over the path and tall hemlock water dropwort and big rhubarb-like gunnera leaves growing alongside. Through a gate with a cattle warning sign and two stone posts wide enough to admit a human but too narrow for a cow to squeeze through then round an unexplained sort of sculpture installation with abstractions of objects and creatures such as birds and planes. I later discover that this was the Terence Coventry Sculpture Park and there are around twenty five sculptures placed within three meadows here at any one time, depending on demand from other venues or exhibitions.
And then I was out onto the coast proper, heading for Black Head which marks the ‘corner’ where the coastline turns west again. Here was another different landscape: low and scrubby, heathy, boulder-strewn, gorse-grazed and craggy round the edges. I consult my geological map now I’m at home to find that just before Coverack I’d crossed into Serpentine, its extrusions cropping up through the ground like crusty old toes of long-buried stone giants sleeping beneath the topsoil. Exposed cliffs had a blockier look to them than the previous slates, dolerites and gabbro. I wanted to use the word zawn to describe the steeper cuts in the coastal edge for the first time walking the coast in sequence like this. It’s a Cornish word meaning ‘chasm’ and crops up a lot in the more rugged parts of the coastline, particularly further west. It’s almost onomatopoeic, like a sharp yawn in the cliff face, the spikiness of the letters z and w concurrent with the shape of what it describes, the n the shape the feature makes in the coastline or on the map.
Up close the landscape was intricate, the greenery delicate where it seemed rough and scrubby en masse. Starry mosses. Soft but dry tufts of grasses and rush between the heather tussocks. The first of late spring’s sheepsbit scabious, only the outer whorls in petal, the inner compound flowers closed in spirals of graded blue beads. A pale mauve cranesbill with notched petals. Small butterflies everywhere: some I identified later as the small pearl-bordered fritillary; the larger brown ones, spotted wood. Some small pale blue flower with the thinnest deep blue veins on its five petals which turned out to be pale flax Linum bienne.
I don’t remember seeing any people for a long time. I came across a small cluster of ponies – four or five, not enough to warrant the collective noun of a herd – grazing the heath near the path. Ponies are perfect for maintaining a healthy heath because they nibble vegetation rather than pull like cattle do, and they’re hardy enough and sure-footed enough to roam the rougher terrain and digest gorse and heather shoots helping keep the vegetation low and regenerating and preventing the furze from getting too big and woody and blocking out some of the smaller, more delicate heath species that need space and light in between to thrive.
It threatened rain very briefly as I was descending down to Downas Cove after Beagles Point. A stream ran down the small valley and filtered over the rocky beach at the bottom into the sea, but I could see from the top of the valley slope that the footbridge had been turned over onto its side, presumably by the sea. After my experience crossing a river on foot at Gillan Creek I was disproportionately anxious about a repeat performance. I told myself I was being silly and doubtless the stream would prove narrow enough to stride over, and what kind of coastal walker was I anyway to baulk at the crossing of a stream? In the end it was fine, of course, I barely got the soles of my boots wet. Between Downas Cove and Lankidden I saw Zawn Vinoc labelled on the map and felt justified in wanting to use the word.
I remember Kennack Beach from when I came to Cornwall on holiday when I was twelve: two halves with a short walk over the dune cliffs between. I also remember it being a lot sandier. Perhaps I misremembered. Perhaps it was: that was quite a while ago and the fabric of a beach can change in a very short time, sometimes within a day if the sea is rough enough. I picked up an especially attractive serpentine pebble from among the stones of the beach to add to the growing collection of pocket rocks that’s littering my windowsill at home: pistachio green marbled with blue. I crossed over the cliff to the second section of beach which was both slightly sandier and busier. I sat down on the taupe coloured sand for lunch and people-watched as some school aged kids messed about at the water’s edge and some Poles in really inappropriate clothing appeared. I even had an ice cream as I was setting off, from one of the two competing local ice cream companies set up at the little cafe-toilets-shop installation. It was blackcurrant: incredibly creamy and fruity and purple. I can’t remember if it was Kelly’s or Roskilly’s though.
The path followed the road uphill and then veered off through lime green flowered alexanders and along the edge of a caravan park. Foxgloves taller than me were in flower. I rounded a curve in the coast then descended into Poltesco valley, where some old stone buildings were hidden away right on the beach. Walls and remains of more buildings indicated the site of some form of industry. A small, fast flowing river ran down to the shore through the middle of the buildings’ shells suggesting that it was once of use in whatever workings took place here. I later discovered it is an old serpentine works. The whole site was filled with red valerian in full bloom in bubblegum pink and cerise red, interspersed with white cow parsley. A cormorant was standing on a jagged black tooth of a rock just offshore with its wings spread out wide to dry. The place held a draw for me so I added it to my mental list of places to return to with time to explore further.
I headed onwards towards Cadgwith, rounding Enys Head and Kildown Point where a previous slump had caused a down-step in the inner curve of a cliff, now well vegetated but sunk like a cake that’s had too much raising agent in the mixture. More rugged coastline, beautiful but hard to photograph because of the size and scale: I couldn’t frame a shot that captured enough of it in one go to do it justice. The sun was out, drawing sharp the relief and colour: black shadows in the cracks and crevices of the steep-sided cliffs, the gold sprawl of lichen on the higher slopes of the cliff ledges, and outcrops of rock like slices of island chipped out of the middle of each seagull-swarmed zawn.
Cadgwith fishing village appeared suddenly in a space in the cliffs somewhat in the manner of Polperro or Portloe, but as thatched and picturesque as Helford. I passed a cottage in the process of being re-thatched as I descended towards the harbour. Its roof was bristling with a fringe of untrimmed reeds and freshly honey-coloured like the thatch of a children’s book illustration, whereas the reality is normally a weathered dark brown. A woman was coming down the ladder. I’m sure she’s heard all the Lady Thatcher jokes she needs for a lifetime.
The village smelled fishy. The harbour at its centre was a tiny pebble beach with its working vessels drawn up above the tideline. Crates of nets and blue rope. Lobster pots. Really Cornish accents. I was tired so I stopped in the shade of the Fish Cellars, now a tea shop, and had a pot of tea to try and revive myself for the final furlong. I’d probably only walked seven or eight miles but I was ready to stop then really. Perhaps it was because it was unexpectedly warm. More likely that it had been two weeks since my last coast path expedition and I’d just got out of condition.
There were lots of names coming up on the map of the coastline that suggested interesting things ahead. I had no idea what an ogo was but there was Dollar Ogo and Chough’s Ogo. First was the Devil’s Frying Pan, a huge hole set back from the edge of the cliff with a short bridge of cliff edge opening it up to the sea. I imagined it would be much more spectacular at high tide in a storm with the sea water being forced through the small arch. I wondered how it had been made and found out from the guide book when I got home that it was a collapsed cave. The following coastline gave no further clues as to what an ogo could be, nor did I see any choughs. I did hear the sound of fulmars below me – like the creaking of tree branches in the wind – a sound I’ve learned on these walks that belongs to a bird I’ve also learned on these walks. As I walked on I could see back to where the noise was coming from, and there were three of the grey-backed seabirds, necks arched back with their bills wide, creeaaakkking away to each other on a narrow ledge in the cliff. Butterflies everywhere again, red admirals, small tortoiseshells, more of the well-camouflaged spotted wood; and caterpillars too – fat hairy ones inching across the bare path, and webby nests of tiny ones in the hedge branches that were both fascinating and repellent to look at.
I’d thought for some time I could see Lizard Point on the horizon but it wasn’t until I reached Church Cove that I realised the farthest promontory of land I could see was actually Bass Point. Just round the corner is Kilcobben Cove with the newest incarnation of the Lizard Lifeboat Station. There has been a lifeboat stationed at Lizard Point since 1859. Originally it was housed at Polpeor, a cove on the western side of the lighthouse almost at the most southerly tip of the peninsula. It was moved to Kilcobben Cove in 1961, where the first lifeboat station was at the top of the cliff. A near-vertical track runs down to the sea and I initially thought that the boat would be launched down this before I realised that it is actually a funicular railway to take the crew down the slipway at the water’s edge where the vessel itself was kept. This station closed in 2010 when the new one was constructed at the bottom of the cliff to house the larger class of lifeboat that is now maintained here.
I forewent descending the flight of 200 steps that the crew have to run down every time there’s a shout and down which the public are invited to get a closer look at new lifeboat station, and pressed on. Not far on at the next headland I could see the white block of the Lloyd’s Signal Station, like a Lego-build. The grassland over the cliff tops was flushed with bluebells in full bloom: so many that from a distance the green sward was overlaid with a veil of blue like a hyacinth-coloured mould. Passing the signal station, with its semaphore arms stuck in letter T position, I could finally see Lizard Point. It still looked quite a way off. I was walking directly into the sun and the sky was so bright I could hardly see the shape of the lighthouse perched on the headland. It’s a low lighthouse, rather than the tall stripy pillar a child would draw – in fact as far as I can tell all the lighthouses in Cornwall are all white rather than the traditional stripes – the height and prominence of the land here negates any need for a more impressive structure. Great tor-like lumps of rocks were exposed along the cliff tops between here and the most southerly point. The sea shone like beaten foil below.
I passed the Housel Bay Hotel at about quarter past five. Ahead the path divided. The official SWCP route carried on left around the coast to the lighthouse, with two alternative options to Lizard village in the other direction. The last connecting bus to Helston would leave the village green at 17:40. I dithered for a moment assessing how tired I was and how far I could realistically walk in 25 minutes. As much as I wanted to finish the day in bright sunshine at the lighthouse, probably with a silhouette photo of the structure itself against the deep blue of the sky, it wasn’t worth the risk of missing that bus and stranding myself.
So I forked right and followed the path up through fields of scraggy-looking sheep and fat-uddered jersey cows towards the village. Swallows dipped and darted. Rabbits’ ears glowed pink in the sun. It was only after the bus arrived and I finally sat down feeling hot and tired that I realised how pink the tops of my shoulders above the boat neck of my t-shirt were glowing. So much for it being so overcast for the first part of the day when the sun was behind me.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]