Date: Sunday 1st June 2014 Distance walked: 6 miles Total distance: 137.5 miles
It’s Sunday afternoon. I’ve ended up starting our walk much later than intended having taken a detour (intentional – the reason for which will become apparent in the next episode of Coastlining) via Lamorna, then having been bamboozled by the Sunday bus service and ending up taking a taxi from Penzance station driven by a camp, poodle-loving driver who dropped us within yards of where I’d left the footpath and joined the road in the middle of Perranuthnoe village last Thursday. As it’s the weekend Annie is coming too along with Luna the whippet, whom the taxi driver was delighted to have as a third passenger.
We passed above Perran Sands – which I’d completely missed in Thursday’s rain, walked about two fields, met a very old lurcher and saw some flowering potato plants, and then stopped for lunch. To be fair it was quite a late lunch at that, and it can’t all be slog slog slog on these coastlining adventures, you know. We sat on a bench with a good view across thrift nodes and stony foreshore out west towards St Michael’s Mount. Its distinctive pyramidal shape would dominate the afternoon’s walk even if we weren’t going to make it out to the tidal island itself.
Along with St Piran and St Petroc, St Michael is considered one of the patron saints of Cornwall. Legend has it that St Michael the Archangel appeared to fishermen in Mount’s Bay, although the dedication of the priory to that particular saint had more to do with its being the local counterpart to the similar, albeit larger Mont St Michel in Normandy to whom it was gifted by Edward the Confessor. The tidal island has changed hands several times since then, now belonging to Lord St Levan and managed by the National Trust. However this is not the site’s only connection to St Michael. An old name for the tidal island was Din-Sul, the hill of the sun. St Michael is often linked with the sun, and this wouldn’t be the first spiritual location to have a connection to a Christian saint meshed with that of an older pagan site-specific association. The Mount also features on two St Michael lines. The St Michael Ley Line that runs from Carn Les Boel in West Penwith to Hopton on the Norfolk coast is aligned to the path of the sun on May 8th, the commemoration of the Apparition of St Michael, and traverses a number of sites dedicated to St Michael including Glastonbury Tor. The Apollo St Michael Axis cuts right through Europe from Skellig Michael off the west coast of Ireland, linking St Michael’s Mount with Mont St Michel, right down through France, Italy, Greece, Rhodes to Mount Carmel and Armageddon in Israel. However these lines of ‘remarkable alignment’ can also be seen as incidental, given that you can reverse engineer such a connective line by pretty much drawing any given line on a map and extending it far enough. Many of the sites lie indirectly aligned with the axes, and some, such as Burrowbridge Mump and Glastonbury Tor have been artificially shaped to mirror each other and align with the direction of sunrise on that specific date.
What is clear is the sacredness of this particular tidal island is both deep rooted and wide reaching. Islands and tidal islands feature hugely in the back catalogue of holy places not only in the UK but worldwide. You don’t need to be religious to realise some places are special, nor why somewhere like St Michael’s Mount, the sun-hill, would so readily lend itself to becoming a focal point of people’s most profound or sacred things. It draws the eye, centred as it is in the curve of the bay, and its varying degrees of accessibility make it both tangible yet exclusive, increasing its inherent element of fascination. Interestingly it is quite a recent tidal island. Its name in Cornish is Karrek Loos yn Coos which translates as ‘the hoar rock in the woods’. Before it was the island we know it, it was isolated by trees. At certain low tides it is possible to see evidence of the submerged woodland that once surrounded this hoar rock when sea levels were much lower.
The sea’s encroaching further inland now. Annie and I climb steps down onto the beach as the coast path diverts away from the road before we reach Marazion, and once again – like Hendra and Praa a little further east – the shoreline is looking battered with freshly wave-cut back-cliffs just below the houses, a slip by the path cordoned off with that orange plastic mesh.
Back up off the beach and the official route leads us through the main street of Marazion, where the houses front right onto the road. It’s a beautiful word Marazion, like many Cornish place names. There aren’t a lot of Z’s in British place names – a lot of Cornish names reoccur in Wales in similar forms but you only really find Celtic Z’s anywhere else in the Breton language. It is commonly thought to be derived from Marghas-yewe, which devolved to Maras-jew: ‘Market Jew’ or ‘Thursday Market’; but I’ve also heard it to be potentially derived from an old version of ‘St John’s Marsh’, referring to the extensive wetland area beyond the town and behind the dunes and what is now the road between Marazion and Longrock.
The tide is coming in. We’d just have enough time to walk the causeway out to St Michael’s Mount and back before submersion, but probably not enough time to stop for tea when we get there so we decide to give it a miss.
From here to Penzance the path, the road, and after Marazion Marsh, the railway line, all run alongside each other right at the top of the beach. We could walk along the beach but sand is hard work and there is also the matter of a dog ban for the mostpart of this stretch of shoreline. It’s easy-going, flat, and slightly monotonous. At one point we think we’ve lost Luna, though quite how neither Annie nor I are sure seeing as we’re going in a straight line on a paved footpath. She’s nowhere to be seen. We turn in circles calling her name until we notice diners behind the windows of a cafe we’ve just passed on the edge of Longrock waving and pointing. On the glass door is a sign saying Dogs Welcome. Luna, who unbeknownst to us has apparently learnt to read, has walked straight in and made herself at home, much to the amusement of the customers.
We retrieve her and continue. We’re right alongside the railway line now. This is the very end of the line, the Great Western Railway line that runs from London to Penzance. I’ve taken the train to and from Cornwall many times but I’ve never travelled this far by rail. The last half mile seems desolate somehow. We pass the sidings and infrastructure of the end of the line, including, to Annie’s and my fascination, the train equivalent of a car wash. Well it makes sense, really, doesn’t it? Almost as much sense as it would have made – in my humble opinion – to have built the new Penzance Sainsbury’s, which is located just past the Longrock industrial estate on the site of the old heliport which serviced flights to and from the Isles of Scilly, with a flat roof that could have incorporated a helipad within the retail development. I’m sure Sainsbury’s could have done a deal with British International Helicopters to their gain, perhaps with a Sainsbury’s cafe for the awaiting passengers. However BIH sold the land in 2012 and the Scillies lost one of their main transport links with the mainland to a supermarket with a futuristically curved roof.
As we approach Penzance it seems the whole town is encircled between the harbour’s two arms, South Pier and Albert Pier. Overhead the clouds have drawn in, the fair skies we had over Marazion reduced to less blue than would make a sailor a pair of trousers. We left Annie’s car in the car park between Albert Pier and town. The Scillonian III is docked alongside South Pier. Sunday is the only day of the week the Isles of Scilly ferry doesn’t run during the season. It’s a notoriously dodgy crossing caused by the intersection of four ocean currents off Land’s End. By the time I return here tomorrow to continue my adventures in the Far West, she’ll be even further west, probably already arrived in St Mary’s with her cargo of suitcases and Monday’s contingent of vomiting passengers.
[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 reached Marsland Mouth where a small river enters the Atlantic Ocean and I steppped back into Devon.
Why? Because it’s there. Because I am here. Because I can, and because I want to.
What was gained from the expedition? Unquantifiable experiences, an unimaginable amount of mud on my boots, clothes and face, and several thousand photos of sea views, rocks and flowers.
Other than that, who knows? Watch this space.
You may also like on Open the Curtains:
Welcome to Cornwall in August; during which I take a day out to indulge in a spot of local sight seeing at St Michael’s Mount. Click here for gorgeous weather, tide low enough to walk out, and a boat trip back to shore during which the boatman skilfully rescues a fiver that flies overboard.