Date: Tuesday 3rd June 2014 Distance walked: 12 miles Total distance: 155.5 miles
Sun out. Sun in. Cloud cover. Mizzle patches. Clear. Jacket on. Jacket off. I started out on the path from Tregurnow skirting their land through bramble scrub laced with bluebells until I was directly below the farmhouse on the other side of the fox field. Globe thistles still at the prickle stage. Great sheaves of foxgloves – groves – gracing the waysides with their tall spires.
Carn Barges, where I rejoined the cliff path proper, was a rock form on the edge like a giant’s seat. Looking west there was the low white shape of Tater-du lighthouse on the next point of the cliff. Looking back east that point as the coastline turns and runs east-west Carn-du looks pretty dark, the path down to Lamorna Cove barely discernible. There are lots of Carns round this part of the coastline, and further inland on the map: translating to what look like stacks of huge boulders – sometimes they are, sometimes they look like they’re piled on top of each other but are actually a jointed lump. These are the structural bones of the landscape breaking the skin, echoed by the many standing stones and quoits – man-made structures often balancing a huge slab on uprights. Some think that the bronze age and Neolithic creators of these huge art installations were copying the natural landforms of the carns and tors, perhaps even in the belief that these were built by even more ancient hands even longer ago.
An overgrown concreted track leads straight down to the lighthouse from the path. It looks tiny from here, just a white house with a turret. But it doesn’t need to be tall because of the elevation of the cliff. The colour of the tower depends on the background against which the beacon is set: land-based lighthouses are more often white than picture-book stripy because they show up better against the dark land. I first saw Tater-du coming back from the Isles of Scilly on the Scillonian, its white form bright against the granite cliffs which were a warm ochre colour in the late afternoon sun. Just after the lighthouse I crossed paths with a hiker very laden down with backpack. (My own was feeling my lighter having left my laptop in my suitcase at Tregurnow and just packed the usual day’s walking paraphernalia.) He was walking the right way round and advised me that I was about to come to a beautiful pebbled beach. We made passing comments about the beauty of the scenery and ‘whether or not the weather would’ before we parted ways and I made my way down through the low-bent and gnarled woods towards St Loy’s Cove.
The hiker should have told me I was about to come to a beach of dinosaur’s eggs: huge rounded pebbles that clunked with a satisfyingly hollow noise when I made my way across. Too smooth to be boulders, like metre-wide rugby balls of creamy granite filled with great lumpy porphyries like teeth or lumps in pate. Just offshore a lugger with its mizzen mast raised; two rain showers meeting on the horizon out at sea. I could hear a stream running like a tap through the layers of gaps somewhere underneath the macro-pebbles, filtering down from the twisting woods at the back of the beach. Two fantastical landscapes right out of storybooks that seemed so incongruous, right alongside each other. I followed the stream up through a ferny, arum-growing grove that felt sub-tropical, I emerged out onto a much more typically exposed cliff meadow of campion, bluebell and foxglove and passed three German ladies in bandanas having a picnic.
Stepped slopes down. Stepped slopes up. Rocky edge. Edgy rock. Criss-cross block on the brink. Elephant skin. An old, old turtle. Low bracken scrub between the fields inland and the crust of the edge. Two buzzards over the edge of the land, a slight flick to their wing-tips, their undersides like giant moths. Then all of a sudden a cleared and cultivated rectangle of vegetable rows and pots that looks as much like an allotment as anything else, in the middle of the bracken on the downslope of the path between me and the sea. Who on earth would have a garden here? How do they get down to it – and from where – carrying all their trowels and gardening things?
Pemberth appeared round a corner like a miniature model of postcard Cornwall: a tiny amount of everything. Two PZ registered fishing boats, a cobbled slipway, a wheel powered winch, three cottages. A bundle of multicoloured buoys like pick-n-mix sweets. The rush of the river exiting via the cove. A long steppy zig-zag up the other side, the map lined thickly with orange contours and the green line of my route cutting straight up through. Granite headlands with castellated blocks looking like they’re about to peel away and topple into the sea. Cliffs of fissures for climbers’ fingers and toes. Close to, crystals inches long in the rock composition. Nougat filled with almond chips. Here and there foxgloves clashing with the colour of the sea behind them, magenta on turquoise. Wolf Rock lighthouse like a chess piece on the horizon. And then it was gone as a curtain of sea rain was drawn over at the edge of the visible.
At Treryn Dinas the granite castle protrudes right out into the sea forming the recognisable spiky outcrop to the south of Treen village. Traces of an iron age fort can be seen on its summit which is topped with the knobble of Logan Rock looking like it’s balanced right on top. Apparently it isn’t attached to the rock underneath and moves from side to side. I heard a story that some chap in the 1920s managed to wobble it right off but there was such an uproar over the upheaval of the local landmark that the army had to be brought in to put it back again. I didn’t walk right out because I’d set my sights of getting as far as Porthcurno before I stopped for lunch. I couldn’t see the beach from there, but I could see the cliff on the western side of the cove and just about make out the amphitheatre on Minack Point. For something that seems such a huge construction when you’re there it’s well camouflaged when looking from the outside.
The sand down on Porthcurno beach was coarser than it looked, a deep mix of ground shells and spangly granite grit that the feet sink well into. The sea was a colour that looks photoshopped, clear and pale over the creamy sand and deep labradorite over the rocks. A helicopter was hovering low over Logan Rock. I hoped it was just an exercise and no one was in trouble. Having dipped my feet in the sea for mere seconds I can vouch for the fact that the water is decidedly not as tropical as it looks – I know no matter how well I can swim if I was washed out to sea or fallen in I would die of hypothermia long before my swimming abilities let me down. I sat on the sand to eat my sandwiches. The butter was melting and the pickle stung my tongue. The lady at Tregurnow put in far more of both than I normally would. A couple of brave people went in for a swim and the lifeguard came and sat on his upended surf board to watch them. I could have sat on that beach all afternoon. But I attempted to brush off the shelly sand which had stuck to my damp feet like sesame seeds to a bun, put my socks and boots back on and made for the steps that are carved into the western side of the beach leading straight up the cliff to Minack Point.
It’s a credit to how much walking I’ve been doing as to how easy I found the ascent of those steps. I’d climbed up once before from the beach to the Minack Theatre a couple of years ago, and had nicknamed the rock steps ‘the Stairs of Cirith Minack’ in reference to the near-vertical rock steps that Frodo, Sam and Gollum climb to get into Mordor. To be honest I don’t know what I was making a fuss about, nor all those people I overtook on the way as I marched right up to the top this time. From the summit Porthcurno beach looked almost tropical. I could see an optimistic bikini-clad lady on the edge of the sea about to get surprised by the utterly non-tropical temperature of the turquoise waters. The amphitheatre itself is usually open for tours during the day and productions during the evenings throughout the summer months. It’s an incredible venue, literally on the edge of the cliff with the tiers of seating built into the rock and facing out to sea. Its construction was begun in 1932 by Rowena Cade who lived at Minack House and thought that the grassy terrace overlooking the cliffs and sea would be a perfect setting for an outdoor performance of The Tempest. Along with her gardener she moved granite blocks to begin to shape what is now the terraced amphitheatre. The final construction is actually mostly concrete, made using local sand so it blends in well with its surroundings. I’ve never seen a performance here but I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for the actors to be upstaged by dolphins stealing the limelight from the sea view beyond the stage.
From the heights of the boulder-crowned Pedn-mên-an-mere I looked down to the pristine and less populated golden cove of Porth Chapel where the receding tide had lined the sand with hairline undulating bands of decreasing damp. The coast path has been diverted here, with the rubble of a recent rockfall cluttering the base of a descending rill, but someone has clearly been down anyway and left a single line of footprints on the shore. It is worth noting that there are plenty of ‘secret’ beaches on Cornwall’s coast whose compromised accessibility off the beaten track leaves them depopulated and inviting for those feeling a little more adventurous. The top of the rill spread into a damp tangle of hemlock water dropwort. Three damselflies with metallic teal bodies and black tulle wings were dancing amid the umbels tall and fair. St Levan’s Well nearby looked stagnant, algal and uninviting. I wasn’t tempted to drink from it or wash in it to gain any advantages the saint might bestow. The cove below was named for his chapel, now all but disappeared, thought the tower of his dedicated church was visible, set back from the coastline upstream in the tiny hamlet of St Levan.
I was flagging and thirsty by the time I reached Porthgwarra. I’d covered about six miles, the same as the total of yesterday’s walk, and was probably only about half way to my destination but with the ruggedness of the path all its the descents and ascents it was pretty tiring. In hindsight I should probably have gone for the cream tea, but I ate my out-of-season hot cross bun and bought my mum a postcard. There were more cottages with bundles of buoys bunched up like sweets or balloons, and the cove boasts some intriguing-looking cave holes, some of which are so arched they look if not manmade, then man-augmented. And there was a noise, I noticed, as I set off again, a constantly repeated moo. A boat, I thought, before pinpointing it to a fixed buoy with a cardinal marker warning of the Runnel Stone a mile offshore. It’s fitted with a whistle powered by the swell of the sea – hence the regularity of the haunting noise.
I took the lower path round Gwennap Head. Everything felt suddenly wilder, more lonely, more desolate. A single great-black back held the fort on a guano-iced rock, a stalwart sentinel. When I was a student we had long discussions about the appropriate use of the word wild, generally deciding it was almost always a no-go. It’s so freely and frequently applied to the Cornish landscapes, especially those of West Cornwall, that one of my objectives in writing up my observations on exploring the whole of the county’s coastline was to show what that wild really equates to. I often find myself running out of words for rocky and avoiding rugged to accurately convey the experience of walking mile after mile of, well, rocky coastline. How is it rocky, what are the rocks like, what is it about them that makes them rugged? How do they feel, what do I feel when I’m there, walking on them, sitting on them, balancing my thermos lid on them and dropping my pencil down the side of them? Walking Gwennap Head, that last bump on the southerly outcrop of Cornwall’s edge, I felt very alone. Not in a bad way, but I felt far away from people, houses, roads, civilisation, home. In fact I was so deeply immersed in my one woman alone in the wilderness moment that I nearly scared myself witless when I suddenly came across the brink of The Hole: a thrift-rimmed, sharp-edged absence in the cliff, 20 feet across with sheer sides dropping down, down… I was simultaneously drawn to look over the edge and afraid to go near it. Far below I could see the stones of the beach – a collapsed cave. The old Cornish name for Gwennap Head is Tol-Pedn-Penwith: the ‘headland with a hole at Penwith’. It’s not a lie. The word Penwith itself is a bit of a tautology, with both the parts penn- and –wydh analogous to ‘end’. It’s the ‘end-of-the-headland’, or the ‘end-of-the-end’. Fulmars wheeled overhead with their diamond patterned wings. Then a man walked past and shattered my illusion of desolation. This is the South West Coast Path, after all.
There’s a coastguard’s outpost up on the top of Gwennap Head. With all the offshore rocks both covered and exposed, and the increasing number of navigational aids I’ve passed it’s obvious why. Nearby their hut a huge rusted anchor lay on the heathy sward like it had flopped down dead tired with its arms splayed out. I thought I might do the same when I get to Sennen. My boot was hurting my ankle bone for some reason too, so I was trying to wedge my walking sock to make it more comfortable. At this point I got my last glimpse of the Lizard peninsula with the Goonhilly satellites and the windfarms’ waving arms, and my first view of the Longships rock cluster with their wave-washed lighthouse.
The sky had been varying shades of overcast most of the day providing either interesting grey-toned backdrops to my several thousand photos of sea view, rocks and flowers, or plain white. By the time I turned the corner of the ‘end-of-the-end’ the sky was the colour of a mussel shell with a mother-of-pearl rim broken at intervals by curtains of rain. The Isles of Scilly were clearly experiencing a downpour. Drystone walls on the headland had wind-holes built into their construction. Up on Gwennap Head I’d passed a compass pointer mounted on a block with directions and distances to visible land- and seamarks: Lizard Point 22m, Runnelstone Buoy 1m, Wolf Rock 8.5m, Isles of Scilly 27m; Longships 3.5m. I could tell how far away the incoming weather situation was by the fact that I had been able to see the Wolf Rock lighthouse, and then couldn’t. Rain: 6 miles offshore, and nearing.
I stopped to admire a concentration of bluebells in the lee of a boulder. Whilst crouched to appreciate their perfume I realised that might be the opportune moment to put on the waterproof trousers. Rain: 2 miles offshore, and nearing. I was instantly too hot, but not much time passed before I was glad of them. I reached Carn Lês Boel in time to rename Nanjizel, Nandrizzel. Rain: onshore.
And there it was, one of those defining moments where you just think this is it, this is who I am now, this is myself distilled into a situation, an action. Right there, halfway down a bracken slope spiked with bluebells, smelling of bluebells and fresh rain and wet earth. My hood drawn up had narrowed my field of vision and focused my attention directly in front of me and I’d had to take my glasses off because I could see less through their collected raindrops than I could with my astigmatised vision, but I was stupidly enjoying myself. The rain had brought out all the colours of the granite. Rock forms kept reinventing themselves. Great caves appeared like garage doors in the walls of the cliffs; a tiny slit window through to the other side of Nanjizel bay; little angular windows conformed between what appeared to be balanced boulders. Over the next hill and the well-photographed near-shore rock formations of the Armed Knight and the arched Enys Dodnan of Land’s End came mistily into focus, the Longships behind veiled by rain. It was the scene of a thousand postcards, usually snapped in bright sunshine with the cliffs and sea and sky bright jewel tones but there and then at the pinnacle of my expedition the drizzly weather felt fitting somehow. Atmospheric. Appropriate. Proper Cornish. Thus es et.
Just before I reached Land’s End itself I spotted a white vessel not far offshore making its way south west round Gwennap Head. The Scillonian! I waved frantically just in case anyone travelling back to Penzance from the islands was up on deck looking landward, though they probably wouldn’t have been able to see anything but the rough shape of the mainland in the compromised visibility. The tourist bit of Land’s End was, thankfully, shut up. I appreciate the sentiment in making a deal out of the most south-westerly point of the UK mainland, but the attraction seems to detain people from the best bits of the surrounding area. Most people don’t walk too far along the path away from the developed area – what they are missing! The rain had stopped just as I arrived. I’d had a phonecall from someone at work asking if I was going to Crochet Night. I advised her of my current location and told her not to expect me, but to expect rain in Falmouth in approximately one hour. Then I persuaded a passer-by to take the obligatory picture of me by the out-of-use Land’s End signpost, looking appropriately weather-beaten in full waterproof get-up with my hair all over the place. Thus es et indeed.
I was intrigued by a wall of plaques by the Land’s End waymarker which features pledges for the millennium. Fourteen years later (half my lifetime, I was surprised to realise) it no longer feels like a big deal. Just another year. Things have changed, as per. We’re all still the same old souls inside these bodies. Some of the coastline’s crumbled away, but elsewhere the sand and rocks have piled up…. I wondered if, among the pledges to donate money to charity, give blood, plant trees, love Michelle forever, and so on there would be anyone I knew. Next to a man who vowed ‘to swim in the sea every day’ a group had apparently pledged to ‘show the next generation how to be active in tackling crime’. What kind of group would pledge something like that, I thought, before noticing that it was promised by the Youth Action Group, Ranelagh – the very same school I was attending in the year 2000, some 250 miles away in Berkshire. What were the chances. (In case anyone’s wondering, no, I wasn’t part of that, or any, group. Never a joiner-inner even in my formative days…)
As is often the way of things once I hit civilisation, it took me ages to actually get down to Sennen Cove as I inevitably ended up on a residential road having to double back on myself. It was pretty late and I knew once I got indoors I wouldn’t want to come out again so I decided on dinner before I headed up to tonight’s resting place. I had fish and chips on the beach while surfers rode the swell off Whitesand Bay. There are few things in life that taste as good as freshly cooked fish and chips eaten out of doors within sight, sound and scent of the sea, especially after a day spent out in the elements. The only downside to this plan was that I then had to mountaineer up the sand dunes to get to the B&B.
I must have looked as dishevelled as I felt when I arrived because the proprietor looked a bit apprehensive, but then I realised how late it was a surmised that she’d probably been expecting me about two hours earlier. My suitcase was waiting for me in a room about a quarter the size of last night’s. Once opened its contents erupted everywhere and fill what little space remained beside the bed and cupboard. Then I removed my boots and made a little sand pile on the carpet, but the lady did say I didn’t have to leave them in the porch. I guess sandy carpets is an occupational hazard of running a guest house above Sennen Cove.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]