Date: Wednesday 4th June 2014 Distance walked: 9 miles Total distance: 164.5 miles
It was difficult to get out of bed this morning after the exertion of the past few days, but I knew I’d feel better once I’d got started – especially after a cooked breakfast. I managed to find a more direct path down through the dunes to Whitesand Bay than the one I’d come up by last night. It was bright and blustery out, a refreshing change after the deteriorating conditions of yesterday, although I kept my coat zipped up with the hood up for the best part of the day, for a very different reason altogether. The sea was the white-flecked deep Prussian blue, the horizon a sharp line. Out beyond Land’s End I could clearly see the Isles of Scilly twenty seven miles offshore with my own eyes (well, with glasses on, my eyesight’s not that great) – some improvement on gauging the approach of the rainfall by watching Wolf Rock lighthouse disappear from view from the top of Carn Lês Boel.
People often ask me which part of the coastline I’ve enjoyed most so far, which is a hard question to answer as every day is of a different character and some, like today, are two distinct stretches over the course of one day. This walk began with the sparkling pale sand of the somewhat self-explanatory Whitesand Bay, boulder-edged and growing into dunes that morphed into cliffs which themselves were crowned at intervals with high formed outcrops like tors. Being made from well-battered granite, the high quartz content of the rock particulate means that the sand here really does sparkle. The high tide left little beach to walk on so I took the path which here cleaves close to the rim of the land winding between and over boulders near the base of the dunes and then cliffs from Sennen Cove to Gwynver beach (gwynder translates from the Cornish as ‘whiteness’ so you can see where they’re going with that one). It was pleasant walking, though you had to watch your feet for the frequent boulders in and around the path. Sometimes there was hand-high grass that was fun to swish through. Then there were semi-stepped routes up through the carns where dune became cliff at Tregiffian and it was hard to tell whether someone had augmented the natural stair-nature of the boulders or built rock steps into the cliff.
Through a field at Gurland Farm where a one-horned cow watched patiently as I passed, without batting an eyelid. There was what looked like a huge round well in the middle of the paddock, cordoned off with a knee-high stone wall. It was, of course, as would become apparent the further I walked, a mine shaft. Twin plank bridges crossed satisfyingly trickly streams at Gazick. A stone seat wedged in the semi-lea of Carn Leskys afforded some respite from the wind. I was glad to sit down but the wind was making my hands too cold as I jotted in my notebook. Below me the sea was such an incomparable mix of colours it’s hard to describe it, broiling at the edges with the strength of the wind stirring it up, yet at once clear as a blue glass bottle so that the shapes of the rock formations were visible beneath the seething shallows. Blue. Green-blue. Indigo. Teal. I don’t know what colour it was, shifting under the sunlight and the strong hands of the wind. The morning is tinged an intense blue in my memory: the colour of the sky; the bluebells in the cracks of the steps at Nanjulian; the gas-blue sheepsbit scabious thriving on the merest suggestion of soil at the very edge of the cliff; the hairs on a common blue butterfly that alighted on a lump of granite; the colours of the sea like they’d been used to tint all of these. Seagulls made shadows on the ground, huge and close and black as ravens. When I looked up to the sky they were so high up it seemed hardly possible they could be the same birds. Don’t fly too close to the sun, Jonathan Livingstone.
I reached Porth Nanven at the mouth of the Cot Valley, a steep-sided cleft with a road running down to nowhere but the shells of some old mining buildings. The path crossed the road then forked back on itself up the other side of the valley, climbing up through flora-laced bracken. A hummingbird moth in the campion. Opposite the valley mouth the Brisons, two wedge-shaped rocky islets a mile or so offshore were framed in the inverted triangle of the valley. Two ravens flew down beneath the cliff with their feet stuck out in front of them as if ready to land at any second. The Cot Valley seemed to mark the boundary between the picturesque beaches and blue glazed cliff walk from Sennen Cove and the mining country I had just crossed into. Out of the bracken and I was on a stony, rubbly path passing some disused tips as I made my way up towards Cape Cornwall. The circular-walled open mine shaft that I passed earlier became a repeated motif, as did the info-graphic warnings of their presence featuring unlucky little stick men plummeting head first down holes. The map is peppered with markings of tip, shaft and chy, mostly appended with (dis) and occasionally sharing the glory for man-made stone-built feature relic with an even older cairn. Between the millefleur of a hedge I caught a glimpse of a tall chimney. Emerging out at the top of the path it was revealed to be Cape Cornwall Mine out on the cape itself below me.
The promontory, which marks the point where the edge of the land ceases to run nearly due north and starts to curve north-eastwards, ends in a pyramidal point topped with the relic of a chimney tower which was left in place after its usefulness to the mine was over as a navigational daymark. The spit of land was purchased for the nation by the H J Heinz Company – as in beanz meanz Heinz – in 1987. With its distinctive shape and geographical inclination pointing so decidedly seaward I feel it’s actually a better end-point to the Far West than Land’s End itself, even if it isn’t so far west by maybe half a mile. It’s also less famous, and although still well visited I feel it is somewhat in Cape Cornwall’s favour that it’s less of a honeypot than the actual Land’s End. I’d been here once before and recalled that out on the point itself it had been so windy my companion and I had seriously thought we were in danger of blowing off the summit. We’d also seen an adder and a lizard within minutes of one another. Given that recollection – the wind, that is, not the reptiles – and the meteorological conditions of today I decided to give the Cape itself a miss and headed down to Priest’s Cove in the southern crook of the promontory. Here was a grassy National Trust car park and a path down to coloured fishing boats pulled high on the slipway with Pen-Kernow and Cape nameplates. The concrete slips runs right down the rocky beach to give a smoother launch over the great egg-shaped granites like I’d seen at St Loy’s cove. I risked my sunhat in the wind and found it good for the notebook as the brim shades the page. Out west the Brisons took centre stage of the sea view. To the south, the shape of Land’s End the last visible landform on the horizon. To the south-west, the Longships rock islets with their distinctive lighthouse seem deceptively close. Seen from the beach, the horizon wasn’t even a smooth line, the wind-whipped sea too highly stirred for the distance to flatten it out. And right at the base of the sky, as far west as could be visible, the Isles of Scilly were a long line of separate lowish lumps: the wide shapes of St Martin’s and St Mary’s, the little bump of Round Island.
After lunch (much better cheese sandwich than yesterday’s), I followed the path up from the beach, through the meadow in the dip between the head of the Cape and the mainland passing the tiny shell of St Helen’s Chapel, over a wall, round the corner, and into the post-industrial landscape of West Cornwall. Here is a landscape of contradictions and strange juxtapositions: an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty shoulder to shoulder with Cornwall Mining Landscape World Heritage Site hotspots: pastoral versus industrial, now making the region money through tourism on the back of both of these qualities.
Kenidjack Valley provided some welcome shelter from the wind, a tree-d niche with the remains of engine houses nestled in among the brambles, bluebells, bushes and bracken. It was warm wandering through. I saw a dead badger, one running rabbit skittering into the underbrush, two black donkeys, several brown butterflies that I later identified as the wall variety, and a speedily wriggling lizard like a lithe and live leaf. The concentration of living creatures I caught sight of is testament to the value of shelter-spots like that valley on what I could already testify to being a rough and weather-beaten part of the coast. This was a warm and sunny day and it was hard work in the chilly wind: for the most-part West Cornwall’s not really renowned for its warm and sunny weather so much as its storms and sweeping rain.
I was soon back up in the elements. The coastline there is very craggy and indented, all zawns and caves at its edges, little in the way of beach as the shoreline is marked by an orange lichen band near the base of the black rocks. Engine houses perch on the brink, the wind-blown sea furling and frilling at the feet of the cliff. But it’s a used land, an edgeland. I’d read Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ 2011 book Edgelands where, in response to the recent resurgence in ‘nature writing’ they attempt to redefine what is meant by wilderness by taking a series of journeys through ‘a debatable zone’ – including car parks, mines, derelict land – ‘an incomprehensible swathe we pass through without regarding; untranslated landscape’. This corner of Cornwall is both an edgeland in the literal sense – the edge of the land, the sea coast: a raw, unforgiving, edgy brink at that, right at the end of the Penwith peninsula, right at the end of Britain – and an edgeland in their book’s sense, although I challenge anyone to pass through without regarding it.
At Botallack the Crowns Engine houses are so far down the cliff you’d be hard pushed to walk to them. They make for a great scene with the waves swirling practically at their feet, stars of a hundred postcards (they even showed up with a bit of a CGI face-lift on BBC’s 2015 adaptation of Poldark). But whereas the visual attraction of this landscape might lie directly beneath my boots, the industrial attraction runs far deeper. Like the visible tip of an iceberg the remains of the engine houses and chimney stacks give little suggestion of the vastness of the unseen shafts and tunnels and galleries worked miles and miles downwards and outwards, beneath land and beneath sea. The constructional relics of industrial past make an obvious impact along the coast north of the Cape – one that’s not all that distant, as although the minerals heyday was over by the mid 19th century the last underground mine in Cornwall closed as recently as 1995 when South Crofty mine in Redruth ceased operating. Looking west from Botallack the cliffline is punctuated with the shells of engine houses, chimneys, even the odd remaining headframe. What is less immediately obvious is the ecological impacts such heavy industrial activities have left behind. As I walked through this brownfield land I found it a brownland indeed: the paths gravelled with rubble and ore mixed in with the more typical footpath aggregates; bare patches in the vegetation where the inherent and deposited contamination means that little will grow. Thrift and other low metallophytic plants were clinging on to a polluted existence, succeeding to a more typical carpet of off-season coastal heathland further up. I made a point of noting I ought to come back when the heather’s out to see the purple-pink flowers against that backdrop of red soil and spoil like fine-grade poster paint.
At Levant the seagulls were elevating over the zawn on the thermals. I caught my first sight of Pendeen lighthouse, like a white policeman’s helmet peeping over the edge of the next headland, in between the restored chimneys of the foreground. Run by the National Trust for heritage purposes the Levant beam engine was steaming four times an hour today. The mine buildings’ remains are preserved there in semi-ruined stasis: only the floor of the ‘Miners’ Dry’ – the equivalent of the men’s locker room – and an attractively re-bricked stack of the ‘Man Engine’. (Part of me wondered when I saw the sign for this whether there is ever any other sort of engine?) There is something architecturally attractively about the traditional form of the Cornish engine houses – some have even been restored and rehabilitated elsewhere in Cornwall as homes.
Geevor, after Levant, I found to be less picturesque, and much more intact as it was only closed in 1990. The remaining mess and warehouses are an ugly reminder not to romanticise the minerals industry. For all the quaintly placed engine houses ruined on clifftops, the overgrown mineshafts and the stone-built count houses, mining is a dirty, arduous, and environmentally unforgiving industry of which the mess and warehouses are much more typical. I wondered as I walked past another spoil heap devoid of any re-vegetation how many of all those who advocate restarting mining in the area consider the visual implications of reindustrialising Cornwall whatever the scale? Mess and warehouses – not to mention noise, traffic – spoiling the picture postcard World Heritage Sites and tourism magnet AONBs?
The wind was hard work as I made my way closer to the lighthouse at Pendeen Watch. I took my last look at my day’s faithful companions the Scillies who, though even further away than ever seemed to be at their clearest yet. The path ascended up through a gorse-filled valley towards the lighthouse road. Even when I joined it, it was still another mile to the village of Pendeen where I would be staying and the long road was steadily rising. The wind played the strings of the telegraph wires between the village and the lighthouse as it blasted in from the sea, an eerie, nautical soundtrack.
I followed two boys loaded down with rucksacks all the way up the road right to the door of the B&B I was booked in to. The landlady had just shut the door when I knocked the knocker and she looked a bit surprised that I’d arrived so hot on the heels of her other guests. I was early enough to have a bit of a leisurely evening after what had turned out to be quite a tiring day, all the better to recoup before what all the guidebooks promise to be one of the most severe stretches of coastline between here and St Ives tomorrow. I’d planned to go right down to the lighthouse in the evening after dinner, but the reality is I’m just too tired to do an extra two miles walking when I could be putting my feet up.
My host recommended The North Inn for dinner. Inside it’s quiet. I’ve commandeered a little corner in which I fill up my notebook while I wait for my food to arrive. The walls are covered with photos and memorabilia from Geevor Mine including a framed newspaper article declaring ‘It’s Tough At The Bottom’, and a mounted Holmans 303 Silver Stopper Drill (for overhand drilling, apparently). It feels an appropriate way to end the day. It’s also a reminder, among the many I’ve had today, of how I seem to have come full circle since arriving in Cornwall ten years ago as an undergraduate at Camborne School of Mines. The Holmans Test Mine is now used by the university for training. I went underground there myself to practise rock mass mapping in my second year. And then there was the time we spent a morning surveying what appeared to be a bare patch of soil at Geevor Mine as part of an experimental soil rehabilitation programme attempting to test the best methods of revegetating mine spoil. It all feels like a very long time ago. Closer today, though. After all, it’s what brought me here, albeit by the long way round. But I’m getting quite used to that by now, taking the long way round.
[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 stepped 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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For more on the conflict of industry versus the pastoral, and the conundrum of attributing value to any landscape – especially when factoring in the complication of the minerals industry – take a look at
The Values of Desolation