Date: Thursday 5th June 2014 Distance walked: 14 miles Total distance: 178.5 miles
Down into a stream-cut cleft and over the first footbridge of many, crossing a cascading rock-and-plant-filled rill cutting down from the fields and Penwith moors above me and dropping away to my left and down into Portheras Cove. Once up and out there was a view of what was to be the lay of the land for the day: Gurnard’s Head the furthest visible point of land sticking out into the sea in the distance beyond the nearer bulkhead of Chypraze Cliff. I was heading east, and will be from here on in for the best part of the north coast. Fourteen miles of what was promised to be part of the most severe and least populated stretch of the Cornish coastline lay between me and my destination of St Ives.
I’ll admit I’d been apprehensive. I’d walked that far before – unintentionally between Mullion and Perranuthnoe when I’d just kept on walking, and even on the first day walking just over thirteen miles – but the fact that the stretch had been graded severe and I’d encountered some pretty tough walking on some of the strenuous parts. However the worst part, as I’ve discovered along the coastline so far, was the first part. Whether it’s like a warm up and it takes a couple of miles or so to get into your stride I don’t know. At least the mile or so of road I had to walk between the village and Pendeen Watch before I rejoined the coast path was downhill. It was a fine, warm day with skudding clouds giving alternate shade and sun. The wind had dropped too compared to yesterday. The tiring descent and ascent to cross the first stream above Portheras Cove did not bode well for the rest of the day. Well, at least I’d have all day, and my next night’s accommodation was literally right next to where the coast path hits the road above Porthmeor Beach at St Ives so I could take as long as I wanted.
The cove was the first and pretty much only beach of the day, partly due to the tides and the rest to geography. Or geology. Looking at the map I noticed that the usual bold green dashed line marked with green diamonds that represents a national trail, in this case the South West Coast Path, disappeared altogether from Portheras to Bosigran. Would the path be so hard to follow? The guides all bring into play the word remote to describe this section, although in reality the B-road that circumnavigates the whole of the West Penwith peninsula is the closest to the coast along the most-part of this section as it ever is – often just a mile from the unjoined dots of the coast path. If I really got stuck all I’d have to do would be strike inland for about a mile and I’d hit the road, and although sparsely populated, there were dwellings and farms dotted all along that route. At the B&B in Pendeen, Moira the proprietor had been telling me how, a couple of days ago, two walkers who were booked to stay with her that night had managed to get lost on the path coming from St Ives. It had taken them eight hours to get as far as they had, and from her reckoning when they phoned her they were still a good two hours away from Pendeen. In the end she’d roped in Matt the driver from the baggage transfer company to go and pick them up in his van. I figure a stretch of coast path cannot really be considered all that remote if a man in a van can come and rescue you. Real remoteness would denote rescue by no other means than helicopter, surely?
The first stretch of the path once up onto Chypraze Cliff was mushy mud that would squelch boot-high between sporadically placed semi-crazy-pave stone fragments. There were cowpats and it smelt of cows. It certainly looked less well-trodden than other stretches of the coastline I’d walked along. The ramshackle hedge-line ran alongside a few feet to the right, the low, rocky moorland inland built a different skyline from anything I’d seen so far on my walks. I felt the words wild and desolate sticking in my mouth. They fit the surface of it, but they’re not what this part of the north of West Cornwall really is. Wild they certainly aren’t. These lands have been cultivated for thousands of years, farmed, mined, deforested. I guess this is their economic downturn, historically speaking. The fields themselves are a tiny patchwork puzzle-pieced together between coast and farmsteads, infilled with as much stone as rough grazing and wildflowers between the hedge network.
Round the next micro-field corner I came across the perpetrators of the cowpats: a large group, all different colours, clustered all over the footpath. Among the herd were several multi-browned and adorably small calves that very much wanted to go up to and pet, but I’m aware that despite my amicable intentions towards their offspring the mother cows tend to be very easily spooked and are not overly-fond of walkers in general. Then the black bull stood up as I approached. As they’d spread themselves over the entire free space between the hedge and scrub at the cliff edge there was no room to bypass them without going quite close so I hopped the hedge and took a little detour through a sorrel field in full June-pink (granite pink) flower, scratching my bare legs a bit on the stones of the hedge as I climbed back to rejoin the path later on but managing to miss the stinging nettles.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many wild orchids as I did along this stretch of the coastline. All along the verge were their small pale pyramids, ankle high, amongst the flowering grasses: heath spotted orchids, I later deduced, though a pale, often a barely-spotted variety, thriving on the acid, metalliferous soil of the edge of the moorland. Off the path the vegetation was tangled and scrubby, bracken lacing through the grasses. Everywhere green but for the tall skinny necks of foxgloves rising above the scrub following the path, like waymarkers. Up ahead the route climbed up an outcrop of cliff near Trevowhan – Rabbit Carn, it was marked on the map – and yes, now I could see why some would think it was a hard path to follow. It was hard to differentiate between path and cliff, both were boulder-pocked mishmashes of rock and vegetation, the boulder-line of the path blending in with the boulders of the surroundings. Or it would have been hard to see the path if it weren’t for the foxgloves leading the way. I suppose us walkers must have a passive role in distributing their seeds as we trudge along the way as their flower spikes almost formed a balustrade denoting the route.
The path was high above the sea, though quite close to the actual coastline. The cliff dropped away in a steady slope of granite off to my left so I couldn’t see a specific edge but the sea washed close below with no beach to soften its Atlantic assault on the cliff foot. Occasionally I’d find myself higher up than before, looking down ahead at a vista of indentations and protrusions of cliffs, with the deep-scored bare rock visible where the green ran out of things to hang on to, or I suppose where the rock face were too exposed and too often battered by the wind and the waves to make it colonisable. The lines of discontinuities in the rock face were angled to make the blocks look like they were leaning seaward, some near the top looking ready to topple with the slightest encouragement.
I was making good time. I’d already covered about four miles, not including the extra mile of road I’d walked down to get to my starting point. I heard a cuckoo as I passed north of Morvah, another reminder of how the year’s moved on as I’ve been walking. Climbing to the top of a rocky outcrop I wedged my camera on a lump of rock to get a photo of myself out in the wild. Behind me the lighthouse at Pendeen Watch was reduced to a white speck on the farthest visible headland. I’d just walked past the place where a whirl pool is marked just offshore on the map. I hadn’t seen any sign of it but looking back at the photos the white wave-spit floating in the lea of the cliffs forms a suspiciously circular looking shape in that location. I look a right state in the resulting picture even if it doesn’t show that by going bare-legged I not only managed to cut my legs getting caught in brambles but add another layer to my ever-darkening tideline above the ankles where my walking socks ended. Oh well. Better a dodgy tan-line from a springtime out of doors than, well, being indoors I suppose. Dirt under my nails. Blood on my shins. Salt in my hair. Sun in my eyes. Kernow agaz dynergh.
Looking inland from my vantage point gave a good panorama of the stony interior of West Penwith. Up where the land met the sky were the tor-topped Carn Galver to the east and Watch Croft above the hamlet of Rosemergy, the rock-bone of the land as exposed at the heights as it was at the coastal fringe. The moorlands were a grey-green camouflage of cloud-shade and scattered rocks within the nutrient poor heathy grassland, rocks forming together occasionally to make up the sparse features of hedge, farm-building, shell of an engine house. Directly to the east of me the cliff dropped off in a ravine of a cove walled high with castellated granite, the bottom a seething of peacock blue waters and white spume. In the dip between the two high points of cliff above the drop to Porthmoina Cove below someone had made use of the shell of a cottage to pitch a tent in its relative shelter, a washing line hung between two walls. There were climbers up on the crosshatched rock face of Bosigran Cliff. Overhead, ravens. The remains of an Iron Age settlement are marked on Bosigran Castle, the craggy tip top of that cliff, and part of the wall still remains, though it’s hard to know whether the feature is named for the remains of that promontory fort or for the impressively fortified appearance of the natural rock forms there.
This is an old part of Cornwall. There are relics of the past, near and distant, within easy reach of the present. In the labyrinthine interior criss-crossed with hedges there are stone circles, standing stones, quoits, carns, hill forts, remains of settlements dating back to Bronze Age, Iron Age, earlier. The more recent relics of the industrial revolution are deceptively modern tributes to the fact that this area has been a hub of the European minerals industry for thousands of years. The moorlands remain where a once densely settled population deforested the land for their thriving Bronze Age mining communities. Some of the stone faced earth bank hedges date back to this period, datable from tools found at their bases and in nearby fields, and the pattern of field systems is equally ancient. And underneath it all, exposing itself at its raw edges, the oldest part of the land itself, the volcanic extrusions of thickly grained granite, bubbled up from the mantle and slowly solidified into a large-crystalled crust, knobbled at each bend in the land and the coast like arthritic joints. Time feels deceptive in this landscape, with so many layers of history jumbled together like this. It’s hard to know what to write about it, not least because so much has already been said, but so much of the story of the land is visible to the naked eye laid out to be read from a map or the surface of the country.
Where the rock itself is visible the backstory itself can be discovered by those with the skill to read it. Sadly I am not one of them. However I soon found myself descending into another stream-cut valley towards Porthmeor Cove – not to be confused with the famous surfing beach at St Ives – which happens to be where I partook of my first and only geology lesson on a field trip way back before I even moved to Cornwall. The stream feeding down to the beach from Porthmeor village up by the road was wide enough to warrant a footbridge, though quite how they’d got the huge granite monolith that traversed the water in place I don’t know. On one face its edge was grooved with drill-hole scarring from where it was quarried. An ancient method of splitting out large pieces of rock was to drive pegs into a natural fissure in the rock mass, returning at intervals to knock them further in. The natural weathering action of rain, frost and thaw would do the hard work, gradually splitting off the chunk of rock along the desired line.
Gurnard’s Head is so named because of its resemblance to that same fish when viewed in profile. Passing level with it on the landward side it was just another jutting granite form. I was more taken with the jewel bright colours of Treen Cove on the eastward lea of it, the water incredibly clear over the sand and labradorescent where it sounded deeper over rock. Between there and Zennor Head were several little nooks in the cliff like gaps between toes, the slowly receding tide giving a tantalising promise of smooth pale sand beneath its glassy depths. I stopped for lunch somewhere on Zennor Head as soon as I could find a suitable boulder to sit on. A path had branched off the village of Zennor about a mile inland from here. It’s a village layered in legends, including one about a local mermaid, and several varying versions of the tale associating the Celtic saint Senara – who may have actually been a man, Sanctus Sinar – with the founding of the village. I neither saw nor heard any sign of a mermaid from my picnic vantage point on the west side of the headland, though I did discover somewhat belatedly that I’d sunburnt the backs of my calves walking with my back to the sun first thing in the morning.
The June pink of the flora was paler this afternoon: a sea-bleached pink of desiccating thrift a counterpart to the blush of minerals in the granite, and even more uncountable orchids like a rash of mushroom heads after rain. Heath became more prominent in the sward, but I never noticed at what point the clifftop scrub and coastal heathland. I found the narrow path I was walking snaked its way along a cliff now clad in bumps and tussocks of heather, bilberry, soft low-growing furze – western gorse or Cornish gorse, smaller, less spikey and more spiney that its bigger sister. This would be a good place to walk when the wild blueberries were ripe. The first heath flowers were just starting to show their purplish bells on Trevega Cliff. The soil underfoot had changed colour too: a blush-brown colour like the woody stems on the undersides of the heather tumps. And as I rounded the summit of Trevega, passing the trig point, the pale line of Gwithian’s shoreline and the khaki of its dunes came into view. Off the point was the silhouette of Godrevy Island with its lighthouse like a white chimney sticking up from a triangular roof of a giant house sunk below the sea.
East of Trevega Cliff the land became less dramatic. Though still craggy and rugged I’d long walked out of the toppling granite castles of the morning and this felt more like the coastline out beyond Coverack on the south coast. For all the foreboding ‘severity’ off the grading of this section of the coast in the guide books I didn’t seem to have found it that bad. By the time I reached Pen Enys Point just a couple of miles west of St Ives I was feeling tired, yes, but not weary, and not nearly as worn out as I’ve have anticipated for twelve plus miles of severe coastal walking. The path was uneven of footing, but no worse, I thought, than the section alongside Whitesand Bay yesterday, and although there had been varied terrain and relief there hadn’t been any Jacob’s ladder-style steps to climb like I’d navigated between Polperro and Lansallos, or Porthpean and Mevagissey. Either that or I was getting conditioned to it. In fact the ascents between Pendeen Watch and St Ives add up to 3186 feet – that’s within twenty feet the equivalent of climbing England’s highest mountain Scafell Pike. Since stepping off the ferry at Cremyll the cumulative height I’ve climbed has so far added up to more than 32,500 feet – so Scafell Pike plus Mount Everest, just in smaller bites and more clement weather conditions. Clearly my complaisance at the severity of this particular section had more to do with my own personal fitness (I am a distinctly unsporty person in general) and slow-built experience. This was the fifth day’s walking in a row and I’d covered over 45 miles of coastline in the past seven days – that’s a fifteen percent of Cornwall’s coastline. A whole muscle had appeared on my thigh that I’d never seemed to have before.
At Trevalgan a stone circle lies directly on the cliff by the coast path. Despite the prevalence of ancient monuments and standing stones in the area this is a more recent addition. The Merry Harvesters, who, according to a handily placed plaque courtesy of Trevalgan Holiday Farm, whose handiwork this ‘ancient’ monument apparently is, were thirteen old farmers and a beautiful nineteen year old virgin from St Ives who were petrified for dancing a fertility dance on a feast day. It’s a fairly convincing set up, particularly with the wildflowers growing all round the ‘harvesters’ feet. Round the next corner St Ives itself appeared over Burthallan Cliff. The town is built out onto a peninsula, the undeveloped endpoint of which is known as ‘The Island’. Approaching from the west it really does look like an island, with the populated spit of land connecting it to the mainland and fronted by the creamy breadth surfing beach looking more like an illusion of perspective from where I was standing.
The path runs off the heath of Burthallan Cliff right round the edge to Carrick Du (Black Rock – it is what it says) that marks the abrupt change from wild, rugged, severe coastline to the smooth expanse of Porthmeor Beach and residential roads of the town. When I arrived at my B&B I found that due to the number of guests booked in I’d been given an upgrade to a bigger room. I initially thought I’d messed up by booking somewhere right on the fringe of the town, but it was perfectly located for dinner at the beach café even if it was so full that I had to sit outside on the terrace. What’s a little more sea air, I thought?
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]