Date: Sunday 8th June 2014 Distance walked: 12.5 miles Total distance: 196.5 miles
Sunday morning I stepped off the train at Hayle and headed for the harbour. The town’s been given a bit of a face-lift in recent years, embracing its post-industrial status as a haven for nature after several centuries as a minerals and trade port. A regeneration plan for the harbour gathered steam in the early 2000s but never really got further than tidying the place up and implementing a series of trails and a national cycle network route. I followed this cycle path initially, crossing an iron bridge over the river, Copperhouse Pool to my right, the mid-stream mudbanks and reclaimed near-islands of East and South Quays to my left, and around the hard promenade of the eastern shore of the estuary. Across the other side of the river the tower of St Uny’s Church stood solidly rectangular above the golf links at Lelant where I’d left the coastline on Friday.
As soon as I could I got down from the quayside onto the exposed sandbanks of the low-tide estuary. The sand was wet but solid and strewn with ribbons of green algae streamed out and stuck in the direction of the descending tide. I took my boots off. A stretch of river-sea water in a slight dip in the sand bed was cold but pleasant on my bare feet. The varied currents of the retreat of the tide had textured the sand in alternating swathes of ridged and smooth. The ridges were patterned like petrified ripples on the surface of the sea into which my heels sank, the dips and furrows a massage for the instep, the motion a work-out for the calves. The flat banks were smooth and solid and surprisingly hard underfoot. At the river mouth the view opened out westwards, the cream streak of Porth Kidney Sands stretching seaward from the other side of the Hayle estuary and separating the teal-turquoise stripe of the river from the deeper teal of sea: near-tropical colours under a cloud-filled sky, dunes and cliffs and the far promontory on the horizon of St Ives in the distance. I stuck to the beach and followed the curve of the shoreline round eastwards. A scattering of waders dotted the wet sand where the sea was running shallow wavelets slowly inwards. Dunlin, I first thought, then noting the absence of black tummies, sanderlings?
The official footpath runs up through the dunes but I was having far too much fun walking barefoot on the beach, something I felt I’d done surprisingly little of despite covering nearly 190 miles of coastline since I began my venture. I thought of nature writer Robert Macfarlane whipping off his shoes at any given opportunity the better to feel his way into the ‘wild’. Yeah, look at me, walking barefoot into the landscape, and who said women just don’t do that sort of nature writing?! Then I stubbed my big toe on a stone. It really hurt. I had to hobble over to a lump of driftwood and sit down and swear for a bit until the pain eased off. I decided it was a hint I should put my boots back on and head up into the dunes – not far ahead a jut of the dunes where they started to become cliff towards Gwithian ran further out and had met up with the incoming tide so my time on the beach proper was limited anyway.
It was hard work getting up the sand dune – like walking on a travellator, every footstep up I slid backwards in the sand so I had to go at it at a run to make any headway. Once up I was met with a vast moorland of sand dunes intersected by a maze of paths. Marram and sand, sand and marram. Then scarlet pimpernel started to tangle its way through as I walked inland a little in search of the least tortuous route on which I might make the best headway towards Gwithian. A little succulent that looked like euphorbia, then singly more and more colonisers gaining a foothold in the sand, trapping the dirt and creating their own soil so more friends could join them, building a successive matt of low plant tangle until the only visible sand was to be seen in odd scrapes and scuffs here and there. Eventually I found myself on what ought to have been the official coast path – confirmed in good time by the presence of a slate upright engraved with the Upton Towans under a handy arrow and the SWCP acorn. Upton Towans became imperceptibly Gwithian Towans – towans being Cornish for sand dunes of course – and from a high point I could see Gwithian Beach below Godrevy Head, and Godrevy Island larger than ever just offshore.
Today’s was to be another walk of two halves, both in landscape and company: I was also going to be meeting up with Annie at Gwithian who would be joining me with her dog Luna for the second half of today’s walk and for the following two days. As I headed down towards Gwithian Sand Pit it was clear I was going to be early. Another example of industrial landuse successfully rehabilitated for the benefit of local wildlife, the Sand Pit, now a sanctuary of freshwater lagoons and islands inaccessible to people and four-legged predators, was until quite recently exploited by Hanson Aggregates for sand extraction. I crossed the footbridge over the Red River – so named for its appearance during the mineral heavy days when several adits discharged untreated mine drainage into its flow – and made for the cafe, toilets and benches for a late morning break while I waited. Annie’s car appeared on schedule and we set off up towards Godrevy Head. It was nearly lunch time but we wanted at least to get up onto the cliffs before breaking out the picnic. We followed the road for a bit, much to Annie’s annoyance when she discovered there was a car park higher up that would have saved her having to walk up the hill. Godrevy Island with its white octagonal lighthouse fronted by a green lawn on what was otherwise little more than a glorified rock looked close enough to swim to.
This is the lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, although the navigational beacon was moved in 2012 to a metal structure on top of one of the island’s rocks, so the traditional white tower is now just a daymark. Overhead the cloud cover had thinned to puffs of white fair-weather clouds on blue. Thrift heads were desiccated: palest pink or browning. Sheepsbit scabious was in full bloom of gas-flame blue pincushions. We skirted Godrevy Head and round to the Knavocks – or Navax, the map spells it both ways – where I can only assume Annie became a bit disorientated because she asked me as it was such a clear day if we’d be able to see France. I pointed out that we were on the north coast of Cornwall now. She has since suggested that she must have meant Ireland – either way both are too far out to be visible from Cornwall whatever coast you’re on. Clearly it was time for a break. We commandeered a bench with a panoramic view eastwards along the coast that we’d be walking later: the cliffline towards St Agnes Head with its unidentifiable points and coves alternating dark and light under the patchy cloud shadow. Annie had brought the provisions to save me having to carry mine all morning, including a full thermos and two matching camping mugs: pink for her, to match her thermos which had lost its lid-cup, and turquoise for me to match my rucksack and so we could be pleasingly co-ordinated.
It was a fun afternoon. As much as I enjoy walking by myself – I never get bored, being so absorbed as I am by whatever flora, fauna and geological phenomena I’m passing – it makes a nice change to have someone to share it with. We were in for a flat cliff top walk on even footpaths from Navax Point, the coast nicked with small and barely accessible coves but crossed by no streams or rivers cutting down to intrude valley ups and downs on the straight run almost all the way to Portreath. Some of the coves looked far enough off the beaten track but close enough to the coast path to be worth noting for a hot summer’s day when the bigger and better known beaches will be covered with shanty towns of windbreaks. Their yellow arcs of sand below us looked inviting, and with the fine weather it was hard to imagine their tranquillity disrupted by the full force of the Atlantic on a stormy winter’s night, which must have given rise to the appearance of names like Hell’s Mouth and two separate Deadman’s Coves among the Fishing, Greenbank, and Basset’s Coves. At the sea fringe lumps of cliff like wannabe islands, some big enough for a grass topping, others flecked with seabirds, jutted up out of the blue water – today a deep cerulean. It’s never the same two days together though. It wasn’t even the same this morning.
A B-road runs right close to the edge most of the way to Portreath, at points adjacent to the coast path, mostly separated by the green of open coastal heathland which transformed to a farmed field along Reskajeage Downs past the second Deadman’s Cove. The lush grass was over a foot high and Luna had fun whippetting around in it to the extent that she had to have a lie down and be carried by Annie with her tongue lolling out. (The dog’s tongue, that is.) At Carvannel, just less than a mile west of Portreath, the only stream we’d cross since the Red River cut a comparatively sharp valley down to Porth-cadjack Cove. Annie’s displeasure at having to go down and then steeply uphill again was soon appeased by our mutual excitement over the discovery on the map of Ralph’s Cupboard just before Western Cove. It transpired in real life to be a deep, narrow cleft with a bottle-neck entrance to the sea separated from the adjacent cove by a wedge of cliff that completely concealed its existence. Neither of us knew who Ralph was or is but thought it safe to assume that he was some sort of maritime miscreant and his ‘cupboard’ was a convenient smuggler’s hole. Much later I looked it up and discovered the provenance of the name of what is in fact a collapsed cave, as well as the existence of the off-cliff rock islets all along this bit of coast has an even more exciting – if slightly less plausible – tale behind it. Ralph, or Wrath, was a terrible giant who laid in wait in this cave for passing ships. Concealed from view he could strike unawares, stealing cargo and bounty and feasting on the crew. When sailors began avoiding the area Giant Wrath would hurl huge boulders from the shoreline to sink the ships, hence the collections of large lumps of rock all along the nearby coast. Perhaps Wrath was killed when the Cupboard collapsed? Who knows. It’s been a long time since giants were seen in Cornwall.
It was clouding over. We nearing Portreath but rain had begun to spot. Hoods up, head on. Our path lead us right down to Portreath Beach, which, due to the season, had a dog ban enforced. Luckily a whippet is small enough and light enough (and this one was tired enough) to fit on its owner’s shoulders in situations such as these. The beach was pretty empty, probably somewhat due to the rain shower, so we’d probably have got away with it. A sandy stretch beneath the cliff is backed by a wave-return wall and the houses tucked into the valley. A pier augments a natural rock form at the eastern end, separating the harbour entrance from the beach. Portreath was once the most important port in North Cornwall, with a tramway running right down to the harbour servicing much of the area’s mining district. Now of course Portreath relies heavily on tourism as per the rest of Cornwall, although the line of the tramway still exists and has been given a new life as a leisure route for cycling, horseriding and walking, connecting the north and south coasts from Portreath right down to Devoran between Truro and Falmouth. Maybe that is a trail for another day. This time we settled for the easy option of a taxi back along the coast road to Gwithian where Annie had left the car. Then it was back to Truro for some dinner and photo sharing and to prepare for our next joint escapade tomorrow…
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]