Date: Tuesday 10th June 2014 Distance walked: 10 miles Total distance: 218 miles
It rained on the way up to Perranporth from Truro. Annie tried to talk me out of going. She was opting out, her hip still playing up after turning her ankle yesterday on St Agnes Head. She suggested a movie day but I’d got it into my head that I was going to get as far as Newquay during my time off work and I wasn’t feeling too worn out to keep going. I told her to keep Luna at home rather than send her out with me again, the poor beast was looking, well, dog tired for want of a better turn of phrase. And then the heavens opened. It was the hammering sort of rain that plays the timpani on the car roof and sends so much water down the windscreen the wipers don’t seem to make any difference. Annie laughed heartily at the thought of me walking in torrential rain while she and the dog were tucked up on the sofa with Netflix. I was less convinced this was going to set in for the day. By the time we actually reached Perran the sun was back out and the world smelt rain-fresh and rejuvenating.
The two of them walked down onto the beach with me, Luna proving my point about how tired she was by lying down uncharacteristically on the sand when we stopped – she’s more in the habit of going absolutely crazy on Perran Sands and winding up all the other dogs who can’t get up the speed that she can. So we parted company. I headed north along the low tide flats, Annie started back to the car. Luna, meanwhile, couldn’t understand why we were walking in two separate directions and, worried that one of us might be about to leave, ran back and forth along the beach between the two of us. I was getting further and further away, and slightly worried about how long this would continue – Perran Bay is over two miles long. In the end Annie had to take charge and trap Luna with the dog lead to avoid a marathon two-mile whippet relay situation. I was sad not to have them with me. We’ve been so many times to Perranporth it would have felt appropriate to have them with me for that stretch of coast I most associate with them.
The storm cloud that dropped on us in the car had disappeared inland. Left over the coast were big clots of high white cumulus like whipped cream. The wind was up. So were the kites. The sand flats ran a cirrus shiver in the winds, waves of airborne grains sheeting over its surface. I walked nearly to the cliffs at the northern end of the beach, taking a path up and into the dunes and out of the wind. Marram quickly succeeded to a dense, grey green mesh of plants. Flowering plantains. Birdsfoot trefoil. A delicately veined iris. Dune morphed imperceptibly into cliff and I found myself high, high up above the shoreline and back in the wind: rock and short-shorn cliff-sward underfoot, a wide view of the vast beach below. The sea was the colour of the copper ore stains on Pen a Grader cliffs yesterday, the shadows of the clouds casting dark shapes like rocks underwater, the wind feathering the surface with white and messing the surf at the breakerline. Underfoot the clifftop was seasoned with yellows: kidney vetch and coltsfoot mingling with the flowerheads of the grasses.
From the beach below it looks like a single headland extending out at the north end of Perran Bay, with a wedge of an islet sticking up just offshore. It’s actually two headlands, one behind the other: the first, Ligger Point, indented with nooks and black cave-holes, carpeted with smooth short grassland, a sharp, sheer drop to Hoblyn’s Cove in the finger-gap corner of the cliffs. Then a zigzag of wave cut indentations in the cliff-line out to Penhale Point. As with the headlands, the islet becomes two from a different perspective: the iconic Gull Rocks of Holywell Bay. The coast path skirts the military enclosure of Penhale Camp, which takes up most of the inland part of the Penhale headland, red triangles on the map denoting their associated Danger Area in the adjoining part of the dunes. As with all military sites it’s difficult to imagine what goes on there, the more so here in passing a fenced-off gravelled area containing an array of what look like giant circular aerials fixed onto the cliff top. A little post-walk googling soon brought to light that the military camp was decommissioned in 2010 and is now an army outdoor activity centre, and the aerials belong to a radio station paired with one at St Eval.
Out of the wind again as I walked down into the sandtrap of Holywell Bay, the dunes at the back of the beach sheltered between the two bulks of slate headland on either edge. The path became hemmed in with hedges. A beautiful demoiselle like an art nouveau brooch in precious metals alighted on a bramble leaf. A fat cricket in the roses. Summer heavy all round as I followed the path behind the dunes and out to the road to cross the narrow river that flows out onto the beach from beyond the village. Somewhere beyond the houses is the actual holy well, dedicated to St Cuthbert, I believe, who lends his name to the nearby parish of Cubert. As it was about the halfway point I thought I’d better find the toilets, and bought a postcard as I had to pass the shop to get back to the coastpath. I took a path between the buildings and came out in the middle of the dunes, the sea completely shielded from view. Underfoot a woven matt of marram stems and trying to hold it all together. Striped pink trumpets of sea bindweed like strawberry and cream sweets.
As always with sand dune systems the paths were somewhat maze-like and indefinable. I headed in what I thought was the general direction of the beach and did eventually, after a little mountaineering, get where I wanted to be. The beach was pretty quiet. The waves were curling in at uniform intervals. Out in the bay the two peaks of the Gull Rocks drew the eye. I just wish someone had thought to give them a more inventive name. It was a nice idea to have lunch on the beach although it was probably a bit too windy to be eating somewhere so sandy. Well, what’s a coast path adventure without a sand sandwich along the way? I found a dried catshark’s eggcase right where I was sitting, got sand in every article of clothing and crevice of my bag, and wrote my postcard to my mum.
Sand and slate. Up, up the steep dune path until it became cliff. Cross the fenceline into coastal grazing. Someone had started a mini slate-cairn on the fencepost. The sheep were all up on top of Kelsey Head. I fondly associate this headland with windy walks, choughs, ravens and blackberries. I got blown about a bit and pulled my hood up because it clouded over and felt like rain, but no black shapes of birds of any sort put in an appearance as I rounded the point and dipped down again to sand and the narrow inlet of Polly Joke between Kelsey Head and Pentire Point. Another stream runs down, this from a spring on Cubert Common back in the nest of stable dunes behind the Kelseys, yellow flag iris spiking up in its verdant banks. The sun had reappeared casting the water an ombre of deep sapphire to turquoise to palest green where it rippled in over the sand. The hedges were thick with lace parasols of cow parsley and its umbelliferous friends. Summer, people, is really here.
Pentire Point West and Pentire Point East are the slate bookends sheltering Crantock – from Pen-tirr, the Cornish for ‘headland’, which is why there’s a few Pentire’s sticking out into the sea from the north coast. Another rock islet off the end of Pentire East – this time The Goose. I’d seen The Chick off Kelsey Head but I’m not sure if they’re related. It was cloudy again, rendering the bay dull and grey. Then sunny and it was washed turquoise. Naturalised gladioli clusters in the long grass were shockingly pink against the blues of the bay. I could hear a familiar creeaak emanating from the cliffs below. Turning the corner I looked back to see a fulmar nest perched on what looked like a slate face too vertical for purchase to be possible.
The beach looked irresistible. I cut down from the dunes and lay down on the slope of cream sand in the sunshine, running the fine grains through my fingers. This is what it’s all about. At the eastern end of the beach the River Gannel cuts its shifting path through the sand banks to the sea. It’s a proper river this one, the sand bar shelving quickly into waters deceptively resembling a swimming pool. A yellow banner warns Do Not Bathe. These still waters run deep and fast. As it’s summer the ferry was running. A little slate-roofed boat house with lattice windows at the base of the cliff on the other side operates a boat to a portable jetty on wheels that can be moved according to the tide level on the beach. Out of season the official coast path winds up the Gannel Estuary, following the line of the river to a footbridge about a mile upstream for low tide, or right inland up by the main road to Newquay if the tide’s in flood. Some other passengers were waiting so we hailed the ferryman in his white boat to row us over. (Except of course it’s the 21st century so his boat’s got an engine.) Inside the boathouse it was cool and dark. It doubles as a shop selling buckets, spades, nets, ice creams, crab bait, shells – even live lobsters freshly caught and still wriggling their antennae in tanks. Steps lead up the cliff though a sub-tropical garden, tamarisk, palms and giant echiums well established among the native bushes and plants. You pop out at the Fern Pit Cafe, well-placed on the brink of the cliff top with a good view across Crantock to the south and westwards inland up the Gannel Estuary. The tide was high and the river full, a broad ribbon of milky teal water between trees and fields on the west and trees and houses on the eastern shores. Inland the weather looked grim over the distant moorland.
Newquay’s conurbation spreads out from the northern shores of the Gannel. I skirted the edge of the Pentire development that leaves the tip of the Pentire East peninsula open. Approaching from the south most of Newquay is hidden behind Fistral Beach’s green dune complex. A line of the tops of buildings was just visible above the golf course there. The red brick block of the slightly gothic Headland Hotel stood out on the skyline. A low rocky bar with a white house joined the mainland and Towan Head’s promontory, a white dot of a tiny building on top of the green like a cherry on a bun.
KEEP CLEAR OF SAND CLIFFS advised posters when I stepped down to Fistral Beach. The winter storms have left large sand cliffs along our coastline. They are unstable and dangerous. Do not be tempted to climb, jump off, or dig into them. To be fair that’s what the dunes are there for. No, not jumping off and digging into, but to buffer the battering of the sea before it can do too much damage inland. Some of Cornwall’s dune systems are both tall and extensive, it’s hard to imagine until you see it happen that the sea can carve them up so decisively. A visit to Crantock in early February and found the usual gradient of the dunes cut into a vertical wall. The same has clearly happened all round the coast from what I’ve seen on my travels, though most places, Fistral included, were starting to recover – sand building up from the shoreline and slipping down from the dune cliff to ease back to a gentler sloping formation, plants regaining a grip where they’d been ripped out by the root.
Fistral’s looking beautiful. I’m a little early to meet Annie up at the car park, but not early enough to walk further and change my pick-up point, so I take a leisurely stroll at the sea’s edge, dodging the waves as they run in and taking too many photos of the breaking waves. They’re mesmerising. I’ve spent all day walking the coast – not to mention nine of the past ten days as well – but still I’m not tired of the sight and sound of the sea. I suspect I’m going to feel I’m missing something over the next few days I’ve got planned visiting family inland without the salt tang in my nostrils and that restless sound in my ears.
[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.
If you’d like to know more about Perranporth and the history and folklore associated with the place click here to read about the village’s namesake St Piran, patron saint of tin miners and one of the patron saints of Cornwall.