Date: Wednesday 25th June 2014 Distance walked: 12 miles Total distance: 230 miles
After two weeks of glorious Cornish sunshine, clear skies and temperatures well into the twenties I finally returned to the coast path. I spent five days visiting family, one day back at work, one day at home to do many loads of washing and hoover up the depositional end of my walking boot coastal erosion up off my bedroom floor, then seven days in a row at work in sundresses and sandals being mocked by my colleagues for my ridiculous sock line. Three days off in a row. We all know what that means: the weather’s going to break. I got in from work at 8pm last night, rang a B&B in what I’ve been calling Porthconan for months, was making sandwiches at midnight, and at 8:50am this morning I missed my bus because I could barely drag myself out of bed and then as I was about to head out the door an eyelet pinged off my walking boots. Of course the next bus was late and had a queue of people waiting. If that had been the case on the earlier bus I wouldn’t have missed it. By the time I reached Newquay, having visited what seemed like half of mid-Cornwall on the way I was so fed up of being sat on a bus and so desperate for a wee that I got off at the bus station and ended up missing out on walking Towan Head which would have involved doubling back on myself and spending considerably longer messing about in the middle of town than I could face.
Newquay’s not really like anywhere else in Cornwall. It’s a bit dilapidated, with a few too many budget stores and takeaways and arcades for my liking, but it represents an important part of the Cornish coast and a different type of holiday scene. I made my way as directly as I could from the bus station to the coast, re-emereging at Towan Beach. From here I could see across to part of the eastern side of Towan Head which I’d missed walking around. It’s much more populated on this flank than the western edge leading down towards Fistral Bay. Newquay Harbour sits in the crook of its elbow. A small white construction stuck out on a grassy knoll right near the edge is a tiny huers’ hut with a little tower for a lookout to watch out for mackerel shoals and raise the cry hevva! when they came in. Part of what makes Newquay such a popular holiday spot is its beaches. There are several, all close to town and readily accessible, and all the good sort of golden stretches of sand, good surf, widespread lifeguard cover. What sets Towan Beach apart from the others is the separate lump of cliff with a house of top of it in the middle of the beach joined by a tiny suspension bridge to the main cliff and accessed by a long flight of steps. It’s a novel idea and it must be amazing to be shut up safe inside the house at high tide on a stormy day with the waters roiling all round your little islet, but I’m not sure I’d like to live there.
Great Western Beach, Tolcarne, and I finally made it off the pavements and onto the small headland east of Lusty Glaze – which is corrupted from the Cornish Lostyn Glas meaning, oddly, ‘place to view blue boats’. Newquay spreads eastwards along the coast from Towan Headland out as far as Porth, where a river runs out through a sandy inlet. Porth, which translates as ‘port’ or ‘harbour’, was in fact once a small ship-building port. Today the tide was out leaving the river to exit shallow and meandering over the long sands. My childhood home up until the age of five was named Porth. I didn’t like it as name then, though I do now, associating it as I do with the many porth- places around Cornwall, including this one, and knowing that it means ‘harbour’ feels sheltering and appropriate for the safety of a first home: a safe harbour for this Berkshire-born Cornish pretender.
From a distance the promontory on the north side of Porth Beach looks to be one long finger of land, but it turned out to be an island joined by a footbridge over a narrow gap. I got down to the beach and took my boots off to paddle in the estuary shallows. It felt good to get my feet in the sea, on the beach, on the sandy, gritty, shell-mash aggregate. It looked like there were steps carved into the rocks leading up from the beach to Porth Island. Close to they were augmented with concrete. I sat on the bottom step and sunscreened up, only to get to the top of the island to find the wind fierce and playing the slats and rails of the footbridge like some unearthly instrument. Through the gap between island and promontory the freeform shape of Dollar Rock on the northern side of Trevelgue Head was the shape of things to come along the coastline this afternoon: huge lumpen islets standing aside from the cliff-line, at their feet smooth stretches of golden sands.
The coastline feels different today. I know I’ve said this every day, that each day on the coast path feels different, but two weeks and the hot June sun has visibly shifted the flora season since I last ventured out. Two weeks have dried and sifted, bringing the grasses into flower, crowning the overflowered umbellifers with a dessication that feels more like July than June. The July purples have appeared: the mallows, the thistle flowers, heaths, deadnettles, nightshades, vetches and betony; matched with their yellow friends the kidney vetches and coltsfoots – nature knows what colours to put together. There was a hay meadow scent to the verges and coastal grasslands, sweet dry grasses and clovers. The centre of a domed blossom head of wild carrot had a tiny pink flower like a single pin in the middle of a pincushion. The air is alive with brown butterflies, skylarks, and insects everywhere: a hummingbird hawkmoth, bumbles, orangey-red soldier beetles pairing up on a cow parsley flower head. You’d think of summer as being all bright flowers, but in reality those jewel tones belong to April and May, high summer bringing a more homogenous and neutral palette with its soft mauves and yellows and browns. Suddenly it seems a very long time ago that I was breathing bluebell air on the south coast – though it wasn’t, just within a day of a month ago in fact I walked down a bluebell blanketed cliff slope with Annie towards Mullion Cove. One month and a hundred miles.
I stopped at Watergate Bay for lunch, another beautiful apron of sand below the cliffs, the sea far away. I took my boots off in a vague attempt to reduce my sockline and hid my sandwiches from the prospecting seagulls. It was pretty windy. A little boy was chasing after a bodyboard that was bowling along ahead of him up the beach. Shortly afterwards I overheard his dad trying to pacify him with suggestions of sandcastle-building, home, hotel and pool as the kid wailed his head off. Sad times, I thought, when the indoor swimming pool becomes the preferred alternative to the beach, especially when the beach looks like this. An even smaller boy had his hat blown off. (Watch and learn, kid, I’d tied mine to my bag for a reason…) Dad – a different one – tried to encourage him to run after it but he ran the opposite way towards the parents and away from the lost hat. Everywhere dads – don’t ask me what the mums were doing, probably enjoying a lie down – were deeply involved in sandcastle construction while their kids were off doing who knows what else in a classic example of the modern day generation gap that sees the parents building the lego while their children play on their iPhones.
Back on the path I followed the cliff line to Mawgan Porth with the sea a flat sheet of cerulean-aquamarine to my left and the buzzing summer hedge and meadow to my right. Mawgan Porth = Modern Porth: white cube houses, less traditionally Cornish. Stopped for another rest and sandwich as I was feeling the effects of two weeks at work rather than at walk. The path was fairly easy going with long flattish stretches of clifftops between the gentle dips down at the coves and settlements. I re-entered National Trust managed coastline at Carnewas. They’ve done a lot of conservation work there to reduce coastal scrub and improve the grassland and it was looking good for it. Luckily the tide was quite far in by then so I was saved having to go down to the beach at Bedruthan Steps which would have taken up quite a bit of time. Chunks of rock islets just aside from the cliff sit like giant stepping stones along the beach between Carnewas Point and Park Head – in fact one of the origin stories of the name of the place is that Bedruthan was a giant who placed the islets as stepping stones to make a shortcut across the beach. Unlike the giant myths of Ralph’s Cupboard near Portreath and Bolster at St Agnes Head though this one appears to be more of a Victorian fantasy. Bedruthan Steps was originally just the name of the long flight of rock steps that lead down to the beach, but over time the whole beach has gained that label.
The hedges that edge the path along the top of the cliff to Park Head are beautiful constructions. Cornish hedges are stone faced earth banks, all with distinctive local characters. Hedgers use local materials to build them so their stone facings, till infills and topping of vegetation always reflect the local geology, soils and plant life. Hedging skills are localised too with variations in construction depending on who’s built it and where it is. These all have a top edge finished in a slate herringbone style with bolsters of thrift and tamarisk bulging over their tops. A quick wiggle of a lizard crossed my path. At Park Head the cliff was starting to slump down forming little terraced plateaus. In the distance Trevose Head was coming into view, with the next lighthouse. I realised it would be the final lighthouse I’d encounter on my way round the Cornish coastline. I had a strange sense of a not-too-distant ending. How soon would it appear around the final bend in the coastline? I had a feeling like reading a really good, long book that you’re really enjoying, so much so that you can’t wait to finish it to find out what happens, but you also don’t want to get to the final page because you don’t want to not be reading it anymore. Even though you can conceivably start re-reading the book at any time you want, or dip in and revisit your favourite chapters, there’s something quite special about reading it for the first time, caught up in the narrative, compulsively turning page after page, experiencing the plot twists and revelations from a fresh viewpoint without knowing quite how it’s going to turn out.
Porthcothan appeared as I rounded a corner of cliff and turned inland to edge my way around through dunes rambled with an escaped rose and bramble overgrowth. The tide was in, the long inlet filled like a wide estuary. The village looks more of less unspoilt – not overly developed which seemed unusual given its location, though refreshing after the developmental run of Newquay-Porth-Watergate-Mawgan Porth. I found the B&B I’d reserved a room in late last night after work right at the end of the lane at the back of the village.
After dinner at the local pub sat on the terrace in the balmy evening light I ventured back down to the beach. The tide had receded leaving a long bay of sand cut through by a stream meandering out. The horizon was clouded over as though a blind had been drawn up from the sea. Above it the yolky remains of the sunlight turned the upper sky into a painting over the black silhouettes of the rockforms. The peachy cloud glow was reflected in the thin sheets of water overlaying the sand. Right out at the mouth of the inlet I could walk round where the sea had covered over earlier in the afternoon. A lump out near the tideline turned out not to be a rock but a bulbous jellyfish with a head like a rubber bowl well over a foot in diameter and matching the colours of the sunset. I later found out it was a barrel jellyfish – there have been loads bobbing around the coast of Cornwall this week, huge and harmless. It made the six inch moon jellyfish I saw further up the beach look a little underwhelming in comparison.
Back at the B&B I was dismayed to discover that what had thought was a dirt line above my boots and socks from the dust of today’s dry paths hadn’t come off in the shower and was actually the colour of my unprecedented tan line. Nice to know that however pale I am, when I do tan I just look filthy. I consoled myself with the contents of the refreshment tray in my room. Someone must have been forewarned who was coming as not only was there decaf Earl Grey tea but a whole jar of hobnobs. I also hadn’t brought a reading book as I was carrying everything with me over the two days so I was pleased to find not only a selection of books at my bedside about Cornwall and walking, but the Little Book of the Pasty and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Not all those who wander, after all, are lost.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]