Coastlining 25: Porthcothan – Padstow

Date:  Thursday 26th June 2014   Distance walked: 13 miles       Total distance: 243 miles

I set out from Porthcothan in a lull in the downpour. Pushing through the waist high vegetation up the cliff path on the northern side of the inlet that sloped up from beach to dune to cliff I was glad I’d had the forethought to roll my waterproof trousers up in the bottom of my bag when I set out yesterday morning. I’d checked the Met Office website at the start of my three days off work: sun Wednesday, overcast Thursday morning followed by light showers in the afternoon, heavy rain and thunderstorms Friday. So I pulled my (shower resistant) windproof jacket from its peg on the back of the door, decided to walk Wednesday-Thursday and have Friday as a well-earned day off. But you can look at as many forecasts as you like but if you really want to know what the weather’s like you’ve got to open the curtains and take a look out the window. When I awoke in my B&B in Portcothan this morning the sky over the bay was heavy as hammered metal. Halfway through breakfast it started to rain so I reviewed my choice of outfit and berated myself – not for the last time today – on my choice of outerwear. I even had a moment of genius when I’d got up onto the clifftop path just to the north of Porthcothan where I thought I could put my slightly less waterproof jacket on backwards so that the non-waterproof zip fastening would be at the back, concealed behind my rucksack so there’d be less chance of water getting in. Genius, yeah, really great plan – until I want to put the hood up.

Despite the distance being obscured by the weather and the near-scapes hampered either by the raindrops on my glasses or my less-than-perfect vision without my glasses there was much to admire in the damp vistas. Many nooks and crannies of coves and corners, all with outlying stumps, lumps and stacks on the fretted north-south stretch from Porthcothan up to Treyarnon. The beaches I skirted and crossed were wide, pristine, and devoid of holiday makers in the weather. A single, welly-shod and waterproofed family at Treyarnon were out on the shoreline with their dog making the best of it. At each beach the lifeguards were hiding in their huts. I hoped they’d brought good books for the day.

2014.06.26 (3) Treyarnon
Treyarnon Bay

There was no seaward horizon and the translucency of the water seemed intensified by the lack of sun-glare to reflect and dazzle off its surface. It was as if the water in the atmosphere brought the surface of the sea into the air so we land-dwellers were closer to its element by being semi-immersed on the land. The sand was a deep caramel colour, the sea a deep teal, tints in the rocks brought out by the seep and saturation, an upscaled version of transforming a dull pebble by dipping it into a stream and watching its colour change. An urchin like a purple-threaded pompom floating in a tide stream. A hundred snails come out of the woodwork – or wherever it is they’ve been hiding for the past three or four weeks of good weather. A thousand snails. I don’t think I’ve seen so many cumulatively in the rest of my life put together.

Slate and sand. Contrast and compliment. Smooth and grit. Dark and gold. Flake and particulate. Headland and bay.

And oh so wet. The only other people I saw on the cliff path were proper hardcore walkers, properly suited up against the elements. The rain was soaking inwards from the edge of my hood and collar. It had run up my sleeves where I’d been holding onto the shoulder traps of my bag, and soaked though my zip where I’d refrained from wearing the thing backwards. At least my legs and feet were dry, my walking boots holding out despite their missing eyelet.

2014.06.26 (5a) Constantine
Constantine Bay

Up past the twin golden beaches of Constantine and Booby’s Bay  subtly beautiful in its pearl grey guise: I can only imagine what it must be like under clear skies and dazzling sun. I’d seen a golden stretch of sandy coastline in the distance along the Trevose Head coastline from Newquay, this must have been it. An egg case of a skate or ray like a pouch of seaweed. A vertical undercut to the dunes a reminder that even though it’s wet it’s at least neither wild nor all that windy. Onto the headland itself I found a stile to nowhere which must once have been in the middle of a fence boundary. You can see why someone might want to fence off this area as right in the middle of the grass there was a huge circular hole opened up – another collapsed cave, this one imaginatively named Round Hole.

Round Hole - view south towards Constantine and Treyarnon Bays
Round Hole – composite view south towards Constantine and Treyarnon Bays

Like Tol-Pedn-Penwith on Gwennap Head I was drawn to its absence. Imagine standing on a piece of cliff when a cave roof collapses beneath you. Does it happen all at once like that or little by little open up? I always thought things like that happened slowly over time – geological time – but the rock arch at Porthcothan disappeared overnight last February in a violent storm, leaving a gap like a gum with both front teeth knocked out. Why am I drawn to these perilous features? I suspect the Romantic poets could tell me, and likewise my ex-MA team would poke fun at me for getting so obsessive over the sublime. But it doesn’t change the fact that an unexpected portal from green clifftop grazing dropping vertically down to stony beach at the bottom, exposing a wide shaft of cliff cross section on the way down is both fascinating and repellant, awe-inspiring  and confusing: that element of unsafety catching its barbs into me as I skirted as close as I dared to the brink of the abyss. I couldn’t even get a good photo of it it was so deep and wide.

Trevose Head lighthouse is the last on this stretch of coastline until Hartland Point; thus also the last in Cornwall. That’s all nine checked off now, Eddystone a needlepoint on the horizon of the first two walks, St Anthony’s guarding my home estuary, Lizard flashing its beam into my room across Mount’s Bay, Tater-du surrounded by foxgloves and wildflowers, Wolf Rock disappearing into the rain arriving from the Atlantic, Longships on its row of islets off Land’s End and Cape Cornwall, Pendeen Watch marking the transition from West to North coast, Godrevy redundant on its island. Trevose was white against a grey sea and close horizon. I was surprised that it wasn’t announcing its presence with its foghorns, but aside from the rain the weather wasn’t all that bad. I attempted to take a selfie with the lighthouse in the background, although I missed off the lighthouse I did make myself look like I was having a much pleasanter time of it that I probably was, so much so that it’s ended up as my gravatar shot, hood up and happy with the coast path leading off out of frame behind me, the epitome of my coastlining experience.

Trevose Head Lifeboat Station and Merope Rocks, Mother Ivey's Bay
Trevose Head Lifeboat Station and Merope Rocks, Mother Ivey’s Bay

Merope Rocks spiking out into the sea off the eastern point of Trevose looked more western somehow, like they belonged at Treryn Dinas off Porthcurno perhaps. The Trevose Headland Lifeboat House stood on stilts with a ramp to launch the lifeboat in the lea of the rocks at Mother Ivey’s Bay. There was an art deco house on the headland just behind it. I saw the first viper’s bugloss – a coastal staple of the Sussex-Kent shingled marshland flora of my childhood summer holidays – that I’ve seen so far in Cornwall. Field scabious were waving their lilac heads on the brink of Harlyn Bay. It was getting hard to take photos because my lens cap was sticking and the lens appeared to be blurred with moisture from the inside. At least, I thought, the pictures will be accurate of my experience of the seven bays coastline. My pocket notebook seemed beyond redemption – anything I’d written about yesterday in ink had been turned to an abstraction of purpling swirls. Even my map was looking a bit wibbly round the edges.

2014.06.26 (24) Harlyn Bay
Harlyn Bay

I stopped for tea in the dry and warm of the beach cafe at Trevone and assessed the rest of the water damage. There was maybe an eight inch dry square in the middle of the back of my jacket where my bag had been pressing it to my back. My scarf was soaked but somehow acting as a sort of buffer between my soggy jacket lining and my t-shirt so I put it back on again. I was, I concluded, officially wetter than when I fell in Gilllan Creek.

Heading back out up to Gunver Point – passing another Round Hole on the way – I momentarily thought the rain was stopping and took off all my waterproofs in order to try and dry off a bit. But the patch of blue sky was not enough to make a sailor a pair of dry socks, let alone a pair of trousers so it was soon all back on again. The coast was rugged and the weather felt atmospheric as the craggy fingers of the Merope Islands came into view in the spaces between cliff and islet, seabirds wheeling in the cliff gullies framed white against the dark scene. The clouds lowered dramatically over Stepper Point like a dark bear leering out of the sky.

Suddenly to my right there was a wide view over a wall of the Camel Estuary across a green field: the tide halfway; the Doom Bar; the channel eggshell blue and mist over everything, Padstow and Rock obscured somewhere upriver. Then as I reached the chimney-like daymark tower right out on Stepper Point at the western edge of the Camel Estuary I looked back to the dip and rise of Trevose Head on the horizon behind me to see it clear and defined under a clearing sky. As I rounded the Point itself and headed inland along the estuary coast I can see the weather moving eastwards and clear skies being revealed. The wet weather, that is, it is all weather in fact. I like it all, even the rain, I’d just prefer to have been a little drier on the inside of my clothing. As I passed the lookout on Stepper Point the coastguard invited me  inside, but now I’d seen where I was headed I was keen to get on so I declined the offer of temporary shelter. Besides, the sooner I got to Padstow, the sooner I could have lunch.

2014.06.26 (31) Camel Estuary
The Camel Estuary

Soon I was properly out of both the wet and the waterproofs, holding out my arms as I tramped southwards down the western coast of the Camel Estuary, my jacket inside out and hanging off my bag to try and let it dry out. It was warm. There was a breeze. There were fat black tadpoles in a little ephemeral pool no bigger than a puddle, with tiny legs just beginning to appear behind their head-bodies. At Hawkers Cove the sand spread wide across the estuary making a wide beach and the famous Doom Bar, so named because it does what it says and has been the doom of many an unsuspecting seafarer attempting to navigate the tricky channel at the river mouth. I stepped down to the beach through evening primrose and rushes clotted with cuckoo spit. It smelt of warm sand and marram grass after rain. In the shelter of the estuary it was getting hot, but it wasn’t as far in reality as it looked on the map to St Saviour’s Point.

Then Padstow itself suddenly appeared, as did the people, though whether that was to do with the fact that the weather had cheered up or because I was reaching a sauntering distance from town I don’t know. Someone had sewn a hay meadow mix in the amenity grassland between the benches and the memorial cross at St Saviour’s Point: bright red poppies, azure cornflowers, purple sweetpea. It was beautiful and much more ecologically beneficial than just having a grass monoculture, but to my eye so bright after the ‘real’ meadow mix I’ve grown accustomed to walking through over the clifftops. This is what I imagined ‘wildflowers’ to look like as a child, but once you start to really look there’s far greater, if subtler, variety and beauty in what nature provides.

2014.06.26 (36) Rock - Padstow
St Saviour’s Point, Padstow and the River Camel

Padstow was busy, as expected, people cluttering the streets around its double harbour. I filled my rucksack at the Chough Bakery to see me through the journey home, and even treated myself to an ice cream as it had turned out so hot while I waited for the bus out by what was once the old railway station. This is now, as well as being the start or end point of the Camel Trail cycle route which follows the old railway line to Wadebridge and Bodmin, the hub of Rick Stein’s fishy enterprises. For all people complain about his commercial monopoly of Padstein the redevelopment of the old station buildings to a thriving business venture is actually a good thing for what could have been a much less sensitive redevelopment or dereliction of the classic Victorian railway architecture.

The bus arrived and I made my way out to Whitecross by the Royal Cornwall Showground where I change for Truro. It’s turned into a beautiful afternoon. Shame I didn’t wait and set out later, really, though I wouldn’t have been able to bus it back. Still I enjoyed the view from the elevation of the A39 ‘Atlantic Highway’ back over the estuary, the fields and the crooked coastline I’ve been following. Far away across the fields beyond St Issey I saw a black shape like a cat or a dog that moved like a fox but was more like the size of a small pony loping away across field and wondered what it could have been. You hear stories of escaped black panthers and ex-pet big cats that have grown too big for captivity, been released and naturalised and then mythologised as local ‘beasts’. Maybe that’s what it was? I look on the map at home to try and locate where it was I could have seen it, and discover it was roaming farmland somewhere over by, of all places, St Merryn. Now no one’s going to believe me if  tell them I caught a rare glimpse of The Beast of St Merryn on the bus ride home. Maybe my mind was just playing tricks on me after all.



[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.

2 thoughts on “Coastlining 25: Porthcothan – Padstow

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