Coastlining 27: Port Isaac – Tintagel

Date: Monday 22nd September 2014    Distance walked: 9 miles    Total distance: 264 miles

2014.09.22 (4)
view from Main Head, Port Gaverne north-east to Tintagel Head

Late September and it was perfect weather for walking. The sky was blue as a robin’s egg, the sea a pale topaz with a slight haze on the horizon and the lightest breath of a northerly breeze moved through the air. It felt like summer but was starting, ever so slightly, to look like autumn.

In four days time I’ll have reached the end of the Cornish coast, a project that has kept me afloat, or afoot I suppose, for six months. These will potentially be the hardest forty miles on many a level. It’s not just that I don’t want to stop walking, I’ve grown to love that sense of anticipation. I don’t want to not feel that expectation and excitement I felt at, say, Portwrinkle, when this point now was then inconceivable. It’ll be different this week. Cee has insisted on accompanying me, although with one knee pretty shabby and the other completely busted she won’t be doing much walking, so I’ve rented a cottage for us and she can potter about North Cornwall having a little holiday while I make my way along its edge. A late start from Falmouth this morning meant we missed rush hour but got stuck outside Penryn where a truck had broken down. We finally reached Port Isaac at about 11:30 after a deliberate diversion into Truro, so I could grab some of my belongings from Annie’s house where Luna the whippet went a bit crazy because she hadn’t seen me for a whole two days, and an unintended diversion to Wadebridge because we took the wrong exit off the A39.

Once I actually got going I reached Port Gaverne from Port Isaac in no time, tripping straight on down the road towards its cluster of houses around the beachy inlet with Cee following almost directly behind me in the car after dropping me off before turning round and heading off inland. Then I was up onto a mini headland that I rounded needlessly in my eagerness to get off-road onto the path proper, grasses swishing like a long skirt around my legs releasing white butterflies in a flitter upwards as I waded through.

From the height of Main Head I could see the day’s walking laid out ahead of me all the way to Tintagel, except the eight valleys between Port Gaverene and Tintagel were near indiscernible in the cliff line. The first valley of St Illickswell Gug left me so breathless and jelly-legged by the time I’d dipped down and reached the top of the other side that I was insensible to the novelty of being in a place with such a fabulous name. A planked bridge spanned a stream that was barely there at the valley bottom. Then, a flattish cliff top respite of butterflies and blackberries. A rustle in the hedgerow revealed a wren. Elderberries hung the wayside bushes like clusters of tiny glass beads.

At Ranie Point a waymarker in the middle of a gorse thicket was slightly discouraging, but the path carried on regardless skirting the brush in the opposite direction of the yellow arrow. Overhead was a small, brown, unidentifiable bird of prey – the size of a kestrel but not one – and some ravens cronking and tumbling. A tough ascent up a slatey-slidey-steep path from whose hard gradient I couldn’t see the top as it looked almost vertical. I suspect the waymarker pointing off through the gorse might once have taken walkers on a gentler ascent another way before the scrub took over. Out to sea the horizon was impossible to delineate, sea and sky merged with the September haze until the white hull of a vessel became visible in what I had thought to be the sky. It was good to be doing this walk in September, I thought. Funny to think I’d managed to span the whole protracted expedition over six months, seedheads and dried flowers where buds hadn’t even begun on my first walk. Harvest where once were a host of daffodils.

Below the cliff edge the landslippy beach at Barrett’s Zawn was followed by the third valley at Delabole Point: a green cleft with a stream at the base of its V, wooded at the landward end. It’s hard to get my head round the fact that these deep valleys exist because of these seemingly tiny waterways in the depths of their troughs: that these trickling brooks have such power to shape the land so severely.

2014.09.22 (15) Dinnabroad
Dinnabroad Valley, view west towards Port Isaac and Rumps Point

Almost immediately another valley, between Dinnabroad and Dannonchapel. I’d thought from the map that this was one I’d visited years ago on a field trip with college, but it didn’t look quite how I’d remembered it. It had been early spring that time, with scrub succeeding to bluebells on one side of the valley, primroses on the other: this looked more scrubby but then it was quite a few years ago I’d been here. We’d taken the inland path down the other side, posts marking regular intervals along the descent which were used for butterfly transects and lines where scrub burning had been undertaken. I assumed I didn’t recognise in its late summer guise, approaching from another aspect, this time the sward a purple-yellow mix of devilsbit scabious and coltsfoot where the bluebells and primroses had been.

The steps down into the – even steeper – fifth valley at Jacket’s Point met a barbed wire fence about a third of the way down. Beyond it they continued blindly off the edge so I backtracked and zigzagged down the replacement path. Soil creep rippled the steep valley sides like the vale had been lined with rough green corduroy. The stream at the bottom headed seaward and descended over the slate rocks in algal-curtained micro waterfalls. I could see from there the rockfall that had cut off the original line of steps. I had that sensation of near-fear pleasant awe that I have come to associate with remoteness. There was something about this place. Here it was blue and grey and glittering a dazzling white: the glisten of the sun on restless water and the sounds of a heavily percussive sea and the top notes of the trickly stream. I sat on the rocks by the sea and ate cold pasta pesto with my boots off and my feet in the sun. A bumblebee landed on my knee. A twitter of little brown birds flittered from the valley woods to the clifftop. A keewww and three buzzards wheeled overhead. This was the land of my content. It’s funny how on my way round 260-or-so miles of coastline it hasn’t always been the obvious places I’ve sat and really felt that. I’ve no doubt I might return to some of them and think really? It’s not that special here but at some points there’s a coincidence in time, emotion, place, that alights upon a specific location and I’ve just thought yes, this is it. With my back to the smooth, warm slate under Jacket’s Point, it was.

I couldn’t sit there all afternoon though, so I eventually re-laced my boots, put my empty lunch box back in my bag and braced myself for another set of steep cliff steps. Pausing on the way up to catch my breath I looked back and realised, after all, that this was the valley I’d been to with my course all those years ago.  I remembered pausing on the way up that time too, taking it all in and reflecting alongside my fellow students how little opportunity we’d had to do just that during the three years we’d been studying together. The boys were looking for a reef break offshore, surfing always foremost in their attention, and I was trying to take a photo of the exact moment a wave broke over a jut of rock at the mouth of the valley. When we got to the top we put out quadrats and surveyed the grassland for diversity of species.

September was well in hand on the flatter cliff-top walk towards Tregardock as I passed between hedges heavy with blackberries (soon slightly lighter after I’d been along). Ivy flowers like alien nodules of lime-dusted bobbles a-buzz with insects and stinking of pollen were covered with tortoiseshell butterflies. Smudge-blue sloes. Berried hawthorne. Feathery coltsfoot seed-globes. White butterflies with black bodies. Gorse, thistles and bunnies where the hedged paths gave way to open scrub above Tregardock Beach. The tide was in so I couldn’t really see what sort of beach it was, and beyond the triangular wedge of land pointing up known locally as ‘The Mountain’ some campers had set up base.

Backways Cove entranced me with its block-cut slate formations where previous rock extraction had left geometric holes and pillars remaining. Gull Rock – another one – sat just offshore. It had looked tall and triangular from Jacket’s Point but here looked like a lumpen island, smoothed compared to the sharp slice-age and lego-block shapes and spaces around me. The late afternoon sun was strong and reminded me of walking Tregantle Fort on the first day when it was as hot in mid-March as early summer. The horizon was no longer misty but a sharp ruler-run.

The eighth valley since Port Gaverne brought a sudden incursion of population at Trebarwith Strand: cottages, pub, cafes, surf shops, a bundle of colourful buoys decorating a wall, a parking space reserved for ‘B14RBIE’ and a sugar pink car slotted in front. There was a small cove and what would presumably – from the number of surf-related things and people visible – be a good surfing beach at low tide. It was high tide now, splooshing waves spraying up over the rocks of the cove.

2014.09.22 (39) Trebarwith
Trebarwith Strand

Thin clouds were beginning to veil the sun. Its lowering rays washed a peachiness over the lower sky, throwing soft, spray-painted spotlights on the sea which was cast metallic in the late afternoon light. Back south-west the black shapes of the coastline spelt out The Rumps, The Mouls and Stepper Point and the sea-sky line was a bar of light.

The Tregatta-Treknow coast brought more disused slate quarries with their strange vertical walls and stacks left like the ruined ramparts of a coastal fortification. A lady was sketching. A man was photographing. I pencilled into my notebook that I wondered why they’d left just one stack like that – a tall near-cuboid column sticking up on its own. The temptation to try and push it over or knock it down was pretty strong. A too-geometric cave in the next corner of the cliff at Dennis Scale looked like a door. This whole section of cliff at Penhallic Point had been artificially smoothed to make it more vertical so vessels could draw right up alongside and load from the quarries during the height of industrial productivity here.

From here on it was fairly even cliff-top walking towards Tintagel Head. Fields were enclosed with slate walls and slab stiles. One wooden stile had a complex dog-gate with a bar that said ‘dogs lift and pull’ as if they expected the dogs to be able to read. A lower and higher path diverged through scrub or field round to the Youth Hostel at Dunderhole Point, which didn’t look big enough to bunkhouse multiple groups the way it was wedged into the cliff. I knew I was near the end when I reached St Materiana’s Church whose shape on the otherwise undeveloped cliff-top is easily recognisable to the south of Tintagel. Cee and I had driven out to have a look at it the last time we’d come to Tintagel Castle some years ago, having spent the day with it drawing the eye from the other side of the Island. I headed a little way up the church path towards it to take a photo and saw a figure in a cream jacket and a long blue skirt waving both arms back at me. Looks like we’d both been drawn here again. Cee had been there for about 15 minutes hoping to meet me as I made my way to Tintagel, which was good timing because I was due to be early at our original rendezvous. It seemed a shame to stop before making it to the headland and I wasn’t completely done in by eight – or was it nine by now? – valleys since getting out the car at Port Isaac we agreed to reconvene at Tintagel car park.

Courting down’t gilla adders meet / amidst the tab mawn lover’s end confused me as I stepped over an engraved slate slab set into the sward. Another arcing – rocking further on. I wondered if they were lines from John Betjeman, the one-time poet laureate closely associated with this part of the coast, perhaps in some kind of art and place thing. The latter turned out to be true, but the words were of poet Amanda White from a collaboration with public artist Michael Fairfax who were jointly responsible for the wood and stone installation regenerating a space in Tintagel village that used to be a car park. The touchstone cites a quote from their ‘wall of words’ – which I haven’t actually seen, but uses White’s interpretation of local voices and folklore to tie together a story of place. This spot marks the inspiration for those lines, and describes – in local dialect – how this was not only a place young couples went a-courting but is somewhere adders are often seen: tab mawn is the local dialect word for sea daisy.

It wasn’t far to the castle and the narrow rock land-bridge that joins what is known as The Island to the mainland at Tintagel: so close, in fact, that I wondered why Cee and I drove out to the church all those years ago. The castle was closed but there didn’t seem to be anything to stop me walking out onto the headland among the ruins if I’d wanted to. (I didn’t.) I like Tintagel. There’s actually not much left of the castle itself but the location is very evocative and atmospheric, if a little over-exploited due to the tenuous links to the Arthurian legendarium, mostly thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Le Mort D’Artur. I make time for a quick look at the cove which is brimful of turquoise water, the caves like black empty eye-sockets. You can see why so many myths have been pinned to these places. If it weren’t Merlin’s Cave there’d be some Cornish giant or other stealing sheep or damsels, falling in love with St Materiana and probably responsible for the geological discontinuity that caused the rift between Island and mainland.

2014.09.22 (56) Tintagel
St Materiana Church, Tintagel

The path up the final valley of the day towards the village seems longer than I remember. Two ravens fly over the silhouette of the church against the early evening sky. It’ll be sunset in an hour or so.


[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.

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