Date: Tuesday 23rd September 2014 Height climbed: 4045 ft Distance walked: 11 miles Total distance: 276 miles
I returned to Tintagel at about 10:30am this morning to find it bright and misty, which sounds like an oxymoron but in early autumn on the Cornish coast this is what it’s all about. The shadows were sharp, rocks, corners and caves black and deep; the remains of the castle on the headland known as the Island were picked out by the morning sun from the south-east. From the bottom of Tintagel Haven, where the tide was out exposing the caves and cove below the land-bridge to the castle, I headed on up to Barras Nose, the next cliff-head east of Tintagel Head, to get a view of the coastline ahead. The line of cliffs faded into the distance, Cambeak a soft grey shape ten miles to the north-east, the sea horizon too misty for a glimpse of Hartland Point or Lundy Island like I had a sneak peek of from Pentire Point. The rest will be revealed as I discover it for myself. A kestrel flew past at close range right under me, followed by three swallows. Then as I set off along the path from Barras Nose there was a tiny slow worm on the warm stone steps just three inches long and thin as a wire, shiny and sleek. The young are born live rather than hatched from eggs but this one looked more new-minted than newborn. I tried to usher it into the safety of the verge out of the way of clumsy walking boots and it didn’t half wriggle. A passing hiker condescendingly told me how kind I was and that it was ‘a tough life’.
There were miniature ponies grazing on the first of two promontories named Willapark between Tintagel and Boscastle, shaggy and friendly – though they probably just wanted food. Then I fell into stride with two ladies speaking European accented English to each other (so I assumed both of different nationalities) who were heading down to Bosinney Cove for a swim. They tried to persuade me to join them with the idea that it’s fine, you just need to get your legs in and then it’s ok. I’ve swum in enough Cornish seas to know how much truth there is in this! Mind you it did look beautiful, an untouched stretch of sand below the cliffs, less frequented because it’s not easy to get to.
I’d never heard of Rocky Valley before seeing signs for it on the waymarkers from Tintagel. It is what it says: a proper riven dell of plashy rills and stream-falls and craggy rocks, two streams tightly winding down from a wooded upper cleft. Its characteristic ravine was formed by water flowing down a geological fault line and the unusual microclimate it provides has made it a nationally important site for mosses. I made a mental note to bring Cee when her leg is better – providing mine are still working after I reach the Devon border…
It was hard work getting up and out of the valley and made me question the SWCPA’s ‘moderate’ grading of the path to Boscastle. I’ve come to realise that moderation is an elastic concept on the coastline. Once up onto Trevalga Cliff it was easier going, the bulk of the slate cliffs spawning islet rocks off shore with names like Long Island and Short Island, a cliff-top archway cut through the slate called the Ladies Window, sea the blue of speedwells through its aperture. More blackberries. More butterflies in ivy flowers – big red admirals today. More ponies. I kept expecting to sea Boscastle round the next hill but it didn’t appear until after the white castellated lookout station on the peak of the second Willapark, tucked like a secret harbour entrance round a corner of the cliff.
The tide was just at the right level for the sea to spurt through a square blowhole low down on the inner crook of the cliff arm. The harbour follows the deep and narrow cut of the Valency valley inland, with the village strung along the either side, cottages close to the harbour walls. The steep valley slopes were wooded and scrubbed, the bracken’s autumn brown matching the rusty lichen on the harbour rocks and walls. The low tide left the boats on sand and there was an organic algal harbour smell which I love. With the water level so low it was hard to imagine the scene at high tide, let alone with the river in full flood breaching its banks and washing away homes, houses and hotels as it did in August 2004. If I hadn’t seen it all on the news ten years ago I’d have thought they’d made it all up: the precision to which the listed cottages and buildings have been reconstructed is such that they look as old as their originals, you’d never know that the majority of this village had been rebuilt so recently.
Cee was waiting on the bridge to join me for lunch. She’d already scouted the location of the village bakery so we equipped ourselves with pasties and sat on a warm wall by the river to refuel. Then it was onwards and upwards once again for me – and by upwards, this time it really meant it. The cliffs of the map were as orange with thickly running contour lines as they were with autumnal bracken and heather in reality. Up on Penally Hill to the north of Boscastle harbour the rusting heath was full of small orange and brown butterflies, like tiny spirits of September’s scrub animating the vegetation. Some walkers I met there identified them for me as small coppers. I met a lot of the sort of people today who restore faith in humanity, all passing the time of day with kind words and good wishes for complete strangers, but we are all temporary citizens of the fifth country when we walk the coast.*
Another valley at Pentargon, this one unpopulated save by a group of walkers grouped in a huddle round the gate at the top of the hill with two National Trust bees in red t-shirts. The waterfall marked on the map turned out to be just a trickle of a stream-fall over the cliff fed by a dark brown pool. Looking back from the other side of the valley the path which had just seemed a lot of steps down wound its way back up through the scrub like an articulated snake. Round to Fire Beacon Point the coastal side of the cliffs sloped away from the unfenced path to drop into the sea far, far below. Through grasses, then heath. A tangle of pony tracks through low bracken and stunted gorse. I was convinced I’d taken a dead-end pony path rather than the real route and would end up retracing my steps to avoid entanglement in the scrub but I seemed to rejoin the wider path in the end. Where the heather flowers were turning the melange of their purples and russets tarnished the hillsides a bricky hue under the hazy sun. Underfoot and in the landscape around the change in geology from this morning’s slate to a pinker grade of shale and sandstone blended well with the colours of the afternoon. Cliff edges were less defined, sloping away with a dusky slip of exposed taupe rock on a leaner gradient than the slates from Pentire to Boscastle which tended to be green right to the edges and grey and rugged in a sharper drop to the sea. Rabbits scrambled frantically out of the path. Overhead two ravens mobbed a raptor. It’s a tough life.
It was about to get tougher. Up ahead loomed a huge ascent with a near perpendicular set of steps cut into the side. I exclaimed out loud to no one in particular (not that there was anyone about) that it looked like a mountain, and then I saw that I still had to descend before I could even begin to go up it. I imagined how good it would be to be able to float directly across to it from where I was standing, although I still wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top. I counted the steps up. I got to 85 when I paused to let another walker pass in the other direction. He’d started at Bude, aiming for Boscastle, and seemed to think he’d bitten off more than he could manage given the frequency and severity of the valleys between the two. I continued to count all the way to the top but was so excited to get to the summit that I immediately forgot how many steps I’d come up. It was 223m anyway, or 732ft, the highest cliff in Cornwall (so not quite a mountain in reality). A waymarker at the top declared it to be High Cliff. It’s not a lie.
A cloud of ravens wheeled over Trevigue Farm on the south-north stretch towards Cambeak, the furthest headland I could see stuck out like a low toe – vey low after high Cliff – with the rock arch of Northern Door jutting out from the cliff base just before it. The birds circled down and round to their resting pint on the cliff edge where the shaley substrate left bare patches pocked with rabbit holes (ravens like this sort of abode – as I discovered here), swooping up overhead with inter-flight braids of acrobatics like the Red Arrows newest trick. They passed over again, low, circling over me in a way that suggested I was being scouted. I didn’t know at the time but Cee was watching the same flock from the inland side of the farm: she’d been all along the road that runs parallel to the cliff line in hopes that she might see me making progress up the coast. She even saw them swooping down over the path, little realising that it was me they were checking out.
The sandstone – a turbidite formation unique to Crackington Haven – was striped and swirled and folded back on itself up to Cam Draught and Cambeak. It was beautiful in the light as the lowering late afternoon sun filtered through the haze of the sky, like being inside a piece of artwork, a soft pastel composition or a chalk drawing, or like seeing the landscape through its own unique lens filter. Looking behind I could name check the headlands receding away in ever-paler shades of grey towards Tintagel, the stub of St Materiana Church still visible on the horizon. There is probably some pertinent metaphor there for my last few days of my coastlining project in softening light as the summer draws to autumn, just as I begun in bright spring with the buds opening and the year and season progressing almost tangibly with each step I took. The path climbed up over the nub of the promontory, or round the base – which was preferable after so much up and down all day –except there was a herd of goats crowned with two-foot horns right on the path.
Crackington Haven was revealed around the northern coast of the Cambeak headland, nestled into the corner below a hulk of cliff striped in zigzag folds that looked almost as tall as ‘the mountain’, a pinky-grey beach between their base and the waves. The trees as I wended my way down towards the village were strung through with briony like red-bulbed Christmas lights, almost aglow in the late afternoon sun. I could see Cee down there walking back towards the village. When I caught up with her she told me I really ought to start earlier so I wouldn’t be walking when the sun was going down (it was actually not that late and easily an hour before sunset) – so much, I thought, for relishing that early evening light on the coastline…
[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.
*I was quoting from archaeologist and BBC TV series ‘Coast’ presenter Neil Oliver when talking about the coast as the fifth country:
The coast can be described as the fifth country of the United Kingdom. People living on the coast of north-east Scotland almost have as much in common with those living on the coasts of Cornwall, Cardigan Bay and Galway as they do with their immediate neighbours. There’s a shared relationship with the sea; the comings and goings of coastal life unite them.
Click here for a link to an interview in which he explains further in Countryfile magazine in an article by Cavan Scott.