Date: Thursday 25th September 2014 Distance walked: 9.5 miles Total distance: 296 miles
Bude was quiet at nine in the morning. A few dog walkers. A few determined swimmers in the sea pool. To the south a pale blue glimmer in the sky, the rest was grey with lowering clouds that had me fretting on the way in that it might rain and I’d brought the wrong coat. Cee and I parted at the car park tucked in behind the beach and the harbour. I set off up round by the sea pool. Past a row of 1920s beach huts with painted doors and window shutters: red, blue, green, navy, light blue, red. The tide was low. Bude beach was a deserted spread of smooth sand the colour of foundation for a skin tone darker than mine, pocked with morse code lines of footprints …. …. …. …. …. and _ _ _ _ _ _ some straight threaded some weaving around, a punch card for a musical box, these dots and dashes sparse evidence of early morning activity though it wasn’t even that early. Away to the south the lumpen shapes of the cliffs between Boscastle and Millook dark lines of relief. Out beyond, the familiar shape of Tintagel Head with its almost-island looking like an actual island from this far away.
Past Crooklets Beach to the north of Bude’s main sprawl and an easy stroll to Northcott Mouth over Maer Down’s low and grassy cliff-top. Grass gave way to a beach of grey pebbles, foundation sand, and an algal wave-cut rockpool apron at the base of the cliff ahead. The cliff path steps up seemed to mark the edgeline of the vegetation covering the sandstone-shaley hulk: a taupe lump which slip-slid off its own face making its own rubble at its cliff-base backing of the beach. Here was to be my landscape of the day: valleys of increasing depth made in this fashion, washed in a colour scheme of late summer vegetation giving way to this north-east Cornish rockscape. Gone are the slates with their pewters and greys and sharp black shadow-caves; gone are the granites warm-toned and toppling into their own shapes, pale beaches leaving a glister on my boots. Here be rock toned like wood cladding slowly seasoning: a warm brown leaching to grey. Sepia beaches. Deep green scrub and dull green grassland threaded through with the wavering beige and parchment blades of grass and rush and seedhead. Flowers were browns. Rocks were browns. Grasses were browns. There were no shadows today under the overcast sky. Or all shadows, I could not tell.
A man ran up the steps all the way to the top of the cliff at Northcott Mouth. Clearly he’s not planning on doing that all the way to Devon – one can only hope. I follow him up at a more reasonable pace and walk the cliff-top path towards Sandymouth. One thing I’ve seen all around Cornwall is the difference the weather makes to the appearance of the landscape. I can imagine on a clear day how attractive these beaches would be, different though they are from the creamy expanses of the shores further west. Winding my way down the steps towards the dip at Sandymouth I saw a familiar green car driving into the little car park. I waved madly as the parking man approached the driver’s window where Cee started explaining she was waiting for me to appear before spotting I’d just arrived at the same time. Apparently she’d decided against driving down to Duckpool at the end of Coombe Valley a little further north due to the steep hairpin bends required to access it by road. I invited her to walk down to the beach with me but it was a bit too steep for her bad knee so we arranged to reconvene later on in the afternoon as there wasn’t another point we were likely to coincide conveniently for lunch. We parted with see you in Devon! and I set off uphill again.
This is another stretch of coastline graded severe by the SWCPA and, like the stretch between Port Isaac to Tintagel and Boscastle to Millook, this is due to the continuous crossing of stream-cut valleys, often away from any sign of civilisation. For those doing the full South West Coast Path this section continues on past the Devon-Cornwall border for another five miles up to Hartland Quay, which makes it not only one of the most severe sections terrain-wise but the longest suggested day’s walk. I wouldn’t be going that far so it wouldn’t be that bad and, as I found walking the tough stretch between Pendeen and St Ives after four previous days’ walking in a row, I was conditioned into it and not finding it as hard going as I’d expected. The purported ‘right way round’ to walk the coast path is actually the other way to that which I’ve taken. I remember discovering this in the early stages of planning, although I’d not really thought about which way round to do it I’d had in my head that I’d start at Plymouth, head west and then east again. The more I considered it the more I felt that was the right way round to do it, so that’s what I’ve done.
Sometimes if something feels right, that is what you ought to do. And it’s worked out: the early stages were much easier to access by rail and road, making day walks possible throughout March and April. It also meant I was walking into Cornwall towards my home patch before heading out west to the less familiar. Whoever it was said I’d be walking the whole thing with the sun in my eyes clearly forgot that Cornwall is shaped as it is and therefore I’d be heading in the east-west for half of it and west-east for the other half. And now on the last day I realised possibly the most important thing: I was walking the hardest part last, meaning I was conditioned to the steep ups and downs of cliff and valley, I know what pace to set, how often to have stops, how much to drink, how much to eat, what to wear. If I’d have walked this stretch on the first day and been faced with the prospect of traversing High Cliff and friends between St Gennys and Boscastle I don’t think I’d have carried on. So here’s my advice, people: ignore the guide books, do it this way! Or rather, do what feels right for you. Maybe you’d rather not do it in order and just pick a day’s walking here and there until you’ve done as much as you feel you want to. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The [path] is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself. I could go all Mary Schmich on you now and wax lyrical with all sorts of tidbits about falling in rivers and treading in cowpats but if you could just read the rest of this blog and figure out what worked and what didn’t so I’ll leave the advice bit there. That and hot cross buns. No, seriously, they are the best. And trust me on the sunscreen.
There were cows after Sandymouth, grazing the dip before the cleft of Warren Gutter. Climbing up (out of the ‘gutter’!) I was high enough up to be able to see way back down the coastline to Trevose Head like a sloped island to the south. Above the next valley the white saucers of the radio station at Harscott High Cliff looked huge on the skyline. Down in the valley trough a small river meandered down, collecting in a pool – presumably the ‘duck pool’ – behind the pebble bar of the small beach. A white cottage was nestled into the curve of the river, an aesthetic location but it must get pretty desolate not to mention prone to flooding. Boscastle 2004 anyone? It was time for an apple so I pottered about on the beach and sat on a cracked boulder among the cobbles. Cronk of a raven. Peep of an oystercatcher. I didn’t see any ducks.
I’ve seen lots of secret places around Cornwall’s coastline on my way round. I’m sure I’ve missed a good many too. The radio station up on Harscott High Cliff certainly doesn’t look very secret as you approach from the south, its massive, sci-fi satellite receiver dishes visible for miles on the cliff top. I ended up off the proper path as I made my way down and up from Steeple Point above Duckpool, getting muddled in a mesh of intersecting tracks through bramble scrub (with ample and excellent blackberries) from which I eventually emerged onto a concrete track that presumably serviced the radio station or were perhaps part of the infrastructure of the WWII Cleave airfield that once occupied this site. Ringed with high fences and virtually in the middle of nowhere with regards to road access, GCHQ Bude was developed in the late 1960s as a joint operation between the British Government and the US National Security Agency. Although its operations remain highly classified it is known that its location and array of satellites potentially cover all main frequencies and that monitoring carried out here forms part of the data gathering for the international ECHELON surveillance program. Given that an estimated 25 percent of the UK’s internet traffic passes through Cornwall, with subsea cables making landfall at Porthcurno, Sennen Cove and Widemouth Bay just to the south of Bude, it shouldn’t really have come as too much of a surprise in 2013 when Edward Snowden let the cat out of the bag about the fact that British surveillance were tapping into this data as part of a three year trial set up here at GCHQ Bude. Apparently the British Government have denied that this data screening is anything other than legal and necessary and that far from being involved in industrial espionage the main focus is national security, military operations and investigation of serious crime. Realistically this site is Cornwall’s biggest secret. We can’t really know what they are up to, but whichever way you look at it I’m pretty sure they know what we are.
That’s just another facet to this coastline and its uses and industries. Communications have long been a part of the Cornish maritime history: the Falmouth Packet Station which operated from 1688 transmitting mail by ship throughout the 18th and 19th centuries; the signal station at Bass Point near the Lizard which allowed ship-to-shore communications before radio transmission was invented; the first transatlantic radio transmission was made by Marconi from Poldhu in 1901; the first submarine telegraph cables linking Britain to India were connected at Porthcurno, spawning the company that would become Cable and Wireless and a telegraphy engineering college. Eventually these telegraph cables were replaced with telephony cables and more recently fibre optics. Stuck out on the toe of England right at the south-westerly end of the end might give Cornwall the disadvantage geographically in a lot of ways, but being the first and last point of land on the Atlantic seaboard also has its benefits.
Steps cut down from the path towards the shore at Stanbury Beach at the bottom of the next valley. I considered going down and having lunch but it was only about half eleven and it seemed a bit early so I decided to wait until the next valley and head down to the beach there. Of course when I got to the next valley I regretted that decision as the beaches below either side of Higher Sharpnose Point were completely inaccessible – which I ought to have been able to tell from the map but to be fair Stanbury Beach looked equally so from the contours and lack of path marked. I followed a narrowing path out onto a limb above Tidna Shute, ending up thigh deep in vegetation wondering why I’d started. The beach at the bottom of the slipped cliff face was grey and uninviting, and, on this side, accessed by a sharp drop. I’d committed that far though so I found a precarious picnic spot before making my way back along the limb and up the edge of the next cliff where the path wavered a vertigo-inducing scramble up the brink.
Writer, historiographer and vicar-extraordinaire R S Hawker is Morwenstow’s most famous historical resident, known for his rigorous renovations and innovations during his term as vicar of the church of St Morwenna and John the Baptist, his novels and poetry, and his reputed eccentricity. Just off the path between the valleys of Tidna Shute and Morwenstow, down a few steps and nestled in to the edge of the cliff stands Hawker’s Hut, a small, driftwood-built shelter facing out to sea with a double-hatched door and not much inside but a bench built in to the walls and 150 years of I woz ere graffiti scratched into the woodwork. This stretch of coast – along with the other 290 or so miles of Cornwall – is notorious for shipwrecks and the Hawker built this shelter, in which he would sit and read his daily letters with his wife Charlotte, write, and smoke opium, purportedly from wood salvaged from the wreck of the Caledonia, the Phoenix and the Alonzo. The graveyard of Morwenstow Church is the final resting place of many of the victims of shipwrecks that Hawker gave Christian burials to. He was often said to be the first on hand at any shipwreck attempting to save as many as possible and salvaging bodies that would ordinarily have been left on the shore to be washed back out to sea.
Morwenstow itself boasts the typical granite Cornish church with a tall rectangular tower and not one but two holy wells, though I could see no sign of St Morwenna’s Well which is supposed to be just off the coast path down in the dip of the valley. I later found out that it is nearly inaccessibly sited below a cliff ledge so was probably just below where I stopped and leant into a bank of spongy thrift for a rest. At the top of the scrub-filled cleft I could see the distinctive vicarage built by Hawker just below the church, with its chimneys modelled on the towers of different churches he’d had incumbency of during his working life.
Henna Cliff. Yeolmouth. Cornakey Cliff. Litter Mouth. Sea like a slate sheet. Darkening sky. Few flowers to lighten the wayside. Dark stars of knapweed. Rust patches of desiccated heath. Gold patches of gorse. Kissing’s out of fashion when the gorse is out of blossom. The Devon coastline ahead. Lundy out to sea. A long arm of rock reaching out into the sea at Marsland Cliff – another Gull Rock to add to the collection – looking like a prehistoric creature stretching out its neck with a blowhole for an eye.
The River Tamar divides Cornwall and Devon for all but a few miles of its border in the north, which is separated by the Marsland Valley and the Marsland Water. The two rivers are very different, the Tamar wide and iconic, more than just a river or a blue line on a map in its cultural significance for the Cornish, its name derived from an ancient river-word meaning ‘dark flowing’. To get in to or out of Cornwall you have to traverse one of 22 crossings – you even have to pay to get out of Cornwall over the Tamar Road Bridge at Plymouth. Somehow the Marsland Valley border felt slightly underwhelming as I approached from the south. Here was yet another valley like the eight I had been down into and up out of already since Bude, a stream wiggling away in its trough, an old mill house sheltering in the landscape. Looking down from Marsland Cliff I could see the little footbridge over the waterway, orientated unexpectedly east-west not north-south as the Marsland Water circumnavigated a bluff before heading out to the beach. The coast path wound onwards up the cliff in a familiar steep line, zigzagging inland away from the slipline. I couldn’t even stop when I got to the border as I was meeting Cee at the car park at Welcombe beach in the next valley so I’d be going up the other side soon enough. I was going to be early.
Past the waymarker with the yellow arrow to CORNWALL. Down the steps. Trip trap over the bridge. The path diverged: right to go onwards and upwards following the next yellow arrow in to DEVON, or left down to the shoreline. I’d done enough valleys for one day, and having seen the level of the tide from the cliff-top opted for the beach route. After all, the combined ascents on the 300 mile round trip since Plymouth I’ve ascended 59395 ft – that’s equivalent to more than two Mount Everests. I think after that I deserved a walk on the beach. It was stony. The Marsland Water made its way seaward rippling out over and through the rock litter. Different stones: a sandstone heavy mix of browns and greys in sharp shapes like they’d not long shattered off their parent cliff rather than the flat smoothed slates of the Helford beaches or the granite eggs in West Penwith. Right down by the sea the boulders were darker and finely veined with quartz. I had fun clambering my way round to Welcombe. Cee will get a surprise, I thought, if she’s anticipated my early arrival she’ll be expecting me to arrive over the cliff-top not up from the beach. It’s just a shame, I thought remembering the veined dark stones on Widemouth beach, that I never did find that one with St Piran’s cross to take home as a keepsake.
Cee was already waiting at Welcombe. I want there to be a good ‘welcome’ pun on arrival but actually she saw me walking up from the shore and just said: I knew that’s what you’d do – I walked down to the beach when I got here and looked up at the cliff path and thought, nah, she’s not going to walk all the way up and over there if she can walk round the beach. So much for the element of surprise. I guess our mums know us better than we think.
I opened my hands to show her what I’d found waiting for me among the pebbles at the base of Welcombe Mouth: a palm-sized wedge of dark grey stone crossed through with two intersecting bands of white quartz making a Cornish flag. Kernow bys vyken.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]