A half price offer from a St Ives guest house I was eyeing up, a few free days in the diary and a forecast of fairly fine weather? Well, it would have been rude not to have hopped aboard a train and taken myself down to Cornwall for a few days.
I was aiming to notch up a few more miles along the South West Coast Path in my bid to walk home from Lands End over the course of the next however many years it takes. Last time I left the path at Morvah and grabbed a lift to a very lovely lunch at The Gurnard’s Head pub at Treen (the one on the north coast, not the one on the south). (https://wordpress.com/post/womanwalkingblog.wordpress.com/4993)
Let’s re-orientate ourselves with this handy teatowel.
Logistics and the lack of the summer bus service saw me taking a taxi to the start of the day’s walk at the Gurnard’s Head, aiming to finish at St Ives, ten miles away. So I’ve got a gap between Morvah and Treen. Just a few miles of lovely scenery in a beautiful part of the world with the prospect of a good meal at the end of it. Sounds like I’ll have to make a return journey one day to fill in that bit of the map. Shame.
The day started on an unusual note with the taxi driver, a charming Italian. Possibly my conversational opener of What brings you to St Ives? was ill advised for he launched into a lengthy exposition of the sudden breakdown of his marriage and his inability to see his children about which he spoke volubly and with increasing passion, frequently taking his eyes off the narrow lanes to turn to me to make a particular point and – national stereotype alert – gesticulating wildly. Naturally as we moved into the more remote countryside a thick mist descended and there was not another being to be seen. Just as I was thinking that this set up would make the perfect opener for a murder mystery – lone woman, angry man, deserted wild country, fog etc etc – there came an announcement from the taxi controller Listen up, all drivers need to hear this. My driver was having none of it. I caught I’ve just heard from the warden that… before he reached over and switched it off. Warden? What warden? Where do you find wardens? Prisons? Secure hospitals? That’s it, I’m definitely in one of those Sunday night whodunnits. He’s probably an escaped convict (something in the air made me come over all Daphne du Maurier) and the real taxi driver is tied up in the boot. But in the event, I had barely any time to wonder who would play me on screen – might Haydn Gwynne be free and would she mind padding up a bit? – and we were there at The Gurnard’s Head. Where my man charged me £3 less than I had been quoted, told me that it had been good to talk, shook my hand and wished me a happy day. Phew.
I set off past the pub, head reeling from what had sounded like an insoluble and tragic situation (I only got one side, I know), in the direction of the rocky outcrop known as, yes, the Gurnard’s Head. Because it looks like a gurnard. I’ll take their word for it.
It was only just after 9am and still misty but I was so ridiculously happy to be out on the cliffs again that I practically skipped through the meadows down to the coast path.
I mean, just look – not a soul about.
I strode along very, very happily. It was all so picture perfect. Who could resist this view?
Or this arrangement of photogenic remnants?
Streams tumbled to the shore,
and the sea turned turquoise.
Birds probably sang a happy song too, but I couldn’t hear them above the roar of the crashing waves.
It was all going terrifically well.
I mean, there were lots of steep ups and downs but nothing a little gritting of teeth and pauses to admire scenery couldn’t cope with. I was making good time and reckoned I’d be back in St Ives by early afternoon, ice cream in hand, fighting off the seagulls.
But then came Zennor.
The first signs of the place did not bode well.
On a bench overlooking the most beautiful seascape, a couple chose to cast aside their ice cream pots, lids and spoons the minute they were no longer of use, finding it too arduous presumably to carry them back the way they had come. The arrogant selfishness of this lazy stupidity infuriated me, contrasting as it did with the gentle and generous dedication on the bench. I was only slightly mollified when I worked out that, given that the litter had yet to blow away, it had probably only been there a day or two, but this was still a fortnight after the best before date stamped on the tub. While I would not wish anything too debilitating on anyone, surely a bit of an upset stomach would not go amiss ?
I’d met a couple of walkers coming in the opposite direction but as it was still early they were few and far between at this stage. After Zennor, this section of the path is very remote with no dwellings and only a handful of footpaths offering to return the walker to the road and thence to civilisation in the whole six mile stretch. There is a definite sense of being cut off from the world. I did meet a trio of young American women, lithe and athletic and striding out like gazelles. 18 miles today they cried as they briefly paused, adding that it was a bit muddy up ahead. They pointed to their mud caked trousers, one girl being plastered from thigh to ankle. We’ve taken some of the mud a bit too fast and fell over they joked. Ha, I thought, better watch out for that.
From Zennor onwards the path itself changed. Gone was the rough trail and in its place was a scree of large boulders, choked with mud and washed with spring waters. I took only a few photos for I had to focus all my energy on finding a way through the obstructions, clambering and sliding, trying to avoid the wettest parts whilst remaining upright. I have, at the best of times, a terrible sense of balance so this was tortuous.
It looked a bit like this, although this was just a nursery slope compared with what came after.
Sometimes the ground was flattish, sometimes steeply sloping, but every step had to be thought through, every path evaluated. Cross waist high rocks – risk of slipping and falling – or bog trot amidst smaller stones and vegetation – risk of slipping and falling. Crash down onto rock or crash down into muddy wetness? If my left foot goes there, where can my right foot go after? A crack team of dolphins could have been performing a synchronised swimming routine down in the bay, for all I knew, with a few juggling seals thrown in for good measure because I never lifted my eyes long enough to look. The boulders went on for miles. And miles. I don’t know how many as I gave up looking at the map. Three perhaps, maybe four? The further I went on the more embedded I became – with no escape inland the only option was to continue to plough on. And on. Going back the way I had come was too exhausting to contemplate.
Every now and then passing walkers would strike up conversations. I fell in with one family who caught me up. A father and his three student age offspring. We walked together for a mile or so and I was glad of their company. For them the Zennor to St Ives hike was a ritual of every single one of their holiday visits. The father, a donnish man of about my age, said he knew every stone of the way and he recalled that, when each of his children were very little, he had carried every one them all the way on his back. Not all at the same time, he added. Once we’re up the top of there, that’ll be the worst bit over he announced as a particularly challenging pile of rocks with no obvious way through presented themselves. His sons sprang up them like goats, his daughter was slower even than me. What is your name? Where do you live? What do you do? The man was very direct, so I could be the same. He was not an academic but a priest who had come down from his London parish to rest after the busy round of Pascal services and devotions. His elder son, an intense young man, picked up on something I had said. So is it true that PhDs are easier than Masters? We fell to discussing the different demands of each. He had a Masters under his belt and a PhD place lined up for the autumn and seemed relieved by my answers. Then, having completely forgotten what had happened when I asked the taxi driver a seemingly innocent question, I ploughed on with So what are you thinking of looking at in your PhD?
If it were up to me I’d give him his funding immediately because he certainly was passionate about his subject. Which was the interaction of Christian religious practice and hallucinogenic drugs. Two subjects on which I have absolutely nothing to contribute. I battled on bravely – at least it was taking my mind off the blasted boulders – and we all of us had an interesting side discussion of faith – if you have faith do you have more questions than answers, whereas if you don’t do you have more answers than questions? Discuss.
But eventually this earnest chap, well intentioned though he was, wore me out. Straight to no 1 on my top ten list of things I never thought I’d hear on the coast path will go his comment I gave my bisexual Pentecostalist friend some MDMA and he said he’d never felt closer to Jesus. Time for lunch, I decided, as I spotted a good dry rock on which to perch and wished the family well for the rest of their walk. They bounded off and left me in peace.
Now I don’t want to accuse a man of the cloth of untruths but his promise that the worst would be over when I’d reached the top of that particularly slope did not quite match up with my reality. I struggled on and on, making myself stop every hour for a snack and a drink just to keep my energy up as my woeful balance deteriorated and my progress grew slower and slower. The language of my internal monologue grew fruitier. I began to wonder just where those American girls had found so much mud into which to fall as I, clumsy as I am, had managed so far to keep my muddiness fairly well contained. I became quite obsessed.
And then I found it
Plough straight through or cross the electric fence and splosh through a stream sodden field? Ankle deep mud or ankle deep water?
I think that this marked the end of the boulders but it’s all a bit of a blur now. Certainly the path became easier, still rocky, still needing to be closely watched but no longer requiring the chesslike two steps ahead thinking. Every time I rounded a headland or reached the top of a hill I expected to see St Ives; every time I was disappointed when what I came to think of as Shangri-bloody-la was not there. But by great good fortune interesting people with life stories to tell at the slightest encouragement seemed to have been stationed upon the path at regular intervals to help me along.
At this sign, I met a man who told me his granny’s recollections of the event. The sea takes what’s ours – our fishermen, so when it gives then that’s ours in return. That’s what people round here think. Trouble is the customs men don’t agree. He was, he told me, a 14th generation St Ives man; his father had done all the research right back to the time of Henry VIII. The dissolution of the monasteries came into it. (Please don’t ask me to talk about religious practice again).
It was getting on for 3pm and so I asked how far he was walking, as surely it would take him a good while to get to Zennor, where he could have picked up a bus. I’m going wild camping. I’ve found a little hidey hole just this side of Zennor. In April? I do it all year round, I’ve got a hammock and a tarp and a quilt and an underquilt. And only a small backpack I couldn’t help remarking. Doesn’t it get unbearably cold? And how to manage without a morning cup of tea? I’ve got a stove for that and some noodles for my tea… and a bottle of wine, of course. I’ve got tomorrow morning off work, so why not? And off he went to watch the sun set from his hidey hole on the cliffs.
A while later and still no sign of St Ives. A woman and her dog were sitting on a large rock by the path. Again a conversation. You’re from Bristol? I did my training there. And so followed another life story. We moved on to talking about the BBC programme which saw a random group of media faces walking the Camino de Santiago. We each agreed that while we liked the idea of making the trek ourselves, the final 100km as shown on TV looked as busy as a Saturday High Street and not very pleasant. Plus there was the Spanish heat in which neither of us felt we would fancy walking. Maybe I’ll just call my walk my Camino instead. I have no idea where that came from but suddenly it seemed absolutely the right thing. The woman agreed. Camino de Cornwall it is then.
You look very tired, she added, but it’s not much further now. Once you get to the causeway you’re practically there. She was a kind woman and I sensed that we had much that we could have talked about but she wanted me to keep moving. By chance I saw her again a couple of days later as we both got off a train, she to go one way to her next train and me to head out in search of a bus. It’s you, she cried, did you make it ok? I’ve been thinking about you. There was no time to chat but only a fleeting moment to recognise a connection that might have been.
Eventually – what bliss – the causeway appeared. A line of rocks laid across the kind of mudfield I’d just spent hours clambering through. How utterly delightful to be able to step out with confidence that what was underfoot was not going to shift or let me down. My spirits began to rise and then – finally, eventually – I turned a corner and there it was.
Just above Porthmeor, the first of St Ives’ beaches, the path had one more gift for me. A brightly painted pebble caught my eye.
A young couple just behind me explained that it was a Kernow Rocks pebble – part of an informal project involving people painting pebbles and then hiding them to be found by others who were then to post a photo on Facebook and rehide the stone. It had clearly gripped the imagination of a great many as the Kernow Rocks FB page was crammed full of collections of freshly decorated stones about to be hidden or of smiling children holding the pebbles they had just found. One from an offshoot – Truro Rocks – was there in front of me on a ledge at Plymouth Station as I got off the train on my way home (I left it by the harbourside in Bristol) but my favourite posting is this one…
A fitting end then to a day’s walk which had demanded way more than I had expected. My 10 mile jaunt took 7 3/4 hours to complete and for a while I had hated it. But as the screaming in my muscles began to quieten in a hot shower I began to realise that while my day’s Camino had taken a great deal from me it had also given me way more than I had expected. It’s not a day I’ll forget.
Just don’t mention Zennor, ok?