For my third, and final, day of coastal walking this trip I planned to walk from Portreath back down to Hayle, about 11 miles, beginning with a long stretch of cliff paths and ending with three miles of beach walking. I was feeling increasingly antsy about it as the day approached due to the rather complicated transport arrangements required to get me to the start – two trains and a bus – and the fact that however early I started I could not get to Portreath before 1148. Throw in a bust knee and you will see why I threw in the towel on that over engineered plan.
Although hours of stretching had worked like magic on my leg, I didn’t fancy being stuck up on some cliff if it went again so I began to rethink. Somewhere in my planning I recalled coming across a bus which occasionally calls at Gwithian, close to the far end of that sandy beach I had originally planned to cover. Could I jump onto that and at least do part of my planned walk? A quick peruse of the splendid Traveline website (www.traveline.info – How do I love thee? Let me count the ways) and it was all sorted. Train to St Erth and then the 515 from outside the station to Gwithian. Perfect.
Here’s a map to give you an idea of the lie of the land.
So I skipped off the train at St Erth and went in search of the bus stop. And found – nothing. Just a very small station forecourt. Not a trace of a bus ever calling.
I went back and asked the man in the railway ticket office. The 515? Haven’t seen one of those for years. He intimated that a unicorn was more likely to turn up than a bus. This was not what I wanted to hear. Mind you, he went on, in a valiant attempt to be helpful, being in here I can’t see anything anyway. So if it does come, it’ll just come in out there. You’ll see it if it does. I could not fault his logic.
So back out into the forecourt I went to await the mythical beast. For a long time nothing moved and then – bang on time – in rolled a large minibus. It didn’t actually say 515 anywhere on it but this had to be it. And if it wasn’t, I was going to jump aboard anyway. The driver got out, walked around to open the passenger door to let down the steps, helped a couple out, and then rooted around to find his ticket machine and his money bag. There was, I perceived, no hurry. We don’t usually have people get off at the station, he remarked conversationally. Or get on, he added. The front seats were taken by a trio of passengers who were deep in conversation. They fell silent as I clambered in. I greeted them with a Good morning; they greeted me back and then ignored me convivially.
The phrase all around the houses was no doubt inspired by the route this Age UK community bus took around St Erth, Hayle and other hamlets. Some people got on just to reach the top of the hill and as such it is a great resource for the less mobile. Add in the socialising that was going on between the passengers and the extent to which S, the chatty driver, knew all his regulars, who would be waiting for him where, who knew who and what they’d been up to since he last saw them, and it felt like I’d stumbled into some boisterous coffee morning. I reckon I’ll be buying you a wedding bouquet soon teased one man as his fellow passenger, a woman well into her seventies, waved at a dour man waiting on the pavement for her in Hayle. I’ve got lots of man friends, not just him she bridled, adding hurriedly but I’m not a slut. I watched as the pair walked briskly but awkwardly away. Probably not marriage material that one, I thought, but who else did she have on the back burner.
Eventually we picked up speed – just me and another walker who’d joined us in Hayle now – and we reached Gwithian. I was rather enjoying talking to S but he had a schedule to keep and off he went, all around the houses again in his circuitous way back to Penzance. Gwithian may well have been worth a look but, as it had taken me 1 1/2 hours to get this far, I was keen to get walking. Down the road, along a footpath over land that became more and more dune like, and there it was – Godrevy Island.
And the lighthouse.
And not just any lighthouse either. This is the lighthouse which inspired Virginia Woolf’s eponymous novel To the Lighthouse. I haven’t read it so I’ve done a bit of Wiki cribbing. Apparently it’s
a 1927 novel… [which] centres on the Ramsay family and their visits to the Isle of Skye in Scotland… Following and extending the tradition of modernist novelists… the plot of To the Lighthouse is secondary to its philosophical introspection… the novel includes little dialogue and almost no action; most of it is written as thoughts and observations. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_the_Lighthouse)
Doesn’t exactly sound like a ripping yarn to me and there’s no clue as to why she moved the (in)action from Cornwall to the Isle of Skye, but I tipped my hat to the site of literary inspiration nevertheless.
But what was interesting around here (to me at least) are the adhoc settlements of cabins up in the Towans (or dunes) which stretch from here down almost to Hayle.
Here’s a look at some at the Gwithian end. Can you see what an informal arrangement of dwellings has somehow evolved here?
Take a closer look
There are a brace of basic wooden huts, an odd conical stone built structure, one that looks like a repurposed school terrapin building, something rather modern and fabulous (back left) and, in front, isn’t that an old railway carriage?
Feast your eyes on this 1920s/30s shot of the chalets down at the Hayle end
It appears from the map that the homes are scattered about like weed seeds.
I haven’t been able to find out much about these Towans settlements. (Anyone able to fill me in?) Today they look as though they are holiday lets but, from the odd notes I gleaned from local reminiscence websites, I think that they might once have been family homes for the men employed in the mines hereabouts, although there’s little trace now of the copper, silver and lead extraction that once went on around here. Or the explosives factory. I don’t imagine these were comfortable places in which to live but I was still charmed by these organic communities.
But enough of that, let’s get onto the beach. Straight past the Lifeguards’ Station,
and on to the sands.
Three miles of golden sands is the tourist office claim and I cannot argue with them. The tide was out and the enormous expanse of beach was lightly populated with walkers, dogs and intrepid surfers. There wasn’t a lot to see, being a misty day, although obviously the potential for moody shots was enormous. (I’ll spare you).
The odd stream crossed the sands, this one showing the residue of the copper deposits. It is said that the river at Gwithian – the Red River – was so called because of the colour of the water as a result of the copper mining operations. See also Redruth.
The dampness in the air, the crashing of the waves and the emptiness was soporific and I drifted off as I walked, occasionally looking around, but otherwise lost in my thoughts.
Eventually the low cliffs turned inland and with it the beach.
As I turned the corner, the far side of the estuary, over by Lelant Church, looked perfectly easily accessible but the River Hayle is deceptively deep.
A few minutes later and I was alongside what had very obviously once been a busy commercial port.
Although closed to commercial traffic in the late Seventies – coal in, copper and other minerals out back in its heyday – a little non recreational shipping continues to use the harbour.
The tide was rising and a few fishing boats were preparing to set out, but otherwise nothing moved.
Hayle has, it must be said, seen better days but a programme of redevelopment of the quaysides is underway and the place was busy, with at least two unrelated outlets claiming to offer visitors Cornish pasties made to the oldest/most authentic recipe. From the bus I saw some rather impressive old buildings at the head of the harbour but unfortunately they are rather obscured by this.
It is a fine railway viaduct, but unfortunately it is rather obscured by a giant Asda. So let’s file Hayle under Not a looker, but probably has a very nice character.
And that was pretty much it. I ploughed on for another 20 minutes to Lelant Saltings station, gritting my teeth as the path took me over an historic causeway, albeit now a very busy road,
to complete the missing link in the chain from where I started two days earlier – Gurnards Head – all the way to Gwithian.
It’s a beautiful part of the world and I am sad to be leaving it behind as I move up the coast. Not sure when I’ll next be able to squeeze in a few more days on my Cornish Camino but one thing’s for sure…
I’ve got to stop walking like a duck