Hot and Cold Wars

I begin in a spirit of reconciliation.

Portreath – it’s not you, it’s me. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong, it’s just that I’ve found you a little, well, odd.

It’s not that I expect to find every little spot along the way set up please me and the rest of the carrot cake eating classes. I really don’t. To be brutally frank, St Ives, I find you just a little bit too much with your artisan meringues that could crush a hamster; Newlyn, I love your quay with your stand there and look if you must attitude (but get out of the way of the forklifts because don’t you go forgetting that this is actually an industrial area); and Hayle, you’ve had better days, but your regeneration projects are looking great and everyone loves a trier.

But Portreath? You’re none of these and I just can’t work you out. Your harbour’s commercial life ground to a halt fifty years ago, and now you’re like a place turned in upon itself, a post-industrial spot cold-shouldering the huge expanses of golden sand at the end of the street. And in a part of the world where everywhere else has its eye on the grockle geld, I find this unusual.

Anyhow, I’ve got that off my chest so let’s look at this bunch of happy kids having a lovely time on your sands and move on. (See, I said it’s not you, it’s me).IMG_3818 (2)

When I planned these few days in Cornwall I had envisioned striding out as far as Perranporth but what are plans for if not to be changed? Two and a bit days of walking turned into one and a bit when I woke up on our second morning, looked at the weather and thought meh. Instead T and I headed off for a day of ambling at Heligan (lovely) and Mevagissey (also lovely). And so it was on the third day that we packed up and left our cottage and headed back to Portreath to get just a little further along the path before we had to hit the A30 for the drive home.

Porthtowan was the new destination and, though a short three mile stroll, the map suggested that it could be a more interesting few miles than the previous outing. There was an airfield on the headland just above Portreath for a start. Although it was shown as in use on my 2003 map (a charity shop bargain – it’s not as though they are going to move the sea, are they?), it was marked as disused on the 2015 version I consulted in the library before I left home (just making sure). From across the bay, I’d seen that there is still a giant golf ball there so I was curious to see if the path would allow me a closer look.

I was quickly up and out of Portreath and passing remnants of wartime buildings across the fields. IMG_4047 (2)A bit of Googling when I got home told me that the airfield  – formerly RAF Portreath – dates from 1940 and served as a Fighter Command station, a ferry stop-over for aircraft bound to/from North Africa and the Middle East, a temporary stop-over for USAAF and RCAF units, and then as a Coastal Command station. In 1950, its day was done so most of the site was returned to the government although today it remains a listening post with its long-range radar coverage of the south western approaches to the UK. That’s what’s in the golf ball. I got this from www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/667/raf-portreath and there’s a whole load of other information out there on the place, but I was soon lost in a sea of abbreviationsand defence jargon (it’s Remote Radar Head Portreath now, by the way). I have never served in the military nor, other than my father’s National Service, have I known anyone spend time in the Forces so this is all a very foreign field to me.

Back to the walk. IMG_4068 (2)Without knowing any of this history at the time, the golf ball led to me assume that something was still going on in there, but the screaming of the stock cars racing up and down the runways on a Sunday morning suggested that the site was otherwise pretty much demilitarised. So the plethora of signs came as a surprise. There was this one, rather weatherbeaten and faded, which looked like it’s been there a while.IMG_4056 (2) But these looked pretty modern for a disused base.

I didn’t notice the fence at first. The coast path runs its whole length alongside – and in some case through –  privately owned land so it is normal to be separated from the adjoining fields by fence, wall, or bank. Only in extremis would it occur to me to try to access that land. IMG_4053 (2)But this pristine fence went on and on, even after the noise of the race cars was fading away behind me, and even in the face of the steepest of climbs it traced its unwavering line.

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Someone really doesn’t want anyone going in there.

At the top of the hill I found myself in amongst more remnants of wartime defences, platforms on which (I’m guessing) munitions were placed and a watch kept, with a trench dug to allow personnel to come and go undetected.IMG_4085 (2) It was a lonely spot, bleak on a late spring day, hard to imagine how it would have been on a winter’s night when the threat of invasion was real.

A little further on was this.IMG_4094 (2) Another military reminder? No, it’s the protective capping of a disused mine shaft. I was away from old defences and back amidst the remains of the tin and copper industries which straggle along this coastline. Those rungs were strange. Their stopping after a couple of metres suggested that the bottom was close below. IMG_4093 (2)It wasn’t. I dropped a stone to see how long it would take to hit the base. I didn’t hear it land.

Along the way were the preserved residues of Wheal Tye mine, with maps and interpretation boards (that shaft is 600 feet deep – sheesh) and a chimney painted with a faded graffitied protest of which I could make out only the last word.IMG_4097 (2) A word which made no sense to me here on the north coast of Cornwall.

I was almost in Porthtowan by now. Below me, the glorious beaches opened upIMG_4124 (2) and as I rounded the corner of the track to begin the descent into the village, I found the garden of my dreams.IMG_4128 (2) I don’t think I could improve on this.

IMG_4126 (2)Porthtowan is a pleasant place and it lacks Portreath’s gloom. There was coffee. There was carrot cake. I went home happy.

 

But after a few days some of the things I’d seen on the walk were niggling at me. I’ve no right to know the reason for the indefatigable fence – defence secrets must, of course, remain secret – but still I was intrigued. Here’s the air base on my 2003 map.

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Thank you, Ordnance Survey

And here’s the same spot on the map on a 1962 version, 12 years after the RAF left.

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Thank you, maps.nls.uk

Curious.

A bit of Googling revealed an alter ego for this remote airfield.  From 1950 to 1978 the site was known as CDE Nancekuke. This led me down a whole series of online rabbit holes from official reports, to amateur explorers’ sites, via the conspiracy theorists to the frankly bonkers UFO brigade, all of which come with their own spin and levels of credibility. This was only meant to be a Sunday morning stroll and you come to indulge me in the telling of my What I did on my holiday tales, so feel free to call it a day right here.

But for a short summary which may perhaps hint at why Portreath is as it is, read on…

Jumping straight in, I read that captured war time stockpiles of German nerve agents and research documents identified GB Sarin as suitable for the UK to develop for use in potential Cold War chemical warfare. Production began at Porton Down, near Salisbury, but in 1954 it was relocated to the disused former RAF air station at Portreath – renamed Chemical Defence Establishment Nancekuke – which became the United Kingdom’s main chemical weapons research and development facility.

By 1956 international tensions were judged to have relaxed sufficiently for a halt to be called to production, but not before more 20 tons of Sarin had been stockpiled at Nancekuke. From then until the late 1970s, the facility was used for the manufacture of riot control agents such as CS gas, and the development of medical countermeasures, training aids, and the development of protective Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) suits used by the British Forces

The closure of CDE Nancekuke was announced in 1976 and by 1978 all remaining stocks of chemical agents had been destroyed or transferred by road to Porton Down. Other chemicals were neutralized, returned to the commercial chemical industry, or buried on site alongside debris from dismantled plant and buildings. (There’s a very full account of this at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/413768/20150227-FOI02229-Annex.pdf).

The underground explorers at www.subbrit.org.uk identify old quarries and abandoned tin mine shafts as dumping grounds for the waste, along with a valley where the ground level was raised by 20 feet by the dumping of rubble, waste chemicals and quantities of asbestos from demolished buildings. (www.subbrit.org.uk/sites/portreath-reporting-post/)

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That would be here

Concerns have since been raised about the subsequent effects on the environment of the area and the possibility of leaching of dangerous substances into the water table or the sea.

Several hundred local civilian workers were employed at Nancekuke, all bound by the Official Secrets Act. In Parliament in 2000, Candy Atherton, MP for the area, sought to raise the above average incidence of sickness and premature death in this cohort of the local population,

The key time for the production of nerve gas…was the 1950s. During the four years from 1955 to 1959, there were 306 cases of respiratory disease—almost double the numbers for the following years… Some 41 men died—nine during employment and 32 after leaving the establishment— between 1950 and 1969… Some complicated statistical analysis was applied and the conclusion was reached that such a death rate was lower than the national average. If a small company employing 150 people lost 41 current and former employees among a relatively young and healthy cohort, alarm bells would ring…Those men were working not underground or at sea, but in a factory and a laboratory environment. (https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/2000/jan/18/nancekuke-base)

In his response, John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces, refuted her contention that something untoward had been going on.

 

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Graffiti reads ‘…made here kills Vietnam’. Chemical weapons produced at Nancekuke were, it is believed, used offensively by the United States until 1964. Candy Atherton, MP. I am not aware of any chemical warfare agents being transferred to the United States, other than a few laboratory samples. John Spellar, Minister for the Armed Forces (https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/2000/jan/18/nancekuke-base)

And so back to Portreath, to the small village that has lived with that secret place up on the hill for going on 80 years. Bound officially not to tell the truth about the unexplained comings and goings, the untimely and unlikely sicknesses, but bound unofficially to hear the rumours – I’m beginning to get the smallest inkling of why you are like you are.

To the lighthouse. Again.

IMG_3760 (3)Back to Cornwall for a few more days of coast path, beginning where I began last time, a year or so ago (https://wordpress.com/post/womanwalkingblog.wordpress.com/6377).IMG_3745 (2)Godrevy Point at the far end of Gwithian Sands was the spot but this time, instead of taking the Age Concern minibus to the start I had my own driver in the form of T who agreed to drop me off and meet me 7 miles later with such alacrity that I knew that a clandestine Full English had to figure in his plans somewhere. We actually reached the National Trust car park at practically the crack of dawn as we were both on city time when it came to waking up. But still the car park was hosting a good few surfers’ cars and vans.

Off I went in one direction and off went my husband in another.

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I seem to have taken a great many And So We Say Goodbye shots of Godrevy lighthouse. I like this one best.

The National Trust own and manage the coast land here and, in that much of their work was imperceptible to me, and in that I very much appreciated their re routing of the path to allow for recent cliff falls, I did find some of their signage (and that of other charities) a little intrusive.

But it is a difficult balance to achieve and I have nothing against seals.

I thought I’d heard of excellent carrot cake being found on sale at the café hereabouts and I do love a piece of carrot cake. I hadn’t checked my sources too closely and so the first place I had my eye on turned out to be public toilets. Disappointing. In the fullness of time, at about the moment I walked off the edge of my very first OS map and onto the second (woohoo), I arrived at the café at Hell’s Mouth – the very place – but so early that it was yet to open and, to be honest, it was too early for cake, even for me. Still, I passed by with some regret but later, on rereading Jude’s post, I realised it may not have been so bad after all. (https://cornwallincolours.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/hells-mouth/).

I walked on as the way, although high up on the cliff,  ran flat and close to the road for several miles. Car parks popped up from time to time. It was turning into the least interesting section so far and I was growing rather fed up. It did give me time to reflect on my new walking/trail shoes and award them 9 out of 10.

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Ugly  brutes, aren’t they?

Still not 100% right. The quest continues.

Lovely array of wildflowers along the way though – bluebells, primroses, violets, red campion and a whole load of nameless others.

Just as my inner moaner was starting on the Are We Nearly There Yet? whining, the path dropped away, right from the top of the cliff to a few metres above the beach.

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Didn’t see that coming.

A steep down followed by a steep up. That’ll teach me to get bored. Just time to catch my breath at the top and WHAT? Here we go again, all the way down and all the way up again. A double dip. Not sporting. Not sporting at all.

Then it was around the headland and into Portreath, my morning’s destination. I have to admit that I found the place a little odd. Its raison d’etre was as a port used to export tin and copper from the local mines across to South Wales for processing and to import Welsh coal to power the mine machinery. As I saw a bit more I came to admire its plucky ingenuity. IMG_3809 (2)I mean, would you build a harbour here on this wide expanse of gently sloping sands?

At one side of the beach walls were constructed to create the narrowest of channels to form the harbour. The skill that must have been required to navigate that unfeasibly tight passage is extraordinary.IMG_4042 (2)

The village itself is rather unusual. Although equipped with the requisite golden sands (and some truly ugly, crassly overdeveloped properties), just behind the beach front car park is an estate of 1970s housing where the old maps show were once coal yards. IMG_4040 (2)Throw in several derelict bungalows around which property developers must be circling, a couple of not very enticing pubs, a beach café reeking of chip fat

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Farm fresh premium pre-fried chilled chips? 

and a (much nicer) cycle café where we drank coffee amidst the frames and the inner tubes and it was all a bit of a mishmash.

I couldn’t wait to leave.

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But what’s that giant golfball up on the hill above the village?

That’s for the next walk

To the Lighthouse, and other stories

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.

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Map kindly released into the community by Wikimedia

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.

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Godrevy Head, Island, Lighthouse, Beach etc etc. Take my word for it, there’s a lighthouse on that rock.

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.IMG_5419 (2)

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

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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

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I found this postcard in a junk shop and have been bizarrely fascinated by it ever since.

It appears from the map that the homes are scattered about like weed seeds.

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From the Ordnance Survey Explorer map 102

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,

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Bet Virginia would never have moved her oeuvre to Skye if she’d met Barney, Tom, and Tarryn. They sound like a cheery trio.

and on to the sands.

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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.

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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.

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Ever seen Zulu?

Eventually the low cliffs turned inland and with it the beach.

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The Hayle River gently scouring a way across the sands. See the posts marking the channel?

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.

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A few minutes later and I was alongside what had very obviously once been a busy commercial port.

IMG_5526 (2)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.IMG_5541 (2)

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.IMG_5545 (2)

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,

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Making progress

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 duckIMG_5464 (2)

A day of bays

Day 2 of my Cornish walks and this time I’d planned a route along the next stretch of the coast path from St Ives to Hayle, about 8 miles. Looking at the map I  thought that the path would be pretty flat all the way round, but the reason there didn’t appear to be much in the way of contour lines at the water’s edge was because they were so close together that they all merged into one. Plus much of the first half of the way was so built up that I couldn’t make them out. Hmm, excuses, excuses but at least I had only myself to blame when I found that the walk featured quite a few heavy breather hills.

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Porthminster Beach with St Ives harbour in the background.

Straight after breakfast I loaded up my packed lunch and headed out, down to the station and onto the promenade along Porthminster Beach. Although it was the Easter holidays and the streets of St Ives had been crammed with families the day before, at this hour only a few strollers were out on the gloriously empty beach.

This  natural landscape is in complete contrast to what has been the norm since Land’s End. At St Ives, the coast turns a corner. Gone are the rocky coves and sheer drops, replaced by great expanses of sand and still steep but not impossible cliffs. Gone too are the remote, wild and unpopulated spaces of yesterday’s walk, and the crumbling industrial remnants of earlier outings, to be replaced by what I can only call suburbia.

It was the railway which first brought the crowds to St Ives in the late nineteenth century with the creation of a short branch line from St Erth on the main Penzance to Paddington line. A train shuttles back and forth all day but even though it is a standard issue three carriage GWR version that can be seen anywhere else on the network there is something magical about stepping off the big train (from, in my case, Bristol although time it right and it could be Aberdeen) and over onto the platform 3 for the St Ives line.

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St Erth station, platform 3. In the corner is a café crammed full of homemade cakes and visitor information and presided over by a chatty woman who happily minded my bags for me.

Before the railway came, St Ives was just a small fishing village, but there are not many working boats in the harbour today

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although some vestiges of the industry’s past do remain.

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Rose Lodge – one of three fishermen’s lodges on the harbourside,  built by a wellwisher as places of respite from the weather and – nowadays I imagine – the tourists.

Then there were the artists, drawn apparently by the light which is particular to St Ives. And it being a safe, cheap place to sit out the war, I muttered, if what I gleaned from Tate St Ives is correct. Anyway, here’s an artist’s impression of the place a while back

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1943 – 45 (St Ives) Ben Nicholson in the Tate St Ives

and here’s an artist at work

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From a display in the Tate. Mrs Bradshaw looking very chic for a day on the beach. Commander Bradshaw won his DSO in the First World War so I exclude him from my snark.

The old centre of St Ives is very picturesque and yes, if I was a painter, I would be tempted to get out my easel too. It’s all narrow streets, whitewashed walls with orange lichen covering grey slate roofs. It is very pretty indeed and it’s not surprising that the town is still a Mecca for artists and offers painting schools, art supply shops and galleries in abundance.

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It’s also a magnet for other visitors too with streets full of cafes, restaurants and  upmarket shops.

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You know it’s classy when you see Artisan. (But leopard print with Helly Hansen, madam? Really?)

Anyway, St Ives – somewhat unreal but very, very pleasant.  I’ll go back.

Back to the walk. The trail hugs the coast, as does the railway line, with the one hopping over the other from time to time. The views are spectacular from both. Such panoramas have attracted more permanent residents and so wherever anyone finds an inch of space on which a foundation could be dug, a property will rise. Some are delightful – Victorian or Edwardian homes or 1930s colonial style bungalows sitting amidst cared for but not overly preened gardens – others were impressively modern, all slate and wood and cleverly designed to sit within the landscape rather than stand out. Wonderful. Others were monstrous, unsympathetic, and deserted crass demonstrations of wealth. Not so wonderful.

The path snaked between the houses, and I realised that I could foretell the type of property from the level of malevolence of the gates. High, impenetrable barriers, festooned with Keep Out/Private/Go Away signs, always heralded something brash.  I passed an old bungalow perched on the cliff edge, overlooking the rail line. It looked rather ramshackle but there was something very attractive about it. Before it stood a bulldozer and an operator whose control of the jaws of the armature was so precise that he was delicately picking staves of wood the size of a school ruler off the roof. Almost as if he didn’t want to hurt the old girl.

When I passed by on the train the next morning, there was nothing left. Just a building plot overlooking the sea.

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Carbis Bay

Builders were about in force in Carbis Bay too, busily extending the upmarket hotel’s premises onto the beach in time for the season. Full marks to them for clearly marking an alternative way when their construction work made the official route impassable.

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Oh I see, they really did mean me to walk through the swimming pool. Past the guests in the hot tub who clearly wondered what on earth was going on.

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This has to be my favourite footpath diversion of all time

Suburbia began to thin out as the way turned towards the huge  expanse of  Porthkidney beach at low tide.IMG_5352 (2)

It was just stunningIMG_5357 (2)

I wandered along very contently. It was muddy in places but, after my baptism of boulders yesterday, this stuff was just entry level. My mind was wandering about pretty happily too. All was good in an uneventful way. I spotted this piggy backing of another trail onto the South West Coast Path. St Michael’s Way, part of a pilgrim route to Santiago? Heck, I’ve stumbled onto the real Camino. Where’s my scallop shell?

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Hard to tell but those vast expanses of sand are actually divided by the estuary of the Hayle river  which at low tide looks so insignificant that you believe you could paddle across it. But it’s deeper and faster flowing than it looks so the path must turn inland to find a crossing point upriver.

Cue the return of suburbia with a golf course

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… the preserve of golfers from whose swing very serious defensive protection is required. Behind the golf course is the distinctive tower of Lelant Church which must be a major point of navigation from out at sea as it can be seen for miles around (the more official light tower in the foreground notwithstanding).

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The Church was attractive and well cared for with pretty post Easter decorations in the porch. IMG_5382 (2)A notice on the door announced that a service was in progress but that the welcome would be warm. Mid morning on a Thursday seemed like an odd time for worship and, though I could hear people talking inside, I decided against going in and instead sat on a bench in the churchyard gazing out at the view of sea and sand dunes. Lelant Church is the real starting point of the St Michael’s Way pilgrimage route and with hindsight maybe I was tempting fate by not going in, and by taking pictures of signs that amused me instead.

Just as I left the Church and began what I knew would be a last couple of miles of tarmac lanes to Hayle, something went wrong with my knee. The strenuous walk the day before had taken its toll. On the flat it was fine. Going uphill there was not a twinge. But going downhill? Excruciating.

I had a short, steep road down to the shoreline to negotiate. I knew that once I was down  it would be flat all the way but getting there took forever. Two steps and a break to stretch, two more steps and another break. I could see a station at the bottom and that decided me. No pushing on to Hayle, straight onto the train and back to my room for a rest and some proper stretches.

Except at Lelant Station there wasn’t a train due for five hours. There was just a notice board and the old station house now converted into a private residence. Lelant Saltings station was only a mile away and I knew that the train stopped there every half hour so that’s where I headed and everything worked out fine. But why, I asked the GWR man at the Saltings station (built as a park and ride for St Ives in 1978), did the train seldom stop at the original Lelant station up the line? Partly due to the lack of passengers, was the reply, and partly due to the vociferous barrage of complaints from the owner of the old station house. About the noise of the trains stopping and starting.

So he bought a house next to the track and was amazed to find that there were trains? Who would ever have seen that coming?

 

 

 

 

Zennor phobic

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.

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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.

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The Gurnards Head, paint colour chosen to match the gorse, says @thefrustratedgardener. Just checking

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.

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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.

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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?IMG_5240 (2)

Or this arrangement of photogenic remnants?

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Streams tumbled to the shore,IMG_5243 (2)

and the sea turned turquoise.

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Now you can see the full gurnardness of the eponymous headland. It’s a fish but no, me neither.

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.

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See the path snaking up the hill to the right of the rocks?

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. IMG_5270 (2)

But then came Zennor.

The first signs of the place did not bode well.

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In proud and happy memory of the friends whose love has sustained me. AB.  The same inscription has been placed on a large rock on the headland a short distance away to commemorate the donation of Zennor Head to the National Trust by AB in the 1950s. As to the identity of AB I have found nothing.

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.

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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 itIMG_5288 (2)

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.

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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.

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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.

Shangri-bloody-la.

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Just above Porthmeor, the first of St Ives’ beaches, the path had one more gift for me. A brightly painted pebble caught my eye.

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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…

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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?

 

A short walk and a long lunch

Next morning, I went back to the coast path at Botallack and began to head up country again.IMG_9919.JPG Earlyish in the morning I had the place to myself and was rather enjoying the far reaching views – right out to the Scilly Isles – and the odd ruin amidst the flowers. I was just settling into my stride for an uneventful bit of cliff walking when suddenly there was this – the remains of the Levant tin and copper mines which were  rather wonderfully atmospheric.

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Today they are in the care of the NT and fully equipped with interpretation boards, loos and refreshment opportunities. I swear you cannot walk for half an hour round here without stumbling upon a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Not complaining, just noticing.

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Look at the staining of the cliffs – it is copper sulphate turquoise in places.

I’m not a geologist but it looks to me as if copper permeates the whole of this terrain, whether seeping into the soil or leeching through the watercourse and down to the sea. It is an astounding and dramatic landscape and all the more unexpected because it is confined into a relatively small space so that you come upon it suddenly and then just as suddenly it is gone.

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Geevor tin mine in the background

What I did find myself pondering is why these ruins of Victorian workings have a picturesque, not to say romantic, air about them when the more modern remnants of tin mining most certainly do not.

Back then to the grassy cliff path, a few ups and downs, and a couple of interesting conversations with other walkers, then on past the Pendeen Watch lighthouse, and around the headland to find a new vista opening up in front of me. This looked somehow far more daunting than anything seen previously.

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Looking toward Gurnard’s Head from Pendeen Watch. I didn’t see the woman and her telescope until she moved at the sound of my camera’s shutter. She was watching seals on the rocks below.

A couple of miles later and,  given the head of steam I had built up and the open terrain, I had convinced myself that next time I came down this way I would crack out a pair of shorts. Despite not having worn any since 1975. I can carry a grudge only so long. Thus decided, it was time to turn off the coast path and head inland to my lift at Morvah.

IMG_9959 Shoulder charging cow parsley is one thing (the path got way narrower than this, and the vegetation taller), barging through nettles is another. The trews took the strain and I came through the stingers unstung. Think I’ll be leaving those shorts in the shop.

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St Bridget’s Church, Morvah, parts of which date from 1400. But not this bit.

Time for a quick look at the ancient church and a snarky moment wondering whether There will be other times and better times is a fitting epitaph for an organist’s endeavours or whether it was in fact a veiled comment on his expertise. And then I found myself rather touched by these simple memorials alongside an instrument which has known only three organists in 107 years. (Four in 139 if whoever took over in 1985 is still in post). Does this speak of generation after generation of contented lives grounded in this place? Or of frustrated ambitions and an inability to get away?

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Gratuitous photo of Cornish hydrangea because I am besotted with them.

When I planned this trip to Cornwall I intended to spend three or four days out on the cliffs and to get all the way around that new horizon and on to St Ives, perhaps even beyond. As it turned out not only did it rain in a very determined fashion but something important blew up at work for T, so he had to go home early. And something even more important blew up for our daughter M – viz, her appendix –  so she was unexpectedly with us for a spot of post-op convalescence. Best laid plans going astray and all that, but this is such an interesting coastline that it is no hardship to have to come back to it again.

So at Morvah I hopped into the car with the others and set off for lunch. Mine is not a foodie blog or a place for restaurant reviews – I am not qualified to comment – and anyway the pub in question already features in a zillion guides. I mention it only to share a charming incident. A plate of soda bread and local butter appeared on our table as soon as we had ordered and we fell on it as do people who have not eaten since breakfast time. It was delicious and, as she cleared the plate away, I asked the young waitress what were the little brown flecks in the bread.  I don’t know, but I’ll go and ask in the kitchen and shall I get you the recipe?  Well, of course I thought that in the midst of a busy lunchtime service with not a table spare no one would have time to write out a recipe, even if the chef was willing to reveal the kitchen’s secrets, and so that would be that.

But with my meal came this note

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Soda bread recipe- it’s my photography which is making it blurry. http://www.gurnardshead.co.uk

and from the waitress, a helpful word of advice

It makes 15 loaves, so you might want to cut it down a bit.

 

New readers start here

Reader friends blessed with long attention spans may recall that I began this blog last autumn to chart my Great Adventure – my walk home from Land’s End – and they may be wondering about the distinctly unCornish directions my jaunts have taken ever since.

Well, wonder no more because here I am, back in the far west and all set to notch up a few more miles of the South West Coast Path. Thanks to the lovely N bringing me a memento from one of her trips (she knows I cannot resist a souvenir tea towel), we have a visual aid with which to orientate ourselves. Find Sennen Cove and we can take it from there.

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Thanks also to The Cornish Teatowel Company for their ingenuity.

On a sunny Sunday morning in June, I expected the Cove to be packed but instead it was practically deserted; indeed on the next door beach of Gwynver I spotted only one lifeguard, two surfers and one dog.IMG_9739 (2).JPG Do surfers keep late hours (it was getting on for midday – I keep late hours too) or was the tide going in the wrong direction?  Either way, rush there before everyone else discovers this beautiful spot.

Once the path had taken me off the beach, I settled into the rhythm of the trail. Gentle walking was interspersed with steep slopes up and down, wide easy paths were broken up by bits of rocky scrambling, even some seat of the pants stuff as my appalling sense of balance dictated frequent descentes sur derriere.

Exposed cliff tops contrasted with lush green valleys but at this time of year there were flowers everywhere. I have no idea what is growing in these fields below but isn’t the effect stunning? Any idea as to what it is?IMG_9782.JPG And what can the story be here? Something poignant, I feel, for it looks as though someone has carefully lain those cut flowers on the boulder in the streamIMG_9806

Gradually Sennen retreated into the distance as Cape Cornwall grew closer. As it did so the reminders of the landscape’s mining past began to appear.

At first they were mainly confined to the valleys where nature has almost succeeded in hiding them away (although I think that this walled construction up on the hill top is an entrance to a mine shaft – it certainly looks pretty deep).

This was to change, but not before I reached Cape Cornwall and finally turned the corner, away from Land’s End and on towards St Ives.IMG_9820 There’s not a huge amount to Cape Cornwall but what is there is rather charming. Have a read of this interesting blog post by a local writer who knows a lot about the place (https://cornishbirdblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/), admire these women having a dip in the tidal pool,IMG_9835.JPGand imagine my delight at the discovery of this timely homemade cake and tea trailer.IMG_9837Suitably refreshed (just tea for me, I never feel hungry when I’m walking, not even for cake. Odd that), I left Cape Cornwall behind and headed for Botallack. Now the scenery grew really industrial – remnants of old mine engine houses, chimneys and other edifices in all directions.IMG_9879The weather was closing in but, even if it had not done so, the landscape had really changed – no more human scale, dry stone walled farmers’ fields, here it was bleak and barren, despoiled by the copper and tin mining industry of the past.IMG_9877.JPG The Crowns engine houses clinging dramatically to the cliff are understandably magnets for photographers much more skilled than me.

Take my word for it that seeing the site in the gloomy damp brought home to me a little of the harshness of the lives once lived in this extraordinary place, a world away from the sunshine and the sandcastles, or even the swashbuckling and the sagas, of Cornwall as it is more often shown. What a fascinating place.

 

 

 

 

Swanning off to Swanage

The other day I had the chance of a lift down to Bournemouth for the day so I grabbed my stuff and jumped in. It wasn’t the town itself that was the attraction so much as what there is on the doorstep. As soon as I got there I hopped on a no 50 bus and headed west. I’ve had a soft spot for Bournemouth buses from when I knew the place thirty odd years ago. While other cities dressed their vehicles in dull, school uniform coloured liveries, Bournemouth buses were unashamedly yellow, making the holidayish moment last all year. Plus my banana bus was open topped and the website promised A bus journey you’ll never forget, route 50 takes you on a scenic trip through the stunning Sandbanks, on board the Sandbanks ferry and through the beautiful beaches and countryside that Purbeck is famous for. Not one to be missed! 

Excitement levels were high as the bus drew up and happily I managed to snaffle a seat on the top deck seat which, with typical British pragmatism with an eye to the climate, was only half open. (The front section being closed in as normal).

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Looking over to Brownsea Island

Luckily I had picked one of the few days when the sun blazed down and when an open top bus is just the only way to travel. I jumped off at Studland but not before tipping my hat to the starting point of the South West Coast Path at Shell Bay a couple of miles beforehand.

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Shell Bay – the start (or if you prefer, the end) of the South West Coast Path

Although I have no connections with this area, I do seem to have found myself in this neck of the woods quite often over the years. On my first Guide camp we were marched over the hills and down to the beach at Studland, stopping on the way to raid the post office stores for penny chews and the like. Later, on a Geography field trip, ice creams were snapped up.IMG_0048.JPG I was so happy to see that the Studland stores goes from strength to strength, even if – as I spotted when I poked my head around the door – it is not sweets but wine that is now in pole position on the shelves. Times change.

Studland is a charming little settlement, an estate village now owned by the National Trust, but it does seem to cater more for visitors than for any year round residents. Plenty of public loos and such a choice of refreshment opportunities that anyone who has just walked the 628 miles from the start of the South West Coast Path in Minehead could not be blamed for throwing in the towel and taking the last couple of miles as read.  Consequently I have no idea what this is about, other than it has been replaced in 1976.IMG_0055.JPG In a nearby thatched shelter – again, no idea – I spotted this complicated arrangement.

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Yes, but who does Seth love?

The plot of a novel right there.

Anyway, my plan was to walk up onto the cliffs and round the headland to Swanage – maybe five miles via the SWCP. I had forgotten just how tedious is the first bit which was busy with people returning from having slogged up to see Old Harry Rocks. But the grind is rewarded once you get there for they are a spectacular arrangement of sea stacks and collapsed arches, made more striking by the white of the chalk and – if you are lucky – the blue of sea and sky.IMG_0080.JPG It was – as I mentioned – a blisteringly hot day but somehow everyone was smiling happily as if to congratulate each other on having wound up in such a gorgeous spot on such a fine day. A woman pressed her binoculars on me so that I could see two chicks on a narrow ledge, half way down the cliff, while a man and his dog, resting just off the path, waved as I passed. I stepped off the way and perched on a tussock to eat my lunch gazing out to sea. Utter peace and contentment. The track up to the top of Ballard Down was a bit of a pull in the heat, but I took it slowly and eventually made the trig point and its views in all directions – out to sea, over Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island one way, and in the other direction over towards Swanage. IMG_0096I have a bizarre fondness for trig points. I love their uncompromising utilitarian solidity even if, I suspect, they have been specifically designed to prevent the likes of me from ever getting onto the top of one. Too high for a simple bounce and too narrow at the top to prevent my sailing straight over and crashing ignominiously to earth on the other side.IMG_0098.JPG From here it was downhill to Swanage, although not without passing through a curious area called Ballard Estate which, from what I can glean, was once a leftover First World War training ground but is now an estate of rebuilt bungalows with – it has to be said – an unwelcoming air.

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Is this is one of the original military huts?

Why not accept that a major long distance path passes through and signpost the way rather than leave walkers bumbling about? No matter, gravity soon had me on the sea front.

It is one of those unwritten laws that, for at least the last four decades, every school student of Geography in the Bristol area  (and probably further afield) will, at some point, find themselves on a field trip to Swanage.

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I spy a Geography field trip – can they have run out of jokes about poles and groynes yet?

And so I came to Swanage the first time and fell rather hard for both Geography and this town at the end of the line (where the line closed in 1972). Despite the name of the place having rather too many similarities with the word Sewage, I find it bizarrely appealing in its out of timeness.IMG_0143.JPG Turns out that, thanks to the untiring efforts of volunteers, just this week Swanage has been reconnected to the rest of the world via its resurrected steam railway. Bravo. And  – er – oops.

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This raises so many questions…

 

Stories in the stones

 

At walking pace, the landscape tells its tales. Stories told, stories heard and stories  sparked off by the stones. Before I leave Cornwall, here are a trio.

A story told.

When it came to finding a place to stay, there was plenty of choice at the tail end of the summer. So why Mousehole?IMG_7936.JPG

It’s a quaint old fishing village, just along the coast from Newlyn and Penzance, full of narrow streets, crammed with outrageously picturesque views. Like here IMG_8260.JPGand hereIMG_7934.JPGand the granite arms of the harbour walls hold the boats safe on a stretch of coast where the weather grows wild and the seas treacherous, even if that is hard to imagine on a calm September morning.IMG_7944.JPG

So yes, it was a perfect spot for a few days away.

But what really drew me to Mousehole was a much loved story.

mousehole-cat

In The Mousehole Cat, Antonia Barber retells the folk tale which sees Old Tom and his cat Mowser saving Mousehole. Stargazy pie is involved. Nicola Bayley provides the illustrations and they conjure up such a delightful vision of the place that, though bedtime stories are now far behind me, I have long wanted to see it for myself.

And so we did and the village is indeed just as charming as Bayley paints it. (The book’s still in print, by the way. Take a look – http://www.walker.co.uk/The-Mousehole-Cat-9780744523539.aspx).

I heard a whisper that the artist herself lives in Mousehole. Could it be here?IMG_8036.JPG

A story heard.

The coast path from Mousehole to Newlyn is not terribly exciting. For most of the way it runs alongside the main road carved out of the hillside. For a short stretch near Newlyn, the path diverts down to the shoreline and onto a narrow, once industrial space, possibly the course of an old railway, with the remains of old port buildings on one side, giant boulder sea defences shelving down to the water on the other. It is maintained with the lightest of touches and nature is doing her best to reclaim the land, the grass growing long wherever it can get a foothold and bushes springing up around the ruins.

I came upon a man, perhaps in his eighties, slashing at the grass with his stick while a lively young collie bounced around him in that way that small children and big dogs do when excitement takes over their bodies.  I wondered if he had lost something and whether he would allow me to help him find it. I began with my usual opener – What a lovely dog you’ve got there.

The man carried on with his search, the dog ignored me.

He’s not mine, he’s my daughter’s. I just mind him in the day

More slashing at the grass.

He’s lost his stone.

Slash, slash

He won’t go for a ball and he won’t go for a stick. He’ll only go for a stone

The stick hit something hard. Success.

He’s a stone dog.

He bent to pick up the stone. The dog stepped back in readiness.

When we’re out and I spot a good stone, I pick it up and I pile it over there, see, so I’ve always got nice one ready for him.

With that he threw it and they were off. IMG_8213.JPGAll that remained were the cairns, testaments to the story of an old man, a stone dog and their devotion, one for another.

And finally, some stories imagined.

In the melange of exhibits at Land’s End there is a wall of millennium pledges inscribed upon slate plaques. It is really rather peculiar and if there was an explanation there for the project I missed it.

Some people felt the need to promise to do something worthy to mark the dawn of a new era. Charity work was uppermost in the minds of the Foggs and the Warners.12.jpg

Sixteen years on, I began to wonder how things had turned out. Christopher will be pretty fluent in Cornish by now17.jpg

and Violet’s car will have taken a pasting.

The Brinkworths will have happy memories of Disneyland Paris fullsizerender18and Sonia will have it all in hand. 16But the ones which touched me were the ones which had me longing to know what happened next. What are the stories in these stones?13.jpgDid the Woodings manage to sort out their problems together? Does Stephen still love Michele (and how does she feel about him a decade and a half on)? How have things turned out for Ann? Going with the dear old flow no matter what hinted at so much but said so little. Let’s believe that she’s landed at a good place. 15.jpgAnd did Penny’s soulmate ever make it to the UK?

I hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning at the End

I’d like to say that I started here but that would not be at all true.22.jpg

This is Land’s End.fullsizerender27

It is not a spot to lift the spirits. It is not a place to embark upon a Great Adventure.

So instead I began a few miles east at Porthgwarra, a small cove at the end of a narrow lane with just a walkers’ car park, a café,  and a few holiday cottages to its name. And if the fresh coffee and the wholesome looking sponge cake in the café  (with just the merest whiff of artisan about it) are not enough, a notice nearby claims it as the location of Ross Poldark’s naked swimming scene. And the pilchard landing. This means nothing to me.

I set off. It was a day just blowy enough to hint at how severe the weather can be around here. FullSizeRender2.jpg

Navigation beacons appeared on the headland and at Gwennap Head a volunteer was busy scanning the sea lanes through his binoculars.

The path was clear and the walking good with some spectacular natural arches along the way. This oneFullSizeRender6.jpg and this one, which put me in mind of a cathedral.IMG_8063.JPG

As Land’s End hoved into view, so the walkers began to change. The Hardcore Hikers – all earnest expressions, walking poles and techno trousers – were joined by the Sunday Strollers – men in those strange shorts which end somewhere between the knee and the ankle for no apparent reason, women in dotty macs and anxious looking dogs in high vis jackets. I’m always heartened by the sight of a Sunday Stroller because when I spot a handbag it means that I’m only 10 minutes from tea . Actually I’m always heartened to see anyone out there enjoying the fresh air as much as I am. That’s what I love about walking: it’s the democracy of the path – stride for 20 miles or amble for 20 minutes, all are equal.

Anyway, Land’s End. Not my kind of place to be sure, but it’s immaculately clean and tidy, there are loos in abundance and a friendly man selling ice cream. What more do you need? The souvenir shop, clothes shop, craft shop, petting farm, art gallery, hotel, restaurant, bar and Shaun the Sheep experience were surplus to my requirements, but the small End to End exhibition about those who have made the trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats (so not my plan) was mildly interesting for its insight into the depiction of woman of middle age, if nothing else.8.jpg

I’m 57. Don’t you be calling me Granny.

As a theme park, Land’s End is a bit of a mishmash and evidently works on the principle that the longer people can be kept in the place, the more they will spend. The car park charge is set high enough to encourage visitors to get their money’s worth by seeing everything. And then having a cup of tea. As a tourist attraction built basically out of fresh air it’s a rather impressive model. Good luck to them.

On then towards home. Land’s End soon retreated into the distance as I headed for Sennen Cove. 23.jpg

There to meet me was my husband, my Stalwart Supporter, who had been persuaded to turn taxi for the occasion. Here he is…25.jpg

Well, I could see him at the time.

So there we are – the Great Adventure has begun. Back to work next week so I won’t get down here again for a while. But I’ll be walking nearer to home instead and there’ll be smaller adventures to report until the spring.

Now I promised that there’d be no stats here but I cannot resist this first one because I’m quietly proud.

Distance covered so far from Land’s End?

1.2 miles.

Impressive, no?