Monday, 1 December 2008

The Cornish Coast Path

Walking in Cornwall, UK

Originally published in The Jakarta Post, 30/11/08

From the top of the rocky headland wild coastline opened in both directions. To the east we could see the way we had come, craggy buttresses of dark stone towering above foaming water. Inland there were rugged granite hills and small hamlets amongst stone-walled fields. To the west a sweep of heather-cloaked cliffs ran out to a distant promontory marked with a bone-white lighthouse. And a hundred meters below, shifting and surging, cobalt-blue in the autumn sunlight, was the Atlantic Ocean. For the next three days that ocean would always be there to our right, as we made our way on foot along the edge of the westerly tip of the United Kingdom.


The county Cornwall is Britain’s answer to Bali. Forming a narrowing peninsula at the southwest corner of the country, it is home to traditional fishing villages, fashionable resorts and some of the best beaches in Europe. There is a thriving arts community and a buzzing surf scene, and above all, like Bali, there is something unique about Cornwall that sets it apart from the rest of the country.
Around the entire 500km length of the Cornish coastline runs a narrow path, one of the most prized long-distance walking trails in Britain. With three days to spare myself and two friends had decided to tackle the most challenging section: the 67 kilometers between St Ives and Penzance.


St Ives, where we started our journey, is a striking little town: a jumbled mass of whitewashed houses on a narrow isthmus below a rocky headland. With the sea on three sides, a fringe of golden beaches and an atmosphere more Mediterranean than British, it’s easy to understand why it is such a popular tourist destination. But despite its scattering of surfers, this is Cornwall’s version of Ubud rather than Kuta.
St Ives is a renowned centre for the arts. In the first half of the 20th Century the famously sharp oceanic light began to attract painters to what was then a small fishing community. Today the narrow alleys of the town are lined with galleries.
We did not stop to explore though, and within half an hour we were beyond any sign of human habitation with one of the wildest stretches of our route opening before us.

Relics of the past on a rugged coastline

The first day’s walking was by far the toughest. Sometimes the path bent through chaotic fields of boulders; sometimes it dropped through steep switchbacks to sea level, or climbed sharply to high promontories above dizzying chasms. But the views, changing at each new headland, were spectacular.
There were no villages on this remote shoreline, but in the distant past people did live here. At the headland of Gurnard’s Head it was possible to make out the ramparts of an Iron Age cliff fortress. The whole of this western part of Cornwall is riddled with ancient remains. There are forts and ruined villages dating back two millennia. Still more intriguing are the sacred sites: upright stones in mysterious alignments and huge mushroom-shaped chamber tombs, some more than 4000 years old.

Cornwall forms part of Britain’s “Celtic Fringe”, a wild extremity that, along with Wales and Scotland, was less influenced by the successive waves of invasion and migration that created the English people and the English language. On this granite peninsula older traditions and a distinctive culture endured. Well into the 18th Century many people spoke Cornish rather than English, and echoes of this Celtic language remain in the place names of the county.
With their ancient past and unique traditions, many Cornish people are at pains to point out their difference from the “foreigners”, the English beyond the county’s border. Here you’ll see the black and white Cornish flag far more often than that of England or Britain, and there are occasional calls for political autonomy or even independence.


The granite was glowing copper-colored from the falling sun when we picked our way down a steep hillside to the perfect little beach at Portheras. Short waves were slapping onto the shore, and few late-season sunbathers were making the most of the weather.
This secluded cove marked the end of the wildest stretch of the coast path, and also marked a sudden shift from the prehistoric to a more recent past. Beyond here the cliffs were bare and scarred, and the skyline was a gothic silhouette of ruins.
In the 19th Century Cornwall found great wealth from tin mining. Shafts were sunken along the fractured shorelines to get at the valuable ore. But during the 20th Century tin prices fell and open-cast mines in South America came to dominate. Geevor, the last mine on this coast, closed in 1990, and now there are only the ruins – and lingering poverty in old mining communities – to recall the industrial past.

We shambled through this strange landscape in the dusty evening sunlight, and branched away from the path at the village of Bottalack, the end of our first day’s walking. We had covered more than 25 kilometers.

Beautiful beaches, traditional food

After a night’s rest we continued westwards, passing more stark relics of the tin mining age. The ruins were older here and already the gorse and heather was beginning to consume them, softening the industrial scars, and returning the land to nature.
At the headland of Cape Cornwall the coast turned southwards and a great sweep of shoreline opened ahead of us. Here the path ran between lichen-covered outcrops and a foreshore of sea-smoothed boulders. At midday we reached the mile-long beach at Sennen. This was a surfers’ shore – backed with granite cliffs rather than the palm trees of Kuta. The water was crowded with wetsuit-clad figures waiting for waves at a low tide sandbank.
We stopped for lunch in the little village at the head of the beach – and as we were in Cornwall lunch could only be a pasty. The county is known for its seafood and traditional sweets. But by far the most famous Cornish dish is the pasty. These baked pastry parcels of meat and vegetables originated as a portable meal that miners and fishermen could carry to work. Today they make a hearty lunch for hungry hikers.

Bellies full, we pressed on and within half an hour we were at the key point of our journey. Land’s End, marred by an ill-considered collection of gift shops on an otherwise unspoilt coastline, is the most westerly point of mainland Britain, standing knee-deep in the turbulent Atlantic.
Beyond Land’s End the landscape changed again to one of rolling heath. Hidden sandy coves were crooked at the mouths of shallow valleys, and we could see boats slugging through the running swell for the offshore fishing grounds. With the sun falling behind us we reached Porthcurno.
Porthcurno must be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. A wide bay backed with honey-colored granite holds an expanse of vivid turquoise water over banks of the finest shell sand. It was at this stunning spot that we spent the night.

Easier walking on the final day

The sky was overcast and the sea was the color of quicksilver in the morning as we shouldered our backpacks for the final 12 kilometers to Penzance. We passed the hamlet of Penberth with its thatched cottages and fleet of traditional fishing boats moored on a cobbled slipway, and continued, struggling up the hillsides with aching legs.
Sometimes we passed through unexpected stands of woodland; at other times cultivated fields with thick hedgerows ran right down to the shoreline. This was a gentle coastline compared to the bare-boned wilderness of the previous days; it was a softer place to walk with blisters and tired limbs. It was early afternoon when the path emerged on a narrow lane that led us into Mousehole.
Mousehole – pronounced Mowzel – was another of those Cornish fishing villages with a harbor and crooked alleyways that seem to belong more to the Mediterranean than to the UK. It was busy with holidaymakers snapping photos and licking ice creams. We shambled through the crowds, sunburnt, sweat-stained, mud-splattered and grinning: we were almost within reach of our goal.

Here the path joined the road, but not relishing the idea of slogging along tarmac, we chose to pick our way along the foreshore, scrambling over slippery black rocks. Just beyond Mousehole a sweeping view opened ahead of us. This was Mount’s Bay, named for the fantastical castle-topped outcrop that stands at its centre.
Almost too tired to speak, but very happy after our three-day odyssey along a spectacularly varied coastline, we slouched through the final kilometers. There was a hint of clammy dampness in the air, and ahead, the church spires and dignified Georgian terraces of Penzance, the town at the end of our route, showed in the cooling haze. Beyond it we could pick out more cliffs and white villages, and the line of the coast where the path continued eastwards. It was a tantalizing prospect, but for us, with blistered feet and the short holiday over, it would have to wait for another day…

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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