Sunday, 3 October 2010

Britain's Atlantic Edge

Walking the Southwest Coast Path in Cornwall

Originally published in Maximillian Magazine, August 2010

From the high outcrop a sweeping panorama opens. Behind me a deep bay is backed by sheer cliffs, rising to a patchwork of tiny stone-walled fields and heather-clad hills. Ahead an expanse of coastline stretches west beneath granite buttresses. White seabirds twist and turn in the breeze, and 100 meters below the Atlantic Ocean surges against jagged black rocks.
I catch my breath, squinting in the bright summer sunlight. In the far distance I can see the spot I am aiming for – a jutting headland marked by a bone-white lighthouse. I still have a long way to go.
This is the wild coastline of Cornwall, Britain’s most westerly county, and I am making my way along the most dramatic and challenging section of the walking trail known as the Southwest Coast Path.

Windswept, storm-lashed, and wading knee-deep in the Atlantic at the tapering southwest extremity of the United Kingdom, Cornwall is a place of raw, rugged beauty. Villages of whitewashed stone cottages huddle at the mouths of narrow valleys, and brightly painted fishing boats work from tiny harbors and cobbled slipways. Inland, scattered farming hamlets give way to rolling moorland studded here and there by mysterious megalithic monuments dating back to the Iron and Bronze Ages. Most Cornish people once made their livelihoods from fishing, farming and mining, but today this is one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations.
The water may be a little cold for tropical tastes, but Cornwall has beaches to rival anything in Southeast Asia, with fine shell sand and clear turquoise waters. This shoreline is open to the full brunt of the Atlantic and offers the UK’s best surfing, and there is excellent seafood.
But I am not here to lounge on a beach or stuff myself with fresh mackerel and mussels – I’m here in search of a more healthy activity. Cornwall is prime hiking territory. The biggest prize is the Southwest Coast path, and I am tackling its most westerly section, the 67 rugged kilometers between the seaside towns of St Ives and Penzance.

Cornwall has been a tourist destination for more than a century, but in the last decade – as surf culture went mainstream, gastro-tourism rose in popularity and the local arts scene gained an international profile – this has become one of Europe’s coolest destinations. There are boutique hotels and Michelin Star restaurants where once there were only fish and chip shops and old fashioned guesthouses.
St Ives – as famous for its art galleries as its beaches – is high on the hip list. A jumble of white-walled buildings and narrow alleyways clustered around a sandy harbor, this is a place where the light and the colors seem more Mediterranean than British.
But head out along the coast path west of St Ives and boutique galleries and Beautiful People are soon forgotten; Cornwall’s most enduring attraction is its landscape, and this coastline is some of its most dramatic. My first day’s walking is exhilarating but exhausting, with steep descents to hidden coves, and sharp climbs through fields of jumbled boulders, always with the Atlantic roaring on my right.

There are many ways to tackle the Southwest Coast path, although only those with time to spare and iron limbs attempt the full 1014 kilometers from Minehead to Poole. The hardiest hikers carry their own gear and camp out. But these days there is an easier option. Several local companies organize self-guided walking holidays. You can get help planning your itineraries if you need it; your accommodation – usually in family-run guesthouses – is booked for you, and each morning your heavy baggage is transferred on to your next destination. All you have to do is set out walking.

After the rugged wilderness of the first day, my own second day on the trail leads through the industrial ruins around Pendeen, once the heartland of the Cornish tin mining industry. Tin was mined along Britain’s Atlantic edge from the earliest days – Cornwall’s flag, a white cross on a black background, represents the pale tin emerging from the dark ore. The 18th and 19th Centuries were the industry’s heyday, but with the discovery of more accessible deposits in South America and Southeast Asia mining disappeared from this coast, and today only ruined engine houses remain.

The key turning point – quite literally – of the coast path is Land’s End, Britain’s most westerly point. Besides a few offshore islands there is nothing between these honey-colored granite cliffs and America.
My final day of walking leads me beyond Land’s End along softer southern shores, passing hidden coves with intriguing names – Porthcurno, Penberth, Porthchapel. Cornwall, like Scotland and Wales, is part of Britain’s Celtic Fringe, a region less influenced by the successive waves of invasion and immigration that swept into England. Until the 18th century people here spoke their own language – still preserved today in these place names.
All along this coastline I see fishing boats – from large trawlers heading for the offshore grounds to tiny open boats hunting mackerel, lobsters and crabs close to the cliffs. Cornwall has some of Europe’s best seafood, and these days it also has the restaurants to match this raw material. At the forefront of the growth of the Cornish food scene was celebrity chef Rick Stein, based in the north coast village of Padstow. Other famous chefs, like Jamie Oliver, have now opened restaurants in the county, and there are fine dining options and inviting gastro-pubs in villages and fishing ports everywhere.
It is the thought of a fine fish dinner that keeps me going through the last stages of my own walk, through the picturesque village of Mousehole with its boat-filled harbor to the genteel Georgian town of Penzance. I am tired and sunburnt, but three days breathing clean sea air, and hiking up and down those steep cliffs has left me invigorated – and once the aches and blisters have healed, I know that there are still 947 kilometers of coast path to be explored...
© Tim Hannigan 2010

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