Thursday, 25 July 2013

Porthcurno to Penzance - walking the South West Coast Path

Gardens at The Minack Theatre
When we awoke the rain had blown through and we were greeted with a piercing blue cloudless sky.  After a fine breakfast of smoked kippers we headed down the road to take a gander at the Minack Theatre. Mick objected to the £4.00 entrance fee, protesting that it had been free last time he had been here (which I managed to ascertain was sometime in the mid-90’s). ‘Mick this is 2013,' I said, with some exasperation. '£4.00 only just covers a pint of beer. It's hardly extortionate.'
'Exactly!' he said. 'I'm sacrificing a pint and a half of beer for this.' But he came in anyway.

The Minack

The Minack was created by the redoubtable Rowena Cade. She bought the Minack Headland for £100 in the 1920's and had a house built here for herself and her mother. After staging a couple of out of doors theatrical shows, Rowena decided to create some terracing behind her house on the cliff to seat an audience for a performance of The Tempest. Her gardener Billy Rawlings who spent forty years in her employ, helped her alongside his brother-in-law, Charles Angove. It was a great success and was picked up for a review in The Times. After this, despite interruptions caused by the Second World War, Rowena assisted by Tom Angove continued working on and improving the Minack until her mid-eighties, and after her death the work now continues with the Minack being run by a charitable trust. It would be marvellous to see a performance here, perched on the cliff in the open air and with the sea crashing onto the rocks below. Provided the rain kept off, of course.


When we had finished wandering around the theatre we set off down the steep steps once more, around the back of the beach and then up the other side. Here, next to a pill box, was a sign warning sailors of the existence of telephone cables. It seemed hard to believe now that the little village of Porthcurno was once the hub of British telecommunications and that the building that now houses the Telegraph Museum was once the largest cable station in the world.

This side of the bay gave us fine views back to the Minack Theatre as we crossed springy expanses of gorgeous purple heather to the little cove at Penberth. We stopped for a moment to chat to a woman taking advantage of some shade under the bow of one of the little boats. The stores at Porthcurno had closed down and our thoughts had turned to food, as usual. 'Don't walk up to the pub at Lamorna Cove,' she told us, 'it's closed for renovations. And just as well too. It's seen better days.' I was a little disappointed, I had been looking forward to visiting the Lamorna Wink, which I had heard was an unreconstructed traditional sort of place. The pub was one of the original 'Kiddlywinks', beer houses licensed under the 1830 Beerhouse Act. (I intend to make the fascinating history of this Act the subject of a separate blogpost soon.) But it was also true that it had seen better days. Hopefully the new owners won't rip the soul out of it as part of the renovations, but I fear I may have arrived too late...The cafe at Lamorna Cove was open she assured us, so at least we wouldn't starve. In hindsight she was a little cagey about the cafe but at the time I didn't notice. It was only later that I found out the place is locally notorious.

Looking back at the Minack


At St Loy's Cove we entered a wood, the shade giving us welcome respite from the heat of the sun.  We stopped by the stream which joined us as we dropped down through the wood and splashed our sweating faces. It was a beautiful wood, once part of the Boskenna Estate owned by the Paynter family, and runs right down to the boulder beach with the path running along the back of the beach. Feeling the effects of the heat I decided to sit for a while and allow my poor hot and sweaty feet some air for a few minutes before heaving myself up and carrying on. Not long after the wood we passed Tater-du lighthouse, the last to be built in Cornwall, in 1965. Two years earlier the Juan Ferrer, a small Spanish cargo ship had sunk with the loss of 11 of the 15 on board and the Newlyn and Mousehole Fisherman's Association petitioned Trinity House to build a lighthouse to warn vessels about Runnel Stone Reef.

Tater-du lighthouse

I enjoyed the last section of the walk into Larmorna Cove around granite outcrops, high above the sea. Mick was not quite so keen. 'Why does this sodding coast path have to be so near the coast?' he said. 'If it were inland it would be so much more enjoyable.' He had voiced a similar opinion earlier that day to a couple from Lincoln that we had chatted to for a few minutes.
'Duh, but then it wouldn't be a coast path would it?' the man had said disdainfully. Maybe they don't have irony in Lincoln.

We passed a beautiful celtic cross, a memorial to David Wordsworth Watson who fell from here to his death in 1873. The story was long forgotten until Barry West, a walker from St Austell, did a bit of sleuthing and uncovered the story. David was a 23 year old Cambridge student who lived with his sisters in Canterbury. They had been staying in Penzance and had come here for the day, his sisters to sketch and David was collecting ferns. When they returned from their sketching the sisters found to their horror that their brother had fallen from the cliff. The memorial is poignant, even more so now that  I know a little of the story behind it. When I told Mick the story he said, 'Well there now. My cowardice is justified, it is dangerous.'

Memorial to David Watson who fell here in 1873
We arrived at Lamorna after a final scramble over huge boulders before climbing down onto a small road and headed to the cafe for a bowl of fish soup and a cup of tea. We had no problems but then we didn't have a car...I've since discovered that the place is known for parking problems. What a shame.

After eating I went down to the beach for a quick paddle. Mick didn't join me - his mind was on other things. He was scrutinising the path on out of the other side of the cove, scrunching up his eyes and trying to trace exactly where it went.
'Just wait until we get there,' I said impatiently. 'You can't tell from here what it's like, you're just winding yourself up.'
Mick took no notice though. 'I'm just trying to see where it goes,' he insisted. 'It looks pretty close to the edge.' Eventually, he had got himself so worked up that he decided to strike out inland and meet me somewhere on the other side of the promontory.
'Here, you'd better take the map then,' I said handing him the OS sheet. 'I can just follow the acorns.'

The acorn symbol of the South West Coast Path had become a familiar sight by now, an old and welcome friend. Aside from the occasional slip-up (e.g.. Land's End) they were reliable in finding the route and recourse to the map was rarely needed for navigational purposes. So Mick turned left while I turned right and made my way up the path towards the outcrop of Carn-du.


Soon I was into woodland again at the nature reserve of Kemyel Crease where the path slipped between leafy trees then finally along a quiet lane, the hot air heavy with scented flowers and the buzzing of innumerable insects merging into one long continuous hum. I swigged the remaining water from my bottle, tipping the last few drops over my head to cool off.

Kemyl Crease
Suddenly I was on a road above Mousehole, the pretty harbour laid out below. I gave Mick a call and discovered he was just in front. Catching him up at the harbour we sat on the wall for a while before deciding that as the remaining section to Penzance was along the road that we could risk a pint at The Ship Inn. 

The plaque outside remembered landlord Charles Greenhaugh who had been a crewman on the Solomon Browne lifeboat which had been lost with all eight crew when going to the rescue of the Union Star in hurricane conditions in December 1981. En route to Penzance we passed the now closed Penlee Lifeboat Station from where the Solomon Browne had launched on that fateful night. Ever since setting off from St Ives we had been continually reminded of how beautiful and yet how treacherous the sea here could be.

Newlyn is a proper working port with no poncy airs and graces but with interesting narrow streets snaking away from the harbour lined with solid houses. I liked the look of it. As well as fish, Newlyn is famous for the Newlyn school of artists of the later nineteenth century including Stanhope Forbes whose Fish sale on a Cornish beach caused a sensation at the Royal Academy in 1885. According to The Spectator Newlyn is in the midst of an artistic revival.


On one of the houses we spotted a plaque to one Bill Best Harris who discovered that The Mayflower had made a final stop at Newlyn to take on fresh water before setting off for America with its cargo of settlers in 1620, thus claiming that Newlyn rather than Plymouth was the ship's true departure point. 'Let debate begin' exorted the plaque. I would have liked to tarry in Newlyn but time was getting on so we pressed on along the seafront to neighbouring Penzance. Our first impressions of the town were not as favourable, it felt slightly shabby and down-at-heel.

We were booked into Sophia's bed and breakfast, right on the sea front. It was tiny but beautifully appointed with a fabulous walk in shower and the owner was friendly, making us a cup of coffee as soon as we arrived. Once cleaned up, we headed down to the harbour area. As a fan of outdoor swimming, I liked the look of Jubilee Pool, a 1930's lido, and Morrab Gardens- stuffed with exotic and tropical plants - was stunning. At the top of the gardens was the mansion, originally built by brewer Samual Pidwell and now home to Morrab Library, funded by member subscriptions.

We finished the evening with a superb curry and a quiz at the Dock Inn which I had heard served Spingo from Blue Anchor in Helston. It was a fine night and we wandered back to our bed and breakfast with our impressions of Penzance greatly improved.

Distance: 11.5 miles
Total Distance Walked So Far: 242.5 miles
Accommodation Ranking: 8/10

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

St Just to Porthcurno - walking the South West Coast Path

After a comfortable night in The Commercial and - sticking with the 'no fry-up' new regime we opt for another scrambled egg and salmon - we set off on the path across the fields from St Just to the path. Just off the coast path we came across Ballowall Barrow, a prehistoric funerary cairn. As the sign in front of it explained, it was difficult to work out quite what was what as the fellow who had excavated it in the nineteenth century, one WC Borlase, had taken the liberty of building additional walls around the original structure. Still, it looked very impressive.

Footpath from St Just

Ballowall Barrow
Leaving the barrow we took the path down the hill to the very pretty Cot Valley where we joined a small lane which trailed down towards the sea. A stream tumbled merrily alongside the tree lined lane, the air humid already although it was not yet ten o'clock and butterflies sat on leaves fanning their wings. I enjoyed listening to the rhythmic call of a wood pigeon: hoo hoooo hoo ho ho. I tried to imitate  it until Mick told me to be quiet. I spotted a chough on the bank; I recognised it as I had been reading the signs on the gates at various points all through Cornwall - similar to a crow but with a distinctive orange beak and legs. Once known as the 'Cornish Crow', Choughs returned spontaneously to Cornwall only in 2001 after being absent for many years and it was great to see one.

The coastline round to Sennen was fabulous as the path wound its way through rocky cliffs and spongy heather heaths to Whitesands Bay. The tide was low, revealing the creamy sand of Gwenver Beach and  beyond, in the crook of the arm of the bay, nestled the village of Sennen.

By the time we reached the village we were in need of a cup of tea and called into the very nice Little Bo Cafe for a cuppa and a huge slab of carrot cake. It was trying to rain and Longships Lighthouse was shrouded in mist as we set off for Land's End. At Castle Zawn was the remaining wreckage of RMS Mulheim, which ran aground here in 2003. The circumstances were unfortunate: the chief officer who had been on watch had caught his trouser leg in a lever on his chair as he stood up, had fallen and was knocked unconscious. When he came to it was too late to prevent the ship running aground, discharging hundreds of tonnes of waste plastic into the sea. Surprisingly, in my view, the accident report recommendations make no mention of the perils of wearing flared trousers.

Wreckage of RMS Mulheim, Castle Zawn

Lands End - what can one say? Anyone who has visited Ireland's equivalent, Mizen Head, will have an idea of what Land's End should be like but isn't - informative, well-thought out and a pleasure to visit. But then - Mizen Head is run by a cooperative...
'We'd best get through this as quickly as possible,' I said to Mick as we headed towards the crowds thronging around the First and Last House.
'No way, I need to go and sign the book,' he said.
'What book? What are you on about?'
'I need to sign the book saying that we have completed the journey from Land's End to John O'Groats.'
'But Mick, that was four years ago. We should have signed the book before we left.'
'I don't care! I've finished it haven't I?'
So we headed up to the Land's End Hotel where Mick signed the book in the reception then took a quick look at the start/finish line outside the complex, before heading off down the path. We had our food with us and decided to look for somewhere to eat. Not far away we turned right off the main Coast Path up to a rocky outcrop and sat down to eat our sandwiches in peace. We were halfway through them when a large family turned up and started hanging off the rocks in scary poses. 'Let's go,' I said to Mick over the shrieks and screams. We headed on along the path. After turning a corner it wounds its way along the very edge of the cliff with sheer drops down to the sea. Mick tolerated it for a while before exclaiming that he was going back. 'This is nuts!' he exclaimed. I agreed to meet him at Porthcurno and continued on alone. When I reached Nanjizal Bay I noticed a path that joined from the left - a path marked the South West Coast Path. The scary path I had led Mick along was not the official coast path at all! Or at least not any more - it may have been once. I tried to call Mick and tell him but there was no signal.
View from scary unofficial path

At Gwennap Head the path dipped down near the cliff and then up the other side, past the coastwatch station and two distinctive day markers, one red and one black and white, erected to warn ships of the Runnel Stone. Apparently when the black and white marker is obscured by the red one then the ship would be directly over the Runnel Stone, the top of which is just six metres under the surface. The reef is now a popular dive site.

At Porthgwarra a small tunnel cut through the rock gives access to a tiny cove. Sadly, the shop was closed and the toilets left a lot to be desired. Soon I was approaching Porthcurno. The carpark at the Minack Theatre was busy; a performance had just finished and the theatre was not open to visitors today. Instead I made my way down the steep steps to the beach. Halfway down I met Mick coming up, he had walked to Porthcurno via the road and had come to find me. I wondered whether to confess that I had led him astray on the path and we had been on an unofficial route but decided to save it for later.

Seaview House bed and breakfast was a pleasant stay. We had been advised not to eat at the Cable Station Inn but by the time we were ready to eat the rain was coming down in sheets. There was little choice. We made a run for the pub. Although it was only yards down the road, by the time we got there we were drenched. The warnings proved correct. The pub was a strange affair and rather grubby, the food was mediocre and when I returned a pint which was cloudy, there was some discussion before it was changed. Tellingly, while we ate our meal no-one came over to ask whether everything was ok. Ah well. We headed back up the hill. The heavens had opened again and water sloshed through my open toed shoes. It was some relief to get into our room and go to sleep.

Distance: 11 miles
Total Distance Walked So Far: 231 miles
Accommodation Ranking: 8/10

Hotel reception, Land's End

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Gurnard's Head to St Just - walking the South West Coast Path

Retro activities
Breakfast at The Gurnard's Head was excellent: fresh fruit and delicious creamy yoghurt followed by superb scrambled egg and smoked salmon. Mick decided he would start every day with salmon and eggs rather than a fry-up. As we left the hotel we encountered the cows from the nearby farm again. This time the ladies were less well behaved, one of them was greedily tucking into the shrub outside the entrance before being shooed along the road.

Gurnard's Head
On rejoining the path we walked out to the headland of Gurnard's Head before heading along the rocky path. Dramatic granite stacks towering above us and rocky volcanic cliffs formed creases and crevasses where the tourmaline sea crashed and swirled. At Porthmeor we passed a fine looking beach. It was incredibly humid, the weather had not broken here yet, and we were desperately tempted to stop for a swim, but it was too early to stop and so we pressed on. I had been swigging liberally from my water bottle to stave off dehydration but I was now discovering that rehydrating in advance does not really work and only resulted in me having to constantly duck behind a handy bush for a pee.

Bosigran Cliffs
We did stop at Bosigran however, the view was too incredible to walk on by. This huge granite sea cliff is popular with climbers and quite a few of them were hanging in various positions on the rocks. We sat for quite a while watching them before heaving ourselves up to carry on.

A few miles on at Portheras Cove we were by now perspiring profusely and were unable to resist going down to the beach for a splash in the water. I was somewhat disconcerted by the signs on the path down to the beach. Although it looked like paradise it seemed that just about everything here is deadly. The stream may contain harmful bacteria, the beach was apparently strewn with hidden shipwrecks and the currents were waiting to carry one off. Seemingly unaware of the huge risks they were taking, groups of families were sitting on the beach or running barefoot in and out of the sea, without any obvious ill effects. We decided to risk lacerating our feet to ribbons and took our shoes and socks off. The sea felt delicious on my sweltering feet, and we paddled up and down for a while, feeling the sun hot on our backs. Suddenly, just ten feet from the shore, a seal nonchalantly swam past, sleek grey head bobbing along while we all stopped and gawped in amazement. Then, just as suddenly, it was gone. After our paddle we returned to the path - refreshed and by some miracle, uninjured. We decided not to use the stream to fill our bottles though - just in case.
Highly dangerous beach

Pendeen Watch

Our dalliance meant that there was insufficient time for the guided tour at Geevor Tin Mine, I resolved to come back soon to give this place the time it deserved. I was surprised by the size of the site, much bigger than I had expected. But then, at one time Cornwall was the largest producer of copper, tin and arsenic in the world. We did manage to find time for a cup of tea and a HUGE pasty in the fine cafe at the museum site. Mick said it was the best pasty he has eaten in his life. And he has eaten a lot of pasties in his time, I can tell you. From here the path took us through Levant and Botallack, past dramatic ruins of engine houses and mine workings and Crown Mine, perched on the edge of the cliff. There is a fascinating article here about the history of the mines. And this site has some fantastic monochrome images.

Perfect pasties at Geevor

Crown Mine

Soon afterwards we reached England's only cape, Cape Cornwall. A cape is a headland where two bodies of water meet (I've just discovered) and here is where the currents of the Atlantic divide between the English Channel and the water of the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea. The walk out to the cape was superb, quiet and with fantastic views from the top.
'Bit different to last time I was here,' observed Mick.
'When was that?'
'11 August 1999. I came here to watch the solar eclipse. This was where it made landfall from the Atlantic. Wish it had been a day like this though. It was so cloudy we couldn't see a thing.' Of course, I remembered all the hype at the time - followed by massive disappointment. Still, the eclipse we had gone to view in Egypt in 2005 had been rather more successful - Egyptian weather being rather more accommodating to eclipse watching than Cornwall for all its rugged beauty.

Cape Cornwall

A trot across fields and up quiet lanes took us to St Just. On the advice of the Good Beer Guide after checking in to our accommodation at the Commercial we called into The Star Inn. Mick spotted an unattributed photo on the wall of a man in uniform. 'Isn't that Michael Collins?' he asked. 'What's he doing here?'
The woman behind the bar nodded. 'The landlord is half Irish' she explained. Indeed the pub reminded me of many in Ireland; the walls were dark and the lighting dim, just how we like a pub to be and the  ceiling was adorned with the six Celtic nation flags of Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Brittany, Wales and Cornwall. I liked it. We enjoyed a couple of fine pints of one of our favourite ales, Proper Job from St Austell's Brewery before turning in for the night.

The Star Inn - after too many beers?

Distance: 9 miles
Total Distance Walked So Far: 220 miles
Accommodation Ranking: 8/10

Mick aids a snail taking too long to cross the road

Sadly his mate was crushed by a van moments after this picture was taken...