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

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