Boscastle to Port Isaac
38,000 steps, 2 blisters
“Human walking is a unique activity during which the body, step by step, teeters on the edge of catastrophe…Man’s bipedal mode of walking seems potentially catastrophic because only the rhythmic forward movement of first one leg and then the other keeps him from falling flat on his face.”
John Napier, “The Antiquity of Human Walking (quoted in Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit)
Part of my intensive preparation for this trip included researching the likely weather. I discovered that March and April in Cornwall have some of the lowest average rainfall. I shouldn’t be surprised; I’ve had enough summer holidays in St Ives to know how much it rains in August.
The big Boscastle flood was also in August; Monday 16 August 2004. Even though the weather wasn’t too bad elsewhere on the coast, a mass of dark cloud anchored itself above the hills inland, and delivered a month’s rain in two hours. The result was a deluge down the narrow valley that passes through the town, which swept away houses and caravans, and the bridge. Around 50 cars were swept into the harbour. Amazingly, no one died.
The flood was all I knew about the town before arriving here. I now discover that it has other notable features, including a museum of witchcraft.
Boscastle looks lovely in the early morning, a hidden valley bathed in new sunshine. I wish I could stay longer. When I set off, the sky is pastel blue and the sunlight makes the gorse up the valley side glow like amber. There is rain promised later. But I comfort myself with the thought that Cornish weather promises are not always kept.
As I start to climb out of Boscastle, a sign says ‘Tintagel 4m’. The first stretch, after this initial climb, is gently up and down, across fields with patches of mud. The sun is out, although the hillsides show the varied shades of green that bespeak much rain. The sea is a whispering presence below, in a small cove called ‘Grower Gut’. It is a proper coast path here, staying close to the sea, not disappearing into the woods in the way that irritated Sam in north Devon.
After an hour, the Path plunges into Rocky Valley, a place as well named as High Cliff. At the bottom, a woman struggles along the uneven path with the aid of a rough stick. Her male companion walks ahead of her, hands in his coat pockets, offering no help. I take an instant, and unfounded, dislike to him. When I pass them a few minutes later, neither acknowledges me. Nor each other.
Coming out of Rocky Valley, a sign says ‘Boscastle 2 3/4m’ and ‘Tintagel 2 1/4’. Somewhere the sneaky Path has slipped in an extra mile. But the walking is easy and peaceful, apart from a clicking sound from my leg. After a football injury many years ago, I get occasional percussive noises from my knee. These are particularly loud today, as if I have an invisible companion, slapping his palm with a leather belt.
The walk to Tintagel is straightforward. I have looked forward to being here. It’s a place rich in history and legend, mainly concerning King Arthur, who was supposed to have been conceived here.
I know that there are people who probably take inspiration from the stories of Arthur: a noble British king, fighting off invaders from Europe; an inspiring tale for our times. But there is no evidence Arthur existed. The Tintagel castle ruins date from the thirteenth century, and Arthur (if he existed) would have been around hundreds of years earlier. There is however plenty of evidence that the Saxon invaders came anyway (and it’s their descendants, not Arthur’s, who are now rejecting Europe).
You don’t need Arthurian legend to be excited by the sense of ancient history about the site, which was a stronghold in Roman times, and is a dramatic sight, with castle ruins clinging to a rocky promontory. I stop for a while in the the cafe, where I have coffee, and a cheese scone that is so large and craggy, it seems to be modelled on the castle ruins. I don’t linger long. I am intimidated by what the afternoon holds: again the day has harder walking late on, with a series of steep valleys between me and Port Isaac.
It’s a brisk march across exposed clifftops, in blustery wind, to Trebarwith Strand, where I stop for lunch in the Port William pub. I eat soup and bread, with more coffee, sitting by a window with a view over the bay. Languid waves break a hundred yards out, filling the bay with foam and a breathy haze above the water.
Before leaving, I do a foot-check in the pub toilets. One of my toes earlier filed a damage report, warning of incipient blister. Foolishly, I ignored it and examination now reveals a blister on each foot.
Over lunch, I heard the man at the next table talking about walkers. “One thing I’ve noticed about the serious walkers,” he said, “they don’t always stop and take in the view. They’ve got their heads down.”
During the afternoon, I know exactly what he means. Simon Armitage, in his memoir of the Path, ‘Walking Away’ recalls being advised by a local that the walk to Port Isaac from Trebarwith Strand is “hard work”. The number of combes to be climbed down and up, he is told, is ‘too many, followed by another three.’
The climb out of Trebarwith Strand is arduous enough, but before I have a chance to recover control of my heart rate and breathing, there is a steep climb down into Backways Cove, followed by an even harder climb out again.
At this point, the rain finally sets in with a seriousness previously lacking. I put on cagoule, overtrousers, hat and gloves. It is impressive how quickly I become soaked through, even with this protection. The rain comes steadily, easing occasionally but always returning, for the next couple of hours. The wind blows the rain directly into my face for most of the afternoon.
For most of the walk to Port Isaac I become one of the heads-down walkers mentioned by the man in the pub.. The Path becomes something to be endured, overcome one panting step after another. The route by now is thoroughly corrugated, a nameless succession of valleys descended and climbed by means of steps and a steep path that becomes increasingly slippery. All thought of scenic beauty is forgotten; as I climb, all I see is the next muddy step up. I am by now very clear that my boot choice was poor; the lighter pair have given me blisters and the soles keep slipping on the muddy slopes.
At the foot of one valley, I realise I have lost track and don’t know how many more there are before Port Isaac. At least one more, I tell myself, finding that thought strangely comforting. I’m right: there is at least one more. Three, in fact.
At last, I toil into Port Isaac and present myself at my B&B. It’s above an art gallery, and I drip a small pool of water on the gallery floor when I’m let in. It takes a shower, copious hot tea, and some dry clothes before I begin to feel life is worth living again.