Port Isaac to Padstow
30,000 steps, one ferry trip
Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blowhole booming like a gun.
The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white
John Betjeman, ‘Cornish Cliffs’
In the summer that I was fifteen, I had my first girlfriend. She was called Catherine. It was an intense time, not just because of that first love. My father had died two years before, and early that summer my mother remarried so disastrously that two weeks after the wedding we fled our home in the night to escape my step-father’s violent rage. We were homeless for several months.
In the circumstances, I clung to Cathy as an escape and a comfort. I needed her more than she needed me. Later, when my need reduced and she came to need me more, I dropped her. I’m not proud of it, but it was a difficult time and I was a difficult age.
All summer, we were inseparable. Except for two endless weeks when she went away on holiday. Her family was different to mine; to my young eyes, they operated in a different world. They owned their home, we were council tenants. Cathy played violin. My family, for reasons of money and bereavement, had given up on holidays. Catherine’s family always took their summer break on the Cornwall coast, in a place called Port Isaac. It sounded impossibly glamorous and romantic, and I wanted to be there too.
It’s taken me forty years. I’m finally here, and I can’t help thinking of that summer, decades ago. Port Isaac looks very pretty in the early morning sunshine, all whitewashed walls and slate roofs, and lobster nets on the harbour. I imagine Cathy’s parents liked it fine. But it strikes me as an odd place to bring teenage girls on holiday. There is, for one thing, no beach. It’s probably best that Cathy had those two weeks here without me.
I have decided that today I am going to pamper myself, and give my blistered feet a chance to recover. I set out from Port Isaac and almost immediately abandon the Path, cutting inland and uphill to a (shorter) field route to Port Quin. This path climbs through woods, lined at first with wild garlic. Out of the woods, the garlic is replaced by yellow primrose and gorse. There is a lot of mud after yesterday’s deluge.
I am soon walking across rolling downland, of a sort familiar from my hikes in south east England. The sky is heaped high with grey and white cumulus, but plenty of sun breaks through. It is peaceful, and quiet in a way that seems odd until I identify what is different: the sound of the sea is absent for the first time in two days.
I rejoin the coast path at Port Quin, regaining the familiar sound of waves on rocks below the Path. I wonder who Quin and Isaac were. Two rivals? Or brothers who fell out and founded competing fishing villages?
The Path rises and falls, but in a less severe manner than the two previous afternoons. I’m walking on soft turf, among yellow gorse bushes. The occasional rabbit darts for cover at my approach. There is a sumptuous view back along the coast to Tintagel and Boscastle. The day is warming up. Ahead, the promontory that leads to Pentire Point appears. I have made a sneaky resolution not to walk all the way round it, but to cut across the neck of the headland. Special request from my blisters.
I soon reach Polzeath,and suddenly I am back in Holidaymaker Cornwall. There are people in the sea, and on the beach preparing surf boards and zipping up wetsuits. The lifeguards are out in force, and there is even an ice cream van. It may be barely spring, but it is the first day of the school holidays, and the bulldog spirit on show is impressive.
I stop for lunch at the Galleon Beach Cafe (‘A Legend for 50 Years’, as the sign says). A young woman scrubs the tiled tables and cleans the windows. I’m the only one here. It feels like I’m the first customer of the season.
The weather is playful. Shortly before lunch I stop to take off my fleece in the growing heat. When I resume walking, it starts to rain. I stop and put on my cagoule. It’s again warm and sunny when I set out after lunch, and I briefly contemplate putting on my shorts. Luckily, I don’t bother. Ten minutes later I’m considering putting on my waterproof over-trousers, as a sudden shower sweeps in.
I enter Daymer Bay, a wide patchwork of grey-green sea, speckled with sunlight diamonds, and strips of yellow sand exposed by the ebbing tide.
The Path follows a fairly flat coastline, with grassy dunes on my left. Ahead is the conical mound of Brea Hill. Since I’m so early, I take a short detour inland to visit a church.
St Enodoc Church dates from the 12th century. It’s tiny, crouched in a small square of graveyard in the middle of the golf course. Partly sunk in the ground, it looks as if it has paused in the process of emerging from the earth. The sand dunes in this area are prone to move, driven by the wind, and nearby sand banks rise almost as high as the church roof. From the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century, the church was in fact pretty much buried. The vicar and worshippers had to get in through a hole in the roof to hold a service at least once a year, in order to maintain the tithes. The church is attractive in an uncluttered way. It has a Tardis-like quality, appearing larger inside than it looks from outside.
The poet, John Betjeman, is buried here. Apparently visiting his grave is one of the top 25 things to do in Devon and Cornwall. I can’t work out what the other 24 are, but at least I’ve done this one.
I leave St Enodoc and, with the tide out, I am able to walk the rest of the way to Rock along the beach. The afternoon has become properly sunny, but with a brisk wind along the Camel Estuary keeping things cool. At Rock, I reach another milestone in my journey: my first ferry trip of the South West Coast Path.
A short and windy ride across the River Camel, and a brief walk up the beach, and I am in Padstow.