Monthly Archives: March 2018

Hardly Like a Coast Path at All: South West Coast Path Day 21

Treen to Penzance

32,000 steps

“At length, as we plodded along the dusty roads, our thoughts became as dusty as they, all thought indeed stopped, thinking broke down, or proceeded only passively in a sort of rhythmical cadence of the confused material of thought…”

-Henry David Thoreau, ‘A Walk to Wachusett’ (1843)

When I was planning this trip, I was worried that the third day, concluding in Penzance, might be tame following the strenuous glories of the first two days.

I needn’t have worried. It’s an uneventful day, but tougher than I thought.

2018-03-25 10.55.25The clocks have gone forward in the night for British Summer Time, and the weather instantly responds, giving us bright sunshine from a clear blue sky as we shoulder our packs and retrace our steps through Treen and down to the coast. The Prof is much recovered. The air is thin and cool and fresh.

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Turning the Corner: South West Coast Path Day 20

Pendeen to Treen

39,000 steps

“…Newquay to Land’s End: a coastal hike of such constant yet varied beauty that no right-minded person would ever want it to end.”

– Gary Hayden, describing the end of his walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End

Next morning, there is no more water falling from the sky. But there’s plenty on the ground. When I take my clean socks from their plastic bag, they’re wet. The newspaper that I put in my boots to dry them appears to be wetter than the boots were  last night. As do the boots.

When we set out, the air is cold and damp, and everything is wet. Streams of water are still running down the street that we take out of Pendeen. But it’s not raining.

There’s a bit of faffing about as we try to find the Path. It ought to be simple – head for the coast – but we end up retracing our steps several times, and wandering all over the dreary post-industrial wasteland around Geevor Tin Mine.

Geevor Tin Mine

Most of the time, it’s easy to overlook how heavily industrialised Cornwall once was, now that it is mostly tourist resorts and unspoilt coastline. But you can’t overlook it here. The Geevor mine closed as recently as 1990. It’s now a Unesco World Heritage site (which is hard to believe, looking at it).

During the 20th century Geevor had over 85 miles of tunnels, and produced 50,000 tons of tin. It wasn’t a workplace I would have fancied: over a million gallons of water, a quarter of which was sea-water, was pumped from the mine daily.

Once we have located the Path, we head south, expecting to reach Land’s End by lunchtime. For various reasons, progress is slower than I expect.

The first problem is that the Path is, well, a little ‘vague’ in places. It’s easy to be misled into following  the wrong trail. At one point, we miss a turn we should take and find ourselves walking along an increasingly narrow cliff path, clambering over rocks as the way becomes gradually less of a path and more of an invitation to fall into the sea. Eventually, we come to our senses, and climb over a steep ridge to re-find the correct route.

The second cause of delay is the Path’s irritating habit of buggering us about, and winding in and out instead of pursuing a sensibly direct route. I know it’s a coast path, but you can take these things too far. At one point, I look to the south, thinking that Sennen and Land’s End still seem a long way off. The Path then takes us half a mile inland, and half a mile out again, so that after thirty minutes’ walking we’re at a point a hundred yards south of where we were. This can get irritating.

I’m not complaining, because the absence of rain is a great improvement on yesterday afternoon. But there is still a lot of water and mud around, which makes walking hard work, as we scramble from side to side of the Path to find drier ground and surer footing. It slows us down.

The morning is windy and cool. The sea is battleship grey, under a sky the colour of pale ash. We walk through a series of headlands and shallow inlet valleys, working our way south. At Kenidjack Castle, there are evocative remains of an ancient hillfort (one of several on the promontories of this coast). Further on, we cross Cape Cornwall. Until the Ordnance Survey, 200 years ago, people thought the Cape was the most westerly point of Britain. I can’t help wishing the Ordnance Survey hadn’t interfered – the Cape would make a much better Land’s End than the real thing.

Cape Cornwall: Land’s End 1.0

After a strenuous climb over boulders at Nanjulian, Sennen Cove appears below, behind a haze of spray produced by the sizeable waves. We plod on, as the final reason for our slow progress becomes more evident – the Professor is unwell. He falls behind, walking ever more slowly. When at last we stop for lunch in Sennen, the Prof confirms how unwell he is by turning down the offer of a beer. He bales out and gets a taxi to Treen, where we’re staying tonight, leaving me to tackle Land’s End alone.

Having walked all this way to get here, Land’s End itself is a non-event: a sprawl of ugly gift shops and restaurants. I don’t linger long.

In his very funny book about walking the Path with a disreputable dog, ‘Five Hundred Mile Walkies’, Mark Wallington gets into a conversation with a waitress in the canteen at Land’s End.

“…when I told her, as cooly as possible, that I was walking the whole South West coastal path, she said ‘Kevin, the breakfast chef did that last year.’
‘Oh, really.’
‘Yeah. He walked thirty miles a day.’
‘Yeah. And he’s diabetic or something.
‘Is he!’
‘Yeah. He raised about five thousand quid for a kidney machine.’
‘Did he!’
‘Yeah. He said it was easy enough from Minehead to here, but then it started to get really tough.'”

Walking away from Land’s End, I feel I’ve reached an important milestone. Until now, since leaving Minehead nearly two years ago, I’ve been walking broadly south of west. From now on, I’ll be going predominantly north of east. I know that this is not yet the halfway point of the walk, but there is a genuine sense that I have turned a corner. From now on, I’m heading back towards home.

I make rapid progress after Land’s End. The Path soon begins to feel different – an easier cliff top walk, with fewer ascents and descents, and firmer ground. The landscape subtly alters too: approaching Porthgwarra the Path becomes more sheltered, with occasional hedgerows, and a scent of wild garlic.

I am soon at Minack, where a precipitous stone staircase takes the Path down to Porthcurno beach. Up another slope, and a very muddy field path brings me to Treen, where I find – tucked up in bed – the poorly Prof.



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The Lies Told by Waterproof Garments: South West Coast Path Day 19

St Ives to Pendeen

35,000 steps

It’s been nearly six months since I completed section five of the Path. Nearly half a year on, the sense of living in a work of fiction has only grown stronger. The US president hasn’t yet blown us all up, but it appears that the Russians are trying to kill spies on the streets of our quaint old cities with illegal nerve poisons.

On a personal note, my science fiction love story, Fifty-One has finally been published (the world has so far managed to contain its excitement). And the UK is still leaving the European Union, as I expect to be the case for the rest of my life (or until it starts joining it again, whichever is sooner).

I’ve reached the point on the Path that is as far away from London as I can get. And the journey to Cornwall is tiresome. The train takes us to Plymouth, where we are shepherded onto a bus, for the rest of the journey to the tip of Cornwall. It should take five hours, but it takes eight. I’m sure the Famous Five used to get here quicker.

But the journey is made more bearable by having company – my friend the Professor is back for another stretch of the Path. And all is well in the morning, as we set out early. The sky is the colour of a baby’s eyes, the sea is like a Delft pottery plate. The morning air is fresh and clean, and there is a palpable spring in our step.

I checked the guidebook over breakfast. It says subtly that the stretch from St Ives to Pendeen Watch is:

“one of the more difficult stages of the route. A rough and remote stretch, often along narrow and sometimes vague paths…If you have plenty of time and the weather’s good, this is one of the most spectacular parts of the …Path. If you try to rush it, and suffer poor weather, it becomes an arduous treadmill.”

The weather forecast is fine for the morning, but with wind and rain in the afternoon. We don’t let this worry us. How much can you rely on weather forecasts on the Atlantic coast?

The Morning’s To-Do List

The Path takes us out of St Ives and onto a low headland, and then up and down an increasingly challenging series of promontories. It’s about six miles to Zennor, but the Path is rugged and uneven, with sections where it is necessary to scramble over boulders and great slabs of granite. Even where the Path is not too rough, it is slippery with mud, which slows us down. The views are fabulous, but our progress becomes very slow and arduous.

The Path becomes a little uneven….

As the morning goes on, clouds begin to curdle in the sky, and the day becomes cooler and more windy. There are seals in the sea at Porthzennor Cove.

As usual with the Professor, the morning passes with us musing on a bunch of unconnected topics. These include:

  • Plato and Socrates (and how little it turns out we know about either – and others in the Monty Python Philosophers Song)
  • Nan Shepherd, a wroter whom I had never heard of, but she turns out to be on the Scottish £5 note
  • the way it always seems that the Path is going uphill
  • the surprising fact that rainfall in Cornwall tends to be lower in March than in July.

This last becomes a cruel joke. Past Zennor, around noon, the faint breath of moisture on the wind thickens into rain, and soon we’re walking in full over-trousers, and cagoules with hoods up. The landscape dissolves into a grey-green blur and for the last half hour before lunch the walk is an arduous wet slog.

At last, we turn inland and spend a very welcome hour in the Gurnards Head Hotel, where we dry out, and have lunch. Sadly, after lunch the weather forecast lets us down – by being completely accurate. The rain has not eased during our break, in fact it has settled in more firmly. We set off along the road, and soon return to the coast path.

The rain is now constant – sweeping in cold sheets across the hillside. As we continue our interminable trudge, it becomes clear that none of my garments is truly waterproof. The rain soaks through my allegedly waterproof trousers, and soaks me to my underpants. It seeps inside my cagoule, which until now has pretended to be waterproof, so that a wet, cold patch spreads across my back beneath the pressure of my rucksack.

I’m wearing gloves, but they simply soak up the rain, until large drops of water flick from my fingers when I move my hands.

The Actual Path – Actually a River

After a couple of hours of this, I confess that some of the joy goes out of the walk. Everything is cold and wet. We pick our way through a sea of mud and slippery stones. The Professor falls over a couple of times (making me smugly glad I have a stick to preserve my balance).

Every part of the Path that is not flat has become a stream. The flat bits are thick with mud or else submerged beneath dirty pools.

At last, we turn inland and struggle up a gushing field path to the road at a village called Morvah. A gallery with a cafe is defiantly closed, and we hobble along the road for what seems hours, until we reach Pendeen.

Arriving at the North Inn, we are ushered into our small chalet behind the pub. We almost weep with relief. There is hot tea and a hot shower, and I find a few garments in my sodden rucksack that have remained dry in their plastic bags. Everything else – including the rucksack itself – is soon hanging from a radiator or the back of a chair, in the hope that it will dry by the morning.

The treacherous weather forecast has now changed, indicating more rain tomorrow.

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