Category Archives: South West Coast Path

Go The Long Way: South West Coast Path – Day 25

Potthallow to Falmouth

35,000 steps

“In the morning a man walks with his whole body; in the evening, only with his legs.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Porthallow in the morning is a symphony of grey beach and grey sky.

And there’s a strange apparition on the shingle.

But I’m up and away and heading for the vivid green uplands I can see from the seashore.

I leave by some concrete steps, passing John’s weather forecast.

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Meteorology in Porthallow

The stone is dry and it is indeed not raining! Impressive.

I soon discover that the Path has some surprises in store for me today. Some wag has moved the sign for the Coast Path, sending me immediately inland on a pointless hike along the road.

When I realise the mistake, I’m reluctant to turn back. It’s always unwelcome to retrace your steps. I’ve just climbed a hill. I’m tempted instead to press on and work my way back to the Path further along.

I should heed Philip Marsden’s advice, when he wanders into a bog in Cornwall:

“The logic is always to go on – hopping boldly from tussock to tussock, even as the tussocks grow further apart, as they quiver at your footfall. It is a logic that should be firmly resisted: Retrace your steps! Go the long way!

I fail to resist the logic, and I spend half an hour tramping through cow fields, climbing fences, doubling back and consulting the map with increasing desperation.

2018-08-30 09.40.23Eventually, more by luck than craft, I find myself on a hill above Gillan Creek and scramble down a steep slope, through bushes and nettles, to emerge back on the treacherous Path. At this point it is a narrow dirt track between hedges, overlooking a bucolic inlet.

Within 300 yards, another lapsed cliff sends me on yet another detour a mile inland. (Incidentally, this is the 5th or 6th such detour on this trip alone. I’d better hurry up and complete the coast path, while it’s still there.)

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I love these old road signs

Having trekked inland, I now face another dilemma: it’s a mile back out to the mouth of Gillan Creek. But there is no guarantee that the tide will be low enough to cross the Creek on its stepping stones. If the tide is too high, I’ll need to schlep back the same way to where I am now. The alternative is to plot an inland route to Helford.

I take the easy option. So far, in about ninety minutes’ walking, I’ve been on the actual Path for maybe three minutes.

I walk along the road to the pretty village of Manaccan, which has a church, thatched cottages and a beguiling pub (for which I am sadly too early).

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Manaccan

I then continue on a path through a cornfield and then woodland, to the equally pretty hamlet of Helford.

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I don’t know why, but I just love paths through cornfields

Helford sits at the mouth of a small creek at the side of the Helford estuary. This is packed with sailing boats, and looks glorious this morning.

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2018-08-30 11.22.56At a small jetty, I have to open a brightly-coloured wooden board to summon the ferry, which duly appears from the other side of the river, and carries me across.2018-08-30 11.22.28

I’m still too early for lunch, so I limit myself to a coffee and pastry in the popular, busy and extremely welcoming Ferryboat Inn.

It’s a lovely spot, where I could happily spend longer: a tranquil expanse of calm river, fringed with wooded hills. But plenty of people messing about in boats, kids in bright life jackets, people paddling kayaks.

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I head off, through fields and gorse, with low trees between me and the river. I pass Trebah and Glendurgan gardens, both of which I have visited with the garden-loving Boss, on family holidays.

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Durgan Beach, near Glendurgan Gardens

I soon reach Toll Head, a high ridge which shelters the bay, no doubt contributing to the sub-tropical conditions that help the gardens flourish.

I love this area. When I have visited in the past it has always stuck in my mind, and I once used it in a science fiction story – Once There Was a Way.

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2018-08-30 13.16.23Through a heavily-wooded glade on slopes above the sea, and out onto easy grassed slopes approaching Rosemullion Head.

The sea is very calm, like the surface of a village pond.

A lonely sailing boat off the coast looks impossibly romantic.

Now that I’m back on the Path, and making good progress, I regain my Zen. Offered the choice of a short path across the headland, or a longer route around it, I opt for the scenic route around.

But somehow, on the far side, the devious Path gives me the slip again, and I find myself on an imposter footpath that takes me inland. I encounter a road, and consult the map, to find I’m half a mile off-track.

It’s a coast path. How hard can it be to stay on it? I should only need to keep the sea on my right.

Along more roads, arriving at last in Maenporth, where I eat lunch on the beach, among chilly holidaymakers enjoying a palpably end of summer day at the beach under a sky of slate.

I have again done the bulk of the day’s miles before lunch, and afterwards it’s easy walking as I approach Falmouth.

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At Swanpool Beach, I pass some beach huts that have seen better days.

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I arrive in Falmouth late in the afternoon. I’m tired from my four days of walking. So, of course, I’m thrilled with one feature of the town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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But more pleased with the discovery of the establishment called Beerwolf Books.

It’s a bookshop.

And a pub.

We need one of these in Lewisham.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Halfway to Zen: South West Coast Path – Day 24

Ruan Minor to Porthallow

31,000 steps

“I have never thought so much, existed so much, lived so much, been so much myself, if I may venture to use the phrase, as in the journeys which I have made alone and on foot…” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, 1782

I’m up early and away, fuelled by muesli, fried eggs and coffee. It’s been raining, but that stops just as I set out.

I walk into Cadgwith Cove. It’s a quaint fishing village, tightly packed with thatched cottages, lobster pots piled high.

I climb out the far side, onto gorsey cliffs under a cloudy sky, with small patches of pale blue struggling to break through. There’s a refreshing cool breeze. I can feel my blister, but it isn’t too painful.

As well as cattle, there are horses on the cliffs, eating heather.

At Poltresco, I descend through woods to cross an attractive wooden footbridge, amid abandoned cottages.

 

 

 

The Path to Coverack switchbacks a bit, as it follows the corrugated coastline. But it is not as severe as Penwith or north Cornwall.

There are some pleasing patches of vegetation, reflecting the late summer season, and the milder climate on this southern side of the peninsula.

 

After a strenuous climb up to Beagles Point, there is view clear back to the Lizard Point.

I get irritated with my guide book. It has Ordnance Survey maps, but they are shrunk to fit the small pages. Although I know this, I repeatedly underestimate distances, and get frustrated when it takes too long to get to my next destination.

I stop for a foot inspection. The blisters are multiplying, jumping to other toes. I apply plasters. A fellow walker, coming the other way, stops for a chat. It’s his first time in Cornwall. He’s sceptical about the chances of reaching Lizard Point. I say, “That’s it there.” But if his guide book is like mine, he’ll have no way of knowing how long it will take.

Approaching Coverack, I get too smart. My map shows tantalising inland field paths, offering a flatter and more direct route into the town than the interminably fiddly coast Path. Inevitably, I get lost and end up scrambling across fields to find a road.

Lunch in Coverack cheers me up – pizza and coffee at Archie’s Loft cafe, overlooking the harbour.

When I resume walking after lunch, refreshed and rested, frustration with my guide book, and all other agitation, falls away. Perhaps it takes a few days out of London to relax. I accept that I will reach the end of the day’s walk when I have walked enough steps to cover the distance, and that number will not be affected by worrying. I should just plod on and enjoy the walk. It is, after all, a privilege to be in such a glorious place.

It strikes me that walking is like writing. When you’re writing a novel, each sentence and paragraph can feel a struggle. If it is so hard to fill a page, how on Earth can you complete eighty- or ninety-thousand? Walking the Path, it feels too far even to the next headland, let alone think about completing the 630 miles.

Yet, in both cases, the thing to do is stop stressing about how far away the end-point is: just focus on the next step; the next paragraph; the view from the next peak. Forget how far away the end of the book is, and immerse yourself in the scene you’re writing now and make that as good as it can be.

If you plug away, there comes a time when the day’s walk is over, the chapter is finished, the first draft is completed. 630 miles is made up of thousands of individual steps, and each can only be taken separately. A novel is thousands of words, which you write one at a time.

I keep this new philosophy of mindful walking with me as the Path winds round an unattractive headland dominated by a disused quarry. And heads inland from the grey and uninteresting Godrevy Beach, to approach Porthallow By an inland road route.

And the Path rewards me for my new-found level of Zen. I trudge into Porthallow and there by the beach car park is a sturdy monument marking the halfway point of the South West Coast Path. And the Five Pilchards Inn is close by, for the modest celebration.

Over dinner in the Five Pilchards, I reflect on my 24 days on the Coast Path since I set out from Minehead (see 11 April 2016). At this rate, I may reach Poole some time in 2021.

One day – one step, one page – at a time!

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Detours and Blistering Pace: South West Coast Path – Day 23

Porthleven to Ruan Minor

43,000 steps.

“An eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape, the point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”

Lucy Lippard, quoted in Rebecca Solnit, ‘Wanderlust’

I don’t know about that. What I do know is how I feel when I set out on what will be my longest day’s walking. To discover after half a mile that a short section of cliff between Porthleven and Loe Bar has collapsed.

Requiring a diversion inland.

Of nearly three miles.

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“Funky Little Boatrace”: South West Coast Path – Day 22

Penzance to Porthleven

28,000 steps

It’s five months later. France have won the world cup. Britain is still leaving the EU. And I’m back yet again at Paddington station, starting my long journey to reconnect with the Path. This time, it’s late on a Sunday evening and I’m getting onto the sleeper train to Penzance. My intention is to arrive refreshed at the start of Monday, and launch straight into the walking.

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I make a new friend at Paddington Station

It’s nearly midnight when the train leaves, and we rattle into the night. I’m already in my bunk and I appreciate the way the train pulls away very gently, as if the driver is conscious some people may already be asleep.

2018-08-27 07.44.27Without the Prof’s distracting sleep noises in the top bunk, I sleep much better than on my last trip. I wake up around five and peer out at a deserted Plymouth Station, then sleep again until 7.15, when I awake to find trees and rolling green hills outside the window, as we approach Bodmin Parkway, in a gentle, almost invisible, misty rain. My breakfast is delivered, and I feel very smug for a while, drinking coffee and eating my pineapple and papaya muesli.

Until I notice the train has not moved for twenty minutes. It has broken down at Par, requiring a decant of passengers to a late train, and a ninety minute delay.

Finally at Penzance, the early part of the walk is easy but a little dull, along a paved path between the Bay and the railway line, with only the grandeur of St Michael’s Mount – which dominates the Bay – to relieve the humdrum. As usual, I have packed light, and the warmth of the morning makes me regret my lack of sunglasses and hat.

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St Michael’s Mount

At Marazion, it’s obvious today is a Bank Holiday. The car parks are full, and there are queues of cars. The tide is out, so the tidal causeway is open, and crowds of people take advantage. I don’t. I stop to send a postcard, get coffee and cake, and buy some cheap sunglasses. The sky immediately clouds over.

There are many interesting things about St Michaels Mount. Its Cornish language name is Karrek Loos yn Koos. This apparently means “the grey rock in a wood”, and may be linked with the time before Mount’s Bay was flooded (which may have happened around 1700BC). The name suggests a hillock set in woodland, and tree remains have been seen at low tides following storms on the beach at Perranuthnoe.

More interesting is the fact that the Mount is one of 43 tidal islands that one can walk to from mainland Britain. Wikipedia lists only four in France and a poxy two in Germany. Meanwhile, there’s another one right here in Mounts Bay – Asparagus Island in Kynance Cove. So we’re ahead on something in Europe.

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Even in Marazion, I can’t escape reminders of my other life…

Marazion has some attractive houses

Leaving Marazion, there is an irritating diversion along the road, owing to cliff erosion, and then I’m out onto a low succession of headlands over boulder-strewn beaches. The Mount begins to fall behind.

The walking is deceptively easy, and the Path pulls a trick on me. It leads me down onto the beach, where I find myself clambering over a lunar landscape of grey boulders.

2018-08-27-12-12-07.jpgIt takes me too long to realise this cannot possibly be the coast path – it would be impassable if the tide wasn’t low, for example. I check the guide book, and find I should be enjoying a gentle route through field gates and gorse bushes. I also find that I should “avoid dropping down onto the beach”. Fortunately – after twenty minutes on this beach assault course – I find a steep path back up to the route I should be on.

A little later, I look down at the beach below and see some singular sand art…

One of my problems on these walks is my tendency too go to fast, to plan too many miles for each day, and thereby miss the glory of the landcape and seascape. Starting my day’s hike an hour and a half late didn’t help me quell that instinct, and again I push things a bit too much. By the time I stop for lunch at the Sandbar, on Praa Sands, I’m feeling weary.  This is unfortunate, because the Path has been lulling me with the easy terrain so far.

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More familiar terrain returns

After lunch, the walk becomes more demanding. More like the Path of earlier stages in the walk, with frequent climbs and steep descents, skirting deep gorges and insisting on pedantic twists and turns to around fenced-off clifftop field. I also lose the Path again near Prussia Cove, going too far inland and having to retrace my grumpy steps.

There are old mine buildings scattered over the hillsides, looking like ruins of an ancient civilization. Which I guess is what they are.

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For some reason, I get thinking about Overend Watts, the bass player from Mott The Hoople, who walked the Path a decade or so ago, and wrote a book about it*. Once I’ve thought of him, I can’t get the song ‘All The Young Dudes‘ out of my head, singing it under my breath as I plod the last monotonous miles into Porthleven. I don’t pass many other walkers, but one guy looks at me oddly as I shuffle past, muttering, “Is there concrete all around, or is it in my head?”

I’m pleased to see at last the pretty fishing (ie. touristy seaside) village of Porthleven, where I check into the Harbour Inn and clean up and recover. Porthleven has a local custom of a torchlight parade once a year, on August Bank Holiday.

Serendipitously, today is that very day! As the sun goes down, several hundred people for, up behind a marching band carrying flaming torches. They then march off, looking for all the world like they are about to put an end to unnatural practices at the local equivalent of Castle Frankenstein.

No one seems to know why they do this, but they appear to enjoy it.


*The Man Who Hated Walking, by Overend Watts, Wymer Publishing, 2013

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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.’
‘Really.’
‘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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