The weekend before last saw me back in Cornwall, taking a week out to walk the coast from Looe to Land’s End. Because I thought it would be fun.
The first day’s walk was from Looe to Par where, having failed to find any accommodation near Par that wouldn’t require a second mortgage or major gold robbery to pay for, I would be jumping on a train back to Plymouth to stay in one of that city’s fine hotels.
I arrived in Looe by train at some ungodly hour in the morning before most of the shops were properly open.
Although I needed to cross the bridge into West Looe in order to start my walk, I ambled around East Looe for a few minutes, re-acquainting myself with this lovely little town, which is twinned with Quiberon in Brittany.
Cornwall and Brittany share a historic culture, the Bretonsbeing descended from Britons displaced by the Saxon advance into the West Country, and even today the Breton and Cornish languages share about 80% of their basic vocabulary (Cornish also shares about 75% with Welsh). I was reminded of this as I passed Looe’s harbour car park, which is graced by a sign with probably the first Cornish phrase I ever saw as a child on holiday – ‘Dynnargh dhe Logh’ – ‘Welcome to Looe’.
Shark Angling Club
Once a major fishing port, Looe now also depends significantly on tourism but has managed to neatly combine the two by becoming a major centre for shark angling and is even the home of the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain. Because sharks need to be more angular, apparently. I suppose it makes them easier to recognise.
Nelson the Seal
Something else easy to recognise was Nelson, a one-eyed grey seal who formerly played and hunted in Looe and whose statue stands on Pennyland Rocks, which are at the waterside just before you climb slowly out of West Looe.
Nelson graced Looe with his antics for over 25 years before his death in 2003. The statue was erected in 2008.
The road from the harbour climbs up a hill — well, of course it does — and curves around, passing some nice houses until suddenly everything is fields and cows.
As I ambled along in a happy Disney-esque mood, greeting all the animals — ‘Hello cows! Hello snail! Hello robin!’ — I noticed a calf, if ‘calf’ is the right term for anything that large already, licking its mother. Well I assumed it was his mother. He might have just been licking some other cow, just for kicks.
St George’s Island
On my other side nature was conspiring, through careful use of cloud and sunbeams, to spotlight St George’s Island like a performer in some sort of 1930s island cabaret.
The coast path carried me past a rock called the Hore Stone and within a stone’s throw of the tiny hamlet of Talland, whose church was uniquely dedicated to ‘St Tallanus’ — almost certainly invented in the fifteenth century to give Talland Church an imaginary saint of its own.
Talland overlooked Talland Bay, now an official Area of Outstanding Beauty and Heritage Coast but formerly known as a landing spot for smugglers.
The bay was also a good spot for wreckers and continued to claim ships until early last century, when a French trawler, Marguerite, was wrecked in 1922. All 21 hands were saved in a rescue by two private boats and the remains of the ship’s boiler can still be seen on the beach at low tide.
Naturally, it wasn’t low tide when I wandered past.
Right next door to Talland was Porthallow, which sported a café by the beach. This seemed like an excellent opportunity for a coffee and a bacon sandwich but, alas, it was closed.
Denied, I pressed on towards Polperro, first passing over Downend Head where a memorial stands to the dead of the First World War.
The sea at this point became a bright, shining blue that looked — even to the naked eye — like a badly faked Photoshop image. It was unreal. even if it only lasted twenty minutes.
As if this was not amazing enough in itself, I was now approaching Polperro ( Porthpyra), which is one of my favourite places. Because it is awesome. Why is Polperro awesome? Well, let me tell you…
Historically a pilchard fishing port and first mentioned in records in 1303, Polperro sits at the mouth of the River Pol, which is usually a tiny, trickling stream but in 1993 became a raging torrent of destruction during a flash flood that swept away some of the buildings. Preventative measures have since been taken (in the form of a large tunnel to divert future floods) to avoid this occurring again. And this is a good thing because the village is spectacular:
The Shell House
Having been denied my breakfast in Porthallow, I was determined to stop and indulge myself in Polperro. So, after first being waylaid by the tempting charms of the fudge shop, I found my way into a café that, to judge from the disparity between apparent exterior size and internal space, was actually a TARDIS.
There, I obtained a pot of tea and a truly first class bacon bap, while ‘accidentally’ overhearing the only other occupants — a trio of local fishermen.
An Emmet Eavesdrops
The conversation of the fishermen was wide-ranging and quick to shift topics. It covered, in fairly short order: where different fish could be found, why the Environment Agency was staffed entirely by idiots, and a particularly enterprising shag — as in the bird — which had worked out how to steal fish from what should have been a secure bin.
This led them to reminisce about ‘Kevin’, another shag, that had plagued fishing boats in Looe until Nelson the one-eyed seal took lethal exception to this unwanted competition.
Their final topic was the often strange behaviour of ‘emmits’, a word of Cornish English literally meaning ‘ants’ but more frequently used to mean ‘tourists’. I was expecting a bit of a rant but they seemed pretty chilled, if amused.
Polperro’s foreshore belongs to Duchy of Cornwall, the estates of which provide an income for the Prince of Wales (who is also Duke of Cornwall). Its beach also has this:
If I was disappointed that the cave housed no dragon, I blame — or rather thank — Rosemary Manning, author of the children’s book Green Smoke, which I truly loved when I was about six. Although, since R. Dragon lived near Padstow, not Polperro, I should perhaps wait until I reach Cornwall’s opposite coast before expressing any disappointment.
The path out of Polperro led up some steps and then proceeded to wriggle like a snake for some miles with considerable undulations in both the vertical and horizontal planes. It was hard work in places but I rather enjoyed it as it led me past Colors Cove and down through the East and West Coombes (Oh good! Coombes!) to Pencarrow Head and then on towards Polruan.
Cows and Cowardice
Just as I was about to enter Polruan village I found a herd of cows largely blocking the path. While most moved aside, one in particular had decided to stand right across the path, which was flanked by steep sides and gorse bushes so I couldn’t go anywhere else. She stared at me as I approached, making no effort to move. I got closer, she kept staring. And so on.
I was just about to give up and stop and wait her out when she decided that I was too close, did a little bit of frantic revolving on the spot and leapt away as if I were the scariest thing in the world. A dragon perhaps?
Polruan (Porthruan) is watched over by nervous cows and the ruin of the eighth century St Saviour’s Church. This stands high on the hill above the village, where it acts as a landmark for shipping and, in times past, a lookout point from which enemy ships might be sighted.
For Polruan occupies the eastern side of the mouth of the River Fowey (pronounced ‘foy’), once a strategically important natural harbour. Reflecting this, a fourteenth century blockhouse guards the river’s entrance on the Polruan side, paired with a similar structure over on the Fowey side.
I was quite warm from the hills and coombes and cows by now so I purchased a cold drink from a handy shop and waited patiently for the Fowey Ferry. Which is probably not easy to say if you are drunk.
Fowey (Fowydh in Cornish) is a town rather than a village, albeit not a large one. It was chartered sometime around 1300 and went on to develop something of a reputation for piracy.
Perhaps on account of this, it was attacked by French forces in 1457. Around 1540, a small castle was built on St Catherine’s Point, directly opposite Polruan.
Fowey’s wartime adventures continued with the advent of the English Civil War (Fowey was Royalist, like much of Cornwall, but was briefly captured by Parliament. During the resulting counter-siege, Charles I decided to look down upon the town from Polruan and was promptly shot at, being almost hit by musket shot.
A Dutch attack was foiled in 1667, by which time Charles’s son (Charles II) was on the throne and getting his revenge by building Plymouth Citadel to keep the former Parliamentarians in line.
Two Dogs Man
As I picked my way towards the edge of Fowey, the route that I needed to take to follow the coast path became less clear and I stopped to ask for directions from a man out walking two dogs.
The man gave me a lengthy and appraising look that seemed to hover between ‘you follow the coast you idiot’ and ‘so you’re the sort of man who frightens cows, eh?’ before indicating the correct direction with a couple of tersely spoken words.
St Catherine’s Point
The laconic Two Dogs Man whooshed off ahead, storming along at a breathtaking pace. I followed rather more slowly, soon passing St Catherine’s Point,
Coombe Haven & Southground
The path soon dropped again, but I was forewarned by my map and the name ‘Coombe Haven’ and was undaunted. It then broke out into fields, rounding Southground Point.
Ahead lay the mass of Gribbin Head but first I needed to drop back to sea level once more and make my way across the stream at Polridmouth.
Polridmouth pretty much comprised a house, a lake and a beach.
There, I was accosted by a cheery man with two dogs whom I initially failed to recognise as Two dogs Man — clearly his dog-walking had diminished his terseness. He pointed up at the hill of Gribbin Head towards the red and white striped Gribbin Tower, a daymark that looks from a distance like a lighthouse lacking a light.
‘It’s a bit of a hill but you can sit down when you’re up there,’ he said, ‘and you’ll be halfway to Polkerris.’
I thanked him again for his help and, pausing only to wipe his excited dogs’ slobber from my coat sleeve (ew!), I picked my way across the stream on what I suppose can be called ‘stepping stones’.
Gribbin Head is a headland that rises to 75 m. Its daymark tower stands a further 26 m high and was built by Trinity House in 1832 to distinguish the Gribben from nearby Dodman Point and St Anthony’s Head.
Now, 75 m isn’t all that high and the hill wasn’t all that steep but nonetheless I was glad to get to the top of it and press on.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
I didn’t linger on Gribbin Head because the weather was changing. While all had been blues skies and sunshine up until now, there were rainclouds and mist rolling in. I stood in mild amazement and looked out over St Austell Bay as it vanished into the grey.
Gribbin Head is the location of Menabilly, the house in which the author Daphne du Maurier lived.
Du Maurier was a member of the Mebyon Kernow Cornish nationalist party, although since that literally means ‘Sons of Cornwall’, perhaps she was a Daughter of Cornwall (which would be Myrgh Gernow) instead?
She leased, rather than owned, Menabilly, which lay on the extensive Rashleigh Estate, covering Gribbin Head and much of the land around St Austell Bay.
The Rashleighs were powerful local landowners for centuries and the family still has substantial holdings. Originally wealthy merchants, their rise to influence came when Philip Rashleigh from Barnstaple in Devon bought land near Fowey that had become available on account of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
St Austell Bay
A Mammal’s Memories
Although I love to learn the history of these places, I had some personal history of my own looming large, insofar as I spent many childhood summer holidays in St Austell Bay — some with my parents, some with my grandparents.
And one thing that holidaying with my grandparents always meant was Going For A Walk With Granddad. In St Austell Bay, this meant the walk from Par Sands to Polkerris, a mile and half of clifftop rambling that ultimately helped sow the seeds to kick this whole coast-walking thing off. My Granddad died in 1996, which wasn’t a bad innings, given that he was born in 1908, and I think he’d have been pleased that I’ve been out walking like this.
As I wandered along, the mist and rain grew thicker on the far side of the bay but made no effort to touch Gribbin Head, which caused me to reassess whether it might be home to a wizard after all.
A bit of extremely poor waymarking tried to send me inland on the Saints’ Way back to Fowey but I knew what Polkerris looked like and made my way down to the hamlet.
Polkerris (Polkerys) is tiny. I remember it as being no more than a couple of houses and a pub. But time marches on and now it has seemingly expanded to become a couple of houses, a pub and a restaurant. I stopped in the pub – the Rashleigh Inn – to down a Gin and Tonic and admire a sensible cat, fast asleep in an area of the bar that was closed. Then I set off on The Walk…
The Walk with Granddad without Granddad
Inevitably, it was a lot tamer than I remembered but that didn’t matter. I may have conflated it in my mind with other holiday walks in Pembrokeshire. Or it might have just been the passage of time and the difference in an adult perspective. I didn’t care. I was walking the holiday walk and that was all that mattered. Even if, thanks to the mist, I couldn’t see the far side of Par Sands.
From the clifftop, the path leads on to Polmear (Porthmeur) but I skipped down into Par Sands car park instead and missed that village out.
Instead, I wandered through the caravan site, still full of nostalgia, with a slight pause to answer a phone call from the Lemming, who was vainly hoping that I was in London that evening.
Par (Porth) is a small town with a harbour and the beach of Par Sands directly south.
The harbour was the brainchild of a man named Joseph Austen (but later called Joseph Treffry) who purchased Par Ferry and replaced it with a bridge in 1824, before building the harbour between 1829 and 1840. Subsequently owned by English China Clays, it now belongs to French mining company Imerys, which bought ECC in 1999.
Par harbour was shrouded in mist and in the wrong direction anyway as I struck north, heading through the town to the station (the railway arrived in Par in 1859). There I purchased a cup of tea and waited for my train.
From Par it was back to Plymouth for hot food and a bath and a good night’s sleep. For I would be back in Par the next morning, ready to walk on to Boswinger…
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 591 miles