ON THE Sunday, after rising early and obtaining a hearty breakfast from Cap’n Jaspers on Plymouth Barbican, I caught a train back to Par and began my next walk. In the rain.
‘It’s the West Country,’ I told myself, ‘it always rains.’
No sooner had I told myself that than it stopped, although it would continue on and off all morning with the kind of light, misty drizzle that hardly warrants the description of ‘rain’.
St Austell Bay
Having arrived in Par (Porth in Cornish), this Helpful Mammal (Bronnvil Heweres) stocked up on water of the bottled rather than falling-out-of-the-sky kind. I then wandered through the streets, almost tripping over a small black and white cat that was scurrying for shelter beneath a parked car.
My route took me past Par’s pubs and shops and under a railway bridge, carrying the main line to Penzance. This was a memory moment for me as I recall scurrying, much like the cat, under that bridge for shelter from the rain back in something like 1986. I also remember a girl who was with me, let’s call her ‘J’, scurrying somewhat more slowly because her fashionable skirt was too narrow to let her run. It’s funny what sticks in your mind.
Port of Par
The road out of Par passed under another railway bridge (although it is the same line) and heads past the industrial landscape of Par’s harbour, owned and operated by Imerys, the French company that bought English China Clays plc in 1999.
Par was long a shipping port for clay, beginning with its construction in 1840 and rising to handle a staggering 700, 000 tons of clay a year by the late 1980s. In 2006 the harbour closed to shipping as part of a ‘rationalisation’ within Imerys.
The harbour still retains its own railhead and a private road to Fowey and still continues to serve the clay industry as a distribution centre, albeit in a massively cut-back manner. The method by which the clay reaches Par is both simple and ingenious:
Clay and Paper
Back in 1991 I got a tour of one of English China Clays’ facilities thanks to one of my chemistry lecturers at the University of Plymouth. It was all pretty fascinating but the one thing which really struck me, because it would otherwise never have occurred to me, was when our tour guide mentioned that their biggest customers were paper mills. Yes, paper mills. Turns out that it’s china clay that makes glossy paper glossy.
Back to the Bay
A path around and across the Imerys site led me back to the coast more or less opposite Polkerris, which was lost in the misty distance. What looked like the remains of a WW2 pillbox stared forlornly out into the mist of St Austell Bay.
Despite the rain, which was back for a while, my spirits were high as I set off along the path. I was even undismayed by its passing through the grounds of Carlyon Bay Golf Club, a course on a hill where, I realised with a chuckle, everyone is always above Par.
Carlyon Bay is a shallow embayment within the much larger St Austell Bay. It was also formerly home to the Cornwall Coliseum, Cornwall’s largest venue for music gigs and other performance events.
This thrived in the 1960s, 70s and 80s but went into a terminal decline thereafter, unable to compete with the likes of Plymouth Pavilions. The Coliseum closed its doors for good in 1998 and most of the site has since been demolished, with only a handful of derelict buildings remaining.
Carlyon Bay’s beach, which was largely created from the accidental deposition of waste from the clay pits and tin mines, still remains popular, possibly because it still possesses what is now an absurdly large car park for an ordinary, gravelly beach.
Carlyon Bay Hotel
From the ruins of the Cornwall Coliseum the path led along the cliff top past the magnificent Carlyon Bay Hotel, built in 1925 as the St Austell Bay Hotel and with a good claim to be one of Cornwall’s best hotels.
According to the map, I was now right beside one of the outlying suburbs of St Austell (S Austel), one of Cornwall’s major towns and a former centre of the clay industry. It wasn’t apparent from the path however. And then suddenly I was climbing down from the cliff top into St Austell’s port, which is the village of Charlestown.
Charlestown was originally West Polmear (Porthmeur West in Cornish, from porth, ‘port’ or ‘bay’ and meur meaning ‘big’). It developed from a tiny fishing village when its harbour was built between 1791 and 1798 by landowner Charles Rashleigh, a scion of the locally powerful Rashleigh family.
Charlestown harbour is owned by Square Sail, a company that owns and sails a small fleet of tall ships, including Kaskelot, a three-masted barque built in 1948 and one of the larger wooden ships still in one piece and afloat. Charlestown harbour is where this year’s Doctor Who pirate-themed episode, The Curse of the Black Spot was filmed.
Time / Travel
If I had time-travelled on entering Charlestown, I soon discovered that it was in the other direction for I was now around an hour later than I’d intended. This didn’t stop me from sitting on the harbour wall, enjoying a hot cup of tea in the misty rain but it did make me pick up my pace as I left the harbour.
The cliff path from Charlestown to Porthpean was diverted on account of it having gone for a bit of a swim. I therefore followed the road for a while, skirting completely around Duporth (meaning ‘two coves’).
This was a recent residential development on the site of a former holiday village, which in turn was built in the 1930s on the grounds of Duporth Manor. The manor, which had been owned by the Rashleighs, was said to be haunted by the ghost of a nun known as ‘Flo’; she was also later said to haunt the holiday village. One wonders if that was considered a selling point for the new houses in Duporth or whether it was quietly not mentioned.
The path did take me to Porthpean, a village divided into Higher and Lower Porthpean, the one being higher up a hill than the other. Porthpean’s name comes from Cornish Porthbyhan — the word byhan means ‘small’ and often gets rendered as ‘bean’ or ‘vean’ in Anglicised Cornish place names.
St Levan’s Church
Porthpean used to form part of the Sawle Estate and the landowning Sawle family, who arrived after the Conquest, built Porthpean’s church in 1884 as a private chapel of ease.
The last member of the Sawle family, Joan Cobbold-Sawle, died without an heir in 1971 and her will dictated that the estate be sold and its proceeds be used to establish a rest home for the elderly. The church (St Levan’s) was donated to the parish.
The rain stopped as I left Porthpean and a stiff breeze picked up, which was welcome because the path almost immediately pitched me up a steep, grassy hill, which was pretty hard going.
It was ludicrously steep and had no clear path and I almost slipped several times on the grass. This in no way fazed the large flock of sheep that dotted the hill and watched me incuriously as I struggled to climb it.
I picked my way past the gaping badger holes and wondered idly why the badgers had chosen to build their sett there. Shortly thereafter, it became obvious.
Mercifully, the path levelled out a bit as it approached the tiny, scattered hamlet of Trenarren, about a mile from Black Head. There, I was suddenly faced with a choice, with some unhelpful waymarking suggesting that both ways were the right one.
One was a bridleway, heading off to my left. The other was a mysterious gate, looking much like a proper garden gate. When I opened it, there was only more path beyond it, making it seem pretty pointless. Or mysterious. Or like something in a story. Hmm. Which way would I pick?
The path became steps leading downwards, which curved around and spat me onto a road. This surprised me somewhat as I wasn’t expecting to go near a road and I hastily consulted the map. My mysterious gate was a short cut, missing out Black Head altogether and slicing a good mile off my overall walk. I started to wonder if perhaps the Piskies had put it there.
The road I was on led to Hallane, which seemed to comprise a single old mill and a farm building with a very large black dog. The dog was barking loudly as I passed and I was not at all reassured to see that its lead was not attached to anything, nor that the fence was so low that it could practically step over it.
Fortunately, the dog confined itself to barking, and I continued unmolested along a woodland path and across a wooden bridge over a tiny stream. On the far side of the bridge were steps up a hill. Of course there were.
Butterflies and Baggage
After Hallane, the path settled back into some ordinary undulation, upon which I was temporarily stopped in my tracks when a red admiral butterfly flitted up and landed on my arm. It sat there as a happy passenger for maybe a minute before continuing on its way. I was still smiling about this when I reached Pentewan.
I was smiling slightly less when I realised I’d lost something else besides my butterfly passenger and had to retrace my steps for a hundred yards until I found where I’d dropped my cagoule. Sometimes, I’m more of a Hopeless Mammal.
Pentewan (Bentewyn) is a village dating back to medieval times, when it was a fishing village with a navigable harbour.
The harbour was rebuilt and expanded between 1818 and 1826 by Sir Christopher Hawkins partly for the fishing fleet but mostly because he hoped to create a major china clay port. In this he succeeded and, at its peak, Pentewan shipped a third of Cornwall’s china clay but silting eventually closed the harbour in the 1940s.
I headed into the village shop, just behind a lady in a hat and expensive-looking dress. There was no sign of the shopkeeper so we both waited a moment before the Behatted Lady brightly announced ‘I used to work here, I’ll take for those’ and moved to stand behind the counter to sell me the water and snacks I was buying. This was unexpected but I went with it and the shopkeeper returned a moment later and greeted Behatted Lady warmly, who brightly announced ‘I’m back’.
I left them to their reunion, amused that Pentewan had provided the best-dressed shop assistant by whom I had ever been served.
The route out of Pentewan initially followed the road but soon returned to the cliff edge before descending to a small cove and another wooden bridge over a stream. I paused in the descent and looked ahead:
The cove was called Portgiskey and it housed mysterious ruins:
From Portgiskey I made my way round and over Penare Point and soon found myself approaching another favourite Cornish village: Mevagissey.
First mentioned in records from 1313, Mevagissey grew from the union of two hamlets, Porthhilly and Lamoreck. It takes its name from two Irish missionaries, St Meva and St Ida, via the Cornish Meva hag Issey where hag means ‘and’ while ‘Ida’ became ‘Issey’ through a series of regular sound changes.
I last visited Mevagissey (Lannvorek in modern Cornish) in 1987 and, returning almost a quarter of a century later, I was delighted to find it almost unchanged.
I was feeling hungry by now, so I purchased a pasty and then, upon finding that the place I had stayed in was now an ice cream shop, a strawberry ice cream for dessert.
Mevagissey has long been a fishing village, with an enlarged harbour being built in 1774 and outer walls being added in 1888 (and rebuilt in 1897). You’d think that this would make it a nice, safe port wouldn’t you?
Andrew Pears, the founder of Pears’ Soap was born in Mevagissey in 1768 and ran a barber shop in the village until he moved to London in 1789, where he decided the delicate complexions of the London upper classes needed a gentler kind of soap.
Now owned by Unilever, Pears Soap was the world’s first registered brand and, since it is still in production, it is also the world’s oldest continuously existing brand.
Hitler’s Walk Cliff Park
I decided to make a clean getaway, albeit without the use of Pears Soap, and ascended the stairs that lead up from the harbour wall to a small park on a steep hill, which is known as Hitler’s Walk after a council official in the 1930s whose officious manner and overzealous inspection of fishing boats led to the unfortunate comparison.
In 2005 it briefly had signs bearing the name but they aroused complaints, which in turn aroused ire from villagers about people moving in from elsewhere and wanting to change things. Its original name was apparently Cliff Park.
As I plodded up the steps into Cliff Park, an elderly woman sat in the park turned to me and removed a cigarette from her mouth just long enough to say ‘good exercise, that,’ in a voice more gravelly than Carlyon beach. Any answer I might have given was immediately drowned out by a passing party of excitable teenagers struggling with maps and speaking a Slavic language.
From Mevagissey I followed the road round into the next cove and the village of Portmellon, which seems utterly delightful at first glance.
A Feline Friend
A steep road up out of Portmellon soon turned into a track in the middle of which a small black and white cat came up to greet me, purring and miaowing. My new feline friend then kept pace with me for a while, following me most of the way down the track before eventually stopping to wash herself as I disappeared off into the distance.
Then, at the point where the path left the track, I found a man and two very loud women peering through binoculars at a tiny black dot on the ocean and arguing as to whether it might be a seal. Seriously, they were unfeasibly loud. Their foghorn-like voices could probably be heard in Plymouth.
The path led me up onto cow-strewn hills and then past Chapel Point, a low-lying headland on which stands a small group of white houses built in the 1930s and which feature in Daphne du Maurier’s novel The House on the Strand. Just past Chapel Point, as I climbed another hill, a cow turned to look on me and immediately defecated, further reinforcing my unexpected reputation as a Terroriser of Cattle.
I was unperturbed, however, as I could see from this vantage point the black dot over which the loud women had been bellowing. It was definitely a seal. Well either that, or a black retriever in a hell of a lot of trouble.
Not too long thereafter, I found myself in Gorran Haven (Porthyust), which, it being late on a Sunday afternoon, was entirely closed. Not that this lovely fishing village is ever exactly a bustling metropolis.
The nineteenth century geologist Charles William Peach worked in and around Gorran Haven and his son, Ben Peach, also a renowned geologist, was born there. Neither of them, to the best of my knowledge, ever invented a soap, which is a bit of a pity: Peaches Soap would be a perfectly-named competitor for Pears.
I sat on the beach at Gorran Haven and rested, uncomfortably aware that I was about an hour and a half behind schedule and that consequently reaching Boswinger before nightfall was likely an impossible challenge unless I missed out Dodman Point.
I didn’t want to miss out Dodman Point, so naturally, I pressed on…
Iron Age Hill-fort
Dodman Point is a 120 m high headland, which once housed an Iron Age promontory fort. The headland is scattered with Dexter cattle, which hail from Ireland and are believed to be the closest remaining cattle to the sort that the Cornovii might have tended from their fort.
Dexters are about half the size of Herefords but I didn’t see the sign telling me about them until after I had wandered through a field that had seemed to me to be full of bovine juveniles. The cows kept well away from me, partly because I am the Scarecow, and partly because I was singing. Badly. Really, really badly. I couldn’t carry a tune if it were in a bucket.
What I was singing was the shanty Spanish Ladies, Which probably dates to the Peninsular War. While the song is about English servicemen recalled home and leaving their Spanish sweethearts behind, its third verse reels off a series of landmarks and I realised that now I’d probably seen the set:
The first land we sighted was called the Dodman
Then Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight
We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover
And then we bore up for the South Foreland Light.
I reached the Dodman cross at exactly sunset and, doubting that I would reach Boswinger before the twilight failed, rooted about in my bag for a torch. The torch, it turned out, had jammed itself on and thus used up all its batteries keeping the inside of my bag nicely lit. This was not ideal news, as it meant I now needed to really get a move on.
I raced along the path on the western side of the Dodman at what I hoped would not literally prove to be breakneck speed and was rewarded by reaching Hemmick Beach just as darkness started to fall.
Not pausing now, I splashed through the ford there and followed the road inland, climbing something like 90 m over the course of quarter of a mile.
It had become properly dark as I entered the hamlet of Boswinger, which comprises a scattering of houses, a holiday camp and a youth hostel. It was to this latter establishment that I was heading, and I was relieved to find it was one of the first buildings I came to.
I was taking advantage of the fact that youth hostels now have private rooms as well as dorms but, as it turned out there were only two other people staying there.
A hot shower and a cup of tea later I readied myself for an early night. But first I was faced with one more difficult choice: my room contained bunk beds; should I sleep in the bottom one or the top?
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 606½ miles