PERHAPS because of my mad rush to beat the sunset on the previous day, or perhaps because a shower is just not as restorative after a day’s walking as a nice, long soak in the bath, I awoke on the Monday of my week-long Cornish adventure with my legs feeling like lead. Or possibly something heavier. I’d say perhaps uranium, but they really weren’t being that reactive.
‘This bodes well,’ I thought.
I consulted the map before setting off, looking for possible shortcuts should time become pressing, since I absolutely had to reach the River Fal before the ferry stopped running. Time became pressing pretty much from the offset as reception didn’t open until 8am and by the time I’d checked out and made my way back down the road from Boswinger to Hemmick Beach I was already starting fifteen minutes later than planned.
I probably shouldn’t have stopped to chat with the elderly lady waiting at the youth hostel for a bus (or possibly a taxi or a lift) but she looked bored and clearly wanted to speak to someone even if only for a few minutes.
‘Ah well,’ I told myself, ‘I just need to make up some time between here and Porthluney Cove’.
And so I set off. I did indeed make up time — but only if negative time counts.
Right from the start, I was finding the uphill stretches exhaustingly challenging and, though I was having a marvellous time enjoying the cliff top walks, the sea and the sunshine — and I admit to a small burst of Schadenfreude as I thought of all the people who were commuting to work — I knew I was losing time badly.
It really didn’t help matters when I chose the wrong path at a point where it forked. It looked to me as if the main path was heading inland and a side path was continuing round the coast and, as the map only showed the one, I decided to trust my judgment.
My judgment was wrong.
After about ten minutes the little path ran directly into a gorse thicket and just stopped. Forced to retrace my steps, I found a South West Coast Path waymark on the main path, tucked around a corner not more than ten feet further on from where the path had forked. I was about half an hour behind when I reached Porthluney Cove but not worried: after all, I had all day to catch up.
Porthluney Cove is a sizeable sandy beach that forms part of the estate of Caerhays Castle, an early nineteenth century castellated manor house designed by the famous Regency architect, John Nash.
The castle, which incorporates the old mediaeval manor house, is also home to the largest collection of magnolias in England. If Cornwall is part of England. (For all that it is administered as a county of England, Cornwall has a pretty good claim to being a fifth home nation alongside England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
A Surfeit of Pheasants
While I didn’t see much evidence of the magnolias, I did see more pheasants in one place than I have ever seen in my life. In fact, not only were the grounds of Caerhays castle full of them but I continued to see large numbers of pheasants for much of the day, as I made my way to Portholland and then down the Roseland Peninsula.
The path from Porthluney Cove mostly followed the cliff edge for a while before suddenly and helpfully turning directly inland up a 40-50 m high hill. It levelled out at the top though and I was just starting to feel less like a shambling thing built by Frankenstein on one of his off days when I saw a man ahead, walking towards me with his dog. On seeing me he immediately grabbed his dog’s collar and held the dog firmly in place as I approached, as though the animal might explode into action at any moment.
I’m not holding him for your protection,’ said the man, ‘but for his.’
I initially took this as confirmation that I had indeed actually become Frankenstein’s Reject but the man went on to explain that his dog was elderly and fragile but still a bouncy puppy in his mind.
‘He bounces up and injures himself,’ he told me, while the elderly dog wagged its tail with excitement and strained feebly at its collar. I hurried on, before the dog could give itself a heart attack and soon reached Portholland.
Portholland actually comprises two tiny hamlets, East Portholland and West Portholland, which each occupy one of two tiny coves linked by a beach at low tide (and separated at high tide). The hamlets have remained virtually unchanged for at least a century and comprise part of the Caerhays Castle Estate.
Public Private Convenience
I stopped to use a public convenience in Portholland and was struck by a slightly desperate sign pleading that they had been closed by the council and were now run solely by a volunteer in the village, who kept them cleaned and maintained out of his or her own sense of public service.
Figuring that the toilets in London’s railway stations cost 30p to use, I deposited the same amount in the collection box. It seemed only fair.
I was now forty-five minutes later than I had intended and I seemed set to keep losing time as the day progressed. I resolved to reconsider my plan at Portloe if the gap had further widened and, having so decided, off I went.
Portloe (Porth Logh) grew as a pilchard fishing port in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its location in a steep sided valley has prevented much subsequent development. Sir John Betjeman considered it to be ‘one of the least spoiled and most impressive of Cornish fishing villages’.
As it grew as a fishing port, Portloe also became a smuggler port with French brandy being the contraband of choice. This illicit trade grew to such an extent that in 1824 this tiny village gained its very own Customs watch-house, boathouse and slipway in order to deter it.
These days, the smuggling is history and the fishing fleet is reduced to two full time working vessels, Jasmine and Katy Lil, which fish for crab and lobster.
I was hungry by now, having had no breakfast, and thoughts of pilchards, crab and lobster weren’t helping matters any. There was a hotel in the centre of the village but it looked like an expensive and slow solution to the problem and I was now just over a full hour behind.
I looked in vain for a village shop and found a pub that wouldn’t yet open for another two hours. In one of those little coincidences that occur just to test if you’re paying attention, the pub’s previous landlord had been the driver of my taxi from Looe to Liskeard just over a week before.
The Road from Portloe
Hit the Road,
Since I was clearly set to go slowly today and to keep losing time at this rate would see me stranded on the wrong side of the Fal, I decided to alter the plan. Instead of continuing round Nare Head and Gerrans Bay to Portscatho, I would strike inland along a cycle route and use the shallower inclines and easier going of the road to make up time.
I passed out of Portloe and through the tiny hamlet of Camels, smiling as I did so that one of the houses on the way was named Porthjulyan.
As I wandered along, dodging the occasional car, horse or tractor, I suddenly heard a bicycle bell and, as I turned, the cyclist bid me a cheery hello. It was the only other person, apart from me and Waiting For Bus Lady, who had stayed overnight at Boswinger’s youth hostel. Of the three of us I was easily the youngest at 41, casting some considerable doubt on the ‘youth’ aspect of hostelling.
Before long I reached the village of Veryan, which is distinguished by its five thatched round-houses, a pair at either end of the village and one in the middle. These were built for the missionary Reverend Joseph Trist in the early nineteenth century, who intended them for his daughters. The round houses offer no corners in which the Devil can hide and a cross at the apex of the roof of each house provides extra spiritual protection.
These days, the roundhouses can be rented as holiday accommodation.
Of much more immediate interest to me was Veryan’s village shop, Roseland Stores, where I was able to buy something to drink and eat. I was mildly surprised when the girl on the till had a Received Pronunciation accent, which stood out markedly from the Cornish accents of those around her.
Having eaten something, I felt slightly less leaden-footed and I strolled onwards along the road, which soon opened out into fields allowing me first view of Portscatho.
The road cut right across the top of the peninsula that comprises Nare Head and so I never got any closer to that headland and Gull Rock. Instead, it swept down past the high hill of Carne Beacon (104 m) on which stands a tumulus said to be the resting place of Geraint (Latin form: Gerontius), the eighth century King of Dumnonia, as the British kingdom covering much of the West Country was known.
Geraint died in 710 after a long series of battles against the West Saxons under King Ine. In time, Wessex would drive the border of Dumnonia right back across Devon (which county takes its name from Dumnonia, via series of phonological changes) with Æthelstan eventually fixing the border at the Tamar.
The path kept descending until it met the coast at Pendower Beach upon which a woman was riding her horse along the edge of the waves. From this point I was back onto the coast path, which soon gave me a much better view of Portscatho:
The path led me along, past an old coastguard lookout hut and suddenly, on the little headland of Pednvadan, the path was covered in ponies, which moved rather reluctantly out of the way. The ponies were Shetland ponies and are used by the National Trust to graze several of their sites in order to keep the gorse and blackthorn under control.
The ‘pedn’ in Pednvadan is a Late Cornish form of ‘penn’ or ‘pen’ meaning ‘head’ and it would increasingly figure in Cornish names as I headed westwards.
Portscatho is another old pilchard fishing village, which enjoyed its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and now continues in a much reduced fashion.
I was dismayed to find upon reaching it, that I was still just over an hour behind and that even by taking the road I had only managed to not lose time, rather than gain some back. Even so, I paused to stock up in the village shop and then took a break in a pub called the Plume of Feathers, poring over my map with a gin and tonic.
Abandon the Plan!
The answer, I soon realised with dismay, was that I would need to abandon the plan entirely. Instead of continuing down the coast and then round the headlands at the end of the peninsula, I would have to head directly for St Anthony (and the ferry) by road. This was disappointing, not least because Zone Point is a site of frequent seal sightings, but I comforted myself with the thought that I was still taking the road near the coast, and that I would still intermittently be able to see the sea.
Bilingual Street Names
Thus, instead of continuing along the coast path, I headed inland, up the hill towards Gerrans. On the way I noticed that Cornwall’s policy of using bilingual street name signs whenever it replaces old ones is starting to have an effect. The first one I saw was called New Road / Fordh Newyth but moments later I saw another which had just been named outright in Cornish with no English at all: Gwarak Gwel an Mor. It means ‘Sea View Crescent’.
Adjoining Portscatho but still distinct from it is Gerrans (Gerens), which takes its name from Geraint of Dumnonia and to whom (as a saint) its thirteenth century church is dedicated.
Church of St Gerrans
The church was enlarged in the fifteenth century and had a tower and spire added. The church as it currently stands looks like its fifteenth century incarnation but was actually rebuilt in 1849, although carefully so as to still look like the original.
Gerrans Heritage Centre
The village also contains a small museum in the form of the Gerrans Heritage Centre, which was open and which I completely failed to walk past.
The museum mostly contained displays of old photographs although there were various implements, information panels and other pictures in its two rooms. It was staffed by a very welcoming lady who endeavoured to be as helpful as possible and who seemed genuinely surprised when I dropped a pound into their collection pot (it runs entirely on donations).
The road out of Gerrans was initially the classic Cornish model of a narrow lane flanked by eight foot high hedges, which was disappointing shading rapidly to dull. It passed Trewince, an old manor estate turned holiday park, and then thankfully became more tree-lined with a view across fields to the sea.
I noticed at one bend the words ‘SLOW’ painted on the road surface (as there often is) and thought to myself ‘even the roads are criticising my pace today’. The critical road soon brought me to Froe, which is not so much a hamlet as a couple of cottages on a bridge at the head of a creek.
Near Froe, a sign offered the delights of the Percuil Path, which runs along the southern bank of the Percuil, the larger creek of which Froe Creek is an offshoot. I decided against it, my reasons for taking the road still being valid. I thus kept following the road as it curved around and soon passed the turn offs for Bohortha and St Anthony Head.
St Anthony Head
St Anthony Head is home to a lighthouse (built in 1835) which featured in the British version of the opening credits for the Jim Henson children’s TV series, Fraggle Rock.
The lighthouse is necessary on account of the Fal estuary being a significant port. Even so, the head has claimed various vessels including Allegrity, a coastal tanker launched in April 1945 as Empire Tavistock, which ran aground and capsized in 1961.
St Anthony in Roseland
The road upon which I was walking soon came to an end in St Anthony in Roseland, a small village scattered around a twelfth century church, which was originally established by Plympton Priory in Devon.
Priory buildings were established in St Anthony in Roseland but were largely dismantled after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the stone was used to construct St Mawes Castle.
In 1840, the wealthy Spry family built Place House on the site of the demolished buildings; it remains their home to this day.
More-or-less next to Place House was the slipway for Place Ferry which, it being October, was running on demand only. I therefore called the phone number quoted on the sign and within minutes the ferry boat made its way over from St Mawes.
In the intervening time between my phone call and the boat arriving, a couple of German hikers appeared on the slipway. Their timing was immaculate.
The ferryman told to pay my fare at the office after arriving in St Mawes, which I thought was wonderful, since it relied upon the honour of the passenger to actually do so. He then went on to tell me that I should buy a through ticket to Falmouth, rather than two separate journeys, as that way I’d save myself a pound. I thanked him and did exactly that upon arrival in St Mawes.
St Mawes (Lannvowsedh) is a bustling small town that faces south onto the Percuil and west onto the Carrick Roads, as the lower, busy part of the Fal estuary is known. The town takes its name from a Celtic saint mainly venerated in Brittany as Saint Maudez. A former fishing town, it now relies mostly on tourism and the pub and restaurant trades.
St Mawes Ferry
I alighted from the ferry, paid my fare and, ten minutes later, hopped on the ferry to Falmouth, on the far bank of the Carrick Roads.
As it crossed, I got an excellent view of St Mawes Castle:
By boat Falmouth (Aberfal)is only a mile from St Mawes, whereas by road it is thirty, which is why it was so important that I didn’t miss the last ferries.
A bustling port, it possesses a fine natural harbour that faces onto the Carrick Roads, providing a wide, deep watercourse to facilitate commercial traffic. In fact, Falmouth Harbour and Carrick Roads together form the third deepest natural harbour in the world, and the deepest in Western Europe.
As the ferry passed the docks, I could not help but notice a massive grey ship with a naval pennant number ‘L100’ on the side. It looked to me like a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel and so she was. Or rather had been.
As RFA Largs Bay and bearing the pennant number L3006, this mighty beast was only launched in 2003 and helped convey aid to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Even so, she is one of the vessels the government has retired as part of the ongoing defence cuts and she is now being refitted for the Royal Australian Navy, which will commission her this December as HMAS Choules. The L100 number is her new RAN pennant number and refers to the RAN celebrating its centenary this year.
Having now made it safely across the River Fal without being eaten by Morgawr — a plesiosaur-like sea monster said to live in the estuary (seven alleged sightings between 1906 and 1999) — I could finally relax about timings.
Instead of heading directly for my hotel, I therefore stuffed my face with fish and chips and then wandered slowly around Pendennis Point. There , I initially missed Pendennis Castle – which is of considerable size – on account of the path being tree-lined and below the castle on the headland.
There wasn’t really a Falmouth until the sixteenth century, when Pendennis Castle was built as a Device Fort.
Previously, the site had only been occupied by Arwennack, the home of the Killigrew family, but Henry VIII got to wondering why on earth he wasn’t exploiting such a magnificent harbour, what with war against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire looking likely.
The King had Pendennis Castle built on Pendennis Point in 1540 and the Killigrews, knowing a good thing when they saw it, started to develop the town from 1613.
Motorcycle Race Track
As I wandered away from Pendennis Point along the road around the castle grounds, I was treading the site of the UK’s first motorcycle road races, held in the 1930s by the Pendennis Motorcycle & Light Car Club.
The road soon turned away, leading me along Falmouth’s south-facing coast, which looks out over Falmouth Bay.
At Gyllyngvase Beach I turned inland, heading up Gyllyngvase Hill / Bre an Gilenn Vas to find the Westcott Hotel.
This smallish hotel turned out to be run by an extremely helpful and welcoming couple, whom I can’t praise highly enough. I was disappointed to find that my room had a shower rather than a bath but the Westcott often gets walkers and thus in addition to its en suite showers it also has a shared bathroom, in which tired perambulators can gratefully soak and rest.
I soaked and rested. It seemed to do the trick.
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 622 miles