AS IT’S been three weeks since I got back from Cornwall and I’ve let a number of other things get in the way, I thought it was about time I found some to write up some more of that week.
So I did…
An Early Start
Day Four began with an early start, too early in fact for breakfast at the Westcott Hotel near Gyllingvase Beach. This I was okay with, since I knew that would be the case when I decided to leave just before dawn.
What I hadn’t anticipated in advance was that the very lovely couple who run the hotel would bend over backwards to accommodate me by making up a takeaway breakfast pack and leaving it out for me on what would have been my breakfast table. Thus, I set off in the morning twilight carrying a paper bag with two croissants, an apple, a banana, some juice, a cereal bar and – and this is my favourite bit – butter and jam for the croissants with the plastic knife I’d need to spread them.
And in this way, as I ambled along the leafy path to Swan Pool, my long-dead faith in human nature scratched its fingernails against the coffin lid and started to dig for the surface.
The banana I gave to the first person who would take it. I’m not a fan of bananas.
Universal Rule of Exercise
As I was walking along, stuffing my face with croissant, I was passed by two girls out for a morning jog, who breezed a cheery ‘thank you’ as I stepped aside to let them past. A short while later, just as I was polishing off the last non-banana components of my breakfast, they jogged back the other way with one of them loudly proclaiming ‘Ow! My leg!’
This, it would seem, is a universal rule of exercise – it always hurts your legs.
The path took me past Swanpool Beach, a lovely beach, deserted at that hour, which had a beach café (not due to open for at least two hours) and a nature reserve centred on the body of water (the Swan Pool) from which the beach takes its name.
From there, the path climbed steadily, taking me up onto Pennance Point where I found a memorial to the Home Guard.
This was a very right and proper thing to erect a memorial to, and properly sobering if one stopped to think about all those men, too old for active service or otherwise excluded, training to put up what would surely have been a futile defence against the invading Wehrmacht.
All I could think however was ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’… ‘They don’t like it up ’em, sir, they don’t like it up ’em!’… ‘Stupid boy!’… ‘We’re doomed’… ‘Oh I say, do you mind awfully…?’ and so on.
Having rounded Pennance point, the path continued leafily past Newporth Head and down into sleepy Maenporth (Meyn Borth), which was sleepy mostly because it was not yet awake.
Here too was a café yet to open, not far from a public convenience that was closed. The latter had a Cornwall Council (Konsel Kernow) van parked outside it, while from somewhere inside there came a series of heavy, dull metallic thumps sounding much like ‘percussive maintenance’ followed by an anguished cry of ‘oh shit! no!’
Sometimes it really is best not to know; I hurried past.
Signs of Impatience
Maenporth, which means ‘rocky cove’, seemed to be playing host to a surprising number of construction lorries, which were trying to navigate the single, narrow road to a site halfway up a hill; it looked like it was probably a holiday home.
I sat on one the café benches and drank some water, watching the lorry drivers communicate to each other through meaningful gesticulations.
Maenporth has a shallow beach suitable for swimming but the seemingly sheltered bay is still not without its dangers.
These were amply illustrated in 1978, when a Scottish trawler, Ben Asdale, was offloading fish into a Russian freezer trawler and a force eight gale blew up. The process of separating the two vessels in a fierce gale became complicated when a rope fouled Bren Asdale’s rudder and she refused to answer her helm.
Despite the efforts of both crews, she became swamped by waves and driven onto rocks beneath nearby Newporth Head. A major rescue operation was launched, which ultimately saw eleven men escape to safety. Three died however, two Britons and a Russian.
The sea was looking beguilingly harmless as I stood up to continue, heading out of Maenporth on the lorry-dominated road. Fortunately, I knew I would only be on the road a short while. I also knew that, since it would take me to somewhere labelled ‘High Cliff’, it would feel a hell of a lot longer than it was. And so it proved.
The path soon levelled out, hoping to lull me into a false sense of security before it dropped and then climbed again as it passed through Bream Cove and made its way up to Rosemullion Head via a field of utterly incurious cows. Or possibly incontinent. The path through their field certainly required careful footing.
Hot and Flustered
I was feeling pretty warm as I made my way onto Rosemullion Head, finding it to have become a joyous leafy path as it approached to pass within a stone’s throw of Mawnan, not that you could tell from the path. I paused for a moment to cool down, stripping off my t-shirt to enjoy the cooling breeze.
I was just putting it back on again a few minutes later when a man walking his dog suddenly appeared, catching me in the act of apparently getting dressed on the wooded path. He gave me a very strange look. The dog just wagged its tail.
I passed the village of Mawnan (Sen Mownan), which, as I said, I didn’t actually see as it was further up the hill than the path. Mawnan, also called Mawnan Church, is a tiny village that gives its name to the civil parish in which it sits. A mile or so to the north is the much larger village of Mawnan Smith (Mownan an Gov), which I didn’t see either.
What I did see, as I approached Toll Point, just past Mawnan, was my first view of the Helford River (Dowr Mahonyer), a major obstacle that I would need to cross.
Helford River’s name is all lies, at least in English — it doesn’t have a ford and it isn’t a river.
It is in fact a ria, fed by many small creeks and streams. It takes its name from Helford village, on the southern bank, which can be reached by means of a ferry from Helford Passage on the north bank.
The path now approached the tiny fishing village of Durgan, which seems to be surrounded by formal gardens (all shut as I was walking out of season).
The path briefly joined a road into the village and I noticed a dead rabbit lying by the side of it. Moments later I met a man with an excitable and enormous white dog, which he was not quite keeping under control.
White Dog Man
The man bade me a cheery hello and proceeded to quiz me on my walk as a precursor to listing all of his favourite pubs in the area and how many famous stars owned homes in Helford. His accent was from somewhere in the West Midlands and he cheerfully admitted that he was an incomer, having only lived in Cornwall for about twenty years.
Still, his enthusiasm for Cornwall was infectious and only outdone by the dog’s enthusiasm for every single passing thing it noticed.
‘No, no,’ said the man, desperately hauling her back from peering over he cliff edge, ‘there are no rabbits there.’ He shrugged. ‘She’s a hunting dog,’ he added. I felt it only fair to warn him of the dead rabbit by the roadside, lest the dog take off like a rocket and come back flecked with red.
From Durgan it was short walk to Helford Passage, although some of that walking was actually more like wading in ankle to shin-deep mud.
Helford Passage (Treth Heyl, ‘ferry to Helford’) is a tiny hamlet with a pub — rated highly by White Dog Man — and a pedestrian ferry, which runs daily from Easter to October. The ferry was operating on demand when I got there and I wandered up to the kiosk on the riverbank to check that it was indeed still running.
‘It is indeed, my friend,’ said the ferryman ‘but it’s an abnormally low tide today and I can’t take you across between a quarter to twelve and half past. Also the pub in Helford is shut.’
I looked at my phone. It was eleven o’clock.
‘We can go now, my friend, if you want,’ he added. So we did.
It was a short trip across the river to Helford and the ferryman was quite chatty. About half his sentences ended with ‘my friend’.
Helford Village Stores
Upon arrival in Helford, I found that the pub was indeed closed ‘until further notice’ but I availed myself of the village shop, purchasing water, ice cream and Fentimans Victorian lemonade.
The shopkeeper almost fell over herself to be helpful, even going so far as to point out that I was buying the more expensive brand of bottled water and did I perhaps want the other one instead, which was much cheaper? It was wonderful customer service.
Helford (Heyl, ‘estuary’) used to be a significant port, receiving rum, tobacco and lace from the continent. These days it is it is just a tiny village, running into even tinier Treath.
A sign on the far side of the ford offered the delights of a café further up the hill by the church and I followed these directions (which just happened to be in the direction I was going anyway).
Holy Mackerel Café
The very nice young lady in the café — which turned out to be the old chapel — seemed surprised to actually have a customer, admitting that the seasonal café only stays open as long as the ferry is running.
I was pretty hungry now and bade her feed me something substantial. This turned out to be a toasted sandwich, but she also made me another sandwich for later, along with a slice of cake and other things, essentially creating an ad-hoc picnic, accompanied all the while by pleasant banter.
I was starting to like Helford, although Café Lady told me that she preferred Treath, where she lived, which she characterised as being ‘totally different in feel’ despite being in her own words ‘not much more than a few houses’.
Before I left, Café Lady asked me what my destination was and I replied it was a farm called Halwyn. ‘Oh that’s lovely, there,’ she told me, ‘the couple who own it are really nice.’ I smiled inwardly at this; Cornwall and London are really not very alike.
The path out of Helford took me through Treath, which means ’beach’, and along a wooded path that eventually broke out into fields full of root crops as it carried me along the banks of the Helford River towards Dennis Head, the site of an early Celtic fortress. I passed a man and two women, all older than me, who noticed my picnic bag and jokingly suggested they might mug me for it.
Later, after a few ups and downs for tiny streams, the path would come to Dennis Head, which lies between the mouth of Helford River and Gillan Creek. There, the path circled round the head, trapping you in an endless loop if not careful, and if you didn’t realise the coast path sign was pointing in the wrong direction.
circled it once, bemused because I tried to follow the sign and my would-be muggers caught up with me. ‘I thought another man back there was you,’ said one of them ‘and I asked him if he’d eaten his lunch yet.’ Apparently, he hadn’t.
Both the map and another random walker whom I accosted, agreed that the signpost was totally misleading and, now that I knew this, I was able to reach the village of St Anthony-in-Meneage with ease.
St Anthony-in-Meneage (Lannentenin) looks across Gillan Creek towards the villages of Flushing and Gillan and is home to a church traditionally held to have been built by Normans who were driven to land here by a terrible storm.
The South West Coast Path runs along both shores of the creek, the mouth of which is known as Gillan Harbour, but there is a shortcut across the creek via stepping stones at low tide.
On any other day I would have just missed the stepping stones being passable but this was a low spring tide and they were still exposed. Exposed and slippery with weed.
Wistful Walker (Retd)
On the island in the middle of Gillan Creek, I met an old man out for a stroll who wistfully told me that he’d once walked he coast path from Minehead to Penzance and wished he’d done the rest of it before old age took its toll.
‘I fear I’ve left it too late in life, now,’ he said regretfully, adding that he could no longer cope with all the hills.
Flushing and Gillan (Gilenn, meaning ‘creek’) are tiny little villages served by tiny roads and almost entirely lacking in amenities. I sat on the beach at Gillan, within sight of a garden full of chickens, and ate my picnic, watching the ripples on Gillan Harbour and the lost walkers atop Dennis Head (desperately trying to follow the lying signpost).
The Helford River and its creeks, like Gillan Creek — yes, that name is essentially ‘creek creek’ — used to be bustling with fishing boats and merchant ships carrying Cornish tin and French alcohol etc. whereas now the boats are mostly pleasure craft.
Two hundred years ago, at around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, there would also have been smugglers and pirates by the dozen. Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek is about such an individual in a creek on the Helford River.
Hellhound not Helford
I had just finished my picnic when another walker walked into Gillan, having presumably missed the stepping stones and having had to go the long way round the creek. This walker turned inland and walked through the village prompting the loudest Impossibly Loud Bark of Doom I have ever heard. This was quickly followed by angry shouting.
Honestly, the barking sounded like someone had crossed the Hound of the Baskervilles with a foghorn. A foghorn powered by atom bombs. It certainly didn’t do much good for the chickens.
I left Gillan with the deafening dog noise still reverberating in my ears and followed the path round onto Nare Point, which was exposed and home to a coastwatch station.
From there the path climbed up onto high cliffs with fields on one side and a drop on the other, with stretches of electric fence to keep you on your toes. It was from one such cliff that I got my first sight of Porthallow, where my day’s walk would officially end.
Above Nare Cove, I found some people also having a picnic, although they were doing it properly with a basket and cloths to lie on and excited dogs underfoot. They too quizzed me on where I had walked from and where I was walking to, fishing out OS maps to make sense of what I had said.
‘You walked from Falmouth today?’ one woman asked, ‘well done, you!’ It’s a funny phrase that, ‘well done, you’. Unless it’s said in irony or mockery it can really only be said by a woman with an accent that suggests ‘jolly hockey sticks’ and education on ‘deportment for young ladies’.
This woman had such an accent and she sounded as if she really meant it.
I walked into Porthallow with plenty of daylight and not too tired but I seriously needed a drink. Except there was nowhere to get one. The village pub — the Five Pilchards — opened at six and it was only four-ish. There were no cafés. I recalled reading that it possessed a shop and post office, so I asked someone.
’Oh yes,’ he said, ‘Porthallow used to have a shop but it closed. It’s an office now. Nearest shop is in St Keverne two miles away.’
I thanked him and wandered off, muttering.
Historically, Porthallow had a pilchard industry, hence the name of the pub. But not any longer, not to speak of. It has a garage, which seems to cater mostly for boat engines. It also has one road, which is charmingly mossy when you get outside the village. And it has this, which was quite unexpected:
I See Sea Swans
I sat on the beach for a bit and watched two swans bob about on the sea, remembering that a B&B owner in Torcross had told me that in West Devon that’s taken as a sign that a storm is on its way. This being Cornwall, I figured it’d mean something else entirely, just to ensure that the Tamar made a difference.
Heading for Halwyn
Eventually, with no reason to wait in Porthallow, I headed inland, taking a footpath that proved both muddy and steep. Halwyn Farm was about a mile’s walk inland but when I got there they were very welcoming indeed.
Halwyn means ‘fair marsh’ in Cornish and I was amused to see the farm gets its own direction signs on the road; signs giving the distance as ¼ mile no less (British road signs mostly abandoned quoting fractional miles some time ago).
The main farmhouse is 250 years old and I had a room for the night in it. The farm was no longer a working farm but instead housed some holiday cottage conversions in its buildings, all run by a couple from London who had owned it since 2006. All I can say is Café Lady was right, the owners of Halwyn were lovely.
Okay, so the B&B room wasn’t cheap but they’re trying to make Halwyn four star standard as minimum. But they didn’t need to offer to drive me back into Porthallow when the Five Pilchards opened in order that I could get a meal; that was just them being nice. Later, Mr Halwyn-Owner stood and chatted to me as I used their washing machine to do some laundry, having first shown me to the barn in which it lived.
The washing machine barn isn’t at a luxury standard yet, since it’s still home to more spider webs than I’ve ever seen in one place. I don’t think it was the spiders that stole one of my walking socks though. I’m putting that down to piskies.
This time: 12½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 634½ miles