ON MY fifth day in Cornwall I was missing a walking sock, despite there being absolutely nowhere it could have gone. Eventually, having searched repeatedly, I asked the piskies nicely if I might have it back.
Initially, it seemed as if there was no response, which will surprise no one who sanely considers such things to be charmingly fanciful folklore, and therefore in no way real. Others who know their faerie lore might be asking at this point ‘why are you talking to the Fair Folk you madman?’ I’ll let you decide which is the better response.
Lizard Peninsula — St Keverne Parish
Anyway, I arose bright and early and hunted all over for my missing sock, which was brand new. It definitely wasn’t in my room, or the bathroom. Or for that matter the barn full of spiders, in which the washing machine lived. Or the washing machine itself, or the path in between. And while Halwyn’s owners fed me breakfast , they noted that they’d done some laundry of their own after I’d finished mine and there really was no sign of my sock.
At this point, I could well believe it was piskies; it seemed marginally more believable than the spontaneous existence failure of socks.
Eventually, I was forced to shrug and tell myself ‘it’s only a sock,’ and head off along the tiny, winding country roads to Porthallow, about half a mile away. The road really was narrow and in some places was actually mossy, and I had started to doubt that it was actually the road to Porthallow just before it suddenly joined the village.
I paused to look at the coast path midway marker again, before following the road through Porthallow and climbing the hill on the far side. The going was relatively easy, since the path was following the road, but I quickly decided that I would need to buy more water at the first opportunity.
The path mostly stuck to the road for some miles, with occasional detours off road into fields, only to meet up with the road again. Since the fields were wet with dew and muddy underfoot, I rapidly wised up to this and stayed on the road whenever I could see from the map that the path would rejoin it. In this manner, I passed through Porthallow Vinyard, a tiny hamlet on the map, being little more than a couple of houses beside an actual vineyard.
The vineyard itself was planted in 1987 on part of an ancient estate called Parc an Tidno (Cornish for ‘farm with springs’) and the Cornish weather soon sorted the vines by nationality — French vines did well but German ones did not and were soon replaced with apple trees, the fruit of which is used for making scrumpy.
In addition to wine and scrumpy, the vineyard makes ‘country wines’, i.e. wines from fruit other than grapes with blackberries, damsons, sloes and elderberries being the main candidates. But thankfully not bananas. I don’t like bananas.
The road continued to be narrow and winding as it snaked away from Porthallow Vinyard and led me through the tiny hamlet of Trenance (tre nans, ‘valley farmstead’) which dates back to the Domesday Book and is scarcely bigger now.
From Trenance, the road descended steeply, depositing me in the slightly larger hamlet of Porthoustock:
Originally a fishing hamlet, Porthoustock developed as a port for local stone quarries in the 1890s. There were several such quarries, some of which remain in business today. In consequence, this tiny hamlet can accommodate 82 m container ships at its beachside wharf.
Shipping into or out of Porthoustock is not without its dangers though, for the hamlet is near to the Manacles (meyn eglos, ‘church rocks’), a group of treacherous rocks off Manacle Point. There have been many shipwrecks, prompting the establishment of a lifeboat station, which lasted from 1869 to 1946.
Given Porthoustock’s familiarity with the dangers of the sea, it is only fitting that one of the survivors of the Titanic, Annie Margaret Hold, was born in the hamlet.
The Giant’s Coits
The path out of Porthoustock continued to more-or-less stick to the road as it climbed to the top of the hill that extends to comprise Manacle Point. There I discovered the Giant’s Coits, a natural rock formation that stood for centuries upon Manacle Point itself until quarry expansion in 1967 saw it relocated about half a mile inland to the roadside.
I sat upon a bench beside the Giant’s Coits for a bit, noticing that one of the wooden beams making up the bench was less finished than the others. Closer inspection revealed the bar to be a makeshift replacement for a broken one, having been provided (and signed) by ‘local hippies’ in July.
This little act of practical benevolence cheered me greatly as I pressed on down the road into the village of Rosenithon, the name of which means ‘nest in the moors’.
I left the road in Rosenithon, for it continued on to St Keverne (Lannaghevran), while the path turned off through a field of ankle-deep mud and manure. Which was lovely.
The Piskies Respond
My thoughts were not overly concerned with the noxious and slippery surface underfoot however as something else entirely had grabbed my attention. Something draped over Rosenithon’s standard Royal Mail pillar box…
A single walking sock.
It wasn’t mine, the pattern was wrong, but it looked to be about the right size. I found this disquieting, which apparently was not the right reaction as, no sooner had I passed it, than it began to rain.
I quickened my pace, following the muddy path down to the beach, which was helpfully signposted.
The path led up over a hill and along the cliff edge before passing through a large and spookily empty (but active) quarry at Dean Point, which had large signs to warn that blasting could take place at any moment.
Dean Quarry has been extracting gabbro since the 1890s but thankfully chose not to set off any charges during my brief journey through it. Quite apart from the noise and the danger, it would have scared away the tiny wren that hopped about less than a metre away, having failed somehow to spot me in my bright red cagoule.
Wrens are one of Britain’s smallest native birds (the smallest is the goldcrest) and they play the ‘small things are cute’ card for all its worth.
On the far side of the quarry was the National Trust land of Lowland Point, a Site of Special Scientific Interest on account of its unusual geology.
About 120k years ago, Lowland Point was an offshore reef, much like the Manacles, but ceased to be so when the sea level fell during the last ice age. Rocks from the old cliffs collapsed onto the new land and in turn was covered by windborne dust (or loess).
The path now became surrounded by brambles and wild flowers and strewn liberally with rocks and cows. These cows, unlike many I’d encountered, seemed well aware that they were bigger than me and I could damned well go around them if I wanted to get past.
I went around them and continued on to Coverack.
Coverack (Porthkovrek) had both a shop and a café, meaning that I could buy water for later and sit down with a nice cup of tea.
The man running the café expressed an interest in my walking and gave me some pointers of things to look out for, cautioning me that if I became pressed for time then one place I shouldn’t cut out was Kynance Cove. I duly noted the name before I set off again.
Paris and Mohegan
Coverack seemed like a very pleasant village as I wandered through it, and it had more amenities than the other tiny villages I’d passed through that morning. Among its buildings were a number of hotels, one of which — the Paris Hotel — is named not for the city but for an American passenger liner which ran aground off Lowland Point in 1899.
Coverack is no stranger to shipwrecks, being so close to the Manacles, and just a year earlier the SS Mohegan had struck them with the loss of 106 lives.
As a result of these incidents a lifeboat was stationed in Coverack in 1901, and remained until 1978 when a faster boat was stationed at Falmouth in order to cover the whole area.
I was slightly behind when I left Coverack, partly because I’d lingered over my nice, hot cup of tea, and partly because the path from Dean Quarry had been slow going on account of the rocks, cows and mud.
This soon became quite a lot behind schedule as the path became a mad, rocky scramble, completely uneven underfoot and more like climbing than walking in places. This was quite fun, although it would have been less so had the rain not helpfully stopped, but it was also time consuming.
Then, suddenly, just as I was getting a bit fed up with it, the path became rock-free and even, surrounded by heather and gorse. I was now approaching Black Head and it turned out the rain had let up in order to let the wind have a go.
At the tip of Black Head was a small observation hut which, having no glass in its windows, offered no shelter from the wind whatsoever. Even so, its back wall was useful for stopping my map from being blown all the way back to Coverack, for which I was grateful.
A notice board had all manner of humorous (and otherwise) comments on it, but someone had seemingly walked off with the pencil that had been used by countless visitors. I almost took a photo of the notice board but decided that for some things, you have to actually be there.
Instead, I looked out of the window and took a photo of this:
I set off from Black Head full of enthusiasm, invigorated by both the wind and the sight of the Lizard. The wind soon dropped off and the path began to undulate, dotted here and there not with cows but with these:
Downas & Lankidden Coves
The path now carried me around a wide bay with low heather and gorse and intermittent ponies, not to mention a number of ascents and descents for streams.
At the top of one such ascent I met a young woman who had paused with her dog to take her boots off for some reason and she asked me in tones of disbelief if I was lugging my laptop about? For reasons of quirky personal dislike, I rarely use a rucksack, favouring instead a black, satchel-like bag, which I do indeed also use to carry my laptop so the question was not entirely unreasonable.
Not half an hour later I passed a man who also looked at my bag before asking if I was a photographer, so it was something of a mini-theme.
I passed the rocky outcrop known as Carrick Lûz (karrek loos = grey rock), which has the barely visible remains of an ancient hill fort nearby, and soon found myself descending to the beach of Kennack Sands.
Lizard Peninsula — Grade-Ruan Parish
Kennack Sands is essentially two beaches, separated by a small hill called Carn Kennack, one of which is a nature reserve.
The beaches, which lie close to the tiny village of Kugger, are popular with surfers and it may be them I have to thank for Kennack Sands’ beach café being there and still open.
Beach Hut Café
The café proved to be wonderfully full of character, being staffed by a teenage girl and her surly grandmother, who was doing the cooking.
I ordered tea and a bacon bap, which clearly ruined the grandmother’s life forever but not as much as another man who foolishly ordered while the (perfectly pleasant) girl was busy and so had to deal with grandmother herself.
As his raised voice carried a sarcastic ‘if it’s not too much trouble’ across the café, I groaned inwardly. He may well have had provocation but really, arguing with the kitchen staff before they prepare your food? That’s brave.
I distracted myself from the developing situation by rudely eavesdropping on two men sat nearby at a computer screen and realised that this was indeed the depths of rural Cornwall. They were, it transpired, surfing for a second-hand digger bucket and conversing knowledgeably about the various makes and models of diggers and tractors.
From Kennack Sands there was short climb up onto Thorny Cliff (seriously, everything green and leafy has thorns in this part of the world), which then carried me on towards Carleon Cove and the edge of the village of Poltesco.
Lurking beside the Poltesco Stream, I found more mysterious ruins:
The ruins comprise several buildings in various states of dereliction, with the most intact directly facing onto the beach. They are the remnants of a nineteenth century mine, mill, factory and warehouse dedicated to the processing of serpentine. The Lizard Peninsula is famous for its serpentine and even lends its name to its own particular type, namely lizardite.
If the link between ‘Lizard’ and ‘serpentine’ seems thematically appropriate it is one of coincidence, for while serpentine takes its name from its green, often scaly, appearance, the Lizard gets its name from Cornish lys ardh, where lys means ‘court’ or ‘palace’ and ardh means ‘a high place’.
The serpentine factory seems to have been abandoned around the beginning of the twentieth century, with one account suggesting that they may have put everything into fulfilling one large order for a French château and were bankrupted when the barge carrying the serpentine was lost at sea en route to delivery. To which I can only ask, did they not take out insurance?
I left the ruins behind and hurried onwards, dodging more curious ponies as I made my way to the village and fishing port of Cadgwith (Porthkaswydh). This miniscule village developed in the sixteenth century around a sheltered collection of mediaeval pilchard cellars.
Pilchard fishing was central to village life until the 1950s but has now largely given way to tourism, with overfishing having reduced the pilchard stock to the level where fishing is no longer viable. Cadgwith’s fishermen can shoulder their share of blame for this state of affairs having proudly landed a record 1,798,000 pilchards over four days in 1904.
RNLB Minnie Moon
A somewhat less self-destructive and more uplifting record is that held by the Cadgwith lifeboat RNLB Minnie Moon, which rescued all 227 passengers and crew from the White Star Line’s SS Suevic in 1907 after she struck the Stag Rocks in gales and fog. This was the greatest number of lives saved from one rescue by any RNLI lifeboat.
The Devil’s Frying Pan
Although there was a pub and restaurant beckoning, I was about an hour and three quarters behind schedule and so running the risk of not making my destination before nightfall. I therefore pressed on, pausing only to enjoy a cold drink overlooking the Devil’s Frying Pan.
Lizard Peninsula — Landewednack Parish
Race to Lizard Point
There then followed a mad dash to Lizard Point during which I managed to maintain a pace of four miles an hour despite being tired and despite it involving a lot of ups and downs. I was accidentally assisted in this by two German girls who half-jogged past me at one point, just as I was thinking I was making a good pace.
‘Right,’ I thought, ‘I’m not being shown up that easily,’ and the girls and I overtook each other several times on our respective journeys to Lizard Point.
I got there first. I’m not competitive at all. Much.
Lizard Point is the most southerly point of the island of Great Britain (but not of the UK, which would be in the Isles of Scilly).
In 1588, the Spanish Armada was first sighted from Lizard Point and the news conveyed to London and Plymouth via beacons. Another fleet action, in 1707, was the Battle at the Lizard, which saw the French defeat a Royal Navy escort and raid a merchant convoy during the War of the Spanish Succession.
A third maritime incident of note is the sinking in 2004 of the French fishing trawler Bugaled Breizh (Breton for ‘child of Brittany’) with the loss of five lives; it was suggested that a NATO submarine – probably British or Dutch – may have caught on its nets and dragged it under.
No Time to Waste
I was delighted to have reached Lizard Point, which I have always loved, but I was also uncomfortably aware that it was 5 pm and that I had seven and a half miles to do in about an hour and a half, maybe two hours given how far west I was. It wasn’t looking promising.
I therefore set off westwards like a bat out of hell, except without Meat Loaf singing. I decided I would make for the headland called the Horse and then reassess my plans depending on how late it was.
Lizard Peninsula — Mullion Parish
It was fairly easy going as I hared along the edge of Kynance Cliff past the Horse, where several photographers were setting up to take photos during sunset and twilight.
There wasn’t really a path here, just open countryside and this gave me a little concern. It was now clear that I wouldn’t reach my destination of Mullion before dark and I didn’t want to be stranded on a cliff path at night — partly because that would be bad and partly because my hotel for the night was the single most expensive one all week. Paying for a room I never reached would really rankle and I didn’t want to be angry about it while I developed hypothermia.
Plan B was to carry on almost as far as Predannack Head and then take a path inland to pick up a farm track that became a road to Mullion. A road at night is easier and safer to navigate than a cliff, even with the added danger of traffic. The trouble was that Plan B required me to actually be able to find the path rather than just guess where it was.
I was just thinking that I would make it in good time to where the path inland should be when I encountered a whacking great valley at Soap Rock, which I descended and ascended in record time with rather more mad scrambling than dignity.
It was fifteen minutes to sunset now and I became aware of three black birds watching me from nearby, looking like crows with red beaks and legs.
These were Cornish choughs, a bird that serves as the crest on the Cornish arms but which almost died out there and had to be reintroduced from Wales. Choughs are members of the crow family and, despite being a similar size, sound like crows on helium. Their high-pitched squawking made me giggle like a madman.
Giggling or not, I pressed on, acutely aware that sunset had come and the light was now fading. This was not ideal, as the path was still unclear and I still had a way to go, dashing along atop Vellan Head. So, you can imagine how pleased I was when mist rolled in off the sea to make things more interesting.
I may have sworn. It didn’t help. The mist thickened to fog.
Fog and Faeries
‘I’m on a cliff edge in twilight in the fog,’ I thought. ‘In Cornwall, the land of the piskies. Look, it’s okay, keep the sock.’
My brain, ever keen to make the situation more disturbing, summoned up a poem that my mum taught me when I was small. The poem, by nineteenth century poet William Allingham, goes like this:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
I actually misremembered a couple of the words but that didn’t matter because now I was thinking about redcaps and other creatures of traditional, non-Disneyfied fairy lore that you really wouldn’t to encounter on a misty, twilit cliff edge.
Lower Predannack Cliffs
I was ridiculously relieved when I found this:
I now headed inland along the path, which soon led me to a farm track and road as promised.
Since the road ended at a farm — Predannack Wollas — there was almost no traffic and it was spookily silent as I made my way along as much by the feel of the surface under my feet as by any other means.
Alone in the Dark
Some part of my brain, smugly pleased with its last offering, decided to serve up some more poetry in the form of a snippet from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
Anyway, I clearly escaped any frightful fiends and eventually made it to Mullion (Eglosvelyan), which is the largest village on the Lizard Peninsula.
Its parish includes evidence of prehistoric burial mounds and ancient chapels, which are a much more inviting prospect in broad daylight than in nocturnal fog.
My hotel was not in the centre of Mullion itself but out on its edge by Polurrian Cove.
Fortunately, the hotel was significant enough to be signposted and I was soon standing in reception, essentially being told off by the house manager for my idiocy; she quite rightly pointed out that had she known I was walking she could have raised the alarm if I failed to show up.
A hot bath and really good meal followed – the Polurrian Bay Hotel’s chef knew what he was doing — and by a scotch that wasn’t the one I had asked for (they had run out) but served well enough.
After all that rushing, I slept like a log.
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 654 miles