DAY six of my week in Cornwall saw me rise bright and early and open my curtains to the sight of a wall of dense, white fog. It was, I decided, a faerie fog.
Polurrian Bay Hotel
As I was planning to be up and out before the hotel’s usual breakfast sitting, I had arranged for some early toast and marmalade. Another guest had arranged for early breakfast pancakes. I put it down to the bewitching powers of faerie fog that these two requests got garbled somewhere between reception and the dining area. The resulting confusion was almost farcical in nature.
I briefly discussed the fog density with the nice lady on reception, who opined that while it was thick enough to largely obscure the sea from the clifftop, it wasn’t so thick as to obscure the path. Thus reassured, I set off from the Polurrian Bay Hotel.
The hotel, which is one of Cornwall’s more upmarket hotels, was built in 1890 as a railway hotel for an extension to the Helston branch line that was never actually built. It almost completely burnt down in 1909 and was rebuilt in 1912 and has been in business ever since, barring a brief stint as RAF officers’ quarters during WW2.
In theory the hotel has excellent views over Polurrian Cove. In practise, it didn’t have views even as far as the cliff edge.
The path began with a quick descent into Polurrian Cove and an ascent up the other side. This was within the first ten minutes of the day’s walking and so I was not reassured when my right knee exploded in a riot of fiery pain halfway down the descent.
A Lame Excuse for Stopping
It seemed that the previous day’s mad rush — sustained over more than seven miles — had been a bit too much. But, this being Cornwall, I wasn’t going to get very far if I couldn’t navigate steps.
Swearing with each and every step, I forced myself forwards. After a while it stopped hurting, either because my knee eased up or because I was too full of endorphins to care. Or maybe it was piskies.
It was eerie going when I regained the clifftop, with Cornwall’s rolling countryside hidden by a wall of white on one side and the sea similarly shrouded on the other. Sounds were deadened and scents absorbed by all the water hanging in the air.
All at once, a man with a dog loomed out of the fog, the dog wagging its tail furiously, clearly having the time of its life in this strange white world.
‘Misty today,’ said the man.
‘Yes,’ I said. We then passed each other in silence, having completed our quintessentially British conversation.
I was soon approaching Poldhu Point, which overlooks Poldhu Cove. Poldhu (pol dhu means ‘black pool’, although without the trams and the lights) was the location of Guglielmo Marconi‘s transmitter for the first transatlantic radio message in 1901, which was sent to a temporary receiving station in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Many experts of the day had held wireless telegraphy to be impossible over distance due to the curvature of the earth. They had a point: over the distance between Poldhu and St John’s the curvature of the ocean made it more or less equivalent to a mountain of water 125 miles high. But Marconi succeeded and his message got through. It was, in its entirety, the letter ‘S’.
From Poldhu Cove, it was a short walk to Church Cove but somehow still slow going. Also, the fog had made all the vegetation wet and so I was soon pretty soaked just from brushing past it.
To my right somewhere were the Towans (towan = ‘dune’) and ahead lay the dramatic and oddly sited Church of St Winwaloe, also known as the Church of the Storms.
St Winwaloe’s Church
St Winwaloe’s is the village church for Gunwalloe, which lies about a mile and a half to the north. The church nestles in Church Cove in splendid isolation from the village, and is sufficiently close to the cliff that its tower is partly embedded in it.
The tower, which is detached from the church, dates from the thirteenth century, while the present church is fifteenth century (but heavily restored in 1869). There has been a church on the site since the fifth century, however, making it one of the oldest in Cornwall. As if that were not enough, the King’s manor of Winnianton, just north of Church Cove, is also the first entry in the Domesday Book.
St Winwaloe, or Guénolé in French, was the fifth century son of Fracan, a prince of Dumnonia, and was born in Brittany, where he later founded Landévennec Abbey. More interestingly, he appears in the legend of the sunken city of Ys, where he decries its corruption. The people of Ys do not listen of course and the city is swallowed by the sea.
From Church Cove the path led over the wonderfully-named Halzephron Cliffs, on which the bodies of many shipwrecked seamen were buried. Their shallow, unmarked graves show up as vague hummocks on the ground. The cliffs’ name comes from Cornish als yfarn, meaning ‘Hell’s cliff’.
The area has many shipwrecks, partly because Halzephron Cliffs were a notorious wreckers’ haunt, and there is reputed to be lost Spanish treasure at nearby Dollar Cove, although no one has succeeded in finding it.
Some actual, definite treasure was lost from the Portuguese carrack Santo Antonio, which was blown off course en route from Antwerp to Lisbon in 1527 and foundered off Gunwalloe. The flagship of John III of Portugal, she was carrying £18,880 worth of cargo including the dowry of the king’s new bride, the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Enterprising Cornishmen ‘salvaged’ the ship at swordpoint, making off with most of the cargo. This led to a lengthy court case and very nearly to war, Henry VIII already having offended John III by seeking to divorce his aunt, Catherine of Aragon. In the end Henry ordered that the goods be returned but, of course, by then they were nowhere to be found.
The path ran alongside a road for a bit as it approached Gunwalloe (Gwynnwalow, named for St Winwaloe) and the old road was also visible, running much closer to the cliff; landslips had necessitated the building of the new one.
The path soon left both roads behind, however, and carried me past a pub down into Gunwalloe Fishing Cove.
On the way, I passed a fence over which was draped something unexpected. Something that under normal circumstances would not be at all disturbing. But which, surrounded by faerie fog, made me say ‘oh’ and get goosebumps.
A single walking sock.
Perhaps foolishly, I gave it a wide berth instead of accepting this offered replacement for my lost sock; I hurried on…
A mile or so north of Gunwalloe is the Loe (An Logh), which is the largest natural freshwater lake in Cornwall. Originally a ria that formed the estuary of the River Cober, it was blocked in ancient times by a sand and shingle bar, the Loe Bar, which resulted in the build up of the freshwater lake.
Oddly, the shingle is 86% flint, the nearest onshore source of which is 120 miles away in East Devon. The scientific explanation is that the material came from the now submerged terraces of the Channel River that once flowed down what is now the English channel.
The Giant Tregeagle
Myth, on the other hand, has a giant named Tregeagle accidentally creating Loe Bar by spilling some sand that he was forced to carry from Gunwalloe to Porthleven as a penance for wrongdoing.
Tsk. Giants can be so careless.
A second legendary claim for the Loe is that it was the lake into which Sir Bedivere cast Excalibur (Or Calesvol as the sword is called in one fifteenth century Middle Cornish play; the sword’s Cornish name is cognate with Welsh Caledfwlch, which gives us French (and then English) Excalibur via Latin Caliburnus.)
There are, it must be said, a dozen or so other claimants to being the Lady‘s lake.
No Sign of Nimue
Despite the mythic, enchanted mist, there was no sign of Nimue in the water, holding the sword aloft (although the mist might have hidden her). This was a pity as I could have done with some directions, accidentally taking a wrong turn and almost heading the long way around the fifty hectare lake.
Fortunately, some part of my brain noticed that the water was lined with freshwater reeds, and I quickly backtracked to the beach, where I found not Excalibur but excavators — the sea defences were being worked on.
A brisk walk along the clifftop later, I dropped back down into the town of Porthleven, where I decided that a Cornish cream tea was entirely suitable for elevenses.
Porthleven is Great Britain’s most southerly port, originally established as a harbour of refuge on a dangerous coast. With powerful swells generating two metre waves, it has become one of Britain’s best regarded surfing spots, in stark contrast to the nearby Loe Bar, from whose deadly currents surfers and swimmers are warned off.
On a slightly skimming-along-on-the-water-related note, Porthleven was the home town of Guy Gibson, WW2 commander of 617 Squadron RAF, otherwise known as the Dam Busters (although he was actually born in India).
A local Porthleven landmark is the Bickford-Smith Institute, a church-like structure near the harbour entrance. It is actually the home of the town council offices, which share it with a snooker club.
Determined to enjoy a walk by the seaside as if it were sunny, I purchased an ice cream from a slightly optimistic seller of such things, amid much excitement from his even-more-optimistic Staffordshire terrier, which was secured nearby and was desperately hoping my ice cream was meant for her (she was out of luck).
Immune to her imploring stare, I turned my back and headed off through Porthleven, noting as I went the preponderance of bilingual street names such as Mount Street / Fordh an Garrek and Sea View / Gwel an Mor. Some of the boats in the harbour had Cornish names too, and I spotted one named Mor Lowen, meaning ‘happy sea’.
The path climbed steeply out of Porthleven and then undulated like a roller-coaster as the coast curved towards Trewavas Head. It was slightly eerie atop the cliffs, with the sea mostly obscured, and I walked the path alone except for a robin, which silently watched me pass, and an empty National Trust Land Rover, parked quite near Trewavas Head.
My dad had an anecdote about failing his driving test in a Land Rover; it was an old one without indicators and he changed gear with his left hand and signalled with his right, steering mainly with his knee. Apparently this show of dexterity did not please the examiner.
Just around the headland I was confronted with the dramatic sight of the ruined chimneys and engine houses of Wheal Trewavas copper mine, perching precariously on the cliff edge.
Wheal Trewavas was opened in the mid 1830s and was all set to be prosperous when some sort of financial irregularity closed it down in the mid 1840s, despite it having extracted £100k worth of ore in ten years.
While the clifftop is owned and maintained by the National Trust, the Cliffside mine buildings are not and so are not entirely safe.
A little further on was Rinsey head, on which stands the engine house of the Wheal Prosper tin mine, which has been stabilised by the National Trust and which the path runs right past. Wheal Prosper’s name was perhaps tempting providence too far since it opened in 1860 and closed in 1866, an abject failure.
The ‘wheal’ in both names comes from Cornish hwel, meaning a mine working.
After Rinsey Head, the path became strewn with ponies and then began to descend, heading for the half-mile long beach at Praa Sands. Pronounced ‘pray’, the village’s name derives from an old Cornish word meaning ‘hag’s’ or ‘witch’s cove’.
Praa Sands lays claim to one of the most haunted buildings in the UK in the form of Pengersick Castle, a fortified Tudor building on the site of an earlier house. Unfortunately, most of the claims — such as the murder of a monk by mediaeval psychopath Henry Pengersick — turn out to be wildly exaggerated (Henry assaulted a monk, who had called to collect tithes, but did not murder him) or just plain wrong (e.g. there were plague pits on the grounds, but not where the ghost stories say they were).
I remained near the beach, rather than near the castle, and so was haunted by nothing more than the desire to eat Thai fishcakes at the bar there (the Sandbar). They were delicious.
I was about two hours behind schedule now, which was pretty much a familiar feeling, and so I put on a burst of speed as I climbed Hoe Point and immersed myself in the thick fogbank that covered it, making excellent progress as I passed Kenneggy Sands.
St Hilary Parish
Suddenly, I found myself on a private road, passing through a marvellous circular courtyard, surrounded by old-looking stone buildings. It would have been seriously picturesque were it not for the cars parked in it.
This was part of the Porthenalls Estate (porth an als, ‘cliff cove’), a private family estate that overlooks Prussia Cove. The latter gets its name from John Carter, an eighteenth century smuggler, who played there as a boy, pretending to be the King of Prussia. The next cove was Piskies Cove and I half-expected to find another sock there.
What I did find at Cudden Point was a big wooden pole that didn’t look like a normal triangulation point and indeed it wasn’t. It was a mast from HMS Warspite, which ran aground at Prussia Cove in 1947 on her way from Portsmouth to Faslane to be scrapped after service through two world wars.
Warspite was by no means the first ship to be wrecked off Cudden Point; the barque Saluto was wrecked there in 1911 for example.
Charging along the coast, I passed by Acton Castle — a small castellated mansion built about the year 1775 by the botanist John Stackhouse — but couldn’t see it on account of the fog.
In what seemed like no time at all, I soon reached Perranuthnoe, having maintained a good 4 mph speed despite the fog and the undulating terrain.
A beach café called the Cabin sold me some chocolate cake and a soft drink but had run out of bottles of water. Instead, the young woman working there filled a takeaway coffee cup with water and put a plastic lid on it, so I had some water for the next bit of the walk after all. And for free.
Perranuthnoe is in Domesday as Odenol but by 1235 had become Hutheno instead. It was then recorded as Udno in 1308 and 1373, finally taking the form Uthnoe-veor (from veur, meaning ‘great’) in 1839. There is still a farm in the village called Ednoe-vean (from vyhan, meaning ‘small’).
The ‘Perran’ part of the name is from St Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall, after whom its white-cross-on-black flag is also named.
A further mad dash through the fog ensued and, to be honest, I was pretty much enjoying it, even if someone’s over-excited jumpy-up dog nearly gave me a heart attack when it appeared out of the fog. Its owner, a man with resigned-sounding West Midlands tones, apologised in a manner which suggested that it was well-practised.
If the dog had surprised me this was as nothing to when the cliff path suddenly ended in a flight of metal steps, leading down to the shingle beach past Trenow Cove.
‘Now what?’ I wondered.
An Iconic Vista… of Fog
By all rights, I ought to have been able to see the way onwards. In fact, from that vantage point I should have been able to see the iconic scene of St Michael’s Mount, looming out of Mount’s Bay. All I could see was fog.
Nonetheless, I shrugged to myself and kept heading west, picking my way over shingle and rocks. A ramp or slipway came into view, leading to a path, that led to a road and suddenly I was in Marazion.
Marazion (Marhasyow meaning ‘Thursday market’) claims to be Britain’s oldest town; it was recorded in Domesday and was granted chartered town status by King Henry III in 1257. On clear days it has great views of St Michael’s Mount, just offshore, and Penzance at the far end of Mount’s Bay. It was pretty quiet in the fog.
St Michael’s Mount
St Michael’s Mount (Karrek Loos y’n Koos), which lies offshore, is an island linked by a causeway at low tide.
The Mount has had a varied history. It was established as a monastery after the Conquest, having been given to the similar, but larger, Mont St Michel in Normandy. In Tudor times, it fell into the hands of the Basset familyand was sold to the St Aubyn family in 1659, who own it to this day.
According to legend, it was built by the giant Cormoran, who lived in the forest now submerged beneath Mounts Bay and was later killed by Jack the Giant Killer. The Mount’s Cornish name, Karrek Loos y’n Koos means ‘the grey rock in the woods’ and the fossilised remains of ancient tree stumps can still be seen in the bay at exceptionally low spring tides.
A helpful elderly man walking his dog gave me directions onwards to Penzance, even though I hadn’t asked for any. Which, now that I think about it, reminds me of too many fairy stories.
Mr Directions’s assistance, which I really didn’t need, used the old railway station as a landmark — it was opened by the West Cornwall Railway in 1852 and closed in the mid 1960s thanks to Dr Beeching essentially getting it all wrong.
I soon passed by the station, now a café, which was closed, and made my way along the two miles of cycle and footpath that lead around Mount’s Bay (Baya an Garrek).
I suppose after Mr Directions, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the sight of another single walking sock. Disturbed, yes. Surprised, no. But I was.
The path soon led me past Long Rock (Karrek Hyr), which is effectively an eastern suburb of Penzance and the location of Penzance Heliport, which provides scheduled helicopter flights to the Isles of Scilly when the weather isn’t impenetrable fog.
I was planning to visit Scilly the next day but I had elected to buy tickets for the Scillonian III, the seasonal ferry, because that isn’t nearly so affected by bad weather. Also I like boats and the helicopter, even had it been running, wouldn’t have been escorted there by dolphins.
Dolphins were still a good twelve hours away, when I traipsed past the railway station and into Penzance (Pennsans, ‘holyhead’), although I could see Scillonian III in the harbour.
Penzance is the most westerly major town in Cornwall, and is pretty old, having been first mentioned in records in 1284 and granted various Royal Charters from 1512 onwards and properly incorporated in 1614.
Popularly associated with pirates thanks in part to Gilbert and Sullivan, it was actually the victim of raids by Barbary Corsairs during the late mediaeval period.
I wasn’t actually staying in Penzance but in Newlyn, just beyond it, although the one does kind of run into the other. I thus had to round the headland in the photo (you can just see Scillonian III there) and keep going, through Wherry Town and past a park, as the sun set upon the sea.
Newlyn (Lulynn) was first recorded as Nulyn in 1279 and then as Lulyn in 1290, both being supposedly derived from the Cornish for “pool for a fleet of boats”.
The town has had a share of historical moments, such as being near-destroyed in a Spanish raid in 1595, which also devastated Penzance and the villages of Mousehole and Paul. A much more peaceful visit was that in 1620 of the Mayflower, which stopped off at Newlyn Old Quay to take on water.
I was ready to take on water as I climbed the seemingly never-ending Chywoone Hill, looking for my B&B.
I would probably have given up and decided that I must have already passed it had it not been called the Panorama Guest House, which suggested that maybe it was right at the top. Which it pretty much was.
‘Oh,’ said an amused proprietor, on answering the door, ‘did you walk up that hill? Most people give up just before they reach us.’ He thought about this for a moment and added: ‘and then they go back down again. And then they phone us.’
I nodded. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I walked up the hill. But I walked to the bottom from Mullion first.’ He seemed mildly impressed. Or incredulous, one of the two. I didn’t care. All I wanted was a bath or a shower and to sit down with a cup of tea, which, when I did, was absolute bliss.
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 673½ miles