I SPENT my seventh day in Cornwall having a day of rest, on which I took the Scillonian III over to St Mary in the Isles of Scilly, accompanied for part of the crossing by dolphins, and generally had a pleasant time chilling out on the mist-shrouded island.
But I’m not going to tell you about any of that; I’m blogging about the walks.
So, the next day I awoke feeling somewhat refreshed and found that the mists of the previous two days had largely lifted. Thus, while I enjoyed my breakfast in the Panorama Guest House, I was able to actually see the panorama for which it was named, which encompassed Newlyn, Penzance and Mount’s Bay.
On stepping outside, I was also able to see St Michael’s Mount, with Marazion lost in the mist behind it.
My plan for the morning involved me setting off from Newlyn to Mousehole via the coast path and then on towards Land’s End but I immediately began to see a certain foolishness in the first step of this plan.
This was that the coast path continued from the bottom of Chywoone Hill, which I was almost at the top of, and so I would have to descend the hill only to climb again on the cliff path.
‘Sod that,’ I thought, ‘I’m already up here, I’m taking the road to Mousehole via Paul.’ So I did.
I was actually quite pleased to be passing through the little village of Paul (Pawl), not least because it was the home of Dolly Pentreath, who is often wrongly described as the last speaker of Cornish. Others were definitely able to speak Cornish after her death in 1777, but she probably was the last fluent speaker of Cornish as a first language.
There is a memorial to her in the village churchyard, which was placed there in 1860 by the vicar, the Revd John Garret, and Louis Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.
St Paul’s Church
The village actually takes its name from the church, which is dedicated to a Welsh saint, Paul Aurelian. He is traditionally held to have founded the village’s church in 490 but there is no historical evidence to back this up. Before the names of church and village became conflated, the village was known as Brewinney, which, though obviously Cornish, is of uncertain etymology.
The current church dates from about 1600, its Mediaeval predecessor having been destroyed by a Spanish raid in 1595, which was led by Carlos de Amésquita. Amésquita’s men must have found Cornwall quite traumatic — the rain in Cornwall falls mostly on the everywhere. Almost all the time.
In the defiant hope that maybe it won’t be raining in autumn, like it did every previous year, Paul holds an annual village feast on the Sunday nearest to 10th October each year. This is imaginatively known as ‘Paul Feast’. The village is decorated for the feast and a civic service is led by the Mayor of Penzance.
Since I was passing through it on Saturday 15th October, I had missed Paul Feast by just under a week.
From Paul it was a half mile walk, mostly downhill, to Mousehole (pronounced ‘mowzel’, where the first part rhymes with ‘how’). This lovely fishing village takes its name from the nearby Mousehole, a large cave that looks like, well, you can probably guess
A Faded Port
Until the sixteenth century, when it was eclipsed by Penzance, Mousehole (Porthynys) was one of two principal ports in Mount’s Bay, the other being Marazion. These days, like most of Cornwall, it is quite tourist-centric.
The part of Cornwall in which it lies, Penwith, was the last refuge of Cornish as a community language and a year after Dolly Pentreath’s death, a Mousehole fisherman named William Bodinar wrote to Royal Society fellow Daines Barrington, telling him that he knew of five Cornish speakers in the village. However, Bodinar also said that the speakers were all eighty years old and that the young had all forgotten the language.
While Cornish never actually became a completely dead language, it had ceased to be anyone’s first language and the number of even partly fluent speakers rapidly dwindled to almost none and stayed there for over two hundred years. Its recent resurgence is nothing short of remarkable.
Tom Bawcock’s Eve
Like Paul, Mousehole has an annual local event, in this case Tom Bawcock’s Eve on 23rd December, which is marked by a lantern parade and the eating of stargazy pie — a pie made from pilchards, egg and potato with the fishes’ heads poking out of the pastry crust.
Tom Bawcock was a legendary sixteenth century fisherman who braved stormy waters when the rest of the fleet was trapped in port and people starving for the lack of their catch.
Not only did Bawcock come back alive but he had caught enough fish to feed the whole village over Christmas; the whole catch was made into a massive stargazy pie, with the heads poking through to show it really did have real fish in it.
Friendly Shop Lady
I popped into a shop in Mousehole to purchase, not stargazy pie, but some rather more pedestrian chocolate and a bottle of water. I was quite taken aback by the warm and friendly welcome from the woman behind the till, who enquired how far I was walking and wished me well for the day.
Mount’s Bay Coast
I set off in good spirits along a path that was initially easy going, climbing up to the cliff top and passing directly over the mouth of the Mousehole (although it would only have been visible from the sea). The path was not to remain so easy going, however. It quickly became full of rocks and steps and then, in the shaded woods of Kemyel Crease, squelching, ankle-deep mud.
Kemyel Crease is a nature reserve. Its trees include both Monterey pines and Monterey cypress, the latter of which give off a beautiful lemon scent. The conifers were originally planted (around 1900) as windbreaks for what had been ‘quillets’ or small, terraced fields used for growing bulbs and potatoes. The conifers have since come to dominate, forming a thick canopy and preventing a shrub layer from developing.
I avoided the mud as best as I could and soon the path became a rocky obstacle course once more. Then, suddenly, I rounded the headland of Carn-du (karn du, ‘black tor’) and espied Lamorna Cove.
Lamorna (Nansmornow) village lies slightly further inland along the Lamorna Valley, while the cove comprises a couple of houses, a café, a car park and a shop. The village has a history of fishing and smuggling and the name of its pub, The Wink, alludes to this, ‘the wink’ being a signal that contraband was available.
Later, in the late nineteenth century, Lamorna became popular with artists of the Newlyn School, who favoured painting realistic scenes from fishermen’s lives.
Lamorna Cove Café
I stopped at the café for a nice cup of tea and sat watching the water in the bay. The harbour wall had been damaged by a storm and was cordoned off, unrepaired, which was mildly ironic — Lamorna Cove granite has been a widely used construction material, supplying such notable projects as the Thames Embankment for instance.
As I sat there, three local men took up a table nearby and I heard odd snatches of their conversation; they seemed to be (not unreasonably) objecting to people who move in from other parts of the country and then want to change things to be more what they are used to.
They had a very definite type of person in mind, namely the sort of city dweller who moves to the country on a romantic whim and then asks for a noise abatement order on the neighbouring farm’s cockerel, or who objects to local affordable housing because the value of their holiday home will drop. I couldn’t really blame them for their ire.
Having had my tea I nipped into the shop, where I was greeted with a wild stare of astonishment by the rather pretty girl there — she clearly wasn’t expecting to see a customer walk in (it was out of season).
She rallied magnificently and sold me a strawberry ice cream and a bottle of ginger beer, the former for my elevenses and the latter for later.
Devouring my ice cream, I set off westwards only to discover that the path had become the maddest rocky scramble yet. That the rocks were dangerous to more than my poor sense of balance was aptly illustrated by the presence of this:
I pressed on along the path, which was pretty tough going in places and then suddenly, just to mix things up, the ankle-deep mud made a comeback, this time with two elderly Americans almost mired in it, despite their having two walking poles each for support.
I waited patiently for them to extricate themselves and then padded along behind them, mildly frustrated at their slowness, until I realised they didn’t know I was there.
Fearing that to startle the Elderly Americans on rocks or in more mud would only lead to the air ambulance being summoned, I waited until a relatively safe bit before calling out a cheery hello.
Mrs Elderly American almost had a heart attack anyway. So much so that I briefly wondered if I’d got confused and had accidentally shouted ‘I’m going to eat your spleen’ instead of ‘hello’. It happens.
Having ascertained that Mrs Elderly American would live and that they were walking as far as Porthcurno and that many glorious superlatives could be enthusiastically directed at my intention to walk to Land’s End, I overtook the pair of them and headed off apace.
St Loy’s Cove
‘Aha!’ I thought, ‘now I’m making progress.’ Immediately, the path began an abrupt descent into St Loy’s Cove, where an unsteady clamber across the beach rocks was in order.
On the other side of the beach, the path climbed up through the trees of the wooded valley, passing just a couple of buildings and soon regaining the cliff top. It now levelled out as it crossed Merthen Point and passed by what appeared to be a small allotment, precariously occupying the space between coast path and cliff edge.
Bemused, I pressed on, soon coming to Penberth, a tiny fishing village surrounded by National Trust land.
Penberth Cove is one of the last remaining traditional fishing coves in Cornwall, with a handful of fishermen putting out in tiny boats to fish for mackerel, lobster and crab.
No one was putting out to sea as I walked through it, but there was a family engaged in doing some sort of chores. Or, more accurately, there was a family whose child was manifestly not doing any chores despite all entreaties from his mother.
The climb back out of Penberth Cove was predictably steep and accompanied by notices from the National Trust, re-routing dog-walkers on a significant detour around the cove.
Something about the signage suggested absolute frustration and more than hinted that the NT had already tried appealing to dog owners’ responsibility by asking them nicely not to leave the cove covered in dog poo. It seemed that, in response, the dog walkers had taken that ‘they must mean some other dog, my dog’s poo smells of lavender’ approach that so many dog-owners seem to have. In turn, the NT had added considerable extra distance to their walks, keeping them out of the cove altogether.
Personally, I applauded this. But I bet there was tutting and talk of overreaction from the dog walkers, pausing to chat while their animals defecated on everything in sight.
After Penberth, the path became surprisingly level and civilised as it carried me to Porthcurno (Porthkornow, originally Porth Kernow — ‘Port of Cornwall’). This was another small village but this time with a history as a major international communications hub, being the terminus for several submarine cables.
The first of the cables was landed in 1870, and formed part of a network stretching all the way to India. The village has a museum dedicated to the subject, which also owns this, near the beach:
Pursued by Piskies
Porthcurno has a beach café but it was closed on account of being out of season. This was disappointing but I was too preoccupied to care, being more than a little rattled by having to step over a single walking sock lying in the middle of the path.
‘No, really,’ I announced to no one in particular, ‘you can keep my sock; it’s fine.’
I don’t know if that was a good move or not. Cornish Piskies are not Dobby the House Elf.
I took the easy route out of Porthcurno, climbing the road to the church of St Levan (Sen Selevan), although since the road only heads to St Levan and then stops, I knew I should probably get off it fairly soonish.
Minack Open Air Theatre
I made my escape on the cliffs above Porthcurno, rejoining the coast path behind the Minack Open Air Theatre, which uses Porthcurno Bay as a backdrop for its productions. The theatre, which takes its name from Cornish meynek, meaning ‘stony’, dates from the 1930s and hosts a season of various plays between June and September.
The path became quite easy going and I met a number of walkers coming the other way, clearly out for little more than an afternoon stroll. I found out where some of them had come from half a mile later, when I descended into the tiny coastal village of Porthgwarra (Porth Gorwedhow, ‘wooded cove’), which comprises no more than about a dozen cottages and a shop.
I was very glad to see the shop, and gladder still to find it open (it was seasonal and would close from the end of October through to Easter). I bought some cold drinks and things to munch and was informed by the shopkeeper, a woman with a noticeable Birmingham accent — that the only ice cream she had left was vanilla. Unfortunately, I didn’t fancy vanilla, so I made the ultimate sacrifice and forewent ice cream.
Porthgwarra’s tiny cove has two tunnels leading away from it, carved out by tin miners for the benefit of farmers and fishermen.
- One leads upwards and was made so that farmers from St Just (Lannust) could have easy beach access by horse and cart in order to collect seaweed, which they would use for fertiliser.
- The other leads to the sea and disused ‘hulleys’, which are temporary storage areas for catches of shellfish, comprising tidal pools with trapdoor lids and wooden floors. The hulleys haven’t been used for at least a quarter of a century.
I knew, as I left Porthgwarra, that it was the last place that could be described as a settlement (of any size) until after Land’s End. But first, I had to round Gwennap Head.
This is the most southerly headland on the Penwith Peninsula and is composed of dramatic cliffs of rugged granite. There is a lookout station on the head, but to my mind it’s looking the wrong way. They really ought to be keeping an eye on this:
The Runnel Stone
A mile south of Gwennap Head, and directly in line with the giant red cone and the other landmark, lies the Runnel Stone, a submerged rock marked by a warning bouy. The idea behind the two landmarks on Gwennap Head is simple — if the red one is hiding the black one then you’re right on course for some unscheduled swimming. Of course that’s only true if you’re directly aiming for the landmarks, but even so, it’s presumably a useful navigational aid.
And there is no doubt that one is needed: even with the landmarks — the black and white one was erected in 1821 — the steamship SS Westminster managed to strike the Runnel Stone and sink in 1923. And by doing so, she made the stone even more of a hidden danger, since before the impact it used to show above the waves at low tide.
Clone of Ex-Colleague
As I passed the lookout station, a girl passed by me who looked so much like an ex-colleague that I had to look twice to be sure it wasn’t her. This girl and I would pass each other several times over the next half an hour or so but to begin with I gave her a bit of a head start by stopping to look at my first sight of Land’s End.
I set off refired with an enthusiasm that was only slightly shaken by some teleporting cows — I swear they hadn’t been behind me a moment or two before. The cliffs were becoming quite spectacular and dotted with caves, while the land atop them was gently rolling and windswept.
Clone of Ex-Colleague left the path to sit on the beach of Zawn Kellys (‘zawn’ meaning a narrow sea inlet, from Cornish sawan) and I passed the mouth of a cave in Nanjizal Bay.
I was drawing close to Land’s End now, as indicated by my drawing level with the arched islet Enys Dodnan.
I had been forewarned that Land’s End (Penn an Wlas), which used to be surprisingly undeveloped, had since been horribly commercialised. In truth, it was much less than I feared, with a new hotel and a rather theme-parky visitor centre, all of which was closed. Even the chocolate vending machine was out of order.
Thus, for me, there was still almost nothing at Land’s End, the westernmost point of mainland England.
A pleasant and leisurely stroll in the afternoon sun carried me the last mile or so along the coast and then down a long, quarter-mile zig-zag path from the clifftop to the harbourside at Sennen Cove.
A good mile by road from Sennen village, Sennen Cove (Porthsenen) is a fishing village comprising a few dozen houses and the wonderfully named Old Success Inn.
Sennen Cove seemed peaceful, and the inn very popular — a St Austell Brewery pub, it was doing a roaring trade in good pub food — of which I approved since I was spending the night there.
Like Porthcurno, Sennen Cove is also a landing point for submarine telecommunications cables.
The cove used to be home to the UK’s first canine lifeguard, a Newfoundland called Bilbo. However, when the RNLI took over lifeguard operations in 2008 they decided that it was a breach of health and safety regulations to allow Bilbo to ride as a passenger on the beach’s quad bike and so he was retired.
This led to something of an outcry but health and safety mandarins are never to be swayed.
Success, Old or Otherwise
I was pretty pleased to have reached Sennen Cove, as it meant I had walked almost seven hundred miles in just over a year. Besides, ‘Gravesend to Land’s End’ has a certain ring about it. I thus went to my bed feeling quite accomplished, having first availed myself of the Old Success Inn’s excellent food and beer. I felt like an ‘old success’ indeed.
Travel by Taxi
Sennen Cove has a reputation for its surfing conditions and is home to a sizeable surf centre, the car park of which was full of vehicles come Sunday morning. I had ample opportunity to witness this as I waited for a taxi to come take me away.
The taxi conveyed me back to Penzance, driven by a marvellous old character, an old ex-fisherman from Porthcurno, who was full of ideas and opinions.
We chatted about the disappearance of village shops (such as in Porthallow) and the limited availability of public transport and he opined that, perhaps, surprisingly, Londoners with second homes were not the problem.
Wealthy second-homers tended to treat their Cornish villages as a home-from-home and get involved, using the pubs and shops, he said. It is, he opined, retirees that help kill off the amenities in Cornwall’s villages (which are already economically depressed) because they don’t go out, they keep to themselves, and they do all their shopping in the nearest town’s supermarket.
I’d been expecting a ‘second homes’ rant, so this angle was surprising to me but I see no reason to doubt it.
Trouble with Trains
The trains, when I reached Penzance Station, were in total disarray thanks to weekend engineering works. It basically took me all of Sunday to get home but that was ok: I didn’t see a single walking sock anywhere along the way.
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 689 miles