WITH the January weather proving variable, my forty-second birthday saw me ambling gently along five miles or so of the Thames from London Bridge to Greenwich in the company of two good friends. This was entirely lovely. It also reawakened my desire to walk around the coast again.
Thus, a week later, I found myself dozing fitfully through the eight hour overnight bus journey from London to Penzance.
The Journey There
The Positive Postie
For at least some of the journey, I found the seat beside me occupied by a retired London Underground platform announcer, now a postman, who was heading off to visit his daughter. This cheerful chap appeared to have found his dream job and was so full of beaming satisfaction as he joyfully described delivering letters for the Royal Mail that I was rather taken aback by just how enthused he was. Honestly, it was quite heartwarming.
There was no kind of warming, heart or otherwise, when the coach arrived in Penzance at one in the morning. A brisk wind was driving the sea mist before it and the air was pretty chill. This was unfortunate as the first bus out to Sennen Cove wasn’t until six fifteen and, accordingly I had over five hours to kill, assuming they didn’t kill me first. It was touch and go.
Penzance seems to have a fair bit of nightlife on a Friday night and the drunken teenagers didn’t spill out of their clubs and head home until well into the small hours. This was a godsend as there were a couple of late night takeaways staying open to feed them chips and kebabs.
Bus to Sennen Cove
Cold as I may have been, having been sat reading in the bus station, I still wasn’t desperate enough for a kebab but delicious hot chips were just the ticket. Not the actual ticket, you understand, that was altogether smaller and more papery, and the issuing thereof was slightly surprising to the bus driver, who clearly hadn’t expected any passengers.
He hadn’t expected the bus to have a fault on it either, such that a loud beeping alarm sounded on every hill (and it was hills all the way). It just wasn’t his morning. The alarm was something to do with the brakes, he cheerfully shouted back to me in a resonant Welsh accent. That made me feel a whole lot better about it, oh yes.
I made it back to Sennen Cove shortly before twilight amid what felt like gale force winds. The weather had almost been a deal breaker as it was, with the Met Office originally predicting strong winds and rain, but the prediction had softened to light showers and cold sunshine with a certain amount of hill mist.
The actual weather hadn’t softened along with the prediction and I took shelter in a phone box in order to rummage in my bag for more layers of clothing to put on. All I could do now was hope that when the sun came up things would calm down windwise. And so they mostly did.
The Walk Begins
I set off along the beach at Sennen Cove in just enough light to see my feet by and, even then, mine were not the first footprints of the morning in the sand. As the twilight grew steadily brighter I started to make out the unmistakeable tracks of dog paws and trainers and wondered who the hell had been out already to take their pet for a wind-blasted run in the dark.
With the coming of actual daylight the wind eased off from trying to knock me over to merely trying to rip the hood from my walking cagoule. A kind of misty drizzle hung in the air. Well, I say ‘hung’, ‘danced’ might be a better word. Or ‘lunged’. This also eased off as the morning progressed, transitioning slowly from misty drizzle to a friendlier drizzly mist.
And so, in such delightful weather, I picked my way around Whitesand Bay upon which the pretender Perkin Warbeck landed in 1497 to stir up the Cornish into their second rebellion of that year.
Warbeck claimed to be one of the Princes in the Tower, having apparently not been murdered by Richard III, but Henry VII was having none of it. The rebellion was put down and Warbeck was strung up, although not until he’d read out a confession that he was merely an imposter.
As I watched the waves crash onto the beach at Whitesand Bay, I wondered if he’d meant to land there, or if the sea had given him little choice.
St Just Parish
Beyond the Bay
As I headed north the path became increasingly rocky and climbed to higher ground. And when I say it was rocky I don’t so much mean that it was paved with rocks so much as it was a bit of an obstacle course made from them.
Then, just as I was getting the hang of the rocks, it dropped me into a deep, green-sided valley — Cot Valley — with a tiny stream gurgling along the bottom of it. Beside the stream was a road and on the road was a parked van. A man beside it nodded hello so I asked him if he knew where the path continued, the signage being particularly poor at this point.
‘Me? No,’ he said apologetically. ‘I’m from Orkney.’
After a couple of false starts I found the path and continued on to Cape Cornwall (Pen Kernow), which lies a little further to the north. The cape was well known to be the most western part of Cornwall until those interfering Ordnance Survey people came along at the start of the nineteenth century and showed that it wasn’t.
One thing that it is, is windswept and the path carries you right over it, past the Heinz Monument.
The name ‘Cape Cornwall’ dates back to about 1600 and Pen Kernow is a direct translation thereof. The older name, Kilgodh Ust — ‘goose-back at St Just’ — references its proximity to the town of St Just (Lannust).
A historic tin-mining centre, St Just almost became the western terminus of the Great Western Railway until the GWR chose to stop at Penzance. It is home to just over four and a half thousand people, which is about half its size in Cornish tin mining boom of the 1860s.
The path took me past many ghosts of tin mines past, including the much more modern-looking Geevor Tin Mine, which was one of the last to close, ceasing operations in 1990. It is now a museum and heritage centre. Close by it is the village of Pendeen (Penndin), the subject of a book — Life in a Cornish Village — written by the Revd F J Horsefield in 1893. Sadly, he seems to have let his imagination run away with him, ascribing the Bronze Age hill fort of Chûn Castle to the Danes, for instance
I was now heading eastwards along the north coast of Cornwall and the path somehow contrived to grow both unfeasibly rocky and also ankle deep in mud at the same time.
It didn’t help that in some places tiny streams, having been fed by the rain and mist, crossed the path and found it easier going than their original courses. At such points, the rocks became stepping stones along the length of the now-underwater path. In other places, the path dipped down to seek out streams that had managed to avoid it, again resorting to stepping stones in order to bridge the icy waters.
As I made my way along the weather became more tricksy, first blinding me with the only fifteen minutes of sunshine to grace the entire day, which gave the wind a chance to catch its breath. And then it was back, gusting and blowing more fiercely than ever to an extent that I started to think it was dangerous as it made keeping my balance ever more difficult.
A number of tempting side paths led off inland to the village of Morvah (Morvedh) but I wasn’t beaten yet. For one thing, it was pretty exhilarating. For another, I had a specific destination in mind before abandoning the coast path. I thus shunned Morvah, whose name alarmingly means ‘sea grave’, and kept on going although I admit I was tempted.
Morvah figures in the legend of Jack the Giant Killer, for it was there that he was said to have dug a huge pit to trap Cormoran, the giant of St Michael’s Mount.
Moving from the mythical to the material, a hoard of Bronze Age gold was discovered in Morvah in 1884 but I couldn’t have seen it even had I visited the village — the gold is all in the British Museum in London (my favourite museum as it happens).
A Piskie Present
I may not have seen any evidence of giants but the piskies endeavoured to cross my path as it led past a whirlpool towards Porthmoina Cove, through a landscape still littered with abandoned mines. Littered with mines and this:
The wind got gustier, the path got rockier and muddier and climbed to the top of the large granite mass of Bosigran Head atop which is the site of an ancient hill fort. On its far side lay Porthmeor Cove (porth meur, ‘great cove’).
It was now that, with some misgivings, I headed inland. Ahead the coast path traversed Gurnard’s Head and Zennor Head and encompassed some spectacular scenery but it was also hard going and treacherous underfoot and the weather was less than ideal for it.
I thus headed inland to Porthmeor hamlet, giving up the chance to pause by Pendour Cove and see if I could hear the singing of Matthew Trewella,
the man who carried the Mermaid of Zennor, back into the sea.
The Mermaid of Zennor
According to the legend, Morveren, a daughter of King Llyr of the sea, crept in secret to hear Matthew Trewella sing in church. When one day he saw her, he fell instantly in love with her and, since she could not stay on land, he went with her back under the waves, never again to be seen.
Porthmeor comprises little more than a handful of farm houses with the B3306 running between them. I followed this road to the tiny hamlet of Treen and the Gurnard’s Head Inn. The inn takes its name from the nearby Gurnard’s Head, a high rocky headland that supposedly resembles the bulbous head of a gurnard ( a type of fish). In Cornish the headland is Trereen Dinas, ‘the castle on the high place’ and there are remains of a hill fort dating to the second century BC. I, of course, was now going nowhere near it.
Instead, I took a short footpath across a field, avoiding the zig-zagging of the B3306 and heading to the tiny village of Boswednack.
Boswednack was home to a small community of Cornish speakers in the nineteenth century, including John Davey (1812-1891) from whose knowledge the Cranken Rhyme was written down. This was the latest known traditional Cornish verse, mocking the fields of Cranken as being less fertile than the Penzance to Marazion road.
Time for Plan B — That’s B for Bus
For me, Boswednack’s major charm was that it had another zig-zag-avoiding footpath, leading directly to Zennor, where I had decided to catch the last bus to St Ives. I had made this decision based on the desire to walk Zennor to St Ives the following morning at a leisurely pace and on my having agreed to arrive at my B&B at six o’clock.
Unfortunately, it turned out that I was the only guest and the owners would be making a special effort to ensure someone was there to meet me. I didn’t want to make them wait around and there was of course no phone signal, so catching the bus from Zennor seemed like the only plan.
I missed the bus by seconds, arriving at Zennor just in time to watch it drive off into the distance. It was, of course, the last bus of the day.
Zennor was a small village with a single pub — the Tinner’s Arms — which is closed on winter afternoons. It also had a church (which is what makes it a village, that being the traditional distinction between village and hamlet), namely St Senara’s. Both village and church take their name from a Breton princess, Azenor, who was supposedly cast into the sea in a barrel by her husband amid false accusations of infidelity. She floated safely to Ireland, apparently founding Zennor on the way.
So Zennor had some charming legends (the princess, the mermaid), a closed pub, a church and, about a mile further inland, the Neolithic burial chamber of Zennor Quoit. What it didn’t have was any obvious way for me to reach St Ives by six o’clock. It was a good four and a half miles, the time was ten past four and sunset was due shortly before five. It all seemed pretty hopeless.
Hopeless Mammal. Helpful Mammal. It’s all the same to me.
The Coffin Path
One further thing that Zennor had, which I had already decided I would follow instead of the coast path was a long, mostly straight trail heading off from beside the Church of St Senara.
The two footpaths in Treen and Boswednack had also been part of the coffin path, which stretches, encompassing the B3306 in parts, all the way from St Ives to St Just. It is probably the oldest footpath in that part of Cornwall and represents a truly ancient trail.
I charged along the Coffin Path at full tilt, covering a mile and half in good time and coming to a halt at Wicca Farm. Here I realised that it connected with the very north end of St Ives whereas I wanted to be in the centre and would do better to stick to the road from here on in.
St Ives Parish
I rejoined the B3306 with terrible timing, just as it needed to climb over the 200 m high Rosewall Hill. The hill is pretty much a tor, looking for all the world like it belongs on a barren moor and my heart sank a little at the thought of climbing it, even as I was thinking how awesome it looked.
The zig-zagging road took it fairly easily, however, and I was soon on the other side, looking ahead to St Ives.
Reaching St Ives
Seeing my destination in sight, I strode towards St Ives as the light failed, all the while quoting Monty Python in my head:
Lancelot: Isn’t there a St Aaaaarrrrgh in Cornwall?
Arthur: No, that’s St Ives.
Except that in Cornish, the saint’s name is Ia, and so Lancelot was closer than the Python team may have thought. Ia was allegedly an Irish princess and a missionary to Cornwall who was martyred on the nearby River Hayle and buried where the town named after her now stands. In Cornish it is known as Porthia.
I arrived in its town centre, at the door of my B&B at three minutes to six.
St Ives was chartered as a town in 1639 but dates back to the fifth century (and the purported arrival of St Ia). It was a major fishing port in Mediaeval times but these days depends largely on tourism, a trade that arrived with the railway in 1877.
St Ives Branch Line
The railway, which is a tiny branch line out of St Erth, was slated for closure amid the cuts of the Beeching Axe in the 1960s but the then Secretary of State for Transport, Barbara Castle, chose to keep the line open. These days, with its marvellous views of St Ives Bay, it is marketed as a tourist attraction in its own right.
St Ives Harbour
As one would expect of a fishing port, St Ives has a harbour, which includes a short harbour pier designed by John Smeaton and built between 1767 and 1770. A wooden extension was added in 1864 to make it into a proper Victorian leisure pier but this was badly made and rotted and collapsed within twenty years.
Looming over the harbour is a promontory known as the Island and which, in ancient times, actually was one. Known as Pendinas — ‘fortified headland’ — in Cornish it has been the site of an ancient promontory fort and a Napoleonic-era battery. A small chapel and a lookout station grace it now.
This time: 19 miles
Total since Gravesend: 708 miles