LAST weekend, with the Met Office promising snow for much of the country, was obviously going to be dangerously unsuitable for walking further along the coast.
Or was it?
On closer examination, snow was predicted for large parts of Britain but not Cornwall and West Devon, which, being a degree or two warmer, would get patchy rain instead. And so, armed with my trusty cagoule, I set off…
Getting to St Ives
The overnight coach deposited me in Plymouth at silly o’clock in the morning, from where I caught the first train out towards St Ives.
The 0628 to Penzance is a great train to catch because it comes into Plymouth as one train and then splits, each half leaving within minutes of the other. Failure to pay attention at this point will result in boarding the 0625 to Glasgow by mistake. Because if you’re going to catch the wrong train, it might as well be to the opposite end of the country to where you were heading.
I caught the right train.
St Ives lies at the end of a picturesque branch line and this required me to change at St Erth. I mention this for two reasons:
First is the rather excellent station café, a tiny little room decorated with prints of old railway posters and staffed by a very amiable man.
The menu, in keeping with the railway heritage theme, was priced in old money (although the actual prices were modern). My coffee therefore cost me the princely sum of £1 16s (or £1.80 in new money). I laughed at this and the Amiable Man generously pointed out that I’m not old enough to remember pre-decimal coinage. He was right; the pound was decimalised a month after my first birthday.
This led to a conversation about the different decimalisation methods used across the Commonwealth — e.g. we kept the pound and decimalised the pence whereas Australia converted one pound to two dollars, keeping the cent at a more similar value to the penny (1c = 1.2d as opposed to 1p = 2.4d in the UK).
Summoning the Rain
The second reason is that this then somehow morphed into a brief chat about walking, during which I uttered the foolish words ‘I’m hoping the rain holds off until this afternoon’. On stepping back out of the café, I naturally found that the rain had already started.
It then didn’t stop. All day.
I returned to St Ives at about twenty past nine in the morning, setting off eastwards under grey skies and light drizzle.
The path was mostly metalled as it skirted St Ives, passing Porthminster Beach and heading for the larger Carbis Bay. I shared it with a number of bedraggled dog-walkers, who all looked cold, wet and miserable. I don’t think my cheery demeanour rubbed off on them as I passed.
A Polychromatic Polygon
As the path reached Carbis Bay, a mere mile on from where I started, a narrow footbridge crossed the single track of the railway line. I had just crossed the line and was about to descend from the bridge when I found my path completely blocked by a polychromatic polygon approaching me slowly up the stairs.
The polygon turned out to be a young woman with a colourful umbrella; she was much more cheerful than any of the dog-walkers, possibly because she was a lot drier. However, because she had angled the umbrella up the stairs for optimum blocking of the rain, she essentially couldn’t see me (or indeed where she was going). The umbrella took up the entire width of the stairway, so I had no choice but to wedge myself into a corner until she passed. I think I made her jump when she finally spotted me, appearing out of nowhere so far as she was concerned.
Umbrella Lady recovered her poise quite quickly though and laughingly commented that the stairs were hard work. I agreed, neglecting to mention I planned to walk another fifteen miles at the bottom of them.
Carbis Bay Village
Although Carbis Bay (Karrbons) is technically a separate village, it more-or-less just runs directly into St Ives.
High above it is ‘the Steeple’, a 15 m tall, dark, pointed monument to the late John Knill (1733-1811), who was Mayor of St Ives in 1767 and considered mildly eccentric, not least for his passionate belief that people should not be buried in cemeteries. Knill designed and built his own monument during his lifetime, with the intention that he actually be buried in it, although as it happened, he wasn’t.
I had initially hoped to see the monument but, since it involved a one mile detour inland, chose not to. Instead, I stuck to the path by the beach.
Carbis Bay Hotel
Next to the beach was the Carbis Bay Hotel, a large, white building built in 1894 by Silvanus Trevail (1851-1903), a prominent local architect who also built around fifty schools across Cornwall.
St Anta’s Church
Carbis Bay’s village church is dedicated to St Anta, who is one of those saints who apparently has a name but about whom pretty much nothing is known. It has a peal of ten bells, which is a lot for a small parish church.
Porth Kidney Sands
The path out of Carbis Bay became quite muddy and slippery and accompanied by a range of aromas, the most potent of which were wild onions and fresh cowpats, a combination unlikely to make its way into high street perfumeries any time soon.
The sands of St Ives Bay (of which Carbis Bay is a small part) continued to my left, becoming Porth Kidney Sands before being bisected by the River Hayle.
The Hayle (Heyl) is a small river, narrow and twelve miles long, but still impassable on foot. It rises at Crowan (Egloskrowenn), a small village near Camborne (Kammbronn), and forms a wide, muddy estuary between Lelant and the sea.
Hayle Estuary is home to a variety of birds — I saw oystercatchers, sandpipers and an egret — which are subject to various legal protections.
The Cornish word ‘heyl’ actually means ‘estuary’, making it the imaginatively named ‘Estuary Estuary’. I love British place names.
St Uny’s Church
In order to head into Lelant, the path first ducked under the railway line, passing under a low bridge with very little headroom. This led directly past the Church of St Uny and onto a junction of two roads, imaginatively named Church Road (Fordh an Eglos) and Church Lane (Bownder an Eglos).
An impressive number of 4x4s were parked in Church Road as half of Cornwall prepared to take their dogs for a freezing soak in the rain.
The village of Lelant derives its English name from its Cornish one, Lannanta, meaning the church-site (lann) of St Anta. Which is a bit odd because, as already mentioned, its church is dedicated to St Uny while it’s the church at nearby Carbis Bay that is dedicated to St Anta. Oh well.
Lelant was a thriving mediaeval seaport but lost out to St Ives when the Hayle estuary silted up.
The path diverted off Church Lane along a tiny back street, which was easy going and quite pleasant. This quiet road soon met the A3074, however, which was less so, being quite busy with traffic.
I passed a turn-off to St Erth, a mile away, which was of course where I had coffee costing £1 16/- that morning. It was still raining.
St Erth or Erc
St Erth (Lannudhnol) is named for St Erc, an Irish saint who was the only person to give homage to St Patrick on the Hill of Slane in 433, when Patrick confronted the Druids. Later made Bishop of Slane, Erc/Erth was the brother of Saints Ia and Uny, all of whom figure in the spread of Christianity to Cornwall.
The road I was walking along downgraded from an A road to a B road (the B3301) as it approached Hayle alongside an enormous expanse of estuarine mud across which the River Hayle meandered.
The town of Hayle is obviously and unimaginatively named for the estuary upon which it sits.
Although there is evidence of Neolithic tin trade with Ireland, Brittany and even Phoenicia, modern Hayle mostly dates from the Industrial Revolution onwards.
Initially a coal-importing and ore-exporting port, copper smelting took over and scoria block — dark bricks made of smelting slag — were heavily used in construction of the earlier buildings, bridges and so on.
Building work was still heavily in evidence when I passed through, as the North Quay was being rebuilt meaning that the footpath passed right through a building site.
In the nineteenth century, Hayle grew to be quite powerful and managed to replace Helston as a stannary town, with rights and privileges relating to the Stannary Parliament that regulated Cornish tin-mining and other legal matters.
Although the stannary system was abandoned soon after and all its court functions transferred to other legal institutions, the Stannary Parliament itself was never formally abolished. This makes it a bit of cause célèbre for Cornish nationalists since it had the right to veto Westminster legislation with respect to Cornwall.
There is however no currently recognised Stannary Parliament, nor is one likely to be revived. There is a bunch of Cornish nationalists calling themselves a ‘revived stannary parliament’ but no one considers them legitimate.
Three Miles of Dunes
North of Hayle is a stretch of coast called the Towans, which comprises three miles of sand dunes, covered in tufty dune grass (towan is Cornish for ‘dune’).
Some of the dunes are huge and create a markedly different ecosystem as the path snakes between them.
The Towans are split into various named stretches the first of which is the oddly named Mexico Towans.
I can’t find any definite etymologies but the name seems likely to have come from Cornwall’s mining diaspora as expert Cornish miners emigrated across the world as the tin mining industry collapsed. Significant numbers of Cornish miners did in fact to go to Mexico, especially to Hidalgo, where pastes have become a part of the local cuisine.
The next area of the Towans is Phillack Towans, named for the nearby village of Phillack, which might be named for the Cornish St Felec or the Irish St Felicitas or neither.
The dunes were quite large at this point and so completely shielded from sight the excited Dalmatian that ambushed me out of nowhere in an exuberant, tail-wagging, bouncing-up-to-say-hello sort of way.
‘Sorry!’ called his owner as she breathlessly charged after him, ‘he’s excited to meet anyone he thinks could take him somewhere warm and dry.’
His luck was out.
Rather than go anywhere warm and dry, I wandered down on to the broad, flat beach for a while until it occurred to me that regaining the path might require scaling a mountain of sand. I took the first exit back to the path that I came across and this brought me into the heart of Upton Towans, also known as Dynamite Towans on account of an explosives factory sited there between 1888 and 1920.
Even after manufacture ceased, explosives continued to be stored in the Towans until the 1960s. The factory buildings were widely spaced apart to lessen the impact of an accident.
North of Upton Towans lie Gwithian Towans, named for the nearby village of Gwithian (Sen Goethyen). Although just a small village, Gwithian was formerly the administrative centre of the Penwith Hundred although this status was transferred to Penzance in 1771.
Hundreds (keverangow in Cornish) were the traditional administrative divisions of Cornwall and the English counties until 1894, when they were superceded by districts. Penwith Hundred (Keverang Penwyth) was the only one of Cornwall’s ten hundreds not to belong to the Duchy of Cornwall; it was instead owned by the Arundells, an old Norman family settled in Cornwall.
Providing Cornish translations for things linked with Gwithian seems thematically appropriate; Chesten Marchant, the last monoglot speaker of Cornish, died there in 1676. Presumably he is buried in the graveyard of its church, St Gothian’s. This is a nineteenth century rebuild of a fifteenth century construction, which in turn replaces an earlier fifth century church that was swallowed by the dunes.
Red River Inn
I had thought to stop at Gwithian’s pub, the Red River Inn, which takes its name from the nearby Red River (Dowr Conar) which, in turn, got its English name from the discolouration caused by mining effluent.
In the end, I decided not to divert inland but to keep going.
As it happened, I went rather faster than expected, losing my footing on a steep and muddy path down one of the dunes which suddenly became an impromptu mudslide. This would have made me very cold and wet had I not already been utterly both of those things.
I nursed my injured dignity in a surf shop and café in Gwithian Churchtown, which is a smaller outlying village right on the coast, about half a mile from Gwithian proper. Tea is of course the universal panacea for all Englishmen.
Between Gwithian Towans and Godrevy Towans things got a bit more gravelly and I had to cross a little wooden footbridge over the Red River, which turned out to be a tiny stream that was no longer red.
The path became a boardwalk and then it left the sands, climbing gently to the cliffs above Godrevy Point. There I had an excellent view of Godrevy Island with its lighthouse. This was the furthest point I had been able to see from St Ives when I set off and, accordingly, I felt a warm glow of achievement. Warmth of any kind turned out to be forbidden though and the rain went up to eleven in order to teach me a lesson.
Godrevy Lighthouse is 26 m high and was completed in 1859 in consequence of the 1854 wrecking of SS Nile with the loss of all on board.
The lighthouse apparently inspired Virginia Woolf, who frequently holidayed in St Ives, to write her book To the Lighthouse although the titular fictional lighthouse is located in the Hebrides instead. Still, one rainy windswept island is much like another, I expect.
With the rain battering down and even my walking boots starting to act more absorbently than I’d have liked, I squelched on. My cagoule had long since given up even pretending to be waterproof and by now was merely collecting the rain, the better to funnel it onto my t-shirt and skin. I was just glad I’d had the foresight to wrap everything in my bag with at least two other polythene bags in order to try and keep things dry.
‘Honestly,’ I thought, ‘what kind of mammal decides to go out and about at the seaside in this?’
I didn’t spot the grey seals at first, since they were more or less the same colour as the rocks. It was when I saw one moving in the corner of my eye that I noticed what they are. I may have freaked out a little bit on account of the moving rocks before my cold-numbed brain woke up enough to have an opinion.
I pressed on, the path leading me past Navax Point (Penn Kynyavos) and a stretch of coastal heathland known as the Knavocks, which was being munched on by some apparently waterproof ponies. We ignored each other as I squelched slowly past, which seems to have been some sort of test as the rain reduced back to a drizzle.
Okay, so the wind picked up making the drizzle horizontal but I chose to emphasize the good things. Like the path…
The North Cliffs
Hudder & Reskajeage Downs
The path led me past the tops of coves with reassuring names like Hell’s Mouth and Deadman’s Cove before meeting up with my old friend the B3301. Path and road continued side-by-side for a bit until the road headed slightly inland and the path did not. The path had become metalled at this point and so continued to be surprisingly easy going as it made its way, fairly levelly, over Reskajeage Downs.
That couldn’t last of course.
First the metalling gave out so that the path became mud again. I was traipsing along at this point with a field on my right and the cliff on my left and I foolishly thought ‘this is getting a bit samey’. My desire for excitement was immediately answered by a steep descent into a combe at Carvannel Downs, specifically at Portcadjack Cove.
The bottom part of this descent was steps, which was okay, but getting to them was tricky. The path here was entirely made of slippery mud and at a steep enough angle to make the dune I slipped down in Upton Towans seem like a breeze. I honestly don’t know how I made it down the slope while still upright and at a controlled speed. The climb back up the other side was a laugh too.
The cause of my mild hysteria wasn’t just relief at having made down to the bottom and up again, nor was it the onset of hypothermia (although that was definitely becoming a very real possibility). No it was because a second combe immediately followed the first. This one had a pretty little waterfall at the bottom. It also had a part where a very steep drop to the left of the path led directly to the churning waves below.
‘Right,’ I said to myself as I shuffled slowly forwards, carefully judging every footstep, ‘slip over here and you’re dead. No pressure.’
I was definitely giggling like a madman when I regained the clifftop and I stomped along feeling as if I were three miles high. This turned out to be thematically appropriate as I passed the collapsed sea cave known as Ralph’s Cupboard, named for a mythical giant.
Before the cave collapsed it was said to be lair of the fearsome giant Wrath, who would lie in wait for passing ships and attack them for their treasure and crew before returning to his ‘cupboard’ to store his loot and enjoy a yummy snack of sailors. Unsurprisingly, ships started to avoid this part of the coast, but Wrath had another trick up his sleeve in the form of hurling huge boulders at them, at least until they figured out what constituted a safe distance.
Pretty much any large rock off this section of the coast is said to be one of Wrath’s boulders.
Arriving in Daylight
From Ralph’s Cupboard it was just a (giant’s) stone’s throw to Portreath and I found myself looking down upon it at about ten to five, a good half hour before sunset and slightly ahead of schedule.
A Once-Important Port
Portreath (Porthtreth) means ‘beach cove’ and the village is well named. It was first mentioned in 1485 and four hundred years later it had developed into north Cornwall’s principal copper ore port, sending it to Swansea for smelting. Ore was transported by rail, which required a stationary engine and cables to deal with the steep incline down to Portreath harbour. The branch line is all gone now although some remains are still visible.
Beach and Beer
It was still raining as I reached the beach so I strolled up and down it a bit and then went to find a nice, warm, dry pub to sit in.
The Trek Home
Bus to Redruth
The village now being bereft of railways, I had planned to walk on the four miles to Redruth (Resrudh) in order to catch a train back to Plymouth. But on my way to the pub I made a happy discovery in the form of a bus service that was still running into the evening. A nice hot coffee and a refreshing pint of Guinness restored my demeanour and I soon hopped on a bus to Redruth, where I availed myself of fish and chips.
Train to Plymouth
Having stuffed my face, I caught what turned out to be the local stopping train back to Plymouth, which did indeed stop everywhere including two ‘request only’ stops. Being in Plymouth provided a second occasion for face-stuffing at Cap’n Jaspers (I’d been walking all day and hadn’t had a bacon sandwich yet, which is a clear violation of the rules). Then it was just a question of killing time until I could catch the overnight coach back to London.
The journey home took a lot longer than expected on account of traffic chaos. While I’d been rained on, London had had its promised snow. London doesn’t do snow well at all…
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 724 miles