LAST Monday was my fiftieth walk along the coast.
This noteworthy adventure began on an overnight coach to Plymouth. Having arrived in my favourite city, I immediately left it on the first train out, which conveyed me to Bodmin Parkway, a station which is essentially in the middle of nowhere.
I then had an hour to wait, a challenge made much easier by the station café opening half an hour earlier than indicated on its sign. I had been suitably fortified by coffee and a bacon bap (always the Ultimate Food of Walking) when the first bus of the morning appeared and whisked me back to Padstow.
By now, I had a bit of a theme going and so I decided to immediately leave that town too, by way of crossing the River Camel to Rock. Luckily enough, there have been ferries across the Camel estuary for centuries, although exactly where they cross from and to depends on the height of the tide.
I made my way to where I thought the ferry should be leaving from and spotted another man standing on the beach. I couldn’t see a jetty or anything so I asked him whether that was where the ferry landed.
‘It had better be,’ he said, ‘I’m one of the crew.’
It was, of course.
Also Known As…
Rock has gone through several names. It was known as ‘Blaketore’, i.e. Black Tor in the fourteenth century but changed to Black Rock by the eighteenth. Subsequent centuries shortened it to Rock. It also manages to have two possible names in Cornish, namely Karrek, meaning ‘rock’, or Tor, which should be easy to guess.
The area’s genius with names doesn’t end there though, for Rock is contiguous with two other villages, one called Pityme and the other bearing a name that is a personal favourite: Splatt.
Rock is a favourite holiday spot for people with monumental amounts of money such as the Rothschilds or the Sainsburys.
The village is also the home of Sharp’s Brewery.
Sharp’s can’t pretend to an ancient heritage, having only been founded in 1990, but it can justly feel proud of its popular beer known as Doom Bar, named for the deadly sandbank that crosses much of the estuary. I guess that makes the Doom Bar the Camel’s hump.
The Doom Bar
A Name Deserved
Even the actual Doom Bar only came by that name since about 1900; it was called Dunbar Sands before then. Its new name is hardly hyperbolic though — in the two hundred years or so since records began it has managed to tot up over six hundred wrecks.
It is, in fact, sufficiently dangerous that a lifeboat crew once refused to venture out near it (their skipper, in a triumph of pragmatism, opined that this was ok — he’d much rather they lost their nerve on dry land than in the boat while he was depending on them— and who can blame him?)
The Doom Bar’s 600 wrecks include just one warship, albeit one that didn’t see a lot of luck. Launched as USS Arrow, she was captured during the War of 1812. Four years later, as HMS Whiting, she ran aground, costing her commander a year’s seniority for negligence. Three seamen who tried to seize the opportunity to desert earned themselves fifty lashes each.
The largest of the Doom Bar’s victims was a barque named Antoinette, launched in 1874. She actually foundered off Lundy and then broke up under tow. A large part of her lodged on the Doom Bar where it increased the danger to shipping sufficiently that gelignite was reckoned to be the best remedy and a miner skilled in explosives was called in.
The explosion blew in every window in Padstow and produced a column of smoke visible from three miles away. It didn’t, however, destroy the remains of the Antoinette, which managed to resurface from the sands in 2010, requiring the attention of the Royal Navy Bomb Disposal Unit.
The Mermaid of Padstow
All in all then, the Doom Bar is well named, And so it should be. One local legend attributes it to the Mermaid of Padstow, who seems to have been less alluring than her counterpart in Zennor since her attempts to entice men into the waves ended with her simply being shot.
As the legend has it, she created the Doom Bar as a dying curse, and it’s been wreaking terrible vengeance ever since.
The sixty-two metre high Brea Hill is one of those places whose name means the same thing twice, bre being Cornish for ‘hill’. It has several tumuli on its summit, which is just greedy, but it gains extra points out of ten for hiding a golf course from view.
Despite my loathing of golf courses, I did make my way around the back of it though because there, in the middle of the fairway, half-buried in the sands, is St Enodoc’s Church.
St Enodoc’s Church
St Enodoc’s is supposed to lie on the site of a cave where St Enodoc was a hermit, so its strenuous efforts to become underground are entirely thematically appropriate.
St Enodoc himself is pretty enigmatic, which again goes well with his being a hermit. He might have been the same man as Enoder, a grandson of Brychan Brycheiniog, fifth century King of Brycheiniog (in modern Wales).
The poet John Betjeman (1906-1984) is buried in St Enodoc’s churchyard, which gives these lines in his poem Sunday Afternoon Service a slightly different slant:
So grows the tinny tenor faint or loud
All things draw toward St Enodoc
Betjeman lived half a mile away in Trebetherick (Trebedrek), the village past which the footpath conveyed me next.
There’s not a lot of Trebetherick to see but it has still been receiving visitors for centuries. As far back as sometime around the year 500, a man named Petroc landed there on his way to convert the Britons of Dumnonia.
An Anglo-Saxon invasion and a series of major sound shifts has mutated the name ‘Dumnonia’ to ‘Devon’ but even today St Petroc remains its patron Saint. Cornwall, of course, favours St Piran.
The Camel’s Mouth
Passing by Trebetherick brought me back to the mouth of the Camel, which, like any other camel’s mouth, is wet and full of sand. Although, with the Doom Bar, this Camel’s mouth can also be the jaws of death.
Having made silly jokes to myself about the camel’s mouth it was now time to be sensible, for I was approaching Polzeath (Pollsygh).
Polzeath is notable for not being the scene of the Famous Five’s adventures in Enid Blyton’s well-known series of books (they spend the first part of the first book, Five on a Treasure Island, moaning about not going there on holiday as they usually would.)
Still, in the books — and even in more so in satire — Julian is the sensible one, so I decided to be sensible and buy more water for my walk. Also, an ice cream and lashings of ginger beer. When there’s a good theme going, why fight it?
On foot Polzeath — whose Cornish name means ‘dry pool’ — runs directly into New Polzeath (Pollsygh Nowydh), which is ‘new’ in the sense of having been established as recently as the late 1890s.
By car, however, they are not so close as the road doesn’t run directly from one to the other. Instead they are at either end of the prongs of a Y. The road forks a mile to the east, making what is a walk of just a few metres a two mile road trip between them.
After the Polzeaths, the footpath carried me out onto Pentire Point (Pentir), yet another place whose Cornish name basically derives from the simple question ‘what is it?’ (pen tir means ‘headland’).
A steep bank rolled away from the path and over the cliff edge, so I watched my step as I made my way along the cliff. It wasn’t too steep for rabbits though, who were hopping about as if forty-five degrees is a perfectly normal angle to live your life at. A cute angle, perhaps?
For the Fallen
It was while sitting on the cliffs between Pentire Point and the Rumps, which make up the other side of this headland, and possibly while looking at the tiny, rocky islet of Newland a mile off the headland, that the poet Laurence Binyon wrote For the Fallen in 1914.
Binyon was actually too old to enlist in the Great War but he was so horrified by the carnage that he volunteered as an orderly in a military hospital in France.
For the Fallen is rarely heard in its entirety but its fourth stanza is instantly recognisable as the Ode to Remembrance:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
An Elderly Couple
While I was standing on the headland, thinking gloomy thoughts, I was bid a cheery hello by an elderly couple out enjoying the glorious sunshine. We discussed how far we were walking and how lovely the weather was and I set off again full of smiles, with their best wishes ringing in my ears.
Port Quin Bay
The path now rather casually made its way around the edge of Port Quin Bay, carrying me towards the village of the same name.
Back in the seventeenth century, Port Quin (Porthgwynn, meaning ‘white bay’) was a thriving fishing village comparable to Port Isaac, a little further up the coast. The Great Storm of 1698 put paid to that however, by sinking its entire fishing fleet and thus killing every able-bodied man in the village.
All twenty-four new widows and their families fled Port Quin, moving to nearby Port Isaac and the village lay totally deserted for a while. These days, it comprises a handful of houses, mostly owned by the National Trust, which lets them out as holiday accommodation.
Overlooking the inlet in which Port Quin nestles is Doyden Castle, a castellated folly built in 1830 by a man named Samuel Symons. The headland on which it sits is Doyden Point.
I was making reasonably good time so I sat down for a while in Port Quin and ate a sandwich that I’d bought back in Polzeath. I sat looking out into the harbour not twenty paces from an old guy doing likewise and we studiously ignored each other the whole while. Because sometimes it’s well worth not disturbing the peace and quiet.
Kellen Head & Varley Head
When I’d eaten my lunch and rested my feet, I set off on the climb from Port Quin to the top of Kellan Head. I think it’s fair to say I was in no way prepared for what the path did next
It’s not that it was particularly high, I suppose. And I was expecting some savagely steep climbs later. But suddenly the path was all steps as it rose to the top of the cliff, dropped again, and then went up and down and side to side as if it were having some sort of linear, geographical fit.
Port Isaac Bay
All wibbled out now, I was pretty glad when the path rounded Lobber Point and I could see the houses of Port Isaac, a village that prospered rather better than its near neighbour, Port Quin.
Port Isaac’s English name is a triumph of desperately latching some unfamiliar sounds onto some words that one understands. And Cornwall does love to name places after saints and other biblical figures.
Its Cornish name is Porthysek, which has nothing at all to do with the son of Abraham and everything to do with corn, which is ‘ysen’ in Cornish. ‘Ysek’ is the adjectival form, ‘of corn’ or ‘corn-y’. Porthysek just means ‘corn port’.
As its name suggests, the village was previously significantly involved in the shipping of local produce, plus of course the usual fishing. This had its peak in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Port Isaac handled such varied cargoes as coal, wood, stone, ores, limestone, salt, pottery and heavy goods.
Port Isaac Road Staion
From 1895 to 1966, there was also a near-ish railway station, not in Port Isaac itself but on the Port Isaac Road three miles from the village. Sadly, Dr Beeching had a plan that can only have been spelt out for him by acid-crazed marmots with printing-blocks strapped to their feet. And so the railway line closed.
Right next door to Port Isaac is Port Gaverne (Porthgavran). And when I say ‘right next door’ I mean usually mistaken for the same village by tourists, which is an excellent way not to make friends with the locals.
While Port Isaac was shipping practically everything it was able to, Port Gaverne was specialising in slate, quarried at Delabole (Delyowboll), five miles north-east of the village.
Delabole is not only one of the largest slate quarries in England but also the oldest one still working — it was founded in the fifteenth century and is still going today.
Unlike Port Isaac, the coming of the railway was not an additional blessing to Port Gaverne but a death knell instead. Delabole switched to using rail freight and the village’s main source of wealth disappeared overnight. When the railways closed again they switched to road haulage, which had never been feasible in the days of horse-drawn transport — and Port Gaverne never recaptured its market. These days tourism is pretty much all it has.
Ups and Downs
Well, Ports Isaac and Gaverne may have had their ups and downs but next up I was about to get some too. The path between Port Gaverne and Tregardock Beach involved no less than four steep valleys to navigate.
Such research as I had done led me to expect that one of them would be also treacherous underfoot. As it happened that was the first one.
Oh it started out innocently enough, with a drop into a valley where a stream fed into Barrett’s Zawn, followed by a tiring but manageable climb back up again. But then the path turned ninety degrees inland, running straight up the hillside at something that felt like forty-five degrees (it was certainly more than thirty).
And that would have been bad enough, what with the cliff edge now being at the bottom of the slope behind me as I climbed, but no, there was more. This part of the path, and only this part, was composed entirely of lose slate fragments. It was like a gravel of slate flakes. On a steep slope. Marvellous.
From the first moment that I put my weight on my foot to step off and it just slid backwards to the moment I reached the top, panting and swearing, it was nothing more than one long undignified scramble. Because when the going gets tough, Helpful Mammals drop to their hands and feet and scurry about on all fours. It might be low on dignity but it’s also low on centre of gravity and keeps three points of contacts on the (slipping) path at all times.
So, I scurried. And it worked.
At the top of this terrifying scramble was a pretty good view. In particular there was a good view down into the next valley, which I now had to descend into. Fortunately this path, though steep, was more manageable. At the bottom was a little bridge over a stream and I just sat there for a while, enjoying the tranquillity.
The path up from the second stream wasn’t too bad. It was steep and required some effort but the path stayed where it was when one trod on it, which was a marked improvement.
It turned out that it was lulling me into a false sense of security because the way down on the other side didn’t even have the grace to zig-zag. It wasn’t unmanageably steep but looking ahead meant looking directly down the slope of the path, which was slightly raised, and that was unnerving. I made my way down by looking at where I was putting my feet, and only at where I was putting my feet. I had another tranquil stream moment at the bottom before beginning the next climb.
The last of these valleys was tiring but not terrifying and soon I was back on a level clifftop path, fairly bombing along towards Tregardock Beach, where I hoped that the fact my map labelled it ‘The Mountain’ was just some cartographer’s little joke.
Tregardock Beach is named for nearby Tregardock, which was the location of a World War II aerial bombing and gunnery range.
Missing the Mountain
The beach is small and accessed by taking a path that splits off from the coast path to lead down the cliffs. It occupies the end of a valley, with a big pointy rocky thing sticking up in the middle of it. This was the Mountain on the map and the path led right past it.
Okay, so it led past it to another steep climb out of the valley, but it was only knackeringly steep, rather than, say, mountainous.
Two Helpful Lads
While I stood by the Mountain, looking at my map, two lads in their late teens or early twenties wandered past and asked if I was lost. I explained that I wasn’t so much looking to see where I was as to see how up-and-down it would be. The lads helpfully gave me a pretty accurate description of what I could expect and then headed off towards the beach.
I climbed the hill in front of me and set off apace, knowing that I only needed to reach and cross one more such valley — Backways Cove — before attaining my destination.
The Final Stretch
The descent into Backways Cove was one to take slowly, and I wouldn’t want to do it in the wet, but it was soon done and the climb out was a lot gentler although it did unexpectedly end in a field full of cows.
The way on from the field wasn’t obvious and I pretty soon got lost in some farmer’s field system but I figured the farm had to have a lane or path leading down to Trebarwith Strand in the next valley. I was right of course and I found a track down that turned out to be a lot gentler than the official coast path. I had now reached Trebarwith Strand.
Trebarwith Strand (Trebervedh Sian) is a tiny hamlet facing into a bay called Port William, which is also the name of the hamlet’s pub. It has one road, which heads to a crossroads about half a mile inland, where one may turn south to the actual hamlet of Trebarwith or north to the larger village of Treknow. Straight on would lead to the B3263.
The Mill House
I was staying at an inn called the Mill House, right next to the crossroads, and so I trekked a final half mile inland (which doesn’t count for my mileage total).
The inn was very welcoming and they fed me and watered me and ruefully apologised for putting me in a top floor room, meaning I had to navigate a couple more flights of stairs. After all that walking, plus a hearty meal and a pint of Doom Bar or two, I slept like an anaesthetised sloth.
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 784 miles
113 points compared to 19 Or 21 versus 22 if you use the Cornish versions