THE penultimate day of February saw me once again arriving in Plymouth at an ungodly hour in order to catch the first train out to Redruth. Having arrived in this old mining town, I immediately tried to leave it again. On the wrong bus.
Fortunately, the bus driver knew a blithering idiot when he saw one and pointed to the bus I actually needed (the same number but opposite direction, both having arrived simultaneously). Moments later, I was speeding down tiny country lanes towards the village of Portreath.
The weather was bright but cloudy with a slight touch of sea mist when I arrived and I leapt off the bus one stop early so as to walk down to the sea front, enjoying the cool, crisp morning.
Enthused and optimistic, I reviewed the path that I had arrived on at the end of my last walk and then, having amazed myself that I hadn’t slid all the way down in the mud, I looked to my right to see the way onward.
So off I set, climbing a fairly gentle gradient along the road to RRH Portreath, a Remote Radar Head operated from RAF St Mawgan as part of the UK’s airspace defence.
RRH Portreath has a slightly disturbing history:
Wartime Airfield to CDE
Situated on Nancekuke Common, it was built as an RAF airfield in 1940 and ceased operation in 1950 when it was handed over to the Ministry of Supply to become CDE Nancekuke. Which doesn’t sound so bad. Except that CDE stands for Chemical Defence Establishment and the Ministry used it as an outpost of Porton Down, producing some twenty tons of the nerve agent Sarin between 1954 and 1956, plus small amounts of the even more horrible VX.
After 1956, it switched to making CS gas (about thirty-five tons in total) and helped develop the modern protective NBC suits used by HM forces.
In 1978, the CDE closed, having variously destroyed or moved (to Porton Down) its stocks of extremely unpleasant poisons. Of course, in the late 70s ‘destroyed’ could also mean ‘buried on site, including in a disused mine shaft’, which is lucky, because you wouldn’t want them to anything dangerous with it that might carry a risk of contaminating local groundwater. That would be foolish.
Anyway, CDE Nancekuke became RAF Portreath again and then RRH Portreath when the RAF decided it didn’t actually need to keep men on a site rich in hideous neurotoxins, just to watch an automatic radar system operate itself.
Cleaning It Up
Thanks to slightly more stringent ideas about Health and Safety the government is now obliged to clean the site up and work is in progress to do so. Records indicate that only non-hazardous material was actually buried but even the MOD isn’t willing to take the records’ claims at face value and serious precautions are the order of the day.
The Coast Path
Unsurprisingly, the coast path left the road well before the RRH’s main gate. Equally unsurprisingly, the original path was blocked off and a diversion was in place due to coastal erosion, placing my route a few metres closer to death by poison than it would once have been.
Still, at least it had been easy going so far, with a comforting absence of endless flights of steps.
Chemical Death Fungus
Actually there were very few sets of steps, which was nice, and I briskly strode along, noting all the MOD signs warning me not to trespass on the old airbase. Behind the fence and the signs was this:
Close Encounters of the Toad Kind
The path had another little stab at being all steps but this time made it more interesting — about halfway down, a live toad was sitting on one of the steps; it came within inches of accidentally ending up a dead one.
A small stream lay at the bottom of the steps, potentially washing all sort of exciting chemical surprises from Nancekuke Common above, and I neglected to go for a paddle in its waters. Instead, I pressed on towards the next village, which was Porthtowan.
Porthtowan (porth tewynn, ‘dunes cove’) is an old mining village that also became the day trip of choice for Redruth’s inhabitants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It is overlooked by the ruins of Wheal Towan (‘dune mine’), once one of the most productive tin mines in Cornwall, earning its eighteenth century owner the staggering sum of a guinea a minute. (A guinea was a pound and a shilling, or £1.05 in modern terms, and worth a lot more then).
These days, there isn’t a lot in Porthtowan but it did have a pub/restaurant, the Unicorn, where I obtained a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich with which to fuel my journey.
Now powered by the Ultimate Food of Walking, I charged onwards through familiar terrain, with dramatic cliffs on one side and the ghostly relics of tin mines past dotted about the hills, half-shrouded in the mist.
Heritage Coast towards St Agnes
In short order, I came to Chapel Porth, which literally comprises a car park, a café and some toilets and no other buildings, not even a chapel.
Even so, it had a few visitors, who were out riding the waves — Chapel Porth faces directly onto the Atlantic Ocean and is apparently a favourite with experienced surfers.
St Agnes Beacon
From Chapel Porth the path climbed gently and picked its way long the side of the steep, pointy hill known as St Agnes Beacon. This gives rise to the Cornish name (Breanek) of the nearby village St Agnes, (bre anek means ‘pointed hill’).
Along the way, a number of mine buildings loomed out of the haze, these being the remnants of the Wheal Coates mine.
Wheal Coates has been worked for centuries although the ruins date only to the 1870s. The path ran directly past one of them.
St Agnes Head
A little further on I came to St Agnes Head, which allows excellent views of the coast in both directions on a clear day. It wasn’t a clear day and I could just about see St Ives although my camera phone was unable to resolve it.
This seemed to me like an excellent spot on which to sit and eat some sandwiches that I had cunningly brought with me and I was merrily munching away when an elderly man wandered past with his dog.
‘Nice café you found there,’ he commented.
Elderly Man’s tone was neutral, almost deadpan, and I had no idea whether he meant ‘that’s a lovely place to stop and eat lunch’ or ‘how dare you make the headland look untidy with your disgraceful public eating’.
‘Yes, I thought so,’ I replied with equal neutrality, before wolfing down another sandwich.
Elderly Man’s domesticated wolf stared up at my sandwich with big, hopeful eyes, sadly unaware that I am completely immune to the alleged charms of canines. I remained immune. Too bad.
Beyond St Agnes Head
Thanks to the curvature of the coast, I had been heading directly north as I approached St Agnes Head and I now found myself heading northeast a short distance to Newdowns Head and then directly east.
I was now approaching Trevaunance Cove, which also lay on the northernmost tip of St Agnes village.
Harbouring a Dream
The Tonkin family, who held the manor of Trevaunance, showed grim determination in the face of harsh reality when they attempted to build a harbour there in 1632. And again in 1684. And 1699. And 1709, by which time they were massively in debt. Success finally came in 1710, turning St Agnes into a proper port — but only for twenty years before a storm washed the harbour away. It wasn’t properly replaced until 1798, when St Agnes was at last able to embrace such profitable industries as importing coal to feed the mines and another traditional Cornish favourite: pilchard fishing. The village became a thriving and prosperous port and remained so thereafter…
…Until 1916 when another storm destroyed that harbour too. So far they haven’t rebuilt it. I guess sometimes you just have to admit when you’re beaten.
The Beach Route
As I picked my way down into Trevaunance Cove I could see that the path would next rise over a hill and drop into the neighbouring valley, which was Trevellas Coombe. I could also see that, the tide being out, I could get there without all the up-and-down malarkey by simply making my way across the beach. Okay, it had a few rocks and stones, but it had to be easier, right? Right?
Well, it may possibly have been easier. I don’t think it was any quicker.
The rocks turned out to be quite large, ranging from about a metre across to several times that. So, I essentially found myself hopping between rock pools, something I’ve not really done since I was a kid.
On the plus side, I got to see crabs and some tiny little fish and other sea creatures hiding in the pools. However, it has to be said that I’m not good at balancing on rocks and I’m frankly amazed I didn’t fall and break something. Still, I persevered and made it to the far side where a sign warned that crossing the beach was dangerous and on no account should anyone try to do it.
I was now at the bottom of a steep sided coombe, which had more tin mine ruins further upstream and a lovely little bridge across its stream.
In contrast to my journey past a disused airfield earlier, I now had a working civil airfield on my right and a couple of small planes took off or landed as I made my way along. Like Portreath, Perranporth Airfield was established as an RAF station in the 1940s but this one has been a small civil daytime airfield since decommissioning in 1946.
To be honest, I didn’t pay it a lot of attention as I was finding the cliffs on the other side more fascinating to look at.
Looking ahead, I could see now Penhale Point and Carter’s Rocks, which lay about three miles in front of me as the crow (or chough) flies.
My original destination of Holywell lay just beyond them but I was making good time and I resolved to reconsider my options once I got there — I could either stop at Holywell or choose continue on to Newquay, another five and half miles further on.
St Piran and Perranporth
Perranporth (Porthperan) in named for St Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall, whose white-on-black cross graces everything Cornish that it’s possible to stick a flag on.
The reason the village is named for the saint is that he is said to have actually founded a church there, although this seventh century site was subsequently lost under Penhale Sands until the beginning of the twentieth century. With erosion starting to take its toll, the church was deliberately reburied in the 1970s although a small plaque now marks the dune that contains it.
The sands were the original landing site of St Piran, who had crossed the sea from Ireland. St Piran’s feast day is the fifth of March, which meant that the following Monday would see the festivities of the Lowender Peran, a festival which includes a costumed march across the dunes to St Piran’s Cross along with much general revelry.
Perranporth is a resort town and I took advantage of its array of shops to replenish my supplies of water and chocolate before I set off across the dunes of Penhale Sands, having a little festival all to myself.
At the northern end of Penhale Sands lies Penhale Camp, established as an army base in 1939 and now mostly closed as excess to requirements; the MOD sold off part of the land in 2010. There is still a substantial area of MOD land however and the path runs through the edge of this, with the usual repeated instructions not to stray from the path.
The actual camp buildings, which look pretty grim and are surrounded by high razor wire fences, lie at the extreme north end close to the cliffs of Hoblyn’s Cove.
Once I had rounded Penhale Point, it was only another mile to Holywell, a small village that may once have had a holy well but no one is quite sure where.
Enough? Or Onwards?
I sat down near the middle of the village and considered my options. It was another five and a half miles to Newquay and I had enough daylight left to do that without having to race too hard. But did I really want to extend the day’s walk to twenty-two and a half miles?
Apparently, I did.
The path out of Holywell included another half mile of sand dunes although here the path seemed to take no account of the principle of least resistance and I wondered what kind of maniacs had trodden it before.
My favourite bit involved one particularly high dune where the waymarks indicated the path ran up what was very nearly a vertical wall of sand. I can only suppose on reflection that part of the dune must have collapsed but I took one look at the tracks in the sand — people, dogs and a motorbike had all failed to climb it — and found an alternative route towards the next marker.
Having cleared the dunes the path ran around Kelsey Head, which is marked with tumuli and the site of a megalithic hill fort, and then down into the valley of Porth Joke, a small bay whose cliffs appear to be made entirely of caves.
The sun was almost setting now and rabbits appeared in their dozens; at one point about fifteen of them hopped across the path in one big group.
The eastern headland of Porth Joke was Pentire Point West, which on its other side faces across the Gannel estuary to Pentire Point East and Newquay.
The Gannel (An Ganel) rises in central Cornwall near the oddly named village of Indian Queens and has a legendary noise associated with it — the Gannel Crake.
Described in the 1800s as ‘a thousand voices pent up in misery, with one long wail dying away in the distance’, the mysterious Gannel Crake is said to be the cry of a troubled spirit. Or possibly an unknown bird. Or a fox. Whatever it is, I didn’t hear it, for which I shall remain thankful.
I came down off the headland and walked along the beach/estuary bed, making my way upstream towards a bridge. The bridge in question was a tidal affair — at low tide it could be crossed, at high tide it was submerged.
The tide was about halfway in and I realised I didn’t know if I would reach it too late to cross. What I did realise, looking at the rocks at the base of the cliffs that formed the estuary sides, was that at full tide the water level would be somewhat higher than my head. This coaxed a turn of speed from my feet that they had no idea that they could manage.
It was getting properly dark when I reached the bridge and found it still easily passable.
Having crossed the Gannel, I passed into Newquay (Tewyn Plustry) and found myself immediately lost in suburbia. Knowing that my hotel was on the far side of Newquay, I struck out across the town with occasional attempts to match the streets to my OS map, which was at entirely the wrong scale for urban exploration.
Fortunately, an unexpected heroine came to my rescue in the form of a pretty surfer girl, still clad in her wetsuit, board under one arm, who gave me perfect directions to Newquay Station in a strong Scottish accent. Newquay claims to be the surf capital of the UK.
Great Western Hotel
My spirits raised, I crossed Newquay and found my way to the station, which meant that my hotel was almost opposite. I was staying in the nineteenth century Great Western Hotel, built for the Great Western Railway but now owned by the St Austell Brewery, which meant I was guaranteed decent food and good beer.
A plate of fried whitebait and sweet chilli sauce later, washed down with a pint of ale, and I was feeling surprisingly good considering I’d broken my personal distance record.
I slept like a log though.
This time: 22½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 746½ miles