IF MY fiftieth coast walk had been a milestone by virtue of being a nice round number, my fifty-first was also significant as it encompassed my eight hundredth mile since Gravesend. It also passed Tintagel, which was as much as an important goalpost to my mind as Plymouth and Land’s End had been. As a child, I was always bewitched by Tintagel and its association with Arthurian legend.
And it’s better than going to Camelot, which is a silly place.
The day’s walk may have been punctuated by Monty Python (mis)quotes, quietly muttered under my breath for entirely my own amusement. It was definitely punctuated with a certain level of self-castigation — unfortunately, a moment of sudden spreadsheet incompetence had led to my thinking the walk was shorter than it was and this in turn led to my rapidly becoming behind schedule and in risk of missing the last bus out of Bude. Still, it started promisingly enough…
Trebarwith Strand Hamlet
I was up and out of bed before seven and had made my way back into Trebarwith Strand by quarter past, which was a quarter of an hour later than I’d intended.
I stood and gazed out upon a grey sea under a grey sky and realised that the sunscreen I had applied was probably as optimistic as my timings. Gull Rock dominated the view, its seagull inhabitants being the only other creatures stirring at this hour.
The gulls soared overhead, their beady eyes fixed on the ginger biscuits I’d grabbed to serve in lieu of breakfast. But a Helpful Mammal does not surrender its ginger biscuits lightly and the seagulls retreated empty-beaked to their perches while I munched away. I’d rather have had a bacon roll though.
Lanterden Slate Quarry
My legs felt like lead as I climbed from Trebarwith Strand up onto the cliffs but the path soon levelled off as it wended its way the two miles or so towards Tintagel. On its way, it passed what had once been Lanterden Slate Quarry. This pillar of rock stood proudly on the ledge, good quality slate having been quarried away from around it, leaving only this stack of unwanted material, like the geological equivalent of an apple core:
Lovely Morning, Isn’t It?
As the morning progressed the clifftop path became alive with dog walkers, out exercising canines of every conceivable size and shape. A brisk breeze was blowing but it was pleasantly warm, as each and every dog-walker commented as we passed. Because we were British, and that’s what we do.
St Materiana’s Church
Just before Tintagel, the path conveyed me past the Church of St Materiana, an eleventh century church on a sixth century church site.
It stands imposingly atop the cliffs, slightly apart from Trevena (as Tintagel village is properly known), and was restored and re-roofed in 1870 by Piers St Aubyn, a cousin of Lord St Levan (the owner of St Michael’s Mount).
This church and its mother church of Minster, in nearby Boscastle, are the only two churches dedicated to St Materiana under her Latinised name, while there is a single church in Trawsfynydd in Gwynedd, which is dedicated to her under her Welsh name of Madryn.
Madryn was a Welsh saint and fifth century princess of Gwent. More than that, she was the daughter of Vortimer and granddaughter of Vortigern, who fatefully invited the Saxon Hengist to settle in Kent. After her father’s death (he fell in battle against the Saxons who had promptly invaded in earnest), she ruled Gwent alongside her husband Ynyr.
Iddon, Caradoc & Cador
Two of their sons, Iddon and Caradoc, later became kings of Gwent, with the latter also described in the Welsh Triads as one of Arthur’s chief advisors and in later Arthurian romances as a Knight of the Round Table. Caradoc would also become the brother-in-law of Cador, whom Geoffrey of Monmouth had raising Guinevere as his ward. While much of Geoffrey’s ‘histories’ were fictionalised, Cador was an actual, historical King of Dumnonia and thus may have held court at Tintagel (amongst other places).
Ah, Tintagel, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. Not long after passing St Materiana’s, I found myself looking at Tintagel Island (which is actually a peninsula). But first I had to skirt around the edge of Trevena (Tre war venydh – ‘settlement on the mount’) and the squarish, castellated block of the cynically-named Camelot Castle Hotel.
Camelot Castle Hotel
The hotel is a Victorian affair and was the subject of a BBC South West exposé in 2010 after guests and locals accused its Scientologist owners of being a bit too forthcoming with their beliefs for comfort. I gave it a very wide berth indeed.
Birthplace of Arthur?
According to legend, Arthur was conceived and born on Tintagel Island after Uther Pendragon slept with Igraine, the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, having first disguised himself as Gorlois — possibly by means of Merlin’s magic. Which is heady stuff.
Or Perhaps Not
Except, of course, that there’s no conclusive evidence for Arthur’s existence (although Welsh poetic tradition would place him in the early sixth century). And there’s no evidence for Gorlois either — the King of Dumnonia at the time appears to have been Geraint ab Erbin (Gerens in Cornish, Gerontius in Latin), while the sub-kingdom of Cornubia seems to have been ruled by the Dux March ap Merchion, which at least gives us the King Mark of Cornwall of Tristan and Isolde fame.
Merlin, sadly, was entirely the twelfth century invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who decided to mix together tales of the fifth century British warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus and the sixth century Welsh prophet and madman Myrddin Wyllt to make a new and exciting composite figure to flesh out his ‘history’.
There is also no physical evidence of actual sixth century buildings on Tintagel Island either, although there are sufficient pieces of other debris from that period to show that it was occupied, even if it was in buildings of which no trace has survived. It is considered likely that it was one of the locations where the roving courts of such monarchs as Mark and Geraint would have spent some of their time.
There are castle ruins at Tintagel, misleadingly signed by English Heritage with the words ‘Welcome to Tintagel Castle, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur’.
The reason I say that this is misleading is because while the visible ruins are indeed those of Tintagel Castle (Kastel Dyntagell), the castle was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall in 1233, having basically been given Cornwall as a birthday present by his brother King Henry III.
He had the castle built in what was already an old-fashioned style because he hoped that, by buying into the mystique of this traditional site of old Cornish royalty, he would earn the trust and respect of the natives; the Cornish were still none too keen on the English and their Anglo-Norman overlords.
Whether that worked or not, none of his successors gave two figs about Cornwall and the castle was left to rot after he died. There’s not much left of it now but you still get a real sense of how awesomely dramatic it must have looked.
What is Your Name?
Like Merlin, the name ‘Tintagel’ is first mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1136 work, Historia Regum Britanniae, where he transcribes it ‘Tintagol’, suggesting a hard ‘g’. The nearby village of Tintagel was known as Trevena until the nineteenth century, when the Post Office unilaterally decided to rename it Tintagel — until then the name of the headland and parish but not the village.
Trevethy and Trevalga
I left Tintagel (and/or Trevena) behind me with thoughts of Arthurian legend whirling in my head. The next four miles would be fairly easy going with only a couple of serious ascents and descents. One of these was named on the map as Rocky Valley (Glynn Duwy).
Rocky Valley has been carved out of the surrounding slate by the tiny Trevillet River (Avon Duwy), forming a canyon with walls seventy feet high. The Trevillet splashes its way from rock pool to rock pool and looks pretty harmless but in 2007 it washed away its bridges in a flash flood (they were replaced).
Somewhere in the valley are two carvings of circular mazes, discovered in 1948 and initially believed to be Bronze Age but now thought to be less than three hundred years old. I didn’t see the mazes but I did see a sign on the far side of the bridge across warning that the first opportunity to leave the footpath and join the road network was two miles ahead. I resolved not to trip and break any legs and pressed on, climbing an inevitable flight of steps.
Looking back, I could see that the Trevillet hadn’t yet cut its way down to sea level; instead it ends in a small but sparkling waterfall as it plunges over a low cliff. Coming after Tintagel, this felt rather magical, and I bounced on my way with a smile.
Skipping the Settlements
The path carried me along the coast, skipping past the ancient hamlet of Trethevy — occupied since Roman times — and the village of Trevalga without seeing them.
Ownership of Trevalga
Trevalga (Trevelgi) is part of an estate owned by Marlborough College in Wiltshire, willed to the school in 1961 to protect it from development. However, the school was informed in 2010 that its ownership of a hamlet breaks charity law and it has therefore attempted to put the entire estate on the market. The legality of such a sale has in turn been disputed by concerned tenants and the whole thing has turned into a hideous legal quagmire, with all attempts to sell the estate suspended while they try to sort this out.
While I didn’t see Trevethy and Trevalga, I most definitely did see Boscastle (Kastel Boterel), as the path turned a right angle into the inlet where the River Valency (Dowr an Velynjy) meets the sea.
Two stone harbour walls, built in 1584, keep the estuary sheltered although at low tide the only thing they are sheltering appears to be a long stretch of sand.
Flash Flood of 2004
Like many of Cornwall’s narrow river valleys, that of the Valency can be unexpectedly dangerous: flash floods in 2004 struck the village with a three metre wave and peak flow was 140 cubic metres per second; a flood later assessed by the Environment Agency as one the most extreme ever seen in Britain.
Amazingly no one was killed but the damage to the village was significant. Six buildings, several boats and a staggering seventy-five cars were washed out to sea.
Boscastle derives its name from the twelfth century Botreaux Castle, a motte-and-bailey affair, of which few remains survive. The castle was the seat of William de Botreaux, a prominent baron during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II.
Prior to the Botreaux family’s rise to local prominence, the village had been known as Forrabury.
Museum of Witchcraft
In Boscastle I found the Museum of Witchcraft, owner of the largest collection of witchcraft and Wiccan artefacts in the world. But, it being too early in the season, the museum was closed.
A National Trust café was not though, which allowed me the chance to enjoy a nice cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge.
Beeny, Rusey & High Cliffs
After Boscastle it all got a lot more up-and-downy with a number of hills and another valley ending in a waterfall. On the far side of the valley was Beeny Cliff, which from a distance had looked as if the path picked its way halfway up a forty-five degree slope, which was in turn perched atop a cliff.
By the time I reached this path, I’d found it was wider than it had looked from a distance and had gorse cover on both sides, making it feel quite safe and not nearly as precarious as I’d expected.
Agile Elderlies & Steep Ascents
I found myself trotting behind an elderly couple who were making good progress, equipped as they both were with walking poles. Then, suddenly, the couple turned ninety degrees inland and started ascending the hillside with all the agility of mountain goats. I, lacking that agility and remembering the previous day, groaned and thought ‘not again’.
This time the way up was steps rather than loose slate flakes, which was something of a relief, but the steps soon left any cover behind and I felt exposed on three sides as we zig-zagged our way up the cliff.
By the time I reached the top, my dormant fear of heights had started to rouse from its slumber and I sat down on a handy bench, gasping for breath and trying very hard not to swear profusely in front of the kindly and supportive Agile Elderlies, who assured me that all was fine; I’d done the hard bit now.
I was unconvinced. I knew that ahead lay High Cliff. And terrain features don’t get names like that without reason. In fact, at 224m, High Cliff is the highest sheer cliff in southern Britain but it was a little way off yet.
I used the intervening walk along Rusey Cliff to recover some equilibrium and to chat to my two unexpected companions. I was determined that I would not chicken even out if High Cliff looked precarious. Despite there being an exit to the road nearby, I would still press on.
Soon enough, High Cliff was staring us in the face.
Actually, I thought to myself, that’s not so bad. The path isn’t right on the edge. In fact, that’s pretty tame. Of course its 224m of steps all the way up without a respite, and that’ll hurt like hell, but I can do this.
‘So,’ asked Mrs Agile Elderly, ‘are you going to give up and go by road?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘that’s too much like giving up. This looks slow going though, how am I doing for time?’ I checked my phone. I was an hour and a half behind.
This baffled and alarmed me, since I wasn’t yet aware that my estimation of distance — and hence timings for the day — were every bit as fictional as if I’d let Geoffrey of Monmouth do them for me.
What I did now realise though was that if I didn’t take immediate time-saving action, I wouldn’t be on the last Bude to Plymouth bus. And since I’d paid for a hotel in Plymouth and not one in Bude this would be something of a disaster.
Brave Sir Robin Ran Away…
And so, with some regret — and no doubt appearing to the Agile Elderlies as though I had made up an excise to back out — I turned away from High Cliff and went by road after all.
The Road Route
Going Flat Out
The road route was certainly quicker and, aside from the fact I’d have liked to have said that I had climbed High Cliff, I didn’t really mind taking it.
I’m not doing these walks to prove a point or to meet a set of self-imposed rules or to quest for a Holy Grail. I’m doing it for the fun of walking at or near the coast. And the coast road was exactly that, it ran within sight of the sea and the cliffs. Also, compared to the slow, painful climb up High Cliff it had a major advantage:
The road also carried me past the pretty little sixteenth century farmhouse of Trevigue, which I would never have seen from the cliff edge as, like Trevethey and Trevalga earlier, I’d not quite have come close enough.
Trevigue has been a farmstead since before the Norman Conquest and is listed in the Domesday Book. These days, although it still has 800 acres of farmland attached to it, it is mainly about holiday accommodation and a fine restaurant.
The thought of a restaurant made my stomach grumble — a slice of Victoria sponge, while yummy, had hardly been ideal walking fuel — but I knew I didn’t really have time to stop.
After Trevigue, the road whisked me past a section of cliff called the Strangles and then past Cambeak and down into Crackington Haven. By the time I got there I’d clawed back half an hour.
The Crackington Formation
The village of Crackington Haven (Porthkrag) is well-known to geologists, since it gives its name to the Crackington Formation, a sequence of Carboniferous sandstones and grey shales with strata so folded that in places they look like a herringbone pattern.
Om Nom Nom
Unlike many of Cornwall’s little coastal villages, Crackington Haven possesses not only a pub but also a shop and some tea rooms. I was therefore able to purchase a tuna and cheddar toasted sandwich to assuage my hunger.
While I stood on the beach and ate it, I started to wonder if I could divert inland to see Cheddar Gorge when I eventually get to Somerset; I haven’t been there in years but it always left a profound impression on my psyche, much like Tintagel.
Tourism, Trade & Transport
Crackington Haven was quite busy with its occupants splitting neatly between families and retired couples with dogs. It has depended on tourism since 1893, when the North Cornwall Railway at Otterham Station (about five miles away by road) made it more accessible; it had previously been a small port importing limestone and coal and exporting slate.
Of course, the railway didn’t survive Dr Beeching and his short-sighted corporate dogma.
Flash Flood of 2004 — Part II
As I rested in Crackington Haven, I looked about in vain for any remaining sign of the devastation of 2004, when the village shared in the freak heavy rainfall and subsequent flood that damaged Boscastle. The road bridge across the stream, several homes and the pub were damaged by floodwater but all had long since been repaired.
The Coast Path
Suitably restored by my sandwich, I set off up the steepish path that led from the valley floor to the top of Pencannow Point. I can safely say that I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered next.
The path dropped then regained the clifftop at the end of a headland, turning inland so that so that the land fell away to the sea directly behind me. On my right was the steep valley side, dropping down almost a hundred metres, while on my left a massive slump ensured that the coast provided a cliff on that side too. The path essentially ran along the top of a V-shaped ridge for a hundred yards or so. I did not feel comfortable at all.
Having dragged me up to the top of a ridge that frankly woke my fear of heights fully from its slumber, the path lost no time in sending me down to the bottom of the next valley and then back up again. A brief level respite gave me just enough time to put that fear back into its box before I found myself staring down into another valley, the path in and out of which looked tortuously steep.
‘If you think this one looks bad, the next one’s a mountain,’ said a bearded walker fairly close to my own age, as he clambered up out of it.
I consulted my phone again; I was still looking to miss my bus out of Bude. With markedly less reluctance than earlier, I decided that the road was the way forward. The big question now was how to get to it.
Mr Beardy Walker
Mr Beardy Walker, who turned out to be a native Cornishman who had been suddenly seized by a desire to walk the Cornish coast now that he lived in Belgium, was spending the night in a farm just over the hill. I therefore accompanied him to the farm in the certain knowledge that the farm would have a lane that would meet up with the road. And so it did.
With the deafening bleats of startled sheep and tiny lambs ringing in my ears (I don’t know which of us was more surprised to suddenly be confronted with the other — they must have been some sort of secret stealth sheep) I soon found myself back on the coastal road, which here was also National Cycle Route 3 (Land’s End to Bristol).
Return to the Road Route
Being on the road reduced the amount of wild oscillations my route was taking, plus it guaranteed me a good surface to pick up some speed. Of course it meant I missed out passing through such places as Dizzard Wood, which Mr Beardy Walker had assured me was lovely, but I did get to see it at a distance from the road.
Just past the farmstead of Dizzard (Dyserth, ‘very steep’), Cornwall Council (Konsel Kernow) had erected a couple of signs addressing the issue of footpaths. The upshot was that some of the footpaths linking the road to the coast path on the OS map were fictional and, given the gradients they’d involve, they probably always had been. The landowner, who refreshingly was all for (sensible) access, had provided an alternative route.
I wondered to myself who had drawn these unfeasible footpaths on the map, even as I walked straight past their replacement; I had no desire to leave the road.
Just before the tiny hamlet of Millook the coast path, clearly missing my company, decided I had the right idea after all and joined me on the road. It was a bad influence, however, inciting the tarmac to immediately drop into a 30% descent. From a distance this made it look as if the road simply stopped.
As I descended into Millook I got a clear view of how the coast path continued.
According to the map the road sort of curved around the hill in front of me, only to rejoin the coast path at the top. Since I had a slight niggling feeling that I’d basically wimped out of all the actual coastline, I resolved to take the footpath up the hill and likewise rejoin the road at the top.
A girl with a dog passed me in the opposite direction and I couldn’t help but wonder how — or if — the scampering dog intended to stop at the bottom. It was pretty steep and scrabbly in places, even if the overall gradient was ok.
Between Millook and the even tinier hamlet of Wanson the road was the coast path although they temporarily parted company at the bottom of the valley through which ran the stream of Wanson Water.
From Wanson, the footpath climbed another hill in a flurry of steps, while once again, the road more or less went around it. This time, I felt I’d already laid my guilt to test and I stuck to the road.
Once it had regained the cliff top, the road remained right next to the coast with the coast path running alongside it. I stayed on the tarmac, clawing back time, as I headed into Widemouth Bay.
Widemouth Bay has historically been associated with smugglers, on account of its gentle beaches making it easier to land illicit goods than, say, sharp, slate cliffs. For much the same reason, it is also the landing point for a number of Transatlantic cables.
There are several cafes on and around the beach and it’s pretty clearly set up for tourism. But I was in a hurry now, so I kept going.
Upton and Lynstone
I passed a pub and a couple of houses while the coast path decided to quickly nip up a tumulus which the road had enough sense to avoid. And then — suddenly — the road had a proper pedestrian pavement and a small town had come into view. This was Upton and Lynstone, outlying areas of Bude.
The path and the road now parted company in earnest, the path sticking to the cliff edge before skirting the edge of Bude Haven whereas the road bore me directly into the heart of Bude.
I stuck with the latter, shaving off a mile and arriving at the bus stop with fifteen minutes to spare. Just long enough it turned out, to down a gin and tonic in the nearest pub. And for the sun to set.
Bude (Bud) was initially important as a harbour and then, as it silted up, as a source of sea sand (used for improving moorland soil). From the nineteenth century onwards it was more of a tourist destination.
It has a Victorian ‘castle’ and a historic canal and, with neighbouring Stratton, is more distant from the national rail network than any other town in England and Wales (32 miles to Bodmin Parkway or Gunnislake).
But for me, Bude’s claim to fame I’m most impressed with is that the singer Tori Amos has a house and studio in the town.
I absolutely, definitely, didn’t murder any of her songs by humming them badly on the bus
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 804 miles