Rose lands

The pandemic. Worst – and longest – movie ever. What it lacks in feel-good, it makes up for in a production line of slightly obscure British TV programmes in which a not very well known personality potters about the UK discovering things about horseshoes in Aylesbury and the secrets of the sand dunes of Southport. Only because they couldn’t make it to Andalusia or Patagonia.

Several ‘personalities’ have been walking, like most of us because there has been little else to do. From memory I think this includes Kate Humble, Tony Robinson, Robson Green, Simon Reeve, probably Griff Rhys-Jones and maybe Martin Clunes and a little Joanna Lumley. “Wonderful”, she whispers for the umpteenth time gazing upon the ruins of Whitby. Then, of course, there is Michael Portillo who, used to travelling first class and playing dress ups, resorted to the ardour and torment of some of the South West Coast Path. Michael, being a class above, was on to something.

I always thought if you were to undertake a multi-day walk then the best place to start would be Cornwall. For here, a supposedly well-marked trail guided by the sea, supposedly frequent villages and towns in which to pause, and definitely some local delicacies to maintain motivation and energy. A certain wilderness within civilisation, with cream on top.

The whole coast path also supposedly takes eight weeks to complete which makes it near impossible for most people with a life. Little sections – a la Portillo – are more plausible. I decided to create a three-day saunter (which should take two days according to the guide) from Falmouth to Mevagissey. Encompassing the quieter, less populous and – supposedly – more gently undulating Roseland Peninsula, this also meant an opportunity to explore a piece of Cornwall I had barely touched before.

So, backpack packed (and surprisingly heavy for three days staying in accommodation), I set out from Plymouth train station, destined for Falmouth and much, much more.

Day 1: Falmouth to Treworthal

Falmouth is a jaunty shipshape kind of town. I discovered this with more time than envisaged, thanks to low spring tides and ferry confusion. In fact the first part of the walk was pretty good going – nice coffee down by the harbour, fish and chips down by the harbour. Torment. The only spot of exertion came walking up from the waterside seeking lofty outlooks and bucolic scenes.

Anyway, approaching two o’clock I finally reached St. Mawes, again with low intensity effort for not even I can walk on water. The ferry allowed for a fifteen minute snoop into the world of the haves and have yachts before boarding the cheapest looking boat around. This was the Place Ferry, maximum capacity twelve with a skipper looking a similar age. One of the quirks of this journey was the delivery of a Magnum ice cream to a fellow boat person en route.

Finally, after all of this enforced lingering, I set out on the coast path at 2:30pm. Thank goodness it is the middle of June and daylight remains. And thank heavens the weather is fair.

The first stretch of the walk was very nearly one large loop: if I had continued up the hill from Place I would find a spot destined to meet my footsteps an hour and a half later. In the way, St. Anthony Head, the first of many headlands to circumvent.

In truth, this one wasn’t so bad, with fine views back to St. Mawes and a number of small, sheltered coves lapped at by tranquil waters. It only took me a mile or so on the coast path to take the wrong route entirely, backtracking when confronted with a characteristic paddock of cows and no trespassing sign. The real path proved lower down than expected, resulting in a sapping climb up from the lighthouse. But a corner had been turned.

Ahead of me stretched a good deal of the south coast of Cornwall. Most prominent, Dodman Point beckoned, knowingly awaiting my attempts to climb up it in two day’s time. As the crow flies it didn’t look so far, but I’m no crow and I cannot fly, so there would be plenty of ups and downs, lefts and rights in between. As well as stunning bays straight out of Mediterranean casting.

The first of these emerged as Porthbeor Beach, a dazzling expanse of only lightly peopled sand and shingle. It’s one of those places probably more easily accessed by boat or, of course, the coast path. Or a shortish walk directly up the hill from Place. Having walked for ninety minutes or so myself, I valued the perfectly placed bench overlooking a smaller cove towards the north.

Towan Beach gathered in the next bay around the corner: gentler, more dazzling and easier to access. In fact, if it wasn’t such a convoluted drive to get here from Plymouth I would return again and again. A couple of minutes up from the beach, a newish-looking café adds to this enticement and I would be keen to sample more of its fare. Today, it could be one thing only: ice cream.

The other irresistible thing about this spot today was the water. Under clear blue skies, warm and calm, I couldn’t help but stumble in ankle height. The small, shingly pieces of sand were balm to my feet, the clear water better to look at than linger in.

Refreshed, I marched on towards Portscatho, the only real settlement along the route today. The going was pleasant in the late afternoon light, fields of long grass and early hay bales scattered to my left, while a translucent blue sea gathered around rocks down to my right.

I had a yearning to bed down for the night in Portscatho. The backpack was starting to rip into my shoulders, the heat sapping my energy, my legs longing to laze still upon Towan Beach. Around me, locals and holidaymakers alike were settling down at the Plume of Feathers or ordering pizza to take down to the small harbour. Any one of those pretty whitewashed cottages would do me after a Tribute or two. But I needed to push on, and eventually head a touch inland to my bed for the night.

The best compromise was to grab a bottle of cider from the only shop in town and take it along the coast path for refreshment. I paused overlooking Porthcurnick Beach and took advantage of some tables positioned for daytime café lovers and evening coast path reprobates. Squished and slightly warm cheesy marmites helped the cider go down, but I still had a little left to swig as I carried on uphill.

A yacht was dawdling not far out in the bay around Porthbean Beach, the coast path dropping down steeply to the stony shore and sharply up again. I wondered if the yachties, supping on their Prosecco in the golden light, were surveying the beauty of the coast. The flat sheen of water softly kissing the gentle bays, spilling over rocks and meeting the cliffs. The wooded shore, burgeoning green and decorated with sweet birdsong. The farmlands, dotted with sheep and cows, barns and wildflowers. And a sweaty oik gulping down some cheap cider.

Lucky for them, the oik would disappear from the coast path and negotiate his way through one of the farms and limbo under a gate beside the A3078. From there, a quiet narrow lane meandering uphill, shrouded in hedgerow. At its end standing alone a cottage, decorated with hydrangeas and foxgloves and other things that may or may not have been weeds. And there, a hot shower, a comfy bed, and sweet, sun-kissed, cider infused dreams.

[Distance walked: 17.2km]

Day 2: Treworthal to Boswinger

This was to be the longest walking day but without reliance on anything other than my own two feet. With a full day ahead I hoped to have more time to linger in places, to read interpretive signs, dwell over a beer, perhaps have a nap. And maybe engage with a cream tea. In fact the cream tea became the first target.

After traversing more narrow lanes I re-joined the coast path at Pendower Beach. Watery sunshine reflected off the flat sea, a hazy brightness which made you feel encased in an otherworldly place and time. Just a few other people had made it here this early, the beach shack yet to open for business and the tops of backpacks stealthily gliding above the sea of long grass.

I could’ve waited for the beach shack to open but about a mile inland from Pendower I had noticed a spot called Melinsey Mill. This had all the promising signs: rustic buildings, woodland glades, waterside seating. And several visitor reviews praising the cream tea. However, was this enough to justify extra mileage on top of what lay ahead?

Well, of course it was and I came up with the inspired solution to pop a blanket on a sheltered corner of the beach and leave my rucksack upon it, as though I was simply heading into the water for a morning swim. The feeling of liberation and ease of walking this proffered was immediately uplifting, the route up a wooded valley every bit as charming as one may hope. A touch of steepness near the end was mercifully tempered by the prospect of tea and scones and jam and clotted cream, assembled in perfect harmony.

I’d rate it a solid seven out of ten – all components were good quality and the setting was lovely, but there was no major wow factor. Warming the scones a touch may have lifted it to an eight. Ten out of ten goes to the cheeky robin who joined me for tea and was so gullible as to expect I would leave it anything.

Today’s walk, then, was going well but what followed I can only describe as a cream tea hangover. Returning to my rucksack (no-one, it appeared, had raised an alarm of a missing backpacker in the ocean), the weight of the day ahead loomed. My neck and shoulders were still sore, a pounding headache was only eased a little by some ibuprofen and I felt a tad nauseous. But, far from civilisation (or a bus service) all I could really do was walk on.

The weather seemed to mirror my funk, with early blue sky increasingly replaced with a layer of high grey cloud, and a cooler breeze from the sea. Tide receding, I was able to stay on the beach across to Carne, where long flat stretches of wet sand mirrored the increasingly imposing cliffs ahead.

This was the run over Nare Head to Portloe, which my host from the previous night had waxed lyrical about. It’s probably the most remote section of my journey, a classic coast path rota of dramatic headland, beautiful pristine bay, dramatic headland. Up, down and up again, on repeat. If I wasn’t feeling so crappy I may have appreciated it more, but all I could really think about was getting to Portloe for some lunch if I could stomach it and perhaps a bus. Everyone has to endure their own kind of torment.

A final climb led to a field of freshly mown hay, slippery stuff propelling you over the top and down towards Portloe. Glimpses of cottage appeared through a tunnel of trees before the path turned a corner to gaze down upon the narrow inlet of the harbour. It’s an attractive view of sleepiness, a bit like a softer, quieter south coast Boscastle. I settled on a bench here for a moment of rest, a few of my emergency Bacon and Cheese Cheddars, and some 4G signal to check out any way of carrying on.

Of the three buses a day servicing Portloe I had just missed one heading to St. Austell; the next would be over two hours away and without any possible onward connection to anywhere near where I was due to be staying. I’m not ashamed to say I almost gave up, but perhaps there was an ounce of fortuity in missing that bus. For so much turned on a glass of lemonade, a ham sandwich and a bowl of chips in the bunting-friendly garden of The Ship Inn.

I can’t say I loved the exit from Portloe, but certainly felt much better about the world. The going was again ragged, the trail frequently consumed by nettles and thistles and upward and downward slopes that required the nimbleness of a mountain goat. I passed a walker on the only flat, grassy spot perched above the sea, clearly weighing up whether to take advantage of this rarity and set up camp. Further along, a Welshman informed me of a dolphin pottering around in the water somewhere, as well as something I heard as “Ardours”.

Ardours, too bloody right. It took me five minutes before I figured he must have meant Adders. Call that a snake?!

Portholland was the next destination, an even quieter, sleepier settlement than Portloe. Most of the properties here seem to be part of the Caerhays Estate and would prove quite delightful for a holiday. Beside the beach out with the tide, there was a museum situated in a phone box and a tiny place tucked a little away with a bowl of dirty mugs outside. They were still serving tea.

You never really know the moments that will sit with you for years to come but I have an inkling that something as simple as a mug of tea and Double Decker sat on the sea wall in a tiny, out-of-the-way village in Cornwall will form one of the abiding memories of this trip. Perhaps it was the sheer simplicity of it all, the comfort of a very British hot drink and bar of chocolate. The seemingly unchanging, untainted surroundings where the reach of the outside world feels far away. The rhythm of the tide and the unstoppable cycle of nature. Fulfilled contentment which walking the coast path can only muster.

Or perhaps just sometimes there is nothing better than that first sip of tea at four o’clock in the afternoon. Stimulus to move on a sunnier path, hilly but less extreme than in the past, with golden sunlight returning and happy sheep-dotted fields rolling down to the sea. Even another detour and backtracking didn’t seem so bad and it wasn’t long until I reached the final recess of the day – Porthluney Bay.

In what was proving to be a golden few hours, Porthluney contributed its part with a blessed beach nap. One of those semi-conscious snoozes where the sound of dogs barking and the ripple of the waves melds into hazy sleep and sand-flecked drool. Justification the second time this day for my decision to pack my red airline blanket, circa 2008.

A proper bed for the night lay a mile or so away, and I departed the coast path to get there with a touch more haste. Earlier in the day I had a call from the YHA in Boswinger to inform me that I was to be their only guest for the night. Both the YHA and I were astonished – every other night two months either side was practically full. The timing of this whole walk was based around the one day of availability they had. And now, the pleasure of a youth hostel all to myself, without any youth.

With this stirring prospect in mind, the walk up through a grassy meadow and along a quiet country lane was a cheering one. Views back over Porthluney Bay and the slightly preposterous Caerhays Castle gave way to upland fields of grain and pasture. A caravan park and campground emerged on my right. A few more houses meandered down towards the very last one in the village – the hostel.

Could I have ended the day any better? A cottage all to myself. A double bed with views across the fields to Dodman Point. An amazing shower. And an outdoor table on which to drink a beer and munch on some crisps generously donated to me by the couple running the place. There are certainly ups and downs on this coast path, physically, mentally and spiritually. And while the geographical high point of this trip lay directly in front of me, I felt as though I had already reached a summit.

[Distance walked: 22.4km]

Day 3: Boswinger to Mevagissey

The good vibes of the night before continued with croissants and butter and jam with tea, again generously donated to me at the YHA. With skies blue and already warming up, it was straight on with the shorts as I set off down through the fields to Hemmick Beach. I remember driving here once down the tiniest lane, a steep rollercoaster of a descent which became significantly more challenging when another car decided to come the other way. After exchanging unanimous bemused looks and shrugs of shoulders, we managed to find a slight widening by a farm gate. Mirrors in, breath in, kiss my paintwork.

Walking down here was considerably more relaxing, the morning light joyous against the hills, the sight and sound of cows in the fields evocative of a sumptuous Swiss valley. Reaching the beach I found I had the place to myself for a while, until a couple of old dears parked up for a spot of wild swimming. Without much else around, it certainly feels a wild spot, a hidden gem, a reward for making effort. There is just the one lone building sitting next to Hemmick Beach, a modest cottage that I could quite happily live in for the rest of my life.

Ambling along that fine margin between the sea and dry sand briefly evoked a feeling of Australia too, and its remote, often empty beaches. A sensation all too quickly scuppered as the incoming sea washed over my shoes as I took a photo. Not the ideal start to the ascent of the highest point of my walk, Dodman Point.

In view for so long, this would arguably be the biggest obstacle of the day, but the shoes dried out quickly and I was feeling pretty good. In fact, my body ached less, my neck and shoulders getting used to the rucksack, my ankles and thighs more conditioned for variable inclines. And the walk up proved pretty steady, aided by picturesque views and a good distribution of benches courtesy of the National Trust. Even so, with a granite cross upon its summit, you cannot help but let out a small gasp of Hallelujah.

Another corner turned and things should be fairly plain sailing from here. I was making good time and set a target to make Mevagissey for lunch, with a coffee stop in Gorran Haven on the way there. While Gorran Haven was just over the hill, the coast path takes a longer route around another headland, striding high above the sparkling Anvil Beach.

In what was turning out to be one of the hottest days of the year so far (probably about 21-22 degrees for Australian readers!!), many people were lugging chairs and towels and picnics down to the beach. I was just a tad envious, but my heart and head was set on getting to Gorran Haven for that coffee. A final rocky lump negotiated and I could espy my goal down in the bay. Just save me that table there, right next to the beach.

It was a decent coffee, washing down another takeaway YHA croissant. Around me, people from distant lands of the United Kingdom were gathering on benches, sitting on tables, milling about the narrow streets comparing the scene to the Mediterranean. Legs alarmingly red, necks alarmingly red, faces alarming red they naturally complained about it being too hot. European weather and all that.

Gorran is a pretty little place, a smaller, less-touristic Mevagissey I suppose. But I was looking forward to reaching Mevagissey, a few miles on, more for that lunch than for it signalling the end of my walk. From yesterday morning when I wanted to call it quits, walking the coast path had now started to feel like the natural way of things. I can imagine how you can easily get sucked in, one step after the other. All the while the most beautiful place in the world slowly passes on by.

While far from flat, the walk from Gorran to Mevagissey was generally easy-going; I suspect many day walkers make this into a loop, utilising some countryside lanes linking the two and enjoying a pub along the way. The final headland of note – Chapel Point – is bequeathed with a trio of fine white, stucco style buildings, sheltering a bay whose waters even I quite fancy immersing myself in. Unfortunately, while I packed my red airline blanket, the swimmers never made it into the rucksack.

You could say immersion into the cool waters that invariably lap at, pound and shape this South West Coast Path would be a symbolic, poetic way to finish my walk. That or a bloody lovely homemade Cornish Pasty. I could almost taste it upon reaching Portmellon, the final village, practically a suburb of its bigger neighbour, Mevagissey. The final stretch from there is rather uninspiring as houses and Asda delivery trucks close in. That is until the last corner is turned and splendid views of the town and its harbour come into focus.

I take my final steps down to the harbour, characteristically bedecked in a varied assortment of Union Jack and Platinum Jubilee paraphernalia. Seagulls lurk and ice creams wilt as old dears gossip upon a bench. Lost cars navigate the alleyways of doom. Fisherfolk order mugs of tea next to the quay and spin a yarn or two about old Jack and his missing lobster pots. A Brummie accent pipes up about it being too hot. And I feel just a little out of place in my rucksack.

I could be easily tempted to carry on, to Pentewan and to Par and even more afar. But I stop the clock outside Mary’s Pasties. And doesn’t life taste good.

[Distance walked: 14.3km]

[Total 53.9km]

One comment

  1. I will be watching Kate Humbles rambles with renewed interest now🤣…lovely to see you enjoying your time. You are missing nothing here but awful weather in all States….very jealous

    Liked by 1 person

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