9. Lamorna to East Portholland – nostalgia’s not what it used to be, revisiting old haunts and sick as a Penzance Pirate’s Parrot.
The early part of the 9 mile walk from Lamorna to Marazion was along an attractive, well-made path. Entering Mousehole, we paused to take pictures of the harbour, whereupon an elderly lady emerged from a lovely old granite house to tell us that we could use her private parking space to take pictures if we wanted, as it afforded a much better view. Chatting to her we discovered that she was originally from Liverpool, had been evacuated to Cornwall during the war and returned, age 17, to marry two Cornishmen (not both at the same time, presumably).
After Newlyn, we walked past the old Penlee lifeboat station, the symbol of a great tragedy which has personal resonance with me.
At Christmas 1981, the Penlee lifeboat “Solomon Brown” went out to assist a stricken coaster “The Union Star.” Sixteen lives were lost, including all eight crew members of the lifeboat: I was managing audits for the Audit Commission in Cornwall at the time, including that of the now defunct Penwith District Council. The Council administered the disaster appeal fund and I was asked to audit the accounts. It is said that because the tragedy occurred at Christmas people were more inclined to generosity and certainly the fund surpassed all expectations. Anyhow, my name is on the accounts certifying the probity of the distribution of the fund.
The walk round Mounts Bay was “a day at the seaside” after weeks of “proper” coast path. On a nice sunny day, loads of families had decided to get out on the beach. It was the school holidays, so I should not have expected the beach to myself, but this was another shock to the system.
Our accommodation in Marazion was at the decidedly upmarket Godolphin Hotel. Not the cheapest B&B on the walk, but a very pleasant billet with great views from its terrace towards St Michael’s Mount. A good place to put one’s feet up and watch the passing kayaks and dinghies while enjoying a pint or two.
After a hearty breakfast we set out on what felt like the hottest day so far. It was also getting increasingly busier by the day, all a far cry from the wilds of North Cornwall.
A sign of our more sophisticated times hung in a baker’s window in Marazion- “we don’t do sandwiches, but we’ve got baguettes.” I was tempted to respond with “I’m sorry to hear that; the ointment should clear them up.” But that would have been childish.
The walk started easily enough but we soon hit some tough ups and downs, or it may have been the heat that exaggerated the difficulty. We had another charming encounter on this stretch, meeting two small girls out with their granddad; both clutching bunches of bluebells which they said they were “taking home for their mummy”. As they both seemed so happy I resisted the urge to make a citizen’s arrest under the Wildlife and Countryside act for theft of wild flowers.
Richard was happy to see his first seal – a lonely looking chap bobbing around on his own. The seal, not Richard.
We were surprised, passing a large imposing house on the cliffs, to hear music wafting around its grounds and a few young people heading towards it, improbably all clutching musical instruments. There was little to give away the purpose of this place, just the initials “IMS”. Exhaustive research (two minutes on google) shows that this is the “International Music Seminar”, Prussia Cove, a pretty swanky place, with the Duke of Kent as patron and Sir Colin Davis as President. I considered asking if they had an opening for a Lancashire folk singer specialising in a sing-along version of “The Manchester Rambler”, but decided that my spoons playing might be a little too sophisticated for their tastes and pressed on.
As the name suggests, the Harbour Inn at Porthleven is situated slap bang on the water’s edge and exuded a warm welcome on a very warm afternoon. I was excited to discover that we had a bath, but soon realised the need for caution when, after stripping off, I opened the curtains wide to find that a throng of people drinking in the quay side beer garden had a grandstand view of my semi naked body. I hope their horror-struck faces were the result of a bad bowl of mussels rather than the sight of my ripped torso.
There are a lot of “tourists” in town tonight. I’m not being a snob, but they do seem to behave a bit differently to the average coast walker, with no eye contact, fewer manners at the bar and gaggles of unruly kids. Of course, I know that one shouldn’t generalise, but that knowledge has never stopped me before.
Lots of interesting sights today, including the freshwater lake at Loe Bar and Marconi’s transmitting station at Poldhu, from where he sent the first wireless signal to America – a repetition of the letter “S”, seeing as you ask.
The geology changed noticeably, with lots of serpentine rock in evidence. This is very attractive, but also very slippery on the many stone stiles. There is a real cottage industry in serpentine jewellery and other knick-knacks around here. Evidence that the tourist season is now fully upon us was found near The Lizard, where Kynance Cove provided another culture shock, with its full car park and crowded beach.
Home for the night was at The Lizard. We dined at the “Top House”; a nice pub with reasonable food and a life affirming quote from Louise Pasteur on the menu – “wine is the most healthful and hygienic of beverages”. I’ll drink to that.
The 10.4 mile walk from the most southerly point in Britain to Coverack was quite strenuous and a little wet towards the end. We met a friendly old cove near the cable station at Kennack Sands, where Daphne du Maurier once lived. He seemed very keen to impart the knowledge that “she was AC/ DC you know” and her husband also had “an eye for the ladies.” He concluded that this was “probably not a recipe for a happy marriage.” He also told us about the serpentine rock works at Poltesco where over 250 people once toiled. This charming and informative old codger claimed that he kept fit by walking a two and a half mile circular route every day – he looked well off it.
Before reaching Coverack we walked through Cadgwith, my favourite Cornish fishing village, where small boats rest on a shingle beach in a small, achingly attractive cove.
Pat had driven from Bristol to meet us in Coverack (195 miles), she then returned Richard to his car in Lamorna (30 miles), followed him to Falmouth (33 miles), where she left her car and got a lift back to Coverack (24 miles). Pat made some crazy trips on my behalf, but this must have been the daftest?
Coverack is a lovely seaside village and one that we resolved to revisit in better weather. Dodging the showers, we enjoyed a nice meal and a few pints at the improbably named Paris Hotel: not so improbable, though, when you learn that it is in fact named after the SS Paris which ran aground there in 1899.
We were lucky with our B&B in Coverack: The Fernleigh, run by a very friendly Cornish couple. One of the most striking features of the walk for me was the friendliness of the Cornish: in pubs, shops, in the street and in the countless cars passed down narrow country lanes. On more than one occasion we were to comment on how much the West of Cornwall reminded us of our (allegedly) friendly Northern homeland.
A momentous event on the walk from Coverack to Gillan was passing the SWCP half-way marker, on the beach at Porthallow. We sat on the wall by the marker in splendid isolation, only to have our peace invaded after a couple of minutes by a very large family group, complete with delightful children, but less delightful adults. I met this combo of friendly kids and miserable parents so many times on the walk – maybe parents are just suspicious of a grey haired old fella grinning inanely at their children.
After walking through another stunning display of wild flowers between Porthallow and Gillan, we visited the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) lookout at the mouth of Gillan creek and were invited in by the friendly couple manning it. They looked very busy, conscientiously logging passing boats and were quite critical of the “official” coastguards, saying that they were now only interested in major shipping and not concerned with small yachts. They claim that these days the coastguard relies exclusively on radar and satellite and said that if a yacht sank outside the window of their HQ in Falmouth they wouldn’t notice it!
We passed many NCI stations along the trail, but very few official coastguards. The NCI is a voluntary organisation that seems to have pre-empted Cameron’s “Big Society” and has taken over many of the old coastguard look- outs. All were unfailingly friendly and happy to show us their (coastwatching) tackle in return for a small donation. There are currently 46 NCI stations around our coast, but a glance at the NCI’s website suggests that most are concentrated in the South or Southwest of England– so it’s probably best not to be shipwrecked off the North West of Scotland.
We finally arrived at Karenza, our B&B in Gillan, having used my iphone’s GPS to find it, hidden away from the path, up a hill on a private road. The B&B owners were really friendly, giving us a pot of tea and cake in the garden on our arrival and showing us to unusual accommodation comprising a small bedroom and a separate lounge area where we could watch TV and make tea. There were no pubs or restaurants within walking distance, so our hosts offered to provide a meal – and very good it was too, as was the bottle of red wine that accompanied it. Altogether, this was one of our most pleasant overnight stops.
The next morning our hosts offered to arrange for a local boatman to take us across Gillan Creek but, not wishing to cheat, we walked all the way round. The guide book was spot-on in describing the walk from Gillan Creek to Falmouth as “gentle”- but it was none the worse for that. Gillan Creek was a joy, brimming with wild flowers in much denser clusters than hitherto. Huge numbers of bluebells and wild garlic, together with deafening bird song made for a very pleasant walk. Passing the picturesque church at St Anthony-in-Meneage, we made our way to Helford to meet our friend Kay, who walked with us to Falmouth. Waiting for Kay, we enjoyed a pot of tea and a lovely piece of cake outside a café in the former school house / church in Helford. After meeting up, we hailed the ferry across the river to Helford Passage. The river crossings were a highlight of the walk for me – probably because they gave me a breather!
Around Helford Passage we came across the poshest people since the Rock/ Padstow “axis of poshness”. It must be something to do with yachts? There were certainly many very attractive old museum pieces languishing on the river – and some of the yachts were in good nick too.
We walked through more breath-taking displays of flowers, with huge numbers of bluebells and sea pinks carpeting our route to Falmouth.
As expected, the number of tourists grew steadily as we neared Falmouth. I recalled again the observation of the old chap near Padstow that “you get a different type of tourist here.” Here they certainly were different, with an ability to brush past without a word or any other glimmer of recognition and an apparent inability to “give way” when passing along the narrowest stretches of path. Bring back the posh, but generally polite, people of Helford Passage!
After taking Kay back to her car in Helford – a long journey made longer by my insisting on using the iphone’s GPS and leading us down a few un-made cart tracks – we checked into our B&B in Falmouth. This accommodation was OK, but there were no “proper” pubs within walking distance. We popped into a beach bar across the road from the hotel on Gyllyngvase Beach and popped straight out again on account of the very loud band, playing very funky music, very badly. We reluctantly decided to try the Best Western Hotel and were pleasantly surprised to find that it had a traditional bar, serving good beer and boasting an excellent jazz band led by a superb female vocalist.
We encountered more of the “different type” of tourist again in the bar – a coach party from Wales who were having a great time, including a few (very) old ladies treating themselves to glasses of sherry. One of the sedate looking old lasses had treated herself so generously that she was slumped sideways on the couch, sleeping soundly.
Also in the bar was a family, including two teenage girls, looking as if they would be happier somewhere else ( probably the beach bar across the road) and a dad looking as if he had been dressed for the holiday by his wife, or someone with a highly developed, albeit cruel, sense of humour. He was resplendent in bright green Hawaiian shirt, well- pressed cream trousers, socks of a garish pattern to match his shirt and brand new brown, shiny shoes. He looked a picture, albeit one painted by Picasso on a bad day.
Another fine morning dawned for our rest day in Falmouth, so we decided that a boat trip across Carrick Roads to the delightful St Mawes would be in order.
We shared the ferry across Carrick Roads with a couple and their female friend who spoke in the “plumiest” accents I have ever heard. One of the women seemed to be on “transmit”, with her volume set at “11”: her voice was so loud that I assumed she stands in for the St Anthony Head fog horn if it ever goes on the blink. The noise of the diesel engine failed to muffle her mellifluous tones and we were treated to a highly entertaining monologue, covering;
- her house in St Mawes, with its “stunning sea views”,
- speculation as to whether her children had set the table for lunch on the front lawn,
- a recent encounter with “the baroness,” and
- a meeting with Prince Charles.
The air was rent asunder by the clanging of dropping names. The ferry crossing is not a long one – but, on this day, in this company, it seemed like a slow boat to China.
Our exposure to posh people did not end there. We had coffee outside the Bake House Cafe on the quayside, sitting next to a painfully thin elderly lady dressed in a post-box red anorak, who was either a yachtie or a part time marker buoy. I did wonder if she performs a “safety at sea double act” with the aforementioned fog-horn impersonator. Anyhow, her companion was a rather plump as well as plummy lady who was clearly a second home owner – I know this because she was talking loud and long about her second home, explaining how busy she was in London and what a relief it was to escape to “the country.”
The next day Pat dropped me off at St Mawes to catch the small ferry across the Percuil River to Place and the start of the 13.6 mile walk to Portloe. Another pleasant walk, but a nasty cough that I’d had for a few days was getting progressively worse and I was feeling too ill even to enjoy the bluebells covering St Anthony’s Head.
After making heavy weather of a pretty undemanding walk, I arrived at a closed pub in Portloe and after finally rousing someone, was greeted by an agitated looking old man who told me that he would ask his son if I could come in! I pushed my head through the (closing) door and shouted that, as I had just walked 13 miles and did have a reservation, I rather hoped that he could see his way to allowing me across the threshold. He finally reappeared and explained that things were “a bit up in the air on account of having the auditors in.”
By then I was feeling rough due to a rising temperature and worsening cough and my mood did not improve when I was shown to my room and found that it had the smallest shower / toilet I had ever seen. Without exaggeration, when sat on the toilet my feet were in the shower stall. All this might be acceptable in a homeless shelter or low grade bunk house, but I really do think that charging £50 per night for such accommodation is truly taking the pi*s (and in this room, you didn’t have far to take it).
Perhaps my disposition would have been sunnier if I’d not had a cough. Tonight this took a definite turn for the worse and I recorded in my notebook that I was;
“Shivering uncontrollably, sweating profusely and a very dry mouth. Also a retching cough and severe pain in the lower back. I resolved in the night that I would have to have a few days off to sort myself out, but in the morning thought I’d give it a go”
How wrong can you be?
The next day I set off walking, although I felt “clammy” at breakfast, in the hope that I could walk it off. I soon began to feel very weak and recorded that;
“This is absolutely no fun at all, like torture and worried what damage I might be doing to my body.”
So, after two and a half very slow miles, I very reluctantly bowed to the inevitable at East Portholland and accepted that I needed medical attention I called a cab to Truro, got the train to Exeter and was met by Pat, who had driven down from Bristol to meet me. Arranging the cab was far from straightforward: the phone box didn’t accept credit cards and my supply of coins was limited. I was down to my last 50p and contemplating a reversed charge call when I secured a ride.
After being picked up by Pat at Exeter station, we went to Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital’s drop in centre where I received first class treatment and was diagnosed with a severe chest infection and a worryingly high temperature. I was given antibiotics, paracetamol and a stern warning that if I tried to restart the walk too soon I would “end up in Truro hospital with pneumonia.”