Suddenly the coast seems full of people again. The daffodils are almost over, primroses line the path and in the woods at Clovelly I see the first bluebells. After the frosts, rain and mud of winter I feel as if I have come back in from the cold.
I took a bus from Newquay back to Holywell and at the beginning of my walk fell into conversation with Chris. Leaning against his fruit and veg delivery van he was smoking a roll-up. He was a walker in his spare time. “I am ex-army so I like the moors, Bodmin and that”. He walked miles, and slept rough. “I am on my own now, so I can do it for a few days”. We shook hands and he wished me luck. He looked wistfully at the cliffs, “Wish I was heading up there too”.
On the exposed clifftop rain fell heavily if briefly. I passed a few words with a dog walker, keeping my distance as her two mastifs, alert like coiled springs, eyed me with undisguised hostility. Further on I descended to Crantock Beach, the first in a succession of really huge sandy beaches, and then crossed by the tidal footbridge to Newquay: surf central. Newquay was all shorts and sandals; every other shop seemed to be beach oriented: surf hire, surf lessons, surf gear, surf chat and surf funk. Groups of surfers congregated on the sand and the sea was full of bobbing figures in wetsuits. In walking boots and raingear, I felt incongruous.
Beyond Newquay the land really opens out, enormous stretches of beach punctuated by massive cliffs and promontories. This majestic landscape is known as the Atlantic Highway. A stiff breeze was blowing in from the west, whipping up the waves into a rolling swell. Sitting on a rock at Trerathick Cove, watching the breakers crashing into the cliffs, I met Stuart. He was planning to walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats in sixty days; “my retirement present to myself”.
Another day I walked from Mawgan Porth, a big beach popular with surfers, the beautiful churchyard carpeted with primroses, all the way to Padstow and then took a bus back to the friendly Youth Hostel at Treyarnon Bay for the night. After a day up on the soaring cliffs Padstow had a big city feel for me! The Youth Hostel was almost on the beach and I woke a number of times during the night to the sound of wind and waves.
Next morning I took the first bus back to Padstow and then the first ferry over the Camel Estuary to Rock and Polzeath. I was the only person on the ferry and on the way across I chatted to one of the boatmen. He was the third generation of his family to work on the ferry. He told me that the property prices are so high here that the area is known as the Kensington of Cornwall. He said that I was just approaching the steepest part of the whole Cornish coast path; maybe I seemed sceptical: he looked at me as if to say “Just you wait and see”.
For the next three days the coast path concertina-ed up and down slopes of unbelievable height and gradient. On one particularly steep section I had to go up on all fours! At the end of the first day I stayed at pretty Port Isaac (aka TV’s Port Wen), walking down to the cove past Doc Martin’s surgery and spending the night at the school where Louisa teaches, which in the real world is a B&B.
Back on the fantastically steep coast path I met Ray from Canada walking towards me with an easy gait. “I always walk at a constant pace” he told me, “I don’t let these slopes slow me down”. That, I said to myself, has to be artistic license: by the time I reach the top of one of these slopes I am drenched with sweat, my chest feels fit to burst and my knees are howling! Mind you he did look absolutely pristine; even the mud didn’t seem to stick to him. Nonetheless …
Passing Tintagel, with its interesting clifftop church and Arthurian legends, I walked on to Boscastle, a little village at the bottom of a short narrow valley which leads up from the sea. A river runs down the valley in one direction and the sea at high tide races in from the other. I stayed in the Bunkhouse, situated yards from the water at the point where the two streams of water collide. All night the waves were roaring up the channel with the sound of a passing train, and crashing into the down-flowing river.
At the Bunkhouse I fell in with a friendly company, mostly Australian. I was sharing a room with Richard and Tobias. Richard, charming in a languidly bibulous sort of way and generous with a bottle of very fine brandy, told me that he was staying for a week, adding “I have come here to have a nervous breakdown”. I liked him a lot and sincerely wished him well. Tobias was studying to become an English teacher in his native Zurich; he was walking as much of the coast path as he could in five weeks. We had a lot in common, walking-wise; he was a kindred spirit and I enjoyed his company enormously: it was good to know that I am not completely crazy to go walking round Britain!
In the morning storm force winds were blowing from the south making the north facing clifftop path dangerous to walk on, so I took a loop inland and rejoined the path at Crackington Haven.
At Widemouth Bay, near Bude, the landscape changed entirely. Still vertiginously steep, the sandy downland soil seemed to have been stripped away revealing the bare bones and skeleton of the land. Even the beaches now consisted of heavily eroded bands of rock running into the sea. This continued all the way to Hartland Point, where I spent my last night on this walk.
Setting off early I walked at breakneck speed for five hours to catch a bus from Clovelly to the train home from Barnstaple station. Clovelly itself was a surprise. The village has been turned into a theme park and commands a £7.00 entrance fee! Rather than pay to walk along the coast I skirted the area, cutting up through an Arcadian landscape: woods full of slanting sunlight, birdsong and the first bluebells of the year.
© Nick Creagh-Osborne and manwalkstheworld.com 2016.