Penwith is as far west as you can go in England. At the toe of Cornwall, it’s a region that looks and feels Atlantic. Its place-names are mostly Celtic. Prehistoric remains lie scattered across its open granite landscape.
Three nights we spent recently in Penwith give me the chance to taste the South West Coastal Path, as a break from the Wales Coastal Path – and a comparison with it.
Day 1 starts from Portreath. In setting it resembles Porthgain on the Pembrokeshire coast – it has a sheltered harbour and even a conical white ‘lighthouse’ – but the Basset Arms is no match for the Ship at Porthgain, the village is overgrown from its historic core, and it’s cursed with undistinguished modern housing (lacking the strict planning rules of a National Park?). But you quickly leave all this behind climbing Western Hill, where Shetland ponies volunteer to crop the grass for the National Trust, and the cliffs begin to rise to peaks and fall to coves, with a scatter of small islands offshore.
At one point the path suddenly deviates inland. The cliff carrying the original route fell into the sea two years ago, a reminder of how fragile the coast can be. Right on time, at 11 o’clock, where the path happens to touch the road, comes the Hell’s Mouth Cafe. The owner came from the Wirral, she tells me, and decided to stay in this remote spot, a friendly Cerberus with a good line in home baking (flapjacks recommended).
After a bay where dozens of grey seals lounge in solitude far below Godrevy lighthouse comes into view. It sits comfortably on its rocky island, just off a headland. To Virginia Woolf it stood as a symbol of the frustrated desires of the characters in her novel To the Lighthouse. To the eager walker, easily satisfied with a photo, it heralds the dunes of Gwithian and then a long expanse of white sand and surf, playground for celebrity windsurfers. The sand, hard and easy on the boots, merges into the wide estuary of the Hayle river. There’s no way across and the detour through the small town of Hayle adds more than two hours to the trip. I halt in the old and now idle harbour and eat my sandwiches on the quay in the sun – though it’s September, by the end of the day I find I have a sunburnt face. Then a long trek past the RSPB reserve and its godwits and oystercatchers, to return along the west bank of the estuary, following the branch line railway towards St Ives. How did this tiny line survive Dr Beeching and later accountants, I ask myself. The answer lies in the many mansions that edge the lane along its length: this is a rich and influential neighbourhood, in a county that’s far from affluent in general. A granite church overlooks the estuary at Lelant, its dedication to St Uny, the patron saint of Redruth. Past a golf course next, and then into the suburbs of St Ives.
Day 2 takes a walk west from St Ives to Zennor and back. The cliff path, about seven miles long, is rated as ‘strenuous’. It’s hardly challenging by Welsh standards, though the going is rocky and sometimes boggy. The cliffs are quite similar to those of north Pembrokeshire, with headlands and inaccessible coves. The Carracks, craggy islands just off the coast, are home to many birds and seals. A farmer has erected some bogus standing stones and a stone circle, and plenty of ‘informative’ signs on sticks. An abandoned tin mine engine house appears as a silhouette on the horizon, then disappears just as suddenly. Finally, Zennor Head juts a firm jaw out to sea, a rocky outcrop at the end featuring a rectangular window frame, ideal for the unimaginative photographer. I sat here in the hot sun with my lunch: this time I’ve remembered to bring a hat.
A short walk inland takes you to the village of Zennor, a place with 1,500 people in the middle of the nineteenth century, but now reduced to a small hamlet and some outlying farms. The church (St Senara) has a famous wooden carving of a mermaid with comb and mirror (mermaids are common in Cornwall). This mermaid, who according to local story enticed the best singer of the parish to join her at sea, caught the attention of many writers, including the Swansea poet, Vernon Watkins.
One of the verses in his Tennysonian poem ‘The ballad of the mermaid of Zennor’ runs:
The black teak near the chancel lies
And shines there like a shell.
The boy above here dripping hands
Had sung too well, too well,
The mermaid dragged him to her sands
And bound him with her spell.
Opposite the church lies an old inn, the Tinners Arms, and further down the road the Wayside Museum, unfashionably piled high with real objects and informative displays, including one about D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, who in 1916 settled nearby following the banning in late 1915 of Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow on the grounds of obscenity.
After a pint (of ‘Mermaid’, naturally) in the Tinners I start back along the old ‘Coffin Path’. This takes an inland route parallel to the coast. If that sounds dull, in truth it’s a fine walk, with echoes not of the sea but of the ancient inhabitants of Penwith. The path crosses a multitude of small fields, most of them probably prehistoric in origin. They were long ago cleared of their granite stones to form the field boundaries, except for the larger rocks immovable by human or horse, which stand where the ice left them, their shapes mirroring that of the craggy hill to the east (on top of which the painter Patrick Heron’s house ‘Eagle’s Nest’ sits). The path crosses from one field to the next by means of ‘horizontal stiles’, great parallel granite bars you skip carefully over; later on these turn upright to form conventional vertical stiles. The path’s function is to link, for the benefit of the living and the dead alike, Zennor village and its church with the farms – once they would have been hamlets as the prefixes of the names suggest – interspersed at quite regular intervals most of the way to St Ives: Tremedda, Lower Tregerthen, Treveal, Trevail Mill, Trevalgan,Troan.
D.H. Lawrence would come down to Lower Tregerthen from his home at Higher Tregerthen to help the farmer. Helen Dunmore, in her first novel, Zennor in darkness (1993), which retells the sad story of Lawrence’s stay, captures the essence of this land:
It is a landscape of irregular small fields shaped by Celtic farmers two thousand years ago. Lichened granite boulders are lodged deep into the hedges. They stand upright in the fields, a crop of stones. Lanes run tunnel-like between the furze down to the farms. Here, by the cottage, the lane dips and dampens and is lined with foxglove and hart’s tongue fern and slow drops of oozing water.
In late 1917 the locals, caught up in the paranoia of war and talk of war, dubious about Frieda’s loyalties and hostile to Lawrence’s pacifism, drove the couple away, accusing them of aiding the Germans, whose U-boats were combing the coasts for merchant shipping to sink.
It’s an anticlimax to reach the outer suburbs of St Ives and the crowds in its centre – and a disappointment to find that the Tate there has so little to show, on this occasion at least, of the strong, colour-soaked paintings of Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and the other post-WW2 painters who took their bearings from this windy granite land in the far west.