Walking The South West Coast Path
It is absolutely teeming down with rain. Luckily we’re just at home today, making final preparations before we set off for Penzance on the train tomorrow.
At least there is no sign of the tropical heat wave that was forecast for the end of July, so we should be walking in more normal “English” conditions, i.e. drizzle interspersed with medium rain, with occasional heavy showers timed for whenever you hope to stop for a picnic.
I have tried to instigate a new approach to packing, in preparation for our big trip next year, but this has only been partially successful. I blame the fact that next week we are going to have the luxury of luggage transfers between each overnight stop, so the pressure isn’t really on to minimize our stuff.
Looking forward to the train journey tomorrow, as a few weeks ago I somehow managed to book seats in the first class carriage for less than the price of the standard seats. This seems to be possible every so often, although I don’t understand why. To be honest the only real difference in first class is that you get slightly wider seats, which I presume is related to the availability of free snacks, thus requiring that little extra wiggle room for your first class regulars.
The train journey is also very scenic, with the line built practically on the beach between Exmouth and Dawlish Warren. So it ought to be a pleasant 4 hour journey down from Bristol, before the walking starts in earnest on Sunday.
Day 1 – Bristol to Penzance
After the torrential downpour yesterday, some last minute shopping was required first thing on day 1 to stock up on some wet weather gear that I hadn’t originally anticipated needing in July. We’re now kitted up for whatever the English summer could possibly throw at us, with everything from shorts and flip-flops through to full body waterproofs.
The train journey was as lovely as I had expected, with stunning scenery almost the entire way.
The first half of the journey was familiar from previous trips to the Devon coast, from Brunel’s Clifton suspension bridge over the River Avon, down through the Somerset levels, and then the spectacular beach skimming track around Dawlish Warren, when all you can see from the train is fresh ocean. It feels as though you are on a Mediterranean cruise rather than British rail.
The journey through Cornwall was a new experience, primarily through the centre of the county rather than along either coast. This provided glimpses of lush green valleys and undulating hillsides that you tend to overlook when battling through holiday traffic jams in the car.
Kiera managed to amuse herself for most of the journey down, enjoying the views and starting work on her own travel journal. It took until Redruth before any real signs of mutiny started to appear. By this time we were close enough for me to confirm that we were indeed “nearly there”, which must rank alongside “maybe later” as one of my most useful parenting catchphrases.
We enjoyed the trip down sitting opposite a nice couple from Sheffield, who were heading to St Ives to meet up with their son. I am usually content to bury myself in a book during any long journey, but on this occasion I did manage to throw in a degree of sociability, mainly exchanging information about the changing scenery outside our window, but also discussing our respective plans for the week. We didn’t get as far as swapping any personal information, like names, but it was only a four-hour journey after all and I usually reserve introductions for a second date. But they were a really happy couple, and it was nice to have some adult conversation.
We made a bee line for our B&B once in Penzance, mainly so that we could dump our stuff before setting out to explore the town. We are staying at Lombard House, which is in a pretty row of Regency era terrace houses overlooking the beachfront, and which Kiera loves because the outside of the house is painted pink.
Initial impression of Penzance is that it is a proper, working seaside community, with a heavy reliance on fishing and tourism, but not jazzed up artificially to attract tourists. One of the towns main draws also appears to be the ferry link that it provides to the Scilly Isles, which I have now made a note of and will be aiming to incorporate into my plans next time I visit.
The town centre was initially uninspiring, with the standard mix of stores that one comes to expect in any British high street, alongside the “traditional” Cornish pasty outlets that are a necessary feature in this part of the world. Trailing off the high street, however, were some much more interesting looking side streets, full of cobbles and independent shops.
Dinner tonight was at the Turks Head, reputedly the oldest pub in Penzance, with records back to the 13th Century, but luckily with some more modern dining options. Kiera was very brave and tried fish and chips, which she won’t eat at home but does seem to enjoy whenever we visit the seaside. I put this down to the very high standards that Kiera likes to set for most things, such that anything other than freshly caught fish is deemed sub-par and not really worthy of her culinary tastes.
After a successful dinner, including possibly the nicest treacle tart that I’ve had since my last treacle tart, we just about had time for some very artful, landscape photography, which is a skill that I feel worth developing before our round the world trip next year. A hundred or so snaps later, I now just need to work out how to get photos to magic themselves from my camera onto this iPad so that I can add some colour to this narrative. I’m too tired to work this out tonight, but before too long I will crack it so that you can share in my artfulness.
Day 2 – Penzance to Prussia Cove (7.5 miles)
Very pleased with ourselves today, having managed to survive our first walking stage unscathed. Also satisfying to get some good use out of the wet weather gear that we purchased yesterday, as the day started with some reasonably persistent and heavy rain.
The walk out of Penzance was flat and misty, but it was great to get going and cover some easy ground. The highlight of the 3 miles into Marazion was the ever changing view of St Michael’s Mount, which sits on a small island perched just off the coast. At low tide it is possible to walk across to the Island, but when we arrived the waves were above head height, so we made do instead with a little wander around Marazion.
Marazion is worth a visit, with some lovely places to eat and a few impressive but not too imposing art shops / galleries. We had a drink in Chapel Rock and a nosey around some of the galleries, before deciding that we had best press on. We narrowly escaped spending a few hundred pounds on some artefacts that Kiera wanted to take home and some Troika pottery that I discovered.
The route became slightly more undulating after Marazion and we had our first taster of Cornish cliff-tops, along with some pleasing views back to Penzance. Lunch was late, but worth the wait, at Peppercorn Kitchen in Perran Sands. I can’t recommend this place highly enough, as they managed to produce a wonderful lunch from a kitchen just about big enough for one person, plus they had some of the best meringues I have ever seen, or tasted.
After our late lunch, we had to slightly hurry the last section of today’s route in order to make our pre-arranged taxi rendezvous at 4pm. This was necessary today because there was no accommodation available at Prussia Cove, so we’re spending a second night in Penzance. We got extremely lucky just before Prussia Cove, when we were suddenly stopped on the path by two groups of fellow walkers, who very kindly pointed out a seal that was fishing just off the coast and could just be seen in the dark grey waters popping his head out for some air.
This was the only time today that we encountered any traffic on the path whatsoever, as the way had been otherwise quiet apart from some occasional dog walkers, so it was nice to pause for a few minutes to watch the seal bobbing around and exchange greetings with some other hardy travellers. Not sure we’re anywhere near hardy ourselves yet, but it was nice to look the part and pretend that we’re just a normal part of the Cornish landscape.
Back in Penzance we turned to a key staple of the Cornish diet to replenish our lost energy, with a chicken curry from the local “Taj Mahal”. On to Porthleven tomorrow, and with some 40-50 mph winds forecast we should glide along the cliffs in double time.
Day 3 – Prussia Cove to Porthleven (7.5 miles)
A taxi return from Penzance brought us back to Prussia Cove this morning, so that we could re-start our walk from the same spot that we finished last night.
Yesterday’s rain was replaced with today’s gale force winds, which made for some great waves and sea spray, and also added an extra element of excitement to our first really big cliffs of the walk.
Kiera started the day in fine spirits and is really enjoying her role as expedition photographer.
Today’s walk was mostly alongside a series of impressive Cornish cliffs, with Kiera’s favourite being “Rinsey Head”, largely because it sounded funny and conjured up images of hair washing. I preferred Bessy’s cove, which was the scene of long ago smuggling operations, possibly with a few more recent duty-free trips thrown in for old times sake.
Lunch arrived in Praa Sands at a beachside cafe called Sandbar, where we were able to eat while amusing ourselves watching the local surf school teach newcomers how to fall safely into the water. At least that’s what they appeared to be teaching from our vantage point.
The afternoon brought more steep walking, with some spectacular viewpoints and hair-raising descents. We are certainly not setting any speed records on our walk, but Kiera is doing well to keep going considering that some of the climbs are tough going for me and practically involve vertical crawling for her.
The highlight of this afternoon was unexpectedly encountering some former copper mines – think Poldark, part of which was apparently filmed around here. It was great to see these relics from c1850 still standing today, and a good reminder that these cliffs were once the source of valuable raw materials.
Our final approach into Porthleven brought relief to us both, as we hadn’t much stopped today apart from lunch, so a break from the cliffs and wind was welcome. Porthleven harbour looked industrious, with plenty of working fishing boats moored up, no doubt ready for an early start tomorrow.
There is also clearly a thriving tourism industry here too, witnessed by the plethora of very smart and tasty looking restaurants. There is a good mix of local fish and chip joints, interspersed with some more modern options. Rick Stein has managed to locate Porthleven, so if nothing else this suggests the place is popular. We ate at “The Square”, because the seafood options sounded nice and also because it was a very short walk from “The Harbour Inn”, which is where we’re staying. Dinner was nice and Kiera is becoming something of a seafood aficionado, having discovered that fresh fish is a slightly different prospect to the fish fingers she gets for school dinners.
Planning a gentle start tomorrow as only about 6 miles to cover to our next stop at Mullion.
Day 4 – Porthleven to Mullion (6 miles)
We took some time this morning to explore Porthleven, knowing that we only had 6 miles to cover today, which to us newly experienced hikers sounded like a breeze.
Three hours later and Kiera nearly had her first proper wobble, brought on as is usually the case by any slightest disturbance to her regular eating schedule.
The plan was a good one in my mind, involving a well-timed lunch break at Halzlephrone House, but I hadn’t figured on my guidebook letting me down for the first time this week when we arrived at lunch to find no sign of the expected cafe. Some snacks kept us just about moving until we could reach Dollar Cove, where luckily there was a beach shack selling sandwiches.
Re-fortified, we had a look about St Winwaloe Church, which is an incredible old building (c14th century) built on sand dunes, before we returned to the cliffs.
Our next stop came at the Marconi centre about Poldhu Cove, from where the World’s first ever wireless broadcast signal was sent across the Atlantic in 1901. The visitor centre was closed. Kiera did well to hide her disappointment. But some remains of the original signal centre were accessible, slap bang in the middle of a cow field, which did seem a little careless to me given the historic importance of the site that is now covered in cow shit.
Onwards to Mullion, which is around a mile inland from the coast path, and we have crashed at “Mount Bay Inn” for an early night. All of our accommodation has been of a very good standard this week, so looking forward to a rest before our longest day so far tomorrow, with 10 miles around The Lizard to Cadgwith.
Day 5 – Mullion to Cadgwith (11 miles)
Wow, it was a big one today, in terms of mileage for Kiera and hills for both of us. We set off at the crack of dawn knowing that our regular pace, with plenty of stops, was only just over 1 mph, and as it transpired we took 10 hours today to reach Cadgwith.
It was a lovely walk all day, starting with a nice slope down to Mullion Cove where we ate some of the Breakfast we had just bought from the Mullion spar. We had the entire harbour to ourselves, with most sensible souls still tucked up in bed. Kiera was pleased because she’s had her first wildlife encounter of the day, with a sighting of some rabbits on the way down.
Most of the rest of today was spent on the Lizard peninsula, so-called because the local rocks are heavy on Serpentine, which has a green snake skin style appearance. The walking was hilly, as you might expect, but beautifully peaceful across the moor like landscape, full of purple wildflowers and wide open sea views.
Our second wildlife encounter was with a slightly larger species than the common rabbit, and Kiera was not so keen on discovering that we would be sharing this section of the coast path with marauding cattle. I possibly didn’t help by mentioning that cows have been known to kill hikers that get between mothers and calves, which was my attempt to explain why we couldn’t stroke the baby cows on our way through. From then on Kiera made sure to keep me between her and the wild beasts, while we took as wide an arc as was possible without falling off the cliffs that were being grazed.
The Lizard was also teeming with birds of prey, which would sometimes hover within 10 feet of the path, searching for tasty morsels of mouse to surprise. I believe the birds were Falcons of some description, but I am not an expert on this so need to Google to confirm precisely. In any case they were impressive birds to see so closely, just hovering for minutes on the wind waiting to swoop.
Our first real stop of the day came at Kynance cove, after an extremely hair-raising descent from the cliffs, down a section of almost sheer mountainside. Once safely down, and with the benefit of a wider perspective of hillside, it became clear that I had inadvertently strayed slightly off the main path and chosen the trickiest possible way down. Relieved to be in one piece, we treated ourselves to more food at a very nice National Trust cafe, where Kiera managed to polish off a chocolate fudge cake as an appetiser, before devouring the largest jacket potato I have ever seen, with cheese and beans of course.
Kynance cove deserved a longer visit than we could afford, so we will return for the day at some point to explore the rock pools and caves, but might stick to the path next time to avoid unnecessary mountaineering.
We reached the most southerly tip of the mainland UK at around lunchtime, and proceeded immediately to the tacky tourist gift shop, as Kiera had gone more than 12 hours without spending some of my money. We bought a plastic telescope for £2.99, which I’m sure will be a sound investment. Kiera spent the next hour attempting to walk the cliff edge while simultaneously scanning the sea for Dolphins through her telescope, which I did advise was not the safest option.
A few “dolphins” later, and we reached Bass Point, where there was a national coast watch station, supported 365 days a year by local volunteers, which is amazing, but not sure what it says about the state of government finances that it takes volunteers to keep watch out for the safety of shipping vessels around our coast. Kiera donated the last of her pocket-money for the trip into the collection box outside the watchtower, which made me feel good that she understood the importance of this cause.
Perhaps it was some extremely rapid karma, but around the very next corner we said hello to a lady working on her flowers in the most amazing house just off the path, and Kiera obviously looked forlorn after walking so far as the lady practically made her eat a free ice-cream from her own supply. Kiera was chuffed and Mars ice-cream bars are now on her shopping radar.
The rest of today was tough, as Kiera had frankly had enough of walking and wanted to stop immediately to organise a taxi. I explained about the paucity of taxi options directly from the coast path, but not convincingly enough to stop this remaining the best option in Kiera’s mind.
A long while later, we finally emerged out of some undergrowth and into the 19th century. Cadgwith was picture box Cornish fishing village, with a small harbour in the centre and steeply sloping thatched-roof houses off to either side.
I would love to live in Cadgwith, but I get sea-sick, so not sure I’d cut the mustard in this fishing community. After a fish supper in the Cove Inn where we are staying, we went for a look around and were treated to an impromptu display of traditional Cornish folk singing in the harbour. This is a real fishing community and the singing was real also, part of a clearly strong tradition passed down over generations, and it was a privilege to witness.
Kiera played with some kids in the harbour, showing once again how quickly kids can make friends, which seems to be a skill we sadly seem to lose as adults.
Day 6 – Cadgwith to Coverack (7 miles)
Today’s walk was all about ponies. After spotting signs yesterday that Shetland Ponies were grazing the cliffs, there was some disappointment in the camp that we hadn’t actually managed to spot any. So there was lots of excitement today when we spotted our first signs of pony poo at Beagles Point, followed shortly thereafter by the owners of the poo on a hillside up ahead.
We walked quietly, impersonating a safari style approach to some big game in Africa, and as we approached the hill ahead we could count five ponies grazing almost directly on the path.
Initial excitement turned to mild apprehension, with Kiera asking how many hikers had recently been killed by ponies, following the helpful train of thought that I had lain yesterday when walking with cows.
To show that the ponies were safe, I had to overcome my own indifference to stroking animals, after which Kiera was ready to start riding them.
Unfortunately for Kiera we had to leave on foot and walk to Coverack, and to maintain morale I had to promise that we would have a rest tomorrow.
With the benefit of hindsight, walking for 7 days straight over some tough terrain was probably asking a bit much of Kiera at age 7. She has done incredibly well to get from Penzance to Coverack on foot in 5 days, mostly without complaint, and mostly enjoying the experience as much as I have done.
Kiera may think twice the next time I suggest a walking trip, but I hope she has strong memories of this trip for years to come, and I know that I will.
Day 7 – Coverack to Mawnan Smith (Bus!)
Today was scheduled to be a 15 mile walk, which Kiera was simply in no mood to even consider. Given our average pace the previous week was only around 1 mph, it didn’t even seem worth trying to persuade her on this one.
I think this may be a useful lesson for when planning our round the world trip next year, in that I need to allow more time to see places when travelling with the kids so that there is some free space to play or simply do nothing.
Kiera loves being busy most of the time, but today she was quite content to relax on the beach…at least for a bit.
Without any walking to do today, we instead decided to spend the day in Coverack, which had a nice little beach and a few options for lunch, before getting the bus to our next B&B.
We also managed to hire a 2 person canoe this afternoon and explore a little of the harbour from the water. The canoe was fun, but I wasn’t so keen on the slightly damp wetsuit that I had to squeeze into first.
Dinner was in the Red Lion at Mawnan Smith after a roller coaster bus journey through the Cornish countryside. We passed signs for a seal sanctuary at Gweek, which might be worth a visit next time we’re down this way.
Our rest for tonight was at Gold Martin, which was lovely and another good nights rest was had by us both.
Day 8 – Falmouth
Having broken our walking routine yesterday, we decided to spend our last day exploring Falmouth, rather than walking any more of the coast path. This made sense to me because it also means that when I embark on my next walk along the SWCP, I can start from where we finished this walk in Coverack without having to go over any old ground.
Falmouth was once an extremely important harbour, being the first place that messages would be received by ship from across the old British Empire.
So our first port of call was, naturally, the National Maritime Museum. Kiera made a bee line for the gift shop, which is her default position in any new museum. But having been convinced that we weren’t here to buy any gifts, we spent the whole morning exploring the history of Falmouth Harbour, along with a specical exhibition that was running on the Vikings.
We finished our day where we would have finished our walk, which seemed the only right thing to do. Luckily the end of our walk also happened to be on a great beach, at Swanpool. We managed to while away the last few hours of our trip exploring rock pools and eating ice-cream. Perfect.
Logistical support provided by Mr Tim Whitaker: near water walking holidays