The next time somebody says “you’re only 20 minutes away” I think I might scream…
Getting down to Cornwall turned into something of an ordeal that I will probably remember for the rest of my days, for all the wrong reasons… It started well, but then it would, as my trusty lady had checked and rechecked my list, to, you know, make it worthy of the term ‘list’. I think that even as a confirmed list-hater I passed that test with ease.
As deadlines go I really just had one – be at the campsite in Dawlish by 9pm, or I wouldn’t be allowed to pitch my tent. So as 9pm came and went on my car dashboard clock, my mood didn’t improve. Eventually, at about 10pm when I finally reached my destination, I just headed to a quiet (ish) spot, parked the car and – after a brief wander to look at the sea (possibly the only thing missing from life in Cumbria?) – tried to get some rest. I did actually sleep pretty comfortably, until the moment I was woken at the crack of sparrows by extreme heat levels in the car. You know they say you shouldn’t leave animals in cars on a sunny day? I now know exactly how the pooches must feel. I headed off to a shop to rehydrate and realised I’d also forgotten to take my meds the previous evening. Let’s just say that at that stage I was feeling ‘unusual’.
I headed off to visit my parents, where one of my lovely yet seldom-seen cousins, and her hubby who I had yet to meet, came round to say hello… Within 5 minutes of the hellos, however, my world started spinning – I regretfully made my excuses and headed to the bathroom, then sneaked into the bedroom for a lie down. Given that I needed to be on a train departing within the hour, this was not good. Eventually I stood up, aaaand…. lay back down again. Stood up again, and tried to steady myself to go downstairs to talk to my family properly after that unfortunate introduction.
Sadly, but sensibly, they had gone, with probably not the best of impressions of me. My father packed me into the car and was giving me a lift to the station. I wondered how on earth I would make my subsequent train connection in about 15 minutes’ time. We stopped at Dawlish station, but rather than getting out and heaving my bag onto my back, I asked if Dad would mind driving me a few stops further on, to where my next train would depart. He agreed, but before we could set off again my body started to have urges. For those who aren’t aware, Jaguars have this ridiculous locking system which locks everybody in the car, so I now couldn’t get out…
“Dad, I think you need to open the door… Right nooowww!”
I didn’t know what was about to happen, I just knew that whatever it was, it was going to happen really quickly… and then, right there in front of the main platform and all its waiting travellers I threw up… a lot… And then a lot more. And then I retched a few times, and then – as you do – I shut the door again, received a thank you from Dad for not depositing that lot in his prized car, and off we headed to Teignmouth station.
There I eventually boarded the late train, and after a bus trip a few hours later I hopped out at the YHA in St Just. Feeling rather better than when I had set off, thankfully! Needless to say I was very happy to arrive and find a bed to lie down on! Before I knew it, morning had arrived. I wasn’t exactly bright and breezy, but certainly I was a different man compared to the day before. I tucked in to a large fry-up breakfast and checked every weather website I could find. Most were in agreement that today would bring rain early on, and that storms were expected the following day. We don’t like storms… not when camping. Essentially, it was this weather prediction that motivated me to get out and make the most of this decent, clear-ish day. There were three potential campsites on the way to where I hoped to reach on foot, even though I suspected that one of the three was little more than a field. But did I really want to be in a tent at any one of them for the following 24 hours, with storms on the way? Hmmm. No sireee!
All I needed to do now was to pick up the bag and go. Sometimes, I think pixies put rocks in my rucksack just to slow me down! Thankfully, once it’s on my back, the weight is less of a bother until I get to places where scrambling is required. Then, it’s a fight against gravity as I twist and contort to manoeuvre over rocks and uneven areas, and the rucksack lurches as though trying to pull me over. Believe me, 20 miles into such a hike and it wouldn’t take much for the rucksack to win and ground me.
Land’s End was supposed to be the start point of the hike for me. Unfortunately I had been unaware that Land’s End YHA isn’t quite where its name suggests… I had the choice of a 6-7 km “undulating” coast path hike to my “start” point, or calling a taxi. Hoisting the rucksack onto my back I finally opted to walk it…
I meandered through a few fields and finally got my first panoramic view of the Cornish coastline. Things were looking good; the sky was clearing and I was pleased to have left the waterproofs tucked away in my rucksack. The path itself was fairly easy going at this stage. Everything felt right.
The South West Coastal Path can be fairly busy at times. Like other regions popular with tourists, it has some “honey pots” where the masses accumulate, Land’s End probably being the busiest. I knew, then, that I would be bumping into fellow hikers on my way, and within about 15 minutes the first of them appeared from the opposite direction. I met a group who had also stayed at St Just YHA and headed out early. Several minutes later I chatted with a couple of guys who meet up every year to complete sections of the SWCP and who seemingly felt obliged to tell me all their horror stories of different chunks in previous years… lovely. Soon after that, a couple couldn’t wait to tell me about a hike they had done last year in Turkey… It was like listening to war stories, and quite fascinating the way that each person I spoke to tried to combine their greeting with a story. Apparently, parts of my chosen section are not unlike a stretch in Tuscany, similar in landscape to a large hike in Turkey, and much more difficult than the Coast-to-Coast and the Pennine Way… Who knew?
The hikers all passed, leaving me to my own thoughts, and as I moved on it wasn’t long before I realised how much I had perspired in this first hour or so. Taking the rucksack off for a bit of respite, I immediately discovered that my shirt was soaked through. I took on water, wondering where the next watering hole would be. There was a beautiful bay in the distance with golden sands and beautiful surfing waves. At its far end were buildings… it wasn’t long before I reached it. This was Sennen Cove, where I enjoyed my first Cornish ice-cream stop of the trip.
I watched the surfers for a while before heading on my way. A short time later I reached Land’s End, but I only stayed long enough to get a selfie before heading onward, away from the multitude of people gathered there. I did take a moment to think about the thousands of people who have stood there before me before heading onward and south-eastward!
I can’t name every cove, beach, headland or rocky outcrop that I came across, as there were simply too many. I did ‘feel’ the history of the areas I passed, though, and could well imagine pirates and smugglers sailing into the inlets to drop off their booty or hide it in the many water-filled caves along the craggy coastline. Several times, coastguard and air ambulance helicopters passed overhead, and at one point there was a large lifeboat heading out to sea… a reminder of the dangers lying just out of sight both for those on the path and for seafaring adventurers too.
By the time I reached my next stop at Porthcurno, I had left most of the Land’s End tourists behind and stumbled across a new bunch, visiting the stunning Minack open-air theatre. I had run out of water, and had to climb down precariously to the beach before crossing the sand to the only potential refill place in sight: a cafe. Once there I happily enjoyed a coffee in the shade, and asked if they would replenish my water bottles. They kindly obliged, and I was grateful for their assistance. Mindful of the time, however, I didn’t stop for long. The cafe owner, like so many other folk I’d met along the way, assured me that Mousehole, a small fishing village some 12+ km away, was merely an hour’s walk. Even by my own calculation, he was wildly wrong; 4-6 hours would be nearer the mark… I was now passing the first of three possible campsites where I had considered stopping. My hope was to get to the third, and as it was only mid-afternoon. I sauntered on.
The path started undulating more noticeably, and my stops were becoming more frequent. In my initial few hours I had managed around 6 km an hour, but by now I was aware that I had slowed to around 2-3 km an hour, not through tiredness per se but more due to the undulating nature of the path (combined with crazy pack weight). I seemed to be continually ascending or descending, and rarely walking on the flat.
At a small and unnamed (on my map, anyway) cove I stopped for a coffee and began to appreciate, for the first time, the kit I had taken the trouble to bring and carry. Out came my Jet-Boil, and in under 8 minutes I had brewed a coffee, then dropped a coffee and (very annoyed to have wasted water through clumsiness!) brewed another. As I sat in this little cove a young couple appeared from the clifftop. They, too, were interested in where I was headed. The chat was very polite and interesting, yet I couldn’t help but think that my solo coastal jaunt was becoming rather crowded. When I set off up the path to the cliffs myself, lo and behold! I bumped into two lads, the first I’d yet seen who had rucksacks anywhere near the size of mine. I wasn’t convinced they knew where they were going, but they asked about the rules of wild camping and I obliged with some answers. Stopping later on I could see them several hedgerows away – they had got lost and were heading inland, in the wrong direction. I shouted across and they did actually hear or see me and changed direction towards me but I didn’t see them again, or anybody else for that matter!
I had walked approximately 28 km by this stage, although I didn’t know it, and I admit that I was suffering. I had found during several stages of the day that steps, wherever there were any, were ridiculously tall/deep. Uneven rocky paths were difficult to negotiate, and at times doing so felt more akin to scrambling than hiking. It was frustrating to walk in such conditions, and seriously hard graft, especially as the day had been surprisingly warm. The straps of my rucksack were digging into my shoulders, and the water I was drinking had stopped hitting the mark. I needed something more substantial. I had long passed the third possible campsite I’d had in mind. Having seen the awful weather forecast for the following day, I was keen to press on and find a hard shelter for the night; however, my body seemed to be having other ideas.
By the time I finally reached Lamorna Cove I was shattered and ready to stop, but there was still a good 4-5 km to go if I had any hope of reaching a guesthouse or hostel. I had clambered down to Lamorna on yet another steep path, and as I looked up at the next cliff I was about to climb, my heart sank. Near breaking point as I crossed the tiny harbour, I saw a phone booth. The phone itself didn’t work, but there was a taxi telephone number attached to the booth wall. Should I give up for today, I wondered? I sat down and smoked a cigarette. In the absence of my pipe (which I had left in the car!) these poor substitutes had to do for now… Finally I reached for my phone and dialled the taxi number. And waited. And then looked at my phone… ah. Having sat down to mull it over, considered my options and settled on getting a taxi, the one thing I hadn’t counted on was not having a phone signal. It was like being kicked in the teeth… twice.
With a long way still to go and on legs that ached to the bone, I dragged myself to my feet, heaved my rucksack on and headed onward, up the cliff path. Somehow I kept going for hours (two, maybe three) before reaching the highest point, and then came the merciful descent into Mousehole. So it had taken me more than six hours after the cafe owner had said it was an hour away. I’m guessing that guy wasn’t a hiker… Anyway, there’s a Royal British Legion establishment in Mousehole and I headed straight there. Still with no plan for my evening’s accommodation, I half-fell through the door, feeling safe in the knowledge that someone in here would help me arrange a taxi.
Almost in unison they chanted “We’ve got a live one!” as I staggered in. A good reception can always be guaranteed at the RBL. At last, after a “day 1” that forced me to push a whole lot harder than I’d imagined, I was just a cold drink and a short taxi ride away from my YHA bed… and where was it? Penzance!
Distance: 22.95 miles / 36.9 km. Time: 8 hours 13 mins. Ascent: 3470 feet / 1057 m.
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…