SWCP 2017 Day 5: Land’s End YHA to Porthcurno May 15th
Don’t Mess with the Effing Adders
Good advice, yes?
I had a classic full English breakfast at the Youth Hostel, before hitting the trail just after 10 am. Maybe smaller portions than most B&Bs, but perfectly reasonable. The differences from the Elmscott Farm YHA where I stayed last year were interesting; there I picked up the bed linen when I checked in and had to put it on the bed myself, and food was entirely self-catered: they sold you the food, but you had to cook it and clean up afterwards. This was more like a small hotel, except none of the rooms were en suite, and there were warnings against leaving anything electrical plugged in overnight.
If you’re just joining me, this Youth Hostel was just south of Cape Cornwall, and I had several miles to go to actually reach Land’s End. Anyhow, I had a little backtracking to get to the trail, then follow it down the bottom of the Cot valley which had various remains of old tin mines. Water power was important for the mines before steam power, and continued through their history, particularly for the crushing of ore. When the trail reached the coast, it crossed the stream on a small bridge and stayed low for a while, passing one gaping mineshaft into the hillside, before following a zigzag up to the top just short of Gribba Point. Here there were warnings against disturbing the endangered Choughs: don’t get off the path, don’t even stop on the trail while passing through the prime nesting area, as they might take offence. The Cornish Chough looks much like other midsize blackbirds except for striking red beak and legs. I kept an eye out but saw nary a one, this day or any time this hike. Well, I might have seen some at a distance such that I couldn’t make out the red…
The day was dreary and overcast, but pleasant walking for the moment. On the low clifftops, I walked through pastures with scattered gorse, and faced another boulder scramble. By 11:15, the path had descended nearly to the “beach” (jumbled stones up to 3 feet across) to cross a stream on a bridge that was basically a heavy plank; this was below the village of Nanquidno. I took a video of the stream, and another of the waves hitting the rocky beach. A bit further, I saw a most remarkable sign: “Please Keep Out, Adder Breeding Habitat.” As I say, sounds like an excellent idea, “Don’t mess with the effing adders.” Distressingly, I didn’t take a picture of the sign, although there are plenty of pictures on the interwebs. That link, by the way, is to a blog for an ambitious walk around the entire coast of Britain.
Within an hour, I was looking down on a real beach, Gwynver Beach with Sennen Beach beyond stretching around Whitesands to the village of Sennen Cove. Land’s End was not far beyond, but out of sight. At moderately high tide the two separate beaches are separated by a rocky stretch below Escalls Cliff, but at low tide you could probably walk on sand the whole way. The trail stays just behind the beach, and once past Escalls I took the option to walk on the beach and avoid the dunes and soft sand.
In Sennen Cove I stopped at the first food stand that offered pasties. I couldn’t believe I had been in Cornwall for 5 days without having one! This example was nothing to brag about, and there were probably better ones quite nearby, but it was a relief. Then I found a bench and changed my socks, and stopped at another stand for ice cream, Moo Maid honeycomb again. On the eastern end of town, an odd circular building stood above the small harbor: a “Capstan house” from which boats could be winched out of the water. Now it was a very pleasant shop with local art, jewelry, and maps. I bought a pendant for Kat, took some pictures — and freaked out when I couldn’t find my trekking poles. I thought I’d left them by the entrance, but no! I backtracked through the town — not by the ice cream stand either. All the way back to where I’d changed socks, and there they were, leaning against the bench. The walk through the town was flat, so I had just forgotten them, but I would need them soon.
Leaving town, I had some climbing to do — not much, as this stretch never got above 250 feet. But I did see a group of climbers on the cliff edge near the path. The low overcast hid the clifftops in the distance, and in the mile to Land’s end, the weather turned nasty. I got my rain gear on just in time for a real downpour with a driving wind. By the time I got to Land’s End, I couldn’t even see Long Ships Lighthouse a mile and a half offshore. The upside was that I got to hear the foghorns…
I stepped into the Last And First House restaurant and gift shop and bought some post cards, a tea towel and salt & pepper shakers for Kat, all with images of the famous milepost. By the time I came out the overcast had lifted enough that I could barely make out Longships, although not to get a decent picture. Then I went on to the Land’s End “theme park”, including that milepost sign with markers for New York and John O’Groats (see photo at top). Having reached Land’s End was a major landmark for this hike, but the ambience was a letdown. The Cape of Cornwall had been more attractive scenery. American readers may not be so aware of the emotional resonance of this site, the westernmost point of Britain, but it did have a pull for me despite the clutter of shops and “attractions” like the 3-D Shaun the Sheep Experience. As the Kents say in Cornwall from the Coast Path, “This is where Cornwall ends and the rest of the world begins.” There are races and less formal traversals from here to the northeast corner of Britain at John O’Groats; by road it is 838 miles or more, while hikers take advantage of some of the National Trails including a portion of the SWCP for a total of over 1200 miles.
The actual route of the SWCP through the Legendary Land’s End® complex was not clearly marked, and the bad weather made things worse. The trail guide indicated my way south went past an odd tourist/children’s farm called Grebe Cottage (hey, I stayed at Old McDonald’s Farm last year). Soon I was on an actual trail again, looking down at some rugged seashores and listening to a second foghorn as I rounded Gwernup Point to have a view of Nanjizel Bay and Pordenack Point. The rain had let up, and it was a pleasant walk with views of the rugged coastline. The path had a couple of diversions for landslips, one rather dramatic — the trail was still there, but eroded and undercut, and temporary fencing diverted walkers away from the edge. Somewhere along here I noticed a sign for badger setts. Hmm, don’t mess with the effing badgers, either.
I stopped around 3 pm to take some video of waves crashing against the rocks below, and then passed another mine shaft into the hill side, before descending to cross a stream above a pebble beach. From the bridge I took a video of the stream, and at the end you can see a very narrow gap eroded in the cliff beyond the beach, a tall thin window extending almost to the sloping surface above. The feature has the delightful name “The Song of the Sea Cave”. Does the wind through this gap sing impressively? Did the stream contribute to this strikingly narrow arch, or was there a fault in the rock? The cliff line behind the beach lined up with the narrow vertical gap beyond. A little further I took a picture looking back at the valley that is scarcely recognizable, but shows steps leading down to the footbridge, and some old stone walls just past the path.
Still, the wind was enough to make the waves impressive to a landlubber like me, and I took more photos and video. A little after 4, I passed some odd day marks: a red and black cone near the path, positioned so that if from the view of a ship the red cone covered the black one, that ship was abound to crash on some offshore rocks. Then I was approaching Porthgwarra with a very narrow but deep beach, and an odd cave visible in the far cliff. When I descended to the village behind that cliff, it turned out the “cave” was a passage cut through from the village to the cliff for access, used by fishermen.
Less than a mile from there brought me to another valley descent, and an approach to “St. Levan’s Holy Well”. There is supposedly an ancient chapel here, and the trail was diverted because of conservation concerns for the site. From the far side I climbed down to have a look, and saw nothing but a jumble of rocks, but Porthchapel Beach below was very pretty.
Then I was approaching Porthcurno, my destination for the night. The trail went right by the famous Minack Theater, but it was too late to go in to see it. I decided to cut inland by road to my B&B, the Sea View, rather than taking the trail down to the beach and then roads back uphill. This entailed maybe a half mile by road, with light rain. When I reached the inn a little after 5, I knocked on the door, but no response. Knocked again, waited for a while, chatted with a fellow guest who was just leaving and who speculated that our host was at the pub down the hill. I called Kat, chatted for a while, and then the proprietor came out; she just hadn’t heard me. I ended up going down to the aforementioned pub for supper; can’t recall what I had, but it was good.
So, just over 12 miles hiking (11 officially) for the day in 7 hours, but with lots of stops to watch the waves. About 2580 feet elevation gain, up and down those same 250 feet over and over. A dreary day, but pleasant all in all.