Lesley Russell writes:
If you’re a #CroakeyEXPLORE reader or you follow me on Twitter (@lrussellwolpe), then you know I’m an avid walker. I walk almost every day, but I’m never happier than when on a major expedition: I look for a combination of physical challenge and culinary pleasures, always hoping the kilometres walked offset the calories consumed.
This year I decided to geographically expand my walking horizons, and after searching the listings for an ideal combination of exercise, scenery, history, food and climate, settled on Cornwall.
The Cornwall peninsula in England’s rugged southwestern tip – culminating in the Land’s End promontory – encompasses wild moorland, rolling green pastures, towering seaside cliffs, sandy beaches, and picturesque fishing villages.
It’s the home of Arthurian legends and the inspiration for some great literature (think Daphne Du Maurier and John Betjeman) and some bold television heroes – from Ross Poldark to Doc Martin. And it’s known for great seafood.
The walk I chose started at Padstow, but I particularly wanted to visit Tintagel and Port Isaac (which features as Port Wenn in the television series Doc Martin). As always, Macs Adventures, the company I use for my walking expeditions, was happy to assist and add those towns into my package.
I did this trip as a solo traveller and I enjoyed the solitude, alternated with the company of people I met along the way and the conversations started over vistas, birdlife, the best cider and what constitutes a classic pasty.
So it was that in mid-April, after a train from London to Bodmin and two local buses, I arrived in Tintagel on a cool, sunny, blustery day. I was warmly welcomed at my B&B accommodation – their first guest of the season – and then set off to explore the dramatic sea views and the ruins of Tintagel Castle (if King Arthur was born here, it was certainly not in this 13th century fortified building).
The town was full of tourists, but they soon fell away when confronted with the steep steps that led across to the island to the remains of the Great Hall and low stone walls from a Dark Age settlement. The golden light at the end of the day highlighted the rugged beauty of the surrounding coastline and the roar of crashing waves on the rocks was a reminder of the power of the Atlantic swells.
I was up early enough the next morning to explore the local area before heading off along the coast to Port Gaverne.
I was rejoicing in the beauty of an English spring that was to be an integral part of this walk – every shade of fresh green and daffodils, primroses and bluebells in profusion.
The hawthorn hedgerows were masses of white blossoms and there were patches of golden gorse everywhere. I had forgotten the reality of “Oh to be in England now that April’s here…”.
The morning mist had given way to blue skies and sunshine by the time I reached Port Gaverne, a tiny fishing hamlet at the end of a rocky inlet, with a marvellous old pub where I was staying.
It is an easy one km walk away from Port Isaac. And yes, Port Isaac really is as lovely as Port Wenn in the Doc Martin TV series. There is the school where Louisa teaches (actually a hotel now), there’s Bert’s failed restaurant, and there’s the Doc’s cottage and surgery, up the steep walk from the tidal inlet where the fishing boats pull in.
That night I ate at a fabulous seafood restaurant in a lopsided, low-ceilinged 15th century cottage that served fish and lobster brought in fresh by the fishermen just across the street. It was still twilight as I walked back to my hotel along the cliffs.
The next morning, after a hearty English breakfast and with extras for lunch kindly supplied by my hosts, I set off early as a sea mist swirled around the cliffs and inlets.
I had been forewarned that the first five km out of Port Isaac were tough, and there was certainly a lot of climbing up and down some steep steps and inclines (although nothing to match the climbing on the Kumano Kodo).
I walked alone in the mist, the silence broken only by the seabirds nesting in the cliffs and the waves hitting the rocks below.
I half expected to encounter Ross or Demelza Poldark on the cliff tops. The Poldark series is filmed in a number of locations around Cornwall and apparently it is possible to encounter the cast and crew at work.
I had detailed directions for every stage of this walk but, for the most part, they were unnecessary as the route was fairly obvious and generally well signposted.
My notes did tell me that the place where I ate lunch, looking out over a twin headland promontory called The Rumps, was likely the place where, in 1914, Laurence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, the poem that is so often read on ANZAC Day.
It’s shocking to think that then World War One had barely started, and so many more were yet to lose their lives in battle.
After I rounded Pentire Point, the land and seascape changed dramatically as the Camel Estuary (guarded by the Doom sandbar) and Padstow Bay came into view.
The cliffs gave way to vast swathes of sandy beaches and seaside villages. The final few kilometres of walking were through sand dunes.
Then I caught the ferry from Rock across to Padstow. The tides change so dramatically here that the ferry’s drop off and pick up places vary by the time of day.
I stayed three nights in Padstow, in a charming B&B a little outside the old part of the town that sat around the harbour.
That gave me a chance to do what every hiker must – wash out my socks – and to try all of Rick’s Stein’s local restaurants. My fitbit said that I’d covered 29 kms en route from Port Gaverne, so I felt I had definitely earned a seafood dinner and an accompanying glass (or two) of wine.
Day Three dawned with blue skies, sunshine and the promise of a maximum temperature of 24C. The Brits were certain summer had arrived and headed for the beach, complaining about the heat. I kept my sweater on, retrieved my sunnies from the bottom of my pack, applied sunscreen (as always) and set out to explore the estuary of the Camel River.
It was Saturday and everyone was out – locals and tourists and their dogs. At times it seemed that half of all the dogs in the world were in Cornwall.
I had a lovely relaxing walk through Polzeath to the country village of Pityme and back to catch the ferry again from Rock, with enough time to hunt down a late lunch – a fresh lobster roll, washed down with local cider – and explore Padstow.
On my last day in Padstow, the plan was to walk west along the coast to Constantine Bay (about 18 km) and then catch a bus back to Padstow.
But it was Sunday and the buses were few, so I decided to walk halfway, to Trevone, and then retrace my steps. That ended up being 22 km – a very pleasant walk despite a little rain.
It took me around the western headland of the estuary, past abandoned mines, sinkholes and tiny fishing settlements. In places there was just a narrow track between an ancient stone wall (there’s a lot of stone in Cornwall!) on one side and a major drop to the ocean on the other.
I met lots of local walkers and birders and dogs. Sadly, no signs of the puffins I had hoped to see.
That evening I changed out of my walking gear (black jeans and sneakers will take you anywhere) and treated myself to a fabulous meal at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant.
Next day I was picked up and driven through lush farming country to Carbis Bay, not far from St Ives. From there I set out on St Michael’s Way, a feeder route to the Camino de Santiago (I’ve been walking the French part of this, known as the Camino le Puy, in stages).
The current St Michael’s Way was established in 1994 based on old records. Many pilgrims to Santiago in Spain chose this overland route to avoid sailing round the treacherous waters at Land’s End.
This part of the walk involved a lot of tramping across fields, staring down cattle and sheep, climbing over styles and trying to guess where the track went.
I was relieved every time I saw the scallop shell signs – nowhere near as often as on the Camino in France – and rejoiced that I was not doing this even a week earlier because I could see how muddy it had been.
But it was worth it for the “Oh My” moment when I finally saw St Michael’s Mount in the distance. It was even more worth it when I reached Marazion and found my lovely hotel (right opposite the causeway to the Mount) with an amazing spa-style bathroom and a bar that featured 27 different Cornwall-made gins.
I was very happy to settle in here for three nights – nowhere near long enough to sample all those gins.
Day six of my trip saw me catch two buses to get from Marazion to Mousehole (pronounced Mowzell). This is a charming fishing village; the entrance to the harbour is so small perhaps that’s how it got its name.
Unfortunately the day was grey and drizzly, so Mousehole was not looking its best, despite the flower boxes everywhere.
It was a 10 km walk back along a walking/cycling path through Newlyn and Penzance with time to explore some of the local history and architecture and sample the local pasties.
The sea was grey and calm, giving no indication of the ferocious storms that have claimed so many vessels and lives over the centuries. I walked past the memorial to the Penlee lifeboat, lost with all eight hands in 1981 while trying to rescue a stricken vessel. Cornwall’s rugged coastline was a haven for wreckers and smugglers for centuries.
By the time I got back to Marazion, the rain had really set in, so I retired to the lounge to read.
On these walks I try to bring a book (on my i-Pad) that is both engaging and thought-provoking because I have time to think. I was reading The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, about the start of World War One – a slightly disconcerting choice given Trump’s daily rantings.
My final day in Cornwall saw the sun return. I spent most of the day exploring St Michael’s Mount.
This rocky island is crowned with a medieval castle and church. It is connected to the town by a causeway that can be walked at low tide. The tide comes in quite quickly, but then a fleet of small ferry boats are available. The site is managed by the National Trust in partnership with the St Aubyn family who have live here since around 1650.
There is a link to Mont St Michel in France: Edward the Confessor gave the monastery that was here to the Norman Abbey of Mont St Michel. This relationship ended in 1424 under Henry V.
I was fascinated with the gardens outside the castle walls (recovering from an unexpected and rare snowfall in February). The sheltered eastern side of the rock outcrop is a microclimate in which all sorts of unlikely plants (including, on this spring day, tulips) flourish.
I celebrated the conclusion of a wonderful trip with a final dinner of local seafood and yes, yet another sample of that gin selection. The next morning I caught the train from Penzance back to London for a few days, bingeing on culture and all that city has to offer.
By the time you read this, I will be in France, walking (solo) in Burgundy from Dijon to Mersault, through vineyards and villages. Stay tuned for more on #winewalking!
My travel advice
If you are thinking of walking in Cornwall, then I can only encourage you – however you do it, it’s a great experience.
I would choose the time of year carefully, as it would not be fun in cold, wet weather and I could see how treacherously muddy the trail could be.
Regardless of the season, you do need to take good rain gear and anticipate dramatic weather changes. On some parts of the walk a walking pole (I only use one) was really a necessity, but not everywhere, so a collapsible pole you can put in your pack is ideal.
If you like walking, but not marathon hikes, then there is the possibility of picking the best bits and travelling between them by public transport. I was very impressed with the bus transport network in south west England; it services even the smallest villages.
I was delighted with the quality of the accommodations and surprised at the quality of the food – and the coffee. I generally carried a packed lunch but made room for an afternoon treat from a café or pub.
Wifi is freely available everywhere.
And to get to your starting point for a walk: my experience with the various rail networks in the UK has been great. It’s worth knowing that in 1st class you not only get help with your luggage but there is a variety of healthy foods and drinks available for free throughout your trip.
I will be back testing it out in September when Liz Dax and I walk the Cotswold Way from Stratford-on-Avon to Bath.
Meanwhile, in Burgundy earlier this week…