Today’s big moment was supposed to be the experience of going around Land’s End after 200-odd miles and six years of walking the south west coast path. Even though it is some distance off halfway along the path it is still a considerable landmark to have reached.
But then we ran into trouble and had an incident-packed afternoon – and did something that is one of the most stupid things we have ever done while walking. And that’s compelled us to reassess what the most important memory from this day might be.
We ran out of light on a difficult stage and ended up coming into Lamorna Cove in the dark over a rock-strewn path that wouldn’t have been out of place on that awful stage between St Ives and Pendeen Watch. Furthermore we couldn’t contact our B&B owners by mobile (no signal) or by landline (no phone box) to let them know we were OK and consequently the coastguard was nearly called out to rescue us.
So if wise people learn from their mistakes, what went wrong? The rot started early on when we went down to breakfast at our backpackers’ hostel, Whitesands Lodge. The music in the restaurant was playing so loudly that Lisa, who is not a morning person, refused to have any breakfast. As anyone who has read our experiences back in 1997 will recall, not having enough carbohydrates is a seriously bad idea when walking. If you don’t eat, your decision-making powers are the first things to go. Secondly, we spent far too long trying to sort out the best way to pack our rucksacks to minimise the weight, meaning we weren’t on the path proper until around 11.30am. Thirdly, we got far too caught up in that three-ring circus that is Land’s End and fourthly we didn’t pay enough attention to where our lunch was coming from. Mistakes five and six were committed before we had even left London. The hurry meant we hadn’t looked closely enough at our first days’ route, and we hadn’t spent any time on getting fit before starting out on this little 80-mile walk. Also there were things in those rucksacks that should never have left London. Lastly, we hadn’t worked out an exit strategy in case we did run out of light.
Although Andy was a little worried about time early on, we had no idea at the beginning of the stage what was in store for us. Land’s End is further from Sennen Cove than you might think and it’s never wise to get involved with the theme park that has sprung up there, but better to stick with the path. At the time we passed through there was a wrecked container ship, the RMS Mulheim, on the rocks there. Someone had been down with a spray painting kit and renamed it the USS Tony Blair, complete with a life-size cartoon of Our Glorious Leader in his swimming trunks. Plenty of opportunities for photos both silly and sensible. Arriving at Land’s End has to be an occasion, although Lisa does rather regret telling the man who asked us, to the great amusement of his family, what time we were due in John O’Groats that he was a moron. Well, these people who regard hiking as an entertaining spectator sport pall very quickly.
Things weren’t too bad until Porthcurno. Between Land’s End itself and Gwennap Head the walking is rightly described as some of the best on the path. We felt a feeling of achievement but also of disappointment that we were leaving our favourite north Cornwall haunts behind and that one day, all this will be over. Until then, there’s still plenty of landscape to cross, starting with the relatively tame area after Land’s End where tethered goats graze nervously by footbridges and riots of wild plants grow in crevices in the cliffs, encouraged by the warm western climate.
One of the most crucial things to know about the SWCP is that you will be doing the most phenomenal climbs and drops – a steep climb of anything up to 600 feet or so, a walk of less than half a mile, an equally steep and probably highly slippery descent then a ten-yard journey across a tiny stream, before the whole thing starts again. By now, we should have the hang of this but we were finding them devilishly hard today – the fitness thing? Too much in the rucksacks? We kept pausing to rest as a result, which cost us more time. Additionally, we felt all day as if someone had been picking up Porthcurno and subtly moving it down the path without us noticing.
In the run-in to this rather unpleasant settlement, where we had a horrid stay in a depressing hotel last year after rain (and hurricanes and a tropical monsoon) stopped play, is the Minack Theatre. Its management has gone to incredible lengths to make it invisible to anyone who doesn’t pay for entry and, although we had made an interesting visit the year before, we were a little ambivalent about its charms. On arrival this year, desperate for a cup of tea and some food, we were confronted by a woman behind the counter who refused to let us visit the café unless we paid for admission to the entire attraction. How petty, and also uneconomic, was this? Still, it gives us the excuse to now voice the sentiment that had been brewing slowly over the previous 12 months – the Minack Theatre, with its rambling Celtic designs etched into concrete by a very singleminded old lady, has a level of tackyness that can’t be redeemed by its stunning location – and an exaggerated sense of its own importance.
With our refuelling stop blown away we should have reconsidered but we had our resolve hardened by Mrs Jobsworth and by a heartfelt desire to put Porthcurno behind us – “The only way out of this is to get on with it” – so we wolfed down a couple of energy bars and some water and set off on what became a rather nasty afternoon and evening for all involved.
Penberth Cove is a thoroughly attractive settlement, largely in the clutches of the National Trust, and its valley is rather easier to climb in and out of than Porthguarnon, which follows. You look in vain for St Loy – the woodland is so verdant that you get barely a glimpse of a building until suddenly you’re on the rocky beach wondering what happened to it and where the cliffs went. Once you’re back on them, by Tater-du lighthouse, the walking is rocky but relatively simple for a cliff-edge path. This was just as well, because by now it was dark. Andy refused to switch on a torch, knowing that the price of its small circle of light would be increased darkness elsewhere. There was enough light coming off the sea to find our footing, although where the path deviated from the flat – there are some rock scrambles here and there – things got a bit dicey. By the time we reached Lamorna Cove itself, to find divers suiting up by the light of their car headlights, it was inky black. There was no phone to call the B&B and when we struck inland, away from the sea’s light, we needed the torches at once. Andy walked up the steps of the B&B literally as the owner had his hand on the telephone to call out the coastguard.
So we got in safely, were never really in danger of losing the path, and had no bad weather to worry about. But mountain-goating about in the dark on a cliff edge, when you are exhausted and unable to place your feet with any great accuracy, as well as worrying other people unnecessarily, is unacceptable. Another one to add to the list of never-to-do-agains, along with the short cut across rocks at Sennen last year that left us up to our thighs in water.