This August, I walked 66 miles (110 km) from St Ives to Padstow on the west coast of Cornwall, following the South West Coast Path. I started writing a summary post about my week in Cornwall and it got very long, so I’m doing a post a day… This is day 1 of the walk.
It was drizzling lightly as I set out from St Ives on my first day. The plan was to walk 6 miles (10 km) to Hayle, then catch a bus back to St Ives to spend a second night there before bussing to Hayle the next day with my full pack to set out in earnest. Even though my full pack wasn’t heavy — I wasn’t camping at all — I was glad to have a short day with a light bag after a long trip the day before, travelling from Turin to St Ives, with an 8 am flight followed by 4 hours in London followed by what was supposed to be a 6 hour train trip that turned into a 7 hour train trip followed by a shared taxi ride with fellow travellers after trains in Cornwall were disrupted by a tyre fire in St Erth.
(“Service disruptions in St Erth due to a track-side fire” they said in London, and I assumed they meant some kind of grass fire that would be dealt with by the time I got to Cornwall. No, it was a literal pile of tyres that had been burning for 24 hours with a plume of smoke that was said to have been visible 30 miles away. No wonder they weren’t so keen on running trains directly next to that.)
Despite — or perhaps because of — the inconvenience of the trip, I’d spent the day thinking about why I travel. On the train from Luton airport into London, I realized I felt at home. Not because I feel at home in England (I don’t), but because I feel at home on the move. Not that I’d want to always be on the move, I decided. After all, I’d had just as strong a rush of feeling of being at home a few weeks prior as I’d dished up poached eggs in tomatoes to a couple of friends at dinner around my kitchen table. But I hadn’t travelled much recently, and this trip felt like a good way back into that.
I also pondered the idea of paths not taken. Four hours in London wandering the canals next to Paddington Station made me wonder why I hadn’t planned a couple of days in the city. As the train sped past red sandstone cliffs near Exmouth I wanted to jump off at the next station and go take a closer look. Early on while thinking about summer I’d considered a trip to Spain, and going to Cornwall was instead of that. This week I’d be taking one path — literally. Well then.
I wasn’t sure what to look for as I headed towards St Ives harbour — the route I was following was a National Trail, and I wondered if there would there be any sort of informational signage as it left the town. It turns out there wouldn’t, but it’s also true that navigation on the South West Coast Path is a simple matter of “keep the sea on your left/right” (depending on which direction you’re heading) and before long I found a trail marker on a paved path heading out of town.
St Ives is a popular place for holiday homes — rich peoples’ holiday homes, I judged from the cars parked outside them — and the path that day passed along several streets of them. I mentioned them later in the week to a Cornish woman I met at a backpackers, and she confirmed my suspicions. She said most of the coastal real estate was devoted to holiday homes, leaving local Cornish people to live inland, in “not particularly nice towns”, she added. I could absolutely understand why you’d want a holiday home near St Ives though, in a quiet location just outside town, with views over the bay.
When off the road, the path stayed high above the water. As I approached the beach at Porth Kidney Sands, I spotted a side path that looked to head down to the shore, but it was cut off by the tide so I kept going along the top of the dunes, where the vegetation dripped water down my legs and into my shoes. It had stopped raining and the clouds were lifting, though, so I could look forward to a dry lunch at least.
Near the end of the beach was St Uny’s church with its 3 naves, prominently overlooking the Hayle Estuary. This is the start of St Michael’s Way, a 12 mile pilgrimage route to St Michael’s Mount in Penzance — another path not taken. I paused to rest and reflect, before following the Coast path down the hill to the estuary. While Hayle centre is maybe a few hundred metres from St Uny’s as the crow flies, to reach it by foot you have to make a several-mile loop around Hayle Estuary to reach a point where you can cross.
Towards the top of the estuary was a cafe serving lunches, where I stopped and sat in the sun, which was out in full force by then. I had a decision: continue another 1.5 miles into the centre of Hayle and catch a bus back, or walk back to St Ives in the afternoon sunshine? The paved shared foot/cycle path around the estuary didn’t hold much appeal, and I decided to retrace my steps.
The tide had gone out so I walked on the beach all the way along Porth Kidney Sands, marvelling at how different it looked with blue skies and so much more sand exposed. The beach was quiet, but the rest of the path was busy with people going for a stroll in the afternoon sunshine. I started to get the hang of etiquette on the narrow paths, learning how to tell when an oncoming walker was going to step aside and let me pass, and when it was clear that I should be the one to stop.
I had time in the evening to stroll around St Ives, which I hadn’t done the night before after arriving late. It’s a pretty village, and rather classy for a British seaside town. (And also very very white.) The night before, in the unplanned shared taxi, I’d met a couple of early-20s students, who were joining her family’s St Ives holiday. “We came here once a few years ago,” she said, “And we loved the place and the food is really good, so we’ve come back every year since.” She was right about the food — I had possibly the poshest fish and chips of my life that night, and it was delicious.
On to day 2 (Lelant to Portreath)…