This August, I walked 66 miles (110 km) from St Ives to Padstow on the west coast of Cornwall, over 5 and a half days. This is day 2 of the walk — go back to day 1 (St Ives to Lelant).
“I’m spending 5 and a half days walking from here to Padstow,” I told my dorm mate at the hostel in St Ives, on the west coast of Cornwall.
“Nah, just for fun,” I replied.
“Yeah, it’s important to do these sorts of things because you want to, isn’t it?”
If I’m honest, I was also walking 110 km along the Cornish coast to see if I could. I’ve done some solo day walks over the years, but the last overnight trip I did was in high school in 1999. Last summer I didn’t walk at all, put off by the occasional dizzy spell I’d still get in the months after my accident. This summer I’ve been hiking again, but always with friends. Could I set my own pace? Could I stay motivated all day? Could I walk 20 km then get up the next day and do it again?
The sun was shining as the bus left from St Ives towards Hayle. Heading up the hill on the way out of town, we passed a chap on an orange Lambretta scooter, equipped with a flag pole proudly flying the Cornish and Italian flags. I wonder what his story was?
I’d gotten a decently early start so I hopped off at Lelant to walk the rest of the route around the Hayle Estuary that I’d left off the day before. I rejoined the path at St Uny’s church, which was starting to feel like a familiar landmark — as it turns out, it’s positioned high enough that I could look back to it for quite some time after I’d gone past Hayle.
The Hayle Estuary is a nature reserve and quite a pretty wetland, but the path around it is a paved shared walking/cycling path next to a busy road. Walking on paved footpath is not my favourite, although it did let me walk fast the first couple of miles that day. “Good pace!” yelled a passing cyclist, startling me so much I nearly leapt onto the road. (Thanks mate.)
I was glad to get through Hayle and up to the beach. The official path takes you through the dunes, but the beach was long and inviting, it being early enough in the morning that it wasn’t busy yet. Before long I headed down to the sand, carefully tied my shoes to the outside of my pack, and walked barefoot at the water’s edge. This meant dodging jellyfish, but what was the point of walking a coast path if you couldn’t enjoy the ocean splashing against your ankles?
Eventually I realized I was putting more focus into avoiding jellyfish than enjoying my surroundings, and I headed back to the dunes. Dunes at popular beaches in Australia are generally fenced off to avoid soil erosion, with only a few, officially defined, paths across them, but these dunes were criss-crossed with paths — some clearly heavily-used, others barely lines of trampled vegetation. I meandered along the coast, taking whichever path took my fancy, heading towards Godrevy point facing the nearby Godrevy Island with its lighthouse, where I stopped for lunch. (I read later in my guidebook that this lighthouse was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.) As I was sitting down on a rock to eat, a seagull pooped on me. Jerk.
Around here was also where the coastal landscape changed, from dunes and long white sand beaches to narrow coves and cliffs topped with heather, which was in purple bloom. Just past my lunch stop was a cove with seals, at least half a dozen of them lazing on the stony beach and playing in the water. I paused a while to watch from the top of the cliff, along with several families and a group of middle-aged hippies.
The path along the cliff tops was almost dead flat for several miles, and while the cliffs were dramatic the physical walking itself was cruisy (aka boring). I amused myself taking ridiculous wind-swept selfies, making up ridiculous puns involving heather the plant/the girls’ name, and inventing ridiculous stories about all the day walkers I passed. For about an hour I was leapfrogging with a couple of German cyclists who were riding on a nearby road but pulling over at various coves to check out the view. They had nice road bikes, and I was starting to wish I had a bike too.
At one of the coves I passed — Basset’s Cove, according to my map — a side path lead to a grassy ledge just below the cliff tops, and I paused there for a drink. Looking down, the cliffs were less steep than other coves, and a faint but clear path lead down to the beach. With the steady stream of foot traffic up on the main coast path, the idea of having a beach to myself appealed, even if the path looked both steep and gravelly, a nasty combination. Well, if I didn’t try it I’d spend the rest of the afternoon scorning myself for being a wuss, so I gave it a try.
I made it about 3 quarters of the way down, using my hands for extra stability because I’m over-cautious at heart, before I reached a section steep and loose enough that I couldn’t imagine how I’d get back up again without having to make an embarrassing call to the Cornish coast guard. I sat down and took a quick photo that actually makes it look like I’m pretty much at sea level, and then turned around.
Going up was scarier than going down, with my dislike of heights fed by the feeling that if I slipped I’d topple backwards and fall a long way. By this stage I was wondering if the path was even a path at all, or just an animal track of some sort. (The internet says it is a path, but “slippery” and “fairly hazardous”. Yes, well.)
I suspect if I’d been in a group, I would have made it all the way to the sand — partly for feeling safer with company, partly for my urge to keep up with the group supplementing what courage I do have with sketchy cliff paths. As it was, I felt triumphant for having done something that scared me, and sheepish for having tried — did I really have to prove to myself I could scramble 3 quarters of the way down a cliff?
As it happens, not long after this the path crossed a couple of valleys in the cliffs and I got some on-path down and uphill walking — which my knees weren’t so keen on after my side adventure. As I came down the final hill for the day on my way into Portreath, where I stayed the night, I was tired, and slightly sunburnt, and felt like I’d done a full day’s walk.