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 part 4 of the walk — go back to part 3 (Portreath to St Agnes).
It was 4.30 pm, the sun was hot on my face, my pack straps were chafing my arms, my knees were sore, and I had never not been walking this &*%! coast path. I had just come round a head and I could see Fistral Beach laid out before me, replete with a surfing competition and thousands of spectators on the sand and nearby grass. I still had to get past it all and to the opposite side of Newquay, the largest town in the area. Well then.
This was my longest day, with 16.5 miles (26.5 km) the official path distance from Trevaunance Cove to Newquay Station. “Where are you walking today?” the landlady at my B&B had asked. “Newquay? Goodness. That’s far.”
The day started sluggishly — whether caused by tiredness from walking the previous 3 days or by the full English breakfast I’d eaten just before setting out, I’m not sure. I was glad it was cool and cloudy as I walked back to where I’d left the coast, but even with good walking conditions I was stopping every 5 minutes to re-tie my shoes, fiddle with my pack, have a drink of water… Even with a flat path to walk on, I was struggling to get a rhythm.
The coast was still cliffs and narrow coves, with heather everywhere. I passed an airfield and some more mining infrastructure which was slowly being reclaimed by vegetation. The flat cliff tops gave way to hills — still truncated at the sea by vertical cliffs, but I was glad for some undulations in the path. Towards Perranporth, my first village for the day, I spotted a particularly sketchy-looking side path down one of the hills towards a ledge on the cliff face. When I got closer, I realized it was a path to an old mine shaft. Probably compared to underground mining walking on a cliff side would be low-stress.
Not long after I’d set out it had started drizzling, and eventually even I had to admit it was raining. Two walkers with full packs were coming in the opposite direction, wearing head-to-toe expensive outdoor brand rain gear. I thought they must be boiling under all that. They probably thought I was mad to continue in tshirt and shorts, but my rain jacket was a 7 euro number from Decathlon that tended to make me sweat more heavily than the rain could fall and at least my tshirt was quick-dry.
Perranporth is a village at one end of a long sand beach. I stopped for a takeaway coffee at an old-school cafe where the options were “Coffee black/white 1.50”, then started along the sand. There’s something soothing about walking next to the ocean on a grey and rainy day. The wind was strong but the rain kept the sand down. A jogger passed me, running determinedly on the soft sand while I stuck to the firmer sand nearer the surf. (The cover image for this post is from about 3 quarters of the way along the beach.)
As happens with beach walks, the other end of the beach didn’t look far at the start, but somehow it kept receding. As I walked I thought about a conversation I’d had hiking with friends in the beginning of summer, about how you have to find a pace that works for you — whether it’s fast or slow or riddled with pauses or what — and if you keep doing it you will eventually clear the tree line and make it to the top of the ridge and get the view over the valley you were hiking for. We’d joked about how there was probably a life lesson in that, but it was easier to apply it literally to walking.
The sky was definitely clearing as I made my way around Penhale Point. Here the landscape was a ragged line of cliffs topped with grass, which was kept in check by Shetland ponies. By this stage I’d given up thinking philosophical thoughts about walking and was daydreaming about lunch, and about buying a new pack, one that fit me properly and didn’t have straps that rubbed against my arms just below the end of my tshirt sleeves. The chafe on my right arm was starting to bleed slightly.
Lunch was at Holywell Bay, which is a beautiful pale sand beach that unfortunately doesn’t offer any shade. Up next was Porth Joke, a deep gap in the cliffs with a stream running through it. If there had been a place to get changed I would have stopped for a swim there, but at any rate, I still had plenty of walking ahead of me. Later, I stopped for a break at a rock pool near Crantock Beach and paddled my feet, and the temptation to plunge in fully-clothed was strong. The thought of adding to my arm chafe with leg chafe from walking with wet shorts was the only thing that stopped me.
Just south of Newquay, the path crosses the Gannel river. You can detour and cross a bridge, or — if the tide isn’t too high — you can take your shoes off and wade across near the mouth, or you can do like I did and pay “60p, my love” to a chap in a dinghy who will ferry you across. Taking a boat 10 metres felt a little ridiculous but it was certainly the fastest, driest option. From there, it was a short walk up the hill to reach a point where I could finally see Fistral Beach and Newquay, my destination.
Newquay was absolutely heaving with surfing competition (and, I discovered later, music festival) goers in addition to the usual summer crowds, and getting in and through it was rather unpleasant. I stopped at the Burger King at the train station for an early dinner because I was starving, and I discovered that Burger King in the UK puts raw white onion in their Whoppers. I’m sure in normal circumstances I’d find that mildly odd but at the time it seemed like a major affrontation. I was relieved to reach my B&B, where the landlady greeted me in perfect British B&B style: “Oh good, you’re a walker, you’re not part of that ruckus down at the beach.”
I’d made it! That evening, I ducked out again for a few hundred metres extra walking to catch the sunset over the ocean.