Tuesday, 4 May 2010

South West Coast Path Section 26 Penzance - Porthleven

St Michael's Mount
During a family holiday to Cornwall my wife and I were able to escape from the children for a couple of mornings to check off another couple of sections of the South West Coast Path, totalling 24 miles from Porthcurno around to Porthleven via St Michael’s Bay.  Because of the vagaries of the public transport in these parts, we actually tackled the section from Penzance to Porthleven first, essentially doing them ‘the wrong way round’.   I have to be honest here and state that I did not walk the first mile today from Penzance to Long Rock, principally as we were actually staying in Long Rock and neither of us much fancied the rather boring looking walk along the sea wall from Penzance.
Lonely Island

So it was that we headed out of our seafront holiday cottage at Long Rock at about 7.30am to be greeted by a pretty cloudy day.  It was a bit of a surprise after several days of warm spring sunshine, but at least it meant that it wouldn’t be too hot for walking.  Ahead of us was St Michael’s Mount, by far the dominant feature of the bay, which would otherwise be a slog along some fairly uninspiring beach.  The view of the castle/ abbey on top though makes for one of Cornwall’s most famous.  Even on a fairly grey day it is a special sight.  On the shoreward side of the path between the holiday cottage and Marazion, the nearest village to the Mount, is a large wetland area that was sheltering a large variety of birdlife. Every time we came past here during the week there were scores of birdwatchers training their oversized binoculars and telescopic camera lens on the poor birds.  However, at this early hour their were no twitchers and we were treated to the sight of several half asleep herons, several different species of seagulls and ducks.  Perhaps it was because we didn’t have all the gear that we saw so much?
Deserted Beaches

At Marazion the path heads up through the village rather than hugging the coast.  At this early hour only the newsagent was open but I can testify to the popularity of the gift/ craft shops as these were full of browsers when we explored later in the day!  After the long slow climb through the village the path abruptly turns right to head back down to the beach and lose all the altitude gained.  Such is the character of the South West Coast Path!  Luckily for us, although the tide was high enough to cover the causeway over to St Michael’s Mount, it wasn’t high enough to cover the beach at this point, since we had to scramble over the rocks for a few metres before regaining the shoreline proper.  Apparently at the very highest tides, this part of the beach is impossible to access.
Welcoming Committee

For the next couple of miles to Perranuthnoe the character of this section of coastline began to unfold with a rocky beach below and low slung cliffs.  It was very pleasant walking and we revelled in having the coast path to ourselves.  There are definite advantages to early starts!  Just before we reached Cudden Point we caught up with some other walkers who seemed very focused on a stile ahead of us.  As we got closer we could see what it was that they were watching; a very large bird of prey (possibly a buzzard, although it was a bit far away and I couldn’t be sure) sitting on the fence post minding its own business.  It was an incredible close encounter that lasted only a few seconds when the said bird decided it had had enough of being gawped at and decided to fly away. 

Shortly after we reached the headland of Cudden Point and by now the clouds were threatening to clear.  The view from this rocky headland was quite superb, back across St Michael’s Bay and the Mount behind us and ahead to the Lizard Peninsula.  On the top of the headland a small group of ponies were roaming around, possibly helping in the effort to keep the grass down.  Immediately ahead the path wended its way around Prussia Cove.  This was smuggling territory and named after the so-called King of Prussia, not a royal dignitary, but a notorious eighteenth century smuggler!  While not wild compared to other parts of Cornwall it was easy to see why this sheltered yet rocky bay was used for this illicit activity.  At Piskies Cove (kind of a sub-cove really), a few houses had been built, which looked suspiciously like coastguard cottages.  However, down on the rocks below ruts had been carved out by the smugglers as a means of dragging their boats up onto shore safely, suggesting that smuggling had continued for many years before finally being stopped by the authorities.
Kengenny Sands

As we headed out of Piskies Cove we found a fairly substantial track that we soon realised was an access road (several cars passed by).  It was unclear what the road was needed for until we rounded the next headland and found a couple of large houses which apparently are used as an international music school.  With such a fantastic location it was easy to see why musicians had gravitated here – the place must be an inspirational place to play.  Precious little of the building could be seen from the path which seems to skirt around it without affording a proper look.  From here it was a bit of a tricky section along the steep sided sloping coastline high above Kengenny Sands.  Apparently there was once a mine high up above the path and the guide book mentioned that we might find amethyst in the mine waste.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found a piece almost as soon as I had read this!  Not a remarkable crystal that would earn my fortune, but nevertheless large enough to be identifiable.
Beach Patrol

After a couple of hours or so of cliff walking it was rather a surprise to round the next corner and find a small town dedicated to the holiday trade.  Praa Sands is a fairly unremarkable place, but the beach is very eye catching and I suspect a big draw during the summer months.  The coast path flirted with the beach before returning to higher ground.  We toyed with the idea of stopping at the beachfront café for a coffee, but because of time constraints and the fact that we weren’t entirely sure what the bus times were back, we decided that we would continue on and have our refreshments at the end.  Above Praa Sands the path was somewhat different as we swapped rugged cliff tops for sand dunes for awhile.  This was quite hard going and we were both relieved when we returned to more normal terrain!  Eventually the houses of the village ran out and the path continued to climb up to Rinsey Head through gorse bushes and their distinctively coconut sweet fragrance.  Rinsey Head itself is dominated by an absolutely amazing house that apparently is available as a holiday let for a mere £2000 per week during high season.  For the views alone it would probably be worth it, considering that it can sleep 8 people.  Apparently it has been used in film and television work, notably ‘Jonathan Creek’.
Wheal Prosper

The path keeps to the high ground past the headland, leaving the holidaymakers in peace and leading on instead to another fine old building, this time a piece of industrial heritage in the shape of the engine house of the former Wheal Prosper mine.  Despite having no roof the old engine house is still virtually intact although impossible to gain entry.  This is probably a good thing as it has not been daubed with graffiti or subject to vandalism.  Given its remote location it was difficult to imagine having to make this trek to work every day as the miners would have done.  As it happens this particular mine wasn’t particularly successful and it closed within a few years of opening.
Rinsey Head

As we continued further on more natural features caught my eye.  The first was a mini peat bog, perched high up on the cliff next to the footpath.  This little area of bog was complete with all the sorts of plants one would normally associate with granite moors and yet separated by some distance from the next nearest.  How does this happen?  The other thing that caught my eye was the more usual sight of clifftop flowers out in full bloom making for a wonderful sight. 
Looking Out to Sea

A little further on more engine houses came into view at Trewavas Head.  I wondered whether these belonged to a separate mine or were connected to the Wheal Prosper complex, but alas there were no further signs to tell us.  As we looked onward from Trewavas Head we could now see the end of the day’s hiking, with the opening of the harbour at Porthleven.  This was immediately an encouraging and discouraging sight as we could also see the climbs and descents still to come!  Unfortunately the day had become very overcast once again and these last two miles to Porthleven turned out to be very hard going.  It wasn’t helped by the fact that as we got close the path was diverted around a couple of coves that had opened up where the soft slate outside Porthleven had been attacked by the sea.
Industrial Past

As we approached the town we passed a memorial commemorating all the paupers who were thrown off the cliff after they had died in the old days.  This practice ceased in 1806 and the memorial was placed here in 1949, a fitting tribute for ever more.  Just past here and we left the cliffs for the last time and headed down into Porthleven.  This attractive little town centres around an ancient harbour and is overlooked by an impressive looking Town Hall.  As we headed towards the centre of town we wondered how long we might have to wait for a bus (we hadn’t managed to get an up to date timetable!).  We needn’t have worried – one passed in front of us when we were still 300 metres or so from the bus stop.  Typical!  An hourly service too, so there was nothing for it but to have a pint of St Austell’s finest ale in the Harbour Inn and a spot of lunch.  It certainly beat rushing for the bus!
Pauper's Memorial

On the whole a very enjoyable morning’s walking although the last couple of miles were a bit of a slog.  The most eye-watering part of the walk?  The bus fare back!  Over £10 for both of us for a 25 minute ride – ouch!

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