Saturday, 30 April 2011

South West Coast Path Section 21 Hayle - Zennor

St Ives Beach
Having looked at the weather forecast for the next few days I decided to prioritise the walks I had planned for the rest of the week for I only had two days of guaranteed good weather. Thus I put this at the top of my list for it covered a most varied stretch of coastline, round the Hayle estuary, past the tourist honeypot of St Ives and on to Zennor on the wild northern Lands End stretch of coast. It proved to be very much the walk of two halves, since the first part was little more of a gentle stroll while the 6miles from St Ives to Zennor proved to be one of the toughest sections I have yet tackled.
Hayle Harbour
Carol the unnaturally cheerful weather presenter on BBC Breakfast advised that the weather would be fabulous once again but there would be some early morning cloud to endure first. She wasn’t wrong on that score! As I got to Zennor I was completely enclosed in thick mist, such that I could barely see in front of me! I faced a slightly convoluted trip back to Hayle via Penzance first on a bus then train. At Zennor there was another walker waiting for the bus and we got talking. He was a very tanned and fit looking South African man who had stayed the night before in the hostel in Zennor. It transpired that he had walked from Barnstaple and had decided that he had had enough of the wild coast after walking from St Ives yesterday. He was instead heading on along to the southern Cornish Coast to undertake something a little more benign! That filled me with a lot of confidence for my walk ahead!
Hayle Estuary
After my bus journey into Penzance I headed for the train station next door and had enough time to get myself a ticket and a coffee which felt rather civilised. The weather had not yet improved and I was beginning to doubt wee Carol. At Hayle I finally got out on to the path and faced a lengthy road walk around Hayle Estuary before getting away from development. Yet this section wasn’t as bad as I had feared, partly because I could focus on the sweeping views across the estuary rather than the traffic thundering past me. It was as I got towards the end of this section that gaps in the cloud began to appear and I felt bad that I had ever doubted Carol.
Lelant Church
There were a couple of twitchers hanging around, but apparently this spot can be inundated with birdwatchers on occasion as the estuary has played host to a number of rare visitors over the years, bringing people down in their hoards to look at the poor creature. I moved on and soon ran out of pavement, which wasn’t a good feeling as I had to wander alongside a very busy road until I got to Lelant Saltings. This is the park and ride station for St Ives, and I can vouch for this being an excellent service having used it on our family trip last year. Certainly beats trying to find a parking space in St Ives!
Rattling By
My road walking continued for a bit longer but by now I was walking along a very quiet residential road. There were lots of walkers about now, I assume walking the short stretch of coast path into St Ives as I was. This is a fairly easy section that can be tackled by almost anyone with moderate fitness and the regular train service means that an end to end walk is pretty easy. Many of the properties through Lelant also seemed to be in the process of being spruced up and there were lots of builders and landscape gardeners.It certainly was a good time to be getting on with such work. Eventually I reached Lelant Church dedicated to St Uny. I had a little look around the graveyard but conscious that I had many miles ahead of me and the fact that the churchyard was full of grounds maintenance contractors I decided to press on and not look around.
Endless Sand
At this point I was finally free of the road and the path headed down the side of an adjacent golf course and then across sand dunes alongside the railway. The similarity of the Dawlish section was not lost on me although in truth the scenery here is very different. A few trains rattled past while I negotiated this section, all of them running the short distance between St Erth and St Ives. Shortly after joining the path I got my first glimpse of St Ives away in the distance and despite the cloudy conditions the sun was shining over the town, an encouraging sign I thought.
Carbis Bay
In every cove on the way from here to St Ives were the most fantastic beaches, perhaps even finer than ones I had seen nearer to Newquay. Most were deserted today apart from a few dog walkers, but it was exhilarating to be walking on narrow paths high up on the cliffs overlooking them. Every so often I would come to a stretch that was more developed with houses, but as soon as I had flirted with the urban area I would head out towards another headland on a pattern that seemed to persist until I got to St Ives. The final section from Carbis Bay was delightful as it passed through some very attractive woodland and posh housing. At the far end of here was yet another Huer’s House, although this one was mostly boarded up and seemed not to have any current purpose, which was a shame.
Huer's Hut
I knew I had arrived in this tourist honeypot, for the crowds started almost as soon as I hit the beach area in front of the station. The end of the St Ives line is a shadow of what it once was, with the station being truncated after the original one was demolished back in the 1960s. Most of the original station site is now occupied by a car park – a sad indictment of our times. Happily though many more people use this service than ever before and its future looks secure. Good lob, because just past the station and I entered the slightly crazy world of St Ives streets – it’s a wonder that anyone would want to drive here!
St Ives View
I wandered down to the harbourside and by now the sun had properly burned off the cloud, presenting St Ives in that spectacular light for which it is so famous. I found the first pasty shop I could so that I could get some lunch and having suitably stocked up I continued my journey around the harbourside. Inside the harbour is a beach of sorts and there were plenty of people lapping up the sun’s rays from within the shelter of the harbour walls. Virtually all the eating establishments (and there are quite a few) were also banged out for the lunchtime trade. I continued on hoping for somewhere to sit fairly soon. I looked on Smeaton’s Pier but it didn’t look too promising before venturing out on to what is known as The Island (although it is actually just a headland). Here I was a bit more exposed to the wind and as a result there were plenty of seats to be had and so I settled down to eat my pasty.
Lunchtime Trade
While sitting and contemplating the view I had two very different experiences with the local seabird populations. Almost as soon as I bit into my pasty a couple of very hungry looking seagulls joined me and savoured every mouthful I took, flashing me looks as if to say ‘aren’t you going to share then?’ It was rather an uncomfortable experience although I didn’t cave in to their demands, since I am sure that is what a lot of tourists do and this further encourages them. As soon as I was done they were off to find another victim. Rather more inspiring was the behaviour of the gannets offshore. These remarkable birds dive considerable distances to catch their food in the sea and I watched their technique for several minutes through the binoculars, absolutely mesmerised.
Police Force
After awhile I became aware of the fact that I still had half the walk to do today and the more difficult half at that! I am not sure why but most sections of the South West Coast Path I have tackled so far all seem to have the difficult parts back loaded, when you can least afford the extra energy required! The official website warns that this section is a ‘severe’ rating and may well be the most difficult stretch of the entire route. That’s quite a boast for a walk that could never really be described as easy! Firstly though I ambled around the Island, taking a good look at the Coastwatch Station and then the chapel of St Nicholas, which occupy the two ends of the headland. It was then back into St Ives streets and on my way to the Tate Gallery, opened as a nod to the artistic community which has existed here for decades. The Tate was built on the site of a former gas works and while I didn’t go in this time, it is worth a visit for its thought-provoking art.
Porthmeor Beach
On the way to the gallery, I became aware of a very large dustcart behind me servicing commercial premises. It was a wonder to watch the driver get this huge vehicle through such narrow streets. For us pedestrians there was little choice but to back right up against the buildings at the back edge of the pavement and let the beast go by!
Beach Games
I continued around the landward side of Porthmeor Beach and very soon I was out of town and striding across turf once again. As I reached Clodgy Point the view of St Ives receded into the distance and I knew from hereon I would be walking along a wild stretch of coast and not the highly developed type of coastline thus far. The weather had improved considerably by now and I was faced with not only the wildness of the coast but also the best conditions I could have hoped for; bright sunshine with a stiff breeze to keep me cool on all those climbs ahead!
Tate St Ives
Initially the warnings about the terrain felt a bit over-egged as the going was pretty good for some time. Occasionally I would encounter a boggy bit, but on the whole the going was good. The sea crashed against the rocks far below me and although I encountered quite a few walkers to begin with, after awhile these slowed to a trickle. With all the rocky headlands that I seemed to be going around I soon lost track of where I was and how far I had been. Lucky for me that there was only one path and the sea was firmly to my right hand side, otherwise I would have been in trouble navigationally!
Looking Back to St Ives
As I pressed on, I found that the going underfoot did get pretty boggy in places, mostly because of some very short range streams that headed down into the sea. This northern part of the Cornwall Coast is made predominantly of granite and the highest part is only just inland from the coast, which means that streams flowing from this side are small and haven’t carved out too much of a valley. Granite is also impervious and has a tendency therefore to allow water to pool on its surface and create boggy conditions.At the top of Trevalgan Cliff I was pleased to see that on one particularly bad patch a boardwalk had been provided, although I wouldn’t have liked to be part of the gang that built it. I bet they didn’t have today’s conditions most of the time they were here!
Wild Coast
A little further on and a couple of unusual sights greeted me when I came across perhaps the remotest flyposting I have ever seen – an advert for local accommodation posted onto a National Trust sign. There was also a stone circle, although I understand this is actually a modern creation and not an antiquity. At Trevarga Cliff I passed a triangulation pillar, a surprisingly rare sight on this path. I estimated from my map that I was now about halfway to Zennor from St Ives. Away in the distance I could see the remnants of a tin mine, the first I had seen this time in Cornwall, but not my last as I was expecting to see quite a few on the next section.
Welcome Boardwalk
By now my progress was getting slower as the path got a little rockier and I was concerned about twisting my ankle. At River Cove I found a marker sign that suggested I still had 3 miles left to go. I wasn’t sure whether this was good or bad news! Ahead the succession of headlands and bays were starting to get to me a bit, beautiful though they were. It was partly because the sun was getting lower in the sky and therefore a little more intense with each passing step. I also had no feel for how far along this coast I needed to go, for there was no sign of Zennor!
At Zennor Head just as I was beginning to despair that I would ever reach the end of the day’s walking I suddenly spotted the tower of Zennor Church. Never have I been so pleased as to see a church! I actually reached the church rather quicker than I had expected, but the 6.5 miles from St Ives still took 3 hours, such was the need for ‘breathers’ and picking my way through boggy patches and across rocky sections. Yet, despite the difficulty of the walking I think that the section out of Porthcurno on the southern coast is just as taxing.
Coast Blossom
Before driving back to my holiday cottage I took the opportunity to have a look around Zennor. As a village there is very little settlement and yet it boasts a large church, a pub and a privately run youth hostel as well as a rather eclectic museum devoted to remembering local life. Sadly the museum was closed but I did take a look inside the church, famous for a mermaid carving on a bench that is over 600 years old. Legend has it that a local lad fell in love with a mermaid and returned to the sea with her, never to be seen again. His singing voice is supposed to be heard faintly on the breeze at nearby Pendour Cove.
Zennor Church
As well as this intriguing story the church also possesses a fine looking sundial from 1737 and a monument to John Davey, allegedly the last native speaker of Cornish, the Celtic Language that many hope will be revived again in much the same way as Gaelic and Welsh have been. It was a very restful place to spend the end of my strenuous day’s walking.
Mermaid Carving
This is a walk of two halves and while the first part is delightful, the second part is equally fantastic for its wildness. It is an exhilarating walk that really deserves good weather so that the views can be admired. It should not be underestimated, but given plenty of time and liquid refreshment on board I am not convinced that it is as scary a section as the official guides make out.

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