Sunday, 8 May 2011

South West Coast Path Section 30 Helford Passage - Falmouth

Helford Passage
After a day wiped out by heavy rain and misty conditions, I was faced with an uncertain weather forecast. Although the front that brought the previous day’s rain had passed there was still plenty of lingering cloud and a chance of more rain during the day. Since the weather was so very localised I tuned into the fact that the forecast for the south coast was rather better and so I made my way over to Falmouth for a section of path I hadn’t previously considered this week, the relatively short and easy section from Helford Passage.
Helford Coast
I parked up at the top of the hill in Falmouth to save myself a parking fee and wandered down to the bus station. Buses from here to Helford Passage are relatively frequent, but be aware that if you try this route for yourself, you will actually be dropped at the nearest point on the main road and not in the hamlet itself. Thus you will have a ¾ mile or so’s walk to reach the beginning of the day’s official route. For walkers heading north from The Lizard, Helford Passage is a significant obstacle. This lengthy inlet from the sea could cause a detour of several miles if you have badly planned your walk so that it does not coincide with the ferry crossing. For me starting on the north side of the inlet there was no need to worry about this detail, although I might when I finally get around to completing the previous section.
Durgan
The north side of Helford Passage is a small hamlet left behind almost immediately upon resumption of the official path. The ferry appeared to be running today, but was left abandoned on the beach, perhaps due to the low tide? The only sign of life was from a delivery lorry stocking up the pub and blocking free access to the path before me. The low tide was a blessing to me as I was able to get round it via the beach. The way ahead was in stark contrast to the landscape I had become used to at the far western end of Cornwall. This is countryside of woodland and pasture and much softer all round and fitted the overcast conditions perfectly. My nose was filled with the scent of May Blossom, its slightly sickly scent heightened from the moisture created by yesterdays rain.
Durgan Pines
I soon came upon a walled off beach that couldn’t be accessed from the path, which seemed rather odd. As I got closer I realised that I was passing to the back of the beachside café for the privately owned Trebah Gardens. The beach formed part of the estate and was therefore off limits to passers by. A notice visible from the path stated that this sheltered inlet was used for the embarkation of troops for the D Day landings in 1944. Presumably places like this were used as they were unlikely places for reconnaissance planes to penetrate. The path continued along the banks of Helford Passage, a truly delightful section of walk with lush green fields and woods full of twittering birds.
Passing Trebah Gardens
Not long after passing Trebah Gardens I came upon the National Trust owned village of Durgan, which was apparently once the home of Captain George Vancouver, the well known naval man who had a Canadian city named after him. Durgan is only a small hamlet of a few houses but with a particularly prominent school house at the centre. I suspect the little place has changed little in the last hundred years or so. I briefly left the coast path here to check out the entrance to Glendurgan Gardens, also National Trust owned, which stretch up through the steep sided valley inland from Durgan. There is a free access point here, although expect to be challenged if you don’t have a National Trust card or money to buy a ticket. Having satisfied myself that it would be worth a look later, I continued through Durgan.
Giant Rhubarb
Not long past the village I took what I thought to be the onward path. This led through some beautiful mixed woodland and I had chaffinches and blackbirds for company as I wandered on. The bluebells were also beginning to reach their peak and the woods were awash with colour. Sadly this wasn’t the right path though – it headed down to the beach below only and I had to double back to regain the correct way forward. This proved to be no hardship; I just had second helpings! Once on the right path I was then led a merry dance by a couple of goldfinches who teased me into thinking I might get a picture of them, only to fly off as soon as I had set myself! I didn’t manage a picture of these very colourful but rather elusive birds.
Wild Garlic
The character of the path changed a little now as I came towards the far end of Helford Passage. The woodland gave way to sporadic Scots Pines and there were several fields to cross as the terrain became more pastural. The map suggested that I was now in the vicinity of Mawnan and the guide book suggested that I should see the church tower. I must have been blind, for I saw neither the village or the church tower. I did however, enter more woods, this time composed of holm oaks, with their marvellously twisty limbs and dark brown bark and dark green leaves. I am particularly fond of these hardy trees, since they unusually for this country are evergreen without being pine trees! Sadly though they do affect local biodiversity as they are not native to this country and I guess their evergreen nature means that they block out light to the understory in the early part of the season when wild flowers would normally proliferate.
Mawnan
At the other end of the wood I had rather an awkward encounter when I came across a woman who could euphemistically be described as ‘watering a bush’. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, her, me, or her husband who was presumably supposed to be keeping lookout but was looking in the wrong direction! Anyhow, I averted my gaze and once finished we all had a little laugh about it and a lengthy chat about our respective walks. I soon left them far behind as I strode out towards Rosemullion Head, but after the shock I couldn’t help but smile about the incident!
War Memorial
After the very slow progress made along the North Cornwall stretches of path that I had tackled thus far, it was a joy to have easy walking conditions and my pace was certainly a lot quicker. Rosemullion Head was soon reached and from here I turned direction from the shores of Helford River to Falmouth Bay. The headland itself wasn’t very interesting (far less than its name!), with no light beacons or any markers at all showing its importance. The onward view though was great, with several ships docked in the bay, the Roseland Peninsula ahead of me and my first view of Falmouth, my ultimate destination for today. Out in the bay I could see a helicopter hovering above what looked like a fishing vessel. Even through my binoculars it wasn’t clear what was going on, although the helicopter was there for some considerable time.
Swanpool Beach
The path to Gatamala Cove was slightly annoying since it didn’t seem to know what level on the slope to stay on and some unnecessary climbing was needed in order to stay on the route. Gatamala Cove was lovely though, and filled with one of my favourite fragrances, the garlic like smell of ramsons, a member of the allium family. At the back of the beach was another garden that looked like it was a tourist attraction, with Chilean Rhubarb growing as an ornamental at the edge. However, any notions of looking further were curtailed by the prominent ‘private’ notices inside the fence. I later discovered that these are the grounds of a hotel, so I guess you could look round if you are a paying guest.
Lunch!
I little further on and I reached the settlement of Maenporth and the path literally squeezed through the space between the back gardens and the cliff edge in places. A few of the gardens were covered in spring flowers, especially primroses which seemed to like these sunny banks facing the sea. Eventually the path dropped into Maenporth Bay and this was my first opportunity to get refreshment, from a beach café at the far end. It was still a little early for me so I pushed on along gorse lined cliff tops with extensive views back to Rosemullion, Roseland opposite and the ships in the bay which now seemed to be amazingly close.
Boat Park
At Pennance Point I paused to look at the Homeguard monument, a reminder that ordinary folks were just as important to keep these shores safe during World War II. Over 1000 dawns were watched from this point during the war years, to make sure that word got to citizens of Falmouth in case of attack. I was pleased that the onward track was though woodland as by now the sun was threatening to come out and the day had warmed up considerably. The track dropped down to Swanpool, a local beauty spot presumably named after the local residents. Despite looking long and hard, I had trouble identifying any swans or even other bird life for that matter!
Gyllingvase
Swanpool is a popular enough beach that it warrants another café and my curiosity was aroused by the ice creams on sale. There was a plethora of ice creams with character and I plumped for one known as ‘The Italian Job’ which was a clotted cream ice cream dotted with amaretto and chocolate balls. It looked and sounded really good, but if I’m honest it promised rather more than it delivered and I was slightly disappointed. I’m not sure if I was just difficult to please during the week, but my experience with ice creams was generally disappointing whereas my pasty experiences were all excellent. Maybe I just had the wrong taste buds in!
Pendennis Point
It was a short tarmac path walk across to Gyllyngvase Beach and when I reached here I felt that I had Falmouth proper. Behind the beach was a lovely set of tropical gardens being readied for the season by a gang of gardeners. I took a brief look before wandering along the promenade and past all the grand looking hotels that front this part of the coast. I never expected Falmouth to have any kind of tourist industry, I always took it to be a seaport and nothing more. Yet, the size of the hotels proved me wrong – there obviously is plenty of demand here!
Falmouth Day Cruiser
Although I had reached Falmouth I still had a surprisingly long way to go to finish my day’s walking. Falmouth occupies a long headland and unusually the coast path makes the walker walk every part of it, by-passing the prominent Pendennis Castle in the process. The threatened sunshine that seemed to be coming earlier in the day had been replaced by cloud and although the last section of the path around Pendennis Head is supposed to be very beautiful, for me it was the worst conditions I had experienced all week and the gloominess of the light left me rather underwhelmed by this part of the walk. I had hoped to see more of the castle than I did, but the path is so low down on the slopes that it is impossible to see much. The various defensive structures at river level were interesting though and a reminder of how heavily defended this port has needed to be over the years.
Falmouth Docks
Initially through thick woodland the path eventually came out above the docks, complete with ship repair yards and enormous cranes. I was rather fascinated by these port scenes, which are unlike any others I have yet seen on the South West Coast Path. I wandered past the small terminus station of Falmouth Docks and a derelict looking hotel that I assume won’t be around much longer. Despite the industrial nature of the docks area it was pretty confined to the small area around the docks and was not on the same scale as Plymouth. Most of the rest of the place was rather charming and full of visitors.
National Maritime Museum
I passed by the National Maritime museum and took a look at some of the outside exhibits, making a metal note to come and visit one day. This looked like a very good museum and the replica sailing boat outside (not sure what it was as no name was painted on it) looked like it was a popular attraction. Indeed there were several kids around me badgering their parents to go in and have a look based on the sight of the vessel. Just beyond the museum and I entered the main town centre area and its narrow streets. There are many fine buildings in the town centre and I took awhile to look around properly now that I had finished my walk. Eventually I wound up at the ferry pier where onward walkers have the considerable obstacle of getting across to Place via the foot ferries that operate from here. This is no easy task for while the St Mawes ferry operates all year round (and was waiting to pick up passengers when I arrived), there is an onward ferry crossing required to get to Place and that only operates during the summer months and not until May. This would not be possible for me today even if I wanted to.
St Mawes Ferry
This is one of the easier sections of the Coast Path to undertake and could easily be achieved in a half day, with plenty of time to look around Falmouth. It was the perfect antidote for me after all the wild sections of the North Cornish Coast and a surprising contrast given that that I had travelled a fairly short distance to get here. Following my walk I went back to look at Glendurgan Gardens. If you have plenty of time for the side trip on your walk it is also highly recommended. During my visit the place was awash with spring flowers and blossom, making for a colourful place to sit and contemplate my day.

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