Hiking the cliffs & coves of Cornwall
In Britain people don’t hike, they walk. It’s more refined, don’t you know. That’s what we discovered when we decided to hike/walk in Cornwall, the county that forms the tip of the south-western peninsula of Great Britain. Indescribably picturesque, it’s intersected by numerous streams, rivers, and lakes and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, the English Channel on its south side, and the River Tamar to the east.Walking paths in Cornwall were first used by Neolithic peoples, and later by Celts who had a huge influence on this area. Many recognize Cornwall as one of the “Celtic nations.” It has a unique identity and culture and is the home of the Cornish language and the Cornish people, some of whom describe themselves as “British, but NOT English.” We found them extremely welcoming, though few and far between (386 inhabitants per square mile) and, for the most part, living in quaint, historic towns or villages dating back to medieval times. We spent nine days walking a piece of Britain’s South West Coast Path, a six-hundred-and-thirty mile trail; the longest National Trail in Britain. About three hundred miles of the South West Coast path are in Cornwall, along its endless cliffs and coves. We traveled, with the aid of numerous ferries, the section of it that connects the towns/areas of Golant-by-Fowey, Fowey, St. Mawes, Falmouth, and Mawnan Smith in Helford. We arrived in this area in four calm hours from London’s Paddington Station, on board a very civilized train (sandwiches are served on real china plates) that took us to St. Austell. Here we met our walk leaders, Yannick and Mike Knutton, representatives of the Wayfarers, a British company specializing in walking vacations. The Knuttons live in Cornwall, have an encyclopedic knowledge of it, and first-hand experience with the walking trails, the ferry locations, captains and departure times. (This turned out to be very important because the trail frequently stops at rivers and coves.)
We spent our nights in hotels, but we certainly didn’t have to. Backpacking in Cornwall is very popular; we encountered several groups of walkers who return annually to backpack on different parts of the Coast Path.Our daily hikes covered from eight to twelve miles, with stops to view historic sites, visit museums and opulent gardens, take photographs of the area’s unending beauty or the numerous wild flowers and lunch breaks in local pubs. Our pace was brisk but not taxing. The elevation gains were not like our own Mt. Royal, but after going up bluffs and down to the sea numerous times a day, they began to add up. A soft rain accompanied us for a few hours on several days; the rest of the time the sky was blue and the temperature hovered between 50 and 60 degrees. We started our walk in Golant-by-Fowey, (Fowey is one the many rivers in Cornwall), along a trail called the “Saint’s Way,” which we followed to the ancient port city of Fowey. It was well known to Phoenician and Roman traders who came to Cornwall for its plentiful metals, especially tin. Today, the small seaport town is pure charm and the home of the annual Daphne du Maurier Festival of Art’s and Literature. This famous writer called Cornwall “home” and her dwellings and the little villages in this part of the county were the inspiration for her many books. You might remember her as the author whose works were adapted into Alfred Hitchcock’s early movies including The Birds and best picture winner, Rebecca.From there we took a short ferry ride to the next leg of our walk, a beautiful forest path high above the river leading to the fishing village of Polruan. After the morning’s walk we ferried back to Fowey where we ate a delicious Cornish pasty, a savory pastry with a filling of beef, chicken, or cheese. Fortified, we walked out of Fowey to intersect the South West Coast Path for the first time, working our way to Readmoney Cove with impressive views all the way down the coast to Dodman Point.
The following days took us to the Georgian harbor of Charlestown, an important harbor for the china clay industry (providing clay for Wedgwood and other manufacturers of fine porcelain), along the Coast Path to Trenarren, and up and down miles of steep, grassy cliffs directly above the English Channel with million-dollar views and sheer drop-offs to the water below. We spent an afternoon in the Lost Gardens of Heligan, a fascinating, 80-acre restoration of a 19th century estate garden and a morning in St. Mawes Castle, a fortress built in 1540 by Henry VIII to defend against the French and Spanish. Ocean rowing competitions are popular in this area, particularly using Cornish Pilot Gigs. This is a 32 foot long, six-oared, fixed seat rowing boat, build of Cornish narrow leaf elm. They were originally used to transport pilots out to vessels coming off the Atlantic and into port. The race tradition began because the first gig to get their pilot on board the vessel got the job and the payment. Now races are for fun and competition. We enjoyed an introduction to Gig racing in St. Mawes and a chance to see these beautiful wooden boats up close. We ferried to Falmouth, one of the world’s deepest natural harbors. Romans and Phoenicians came here in search of tin and the harbor has been active ever since. For several centuries it was plagued by pirates and smugglers. Today, its docks are crowded with naval ships and commercial vessels and its waters are home to numerous yachts and private crafts. It’s one of Cornwall’s largest towns, with an excellent art museum, numerous cultural offerings, and beautiful homes and beaches. From Falmouth, our walk took us beside the coast where the sandy beaches, isolated inlets, and crystal-clear water were breathtaking. Our hike concluded in the Helford River area, a gorgeous spot characterized by tiny villages, thatched-roofed houses, and pristine countryside centered on River Helford, a tidal, tree-lined waterway. Again, while here we followed the South West Coast Path and encountered miles of striking views of the river and the ocean beyond. We spent an afternoon in Trebah Gardens, a huge, sub-tropical garden that follows a large ravine from high on a hill to a private beach on the Helford River, with trees and flowers of dream-like size and beauty. We learned that from this garden’s beach, like several others in the area, American and British troops embarked for France and the famous D-Day Battle in World War II. We celebrated the end of our walk, its success and bid farewell to Yannick and Mike, our guides, at Budock Vean, a country-house hotel on 65 beautiful acres on the banks of the River Helford. A traditional British estate, complete with a croquet field and a golf course, it is glorious.Our lasting impressions are of well-maintained trails, park-like countryside abounding with wildflowers, breathtaking sea views, sandy beaches, clear water, deep coves, good food, and friendly people. Cornwall is a true gem…may it remain untouched.Vera Dawson and Michael Babnik are full-time residents of Frisco. During mud-season in Summit County, they sample hiking in other climates.
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