I left my car in an isolated car park 11 miles down the coast at Godrevy beach on a pitch black stormy night, ready for the drive home at the intended finish of the next day’s hike. I wondered if it would still be there in the morning, washed away or vandalised. It was raining hard and I got soaked to the skin on the bike ride home, but I’d convinced myself it was a better option than doing it in the morning in the 30mph winds that were forecast. I hate riding hills in the wind.
The next morning I rode down to Chapel Porth in a full on headwind to meet Katie; the overnight rain hadn’t eased off either. I struggled down a mud-laden track towards the beach and passed a woman shielding herself from an elemental battering by leaning into a hedge, holding the hood of her coat over her face.
All of a sudden I fell sideways. I’d ridden straight into a fallen tree-top, ensnared by its white, stripped whippy branches. It was too hard to ride against the force of the gale so I walked the last half mile or so with the shock still rattling through me and my face pelted by icy rain and hail. When I got to the beach Katie and her dogs were waiting in the warmth of her car.
I looked a complete mess: wet, covered in mud, wearing a mouldy over-sized emergency pair of ‘once-upon-a-time-these-may-have-been-slightly-waterproof’ trousers and a florescent yellow jacket.
I took off my bike helmet and completed the 'I-couldn't-care-less' look by shoving a balaclava over my head. Katie stepped out wearing a sugar-pink ski jacket and black leggings. I fear we may have clashed.
It was a rough start, but we got ourselves moving with a push up the steep track that rises high above Chapel Porth to the scarred landscape of Wheal Charlotte at the top. I love this track whatever the weather. It’s so familiar underfoot, but you never know what you’re going to see once you get to the top. The expansive view could open out onto a sparkling sea or be sleeping under a cloak of watery mist. On this particular day it felt like a desolate path to nowhere.
My eyes were streaming with cold tears. There was no conversation. Words disappeared on the wind, muffled by hoods and balaclava; all I really heard were the words “Polly, no!”, shouted time and again. Katie’s greyhound kept charging at full speed at her other dog Winnie. She ran backwards and forwards under our feet like a whirling dervish, tripping us up and slowing our progress, so much so that I didn’t really notice anything around me with my head down against the gale, Polly-watching. She seemed to be going mad.
A mile or so along the cliff, close to the village of Porthtowan, Katie screamed as a strong gust lurched us forward. It was no ordinary wind, no 45 mile an hour gust. It was full on exposure.
Suddenly we were on our knees, cut down like trees rotting at the base, clinging to rough tussocks of grass, our backs, thankfully, against the onshore onslaught.
It felt like we’d never be able to stand up again, pinned down watching Winnie’s chops smacking like flags; even Polly was lying low. It was relentless and we knelt there helplessly clinging on, waiting for an age for it to pass. But it didn’t. We looked at each other with growing unease, wondering what the hell we should do, how the hell we’d get off the cliff.
“This is too dangerous”, I yelled in an effort to be heard. “Shall we head inland?”, Katie yelled back. It occurred to me we might have to crawl on all fours, but Katie managed to stand up and was immediately pulled forward like a boat without a tiller. I tentatively followed suit. We didn’t have a choice which path to take, we were shoved wherever the wind pushed us and it wasn’t until we were down in a slight dip that we could hear each other. We agreed to head down to Porthtowan and the safety of Blue Bar, a popular cafe near the beach.
Once we got into the warm we could barely speak; we were both totally shell-shocked. Neither of us could really believe what had happened, or how vulnerable we were. We had no control, just the the certain knowledge that with a flip in wind direction we would have been at the bottom of a cliff, smashed on the rocks and churned by the waves. It was sobering. Humbling.
I felt bitterly disappointed though as I sat in the cafe, thwarted yet again by the weather. So far over three weeks we’d hiked a paltry 13 miles of The South West Coast Path, but when we took on the challenge the actual walking seemed like the easiest part of the deal. We thought the biggest headache would be transport, now I wasn’t so sure. We’d factored in the rain, it’s always raining in Cornwall, but if we’d learnt anything by this point it was ‘don’t mess with the wind’. The forecast was for heavy rain and 30mph winds that day, gusting to 45. It was supposed to drop off and become clear as the morning went on. In fact 70 mph gusts were recorded that morning, and there was no doubt in our minds that’s what we experienced.
So, we altered our plans again. We went for a wander on Porthtowan beach, which was covered in thick spume like the head on a glass of Guinness and within 2 minutes I found a couple of washed up razorbills and a guillemot. We turned inland and headed back to Chapel Porth via the woods near the village of Mount Hawke, then drove over to Godrevy to collect my car.
We let the dogs off their leads in the shelter of the dunes for a while, when Katie said she felt like she’d made it anyway. As for me, I realised my biggest frustration lay in the feeling we weren’t doing anything different. We were still in very familiar territory, and where was the challenge in that? It took a few weeks, but I learnt soon enough that my challenge was to accept that the weather always has the upper hand.
And Katie was right, we’d made it (alive) anyway.
Porthtowan and the surrounding area is littered with the remains of copper mines, which are part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. The cliffs between Chapel Porth and Porthtowan are also part of an Area of Outstanding National Beauty, encompassing a large area of heathland that turns to an endless purple carpet of bell heather in the summer months.
The village became a popular resort in Victorian times and the great stretch of golden sands tells you why. At low tide there’s a sea-water filled swimming pool tucked in the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs and the surf is renowned for the quality of surfing throughout the year. The beach has been awarded Blue Flag status “for exceptional quality and cleanliness”, which makes it a popular destination in summer.