A steep track heads up the cliffs out of Porthtowan and I’d walked or run up it so many times before that the surface felt embedded in memory. My feet carried me up without paying attention, but it took a while for my mind to switch off from the daily trivia. The first steps of any walk are a kind of emptying, a drowning out of white noise and it was only gradually that I heard the skylarks high above and the finches in the bracken.
We soon found ourselves walking in single file along the boundary fence of the controversial MOD base and airfield at Nancekuke. The fence keeps the walker close to the edge of the cliff, trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Nancekuke was the “United Kingdom’s main chemical weapons research and development facility” after WWII. It was a research and development station for the production of nerve gas, but a significant amount of the gas is thought to have been produced for (and used by) the USA.
The laboratory reputedly caused death and respiratory disease for its workers and there was concern for the general population too, particularly after the closure of the base in 1980 when the MOD are widely believed to have dumped significant amounts of chemicals down the many uncapped mine shafts on the downs. One of those was at Sally’s Bottom…
We hiked on, up and down near-vertical steps at Sally’s Bottom, a place where casual walkers often turn back afraid of killing their lungs or their legs. Or both.
Sally’s Bottom is a desolate, quiet place (farting jokes and sniggers aside), which derives its name from the mine workings of Wheal Sally in the steep-sided valley and the bottom shaft near the beach (remember to steer well clear of any adits and shafts in the area: see the box above).
Sally has the last laugh anyway, because her Bottom doesn't seem so funny when you're standing at the top of the valley looking down at all those steps, contemplating the pain of going back up the other side.
It’s not for the unfit: there’s more of this to come over the next few miles, and the harbour at Portreath is the next climb you won’t forget.
Portreath was once a busy harbour that shipped out ore for smelting in Wales and brought back coal, but there aren’t many boats here these days, save the odd fishing boat. It’s only really busy in summer when surfers and families come to the beach to catch the waves, or in winter storms when the waves are huge and dramatically crash over the pier.
Dogs are allowed on the beach in winter though and their owners let them run free at low tide. Katie and I dodged their balls (and their owners) and crossed the sand to look for the South West Coast Path at the bottom of wet, black rocks.
The scrubby track up the cliffs out of Portreath is obscured from the sea views so there’s not much to take your mind off the hard work, except the anticipation of the fantastic panorama at the top and the thought of an easy 4 mile walk from Carvannel Downs along North Cliffs to Hell’s Mouth.
I tuned in to the vivid colours that shone against the grey of the day and actively searched them out. At Porthcadjack Cove, below Carvannel, rich green swards lined the edge of a stream that flowed over the rocks onto the beach, where bright yellow lichen smeared the uppermost edge of a rock stack, like butter, and slick, black-winged guillemots sheltered from the prevailing wind. When I looked around at the abundance of wildlife and flora I felt like an alien in my own backyard; sometimes there seems too much to know.
North Cliffs is thickly edged with wild-flowers in summer, hedgerows ablaze with colour against a backdrop of azure sea. Sea birds dive off the stacks, kestrels hang on the breeze and skylarks sing their hearts out, which makes it a popular place for dog-walkers and day-trippers.
But winter is different. The cliffs are exposed to strong gales that blow in across the Atlantic, lashed with rain and thick mists. Katie and I could barely see a thing in the gloom. There was no fantastic panorama, not even a horizon, and we only saw 3 people on the coast path all day.
A short diversion was in place on the way to Hell’s Mouth after a dramatic cliff collapse in 2011; we doggedly followed it inland a bit, wary of the ever present danger of rock falls and further collapse.
Hell's Mouth never disappoints. There's a sheer drop to the rocks and crashing waves below, falling 88 metres over a precipice disturbingly edged with The Samaritan's telephone number.
We stared down into the bowels of Hell for a while, then high-tailed it over the Knavocks to see the seals at Mutton Cove.We pushed on around the headland against fine rain, wet through, until Godrevy lighthouse came into view, shrouded in mist and spray. Sea water and rain pooled on the rocks like spilt milk, reflecting the white misty glaze that washed the sky. Miles of sand seemed to float ahead of us and we watched in silence as sunlight broke through tumbling clouds to create a shifting tracery of shadows across the sand. It was mesmerising, like light falling through stained-glass windows onto a cathedral floor. Everything was moving, yet seemed so still; never the same from one moment to the next.
This was it, Godrevy: the end of the walk. And we were on a high. We’d finally had a decent length hike and it felt like the challenge to hike the Cornish stretch of the South West Coast Path had actually begun.
Peer over the fence at Mutton Cove at low tide and you could see up to 100 Grey seals basking on an inaccessible beach far below. Grey seals are large animals and even from a distance they’re impressive. They look like gigantic slugs lying there, but when they shuffle into the surf they seem to become lithe, graceful creatures that are a joy to watch. The Mutton Cove colony is large and the National Trust manage their habitat to keep them safe and coming back; you can see them all year round but January is the time they come in large numbers.