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RAMBLING THROUGH THE DESOLATE GRANDEUR OF CORNWALL

Ihad stopped at a pub in Helston, a market town in the west of Cornwall. The pub was a museum piece of bulls-eye glass and woodwork blackened by centuries of smoke.

The man at the bar swayed accidentally against my shoulder.

"Apologies," he said. "One too many."

"Not to worry."

"Live around here?"

"No," I said.

"Where from?"

"America."

"America?" He wore a puzzled expression. "Where's that?"

A gratifying response. I had come looking for a bit of England off the conventional tourist path and knew instantly that I was in the right place.

To a Cornishman born and bred, the rest of us are "outlanders." It's an insular frame of mind, to be sure. Yet Cornwall lends itself to insularity.

Jutting like a blade of rock deep into the roiling Atlantic, this former Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia, still steeped in ancient lore and legend, is as close to an island within an island nation as one can get.

Cornwall is Britain's southwestern-most peninsula. For travelers with a yen for unspoiled nature, the region is one of desolate grandeur, of eerie atmosphere, and round its shores runs a grassy track that has served as a footpath from time beyond memory.

It was to revive some sense of a slower, quieter and more rooted existence that I recently walked sections of this 268-mile path -- the haunts in ages past of tradesmen and artisans, beggars and bards -- with a hiking group put together by British Coastal Trails, a California-based tour packager.

There were 12 of us on the trek, an amiable mix of business people, retirees, young professionals. In a week-long outing that demanded stamina without being excessively arduous, we rambled in spokes from the hubs of three comfortable hotels, covering on average of eight miles a day.

A van was provided to transport luggage. We wore lug-soled shoes and dressed in layers. Each of us carried a small rucksack containing essential rain gear and an emergency ration of candy bars.

Led by a licensed guide, we set off in a straggling line from Polkerris, a fishing harbor midway along the Cornish south coast. From here our first day's hike led up through a wood to a cliff path that undulated south along the sea to the promontory of Gribbin Head.

The day was mild, the sky overcast. Clefts in the scarp opened below to reveal clean, pebbly coves. After a couple of miles I had a fleeting glimpse, to the left, of a gable and chimney -- once the Menabilly estate of author Daphne du Maurier and model for the "Manderley" of her most famous novel, "Rebecca."

Ahead, to the east, headlands thrust like swollen knuckles into a fringe of surf. In another hour and sudden pelting rain, we scrambled down a slithery track to the coast. Soon we could see a terrace of cottages climbing the hills: the old waterside town of Fowey (pronounced Foy), with its promise of a meat pie and a pint at the end of the trail.

By the second day we had slipped easily into the walking routine: breakfast at 8, on the move at 9, afoot through the afternoon with an off-trail pub stop for lunch. We wrapped ourselves in stillness and solitude, the harsh Gothic of the Cornish landscape. Our mental landscape embraced a world of earlier generations.

From Polkerris-Fowey we rambled through a magnificent country. Our tour pushed inland to Helston and out again, westward, to the coast at Porthleven.

Under a clearing sky and with the sea glittering on our right, we veered south along the sands. To our left rose a moor of antique tans and greens.

A few miles beyond we had a calf-aching slog up the cliff above Poldhu Bay, where a memorial to Marconi, the radio pioneer, reminded us that the first transatlantic wireless signal was transmitted from here in 1901.

As our group ambled over the brow of a hill, desultory conversation turned to U.S. politics. But attention soon wandered back to the path, the sea, the meadows, the moorland plants with their curiously forbidding names: black bog-rush, bloody crane's bill, thyme broom rape.

Around us, pea-pod yellow buds of gorse sprang from the heath. Bells of purple heather clung to the rocks like tiny beads.

The map told of isolated settlements at the nearby Cornish tres (farms) of Trevassack, Tregear, Tregaddra. But we scratched our heads over the outlying Gweek, Praaa, Woon Gumpus, Brown Willy and Pity Me.

The trail uncoiled to the plateau atop Kynancy Cliff. From there it dropped through a boulder-strewn gully to a onetime smugglers' cove, then rose again to an adjacent headland. An hour's march away loomed the Lizard -- a corruption of the old Cornish lys ardh, high place -- the most southerly of England's capes.

Thus far we had explored the backwaters of Cornwall's southern coast. But now our route took another jink inland: following a track across Penwith Moor to the wilder north, where the erosive power of the open Atlantic has sculpted a great curve of cliffs that range for more than 100 miles.

The moor is a spectacularly secluded landscape, rich in relics of an ancient age. Well along the path to Greeb Point we poked about a burial chamber of anvil-shaped boulders. A mile away a perfectly aligned trio of standing stones -- possibly a sun or star pointer -- caught our eye.

We elbowed through scrub to a granite knoll whose summit commanded splendid prospects. Moorland spread out in the south, a wind-swept barren crisscrossed by dry stone walls. The engine houses of derelict tin mines, once the mainstay of Cornwall's economy, punctuated the skyline.

On these heights grazing sheep and an occasional fellow wayfarer were our only companions. Kittiwakes soared, kestrels hovered. The fragrance of moor grass carried on the wind.

Our line of walk drifted down to the picturesque resort and fishing harbor of Padstow; continued north to a crumbling medieval fortress -- Tintagel -- claiming a dubious link to King Arthur. The end for weary trekkers came a couple of miles up the coast at a scattering of shops and cottages, the hamlet of Boscastle.

A pub beckoned. I called for a pint. There was a familiar exchange: a litany of sly banter. "Parched, are we?" -- "Dry as chalk."

Ruefully, Boscastle signaled a return to civilization. From here the tour van would speed me south to a nearby train station and I would be in London, with its crowds, grime and noise, in four hours.

Travel information

An eight-day walking package from British Coastal Trails (7777 Fay Ave., La Jolla, Calif. 92037; (800) 473-1210) includes accommodations, most meals and the services of a guide. The cost, exclusive of air fare, is $1,795 a person, based on double occupancy.

A map brochure called "Walking in Britain," available free from the British Tourist Authority (551 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10176; (800) 462-2748 or (212) 986-2200), lists other tour operators and details of long-distance itineraries.

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