Day 2: Flowers
St Just to St Ives. 17.19 miles. Miles to date: 23.18.
Today's walk, linking St Just – the nearest town to Land's End – to tourist mecca St Ives, was one of two halves governed by a low pressure weather front which started with mizzle that became drizzle, then threw in a few downpours for good measure. For most of the day I was walking through sea fog, which, if slightly irritating on an outstanding area of coastline, did at least provide a fitting atmosphere.
From St Just - and my fantastic hosts Mel and Gary (recommended stopover) - I started out on the Tin Coast, with its many relics from the industrial past, when generations of Cornish miners won tin, tungsten and copper from below ground.
Cornwall is now the poorest region of Britain - with less wealth than Poland, Lithuania and Hungary and an economy dominated by farming and tourism. But in its heyday the county was en economic powerhouse, its mines leading the world in terms of extraction and technology. Tens of thousands were employed.
In the end the craftsmanship of the mine builders proved more enduring than the price of metals on the world commodity markets. All that's left in the landscape are mine shafts, engine houses and huge chimney stacks, which loomed out of the fog as I picked my way past the tumble-down granite walls of abandoned outhouses.
The unquestionable highlight, if one has a interest in such things, is Levant Mine and Beam Engine maintained by the National Trust. Established in 1820, it was nicknamed the 'mine under the sea' for its tunnels, in which miners worked at the face as far as 2.5km out to sea.
As if picking at rock knowing the ocean bottom is above your head was't harrowing enough, spare a thought for those men who made their way down into the shafts each day on the man engine.
This device lowered men into the mine using a series of moving wooden platforms affixed to vast vertical beams like some kind of twisted arcade platform game. To reach shaft-bottom a miner would step onto one of the beam's moving platforms, then travel down to a second platform fixed perilously to the side of the shaft. The beam would then rise again. When it fell, the miner would take the next moving platform down to reach the next shaft platform down - and so on until they reached the bottom of the mine. A false step often proved fatal. The journey took around an hour, until the water wheel powering the pulleys was upgraded to a steam engine, at which stage it was reduced by more than half.
On the afternoon of Monday October 20th 1919 a shift turned to tragedy when a steel bracket on the man engine broke, sending the engine and its timber beams hurtling down the pit, smashing off the fixed platforms and sending 31 of the 150 men on the machine to their deaths. The tragedy remains one of the worst in UK mining history. The man engine was never replaced and the lowest shafts were abandoned. 21 years later the mine closed forever.
When the industry ends, the coastal path enters wilder country - remote bays enclosed by precipitous cliffs, the path making an inspired, if hilly, traverse over granite stacks, through rich, scrubby woods into hidden streamed valleys. Everywhere is cloaked with flowers, not just the bluebells and foxgloves of yesterday but also primroses, thrift, celandine and gorse. When the sea breeze picked up in the afternoon to roll back the clag, the ozone was heavy with the scent of wildflowers.
This is, the guidebooks say, one of the highlights of the entire South West Coastal Path, and in a day of superb countryside, none was better than secluded Portheras Cove. Little more than a pocket of sand between cliffs, the little beach is maintained not by the council, but by volunteers, who keep it clean and obviously adore their little stretch of heaven. I spent a half hour on the sand, in the company of seals bobbing in the bay.
Beautiful Portheras Cove.
I had my first cow encounter of the walk just after lunch: a herd numbering a few dozen spread thick and even over any path I could take.
Cows: Who is that person on the wall?.
Now I know cows are (generally) docile creatures, more inquisitive than angry. But that doesn't stop me adopting a healthy respect for them when encountered in herds of 30+. Deciding I'd like to get to the end of at least Day Two of my adventure, I made my way onto one of the impressive hedgebanks that carve up the Cornish countryside and began a slow aerial diversion around the herd. I'd got about halfway (shins torn by brambles and gorse) when a walker and his wife appeared. The gent raised his voice and told the cows in firm tones to get out of his path – which they did. Then on he strode. When walkers meet on long distance footpaths they usually exchange a few pleasantries about the walk. Not this time. When he reached me he looked up: "Good wall?" he asked.
Over Zennor Head and I rounded the headland for my first glimpse of civilisation since leaving St Just... Porthmeor Beach, with St Ives beyond. With heavy legs I walked through the narrow streets to the harbour to find pizza then a bed for the night. Tomorrow is another long one, 17 miles, my destination the fishing village of Portreath.
St Ives harbour. Still misty.
Next: St Ives to Portreath.
Previous: Land's End to St Just.