I have walked a lot of the South West Coast Path. I’m quite obsessive over it in fact. The trail is peppered with historic monuments capturing the drama of various significant points in history. In Dorset, pillboxes remind you that not so long ago, the coast was in danger of becoming an active line of defence against Nazi Germany. The path itself was cut to provide the coastguard with a means of keeping watch for smugglers. The most striking historical monuments however, are perhaps Cornwall’s deserted, decaying mines and engine houses, some of which date back to the tin boom of the 16th century.
We started our walk at Botallack mine, which has recently become more widely recognised as Wheal Leisure from BBC’s Poldark series. Perched on the rocks, inches from the crashing Atlantic waves, it is a wonder how it has survived so well, but perhaps my £5 a month to the National Trust is helping to keep it in such splendid condition.
From Botallack we walked up the coast towards Zennor, and fittingly, the Tinner’s Arms. The next big chunk of mining heritage was Levant – an underwater mine that stretched out for over a mile beneath the sea bed.
As you come around the coast, a breathtaking scene of the abandoned industry comes into view with the remains of a huge operation scattered over the cliff and copper oxide staining the rock below. I can’t imagine the water here is ever calm, and the mind boggles over miners working beneath the surging tide. These cornishmen were tough. In 1919 one of the worst disasters to hit the Cornish mining industry happened here when the man engine fell, killing 31 men. This poem, by an author known only by the initials KA, tells the story rather well.
St Just, Pendeen and neighbourhood
Will never forget the day
When thirty-one poor miners
Were suddenly called away
This fearful accident occurred
On Monday at Levant
And many a home is fatherless
Through this terrible event
The man-engine was at fault, they say,
Whilst bearing human freight
Though very near the surface, smashed
And sent them to their fate
The awful strenuous hours that passed
Whilst bringing up the dead
And rescuing the wounded
The thought we almost dread
There were many willing helpers
Came over from Geevor Mine
To help the rescuing parties
Which was merciful and kind
The doctors, too, must have our thanks
For attentiveness and skill
In succouring wounded comrades
Brought to surface very ill
The parson and the minister
Both rendered yeoman aid
To alleviate the sufferers
Christian diligence displayed
Now, in conclusion, let me say
To rich as well as poor –
Remember the widows and orphans
Of those that’s gone before
Not far from this epic, jarring scene lies a tranquil, hidden cove. Portheras isn’t easy to get to, but it is well worth the walk. Golden sand and smoothed stones remain hidden until the moment you reach it. The perfect place to watch waves barrel and break.
It’s not until you reach the clifftop on the other side of the cove that you see how perfect it is. In fact, we were so enamoured with the tranquility of the beach that we didn’t notice ourselves walking into knee high gorse – an experience not to be repeated.
There are a few small villages along this part of the coast. Each is small, and it is uncertain what you will find if you should venture into one. We broke away from the path and headed into Morvah by way of a very muddy farm near Wheal Rose where gulls, crows and saddleback pigs were oinking and squawking away happily. The piglets were headbutting each other which made for great entertainment.
We had worked up a thirst and hoped for a pub in Morvah, but the closest thing we could find was a very small yet welcoming tea room, serving coffee by the cafetière and hot buttered saffron buns. The tea room doubled as a local art gallery, as I think all Cornish tea rooms do, showcasing pottery and handmade jewelry from the Penwith Heritage Coast and its makers. Tom fondled some of the woodwork, obliging the ‘touch me’ sign, before we headed back out into the winds and onto the path.
The weather started to test us with some rain and plenty of wind, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the setting. In fact, a bit of weather can suit this rugged coastline. As the ground became increasingly treacherous, a round was wagered on the first tumble. Clearly, I was over confident, as a few minutes later I found myself horizontal on my passenger side. Fortunately a mere jar of Tinner’s Ale was the sum of my forfeit.
Beyond the slipperiest of paths lies Castle Rock and the remains of a large settlement. This craggy cove is a far cry from the tranquil golden sands of Portheras. Giant blades of rock jut out from the waves forming a natural fortress, home to a few herring gulls.
As we walked on the landscape became grizzly and full of bracken. Stonechats hopped around in the gorse, and the wind and rain began to set in. We had been promised a pub at Gurnard’s Head – a spit of land that supposedly resembles the head of the fish. It certainly doesn’t from the west, but as we looked back, squinted and knocked back a quick trail beer, we were almost able to see the shape of said fish. Fishermen have been known to drink.
The walk was good. The Tinner’s Arms was good. Fun was had.
For more South West Coast Path tales click here.