Make hiking hay while the sun still shines
The nights are drawing in, but Martin Hesp finds a brisk autumnal walk works wonders for the soul.
Will it be a long winter? Am I worrying about it because I'm getting older and softer? As I write, the real autumnal weather is just beginning so I've been looking back through photographs I've taken while out hiking on fine days this summer.
I enjoyed one particularly pleasant walk down in deepest southern Cornwall a couple of weeks ago when I found myself passing Pentewan, the seaside village situated on the B3273 between St Austell and Mevagissey. Autumn was in a warm, benign, genteel mood and seemed in no hurry whatsoever to introduce the Atlantic gales which are hitting my window as I write these words, so I made hiking hay while the proverbial sun shone.
Pentewan is the sort of place many of us tend to drive past without stopping – partly because, perhaps, of the large not particularly attractive caravan site that dominates the area inland from the beach. And maybe also because so many motorists pass this way en-route to the Lost Gardens of Heligan nearby. However, once you pull off the road and enter the older part of Pentewan you discover a wonderful, scenic, little place. In the 19th century it was a busy port exporting china clay and importing and coal, but the history of this highly protected coastal settlement dates back all the way to the Bronze Age.
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We parked in the small car park just past the Ship Inn – the only remaining public house of three that used to ply a trade here. I imagine the dozen or so spaces in the village car park can become over-subscribed, but for some reason the day we called there was no-one else around.
The harbour basin at Pentewan is now unused, save for some swans and ducks. You can still see vestiges of the old Pentewan railway that used to run between St Austell and this quayside. It was opened in 1830 and was at first powered by gravitational pull on the down-side, and horses on the up. After 1874 steam locomotives were introduced, but operations ceased in 1916 as the channel into the harbour became increasingly silted.
If you had all day to spend walking in the area then an ideal route would be all the way up the South West Coast Path to Charlestown and back via inland tracks and lanes. But we had time constraints and were restricted to a couple of hours at most.
So this walk takes us north along the coast path almost as far as enigmatic Black Head, then round the corner to the Ropehaven Cliffs Nature Reserve and back via an inland route. To begin, you have to walk a little way up the steep lane that ascends north out of Pentewan then, turning sharp right where you see the sign, stroll alongside the attractive line of houses known as The Terrace.
It's rather unusual compared to most terraces, in that the village church is directly attached to one end. Ruins found hereabouts apparently suggest that a monastery once stood on the spot, but historical investigation was somewhat hampered by the fact that two German bombs were dropped on Pentewan in 1942, blowing several buildings in the vicinity to smithereens.
The coast path now climbs away from the village, offering fantastic views of the twin beach of Pentewan and Sconhoe as it goes. Now begins a roller coaster of a walk around the clifftops of Polrudden Cove. You can enjoy wonderful glimpses of Black Head along the way, but often you'll be climbing hillsides as steep as a house. Past the old quarries the path dips and climbs, not that the diggings are particularly apparent, being largely overgrown. Eventually, after descending to flirt with the waves several times, the path reaches a sheltered cove called The Vads.
By this time our brief flirt with the warmth of spring had disappeared under black clouds and a really cold east wind, so we decided to leave magnificent Black Head for another day and took the footpath inland to the hamlet of Trenarren. There's a paved lane here but we avoided this by skirting it along the footpath which runs parallel to the seaward and which eventually took us to the Ropehaven Cliffs Nature Reserve.
The Cornwall Wildlife Trust site consists mainly of steep wooded slopes which are occasionally prone to slipping into the sea. When a landslide does occur it reveals some of the oldest sedimentary rocks in the region – and fossils which have been found show that this was an area of tropical seabed some 400 million years ago. The remains of corals, sea lilies, shellfish, primitive fish and squid have been found.
I'd like to have had a closer look around but dipping temperatures took us away from the ancient tropical seas and we headed inland around the north of Trenarren on another footpath which then led us due west towards the farm at Trevissick before cutting south then west again to reach the Pentewan-Duporth lane at a point about a mile north of the former village. Now it was simply a matter of turning left and marching along the lane – enjoying sweeping views of Mevagissey Bay – before dropping down the steep hill which ends at the car park where we began.
The road wasn't particularly busy and the hedges sheltered us from a balmy breeze that was beginning to ruffle the wavelets down in the bay – just enough perhaps to remind us that a long cold winter might lie ahead and reassure us that we'd made the right decision to enjoy Cornwall's great outdoors while the going was good.