Oh to be in England 3 - West Cornwall

Wednesday 5th September 2012, Franche Comté
This will be the final part of our nostalgic trip around Britain over the summer. As you will have noted, we are already well into our travels in France. Those reports will follow next.
In late July our Hungarian friends in Exeter, Peter and Kati, suggested we take Modestine and Huba down to Cornwall for a few days camping on the cliff-tops. The last time our two vehicles shared a field together was in Transylvania in 2010 and they loved the idea. We all met up at our favourite but basic campsite at Trewellard in the grounds of the old count house belonging to the defunct Levant mine on the coast of Penwith a few miles north of Lands End. The weather was excellent and we were soon crisping up nicely with the sun and the breeze from the sea.

Peter, Kati and Huba, Cornwall

Back in the 19th century Trewellard was a small mining community. Tin, copper and arsenic made Cornwall wealthy back then. Now the mines have all closed and tourism is the main source of income for the region. The nearby Geevor mine was working until the 1970s and it still functions as a mining museum with guided visits to the underground workings. It is kept drained and is viable to re-open when and if the global market for tin improves.

Trewellard, in common with many of the villages of Cornwall’s far west, consists of small granite cottages exposed to the full force of the Atlantic winds. Generally though, the climate is mild and the fields and hedgerows are abundant with wild flowers throughout the summer. The north coast is harsher than the south and the sea crashes perpetually against the hazardous cliffs. Even recently ships have run aground, shedding their cargo or covering the rocks with leaking oil. It is also an industrial landscape with the remains of 19th century mine workings scarring the cliff-tops. There are tall chimneys, ruined bean engines, buddle pits, adits and open mine shafts – these latter frequently hidden amidst the ferns and gorse beside the coastal footpath and still causing the occasional hazard to sheep and dogs. The abandoned mines though, do add a charm and mystery to the stunningly beautiful landscape, and they are a constant reminder of the difficult lives men led there between 1700 until well into the 20th century. Some shafts, such as the Crowns Mine, even stretched out under the sea and workers, down there in the darkness every day, could hear the rumble of rocks on the sea bed above them rolling around.

Windswept bushes on the north coast of Cornwall, West Penwith
Coastal scenery, West Penwith
Pendeen lighthouse, West Penwith
Coast near the Levant mine, West Penwith
Abandoned mine workings, Geevor, West Penwith
Levant engine house, Trewellard, West Penwith
Levant engine house, West Penwith

Another constant reminder of those hard times is the number of Wesleyan chapels to be found in the area. Many are now abandoned though others have been converted into very attractive homes, restaurants and art galleries. The Wesley brothers began their preaching down in Cornwall in the 18th century and gained a great following amongst the miners. Many of their followers became itinerant preachers holding open air public meetings to packed audiences.
There is a coastal footpath right around the South-West Peninsula. Generally it makes for tough walking but on a clear day the scenery is second to none. Moorland stretches away inland while sunlight reflects from the sea, rocks and crashing waves. On the horizon can be seen the Isles of Scilly – the lost land of Lyonesse – while offshore the Land’s End lighthouse on its rock marks the furthest tip of England.

On our first evening we dragged our friends to the Cornish meadery in the village. It was once the Wesleyan chapel so we sat in semi darkness at long tables inside, where the original pews have found a new lease of life. Here we were served half chickens on wooden boards accompanied by salad and chips. As back in mediaeval times, we were expected to eat with our fingers and rinse then in individual finger bowls of scented water. To drink we were served a jug of Cornish mead - a very sweet wine mixed with honey.

The sun sets later in Cornwall than anywhere in mainland Britain. Around 10pm we walked down towards the workings of the Levant mine on the cliffs below our campsite and watched as the sun dropped into the sea to leave the sky diffused with a riot of glorious fiery reds and oranges that gradually dimmed to purples and pinks.

Sunset with engine house, Trewellard, West Penwith

Peter had booked us all tickets for a performance of a 19th century French farce by Feydeau at the open air Minack Theatre across on the other side of the Peninsula at Porthcurno. The performance was good but it was the theatre itself that was the real treat! It was the brainchild and creation of Rowena Cade who established it in the grounds of her home back in the 1920s. The setting is sublime, right on the cliffs edge with the sea as a backdrop and the golden cove of Porthcurno beach, edged round with rocks, far below. Steep steps have been cut into the rocks for actors to reach the stage, a circular area, much along the lines of a Greek theatre, while the audience sits in a tiered semi-circle on stones cut into the rock. There is also a small museum on the history of the theatre and the life of its creator.

Minack Theatre, Porthcurno
Minack Theatre, Porthcurno

We attended the matinee performance and the gates opened an hour beforehand. Every place was occupied and the sun blazed down on us. We took a picnic, water, cushions, sunhats and parasols for comfort and enjoyed every moment. The acoustics were excellent and the play highly entertaining. We were lucky. Performances are rarely abandoned. Another time it could have been drizzling and cold.

During the morning we took a stroll along the cliff top path winding between the gorse, wind-bent shrubs and wild flowers. From rocky outcrops we could look down directly into the sea beneath, watching a cormorant diving for fish and swimming through the crystal clear water. Frequently seals can be seen along this coast.

Minack Point, Porthcurno
Peter and Kati take a rest, Coast footpath near Porthcurno

Reaching St. Leven we stopped to cool down in the tiny stone church with its carved wooden pews. The church stands sunken deep in its surrounding churchyard of granite tombs set in the rough green grass. There is a large granite boulder near the entrance to the church. It has been cracked into two equal parts. Of course there is a superstitious legend about it that concerns the Devil. Religious and superstition are so frequently intertwined.

Coast at St. Leven near Porthcurno
Holy well, St. Leven near Porthcurno

Porthcurno is a beautiful sandy cove with an interesting history. It was here that Marconi set up his transatlantic cable for carrying telegraphic messages. A museum of the history of telegraphy explains the background.

Peter and Kati had to return to Exeter before us. We continued on for a couple more days, using Modestine only as somewhere to return to, to eat and to sleep. The rest of the time we walked the cliffs into St. Just or took the bus from the village across the peninsula to Penzance and Newlyn. One day we rode the open-top bus along the coast road to the picturesque seaside town of St. Ives passing through some of Britain’s most sublime scenery. The fields of crops and cattle stretched down to the sea while inland the high rocky landscape was smothered by green ferns.

St. Michael’s Mount seen from Newlyn

St. Ives has a reputation for artists. There are lots of shops and galleries along the harbour selling works of variable quality and there is an excellent museum of sculpture containing the works of Barbara Hepworth displayed in the grounds of her former home. There is also of course the Tate Gallery of contemporary art down on the sea front.

St. Ives from the bus station
This way to the Tate! St. Ives

The narrow streets with their flower-covered tiny holiday cottages were crowded with holiday makers making their way down to the beach with their ice creams or searching out a tea room. The sandy beach was equally crowded. Dads built sand castles, children caught crabs in little buckets or paddled in the sea while huge seagulls kept a keen eye out for anyone not keeping a close watch on their picnic lunch. Lunch for almost everyone holidaying in St. Ives is either take-away fish and chips or a Cornish pasty – meat, potatoes, onions and seasoning cooked in a pastry case. Delicious!

Sun on the beach, St. Ives

Above the town are the coastguard look-out station and a little chapel, while on the harbour wall is a small seamen’s chapel formerly used before setting out on fishing trips.

Chapel above the beach, St. Ives

The following day we took the bus along in the opposite direction to Land’s End, arriving early in the day. There is of course much razzmatazz there with bars, restaurants and themed entertainment, but there is much too that is free and reasonably tasteful. We were particularly inspired by the many different attempts that have been made over the years to travel between Lands End and John-o’-Groats at the most northern tip of Scotland. Walking, cycling, pushing a bed, travelling in a motorised garden shed, even walking the route backwards. There is no end to the ingenious and pointless things we British will do! Even Modestine is starting to have aspirations.

Crowds at Land’s End
Land’s End lighthouse
First and last house in England, Land’s End

We stopped for a coffee overlooking the sea and the lighthouse before leaving the crowds behind us as we headed back along the coastal footpath towards Sennan Cove with its lifeboat station and tiny fishing harbour.

Coastal footpath near Land’s End

Here of course were many more holiday makers, wind surfing, swimming and surf boarding. In the village we bought pasties and returned to the beach to enjoy them sitting on a rock wriggling our toes in the hot sand. From then on though it was all hard work! The cliff top path winds continuously up and down from sea level to the cliff tops. Frequently the path disappears amidst a chaos of rocks and more than once we ended up losing our way with just a drop down to the sea ahead. It took hours to walk back to St. Just but it was all glorious. By the time we staggered into the town square my legs were constantly disagreeing as to which one should take the next step. We arrived just in time for the hourly bus to Trewellard and were the only passengers. We got back to Modestine and fell sound asleep!

Tough walking along the coastal footpath, West Penwith
Pretty cottage, Cott Valley, St. Just in Penwith
Lamas, Cott Valley, St. Just in Penwith