On a grey Friday Rebecca, Mollie dog and I set off to Carn Marth, a childhood stamping ground of Rebecca's. Carn Marth lies a couple of miles southeast of Redruth and is 771 feet high; one of several ancient hills that runs down Cornwall's spine, providing perfect sites for beacons to warn of impending attack, mark victories and celebrations of all sorts. I was keen to explore this walk, having heard much of the open air theatre and of the view from the top of the hill: on a clear day it's one of the only places in Cornwall from where both coasts can be seen.
So we headed off on the A393 from Falmouth towards Redruth, going through Ponsanooth, then Lanner. Climbing the hill out of Lanner, we took a turning on the right called Pennance Road and continued along here until we came to a traffic calming section with a notice saying Priority Over Oncoming Traffic. Just past here is a layby on the left where we parked and took the footpath leading uphill.
I'd been told that there are cuckoos, warblers, swallows and occasionally peregrines to be seen, and as my knowledge of birds is limited, I took my Christmas present of an RSPB book (thanks, Mum). With my bird book in my pocket, we set off, the path curving round to the left, past Carn Marth House and Carn Marth Barn. A young springer spaniel appeared to say hello and saw us off along the lane with high hedges on each side, encrusted with emerald moss. Growing out of the hedges were gorse bushes and young saplings intertwined with ivy.
We climbed higher, where the path grew sandy, and looked down over sparse moorland to Lanner on our left. It reminded me of a scene from Wuthering Heights – remote granite farm houses loomed out of the mist. A dog barked, then a child screamed in the distance. I shivered and pulled my imagination away from moorland ghosts to my immediate surroundings: vast clumps of granite strewn by the side of the lane, like a giant's discarded toys. A row of fir trees sheltering a house; bright orange fungus growing from a dead gorse bush. Gnarled moorland hedges, windblown and sparse - and then, to our right, a huge white and grey cat, dozing high in the hedge, like the Cheshire Cat. It glared at Mollie who hiccuped with excitement but nothing fazed this magnificent creature who yawned and closed its eyes firmly.
Wondering if we'd strayed into the land of fiction, I looked ahead and there was a beautifully restored mine engine house. On closer inspection this turned out to be Baronet's Engine House, built in 1866, formerly known as Wheal Amelia and part of Pennance Consols Mixed Mine.
Past Rockfield Farm we turned sharp right uphill past another farm marked by a huge Camellia bush with blowsy pink flowers. The concrete path led to a sandy track and soon we came to red gates on our left marking Carn Marth theatre.
In 1986, when plans were proposed to reopen a granite quarry on Carn Marth and remove 1.5 million tons of granite, there was fierce opposition. The Carn Marth Protection Group was founded and with the help and support of thousands of people, near and far, the hill was saved and a portion of the top was bought by the Carn Marth Trust.
It was then decided to convert the lower quarry into an open air theatre, forming terraces for a seating area, and installing electricity. The first production of The Three Musketeers, by Cornwall Theatre Company, was a great success, and generated much needed funds. Enthusiastic audiences of over four hundred brought cushions, blankets and food and drink.
Since those early days the Theatre Quarry has seen productions and performances every year by groups including Shiva, Kneehigh, Miracle, Hammered Steel, Carharrack & St Day Silver Band and Doreen Fiol’s influential Children’s Theatre. It has also been used for wedding and birthday celebrations.
The auditorium is an impressive sight, hewn out of vast walls of granite that tower over the grassy stage. In the drizzle it had an other worldly feeling, compounded by a few jackdaws that cried and circled above. Walking along the grassy tiered seats, I felt as if we were waiting for ghostly spectres to jump on stage and recite Shakespeare. As we looked around, a sudden burst of sunshine broke forth, lighting the auditorium. If I listened hard enough I felt sure I could hear the applause, see the actors bowing and smiling. Then the sun disappeared behind a cloud, and Mollie rushed onto the stage, did a lap of honour and disappeared stage right. We found her, nose down and paddling in a nearby pond full of what looked like loofah sponges. It turned out to be frogspawn, so when she moved on, her legs were covered in mud containing hundreds of potential baby frogs.
Reluctantly we left the theatre and walked out to our left, passing another flooded quarry, and climbed higher and higher, until the land levelled out and we reached a small obelisk. From here we had the most incredible view – looking east past St Agnes Beacon to Bodmin Moor, we could just see Rough Tor and Brown Willy (the highest hill in Cornwall at 1375ft). To the north was the Bristol Channel and to the south the English Channel. Rebecca (who has much better eyesight than me) – pointed out St Anthony’s Light at the entrance to Carrick Roads with Pendennis Castle and Falmouth opposite. Well, that's what she said they were – to me they were blurs, despite my glasses. Turning further west was the reservoir at Stithians, then Carnmenellis and Carn Brea, with views across the Great Flat Lode and its engine houses.
We drank in the view while Mollie played chase in a field containing a donkey, three ponies and the woolliest sheep I've ever seen. Slowly we walked back the way we'd come, and at the next junction marked by blue waymarks, we headed down the hill, while a lone kestrel hovered above (I checked the book and it definitely wasn't a peregrine). As I looked up, it swooped down into the field and emerged, clutching something small and struggling in its beak. I closed my eyes, glad I wasn't a mouse, and shut the bird book firmly.
At the next waymarked junction, by a derelict house, we turned right along a grassy track that led into a rocky path leading downhill. At the next junction, marked by oak apple trees on the right, we turned sharp left which led us back to the path that we came in on.
I can see why the Carn is so popular. Even on a misty day it is full of atmosphere and there is plenty to do: walking, fishing in the flooded quarries, enjoying the wildlife, flying kites, drawing, painting, photography, or an evening at the open air theatre.
Apparently this is a place to recharge your batteries. Having had weeks of flu-like symptoms, I read this with some scepticism. But you know what? We got back to the van and I realised, with amazement, that my ongoing exhaustion had eased. So next time you need a pick me up, go to Carn Marth.
OS Explorer 104, Redruth & St Agnes
Length: 2 miles – approximately 1 hour
Grade: Steep in parts, rocky paths.
More information on the Carn Marth Trust and open air theatre: www.carnmarth.org.uk
Refreshments: The Fox and Hounds, Comford.
Lanner Garden Centre
Pennance Consols Mixed Mine – you can walk around the restored Baronet's Engine House which is on the southern slope of Carn Marth