Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Church Cove

A walk on the west coast of the Lizard,
taking in Church Cove, Mullion golf course and Poldhu Cove

After what seems like months of rain and wind, nature was smiling the day we set off for this walk. We were blessed with a Wedgewood blue sky and not a breath of wind as we travelled south from Helston past Culdrose airbase and turned right, taking signs for Gunwalloe. Heading towards Church Cove, we parked in a National Trust pay and display car park near Winnianton Farm.

On foot, we headed back up the road and noticed hundreds of starlings perched on the telegraph wires, chirping loudly. They weren't deterred by the bird scarer at Winnianton Farm, which sounded like a gun shot, startling us and making Mollie bark. Looking back we noticed the towans of Mullion golf course, players silhouetted on the horizon, and high above a helicopter from Culdrose flew over the headland.

The lane led steeply upwards, past an austere granite house which could have been the old rectory, with a moss encrusted roof, empty windows and towering narrow chimneys. Not somewhere I'd like to spend the night. The hedges were spiky, with gnarled and weather beaten branches, filled with an odd assortment of vegetation: a burst of honeysuckle in amongst the brambles; the bright buds of rosehips; teasel, like skinny hedgehogs with spindly arms.

At a layby at the top of the hill we turned right onto the coastal footpath, heading south towards Halzephron Cliffs – so called because “als” means Hell in Cornish, and “ephron” comes from the Cornish “yfarn” for cliff. If you look down at the rocks far below (which I didn't on account of my vertigo), you can see why it got its name.

This path was narrow and very muddy at the time of our walk, and at one point Mollie ventured rather too near the edge of the cliff for my liking, so with shaking hands and pounding heart I put her on the lead. Calmer, I looked out over Mounts Bay and was astounded by the view. A massive sweep of sea, majestic today in a slate blue robe with ermine waves. Down the coast we could see Mousehole and Lamorna, then on to Gwennap Head, and beyond that Land's End. In the middle of this huge expanse of water was a tiny fishing boat; a timely reminder of our insignificant size versus nature.

The waves rumbled far below us and seagulls gathered on the rocks like white studs, while their mates cried and wheeled above us. The dense hedges revealed a singular sunny burst of gorse, a surprise pink campion, and prickly heather. Walking round the headland we saw the ornate and magnificent white building which looks like a James Bond style hotel; I was sure I could see a helicopter pad next door. Apparently it's Poldhu nursing home, and I wondered who the residents are and what they think of their incredible view. Heading further south, we saw Goonhilly in the distance, while on a nearby gate a shy stonechat refused to be photographed, and we passed a field full of strange looking vegetables, like mangrove, but which turned out to be enormous swede.

Climbing down we reached Jangye-ryn, a rough beach with rock formations of special interest to geologists because the contorted strata of the cliffs represent 1,000s of years of tectonic movement. It is otherwise known as Dollar Cove, because a Spanish ship was apparently wrecked here in the 17th century and and silver dollars occasionally wash up on the beach. Today there were no geologists or gold bullions, but a golden winter sun dazzling the water, and surfers enjoying the waves.

Church Cove is separated from this beach by a 60 foot promontory that provides a good view of both beaches and the church of St Winwalloe. Apparently there was a church and settlement here in Domesday times, though the current church was built in 14th or 15th century and the tower is Norman. St Winwalloe's is unusual in that its small tower nestles in the inner bank of this headland, separate from the adjoining main body of the church and ancient graveyard. Another unusual aspect is its proximity to the beach – at spring tides with high winds, the spray must drench the front door.

St Winwalloe was of Cornish parentage, born in Brittany in the sixth century. There's a figure of him by the porch, a Cornish cross in the churchyard, and the church contains timbers from the Portuguese galleon 'St Anthony', which was wrecked in the cove on Saturday, 19 January, 1527.

This cove is dangerous and breathtaking: you can understand why so many ships were wrecked on this coast. We visited one Christmas Day and watched brave swimmers struggle out from the pounding surf to be rewarded with hot toddies by a bonfire. It gave Christmas Day a very special feel that stayed with me for years afterwards. Today there was only us, but Mollie bounded across the neighbouring dunes with joy, and we headed off over the National Trust Towans or golf course.

We weren't sure of the public right of way, but other dogwalkers reassured us we were on the right path so we waited for three golfers, lining up their shots. Mollie stood on her hindlegs on the little granite bridge, watching the men with studied amazement. This evidently put them off their strokes, and we hurried on, up a steep rocky path, with our heads down.

Past Mullion golf club, we took the lane south past a field of curious cows, intrigued by Mollie and Rebecca's camera. They soon grew bored and moved off, while on our right we noticed flocks of black headed gulls marching up and down the golf course, to the consternation of the players.

We walked down to Poldhu Cove, famous for being the place where the first transatlantic radio signal was sent in 1901. This cove was deserted today bar a few lone surfers, and the cafe was closed, so we headed north, back to Church Cove. Some of this rocky path has been dangerously eroded and rerouted inland (to my relief), pinpointed by signs saying Warning! Unstable Cliffs.

As we descended into Church Cove, spray from the waves pounded the cliffs and rose in a curtain of mist, covering the entire beach. Mollie and I examined dark and glistening caves as the tide swirled in around our feet, then returned to walk across the dunes to the car park.

The light was falling and a flock of starlings gathered to fly home in the dusk. Looking out over the green expanse of fields, not a house was to be seen; no cars, no sign of modern life. For that moment we could have been time travellers from long ago, enjoying the vast grandeur of Mounts Bay, and the little church of St Winwalloe peeping out from its tamarisk hedge.

OS Explorer 103 – the Lizard or National Trust Lizard West Coast leaflet
Distance: 3 ½ miles
Time: 1 -1½ hours
Grading: easy, but muddy at times
Facilities: public toilets near Winnianton Farm and car park
Nearest refreshments at the Halzephron Inn
Dogs banned on Church Cove from Easter to October 1st
Dogs are allowed year round on adjoining Dollar Cove
Historical/other interest: 15th century St Winwalloe church, built in the sand dunes on the beach
National Trust car park: £1 per day

February 2009 Cornwall Today

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