A walk near Land's End with some of the most breathtaking coastal views in Cornwall
One of the many enjoyable aspects of these walks is the friends I make. Anne Pengelly, who runs the plant and vegetable stall at the Farmers' Markets in Falmouth and Truro, always reads these walks and has extensive knowledge of plants.
When I found a strange wallflower, I took it to Anne who said, “I'll ask Brian (her husband). He'll know.” Sure enough, the next week Anne greeted me with a huge wave and a smile and said, “Toadflax!” Not just that, she lent me one of Brian's flower books so I could read all about it.
Anne hadn't done this walk, but I always report our latest escapades. One drizzly afternoon Viv, Titch, MollieDog and myself left Penzance, taking the A30 towards St Just, then turned left onto the B3283 signposted St Buryan. This changed to the B3315 and at Polgigga we turned left signposted Porthgwarra and parked in a private car park.
Porthgwarra is a beautifully unspoilt cove whose sole occupant was a lone fishing boat on the tiny beach: here it really feels as if the clock has gone back several hundreds of years. Despite Viv reading from an OS map and three books, we were unsure of the route, but followed the signpost saying Land's End 3 ¾ miles.
“We can't really go wrong on the coastal footpath, can we?” said Viv - the sort of comment that usually precedes disaster on a grand scale. But as we walked, the clouds cleared and my spirits rose along with some incredibly steep steps. Looking down onto Porthgwarra we saw a boulder perched at the very edge of the cliff, as if it was just about to roll down into the sea.
Porthgwarra is the most south westerly valley in the British Isles, and choughs have been reintroduced to the area but look out for stonechats, meadow pipits, skylarks, jackdaws and buzzards. Adders are also to be found along these paths when it's sunny, so watch your feet and wear walking boots.
For those with vertigo (like me) or with dogs (like us), this part of the coastal footpath is not too close to the cliff edge so not as bad for the nerves. Soon we reached Gwennap Head Lookout Station, run by the National Coastguard Institution and noticed two beacons, one like a black and white rocket aiming at the sky. We were admiring the dramatic views when a voice said, “Want to come up?”
We looked up to see a figure dressed in navy blue uniform standing in the doorway of the lookout station. John Machary showed us around and we watched as a small fishing vessel passed by. “That's Lamorna,”said John, looking it up in a book that lists every fishing vessel and port in Cornwall. “She's out of Newlyn.”
He told us that the beacons are navigational aids and are different shapes according to how they're seen at sea. There is a reef on the way in from a large buoy, and these beacons guide the vessels through a gap in the reef. On a good day you can spot the southernmost tip of the Lizard Peninsula and the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles to the southwest.
Next we had a close up view of Wolf Rock, ahead, and Longships lighthouse, off to our right, through their special telescope. I noticed the NCI have a book where every walker is logged – in case they go missing, presumably. Details such as sex, clothing and hair colour were noted. (What would he put about us?) We could have stayed there all day, but finally we left the warm confines of the lookout station and headed out onto the cliffs.
The cliff face and boulders along this coast are magnificent hunks of granite with large crystal lumps indicating that the magma cooled very slowly, over 275 million years ago. There are numerous examples of lines of weakness in the granite where the sea has eroded the rock causing huge towers of rock, 200 feet high. These cliffs are like castle walls, with huge rectangular lumps of rock and long narrow buttresses. In several places the rock has weathered into strange shapes – we spotted one like an armadillo, another like a turtle, and much of the granite is covered in beards of feathery lichen of the palest green.
Leaving Gwennap Head behind us, we followed the footpath round towards Land's End, noting the next headland of Carn Guthensbrias, and passed through a ramshackle kissing gate in the middle of a granite dry stone wall and took note of a series of coves with magical names: Porth Loe, Folly Cove, Zawn Kellys and Pendower Coves, before arriving at Carn Les Boel and further round, our destination: Nanjizal Bay, otherwise known as Mill Bay.
From here we looked out onto the huge headland of Land's End, feared by most sailors. By the time we reached it, the sun was out and the sea glinted turquoise and aquamarine: the calmness of the water belied how treacherous it could be. As a fisherman said to me, “From Land's End you hope you can get into Newlyn, for there are no safe harbours on the North Coast until you get to Padstow.”
The landscape, looking inland, is very sparse here, bringing to mind Winston Graham's Poldark novels, and indeed little has changed since then: a few distant farmhouses, a sturdy church tower on the horizon. A field of cattle and a derelict house and barns with gaping holes to the sky where the roofs should be.
Despite checking the map, we took a short cut on our return journey which resulted in bad tempers and upsetting a field of cattle. “We'll have a better idea of where we are when the stars come out,” Viv said - a comment that didn't fill me with confidence. Inland a dark storm cloud hovered, so hurriedly we retraced our steps as we should have done - to Ardensawah Cliff on the south side of Pendower coves, then took a path inland. This finally led past a row of cottages to a tarmac path and the valley of Porthgwarra where sleepy violets and wild daffodils greeted us, blackthorn shed its white confetti, and blackbirds and skylarks sang above us.
Porthgwarra valley provided a stark contrast to the drama of the coastal footpath with its several hundred feet of towering granite rocks. Looking out, the sea glinted silver, then blue and green with ribbons of white where the waves crashed on the rocks. Don't miss this walk – it's one you will never forget.
OS Explorer 102 Land's End, Penzance and St Ives
Duration: Approximately 2.5 hours – allow 3 hours for rests, photographs and enjoying the spectacular views.
Length: 3.5 miles
Very steep in places, can be very muddy
Small shop selling refreshments only in summer.
Parking £1.50 per day at time of walking.
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Cornwall Today May 2011