The South West Coast Path – Part 5
Make no mistake; today I was going round the bend. Right around the very end of Lands End. After a few weeks of facing the wind and strong seas of the North Coast, I was looking forward to the slightly different landscape and weather of the more sheltered South. Perhaps it isn’t really much more sheltered, but I was going to give it every chance.
After a semi-restful night at a local campsite I was dropped back next to Bosigran to walk past Commando Ridge along the stunning cliff sides of West Penwith. These are famous climbing spots and I had actually had a full day guided climb here a year or two ago in the thick of winter, being taken up a variety of increasingly challenging routes. It had been truly amazing to look below down in to boiling seas, and I did spend some time gripping on and gawping at the drop even though I’m pretty sure to anyone watching I was only inching up and not even nearly on the steepest bit! Well today it was my chance to stand and stare in awe at braver folk heading up the crags and nooks, and then stride away to meet my old friend Verity at Cape Cornwall as I was already, predictably, running late.
Along past Pendeen I walked through some still-raw mining landscapes and workings, reminded of how intensively these areas had been used over hundreds of years even though they felt barren and remote to me now. Firstly Geevor Tin Mine, where over 50,000 tons of black tin were mined its operational lifetime (1911 to 1990) but which now houses a museum where you can learn about all about what it was like to be a Cornish miner. Then past Botallack Mine; one that always makes me feel awe and unease because it was a submarine mine with some tunnels extending half a mile under the sea. I don’t know about you but the fact that these men (and boys!) were not only working under the ground but also ‘underwater’ in the 1800’s blows my mind. Having met up with Verity we happily nattered and caught up on life as we moved along through the granite outcrops that continued to grow in size and stature around us.
Walking along Gwenver, a beach thought to get its name from the legendary King Arthur’s wife Guinevere, we watched people surfing and enjoying the sun and decided to stop for a cup of tea and ‘bit o cake’ in Sennen, just along the way. It was there that we saw the Sennen lifeboat get a shout. As it burst from the doors of the lifeboat house and down the ramp to wallop into the sea at an amazing speed, I wondered who needed help and hoped they were ok. As it turned out they were not, but I wasn’t to discover that until a chance meeting later in the evening.
After a well earned rest Vee and I trucked around Land’s End where she was collected and I ducked and dived through the huge crowds there to see the very end of the UK. There was a queue of people waiting to pay to stand under the famous signpost, so I skipped that and found a quiet spot where I could absorb the incredible energy I felt on these cliffs. There is something elementally powerful and moving here; looking out into the wind and waves with the sturdy rock beneath you. Feeling happy and sun kissed after a lovely day I trundled up into Treen Campsite near Logan Rock; a favourite site which remains unspoiled with a chilled out atmosphere and always lovely people. Every campsite I have been to has been full to bursting, but if I call ahead or walk in they seem to always be able to find a spot where I can pitch for the night.
There seems to be a certain amount of respect for someone who has walked many miles to get there, and it feels really great to know that I’m unlikely to get turned away even in the height of summer. I have made a point not to wild camp on this hike, because since lockdown ended it has seemed that many people who are unused to camping wild have been trying it out and sadly many of them have damaged the beautiful spots they have come to see, leaving rubbish behind, chopping trees for fires or frightening farmer’s animals. This isn’t something I want to support, so I’ve been calling farmers to ask permission to camp or heading extra miles off the Coast Path to campsites that will have me. I hope that all the new people who are trying out camping (which is wonderful!) also start to learn about ‘Leave No Trace’, because then we can make sure that relationships with landowners remain good and that our beautiful countryside stays looked after.
At the close of the day’s hiking I sat on the grass putting my tent up at Treen when I heard a woman discussing a traumatic incident that had happened to her that afternoon. She had been swimming off Pedn Vounder when she noticed a man caught in a strong current and struggling to get back in. I mentioned that I had seen the Lifeboat leave Sennen, and she confirmed that it was for this very same incident. She explained that she had tried everything she could to help the man, calling friends with fins into the sea to try to bring him in, but ultimately even with the intervention of the lifeboat and lifeguards he very sadly died.
Hearing this terrible news and seeing the impact of the day’s events on this woman and those others who had been on the beach, was a stark reminder of how we all need to keep vigilant when in our beautiful seas and to ensure we educate ourselves about currents, our own limits and what rip tides look like and can do. It was a sobering way to end the day, and as the campsite closed in around her to offer support and police moved through asking final questions, my thoughts were with the man who passed away and those people that always step in to help us as we enjoy our coastlines and beaches. I was looking forward to my friend Emily coming to join me for the next day’s hike, but I also knew that I’d be approaching the coming days with renewed humility after this reminder that the elements we love to recreate in should always be respected.