Today I had my first proper day's walk. My 11-mile jaunt from Land's End to Penzance was really just a warm-up, for today's leg was 17 miles, the average daily distance I need to cover if I'm to reach John o'Groats in a reasonable time.
Starting from Penzance under a cloud-speckled sky this morning, I prayed to the weather gods not to be unkind. One of the myriad weirdoes at the Youth Hostel had warned me that the weather was about to turn nasty, but I should have known better than to trust someone with such a casual approach to halitosis; the weather turned out to be perfect for hopping along the Cornish coast, which means that somewhere in the not too distant future lies my first drubbing at the hands of Cornwall's famously temperamental weather... just not today.
The most logical way to head towards John o'Groats from Penzance is to head east along the Southwest Coastal Path. This path, the biggest long-distance path in Britain, curls right round the toe of the country, and from Penzance it heads east along the curved shores of Mount's Bay, a beautiful crescent beach that stretches towards Marazion. The walk looks pretty boring on the map, but the map doesn't show the view in front of you; as I stomped away from Penzance I couldn't get enough of St Michael's Mount standing silhouetted in the distance.
St Michael's Mount is one of those ancient architectural wonders that make even the most committed modernists go weak at the knees. Picture a mythical mediaeval castle perched on top of a perfectly proportioned island and you've got a genetically photogenic sight that combines history, landscape, myth and a special atmosphere of utter Englishness. That's probably why there's the mother of all car parks right opposite the Mount, providing the perfect opportunity for busloads of trigger-happy tourists to whizz in, click their shutters, take a swift stroll along the promenade and hop back to the hotel in time for yet another cream tea. But who can blame them? It's such a satisfying sight, and as the island is connected to the mainland via a causeway that's only useable at low tide, tourism is unlikely to spoil St Michael's Mount itself; thankfully it can only gawp from a distance while its ice cream cone melts onto the tarmac car park.
Onto the Coast
The pretty village of Marazion, which has the good fortune to look over St Michael's Mount, is a lovely place, though it must be hell in the height of the summer tourist invasion. In May it's still waking up from hibernation and the sloping streets with their thin pavements are pleasantly tranquil, but I didn't have time to dilly-dally and take in the view over a cream tea because this was where my route stopped following paved promenades and started exploring the real coast.
The Cornish coast is one long story of sweeping bays, rocky coves, ancient stone houses and settlements that cling to the cliff-tops like limpets, and the coastal path takes you through the best of them. Most people walk the coastal path in the other direction, heading west towards Penzance, and this is probably why the best views were over my shoulder, but I still couldn't get enough of it as I headed for the curved beach of Sydney Cove.
On the way into the cove I came across a superb woolly hat, stuck onto the gorse bushes right next to the path, and ten minutes later I came across a pure cotton sweatshirt, followed by a woman's cotton top just round the next headland. I idly wondered if the wind had played a mean trick on a couple making mad passionate cliff-top love... but just as my thoughts were getting interesting, Sydney Cove came into view and it struck me that this would be the last time I'd be walking alongside the sea until far distant Inverness. I dipped my walking sticks in the foam and let the sea lap my boots, just for the symbolism. I wonder if I'll be able to dip my boots into the sea off John o'Groats; it's still a very long way off.
Not far after Sydney Cove I cut inland and finally waved goodbye to the sea. By this stage I was starting to dream of a nice pint or two in a local pub, so I decided to take a shortcut along a right of way that cut through three farms. The first two were fine; the third had teeth.
I understand why farmers keep dogs, especially those that live far away from the local police station, but dogs simply don't like me; they can smell the fear, and this makes every farmhouse a gamble that generally ends up with me coming off worst. As I approached the last farm on my shortcut I heard the ominous sound of rabid dog on the air, and sure enough two black-and-white hounds appeared at the end of the field, barking away.
'Never mind,' I thought. 'I'll just be the boss, and they'll respect that.'
Unfortunately Cornish dogs are never going to respect sweaty trekkers who turn up unannounced, even those who turn up unannounced on public rights of way, and these were no exception. They slavered, they growled and they ran at me, totally refusing to be intimidated by my calls of 'Hello dog, yes I know you don't want me here, but I just want to follow this right of way, so don't worry... shiiit! Don't jump at me like that you bastard!'
This was no time for taking complicated bearings from the hill over here and the church spire over there; I hastily picked a fence, leapt over it, and hoped my sense of direction was enough to pull me through.
Of course, it wasn't, and it took me ages to find my way back to the road. Shortcut, my arse...
Luckily the rest of the walk was uneventful and beautiful. After my experience with the farmer's dogs I stuck to the roads, which took me through some lovely Cornish villages with names like Breage and Culeen, places where harsh realities like Middle Eastern war and killer viruses are not only distant, they're practically mythology. Finally I reached Pengoon Farm, a couple of miles north of Helston, where I gratefully put up my tent, grabbed a shower and tracked down the local pub.
The Crown was just what I needed. Perhaps the list of available beers, chalked up on a blackboard just inside the door, sums it up best; on offer were Betty Stogs (4.0%), Drecky (4.8%), Tipsy Trotter (5.1%), Sozzled Swine (5.5%), Porker's Blend (3.9%), Farmer Dray (5.5%) and Terry's Ale (5.0%).
With a bubbling background murmur and a bloody good line in pub food, I settled into the Crown like an overworked tightrope walker into a pair of felt slippers. Tomorrow I'll have to do it all again, but for now all I can think about is just how lovely it is to be walking in Cornwall.
Or to put it another way, things can only get worse...