These days come early in Cornwall.
At some point between skin-whipped storms and leaden skies it breaks out – the first day the sun holds a promise of summer. In a sheltered spot you can close your eyes, feel that growing gold on your face and almost taste the long days, beach fire smoke and jasmine round the door.
Sure, you’ll fall on your arse in a quagmire 5 seconds later and be relieved of such illusions. But it’s a sweet shift from crisp to warm that means spring is in the air.
Today was a bittersweet one for me – realising this will be the first time in my life that I won’t see a British summer.
All being well, between April and October I’ll be somewhere between Mexico and Canada on a strip of ground 2ft wide and 2,650 miles long, known as the Pacific Crest Trail. (Knowing my timing, when you actually read this I will be in a town 10 miles off-trail, elbow deep in simple carbohydrates. Or 200 yards off, having a wee behind a cactus.)
And with that in mind, I probably ought to get on with some training. Writing is a delicious indulgence of a job, but I’ve yet to find a way to do it without being sedentary.
The idea of doing the PCT really took root in September, and for most of the winter I’ve kept myself busy dreaming and scheming, going down YouTube rabbitholes and up kit creek. I know how much my pants weigh to the nearest gram – with and without care labels – but when was the last time I walked more than 10 miles?
One of the beauties of living in the southwest – aside from pasties and the instant conversion of your car into a caravan-magnet – is you can hit the coastline, turn right or left, and the path is decided for you from Poole to Minehead. When a good day rolls in, all you have to do is pull on your boots and try to look like a responsible adult.
The South West Coast Path was the antidote to obsessive planning I needed. By 9am I was out the door with 7kg on my back and, if not a spring in my step, at least a wholesome intent to be out until sunset.
50 minutes later, Maenporth stretched out shimmering at low tide. Kids’ rugby training had moved to the sand, a bunch of surf lifesavers practised their board skills and gardeners merrily bagged mounds of seaweed gifted by Storm Eleanor.
That’s one of the best things about beaches. They belong to everyone.
A man feels the need to comment about a thing, version 10,999,653,212
‘Hello Mrs Drablow!’ a voice piped up the steps as I pushed on towards Nansidwell.
Not being down with the works of Susan Hill – or able to tolerate any Daniel Radcliffe films since Harry Potter – I thought he was calling me ‘Mrs Ruffalo’ (hell, I’ll take the compliments where they land).
But no, the man then explained this was his witty way of dubbing me The Woman in Black.
‘That’s the problem with women’s outdoor clothing, I end up looking like a ninja,’ I admitted. ‘It’s that or join the fuchsia and turquoise brigade so, y’know…’ I tailed off, grimacing and thumbing my red hair by way of explanation. I paused in my cutting assessment of the outdoor industry just long enough to clock his wife in an electric blue anorak, zipped at half-mast to reveal a fleece in an enthusiastic shade of magenta.
Fortunately, attention was easily diverted by loudly trying to remember whether Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in Black or The Woman in White (any of my Oxford literature tutors reading: I’m so sorry).
As you begin to round into the Helford River, you reach one of those magic Cornish spots with transporting powers. At Mawnan Glebe in summer, the sea flashes through the twisting cork oaks and with the pine needles warm, pulls you to somewhere completely Mediterranean. Now with more sea than leaf, it’s still one of my favourite views on this stretch.
This too shall pass
After impressing the assembled beer terrace at the Ferryboat Inn with my ability to vaporise a burger and chips, I saw it was 7 miles to get home and time to be moving. Not far ahead, a young boy was having a meltdown with the kind of absolute Small Person Logic impossible to reason with.
I’M ALL WET AND MY COAT’S DIRTYYYYYYYY!
‘It’ll soon be dry darling, let’s walk to warm up…’
BUT EVERYTHING’S SPOIIIIILED.
‘But when we get home we can wash our boots and we’ll be good as new!’
‘This too shall pass’ is one of the best philosophies I’ve picked up while long-distance hiking. I.e. don’t get too fucked off about the rain and – equally – don’t revel in the perfect pitch of your tent or the idyll of your lunch spot. The sun will come out, the ridge pole will collapse, and ants will eat your chorizo, respectively.
I was just tootling along the narrow, hoof-churned path out of Helford Passage, thinking about how many childhood walks I’d humphed along in wet socks, not yet blessed with this knowledge, when WHUMP. Into the mud I went.
BUT- I- DIDN’T- WANT- TO- BE- WET- IN- THE- FIIIIIRST PLAAAAACE.
You and me both, kid. You and me both.
Back? We can’t go back
An endearing thing about walking with me is a complete aversion to retracing my steps. How handy, then, to choose a path that is doggedly linear (at least on paper if not in elevation: I’ve never known a trail like it for wanton up-and-downery).
A circuit was impossible without going halfway to Constantine and taking in a tour of the minor industrial estates of west Falmouth, so I decided to cut off a corner through Mawnan Smith. The river walk up through the valley from Porth Saxon to Carwinion is studded with tree ferns and feels like Trebah and Glendurgan might’ve been, before their jungles got more politely cultivated.
Once through the village and onto the Carlidnack Road, I also had the chance to test one of my favourite map features:
In Cornwall, I find this can mean one of two things:
- Beautiful, tree-lined, mossy holloway, often a grown-over lane, where you can imagine quaint-hatted farmhands droving their livestock to wherever people drove things to.
- Comprehensively boring open rutted track, covered in cow pats.
I try and explore these whenever they crop up and the 1s green and singing with life always balance out the 2s. This particular way was a 1, and ended up by the hotel at Maenporth.
I made it home as the clouds for the next winter storm were gathering. After a hot shower to wash the mud off my backside, I sat down on it with a cup of tea. And it was heaven.
The not very vital statistics
Falmouth – Maenporth – Durgan – Helford Passage – Mawnan Smith – Falmouth
Miles: 13.96 (should’ve done a few circuits of the garden to break even)
Average pace: 2.9mph
Black Labradors: 5 (1 x gorgeous goofy pupling)