Wildflowers on Cliff-tops – A Walk in Cornwall

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

With that line from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Cornwall, reeking with intrigue and redolent with romance and sensuality, got embedded in my imagination during my teen years. The charm of du Maurier’s descriptions lingered through the march of my decades, and so last summer, when I planned a walking holiday in England, the choice of locale was naturally Cornwall, starting at Fowey (pronounced Foi), the seaside town where du Maurier herself had spent many years, and which had provided the background for her Frenchman’s Creek.

Driving south-westwards out of London on a clear summer’s day, we found ourselves in Bodmin, crossing about 7000 hectares of England’s heathlands. Once stretching 80,000 hectares, these heathlands were the inspiration for Bodmin Moors and Jamaica Inn, du Maurier’s eponymous tale of smugglers and rogues. But with excellent motorways crisscrossing the Cornish moors today, it is difficult for even ardent fans to imagine them as the rain-lashed, wild setting for piracy and intrigue, just as it is difficult to evoke the spirit of the author while wandering through the olde worlde bar of the legendary Jamaica Inn.

But as it turned out, that was not a bad thing for us at all, for Cornwall’s delights surpassed the pleasures of being on du Maurier’s home ground. And by the time our holiday was over, the vision of Cornwall’s spectacular cliffs, its swathes of meadow bluebells and its flowering hedges easily transcended the moodily romantic and brooding pages that had left such a strong impression on me all those years ago.

After Bodmin, the drive changed to narrow single lanes bordered on both sides by a charming phenomenon – the Cornish hedge. These “hedges”, waist-high in some places and reaching twelve feet or more in others, are walls made of granite stones and earth. Over the years, these self-sustaining semi-natural hedges have become habitation for small mammals, birds, and abundant flora. Mosses, lichens, ferns, grasses and flowering plants wholly cover them. And in late May, the flowers on the hedges were in bloom; so, to our utter delight, we found ourselves driving for hours through what felt like a vertical flower meadow: walls of green studded with blue forget-me-nots, cream and yellow primroses, violets, and red campion.

There are 30,000 miles of these hedges in Cornwall today, some of which date back to the Bronze Ages. With their abundance of plant species thriving in this region’s combination of maritime climate and rocky soil, the hedges gave us a sense of being in a never-ending arbor, not on a public highway.

In the afternoon we arrived at the harbor town of Fowey and were pointed in the direction of Ferryside, a white-painted, blue-shuttered cottage where du Maurier had lived as a child. We were given directions to the Menabilly estate, the inspiration for Manderley, where the author had actually lived as a tenant until the late 1960s.  But again, walking through Fowey with its shimmering blue estuary and its sailboats only served to wash away the du Maurier patina I had been determined to put on the town, and it will remain for me a picture-postcard Cornish seaside town with a seven-hundred-year-old parish church, medieval and Georgian buildings – and a coffee shop that had the freshest and most generous crab sandwiches of the trip.

On the road again to Zennor, on the northern coast of the Cornish peninsula, about 70 miles away and our pit-stop for the night. Zennor lies within the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as designated by a National Parks Act of 1949. While the classification was no hyperbole, the drive had brought us through some of the starkest and most sparsely populated land we were to encounter on this trip, and we experienced a definite sense of relief when the tiny granite village, with its one church, one pub and a handful of stone cottages emerged from the rocky landscape, surrounded by boulder-dotted fields, granite tors, and slate cliffs.

Next morning, after a substantial breakfast in a beautiful sunroom overlooking the ocean, we finally set off to do what we had come to Cornwall for: walk on the coastal paths.

Skirting the twelfth-century church of St. Senara (the name Zennor comes from the Celtic Saint Senera) with its mermaid pew and flower-dotted graveyard, we were finally right next to the peacock-colored Atlantic on a gloriously sunny day, walking towards Zennor Head. This was the first of our spectacular days of the coastal walk, with the hilly coastline stretching to the horizon, green with short-cropped turf and maritime grassland. The headlands of Gurnard’s Head and Zennor Head were some miles north, the craggy shores with Pendour Cove nestled below on one side of Zennor Head; on the other was Porthzennor Cove.

It was an unforgettable walk, with crashing waves, dramatic drops, the sun shining on the purple-flowered heather, the yellow gorse flowers blooming abundantly, the purple foxgloves standing to attention, and the grass-lined path swooping down to the shoreline and then soaring up to the clifftops again.

We spent many happy hours scrambling up and down the cliff path, then drove down for a meal to St. Ives, another town with a literary connection. The influential modernist writer Virginia Woolf visited the town every summer as a child; Godrevy Lighthouse, on this part of the Cornish coast, informed Woolf’s experimental novel To the Lighthouse. To us cliff walkers that summer morning, St. Ives seemed like quite the metropolis after a day in lonely Zennor and on the cliffs, but who was complaining?  Pizza, ubiquitous fish and chips, Cornish ice-cream; all well-deserved after an active day of hiking; and then we were off to explore St. Just – the “first and last town in England” – its most westerly town. Every inch of the coastal walk, we thought, had deserved the hyperbole showered on it as one of the best walks in the country.

Zennor has been inhabited for 4000 years. Its local granite built the town of St. Ives. Although its main industry today is tourism, Cornwall’s mining history, during which tin, copper and lead were mined for over 2000 years, is still evident in the engine houses of St. Just and in the old mine chimney stack on the headland of Cape Cornwall, standing where the English Channel meets St. George’s Channel. This industry undoubtedly scarred the natural landscape, but today, its remains add interesting natural stone and brick additions to the natural Celtic environment and have been rendered almost picturesque by years and disuse.

Fowey and St. Ives are not the only Cornwall towns with ‘writerly’ connections; Zennor, too, has one. Between 1915 and 1917, DH Lawrence lived with Frieda on Higher Tegerthen Farm, not far from the coastal walk. Lawrence had arrived in Zennor looking for escape and refuge during the War, but the windswept and rugged Cornish village was to offer neither. As the war intensified, Lawrence and Frieda, who was German, were investigated by the police on suspicion of signaling to German submarine crews in the channel, and finally ordered to leave the county. Lawrence, unsurprisingly, wrote bitterly about his Cornish experience in some of his later work, and spent most of the remainder of his life outside Britain.

The literary critic Sandra Gilbert, in an essay, uses the phrase “geography of paradox” to describe Nottinghamshire in the East Midland where DH Lawrence came from – a “geography of paradox” marked by Nottinghamshire’s natural landscape, and the constricting culture Lawrence was raised in. Observing Zennor, I thought that Cornwall, too, demonstrated a similar geography of paradox, created by the stunning beauty of the countryside with its cliff-top grasslands and beautiful walks, and the harassment and rejection that the writer experienced there.

A different geography of paradox comes from how Zennor’s mining history contributes to its abundant flora. Although the acidic rocky land here is unsuitable for growing crops, heather thrives on it, creating a vegetation cover, and the soil and ocean air also produce abundant flowers, among them the rust-colored common gorse flower, which grows “when kissing is in season” – all year round.

An early night after the day’s exertions, and next morning, we breakfasted again in the sunroom while gazing upon golden-grassy slopes, Neolithic hills with buttercups, and the profusion of purple campion. Then we were off towards Penzance on the southern coast of Cornwall, amidst again the solid walls of green hedge and flower, through the tiny village of St. Buryan, past Bosliven, Buddlestone, Noon Creeg, and Boskenna farms, until we arrived at the Merry Maidens, a circle of stones in the middle of a field – Cornwall’s Stonehenge. Another sign of the Celtic occupation of Cornwall, the Merry Maidens comprises nineteen granite stones about a meter high, standing about 24 m in diameter in the middle of a grassy field with meadow buttercups. The circle is said to represent maidens who were turned into stone for dancing on a Sunday; close by and outside the circle are the petrified remains of the Pipers, who had taken the ill-advised decision to play for the maidens.

Then it was time to drive to Porthcurno and Minack Theater, a spectacular open-air theater carved out of the rocky cliff-side with the sea shimmering beside. The stone arches, shrubbery, and subtropical gardens of the theater make it dramatic even when there is no play being enacted, and sitting in the steeply-raked seats and in the terraced grassy stone amphitheater, we enjoyed stunning views of the turquoise Atlantic which forms the backdrop to the stage.

From Minack we scrambled down a steep hillside to Porthcurno Bay, located in the shelter of Logan’s Rock headland. A white sand beach, gritty with the crushed sea shells forming it, and with high cliffs sheltering the cove from the winds, provided a great picnic spot. The clear turquoise waters and azure skies gave the place a tropical feel – until one stepped into the shock of the cold water and recalled that this was Cornwall still, not the Caribbean….

From Porthcurno, our travels took us to Land’s End, our resting place for the night and the fulcrum for some more coastal walks. Thrilling in the knowledge that we had reached the westernmost part of the English mainland from where we would turn the corner and start walking eastward, we retired for the night at Land’s End Hotel. It started raining late that evening, and we went to sleep fervently hoping that it would stop by morning….

Local weather legends say that if you can see the Isles of Scilly from Land’s End, it is going to rain – and if you cannot see them, well, it is because it’s already raining. We had seen them and it had rained during the night – but thankfully, although the clouds stayed with us all of next day, they added drama to the landscape but no rain.

After soaking in views of the Longships Lighthouse and the Isles of Scilly next morning, we started walking on the coastal path eastwards towards Porthgwarra, passing numerous carns – Carn Boel, Carn Barra and Guthenbras. A carn is a pile of rocks, and in Cornwall, some of them are dramatic and identifiable enough to have their own names. This part of the coast, as the local guides and literature informed us, has long been a particularly treacherous bit, with Western gales, dense fogs, half-submerged reefs and strong currents. There are thirty seven marked shipwrecks in a small area around the Longships Lighthouse alone. Kettle’s Bottom and Shark’s Fin, a pair of sharp reefs which have been responsible for some shipwrecks, are visible from the cliff-tops.

The day’s walk with the gray sea battering the rocks below was a great counterpoint to our sunny walk around Zennor and St. Ives. Lichen- and moss-covered stones abounded here, wildflowers were plentiful, gorse and bracken thrived, and rabbits scampered all over the place, leaping off into their burrows as we approached. These burrows are built right into the cliffside, and our walk was considerable slowed down by our frequent peerings into the dark holes in the hopes of seeing them inside. The other delight was sighting the birds. The cliff path from Land’s End Hotel through Grebe and towards Nanjizal can reward the walker with sightings of the linnet, and gannet. Many birds nest on cliff ledges and come ashore only to breed. They drink seawater, extracting the salt and expelling it through their nostrils. Apart from the ubiquitous herring gulls which drop their catch of shellfish on the rocks to crack them open, kittiwakes were another bird we sighted – a hardy bird which uses mud to cement together its nest of moss, seaweed and grass.

At Dr. Johnson’s Head, our coastal walk took us past the Armed Knight, a rocky arch twenty meters from the coastline. That morning, the arch was being pounded by the churning sea which filled and emptied it with frothy waves. The image of that arch stayed with us for the remainder of our walk through Pordenack Point, Carn Boel and Nanjizal, until we arrived at our final walking destination of Porthgwarra. And soon enough, our Cornwall trip was over….

We can never go back again, that much is certain.

Back home again after our Cornish holiday, I remember this line – also from Rebecca. In its prosaic sense, perhaps it is true. Perhaps I will never get an opportunity to return to Cornwall. But this I do know: my travel there is not done. The purple campion, the sunlit gorse, the pink bell heather, the hillsides purple with swathes of bluebells, the rocky terrain with the cliffs and cairns, the quoits and stone circles, the windy cliffs, the sandy coves, the cry of the herring gull, and above all the vertical flowered hedges of Cornwall, remain stored in my mind, waiting for the day when I can resume my exploration. Surely more chapters wait to be written in this story.

In the meanwhile, perhaps I will turn to Mary Stewart, another author whom I had discovered during those adolescent years of furious reading. Her popular romantic suspense novels My Brother Michael and The Ivy Tree with their atmospheric settings, evocative descriptions of places, and strong, sensible, poised heroines who drive fast cars, travel alone and get lured into danger, are much-thumbed in my bookshelves; Provence came alive for me years ago through Madam, Will You Talk?  Stewart’s books are not, by any definition of the genre, travel writing.  But if a writer is able to educate readers about a destination while imbuing it with character and personality, with possibility and pleasure, if she is able to make readers yearn to pack their bags and explore the place for themselves, the purpose is served. And so while I wait for Cornwall, perhaps I will re-read Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic and dream of Corfu….

 

 

 

 

 

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