Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Port Isaac to Boscastle

I’m now on my own for a day. Richard and Niki have to retrieve their car an be home in Polperro that evening for a prior commitment. They warn me that today’s bit is the most severe on the SWCP – twelve tough miles to Tintagel and then four or five more to Boscastle. Ted at the B&B expresses concern as well, and offers to rescue  me and take me on to Boscastle if I flake out. I brush off their concerns, and am on the way at 8:50.

Richard and Niki say goodbye

It’s a nice easy descent to Port Gaverne (the Eastern boundary of Port Isaac), and tehn there’s an encouraging sign that is 6¼ miles to Trebarwith, after which the going will be easier.  I’ll be there by midday! Even more encouragingly there’s another sign at the top of the hill saying it’s now only 6 miles. And shortly after that there’s one that says it’s just 6 miles to Tintagel! Wonderful – but completely misleading.

In the first place, I think someone moves signs. Or otherwise they must measure only on an approximate basis. Or Cornish miles are longer. It certainly feels that way. It took me nearly five hours to get to Trebarwith.

It’s stunning scenery, with something new to see around every headland. But it’s level only for short bits – and where it is level the path is extremely narrow and vey muddy. I figured that there were nearly a dozen combes before Trebarwith. They’re not always evident on the map, because coastal contours are packed together and not every little runnel of water is significant enough to warrant a little blue line. But they’re real enough on the ground. And this part of the SWCP is less improved than elsewhere – some of the climbs and descents are across broken shale rather than steps or firm rock.

Looking back at Port Isaac
Slow going – but wonderful scenery, and a plethora of wildflowers again. And today it isn’t swifts but wheatears – hundreds of them, all looking very smart and bold, displaying their white rumps as they flit away. Which they always do before I can get out the camera to take a portrait. I’m inclined to think they were migrants refuelling and not summer residents. Perhaps the larger Greenland race; I’ll have to check migration atlases and the like later.

The coast after Trebarwith becomes a lot easier – but not as attractive. The cliffs are lower and more even, and its largely open grassland with people out for short walks or exercising dogs. The church at the beginning of Tintagel – which has been visible for much of the last two days – signifies the beginning of the only wheelchair-friendly bit of the Path, which leads down to Tintagel Head and the ruins of the old monastery. This is King Arthur’s alleged base, and his Great Hall appears on the map. But there’s no obvious sign of it as I go through the village.

A typical combe. Can you count the steps?
Then it’s back down to the Coast Path for the final stretch into Boscastle. It’s more of what I became used to yesterday – constant undulations, little level ground, several streams. One of these is the reason for Rocky Valley, which is perhaps the most attractive of all the combes I see on the SWCP – and actually worth all the steps down and up. It may be only 4½ miles from Tintagel to Boscastle, but it feels more.

As I finally approach Boscastle there’s an area on the clifftop above the village marked with closely spaced parallel lines on the map. It turns out to be a National Trust preserved area of medieval strip farming. At this time of the year they are all newly ploughed, and it’s not evident what crop they will produce. In fact it’s one of the relatively uncommon areas of arable land on this section of the Coast, as it’s almost entirely pasture land behind the path itself.

The final descent into Boscastle is a long decline down the secondary Jordan valley which flows North to meet the main stream – the River Valency, according to the map – in the middle of the village. It was this that caused the flood in August 2004, when a month’s worth of rain fell in a couple of hours, and which demolished a large number of the waterside houses. Helicopters had to rescue people who had climbed up through their roofs to escape the water.

My B&B is on the far side of the harbour, with a wonderful view out to sea. It’s run by Jack and Fay, who have been here since just after the flood. They’re Londoners who have been gradually moving west, and have finished up here. He’s a psychologist, and once worked at the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead and lived in Belsize Park. The buildings are 450 years old, stone built, now divided into five apparently terraced houses with a parallel row of worksheds behind, almost like a London Mews. The B&B – No 5 – spans both rows of buildings.
Boscastle Harbour - My B&B up the track at the top

The buildings were originally used for pressing pilchards for oil and salting them in barrels. It’s a fishery that used to be a mainstay of most Cornish ports. I can remember as a nine-year old when we spent a whole summer in Looe being taken with the school to the local pilchard cannery. They were obviously still catching commercial quantities of pilchards in 1951, but the industry has now completely disappeared.

The tea and generous cake I was provided with on arrival made a return to the village for dinner unnecessary. Surprisingly I find that I’m not hugely hungry despite the energy I’m presumably expending. Let’s hope my weight confirms this at the end of the fortnight!

Weather fair, but still cool. 22.7km. 1,004m ascent, 1,084 descent. Severe.

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