06 May 2014 by Sarah Gardner
Cornwall. A place of myth and dreams, history and folklore. Travelling to the land’s end is always an intensely evocative experience, especially by train. Following the water courses to the sea. To open air, to freedom. And then I can breathe...
It’s a sunny Friday in April. The sea is calm and sparkling, the tide low, revealing sand flats and interesting furrows, worm casts and trails. I feel like I’ve drunk a Wonderland potion and I'm now giant, looking down onto a city in miniature. Each sand crevasse is a mountain range, each worm burrow a city-scape.
St Michael’s Mount sits on the horizon, brooding and dark, the causeway open, tiny cars just visible as they beetle across. Huge billowy clouds hover in the blue sky, the sun blinking sharply between their white sails. The waves glint as they rise and swell and I think of a story my gran told me when I was a child: that the flashing is from diamonds that the mermaids wear in their hair.
1, 2, 3 – jump! Over the waves like a skipping game with the sea. Then I’m still again and the water rushes in and out, sucking on my boots. My companions' collie is as excited by the sea as I am, diving into the water after a thrown tennis ball, bossily barking for the next retrieve.
To the right of the castle is Long Rock, like a smaller version of the Lizard which hovers, partially veiled with cloud, to the left of the Mount. Long Rock looks like the Loch Ness Monster when the tide is higher, stony head poking out of the water, belly hidden and pointed rocky tail flicking out of the depths.
Behind us is the train line running out of Penzance and towards London. The sleepers and the day trains both run from here, the former having only just opened after the storm damage to the line.
The day before I've travelled on this line and saw the repairs to the sea defences at Dawlish. I love that part of the journey, where the train meets the sea, but anyone can see how exposed and how vulnerable the line is and the terrible impact of violent storms.
Back at Long Rock, there's currently a dispute about the pedestrian rail crossing, an extension of a footpath at Ludgvan. A death on the track has placed its safety under interrogation and the pedestrian crossing, which is one of the main ways to access the beach, is at risk of being diverted. Many locals feel unhappy about the proposed diversion, which is much further along the coast path and has with no provision for pedestrians, making it arguably less safe than the current one. It's an interesting story, in light of the recent criticism that Network Rail has faced over its handling of safety issues by the government's Transport Committee.
From Marazion to St Agnes. I’m walking a newly opened path, restored by Cornwall Ramblers volunteers. Ramblers REACT and St Agnes Stompers joined forces with Cornwall Council and the landowner to open up St Agnes 59, a vastly overgrown and neglected path which connects St Agnes to Mithian. Volunteers met three times to remove thickets of brambles, weeds, and tonnes of rubble illegally dumped during work on a bypass.
And it was well worth the effort: St Agnes 59 is a gem. It climbs through tranquil woodland, currently clustered with bluebell and wild garlic, and crosses a gentle stream full of the sounds of cascading water. The path then winds upwards, in the comforting green shelter of budding branches.
And then, through the branches, a stunning piece of heritage: a disused viaduct, which is now home to curling ivy and nesting wild bees who add their humming to the pleasing chatter of birds. Passing under the graceful loops, you come across another delight: a wrought iron kissing gate. Two features of a bygone age, hidden under the vegetation for all this time, add a magical element to this path. Shadows of the past reappearing to invite you to leave your busy life for a short time and step onto a path that time forgot.
The path passes through a stone stile, also restored by volunteers, before entering a daffodil field. The daffs are mostly going over now, but they still create a wash of yellow and once in the midst of it, I turn around to see the viaduct peeping over the horizon, a carpet of spring colour at its feet. The Ramblers have been battling for 6 years to get St Agnes 59 reopened and it now gives the opportunity for some lovely circular walks including the nearby coast. This particular job may be finished but the Ramblers now have another target. The next path up the valley has also been blocked for as long as anyone can remember...
Everytime I visit our volunteers, I’m bowled over anew at the incredible work they do, quietly clearing paths, with dignity and modesty, for locals and visitors to enjoy.
In this small part of the Cornish countryside, they've invested hours of back-breaking work to clear rubble, hack their way through a jungle of overgrowth, literally dig up earth to build up a path, create a boardwalk bridge across the stream and put in stone steps and a handrail up a steep slope.
Bob Fraser, one of the main coordinators, alongside Graham and Sylvia Ronan, lent his time, expertise and energy to guide the volunteers through the work, and confessed it was one of the "most satisfying paths" he'd ever worked on. When they first started working on this path, it was so overgrown that Sylvia had to crawl on her hands and knees through the undergrowth. Obviously no-one could use it in that state.
“But I always knew this was a special path,” Sylvia says. And she’s right.
The Ramblers REACT team work with Cornwall County Council and landowners to keep paths open and easy to use. Find out more about their work, including how to volunteer with them. If you want to visit the path described, St Agnes 59, you can find it on OS Explorer Map 104 between SW 739 497 (on the southern end) and SW 733 501 (at the northern end).
Sarah Gardner blogs about solo hikes, walking with groups, and working alongside volunteers. Find out more about her and read her previous blogs.