Imagined coast

Summer is the perfect time to enjoy evocative coastal walks – from the romance and excitement of hidden coves and secret beaches to the nostalgic sights of the traditional British seaside

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Sometimes, walking is as much a mental as a physical undertaking, and the sights, sounds and smells of the coast can be a powerful stimulant for the memory and the imagination.

Earlier this summer, I fell for Cornwall’s unique charms on the glorious South West Coast Path, when I stumbled across a picturesque little fishing village, nestled in a hidden cove.

If there is one place that encapsulates Cornwall’s indivisible link with the sea, it’s at Porthgwarra. It seems to sum up the county’s long seafaring tradition, the stories of generations of fishing families writ large on the landscape itself.

Porthgwarra lies almost at the very tip of Cornwall, midway between Porthcurno and Land’s End. It is nestled in a secluded cove, where there is a tiny beach, accessible either via a small slipway or a tunnel blasted through the rock. A rope acts as a hand-rail, leading the walker down through this intriguing arched passage to the beach, across time-worn cobbles, smoothed and polished by countless feet. The tunnel was dug by local tin miners to give horse-and-cart access to the beach, enabling local farmers to collect seaweed as fertiliser. Even today the beach is strewn with kelp and bladderwrack, marking the tideline and entwined around the thick boat-landing rope that is laid down the sand.

Higher up the beach, a further series of passages and crevices in the cliffs beg to be explored, one giving access to the clifftop above via a trapdoor.  Known as ‘hulleys’, they were once used by fishermen to store shellfish before they were taken to market. However, probing amongst these hidden nooks and crannies the thought of smugglers was irresistible, as I conjured images of contraband being brought ashore, shadowy figures heaving barrels of French brandy and rum up the beach in the dead of night.

Hidden coves like Porthgwarra, steeped in local history and folklore, are undoubtedly one of the best things about walking coastal trails like the South West Coast Path – places that fire the imagination and tell stories of a place and its people.

Other coastal walks can evoke not just flights of fancy or romantic notions of seafarers and smugglers, but journeys back through time, fuelled by memory and nostalgia. 

Walking a stretch of the Wales Coast Path on the Llyn Peninsula a few weeks ago, on the way back from a welcome pint at the Ty Coch Inn in Porthdinllaen, I strolled past a long line of brightly painted beach huts. 

The sight instantly transported me back to childhood, evoking memories of school summer holidays spent on the beach at Bournemouth, jumping the waves, building elaborate sandcastles or digging to Australia – a feat never achieved, but which involved moving what seemed like several tonnes of sand armed only with a plastic bucket and spade. 

The beach hut was the perfect refuge when the wind got up, a frequent occurrence that sent other families scuttling behind windbreaks or hunkering down behind the lines of wooden groynes that divided the beach. We’d retreat to Auntie Christine’s hut, a weather-beaten but much-loved wooden shack, painted bottle-green and luxuriously appointed with a slightly dented whistling kettle, a Calor gas burner, a mismatched set of sun-bleached deck chairs and a vintage Scrabble set.      
At Porthdinllaen, I felt a warm glow of recognition and shared experience as I observed families doing much the same thing, grandparents dozing on sun loungers outside their huts as children played on the beach and in the sea, shrieking at waves or the sight of a dreaded jellyfish.

The coast means different things to different people. For some, as in Cornwall, it was and is a livelihood. The hidden coves and secluded beaches are a romantic and evocative landscape for coast path walkers, yet also a living and working landscape for some fishing families. 

For other families, like those proud owners of the beach huts at Porrthdinllaen, the coast is a place of play and relaxation, where holidays are taken and memories made. 

That sense of variety, history and spectacle is one of the joys of taking a walk along almost any stretch of Britain’s coast. Imagine how much more incredible that will be by 2020, when the England Coast Path is completed, giving thousands of people access not just to a new national trail but the chance to explore miles of coastal foreshore, beaches and clifftop.

Magazine of the Ramblers