Walking the South Cornish Coast

by frankbeswick

Cornwall is a scenic place that draw many walkers along its beautiful paths.

Cornwall is unique in England. A Celtic kingdom that was absorbed into England in the tenth century, it never lost its ancient culture, and it has maintained to some degree its own language, Cornish, which some enthusiasts speak. A land of cliffs and coves, it has grand coastal scenery that makes for fine walking. Whether you stroll along the cliffs or plunge deeper into the interior along some of the riverside paths, it offers much to the visitor.

Picture courtesy of annacurnow

Pont Pill

Maureen and I had had a good meal in the inn at Bodinick opposite the footpath when, on leaving the inn,  I spotted the signpost. So on the following morning"You choose the walk" she stated and I decided that the footpath would be the way for us. It was an inspired choice that has dwelt in my memory ever since. 

The walk began in a patch of woodland but soon it became clear that we were walking along the slopes above the broad estuary of the  river Fowey [pronounced Foy.] The river begins its joyful tumble to the ocean in the dark heights of the peaty sponge that is Bodmin Moor,  twenty five miles upstream,where it oozes from the sodden peat, but then gathers power as it makes its way back to the original source. Here at the estuary its youthful cascade is over and its tranquil  summer waters display a blue adult dignity that makes them a playground for yachts, abundant in the broad estuary. The path was broad enough to walk in comfort among trees and was of good quality, and there was much scrub on both sides.  There was a light hearted incident when Maureen dropped her camera into the scrub downhill of the path, and when I went to retrieve it I finished upside down in the bracken. The waters below might have had an adult dignity, but extracting yourself from an upended position in a bracken patch is hardly the most dignified way to move.  

The estuary is known in the Cornish language as Uzell, the place that roars,a reminder that I had got it in a good mood. Geologically it is a ria. Whereas a fjord is a flooded glaciated valley, a ria is a flooded non-glaciated one. There are several of these on the south coast of Britain.

You turn Penleath Point where you can see the memorial to the famous writer, Sir Arthur Quiller -Couch, who loved this area greatly. Born at Bodmin near the river's source, he finished his life at Fowey near its destination, the Fowey in this case being a metaphor for his life.. We were now alongside Pont Pill, the tidal estuary of a tributary river that flows into the estuary, indistinguishable from the estuary itself. The place is  beautiful, a sanctuary that day to tranquility and loveliness. We walked enchanted along the slopes above the estuary, soaking in the summer's loveliness. It is a marine conservation zone and an area of outstanding natural beauty. 

At last we descended the slopes to the crossing point. Here is where the tiny river Pont Pill suddenly swells into an estuary, as it concludes its journey in a patch of woodland just before the sea. Many of you have visited this riverside woodland in literature, though you know not that you have. It was here that the young Kenneth Grahame is thought to have discovered the inspiration for The Wind in the Willows, where Ratty and Mole in his imagination sculled on the river and Toad performed his egoistic antics. Nowadays the river is navigable by rowing boat for only a mile and a half, but it is now a place where heron and curlew dwell in the embracing woods alongside the slow flowing waters.  Though Kipling was speaking of another wood in his beloved Sussex, this place is apt for his words as a place where "The night air cools on the trout ringed pools." [The Road Through the Woods.]

At the bridge there are two pleasant looking houses, and by then we had descended to sea level and could walk by the shore. We finished our route with a stroll to the flat bottomed ferry  which returned us to Fowey and a cafe for tea and cake.   


The Fowey Estuary
The Fowey Estuary

Fowey to Polperro

Cornwall is a land of cliffs, so one day that holiday we walked along the cliff top path from Fowey to Polperro. The walk contrasts the white flecked wilderness of the sea below with the wide, fertile expanses of Cornish farmland rolling away into the distance on the other side.The path went eastwards, a narrow strip between the fields and the wildly vegetated cliff edge, with its rich abundance of flora: heather, gorse, bracken  and at places the intrusive Hottentot fig, Carpobrutus edulis, a South African plant introduced to Britain that went wild and thrived on our south west coastal cliffs. It has redeeming virtues, being both pretty and having edible fruit. However, those who dislike non-native species are now trying to control this pretty immigrant. I doubt that they will eradicate it entirely, as it has a place on our shores, and to be truthful, I want it to stay. 

The path undulated up the cliffs, sometimes steeply ascending, all the time on firm turf that was springy to the feet, and marked off from the cliff edge by a fence to protect the unwary from a nasty fate. Once we negotiated our way gingerly through a herd of cattle. We were a bit nervous, but we were later to find out from a  farmer that the bulls to be afraid of are dairy bulls, and these were mainly bullocks kept for beef, and we suffered no problems. 

At one time we descended along a rocky path to one of the small coves that characterize the Cornish coast. This was  safe, but not very easy descent , but it gave access to the beach where we could walk around for  a while, before ascending again and continuing our perambulations. 

The great joy of this walk was the peace and quiet. We could sit on a patch of turf and eat our lunch, all the time conscious of the deep quietness of nature, with only rare sounds emanating from the farm animals on one side, and the rumbling roar of the sea, loud when it is near you, but on this day high on the cliffs diminished to a low,  but incessant susurration. to which the cries of the gulls made the occasional accompaniment.  I was reminded of the Celtic saints who considered the sounds of animals, the singing of birds, the croaking of frogs and the lowing of cattle, as worthy equals of the psalms sung by monks, however discordant they may seem to our human ears.These Celtic saints belong in the history of this Celtic county, and they remind us that human standards of beauty are not the ultimate yardsticks against which beauty is to be measured. 

To appreciate the town you must be for some time out of it, and while I enjoyed the cliff top walk arrival in the village of Polperro was welcome. It is a town that was once a fishing village, but is now focused on tourism, and it is a very pleasant site to stay or conclude a walk. We both felt like a spell in a tea shop,  so we indulged our appetites with tea and cake, fruit cake for me, carrot cake for Maureen, and being British, tea for both. Tired  now, we took the bus back to Fowey, where we retrieved the car and returned to our cottage. 

The path up the cliffs
The path up the cliffs


There is a long coast to be trod, and not enough time to tread it, so I have given you but a personal sample of the south coast of the county, but there are far more experiences to be had, and here is another.  Once I was walking down a Cornish lane when I turned the corner and saw not only the sea, but both sides abundant in blackberries. Springing to mind immediately was Sylvia Plath's poem Blackberrying, which describes exactly the kind of scene that I had just encountered.  I know that she lived for a while in the neighbouring county of Devon, but there is more than one place that fits her description, so we cannot say for certain that this was her inspiration. The coast also contains  the relics of Cornwall's ancient mining  industry. From pre-Roman times the Phoenicians came to seek tin, and even today the huge engine houses of the more modern tin miners can be found at places, sometimes along the cliffs. 

Cornwall is an ancient and inspiring land, where the ocean and the granite cliffs do eternal battle, and as Betjamen said in the poem Greenaway "The faithful rocks protecting stand." as he saw the eternal  conflict happening near the village where he holidayed as a child. It is a beautiful place, well worth visiting. 

Updated: 03/16/2022, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 11 days ago

Many Cornish place names are anglicized into something that sounds English. Roseland, which means, as you say, Red Lake, is one of them.

DerdriuMarriner 11 days ago

Your comment Feb. 4, 2022, to my previous, same-day question gives as an example of lost Cornish derivations Roseland, not from the English phrase "land of rose-specied flowers" but as from the Cornish phrase ros lyn for "red lake."

Online sources nowhere list the aforementioned Cornish phrase or its proper English counterpart.

Might that loss of etymological associations be common or uncommon among native Cornwall-ers?

Or would native Cornwall-ers still know that etymology?

frankbeswick on 03/16/2022

I have never visited Lanyon Quoit. Cornwall is 360 miles by road from me, so it is not place where I would go for an occasional short visit. I have visited on several occasions, but not as much as I would like, so there are areas of Cornwall that I have not seen.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/15/2022

I'm in the process of re-reading all your wizzleys for the third time now (I just finished re-reading Veronica's for the third time ;-D). This wizzley caught my attention even though I intend to start from the very first wizzley and work my way to the recentest.

The Bing image for Pi Day was of the Lanyon Quoit burial chamber in Cornwall. Would you and your wife happen to have gone there on any of your Cornish peregrinations?

frankbeswick on 02/04/2016

I have not heard of Shakerag as a Cornish tradition, and I have not found a place called Shakerag, despite my looking through a place name reference book. Cornish place names, however, are Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon, and some of them are quite peculiar, being basically Celtic names modified by the presence of English. Look at "St Antony in Roseland", which has nothing to do with roses. St Antony is parish, but Roseland is a derivation of Ros Lyn the red lake. I do know that Cornish miners did not go home for lunch, but took Cornish pasties with them, so I suspect that the shakerag tradition exists to explain a Cornish word that has survived. It may therefore be a word in Cornish that has been transmuted by the effect of English.

Maureen and I heard no Cornish spoken, though there have been attempts to revive the language. The language is considered to be a relation of Welsh, though the two languages are not mutually comprehensible.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/04/2016

frankbeswick, Thank you for the guided tour that so thoughtfully includes scents, sights, and sounds.
Do you know of any place in Cornwall being called Shakerag? It's the name of a main street in the small town of Mineral Point, settled by Cornish farmers and miners whose wives would stand outside the door and shake cloth to indicate that lunch or dinner was ready. Is it possible that, if true, it's a tradition brought across the pond from Cornwall?
Did you and your wife hear Cornish being spoken? It's my understanding that the death of the last life-long native speaker has been followed by attempts to re-establish the language.

frankbeswick on 11/13/2015

Your response greatly pleases me, as my aim is to take people with me on walks that they could not normally do.

jptanabe on 11/12/2015

Thank you for taking me on this lovely walk in Cornwall. When I was young my aunt and uncle had a place in Devon which we visited a few times, and made a foray or two into Cornwall. I'd love to go back!

frankbeswick on 11/03/2015

Thank you, the great joy of being a writer is to share what I cherish with others.

CruiseReady on 11/03/2015

Though I will probably not be privileged to see it in this lifetime, you have really aroused my interest in Cornwall with this piece. What a wordsmith you are. Frank! Enjoyable fro beginning to end, but I particularly liked your description of the river Fowley near the beginning.

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