South West Coast Path: Holywell Bay to St. Ives

We returned to Cornwall towards the end of September 2021.

The omens weren’t good, as I’d been struggling with a prolonged (but thankfully rare) bout of exercise-induced asthma. Unfortunately this didn’t respond brilliantly to extended mask-wearing or GWR’s aircon.

We’d opted to base ourselves in St Ives, at the end of the section we planned to walk. We caught a very busy 10:04 Monday morning service out of Paddington which dropped us at St Erth five hours later.

We’d been entertained for much of the journey by a group of well-heeled women seated just across the aisle. They were a book club on tour, but talked of almost anything except books. Indeed, their incessant chatter ranged so widely that we felt we knew them intimately by the time they left us at Bodmin Parkway, the last one out – the quietest – kindly apologising for their volubility.

At St Erth we changed on to the quaint two-carriage service down to St Ives, remembering to sit on the correct side for the views and snapping away as we descended.

Alighting at St Ives, we found the platform heaving, but eventually made our way through the crowds and on the short distance to our accommodation.

We had to adjust our planned itinerary owing to my indisposition, and we kept our daily plans flexible, just in case I couldn’t make the distance. As it turned out though, further ad hoc changes proved unnecessary.

Our revised itinerary was:

  • Tuesday: rest and recovery
  • Wednesday: Holywell Bay to Trevaunance Cove (8.4 miles)
  • Thursday: Trevaunance Cove to Portreath (8.5 miles)
  • Friday: Portreath to Gwithian (7.6 miles)
  • Saturday: Gwithian to St Ives (10.3 miles)
  • Sunday: at leisure in St Ives.

We’d carefully planned which bus services we would need on each walking day, with a taxi to reach Holywell Bay early enough to meet our connection from Trevaunance Cove.

But our plans were dashed by First Kernow’s belated decision to switch the Atlantic Coaster route to its winter timetable several weeks early, resulting in zero service between Newquay and St Ives.

These cancellations were introduced wholesale at extremely short notice, a week or two before we arrived, the autumn timetables having already been printed, distributed and publicised.

First Kernow blamed Covid-related driver shortages, but drivers’ pay and conditions are almost certainly the substantive issue. The men and women who operate these services – highly skilled, invariably patient, helpful and normally cheerful into the bargain – are paid a mere £22,000 per year.

I would have been more accepting had First made some effort to run even a skeleton service. As it turned out we had to rely entirely on alternative connecting services, which introduced us to parts of Cornwall far less beautiful than the coast. Probably the only places where its bus drivers can afford to live.

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St Ives

St Ives is named after Saint Ia, supposedly an Irish princess, born around 480 AD, who founded a chapel or two but was persecuted and ultimately murdered by King Teudur, King of Penwith.

It was a major fishing port for several centuries, but tourism didn’t take off until the GWR branch line reached here in 1877. The Town soon became attractive to artists: Whistler and Sickert were early visitors, the St Ives School becoming prominent in the 1950s.

We found the streets still busy and bustling and, at the weekend especially, the pubs and cafes were overflowing, the harbour front clogged with day trippers and holidaymakers alike.

Our cottage, 4 Albert Terrace, was located in the centre of the town, just a few minutes’ walk from the Bus Station, yet quiet and secluded because set back from the road and accessible only on foot, through a gated archway and up some 30 stairs.

The ground floor contains a small sitting room and galley kitchen. Above there is a bedroom and bathroom, with a further bedroom in the eaves. Two couples or a family of four could squeeze in at a pinch.

We chose the upper bedroom, because of the beautiful view it gave of the harbour, framed by the intervening rooftops. I was punished on more than one occasion by the overhang on the window side of the bed.

The cottage had everything we needed, apart from a bath. It is otherwise perfect for those travelling by train without mobility issues.

I even learned how to use a Nespresso machine, but failed to notice for several days that I was drinking decaf!

We booked through Aspects Holidays who charged us £533 for the week, very reasonable in the context of Covid-inflated prices elsewhere.

We were extremely grateful for the milk, tea, coffee and biscuits available on arrival – always indicating a company prepared to ‘go that extra mile’ – and the £5 voucher for a local delicatessen, which we exchanged for delicious cakes later in the week!

There had been no need to book a food delivery since there are two well-stocked Co-ops within a two-minute walk. We headed to one immediately after unpacking to buy in essential supplies.

Then we made a slow tour round the town, culminating with dinner from Harbour Fish and Chips – tasty if rather expensive – which we took home, safe from the predations of the ruthless seagulls.

We’d booked to eat out three times during the week, though two of our bookings were changed owing to staff shortages, which are endemic down here:

  • The Firehouse Bar and Grill – We’d been alarmed by a sign outside at lunchtime saying their ovens weren’t working, but they seemed fine by the evening. I had a decent steak, while Tracy made her way through half a Rotisserie Chicken.
  • Bier Huis Grand Cafe – The waitress got off to a bad start by telling us off for being eight minutes late (four of which had been spent waiting in line outside). When I objected she said the chef was very particular, to which I responded that I, too, was a very particular customer! I enjoyed two glasses of Brugse Zot and some assorted Borrelhapjes, while Tracy downed a Lindemans and a huge pan of Moules Mariniere.
  • Porthminster Beach Cafe – actually rather a posh restaurant, where we had a lovely window table. Here we went the whole hog (well venison for me), culminating with a glass of blue label Royal Tokaji alongside our delicious desserts.

Our initial rest day included a few hours of sunbathing, paddling and reading on Porthgwidden Beach, nestled beneath the coastguard station on St Ives Head above.

Thanks to my new prescription sunglasses, I made rapid headway with Aurora Floyd while Tracy made her way through Where the Crawdads Sing.

We returned along the harbour front, pausing for an ice cream at Kelly’s where I had an interesting conversation with the saleswoman about whether the words ‘cornet’ and ‘wafer’ still have currency with today’s ice-cream-buying public.

On our final rest day we climbed up on to St Ives Head to eat our Cornish pasty lunches in the lee of St Nicholas’ Chapel, checking the route out of St Ives for next time. Tracy went shopping while I read on at home.

Earlier we’d spent an hour or two in the sculpture garden at the Barbara Hepworth Museum. These days one has to book a timeslot and it wasn’t quite as magical as my last visit, immediately post-thunderstorm, in the mid-1980s. It remains a highly evocative experience however.

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Holywell Bay to Trevaunance Cove

By Wednesday I was fit enough to walk, though still not in the finest fettle.

At this stage we were still blissfully unaware that the Atlantic Coaster had sunk, so had booked a taxi to get us to Holywell Bay sufficiently early to make a non-existent bus trip back to St Ives from our endpoint.

We made it to Holywell Bay by 10:30, but it cost us an eye-watering £86.

Our talkative taxi driver had little time for ‘the Benidorm crowd’ which he felt had descended on St Ives over the summer: according to him they just wanted to lie on the beach and get pissed, having no use for his taxi.

We were dropped in the car park and, taking the route through the dunes to the left of the Gull Rocks café, soon found ourselves beside a weathered notice board advertising Penhale Sands, the most extensive sand dune system in Cornwall.

The red Ministry of Defence signs marking the Penhale Training Area are more prominent. The Penhale Camp was built in 1939, originally to train anti-aircraft gunners. In 1943 the US Army Corps of Engineers was based here ahead of D-Day. It was they who built the Nissan Huts still visible from the path.

The MoD closed the camp, selling the land in 2010. By 2018 it was reportedly earmarked for housing, though there is no sign of development yet.

It seems that MoD byelaws continue to apply. The sign is adamant that ‘Nude sunbathing is not permitted on MoD property’ – the dunes have long been an unofficial naturist beach, though we saw none on our journey through.

Rounding Penhale Point, noting some impressive caves in the cliffs below, we arrived above the extensive reach of Perran Beach. Descending past the remains of Gravel Hill Mine, we walked the full length into Perranporth.

This is allegedly where St Piran landed in the Fifth Century. He is perhaps the most celebrated of the Cornish saints who came here from Ireland, the patron saint of tin miners.

St Piran’s Oratory, built in the dunes behind the beach, is a later stone structure, thought to date from the Seventh Century, which remained in use until the Eleventh or Twelfth Century when the site was abandoned because of encroaching sand. A second church, built further inland, was abandoned under similar circumstances in 1795.

Rounding the last rocky outcrops at the upper edge of the beach, we passed a sign for the Winston Graham Memorial Bench.

Graham (1908-92), who wrote the Poldark novels, lived here for 34 years. The fact that I confused him with Kenneth Grahame at this point can only be attributable to my asthma-induced fatigue!

We stopped for a take-out coffee at the cash-only Dolphin Café but, on inspecting the nearby bus-stop, realised at this point that the Atlantic Coaster was no longer an option. So we pressed on to Trevaunance Cove, resigning ourselves to a second large taxi fare.

Climbing out of Perranporth we came upon the Droskyn Sundial, built in 2000 to commemorate the Millennium. Apparently, the stones are set to mark ‘Cornish time’, about 20 minutes earlier than GMT. They were found during excavations of Perranporth’s road bridge.

We climbed a little further, to the Youth Hostel, sitting on the bench beside it to eat our lunch while overlooking the beach below. The Hostel was formerly an Admiralty Experimental Station engaged in submarine detection work.

At Cligga Head we added stones to a small cairn and paused next to the remains of a wartime wolframite mine which produced the tungsten used in armour-plating and armour-piercing shells. The cliffs hereabouts are richly and diversely hued.

Perranporth Airfield, now operated by the local flying club, lies just behind. Opening in 1924, it subsequently housed several Supermarine Sptifire Squadrons.

Descending through Trevellas Cove, we were soon heading inland past the remains of the engine houses from the old Blue Hills Mine, which survived until the early Twentieth Century. The Cornish painter John Opie (1761-1807) – known as ‘The Cornish Wonder’ – was born nearby.

We struggled up a final steep ascent, marked by an iron gate with the legend ‘The Motor Cycling Club’.

A group of early motorcyclists formed this Club in London in 1901. Since 1908 it has run a Lands End Trial, for cars and motorcycles, which its website describes as ‘steeped in automotive history’. These ‘reliability trials’ take place on several discrete sections of land. This stretch has been included since 1936.

Soon we could see Trevaunance Cove below, so we hastened to the garden of The Driftwood Spars for a couple more well-earned ice creams.

Various efforts have been made to construct a harbour for St Agnes on this beach. The feat was finally achieved in 1798, the structure surviving until it collapsed in 1915. It has not been rebuilt since. 

I could quite happily have remained at this pub for the rest of the week, but Reception very kindly called us a taxi, since I couldn’t face walking into St Agnes to find an alternative bus route home.

We were soon picked up by a driver from Perranporth who told us most of his life history on the journey back to St Ives. This took our taxi bill to just over £150 for the day, so it was imperative that we find ‘work around’ bus routes for the rest of the week.

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Trevaunance Cove to Portreath

We discovered what we thought was a failsafe route to get back to Trevaunance Cove, but this required a very early start.

The service we flagged down turned out to be for Truro College students, but the driver very kindly allowed us to pay our fares and dropped us at a scheduled stop just off the Chiverton Cross Roundabout.

Some time later we picked up a U1A service that quickly deposited us in the heart of St Agnes. From there we made our way back down to coast before climbing to the cliff top close to Polberro Cove.

Polberro Mine was operating as early as 1511 and became one of the most productive in Cornwall, generating large quantities of high quality ‘diamond tin’. By the 1830s it was producing some 30 tons a month and employing 450 workers. Queen Victoria visited in 1846. Shortly before it closed in 1941, the mine reached a depth of 182 fathoms, the deepest in the area.

We passed beneath the National Coastwatch Station at St Agnes Head, alongside a small collection of painted stones and on towards the remains of Wheal Coates, standing gaunt against an increasingly drab sky. A cold wind had blown in so I pulled on my coat.

Wheal Coates was worked from 1802 to 1889, but there was mining here as early as 1692. The remaining buildings date from the 1870s, when deep underground mining was introduced. The Towanroath Engine House, alongside the Coast Path, once pumped water from a 600-foot shaft.

We watched as a hang glider took off just behind the Engine House, heading out over the cliffs.

Then we descended to the justly renowned National Trust Café at Chapel Porth, where we huddled on a bench eating chocolate brownies with our coffee. A tame sparrow took crumbs from just a few inches away.

We eavesdropped on a conversation between three ladies walking together and a chap from Vancouver accompanied by a placid dog with saddlebags. The ladies were doing this section of the path; the chap was attempting the whole thing, having departed Minehead some four weeks earlier. The ladies departed but the chap stayed on.

Suitably restored, we too proceeded on our way out of Chapel Porth Bay, the weather seemingly drawing in.

On the approaches to Porthtowan we passed two large mushrooms, looking incongruous.

Porthtowan itself was unremarkable and we passed through it swiftly, noticing as we did so that the Beach Road bus stop still sported a prominent Atlantic Coaster sign (grr).

Above, on the cliffs south of Porthtowan, the entire landscape has been scarred by mining. Shortly before Wheal Tye, we caught up with the three ladies from Chapel Porth. One had just had a fall, so we shared some antiseptic cream and a plaster, keeping pace alongside them for a while.

We poked around the 1920s cast concrete remains of Wheal Tye – a chimney stack and curving flue predominate – and the ladies stopped there for lunch. We pressed on to Sally’s Bottom where we ate a windswept picnic overlooking the small sandy beach.

After climbing the steps on the other side we were soon alongside the long, snaking fence of Nancekuke. This was originally RAF Portreath, opened in 1941, initially as a Fighter Command Station.

By the 1950s it had become a chemical warfare research centre: Sarin and other nerve agents were manufactured here. There have been allegations that workers were poisoned and that, when the establishment closed, contaminated equipment was dumped in old mineshafts.

Today there is an air defence radar station, the dish housed in a fibre glass dome visible for miles along the coastline.

We rounded Gooden Heane Point, where the original clifftop path has eroded, and dropped down into Portreath.

The harbour here is extensive, with an inner and an outer basin, for Portreath was once a busy industrial port, trading copper ore for coal.

By the 1840s, it was distributing 100,000 tons of copper ore each year. But the area declined as the copper trade collapsed later in the Nineteenth Century, and almost half the population lost their lives in an 1878 cholera epidemic.

We admired the multi-coloured public toilets and sat on a bench near the beach to wait for our bus. Our route home involved catching the 47 service to Camborne Bus Station, changing there after 20 minutes or so on to the T2 service for St Ives.

Bus stations are never salubrious. Camborne may be the ugliest town in Cornwall and there are clearly high levels of deprivation. I looked in vain for the School of Mines, unaware that it is now located in Penryn.

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Portreath to Hayle

Unfortunately, next morning we were back at Camborne Bus Station for the return journey, the 47 bus dropping us in Portreath shortly after 10:00.

As we climbed up on to the Carvannel Downs, we could see the Pepperpot on the other side of the bay, built in 1846 as a marker for shipping entering the Harbour.

On our side much of the land belonged to the National Trust, the coastline engraved with several small sandy coves, some protected by outcrops of jagged rock.

One tiny cove is a collapsed sea cave called Ralph’s Cupboard. Some say this is named after an infamous smuggler; others that it is a corruption of Wrath, the highly appropriate name of a ferocious sea giant who once lived in the cave.

We made strong progress along the broad paths, reaching Hells Mouth – where we’d planned to stop for coffee – by midday.

Arriving at Hell’s Mouth Kitchen, we were only a little surprised to found our three ladies from yesterday already seated on a bench.

We discussed the prospects of the chap from Vancouver, all suspecting that his dog’s paws wouldn’t last the distance. We’d seen the dog trailing into Portreath the evening before, some considerable way behind his master.

The caramel shortbread was outstanding.

Once again, the three ladies departed before us, but we were soon advancing along the headland towards Navax Point. Soon we could catch glimpses of St Ives Bay and Godrevy Lighthouse finally rose up before us.

This is one of my few special places: places where I remember having been overjoyed and sometimes overwhelmed by sheer natural splendour.

I vividly recall crossing the beach with the sun glinting on the shallows, spreading across the golden sands, the lighthouse surrounded by white breakers dashed against the rocks below.

And of course this spot inspired Virginia Woolf, whose ‘To the Lighthouse’ is, in my humble opinion, one of the best and most profound novels ever written.

Godrevy Lighthouse, completed in 1859, protects shipping from the Stones reef, which has claimed many wrecks. It is an octagonal tower 26 metres high and, though originally operated by two keepers, was automated in the 1930s.

We stopped on at a bench on Godrevy Point, immediately above the lighthouse, to eat our lunch, spotting our three ladies just behind. We were entertained by two birds, identified for us by a friendly twitcher as a pair of red-billed choughs.

Resuming, we made our way past the busy car park, spurning the public toilets. Then we were off the headland and across the Red River, named after the mineral deposits that once coloured it.

We crossed a nature reserve called St Gothian Sands, developed out of a former sand extraction site. We decided to make our way through the dunes rather than across the beach – both are deemed permissible in the guide book.

This may have been a mistake, as the dunes are extensive and the direction of the arrows hewn on the slate coast path signs not always completely reliable. We found our three ladies again as they navigated through here, but for the last time sadly.

These dunes – or ‘towans’ as they are known hereabouts – once accommodated the National Explosives Company, founded in 1888 to produce dynamite for use in local mines and quarries. The locals still call them ‘Dynmite Towans’.

The Company was kept extremely busy during the Great War, employing some 1,800 people at its height, but closed in 1919. There were several unplanned explosions, including one in 1904 that killed five workers, reportedly damaging property several miles distant.

Contemporary newspaper reports are vivid:

‘It was soon discovered by the officials that two houses, or sections, in which cordite was made, had completely vanished, together with all their contents, human and structural. In their place was a great hole in the sand, and scattered around were fragments of human remains, lead, and splintered timber. Each of the houses had two men working in it, and all four men were instantly killed. They were blown to atoms. A fifth victim was a Swede, named Oscar Holman, who died during the afternoon from a broken back, the shock of the explosion hurling him down.’

I was heartily fed up with dunes by the time we emerged and very much wanted a refreshing drink at the Cove Café, just at the turn into Hayle. But it was on the stroke of 16:00 and we were too late. We sat awhile on a bench above the café before continuing on to our finish.

Then we lost our way and found ourselves on the beach, having to retrace our steps to recover the route. The guide book is poor in this section.

Following the road round to North Quay, we noted a suitable spot for next day’s breakfast before skirting the building site at Hayle Quay, a highly controversial development.

We hoped to catch the bus outside St Elwyn’s Church, an ugly-beautiful Victorian Gothic edifice, but the carbon monoxide from the queuing traffic was too much for my asthma, so we moved to the next stop by Hayle Station where we caught a much-delayed T2 service into St Ives.

It was only 17:30 but Hayle’s youth was already hitting St Ives for Friday night, the boys struggling to appear confidently aloof beneath their baseball caps; the girls competing to expose the most tattoos.

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Hayle to St Ives

Next morning we alighted at St Elwyn’s and strode back along North Quay to Lula, where we enjoyed their version of a Full English, served in cardboard lunchboxes, in a sandstrewn garden overlooking St Uny’s Church across the misty estuary.

A bunch of mamils arrived on their bikes to disturb our peaceful contemplations.

Once we had fuel on board, we began our circumnavigation of Hayle Estuary.

The recent history of Hayle is dominated by the Cornish Copper Company, which moved here from Camborne in 1758, and Harvey’s Foundry, which arrived in 1779. After a century of intense rivalry, Harvey’s finally took over the CCC in 1875, only to close itself in 1903.

The causeway across the estuary was built in 1825 and the railway arrived in 1837.

We paused near Griggs Hill to admire an Egret fishing in the runnels sluicing through the sands, then continued on, past one or two idiosyncratic gardens on The Saltings, soon reaching St Uny’s Church.

Parts of this are medieval and, although there have been extensive repairs betweentimes, St Uny’s is still a striking place, with a beautiful churchyard.

Such a shame, then, that it must exist cheek-by-jowl with the West Cornwall Golf Club which, though the oldest surviving course in Cornwall, is still a golf club nevertheless.

We now followed the line of the railway out of the Hayle Estuary, above Porth Kidney Sands, and on to Carbis Bay. Here we took our lunch on the almost empty beach, looking out on the distant lighthouse.

On this occasion our entertainment was provided by four men playing Spikeball and a wedding reception under way in the Hotel Beach Club, full of suitably repellent fascinators.

Resuming the path we passed the Baulking House – another of those lookouts from where huers once spotted pilchard shoals – and soon breasted Porthminster Point.

We made it to Porthminster Beach shortly after 14:00, stopping to enjoy yet more celebratory ice creams before paddling along in the shallows to touch the West Pier, having decided that it marked the official end of this section of the Coast Path.

That’s 232.5 miles completed; some 400 miles still to go. Next time we expect to round Lands End, beginning our long journey back along the south coast.

TD

October 2021

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