Cornwall (December 2021)

Cornwall, in the Southwest corner of England, has always been a popular holiday destination, even more so this Summer with Covid restricting foreign travel. December may not have seemed like the ideal time to visit, but it brought several advantages, including lower prices and very few crowds at the main tourist attractions.

Unpredictable weather is one obvious disadvantage of Winter travel, and I flew to Exeter just before Storm Barra was due to hit. The view from the airplane seemed to show the storm well on its way.

The take off from Belfast was interesting, to put it mildly. The plane suddenly came to a juddering halt as we were taxi-ing along the runway. The pilot announced: “Looks like the ground crew have forgotten to flick the (something technical I couldn’t make out) switch ...I can’t really steer the airplane at the moment”.

Thankfully the ground crew were summoned and sorted it out before take off.

I stayed the night in Exeter before taking the train to Cornwall the following day. This very creepy graveyard was on the way to my hotel. It seemed like the graves were practically spilling out of it and on to the passing pathway.

Storm Barra landed with full force the day I was due to take the train to Cornwall. Delays lengthened, and then became cancellations, and I began to doubt that I would get there at all. At one point there was an announcement that something important at Dawlish had been “swamped by a wave”. 

But miraculously it all worked out. A replacement bus took us to Newton Abbot, not that far from Exeter,  and from there the train ran without a hitch to St. Erth (all the places here seem to be named after early saints), from where a branch line took me to my final destination, St. Ives.

St. Ives by night! It's a beautiful little town, long noted for attracting artists because of the amazing light.

I’d booked an old fisherman’s cottage in St. Ives, very cosy and full of character. It was in Back Road East, right beside the harbour. 

By the morning Storm Barra had worn itself out, and the weather was beautiful.

Outer Hebrides, take note! This is how to do tourist-friendly bus timetables.  Nice brightly-coloured lines and cheery names like "Land's End Coaster" and "The Mouser".

One of my big concerns about visiting Cornwall had been how to get about without a car but the excellent bus and train services made this very easy, even in Winter.

On my first day I’d decided to take the bus out to the old tin mine at Geevor, which operated between 1911 and 1990, and is now a heritage centre. This statue of a miner is at the entrance, with headgear (the metal framework) over one of the old mine shafts in the background.

At Geevor you’re free to wander around the site. The scaffolding here covers the headgear over the main shaft, Victory Shaft, which opened in 1919 and was named following victory in the First World War.

It was great being able to explore the site at your own pace and poke around all the old buildings.

This was “the Dry”, the area where the miners could change and get washed after their shifts. The lockers were left as you see when the mine shut in 1990. There was no one else here when I visited this section and there was something eerie about it - I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as soon as I entered it.

Seeing the names and writing on the lockers and walls added to the eerie atmosphere. The mine closed permanently in 1990, when it was no longer economically viable to extract tin.  

In the 19th Century Cornwall provided two thirds of the World’s tin; now none is mined here at all.

We were taken on a tour through this old mine, which dates to the 18th Century. A few people didn’t make it out the other end. Probably.

Up the coast from Geevor are the remains of many older mining sites (this one is Levant). The weather was perfect for walking.

The whole landscape is littered with the evidence of hundreds of years of mining activities. I hadn’t seen it before visiting but most of the mining scenes in the series Poldark were filmed here. 

The bigger buildings with the chimneys are usually the Engine Houses, which housed the engines used to haul miners, equipment and ore up and down the mine shafts.

On Thursday the weather forecast was (very correctly) for persistent rain so it was a day for pottering around St. Ives and visiting the museums.

This is some art (I use the word very loosely) in Tate St. Ives. Apparently it’s very, very, very black. Like priest’s socks in Father Ted.

This is the Barbara Hepworth museum and sculpture garden in St. Ives. I was impressed by her work and noticed a lot of recent art that was clearly inspired by her. She actually died in the building housing the museum, killed by an accidental fire.

The next day I stopped off in Penzance, to walk along the coast to St. Michael’s Mount. I was delighted to see that the buskers here play sea shanties. 

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Walking along the beach between Penzance and Marazion, to St. Michael’s Mount.

The island has a causeway which is covered by the tide except for a few hours a day, so you need to pick your time to visit carefully (especially in winter, when there are no boats).

When the tide is low the causeway is uncovered and accessible by foot.

The island was an important pilgrimage site in Medieval times. The archangel Michael is supposed to have appeared to some fishermen.

The steps up to the castle. The St. Aubyn family have owned the island for centuries and still live here today.

This amazing piece of stained glass depicts the mouth of hell and was in a window with various religious scenes, both of heaven and hell.

The little church in the castle; St. Michael is depicted battling the devil in the statue on the right.

This terrace gave amazing views across the sea.

The next day saw thick, thick fog settle in along the coast. There was something very exhilarating and ethereal traveling through this on the open top bus.

I got off at Geevor tin mine again and started walking further up the coast. There were a couple of other hikers ahead of me and I could barely see them.

I‘m not even sure which mining site this was, as visibility was so low. The headgear over the mine shaft loomed out of the fog in quite a sinister manner.

The ruins of the Engine Houses looked particularly ghostly in the fog. Several of these were definitely used in the filming of Poldark.

This walk along by the sea was particularly exhilarating (until it got a little too dangerous for my liking and I had to find a less treacherous route around the headland).

Video: this shows the engine houses at The Crown mine, clinging precariously to the cliff edge.

A good spot to have some lunch, in the form of a traditional Cornish pastie I’d brought with me. I had quite a few of these during my week in Cornwall, to the point where I was beginning to get a bit sick of them. Then I discovered all the other kinds of fillings. Creamy chicken became a personal favourite.

They don’t make much of the Poldark connection here. Oh no, not at all...walking back to St. Just.

St. Just was still wreathed in mist when I arrived, and I then took the bus back to St. Ives.

Back in Penzance I had enough time for a quick visit to the cute little village of Mousehole. St. Ives may be cute but Mousehole - actually pronounced “Muzzle” - is cuter still!

For my final day I decided to do the 6 mile walk between the little hamlet of Zennor and St. Ives. Many people do it the other way around but this way had the distinct advantage of not depending on the (infrequent) buses back.

The night before I’d read up about Zennor and discovered that there was a creepy old abandoned house that had associations with the occultist Alastair Crowley. It’s actually just across the ridge in the photograph but the briers were so thick I couldn’t manage to get to it. 

People walking from St. Ives to Zennor usually stop at the end for a pint in The Tinners Arms. As I was going the other direction I couldn’t really justify that, tempting as it was.

I did stop for lunch in the local cafe (very nice toastie with Cornish ham and cheese). A friendly little robin came along to beg some crumbs.

Zennor has long had an association with a mythical mermaid. The tales seem to have been inspired by this wooden bench in the church, which is thought to date back to the 14th or 15th Century.

From Wikipedia:

Long ago, a beautiful and richly dressed woman occasionally attended services at St. Senara's Church in Zennor, and sometimes at Morvah. The parishioners were enchanted by her beauty and her voice, for her singing was sweeter than all the rest. She appeared infrequently for scores of years, but never seemed to age, and nobody knew whence she came, although they watched her from the summit of Tregarthen Hill. After many years, the mysterious woman became interested in a young man named Mathey Trewella, "the best singer in the parish." One day he followed her home, and disappeared; neither was ever seen again in Zennor Church. 

The villagers wondered what had become of the two, until one Sunday a ship cast anchor about a mile from Pendour Cove. Soon after, a mermaid appeared, and asked that the anchor be raised, as one of its flukes was resting on her door, and she was unable to reach her children. The sailors obliged, and quickly set sail, believing the mermaid to be an ill omen. But when the villagers heard of this, they concluded that the mermaid was the same lady who had long visited their church, and that she had enticed Mathey Trewella to come and live with her.

Not something you see every day in a church. And there's a bit of artistic license, too, having seen the original bench.

I’d slightly underestimated how long a 6 mile walk along a rough path going up and down each headland was going to take. Shortly after starting I met a man and his (one) wife coming the other direction, from St. Ives. They said they were four hours into the walk - a glance at my watch showed that if I took the same time I’d be walking the last bit in darkness, so I upped the pace considerably.

A hiking site has rated this walk as “moderate”. Anyone who has actually done it agrees that it’s difficult. There are a lot of ups and downs, and at one point you have to clamber over a massive pile of boulders. 

"SAS training would help” and “Nearly caused a divorce” are some of the comments about this walk! But it was well worth doing.

The sea was really battering the coast with incredible ferocity. At a few points along the walk the path looked like it got soaked by waves or spray so you had to quickly negotiate those sections.

Video: The relentless power of the sea here was mesmerising. It's amazing the rocks are still there.

I encountered some friendly Shetland ponies towards the end of the walk.

The entire walk took about 2 and a half hours and thankfully I was back in daylight. Just as well as it was my last night and I didn't want to get stranded on a cliff side somewhere...

After a nightmarish journey of cancelled and delayed trains (mostly because of staff shortages brought on by Covid). I just made it to the airport on time, and was able to board my flight home with only a few minutes to spare. This was sunset as we came back over Northern Ireland.

It had been a fantastic week in Cornwall, all the Covid cobwebs blown away by some amazing walks. Now I just have to sit down and work my way though all those series of Poldark

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