Down Days

Leaving Falmouth to set off on my next leg of the adventure was an interesting proposition. For two days now the weather had stubbornly persisted to dampen both spirits and everything outside in Cornwall. The Tuesday was no different, but with time ticking on and itchy feet leaving me restless I felt like it was now that I needed to make the move, pack up, and push on.

Layering up and hiking out into the Cornish ‘mizzle’, I made steady progress with the now heavier backpack and surfboard by my side and having optimistically raced round to Maenporth Beach hoping to see some surf, I was left disappointed as the ocean remained unmoving in the low tide. Sitting on the roof of an old stone structure on the northern side of the bay, I watched stubborn dog walkers try to enjoy the weather as much as their companions, but even beneath waterproofs and laden umbrellas it was possible to see that they’d really rather have been elsewhere. And who was I kidding, so would I.

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It was cold. Not winter cold, but a damp and thick cold that seems to ingress through whatever layers you have on and as I struggled to my feet under the new weight I could sense my mood slipping. If I was hiking with someone else at this point we would probably be laughing and joking about the awful weather or at least be united in our despair at the forecast, but being alone and having left the comfort of Falmouth I could tell that it was going to be a long couple of days.

The path was quiet. Every man and his dog (literally and metaphorically) was retiring now afternoon was in full swing and it seemed that most people had given up hope on any chance that the clouds would break. Break they did not, but the rain did abate for a couple of hours and as I rounded the point towards Mawnan I started to anticipate finding a spot for the night. From Maenporth onwards is a very pleasant stretch of coastline and the Mawnan section in particular had a charm that lifted me slightly. The waters were calm and clear and views across the Helford Passage to the south were clear enough in the evening gloom. I downed my bag and explored the shoreline, skimming a few perfectly flattened stones shaped by both their formative history and thousands of years of action by the waves. The whole beach was littered with pristine skimming stones and my childish self drew on days of old family holidays when I used to spend hours obsessing over throwing stones on beaches around the world.

Picking through the rubble I started to notice the amount of litter on the storm line. Not large chunks, but instead little plastic lids, sections of rope and the odd piece of glass, and the multi-coloured detritus became increasingly evident when you got your eye in. The other focus of this trip is to conduct mini beach cleans along the way (a social media campaign run by Surfers Against Sewage), and with a sore back and shoulders and a slight break in the weather I found an old plastic bag in the shingle and set about my first cleaning efforts. I wasn’t at it for long, but soon had a weighty bag full of bits, most notably an old divers head-torch that must have unclipped itself during an underwater excursion many years previous.

I would have liked to have set up camp there, but with the only shelter being the lee of some unstable looking slopes I decided to move round into the Helford Passage estuary in search of some trees.

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After another hour of walking I found a beautiful sheltered spot overlooking the estuary and sat watching the last of the sailboats drifting into their overnight spots. As I set up my tarp and settled into a damp sleeping bag, the only noises were the rustling of the trees in a gentle breeze and the distant sound of a foghorn out to sea. It should have been one of those moments where you reflect and say ‘this is cool’, or ‘this is what it’s about’, but instead I couldn’t get my mind out of the rut and I drifted into a dream-filled, fitful and broken sleep constantly harrowed by nerves and fear of how exposed I felt.

It’s a difficult feeling to describe waking up with an immediate sense of exposure and vulnerability. Something about where I was made me deeply uncomfortable to the point where I felt a complete weakness and lack of self-belief. It manifested itself into a physical feeling akin to what I can only describe as homesickness, although I knew it was more that I was completely out of my comfort zone than missing anything in particular. It’s silly really, that I felt like that, because in reality all these feelings were simply related to the fact that I did not know where I was, or where I’d slept. It just shows how easy it is to bypass the significance of having home comforts or the security that we take for granted, as ultimately as soon as I had removed myself from that I was struggling.

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It took me well over an hour to surface from under the tarp, listening for a break in the incessant rain in order to pack everything up into their rightful dry bags. As there was a palpable drop in intensity, I quickly shovelled everything into my pack and moved on completely encapsulated by my Fjallraven jacket, done up as tight as it would go to keep out the damp and cold.

It was only a short walk to the Helford ferry crossing and taking a break on the rocky beach next to the ferry landing I had company. In the rain a small Robin, clearly interested in whether I had anything to offer, had joined me. I didn’t, in fact I was running low on snacks as it was but nevertheless for over 20 minutes we observed each other with equally keen interest before I saw the ferry returning and motivated myself to climb aboard and make the short journey cross the estuary.

Dismounting on the other side, it was only a brief walk to the next crossing from St Anthony to Flushing. The boat was even smaller this time, only a small wooden thing with three pews to sit on. I was joined by four elderly ladies from Plymouth who for the last two years have been hiking different stretches of the path with the aim of eventually completing the entire route from Poole to Minehead. Having a good natter, and crossing paths a couple of times already in the day, we clambered up the seaweed-covered rocks into flushing as the tide was receding towards low.

The weather was forecast to improve, and as I pushed on the rain abated and clouds thinned with the air becoming thick and humid as the fallen water began to evaporate and drain off the soaked landscape. It was tough walking, and I slipped over several times as the path deteriorated into mud and slimy rocks. I fell completely off my feet once, surfboard crashing into the mud and legs tangled under the weight of my bag. There is always the moment of deliberation when you fall or twist, that moment where you wait to see if pain follows. It didn’t, fortunately, besides a little scrape on my hand where I had tried to protect the board from impacting a rock. That’s nothing though, and after a few seconds enjoying to comfort of lying down, I pushed back up and carried on along the route in the ever improving weather.

As I followed the path inland from Porthallow I stopped for a well-earned lunch at the Fat Apples Café, and revelled in the ability to set my bag down for an extended period of time. Half an hour later the group of four joined me at the café for cake and a strong cup of fresh coffee, explaining that this was their final stop for the day. Not for me however, I had my eyes on the YHA at Coverack that was still a good few hours away.

Bidding farewell to yet another group of amazing people that I continue to meet on this journey, I loaded up and as the clouds brightened some more I moved off alone once again. The walk became easier as I neared Coverack, with only boggy and rocky sections proving tough as the path became less steep and landscape more expansive than the section through Helford.

The walk into Coverack itself is quite spectacular. Flat coastal bogs give way to a rocky beach and I spent at least half an hour observing sailboats intermingle with gannets and the odd seal in the bay as the sun finally broke through the clouds to give everything pleasant warmth. Climbing the steep hill up to the YHA, I checked in and tiredly dropped my bag in my room before heading down for some dinner. A middle aged German man joined me at the table; tall and well built with a deep routed confidence and charisma, it turns out he was a Pastor back in Frankfurt and was also hiking the coast path from Newquay to Falmouth.

“Phwoaaahhh” he said with amusing frequency, describing the views he’d seen and things he’d found and we bonded over discussing various beaches on the north coast and more serious conversations surrounding international politics and Brexit. He was impressed by my journey, but I wasn’t so much as my back started to spasm a little and I could feel the damage todays walk had done.

A Swedish couple on the table next to us joined the conversation with flawless English and we discuss our respective journeys, jeering about moments in the rain that seemed all too serious only 12 hours ago. The Swedish couple were making their way to The Lizard tomorrow, and announcing that I too was heading that direction we went our respective ways as they retired with their half drunk bottle of wine. As the Pastor too went to write cards and his journal that I would loved to have read, I walked down to the harbour-side pub and treated myself to a beer whilst eavesdropping on the stereotypically out-dated pub quiz.

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Feeling significantly less stressed and far more relaxed I made my way back up to the hostel to be greeted by yet another new face. In the bunk above me was a Mancunian sounding man in his late thirties who was rummaging through three ‘Iceland’ carrier bags that he had sourced from I have no idea where (there wasn’t an Iceland for miles).

All became apparent as he professed about the wonders of Megabus and described his lengthy journey down from Newcastle. There wasn’t a hint of Geordie in him however, and it turns out he had moved their for work from Manchester some years earlier.

“£20 return mate! That’s cheaper than any flight or train!”

Sure. But as he described his journey in more detail it was apparent why. The day before he’d got on the bus at Newcastle, travelling first to London before changing to another bus to Plymouth. Arriving in Plymouth at 12am, he boarded another bus to Newquay that arrived in the early hours of the morning. He then had to wait for three hours for regional bus services to run before taking another two local buses to reach Coverack. That’s commitment, but he seemed happy enough with his endeavours as he beamed at me from underneath his Adidas beanie.

He was an interesting chap in white Adidas trainers; a sports jacket with headphones constantly plugged in under his beanie and I just imagined some anti-establishment rock band from the 90s pumping into his ears. A character for sure, and I fell asleep to the distant noise of tinny music from the bunk above.

It’s amazing how in just 48 hours you can see, feel, and learn so much about yourself and other people, and indeed the people I’ve met along the journey are certainly what has made the trip so interesting and fulfilling so far. I can only look forward to those I meet going forward and hearing more stories of different pasts and futures to come, sharing a meal or a beer and enthusing about how it is we all got to this point.

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