Walking the Cornish Coast Path

You can’t walk far in the U.K. without stubbing your toe on some bit of history. Today’s bruised toe comes from the Cornwall’s Coast Path between Tintagel and Trebarwith Strand, which Wild Thing and I walked last week, in beautiful, if windy, weather.

Cornwall’s traditional industries were tin mining, slate quarrying, and fishing. The soil here is rocky, so most of the farming involves grazing. Plowing this soil must’ve broken many a heart, not to mention a back.

The tin mines were closed under Maggie Thatcher, and although every so often I read that one or another of them is going to reopen, so far none have. A few boats still fish commercially, but factory fishing has left the seas seriously depleted. And some of the slate quarries still operate, but the primary industry these days is tourism, leaving Cornwall with stunning  views, low-wage, seasonal work, and high house prices.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to brood. We’re taking a walk. The weather’s perfect. Smile, everyone. We’re starting at St.  Materiana church, outside Tintagel.

Spoil from an abandoned slate quarry

An abandoned slate quarry, with a bit of thrift growing on the right

Slate

This is spoil from an abandoned quarry–the rock that wasn’t usable. The Coast Path goes right by it. Note the tilted horizon. That’s my doing. The real horizon is just where it belongs. Work in quarries like this must’ve been hellish at times, out on the cliff edge in the wind and driving rain. From what I’ve been told, young boys were sent over the clliff edges in baskets to blast the rock. They were lighter than grown men.

It’s one thing to mourn a way of life that’s been lost, but let’s not romanticize it.

Dry stone walling

With all that rock in and on the ground, the easiest method of dividing fields is building dry stone walls, and they’re everywhere in Cornwall. The dry in dry stone wall means not that you take them inside to keep them out of the rain but that they’re built without mortar–just stacked perfectly, stone on stone on stone. The way they’re built hasn’t changed over the centuries. I’ve read that the only way to tell the age of a wall is to count the varieties of blackberries growing in it. Blackberries grow wild here. If you’re not careful, they’ll take root in your bed, so change those sheets regularly, folks. The problem with the system is that I can’t tell one variety of blackberry from another. But never mind, because somebody can. And anyway, I’ve never yet needed to know a wall’s age.

Dry stone wall. The pattern's called curzyway in some places and jack and jill in others.

A dry stone wall. The pattern’s called curzyway in some places and jack and jill in others.

A well-built wall can last for centuries. I took a one-day workshop on wall building and then built us a low one around a flower bed. The first stones fell out after a year, and I’ve been putting them back in place ever since. What did I expect from a one-day course? And it doesn’t matter. I’m proud of it anyway, in the way a seven-year-old is proud of an art project: not because it’s good but because it’s hers.

The patterns of an area’s walls depend on the local rock. And yes, that’s obvious once someone says it but until someone does you don’t necessarily think of it. In other parts of the country, hedges serve the purpose that stone walls serve here. You work with what’s at hand.

A bit of stone wall, partially grown over

A bit of stone wall, partially grown over

Not all of Cornwall’s stone walls are visible, because plants take root in between the stones and after a while can hide them completely. Roads often have what look like overgrown earthen banks on both sides, but inside that soft-looking mass may be a spine of stone.

These days some walls are mortared but keep the look of dry stone walls.

But back to our walk. We passed several abandoned quarries and skirted a series of fields, with their stone walls. The Tintagel-Trebarwith path goes into only one field. I’l write about foot paths another time, but they cross private land–usually farm land. That too is history, and deserves its own post. This particular field often holds sheep, but it was empty last week, so I didn’t have to put the dog on a leash. When she was young and impressionable, she looked in the mirror and thought she saw a collie–or what the rest of the world calls a border collie; a sheep-herding dog–and she’s been trying to chase sheep ever since. The farmers do not find this cute.

Stiles 

A stile. With a dog.

A stile. With the dog who thinks she’s a collie.

No, we’re not talking fashion. You don’t want me to talk about fashion. Remember the mankini? This is stile as in “he found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.” For some reason, American kids end up learning that nursery rhyme–or at least I did–in spite of not living within a thousand of miles of a stile. I used to wonder what one was.

They’re ways for a wall to let people but not animals get over. Simple, timeless, and clever. The (I can’t help myself) style of stile varies from place to place. This one let us into the field and has a space underneath that a small-to-medium-size dog can crawl through, as Minnie the Moocher is demonstrating in the photo. In places, paths go through field gates instead of stiles, and most walkers have the sense to close them, but there’s always one, isn’t there? Stiles solve that problem. The walkers get over and the sheep–or cows, or whatever–stay inside. You don’t have to open them and you can’t forget to close them. All you have to do is be able to climb over.

Wildflowers

Wildflower that planted itself in the wall.

Stonecrop, which planted itself between the rocks

Speedwell

Speedwell, growing in the grass

Spring and early summer are the best times for wildflowers. When I first came to Cornwall, I was overwhelmed by the numbers. After Minnesota, it all seemed unbelievably rich. The stonecrop on the right is probably English stonecrop, but I’m not great at identifying wildflowers. If I can identify the family reasonably accurately, I’m happy. I haven’t even taken a guess on the speedwell. It could be field, slender, American, thyme-leaved, wall, heath, pixilated, pontificated, confabulated, etc. The list is as long as my finger, in small type. And yes, I did make up a few of those.

The rest of the walk

After following the cliffs, the path descends into Trebarwith Strand, which is now given over to what everybody but me calls holidaymakers, who are drawn by the wide sand beach that appears at low tide. I’m not sure what called the village into existence originally. I doubt it was fishing, because the beach is covered at high tide and there’s no harbor at all. And it wouldn’t have been farming, because the valley’s too steep for any fields. Possibly the slate quarries. There’s another, also abandoned, in the valley just to the southwest. Today it has a cafe, a few shops, a pub, and a lot of holiday rentals. It’s a great place to get a cup of tea before heading inland to take the short route back to the car, which is what we did.

eddie, trebarwith walk 100On the road, we passed one more bit of history. If you look carefully, you’ll see GR on the front of the mailbox. That shows who was king or queen when the box was put into the wall. In this case, it was George. We met a guy who collects them, by which he means not the mailboxes themselves, just the sight of them. Before we met him, we’d never noticed the initials. Now we look.

52 thoughts on “Walking the Cornish Coast Path

  1. I think Americans are more familiar with turnstiles, rather other types of stiles (which don’t turn, I guess).

    And: “When she was young and impressionable, she looked in the mirror and thought she saw a collie–or what the rest of the world calls a border collie; a sheep-herding dog–and she’s been trying to chase sheep ever since. The farmers do not find this cute.”

    I bet the sheep aren’t too crazy about it either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right. The sheep, somehow, have failed to fall in love with her. And it’s strange but I didn’t stop to think about the stile in turnstile. How obvious. How invisible. Thanks for mentioning it.

      Like

    • It took me a while to get used to this idea, but I don’t think the frost here goes deep enough to be a problem. My best guess is that as the soil gets saturated it expands, putting pressure on the stones. If I’d stacked them more carefully, and slanted the layers inward a bit (I did try), I think they’d do better. Or possibly something else. Or multiple something elses.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was just telling my husband the other week that I miss drystone dykes. If there is a tradition of building walls without mortar here in Pennsylvania then I have yet to stumble upon one. I did some drystone dyke repairing in my youth which I think gave me an appreciation for them.

    I actually did not realise that stiles were not a thing in America. I wonder why that should be? It always struck me as such an obvious thing to do. There were a couple of stiles near where we lived in Argyll that were adjacent to easily-opened gates yet my kids and I would still clamber over the stile.

    There are actually more GR postboxes around than you might think. They do tend to be the ones built into walls for obvious reasons. I have seen a good few GR ones. My in-laws used to live in Tunbridge Wells and there they had a VR postbox. Did you know that there was a flurry of postbox destruction in Scotland in the 1950s because the postboxes were emblazoned with ERII when the current monarch is only the first Elizabeth to sit on the throne of Scotland? Now that is obsession with history and postboxes right there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great story about the ERII mailboxes in Scotland. The same issue comes up in a song I heard as a teenager, when I couldn’t figure out what “how can their be a second Liz / when the first one’s never been?” meant.

      I think the reason for the lack of stiles in the U.S. is that we don’t have a tradition of footpaths crossing private land. (I have got to write a post about that.) So there’s never been much call for them. Except, as was pointed out in another comment, for turnstiles, which demand money. That’s the sort of stile the country can get behind. (Fairly literally.)

      I remember stone walls in New England, and I’d bet some fairly small amount of money that the oldest ones are unmortared.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m just back home from the confinement of a long house/cat/koi sitting and this walk was just what I needed. It put me back on a solitary walk on the Welsh coastal path near St David’s on a fine day in May a few years ago. Also made me want to try some wall building but I live on a giant sand dune with no “stone” bigger than a grain of sand. Great read. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ellen! Thank you for taking us too on your lovely walk on this historic path! The photos are great and I learned a lot too…those stone walls always fascinate me how they stay together, only with the help of each stone! I’m sure that your wall you built is great too :-)
    Oh, and I couldn’t help but think that the word “turnstile” for subway fare collection has to do with the word “stile”? What do you think?
    Have a super Saturday and thanks again for sharing this pretty walk with us!
    *Lia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, absolutely, it’s the same root. Someone else also reminded me of the turnstile, and until then I hadn’t made the connection–although I grew up in New York, plugging subway tokens into many a turnstile, so you’d think it would have been obvious. It wasn’t. But yes: Like the (free) stiles here, a turnstile both a barrier and an entry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Ellen for your reply :-) I have always actually wondered why they are called turnstiles…I’m glad we have the NY connection in common…Indeed, the turnstile is both a barrier and an entry…I’ve seen some people jump the turnstile and it’s always quite shocking to see since it’s outside of the normal routine!
        Have a super Saturday!
        *Lia

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Had my hand up to ask a question, but it took so long to get to the bottom of the comments I forgot what it was. The question. No matter….you weren’t looking in my direction. Bugger all.
    Nothing left to do but…what? I’ve forgotten what comes next….

    Liked by 1 person

  6. For those of you who follow the comments, J. informs me, via Facebook, that the Cornish tin industry began to decline in the 19th century. So although I look like I’m commenting on my own blog, I’m actually–

    I’m commenting on my own blog. But for a good reasons.

    Like

    • You seriously know your post boxes. Having come from a country where they all look alike (as far as I know, and I hope someone will contradict me if I’m wrong), it’s amazing to find so much history hidden in plain sight.

      Like

  7. Well, me and Google! And Google tells me that there are a number of VR boxes in Cornwall, but I can’t find a convenient list. so keep your eyes peeled. One of the things Britain lost when we decimalised currency was the sense of history old coins provided. As a schoolboy in the 1950s I’d occasionally get pennies with the head of the young Queen Victoria on them – and imagine the famous pockets they might have been in. Here’s a VR pillar box from I think Tintagel – so you can imagine the famous people who have posted letters here (in the summer months)! https://www.flickr.com/photos/atrebatus/16379993554/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never thought about that aspect of the old money. With my stunning numerical incompetence, I’ve simply been grateful I didn’t have to struggle with it. A couple of friends have run me through how many whatsits in a which, and my brain simply shut down and heard nothing but a persistent buzzing sound.

      Like

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