There’s a point on the five hour drive from the midlands where the road peaks over a hill and the view opens up magnificently to welcome you into Cornwall. I don’t remember the exact location but in 25 years of visiting Cornwall it is that same vista that always makes me feel that the journey is no longer a necessary haul but an adventure beginning. This is the first time I have made the journey solo and so the visual embrace is perhaps all the more welcome.
My plan is to get some coastal walks under my belt starting from three different campsites. My rationale for Cornwall is that I had a week to plan and book something and the area is largely a known quantity with guaranteed scenery, plus you can’t get too lost on a coastal walk. Get wet and you’ve gone wrong. That’s not to say that there have been no risks. I could have been too hung over from last nights beer festival to travel today but somehow this hasn’t materialised. It could rain all week. The Met Office forecast has been typically non-committal suggesting there could be sun and rain this week. Thanks guys. I think it stems back to the 87 hurricane that they failed to big-up enough, so now all predictions have to state all possibilities regardless of probability.
It’s been dry for the entire journey south and the rolling West Country hills look enchanting in the early evening sun. I’m now experiencing the second phenomenon that Cornwall always seems to deliver – namely that whatever your coastal destination (and generally your destination in Cornwall is coastal) you don’t get your first proper sea view until you are practically on the harbour front. That would be true for my destination of Padstow except that what you ultimately get to view is not the sea but the Camel estuary. Either way the journey from north of the county to quayside unfolds like a cinematic opening sequence.
I have arrived at my second choice campsite. My first choice – Dennis Cove – was a lovely quiet little home from home at the bottom of a hill 5 minutes easy level walk into Padstow. Then the Guardian featured it as one of their hidden gems since which the prices have gone up and they are always fully booked. If ever there was a self-destructing prophecy… Instead I’m at the laughably expensive Padstow Touring Park up a steep hill from Dennis Cove and 20 minutes yomp from the harbour. I manage to pitch my 3 man tent in the same time it normally takes two people (less arguing?) and without undue fuss, much to the disappointment of my neighbours who have been keeping an eye on me over a cup of tea presumably hoping to witness some kind of cock-up or mental breakdown so that they can satiate their closet schadenfreude.
A quick look at the facilities and the cost is looking less outrageous. There’s a good laundry room, free freezing of ice blocks and the toilet block is essentially a series of en-suites with self-contained toilet/basin/shower unit arrangements. I’ve not seen that before. The other feature I have never seen at a campsite is ANPR (automatic numberplate recognition) to control entry to the site. All this for less than 100 pitches.
Time to head out and the site guide handed to me at reception indicates that there is a footpath into Padstow, so off I go. People think (rightly) of cliffs and breaking surf when they picture Cornwall but if you turn 180 degrees the inland views can also be jaw dropping. And so it is for my journey along a trodden path amidst a golden sea of wheat blowing gently in the breeze like an inland tide beneath the cloudless blue sky.
I reel off the first photos with my new camera and realise I don’t know how to use it properly. I’ll point and click for now and read the manual tomorrow.
A long steep descent onto the Camel Trail gets me thinking that I’m going to have to walk back up the hill later and negotiate the muddy fields in the dark.
Whatever. Padstow (or Padstein as it is known since Rick Stein is slowly but surely converting it into his personal commercial empire) is as busy and popular as I have now come to expect and yet it remains tasteful and thoroughly charming. As if to remind me that it still has soul a local Brass Band strikes up at the harbour and I might be stood here watching the scene 20 years ago for all that has changed.
In fact it brings a lump to my throat and I decide to walk away. I head west up the hill to the WWII memorial cross which lends me wonderful views back to Padstow and also across the Camel to the village of Rock and the deserted beaches at Daymer Bay and Polzeath.
Strains of the brass ensemble can be heard even here beyond the harbour walls and even with your eyes closed this could only be England. The final stragglers are returning from the beach and I turn back with them and head for the Shipmakers Arms and an indecently fine pint of Tribute ale – the product of the local St Austell based Tinners brewery although you can find it nationally on the supermarket shelves now. That’s one less mystery for the traveller to discover.
The pub has a varied mix of clientele. Three generations of a family sit around a large table pointlessly trying to appease a tired young child. Couples discuss their day and plans for tomorrow while a two local men sit silently sipping their pints and watching everyone just else like me. Who needs reality TV. A glance out of the window opposite and I realise the sun is going down and that’s my cue to leave. The harbour is transformed. The meandering masses of tourists, feet dangling over the quayside with pint glasses or chips have either left for home or headed for the pubs and restaurants so that they might put more even money into Rick’s coffers. There is a hush and you can hear the gentle lapping of water as moored boats bob up and down beneath the dim harbour lights. It has also turned chilly and the steep climb up hill provides welcome heat generating exercise. I manage to negotiate the moonlit fields without incident other than the flitting by of the odd bat. I’m hoping to sleep well. Tomorrow I walk.