Monday, August 21, 2006

Crawling over a rocky mountain

Or, Two Days in Penzance (

My trip from Salisbury was an education in the shortcomings of British rail transport. Luckily I'd booked ahead from the Salisbury TIC, because I didn't get to Penzance until 10pm at night. A three hour train journey suddenly turned into a six hour marathon, and of course when I got to Penzance, I still had to find the bloody hotel.

Luckily that Friday night Penzance was full of very kind, very brave people who were prepared to talk to a swearing, sweaty, scruffy person with a giant suitcase. I found my hotel - the barman even carried the giant suitcase up three flights of stairs for me (I must have been looking pretty strung out). The Union Hotel is very cute and very comfortable. I have a little window seat in my room and nice old furniture - I sit on the window seat with a cuppa looking over the town having happy little fantasies about living here.

On day one, I try to hire a bike to ride to Land's End, but none are available. I decide to walk the Coast Path to see some of the attractions. The meaning of the line "We have come over rather difficult terrain" suddenly becomes clear. It is 12 miles to Land's End and only about 0.25 miles of that is flat and free of massive rocks.

The first leg is Penzance to Mousehole (mow-sel - I lose the path and end up walking along the road, which is about 1.5 cars wide. It is absolutely terrifying. There is no room for two lanes of traffic - cars take turns to pull over to the side of the road to let oncoming traffic through. While all this is going on, I assume a pose against the hedges reminiscent of the Crucifixion. I feel very, very relieved that I'm not on a bicycle!

I get to Paul and Mousehole without being run over. The church at Paul is very cute, but I'm short on film and I don't take photos (I'm regretting that now). I try to catch a bus on to Land's End, but it happens that there isn't one so I keep going. A kind lady in a souvenir shop directs me back to the Coast Path, so I feel confident that I can continue safely.

Here is where I need to explain some things about the coast of Cornwall. There are not too many beaches in the Aussie sense of the word. There are two other things though, one is dirty big rocks and the other is cliffs. The path goes over one and along the other. I try to cheer myself up by thinking that if I fall off the path, I won't know about it. It doesn't cheer me up very much.

The other thing I need to explain is that the map I've been given is slightly misleading. It shows a number of tourist attractions along the Coast Path. They aren't there and there is no way you can get off the path to get to them (or at least not any that I can see). I hike about seven miles from Mousehole to Penberth, about 0.05 miles of that is flat.

Now I've explained the downside, I need to add that the views are absolutely amazing. The cliffs, the ocean - I spend a fair bit of time taking photos (very carefully). I have a bit of a bad moment when I get to Penberth and realise that my knees are not up to climbing up or down any more steep rocky paths. Also, it's getting late and I need to catch a bus. So it's back to the road and the Stations of the Cross.

I miss the 5.30 bus back to Penzance, so I follow the road on to Porthcurno. Porthcurno is a tiny little village with an amazing outdoor theatre (the Minack Theatre - I'm too late for the tour and the performance is sold out, but I get a quick look at the grounds before I catch the bus back. All up, I've hiked about 12 miles. The bus trip back is an eye-opener - the bus is literally brushing along the hedges to either side. At one point, we meet a bus coming the other way and the bus I'm on has to back up until we can reverse into a farm gateway to let the other bus pass.

On day 2, I caught a bus to Land's End. On the bus, I strike up a conversation with a German woman who is also staying at the Union Hotel - she used to work in Britain in the 1960s and is horrified at how expensive everything has become. We get to Land's End - the conversation dies. Before us, a queue of cars, a bus park (full) and something that looks like a small-ish Disneyland ( We cringe.

Luckily, it isn't as bad as it looks at first sight. You can avoid the tourist trap and see dramatic ocean views, albeit in the company of large family groups and a gazillion tourists, ice creams in one hand and pasties in the other.

I try to catch a bus back to the Minack Theatre but miss it. The next bus goes to Penzance via St Ives - my German friend wants to go to St Ives, so I have company again. On impulse, I get off the bus at Marazion and take a ferry over to St Michael's Mount ( St Michael's Mount is an island in the bay - at low tide, you can walk out to it along a causeway (obviously you need to walk warily and briskly). The island has been a monastery, a fortress and now has a castle and stunning gardens. I wander around in a happy little fantasy only slightly marred by the presence of builders and scaffolding. The castle windows look out onto wild landscapes of cliffs and ocean - the castle interiors are elegant and cosy. I want one!!

From fantasy back to the real world - I need to catch the 6pm train to St Austell to make the next leg of my journey. I catch the ferry back, treading on the bronze footprint commemorating Queen Victoria's first step on the island on my way down the stairs. A short bus ride along the coast, five minutes to collect the giant suitcase, a bit of awkwardness when I interrupt a coupling couple (in a street leading to the harbour of all places!), and I'm on my way...


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