Saturday, May 28, 2011

Stage 15 -- Port Isaac to Padstow

As usual lovely coastal scenery, but 5.5 hours of intermittent wind and cold driving drizzle... so enough about the hike. Instead I propose to write a bit about Cornwall.

Yesterday evening after dinner we went out to listen to the 10 man singing group "Fisherman's Friends"... and they were very good indeed. They sang on the foreshore, with microphones and amps, sometimes a capella, sometimes accompanied by guitar and/or accordion, and it was easy to see why they have become moderately famous. So far, so good, but then they sang a song that struck a deep chord with the audience and with me, called "Cousin Jack".

The song is about the exodus of Cornish men and women that started in the mid-18th Century when mining and fishing, the primary economic activities, declined -- the former due to cheaper mines being developed elsewhere in the world, and the latter due to overfishing. At least, that's what it starts off as... but by the time it finishes it has become a powerful lament for a Cornish nation that may not have had much of a political existence, but which clearly had a cultural and regional identity.

Lines such as "our language is no longer spoken", and "the English live in our houses and the Spanish fish in our seas", have particular resonance when you see second/holiday homes going up on the outskirts of most villages and towns, and so few fishing boats in the ports.

The bulk of Cornwall's land, in the center, is poor moorland, unsuited to much other than sheep farming, so agriculture is not a major source of revenue. And after over 4,000 years of mining, Cornwall's reserves of tin and copper, which used to produce over 50% of the worlds supply of those metals as late as the early 19th Century, have been largely exhausted. The seas seem never to have recovered their once astounding fertility (the figures and descriptions of the pilchard industry during the 19th Century are mindboggling)... or if so, the fish are being caught elsewhere (there are not only few boats in the ports... there are also very few visible at sea). And so tourism and real-estate related activities seem to be all that is left... and that clearly rankles (we have, for example, seen various signs calling for an end to holiday homes).

There is a political movement to have Cornwall declared as a Celtic nation, with some regional autonomy going in the direction of that in place for Wales or Scotland, but the small size of the population (around 530,000), and the fact that many of those are non-Cornish immigrants, means that the movement has never developed much momentum.

But if they should one day, I think that the Fisherman's Friends, all but one of whom grew up within a half a mile of Port Isaac harbour, and in particular their song "Cousin Jack" may be seen to have played a significant role. At any rate, the intensity with which the song was sung, and the applause it received, were higher than for anything else they performed. It moved me... and I think that if I were Cornish, it would do much more than that.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Stage 14 -- Trebarwith to Port Isaac

Another fairly windy but sunny day, with more great cliff hiking, and a delightful old fishing village as the goal.

As usual, we'll start with last night, but that won't take long because after dinner I fell asleep almost instantly despite fairly loud live music being played in the bar directly underneath my bedroom. Breakfast this morning was excellent, and we set off under blue skies.

And what more is there to say that I haven't already said? It was a lovely hiking day along a lovely coast. The greenish-blue water looked Mediterranean (although the waves crashing against the rocks belied that impression somewhat), the wind was manageable, the sun just warm enough without being too warm, the hiking time (just over four hours) long enough to work up a good appetite (and work off breakfast!), but not too long so as to produce exhaustion... it was just a nice day.

We are staying the night in Port Isaac (from the Old Cornish 'Porth Issec', meaning Corn Port -- a major export in times past), which is a beautiful little fishing village -- still with a vibrant local community (as attested to by signs saying "Say No to Second Homes!", and the fact that the last time a local pub came up for sale it was bought in a flash by a group of locals for 400,000 pounds so as to avoid it falling into the hands of strangers).

Our hotel here dates from the 1500s and has a wonderful view of the just across the road harbor... which reminds me of something. If you want to see photos of the hike, you should "friend" Russell and Lidia on Facebook -- both of them have posted a fair number of photos there (and Russell continues to post them almost every day). If anyone needs their Facebook IDs or email addresses, just email me.

And speaking of Russell, we always knew he was gregarious with people... but today it became clear that this social touch also extends to animals. In fact, Russell is a cow whisperer! After ascent number 5 or 6 of I don't know how many but it was a lot (have I mentioned that the Coast Path delights in dropping down into and then climbing back out of valleys?), Russ and I were waiting for the others in a sheltered corner of the trail opposite a field with a herd of perhaps 40 young calves. Who, upon noticing us, came over. Russell plucked some clover and soon had them eating out of his hands... subsequently followed by them licking his fingers and elbows. Maybe it was just salt sweat, but personally I suspect a deeper affinity ;-).

Later on he was to demonstrate similar powers with a very free range chicken that we encountered walking along the cliff edge.

And I shouldn't forget to report on my own animagical persona: I am, according to Russell, the god of caterpillars. We come across many on the trail, as in literally on the trail and in danger of being trodden on, and if they are particularly large or colorful I stop to pick them up and place them out of harm's way. However, I can also be fickle -- nudging a caterpillar off a stone wall, for example -- for as the Lord giveth, so doth he taketh away. Not yet a jealous god though :-).

This evening there apparently will be another outside concert, given by a group called The Fisherman's Friends, who have, I am told, achieved some significant degree of fame recently. They are either going to sing directly opposite our hotel on the boat slipway, or out in the bay on sand that is currently underwater (but one hopes will not be by the time they start at 8:30 this evening). The forecast is for windy showers, but I doubt that'll deter either performers or audience. It is England, after all.

Interim Thoughts

A few things I've forgotten to note in the post-hike pre-dinner haze.

Yesterday was the halfway point in the hike -- 13 stages done, 13 to go. But compared to the halfway point of the H2H it was much less significant. Why is that, I wonder? A combination of things, perhaps:

o unlike on the H2H, I'm the only one doing the whole hike here, so there's no-one who shares the sense of importance of the halfway point.
o the fact that I've approached this as a walking holiday rather than an expedition weakens the sense of accomplishment. Yesterday, for example, we hardly hiked because of the weather. Ditto Mortehoe to Braunton. Somehow that makes the mid-point less important.
o although a month of hiking is a lot, it pales in comparison with the H2H... and perhaps therefore the halfway point just doesn't seem like such a big deal. On the H2H, two weeks was still just the beginning.

Whatever the reason(s), I didn't even think to celebrate yesterday... but having written this now, perhaps I'll have a celebratory cup of tea this morning :-).

And that's all I have time for now...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Stage 13 -- Boscastle to Trebarwith

Another excessively windy day... partially abated by taking a bus.

After an unexpected nouvelle cuisine dinner in the Wellington Hotel in Boscastle last night, we bid goodbye this morning to Francoise and Jean-Paul (who headed back to Eygalieres today -- volcanic ash permitting -- Francois: let me know if they arrived as planned).

Outside the wind was howling, and the sky was dark, threatening rain... would we hike? I think we would have done, if we hadn't already had a similar day from Hartland Quay, and maybe also if Russell and I hadn't hiked so hard the day before... but as it was, we decided to skip the optional valley walk, and to take the bus to Tintagel, where we'd look at the castle that is King Arthur's putative birthplace, then walk the last hour and a quarter or so along the coast to Trebarwith. So that's what we did.

TIntagel's visitor center is perhaps the most tasteful thing in the town -- a good presentation of what we know of the real history of Cornwall during the time King Arthur is supposed to have lived, coupled with the legends. The rest of the town is a bit of a tourist trap so we didn't linger.

We then walked down to the site of the castle, or rather some reconstructed ruins on a dramatic headland. Less than impressive... but more than made up for by the sight of massive seas pounding against the cliffs and sending fountains of spray 10-15 meters into the air.

The wind along the coast walk to Trebarwith was strong, but not stronger than on the Hartland Quay to Morwenstowe day. We had some soup in the atmospheric Port William pub at Trebarwith beach, before wandering inland to the Mill House Inn, where we are staying the night. Nice big rooms, but a little unprofessional in some ways (service, food, common areas). We played some games in the afternoon, and after dinner went up for an early bed... despite not hiking that much, we were nevertheless outside for about 3 hours in the wind, and I think that left us all tired.

Stage 12 -- Widemouth Bay to Boscastle

Long day... but beautiful, weather and countryside.

This was one of those stages that I sort of guessed how long it would take. Unlike with the H2H, where I was obsessive about working out how much ascent and descent and distance each day's hike comprised, this time I was a little um, well, lazy. I had two books which gave times between various points along the way, and I roughly interpolated to come up with estimates for the stretches we actually did. In some cases the hikes we did were the same as those in the books (e.g., Clovelly to Hartland Quay), in other cases, such as today, they weren't. So, it was perhaps just as well that even my estimated time for today was long (7.25 hours), because as a result Thomas and Suzi opted to take the day off (walking around Bude and Boscastle) rather than hike. Actually the true estimated length should probably have been around 8.5 hours....

The remaining four of us (Russ, Francoise, Jean-Paul, and I) started around 9:30 under lovely skies -- cirrus and another type of cloud whose name I don't know but that looks like wedding dress trains in the sky. After a half an hour along the beach in Widemouth Bay we started to climb above cliffs and soon felt once again far from the world. Sea, rocks, gorse, broom, heather, fields, and cattle... that was about all we saw. No houses, almost no boats, an occasional road, and very few people.

The path had a lot of ups and downs today -- about 1250m, I worked out, using the map, after the hike -- and at 21km it wasn't short. We made it to Crackington Haven (a little less than half of the way) in four hours, but it was clear that Francoise was tiring and also finding the increasing winds troublesome. While enjoying a late cream tea lunch, I looked at the map and realized that at the current pace we probably had 5 hours still to go... it was time for an executive decision. I "suggested" to Francoise and Jean-Paul that given the situation, they might prefer to take transportation to Boscastle and walk around there rather than hike the rest of the way... and they agreed. So, Russell and I set off at 2:10PM by ourselves.

I'm in pretty good shape at this point -- both from the hiking and from working out and losing weight from Jan to April, as is, for similar reasons, Russell, so we went fast, finishing the hike in 3 hours. The pace might have been a little fast for Russell -- at any rate he did say with a slight edge at one point that he thought we were hiking faster than we did on the H2H (and I think he was right!), but he soldiered through anyway and we arrived in Boscastle at 5:10PM footsore and tired, but quite pleased with ourselves for what we had achieved.

There were one "interesting" moment along the trail today. At one point we went along the edge of a field in which a herd of cows was grazing... one of which was not a cow. It was, I realized about half way across the field, a huge, concuspicent, double muscled bull, which both during and after a momentary dalliance with one of the cows eyed us, and I thought me in particular with what seemed like disfavour. Not good. There was a thin wire fence -- one wire -- between the herd and us, but that looked as if it might stop the bull for, oh, a micro-second or so. Very not good. I looked right to see what would happen if I jumped over the edge of the cliff... pretty steep drop... and the next stile was about 80 meters off uphill. Pretty much maxed out the not-goodness at that point. But fortunately the bull decided that we weren't worth bothering about and lumbered slowly off. Oof.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stage 11 -- Morwenstowe to Widemouth Bay

Sunburn weather, easy hike, pleasant interlude in Bude.

But first... BEST CHIPS IN YEARS IN THE BUSH INN, MORWENSTOWE. Sorry, had to get that out of my system. For the untravelled Americans among us, "chips" are "french fries". And the rest of the meal was excellent too....

And second, Lidia left this morning as planned. She's off to Cambridge to help Madeleine do some end of the year packing, then she'll be in London for a few days and then... perhaps Provence, perhaps Bavaria, but probably not Cornwall unless the UK Meteorological Office promises her that there will be no wind during the last week of our hike.

But it was too bad she wasn't with us today because, of course, today was a perfect hiking day. We ambled along, through increasingly gentle terrain, had a nice light lunch at the "Life's a Beach" cafe in Bude, and sauntered into our Inn around 5PM. I'm sure there's more to tell, but I'm yawning too much to think. Maybe more later.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Stage 10 -- Hartland Quay to Morwenstowe

Wind? In retrospect, not until today had we really seen wind.

But first, back to yesterday evening. I was sitting on the bed before dinner when I heard what sounded like a band. Someone's got their TV turned on high, I thought... because they can't be outside, can they? But, just to be sure, I opened the window... and they were indeed outside. We went down to dinner, and there, nicely arrayed in front of the sea wall, was a brass band playing very well. In fact, amazingly well, considering that there was a Force 6 gale blowing. And they had an audience! Albeit an audience sitting in cars with their windows down halfway, and who, when applause was due, honked their horns. I said to our French and German friends: very English. Synonymous for insane, you know.

Dinner was acceptable... not great, but that didn't matter much because I wasn't hungry -- that cream tea at the Stoke-Barton tearoom was far from digested. And it was pretty cheap. We were all back in our rooms by about 9:30.

All night long the winds moaned and the surf pounded, so I wasn't too surprised when I looked out the following morning to see... pounding surf and powerful winds (but no rain). The weather forecast for Northern Ireland and England sounded like a hurricane -- 90 mile per hour winds (150kph) and torrential rain -- but the southwest, although affected by the same system, wasn't anywhere near as bad.

So, after breakfast we went outside to measure people's appetite for hiking. Lidia, feeling something in her chest, decided on the spot to take a taxi. Francoise made it to the first exposed spot before the wind took her breath away and she also turned back to go with Lidia. The other four of us pushed on.

It was pretty impressive. The wind was mostly from in front of us or onshore -- fortunately -- so it didn't feel unsafe. But we were pushed all over the place, at times staggering like drunks so strong it was.

The day before Suzi had complained of not enough pauses for rest and refreshment, so when we came to a picnic table on an exposed headland I made sure to call a halt. But as we were sitting around the table, holding on to avoid being blown off our benches, she said that she wanted to go on. There's just no pleasing some people....

After about three hours, and just after we crossed the border from Devon into Cornwall, it started to rain. Not particularly hard, but enough to break out the rain gear. Given the wind I put on a rain jacket, but all Thomas had was a poncho (some idiot had suggested to him that this is what he should take :-) and it whipped around like an epileptic on speed alternately blinding him and catching the wind to make him even more unstable. At about the same time the frequency and steepness of the ups and downs suddenly increased... and after an hour or so of this Suzi announced that she had had enough (with the implication being that I should do something about this... a task at which I failed, miserably).

Shortly thereafter we (Jean-Paul and I) lost track of them (Thomas and Suzi) when they took off along a track they thought we might have gone along....

Yes, a fine time was had by all.

Still, we got to Morwenstowe more or less in the time expected, to find Lidia and Francoise ensconced in the 800 year old Bush Inn. As those of us not staying there walked towards our B&B a taxi drove up... and out popped Russell, fresh from 26 hours of travel from Salt Lake City. The B&B (The Old Vicarage) was very nice, and those of us who were cold and wet took satisfyingly hot showers. The friendly owner agreed to do a batch of laundry for me. Russ and I played a game of snooker (possibly the lowest scoring one in the history of the game). And then we went back to the Bush Inn and had an excellent dinner with much merriment in three languages.

Yes, a fine time was had by all.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stage 9 -- Clovelly to Hartland Quay

Lovely hike... sunny, but a bit breezy.

So, the idea today was to get an early start, hike 5 hours to Hartland Quay, have a cream tea in the Stoke Barton tearooms, and then visit Hartland Abbey and St. Nectan's Church.

Beautiful things, ideas.

First, the Red Lion hotel, in all other respects delightful and well-run, had only one server at breakfast. Second every one in the hotel decided to have breakfast at 8:30 on Sunday morning, with the result that the poor lone server was run off her feet and still woefully slow. So, instead of starting hiking at 9, we were an hour late.

Then the fresh hikers were troopers... but not quite as fit and fast as the guide book assumed... so instead of 5 hours, we took closer to 6. And so, although we were parsimonious with breaks (too much so, according to some!), we only arrived at the tea room at around 4:20... and at the Abbey at 5PM, too late to see the inside. We did see the outside though, and the church afterwards, so overall we did pretty well... and certainly as well as possible given the constraints.

The hike itself was glorious. The coast is particularly rugged and the strong West wind piled up big swells that were impressive as they struck the rocks and the cliffs. That same wind, however, was pretty constant and at times very strong -- as strong as we've seen it, but because the sun shone most of the time (scattered clouds), we weren't cold until the very end of the day. It did, however, at times turn the Lidia frog into a flying Lidia frog.

As said, the new hikers were troopers, but it was interesting to note how just one week of hiking has already made us so much fitter. When we started, we also weren't keeping up with the guide book times (most clearly on the Porlock to Lynton day), but yesterday to Clovelly we were faster than the guide book, and today even at the end of the hike we (Lidia and I) felt strong. In fact I was bounding (like a frog too, now I come to think of it :-) up the climbs for the last hour and a half. Encouraging!

The cream tea at the Stoke-Barton tearooms was the best so far -- excellent warm scones, and gluttonous amounts of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Oh, and good tea, of course. I think I may have overdone it a bit with the clotted cream... at any rate, I'm feeling cream-tead out for now :-(.

The church, St. Nectan's, has the highest steeple in Devon (125 feet) and can seat 600 people. It felt very archaic -- still with private pews in a side chapel for the lord of the manor, his family and guests, and with a beautiful 400 year old carved wooden rood screen. A nice guide to the church in English, French, and Germany, which was convenient.

The Abbey, which I am told has never been sold -- it was built by Augustinian monks in the 11thC., confiscated by Henry VIII and given to one of his knights, and since then in the same family -- was a bit of an architectural mishmash from the outside... and since we were too late to see the inside, that's the impression we are going to go away with, unfortunately.

Hartland Quay, and in fact the whole area, feels a little like it is at the end of the world... and it is at the end of Devon: tomorrow we cross into Cornwall!