A Wild Weekend in West Penwith

Gwennap Head

Living in Cornwall, we often take the area for granted and holidays tend to be taken elsewhere. But this summer we decided to have a long weekend away in the far west of Cornwall, camping on a small site near St Buryan.

We arrived in late afternoon sunshine, the campsite offering views across the fields to the moorland beyond. We erected the tent next to a young French couple who were touring the south west in their converted van. With a Czech campervan across the field, a quartet of Italian vans just around the corner and a Sikh family just down from us, it felt like the whole world was in Cornwall.

That evening we drove the short distance to Treen and sat outside the pub and enjoyed a nice meal washed down with a pint of Healey’s Rattler cider. A young couple from Manchester provided good company as they explained their fears of camping in the rain. We assured them they would be OK….

The next morning we awoke to the sound of rain pouring down outside the tent, and dribbling in through a seam above my head! The walk to the toilets was a wet, misty one across a damp field. It wasn’t going to be a beach day! We decided to visit the Telegraph Museum at Porthcurno, much of it is underground, so we should stay dry.

We arrived in time to catch the 11 o’clock introduction talk, a young lady trying her hardest to explain how you can send messages across the world using just electric currents. It’s a fascinating museum, although a lot of the technology takes a bit of understanding. There’s quite a bit about the social side of working both at the station in Porthcurno but also at the other stations dotted around the world, and this also includes details about the role they played during World War Two. The escape tunnel leading up through the hillside to the viewing platform, a good climb, reminded us that the weather still wasn’t good, and the view non-existent!

We left Porthcurno and drove north to St Just for a late lunch in the Commercial Hotel. It was still misty and wet and we decided there was little point driving out to Cape Cornwall, as we wouldn’t see anything. So we headed down to sea level at Sennen Cove, but although it was brighter under the low cloud, we still didn’t fancy a walk along the beach. One reason for this being that we were booked to go to the Minack Theatre that evening and didn’t want to get too wet beforehand.

An open-air performance at the Minack can be magical on the right night, we have sat there and watched basking sharks swimming around in the bay before, watched the Logan Stone change colour as the sun sets, this was not to be one of those nights. Performances are very rarely cancelled, the weather has to be extreme, and so with full waterproofs donned we sat and watched ‘Sunset Boulevard’ admiring the casts ‘show must go on’ attitude.

The next morning promised more rain, but by the time we were ready to leave the tent, the clouds were clearing to the east. We headed towards Penzance to search out a fried breakfast and, having filled ourselves up for the day, drove to Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. This wasn’t our first visit to this hidden corner, but since we last visited, they have built a gallery in the grounds and we were aware there were new works of art to be seen in the gardens themselves.

Arriving at the ticket office, we were told there would be a wedding taking place in the gardens later in the day, and also, that if we were quick, we could catch the tour of the pinhole camera room. Intrigued we followed the instructions and soon found ourselves underground in an old water tank staring into darkness. The ‘guide’ explained that our eyes would slowly acclimatize, and we would soon see an image of moving trees appear on the far wall, the exact view we would see if we could look up through the ceiling. For the next 10 to 15 minutes we watched the sylvan world above us projected onto the walls of an underground chamber, hidden away from the outside world.  These tours only take place at certain times, so it’s worth contacting Tremenheere beforehand if you want to take part.

Back out into the daylight we wandered around the gardens, discovering sculptures and installations around every corner. A wall of taps in a ferny dell, Perspex windmills, a minotaur’s head and the serene skyspace, all surrounded by some wonderful sub-tropical planting. But for me the highlight of Tremenheere is still the Restless Temple, swaying gently in the wind on the hill overlooking the carpark and gallery, with views across to St Michael’s Mount.

We sat having a coffee in the restaurant as the wedding party arrived and made their way up into the gardens. The sky was now blue, as it should be for a wedding, and we decided to drive back to the wilds of West Penwith where the landscape is a work of art itself. Parking at Porthgwarra, (the little cove where Poldark took his clothes off) we walked out along the South West Coast Path to Gwennap Head. Here the granite cliffs fall straight down 300 ft into the raging Atlantic. When I was younger, lighter and fitter I would come climbing here, dangling on a rope above the sea whilst gulls did all they could to make us lose concentration. Today the wind is blowing and squally rain showers send us running for cover up against the wall of the Coastwatch station. Large groups of gannets fly north, returning to their roosts off the Welsh coast and shearwaters skim the waves, heading who knows where.

Less than five miles down the coast from Land’s End, this spot couldn’t be more different. There’s nowhere selling ice cream, no signs pointing to New York, Moscow or Norwich, no fences with Do Not Go Beyond This Point signs… this is the real end of the land, where Cornwall’s wild windswept moorland meets the wild windswept Atlantic, and long may it remain so.

But the Atlantic is a cruel sea, and we are reminded of this in the evening when we visit the Ship Inn at Mousehole. Here the walls are covered in images of wrecks that have taken place around this bit of coastline, including that of the lifeboat the Solomon Browne which was lost in December 1981. The then landlord of the Ship Inn was one of the eight members of the lifeboat that lost their lives that night, along with the eight people who were on the Union Star, the coaster they were sent to rescue.

We return to the coast the next day, heading down to Sennen Cove again, but this time in sunshine. The beach is full of holiday makers, windbreaks protecting them from westerly wind. Surf schools are busy, and children are happy playing in the rockpools. We decide to take to the coast path, heading south towards Land’s End and then beyond to Nanjizal. Like Gwennap Head, which is visible in the distance, this is a landscape of granite headlands and purple heath. Once past Land’s End, the crowds quickly disappear, although being a Sunday in August we are never far from other walkers.

The last time we visited Nanjizal, there was a white sandy beach, a seal swimming off the headland and I was tempted to take a dip myself. Now, the sand has all gone. Boulders cover the bay, slippery underfoot from the weed growing on them, the sea cave known as the ‘Song of the Sea’ is only accessible by clambering over the rough rocks, and then a deep pool prevents further inspection.

The winter storms have claimed another victim, the sand will return we are told, but when, nobody knows. It just proves that things do change in this part of the world, and that we can do nothing to stop these things happening. Thankfully, the walk along the cliffs has plenty of other delights to offer, and as we prepare to head back towards the car, a big old seal pops up in the bay. Is it the same one we saw last time? Who knows? But it’s good to know someone is keeping an eye on this beautiful part of Cornwall.