Cornwall: Fields, Flowers And The Atlantic

March 17, 1991|By Robert Wirth

The sky held a passing parade of gray clouds as I walked a narrow path at the edge of 300-foot cliffs fronting the Atlantic Ocean. The waves hit rhythmically against dark, abstract rocks.

This was North Cornwall, part of the West Country of England. I was walking the Southwest Way, the longest of the Official Long Distance paths in Great Britain, running 560-plus miles from Minehead in Somerset, down the west coast of Devon and Cornwall, around Land's End and Penwith peninsula, then east along the "English Riviera" before ending at Poole Harbor in Dorset.

I had come to Cornwall for several years each spring. Living in an urban environment, shaped by technology and electronic media; accepting perspectives and viewpoints not my own, had me wondering if I could get to know one foreign place intimately.

Walking is one way of self-discovery, for you proceed slowly, looking, accepting this world just as it appears. Cornwall is in some ways like places in the United States, but there they are arranged differently, the parts in unknown sequences. That was what I wanted to experience.

Cornwall is no better described than in "Vanishing Cornwall," first published in 1967 by the late novelist Daphne du Maurier. With love and feeling, formed in a lifetime of Cornish living, she describes the area's character. When I first read the book, it had such an effect on me -- coupled with the sensitive photographs by Christian du Maurier Browning, her son -- that I vowed someday to go to Cornwall.

It was in 1983, my first visit, that I walked with a friend from Penzance to St. Ives, a difficult section of 38 miles, staying at bed and breakfasts along the way, that my own love affair with this beautiful, mysterious area began.

After World War II a report called "National Parks of England," written by John Dower, made recommendations that included the setting up of "footpaths and bridleways with signposts, stiles, gates and bridges. . . ." Of the Cornish coast, he said, "I found long stretches of coastguards' path still plain on the ground . . . and I could see no reason why all shall not be linked up again with continuous public rights-of-way."

A National Parks Committee report in 1947 recommended "a coastal path by cliff, bay, dune, beach and estuary" be established, and a path passing through the counties of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset was designated two years later. Officially called the Southwest Peninsula Coastal Path, it is commonly known as the Southwest Way.

But it has been in North Cornwall that I have walked, for here one discovers the basics of our natural world: sun and moon, earth and sky, wind and water, immense space and small places, light and darkness, soft and hard, growth and decay, color and lack of it. Here are a wild beauty and peace difficult to imagine anywhere.

The ideal months to walk are May and June -- before the heat of summer, before the tourist crunch that develops in the towns and villages a walker passes through.

Parts of the Southwest Way are strenuous, others moderate or easy, with numerous ups and downs, but none too difficult for the beginning walker. The down places usually

have a stream, sliver-thin, running to the ocean, that is easy to cross. It is not necessary to have expensive hiking boots; I wear the low combination leather-rubber soled shoes from that famous outdoor outfitter in Maine.

A legendary Cornish truism is: "Wait 10 minutes, the weather will change." I have been caught in a violent hailstorm only five minutes after enjoying bright sunshine. Information as to the path's degree of difficulty and what will be seen along particular areas is available from the Southwest Way Association, including a listing of B&B's and small hotels that lie close to the Southwest Way and their costs. I have walked as little as three miles in one day and as many as 22 miles when a particular B&B was filled.

But in the sense of serendipity, one experiences many delights in Cornwall: meeting walkers from foreign countries, B&B's whose owners make one feel as if their home is your own, the magnificent architectural ruins of mine engine houses, the experience of startling a flock of sheep as you rise a small hill.

Recently, although I had walked various sections of the Southwest Way in previous years, I chose to stay in one place for two weeks, where I had not walked but which would connect to places I had walked. This was done by renting a National Trust flat.

The National Trust is England's consummate steward of land, historic buildings and gardens that are endangered by sale, commercialism or development. As part of its programming, the trust makes available, to both members and non-members, rental of restored cottages, houses and the occasional "folly" in Cornwall and other areas.

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