A pint of ale seals the deal

Clifftop view: The Cornish coast was once alive with smugglers. picture: Tim rolston

Clifftop view: The Cornish coast was once alive with smugglers. picture: Tim rolston

Published Aug 10, 2012


London - With all eyes on the UK during the Olympics, who would have thought that I would be writing about a glorious walk in the sunshine along the Cornish coastline?

Those meteorological newshounds who keep track of such matters on a global level will be aware that things in the UK have been uncommonly damp. It was eight days, on what one of my friends disparagingly refers to as “Mud Island”, before I caught so much as a glimpse of the sun, and on many of those days the weather in midwinter Cape Town was both warmer and drier.

Mind you, there are plusses to the climatic inconsistencies of the British summer, not least the prolific verdant growth which, if you are coming from SA, pretty much redefines the concept of greenery.

The fields and hedgerows have revelled in the conditions and tiny country lanes in the south-west have been rendered near impassable by hanging gardens of bramble, meadowsweet and luxuriant grasses. With the sun emerging from behind the clouds and warming the fields, it seems the entire countryside is a perfumery of mown grass, drying hay and a heady mix of plant scents. So, after a frustrating wait, the day dawned that was perfect for walking, with at least some of the mud in the lanes hardened sufficiently to allow passage.

So off we headed for a coastal walk in the paths of my youth, a stomping ground unvisited in some 30 years. Morwenstow provided the starting point and, for a tiny and pretty much insignificant village on a barren cliff-top, the place has more than a little history.

It was the home of the eccentric Reverend RS Hawker, born in 1803 into a religious family of few means. Hawker paid for his education at Oxford by marrying a woman with a “private income” 29 years his senior . Hawker is best known for his poem The Song of the Western Man, which became the Cornish anthem, but he was equally renowned for his eccentricities, which included the excommunica-tion of his cat from the church for having the effrontery to go mousing on Sundays. The spectacular Morwenstow vicarage was built by Hawker, with the chimney pieces set as models of the various church towers of his life, Morwenstow, Wellcombe, Tamerton and Magdalen College.

The first part of the hike was through freshly cut hay fields with glorious views of the Cornish coastline and Lundy Island in the distance; the smell of the freshly turned and drying grass a poignant olfactory reminder of the countryside of my youth.

On the cliff tops we paused to visit “Hawker’s Hut”, a simple construction fabricated from driftwood, a place where Hawker would sit, smoke opium and write poetry. I couldn’t but wonder at the idea of consuming serious narcotics in a hut so precariously close to the edge of a precipitous drop.

It is these very cliffs and the crashing surf below them that in the days of Hawker provided a living for many local inhabitants who occupied themselves with smuggling and “wrecking”. The latter was an unpleasant pastime of luring ships on to the rocks so they would founder, giving the locals a chance to pick over the spoils on the beach and, one supposes, deal with any temporarily fortunate survivors with a quick bang on the head so as to leave no witnesses.

From here we followed part of the coastal footpath which runs around the south-west from Poole in Dorset to Minehead, a distance of 1 000km. We were planning to take on only a short section, passing Sharpnose Point, to Duckpool and Coombe Valley, and from there venturing inland to follow tiny muddy tracks, styles and fields as we wandered a circuitous route through the most spectacularly overgrown forest valleys, past sheep and cattle and occasionally touching the edges of tiny villages.

Finally we crossed the Tidna Valley, which sadly saw the passing of the last of its famous Large Blue butterflies in 1976. Locals are re-planting thyme with a view to reintroducing this rare species.

It quickly becomes apparent on such hikes that perhaps one of the very best things about rural England is that over time there has been an entrenched right of public passage over large sections of privately owned land, so that footpaths form a wonderful web of walks all over the country.

The second best thing about the place is the preponderance of rural ale houses and hostelries. This meant that after a particularly steep climb through a spectacularly muddy field we were rewarded, on negotiating the final stile, with the garden of the Bush Inn.

It takes a little planning but finding such a wonderful walk that ends at a pub is the stuff of British hiking legend.

A pint of Doom Bar ale while sitting in the sunshine, breathing in the scents of summer in the West Country made for a fitting end to a wonderful walk. To know that there are thousands more like it just means that I may have to come back. - Sunday Argus

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