A Trail Through History on Cornwall's Coast

Many footpaths in Britain were closed earlier this year in fear that hikers would spread foot-and-mouth disease, which devastated the country's livestock. Most of those trails, including some in scenic southern England, have since reopened, some only recently. That's cause for celebration (and this special column).

Among the paths that had been closed is the 162-mile Cornwall Coast Path, one of the best-maintained trails in the country.

Last October, before the closure, I enjoyed walking 30 miles or so on the Coast Path segment between Lizard Point on England's southwestern tip and Nare Head to the north. This coast is blessed with a temperate climate--perhaps the best in the British Isles--which means good hiking from late winter through autumn.

Tourist maps highlight quaint estates, gardens, pubs and waterside restaurants, leaving the impression of a tame coast. But one week of walking shows Cornwall's wild side. The path passes sandy coves and cobbled shores, crosses the top of cliffs facing the Atlantic and runs along spines of rock thrusting out to sea. The views are unforgettable.

Trail travelers get the feeling that locals aren't accustomed to visitors and don't like change. In Portloe, one longtime resident told me with pride that only one house has been built in the village in the last 50 years.

Over a pint of ale at a friendly pub, a Cornish gent explained why the coast hasn't been overrun by tourists: "It's the sheer cussedness of some Cornwall folks. They don't make much allowance for visitors."

Not much allowance, but some. Although residents have resisted mass tourism (good for them), I found them extremely hospitable. When I showed my delight in the salt flats, sand dunes, woods and wildlife sanctuaries, as well as the isolated stretches of seacoast with little islands offshore, the locals were pleased, too.

At night I'd stop in places like the quirky pink Pendower Beach House Hotel, a half-day's walk north of St. Mawes. By day I'd continue on, fortified with Cornish pasties (meat and veggie pies), clotted cream and tea.

The Cornwall Coast Path never drifts far from the cry of the gull and the wail of the foghorn. The route follows the same trails created centuries ago by authorities patroling for smugglers. Because the patrols needed to monitor every single cove, the path hugs the coast.

Many Cornwall hikers are accompanied by canines, which scamper along the trail and sit with their masters in pubs. Dog walkers have even installed special gates so their companions can pass through stiles designed for two legs.

The path has its ups and downs--various climbs up cliffs and dips down to creeks, coves and beaches.

Ferries from harbor to harbor reduce driving and walking time. A short ferry across the Helford River saved me an hour's drive from one headland to another. I signaled a ferryman on the opposite bank, and within minutes he was motoring across the water.

Just off the path are delightful sights such as Trebah Gardens in Mawnan Smith. This is no fussy English garden of trimmed hedges and manicured lawns, but an exotic collection of flora from around the world. The garden spills down a ravine like a waterfall of color. I followed a trail through Rhododendron Valley, where 60-foot plants towered above me.

Another trail led to Yankee Beach, where American troops boarded craft for the Normandy invasion in 1944. There's a war memorial and a view of the Helford as it flows to the sea.

I rambled through the forested estates of Lord Falmouth and along mysterious Frenchman's Creek, immortalized by novelist Daphne du Maurier. I watched gray seals haul out onto the rocks, toured Henry VIII's St. Mawes Castle and visited 12th century churches. The simple beauty and spirituality of these ancient places added a special dimension to walking Cornwall.

A certain set of Londoners, with Range Rovers and yachts, spills into Cornwall's coves, but only for about six weeks in midsummer. For most of the year the coast remains the domain of walkers.

Hikers looking for a memorable shoreline sojourn will find it here.

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For more of John McKinney's tips, visit http://www.thetrailmaster.com.

Cornwall Coast Path

TOURS: Several companies offer guided walking vacations of the Cornwall coast. A couple are Wayfarers, 172 Bellvue Ave., Newport, RI 02840, telephone (800) 249-4620, Internet www.thewayfarers.com; and Country Walkers, P.O. BOX 180, WATERBURY, VT 05676. TEL. (800) 464-9255, Internet www.countrywalkers.com

RESOURCES: For help planning a Cornwall walk, visit www.cornishman.com and www.cornwall-online.co.uk

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