It was a bright and brilliant day, 29th May to be exact, when I took my first steps on the South-West Coastal Path (SWCP) this walking season. Unconventionally, I chose to start at the Southern tip of our South coast, all the way down in Helston, Cornwall. I decided this for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m starting this first leg on a bank holiday weekend on the first noticeably summery day following a bleak and miserable lockdown. 11 million cars full of families eager and excited to get the first sunburn of the year were on their way to the South coast this particular weekend and I wanted to miss the crowds as much as possible. Most filter out the further South you go, choosing popular tourist towns like Bournemouth, Newquay, Weymouth, and Lyme Regis leaving the furthest reaches relatively quiet. Starting down here also gave me a chance to meet up with family and friends who were on holiday here at this time.
The Lizard peninsula, a rocky and complex shore winding from Praa Sands to Falmouth.
For me, the coast is about bringing people together and after starting a job in a remote part of South Wales, seeing some familiar faces in one of my favourite places was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. Being surrounded by my young nephews, nieces and siblings who think my job is “fish assistant” I was reminded by the electric excitement that I felt being on a beach at their age. They demanded that I guide them through the rockpools and after finding a few of the old favourites (shore crab, beadlet anemone and limpet), their interests were pricked. They gasped when I told them that crabs moult from their outer skeletons after getting too cramped inside. They turned green when I told them about the predatory behaviour of dog whelks that spew an acidic, enzymatic mixture into the shells of limpets and suck up the dissolved bodies of their prey. They also listened attentively when I told them to be gentle when handling sea creatures and when exploring their watery homes. I must have said something interesting because soon I was surrounded by other children, keen to join the tour! By the end, they were all heads down gently but enthusiastically searching for themselves and sharing their finds with one another. The next generation of marine ambassadors.
A Strawberry anemone made for an interesting find on our rock pool safari. I was amazed no child tried to take a bite!
Although this family time was great, I had a job to do. My goal over this first leg was to conquer the lizard peninsula, a stretch of roughly 50 miles long, starting in Praa Sands and ending in Falmouth. My first sluggish steps along the loose sand, bag on my back, and 29°C sun beating on my neck, I had a stark reminder how hard this was going to be. Why did summer choose to start now!? Climbing high on the sea's cliffs past Trewavas mine in a hazy sweat I was passed by hundreds of athletic looking people, some obviously well into their 70’s, who were tackling a 44-mile ultra-marathon along the peninsula. Their grinding persistence reminded me that there is always someone who has it harder and encouraged me to keep pushing on. Looking out over an endless seascape of turquoise water bending into a deep marine blue, my mind drifted away into a blissful state of consciousness and like magic, my ankles stopped burning.
The engine houses of Trewavas mine. A copper extraction operation (1834 until 1846) that employed 160 men that worked daily in cramped conditions following seams miles out to sea.
Coming down from the high cliffs and remote bays into Porthleven, I was stuck by the crowds like a slap to the face. The seaside market was on today and people obviously got the memo: the smell of fresh seafood took me to a stall where the friendly staff presented me with the biggest lobster I have ever seen. The animal must have been a hundred years old, and I nearly fainted when I was told they wanted £80 for it. I settled for the free samples and was surprised when they offered me some lobster to try. Apparently, this was a rare offer and I quickly snapped it off the cocktail stick before she changed her mind. Follow this link for a short insight into the current discussion on the sentience of invertebrates.
An eclectic mix of people shrouded the ancient harbour. Sun scorched tourists sat on the sea wall, white wine and beer in hand, reminding me of my crustacean nibble. Children buzzed around with faces decorated in multiple flavours of ice cream. Purple trousered rich folk, each with a smaller and fluffier dog than the last, strolled leisurely, perhaps looking for their next sailboat.
I kept walking and eventually came to an amazing place called Loe bar beach. The National Trust site was originally a river mouth where the river Cober entered the Cornish Sea. Constant disposition led to a sand bar forming, separating the river from sea around the 13th Century. Like a lot of things in Cornwall, there is an alternative folk lore explanation for this intriguing feature. The tale goes that a questionable character named Tregeagle was punished by having to take all the sand from the neighbouring Gunwalloe beach to Porthleven. On the way it appears he dropped a few bags, forming the bar. Due to its interesting geomorphology, the site is recognised as a classic Geological Conservation Review Site. The beach is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI). The bar is washed with seawater during storms, forming a unique terrestrial habitat dominated by washover fans and laminated sediments. These characteristics support numerous rare species of flora (plant) like the flowering Strapwort (Corrigiola litoralis) which is of high conservation status and at risk of going extinct. The site also supports rare fauna (animals) like the Sandhill rustic moth (Luperina nickerlii) and serves as an important overwintering site of 8 species of bird and up to 1,200 wildfowl.
Spider crabs migrate in their thousands to our shores in spring and summer.
As seafood, they are exported mainly to Europe where they are revered more than lobster. Give lobster and crab a break and try this spiny fellow.
This time of year is also that of the spiny spider crab (Maja squinado) migration. During the spring months thousands of the gangly, alien-like creatures come up from the deep sea into warmer coastal waters to moult and then breed. They are present in huge numbers and as seafood are a more sustainable alternative to the over popularised lobster and edible crab (Cancer pagurus). Luckily, I stumbled across a few of them on my way, caught out by low tide. Sat on the shingle bar tucking into some fresh, sweet crab meat watching the sun disappear over the sparkling sea I felt part of the landscape that has supported people, plants and animals for epochs. This was going to be a great journey that I was on and couldn’t wait to see what other surprises it threw me.
The sun sets behind some fishing rods on Loe bar sands.
Mesmerizingly serene, I drift off into a dream.