The South West Coast Path - 4. North Cornwall

You can run away from anything, but you can't run away from yourself

Todays tune.

Did you ever meet someone whose mind you could read? Just like that, as easy as breathing? I don’t mean ‘I knew you’d want to see the dessert menu’; I mean their whole life. Childhood, schooling, travels, career, relationships, thoughts and feelings. When you know all of that in an instant, when the blink of an eye yields a split second glance, and a subtle facial expression can tell you essays and volumes of stories and conversations, and you know all of it, immediately and innately. Like the fastest processing computer, or the greatest chess Grand Master. All the reasoning and understanding, history and empathy, rationalising and moralising, all done, in that instant, and the answer, is Yes. From then on that chemistry has fostered another level of connection. Conversations still happen of course, but they’re largely redundant however fun they are. They're garnish. Everything is already spoken. Sitting and staring and knowing is all that’s required now. That’s the end of your life as you knew it, and your first steps into a larger world.

 Kenidjack

Kenidjack

Rounding Lands End was a symbolic moment for this journey. The whole of the southern path done, every delicious metre from Studland to Lands End. The hand drawn red pencil line on my map satisfyingly complete all along the southern coast to the very most westerly tip of our glorious island. Not only geographically and physically but emotionally turning the corner, hopeful and expectant, it meant hopefully having the prevailing winds behind me for the remainder of the path all the way to Minehead. The anticipation of some of Cornwall’s most iconic sights lay ahead, the atmosphere of this ship-wrecking coastline, imbued with the pioneering character of explorers, gazing at the Atlantic to what lies beyond, and also the metaphorical sight of the finish line for the first time: I was now running to Minehead. I’d turned the corner towards ‘home’ and The End.

Beautiful Sennen Cove passes before you know it. What a place to live that must be. I’d like to run a little coffee shop there. It would maybe sell creams teas too. A swim in the sea before breakfast, a run or a climb in the evening, then sit and stare at the ocean until my eyes have had enough.

Cape Cornwall and Kenidjack follow. The crossing tides here change the atmosphere again. The power of the Atlantic Ocean hangs heavy in the air, and then the tone changes yet again at the abandoned mines and industrial resonance of Bottalack and Levant.

 Levant

Levant

It feels bleak here. Exposed and blustery, even on a fine day. You can well imagine the buffeting in the winter months. Harsh days and bracing conditions in which to live and work. In my memory this stretch of path is all gorse and heather. Thrift in spring. Low lying beaten down grasses that acquiesce in lee of the southwesterlies that ravage Cornwall incessantly through the seasons.

Man’s influence on the landscape is obvious but it still feels deeply old here. Yet wilder still as I pass my favourite climbing crags of Bosigran and Gurnards Head, where the granite stands golden and proud, defiantly facing down the wind and water in a battle of aeons. By the time you arrive at the dichotomy of St Ives - a truly beautiful town that’s a pilgrimage for artists, surfers and writers, yet simultaneously ruined by hordes of tourists and seagulls - you’ve already made a journey that gives you such a myriad of different flavours, it’s hard to believe there can be so much more left in North Cornwall, so much that it still has yet to give. But it’s only your first steps into a larger world.

 St. Ives

St. Ives

So you connect with this person and you know implicitly, without question or debate, that - living embodiment of all the cliches - you’re somehow meant to be together. Simultaneously it’s obvious and astonishing that a ‘soul mate’ exists. A whole greater than the sum of its parts.

“I can read your mind”, you tell her. “I know what you’re thinking too”, she replies. What next then? With a fact as strong as the knowledge that the sun will rise and fall, there is no need to ask the normal questions of whether it’s right to live together - too early? - or right to marry or right to have children and create a family together, all those questions are utterly redundant in face of the fact that you were somehow born for one another. You’re sat in this room holding hands and staring and there is a palpable sense of what-the-fuck-is-going-on magic in the air. Can you feel that? What next? Where do we go from here with this intangible entity? Well I can tell you what next; what next is you celebrate it. Lottery winners pop corks. You celebrate it a lot. Only pausing for prolonged periods of sitting and staring, or saying something to break the silence. Sometimes one of you will talk, sometimes gibbering streams of consciousness, sometimes nervous in the face of the elephant in the room: that here is a person who can read my mind. The other person sits quietly and smiles sweetly at your nervousness and is calm and accepting in the face of the overpowering elephant. They’re far more serene in this state of delirium. To the panicker this is like they’ve signed up for a freefall parachute jump, but then, IT’S HAPPENING NOW!, not with a week to prepare (you’ve had your whole life to prepare), it’s happening now, this is happening, this is what everyone talks about, and it's sudden and present and now. The real McCoy as they say. Fear and happiness mixed in a heady cocktail of speechlessness - or gibbering - take your pick. A freefall, but miraculously transported from your sofa, feeling all brave but then with immediacy BAM you’re falling now. The drop a rollercoaster makes your tummy do, but endless, and never coming out of the dive, you don’t know whether to scream and laugh or hold your breath. All the while sitting holding hands in a quiet hotel room. Sit and stare and celebrate. Repeat ad infinitum, because this is magical rapture.

 So fast now I'm overtaking dogs. Small and ageing dogs. Godrevy

So fast now I'm overtaking dogs. Small and ageing dogs. Godrevy

Cornwall has magic in abundance. Walk the sands at Godrevy and tell me there’s not something funny going on. I don’t really believe in Ley Lines but the atmosphere is just so tangible. Hairs stand up. How? Electricity? Why does that happen? It’s a beach, just like Long Sands, just like Whitsands and countless gorgeous others, but holy cow there’s something in the air here. You can taste it. Running through here, my thoughts leap as they always do: cursing my slow minutes per mile and how tired I am already on this section; how long until I can eat my sandwich; is that the tide hitting the rocks at the end of the beach meaning I'll have to double all the way back and then take the more arduous dune path? These thoughts run like streams. But then it stops you, physically stops you in your tracks and makes you pause. I’m not a tree hugging hippy, but it somehow has you coming to a halt, looking round corners, in rock pools, behind sea stacks, wondering what the sound of silence is and why you have goosebumps and flippin’ ‘eck what is the science behind this? Other people can feel this too, right? I look for a passerby, and I make eye contact with a woman in her mid 70’s, walking with a dog lead in her hand and a non-existent dog, strikes me as a local, and she smiles at me knowingly. She has clearly read my mind.

 Ultra-violet skies at Porthreath

Ultra-violet skies at Porthreath

The bliss of being present in this moment is only equalled in impact by the tragic feeling that it has ended all too soon. Not just the hour or the day, but the entire union. It is over and you can’t go back. Always being conscious that the next time was the last time, and that from the very start you are always ending. Stolen time that is so spellbinding it has to be lived to be understood, it has to be relished and savoured, and you know that it can’t last but it is also never, ever enough. It is simply not enough to treasure the memory of a perfect time, be that one perfect day and night or a year of magic and delirious happiness. Keats said a thing of beauty is a joy forever, but it ends and it leaves a painful void. I want the time over and I can’t have it. I can wallow briefly in the cherished memories but I cannot create more. I think of different things to have said or done, but the time is past. I wish I could go back and change things, but it is gone with such crushing finality. In the moment I was present and focussed, aware, there was forethought and consideration, anticipation and excited planning even. But it wasn’t enough. There was surely more I could have done, not only to relish it but to sustain it. Life had been a rehearsal for this, every prior relationship was some sort training or practice for this, and now was when it really mattered to be the best version of yourself you could possibly be, and because it meant everything, ultimately, you failed. You had life’s winning lottery ticket in your hand and it escaped your grasp. Your heart yearns for that time again, but it is not only gone, but it is gone, agonisingly, forever. I find myself questioning what the point is, in future life beyond that?

 Chapel Porth doing it’s best Fiji

Chapel Porth doing it’s best Fiji

As you approach the end of this meandering stretch of golden coast, beautiful magical North Cornwall, you approach the border with a deep sadness. What you have just done has been serenely stunning, a joy forever. Being present in that landscape of granite and thrift, oceans and sky, golden hours and god-beams, running along surveying the flora and fauna while skylarks chatter and peregrines hunt and survey you from nearby, you watch them and they watch you, being a part of the land and the wildlife and a part of time itself, has been a very special privilege. But it is over now and you cannot retrace your steps. Did you do it right? Did you make the best of your time? Were you up to the task? You’ll never have that time again, it’s gone. And already that hurts like a grief. I reflect on the little red hand-drawn line on my map at home. I have covered every inch of the Cornish coast now. All of it. Have you been to Penberth? Yes. Have you run through Bedruthan’s Steps (best beach so far)? Yes. Lizard, Sennen, Chapel Porth, Boscastle? Yes, yes, yes, yes. I’ve done it all. On paper I should be sated that I now know Cornwall intimately. On paper I’ve lived and breathed every delicious stride of it, caressed every curve and tasted it’s sweetness in my mouth. But the reality is that I’ve only just brushed the surface. I didn’t take time to dwell and investigate Nanjizzle. Even though Gwithian stopped me and made me wander through Godrevy’s rock pools, the bays and coves surrounding Portreath were too numerous to explore, I haven’t seen Booby’s and Mother Ivey’s in a big swell, or felt Winter’s icy grasp on Whipsiderry. Even though I was present in the moment and bathed in the bliss of just being here and now, gazing with eyes of wonder, I am still utterly, irrevocably heartbroken that it is over.

And so back to Devon. Returning home to The Shire. Onwards towards the end. From the beginning it was always ending. Maybe the end will bring a new beginning as well. Maybe, somehow, magically, maybe she’ll read my mind and be there to meet me at the end.

 Upside down wrongness, that still tasted beautifully imperfect once it was in my gob

Upside down wrongness, that still tasted beautifully imperfect once it was in my gob