Part One: Tregantle – Rame Head – Tregantle
I am staying in Plymouth courtesy of my cousins, so I can re-visit the beautiful Rame Head peninsula that I started to explore last August. With only a day or two to spare, I have to decide where to spend my time. For my first day’s walking it’s a close call between Penlee Battery and St Michaels Chapel, but I opt for the latter as it will fit best with the length of time and distance I can walk, and the drive to the Torpoint Ferry – though as it turns out, I manage to squeeze both in by the end of the weekend.
After a drive around to find a cashpoint – the ferry doesn’t take cards – I join the queue to board. I love this ‘ro-ro’ ferry (roll on, roll off). It is a chain link ferry, and it runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, trundling back and forth across the Hamoaze stretch of the river taking miles off the journey that would otherwise be made via the Tamar toll bridge. There are foot passengers, cars, motorbikes, pushbikes, even a double decker bus. All very modern, but it feels timeless – a poultry farmer herding a flock of tar-footed geese to market wouldn’t have felt out of place.
I park up by the Tregantle barracks and rifle range, miles of chain link fence and stern notices, and make my way down the road to the coast path proper.
I wander down to Sharrow Beach. It is deserted, though crisscrossed with human and dog footprints. In 1874 (there seems to be some confusion over the date, with a transcription error sometimes stating 1784) a small cave was excavated here by hand by a hermit called Lugger, who inscribed verses on the ceiling to relieve his boredom. Sadly this is walled off to the public, so I can’t read his words. It’s lovely here, but unexpectedly, I find I’m not in the mood for beaches, and to be honest they are all a steep walk down and therefore back up, and I’m already walking quite a long way by my lights. But it is lovely to experience this level of quietness on a beach in Cornwall, even on a glorious and warm day, and I manage to find a few pleasing objects in the short time I’m there.
I walk back up to join the path, which is now the B3427 leading into Freathy, and I am met as I emerge by an excellently gnomic bit of graffiti, I assume, on a drain. I imagine an oracle lurking beneath, willing to tell the future if you cast in a coin.
This bit of the South West Coastal Path is one of those that consists of quite a lot of road – partly to do with the permissive footpaths through military danger zones, partly to do with the interesting layout of Freathy village – many very small one storey chalets wedged into the steep cliff and connected by many very winding grassy private paths.
I really can’t figure Freathy out. I have a huge desire to own one of these tiny exposed oddities, facing west into the setting sun, and yet I have questions. Where do the cars go? How do you get your shopping to your house? What about deliveries, ambulances, fire engines? What do you do in the snow? Do people actually live here, or are they all second homes and holiday homes – bijou boltholes for the rich, or lucky? It reminds me, more than anything, of a quirky seatop-perched version of the old prefab sites near where I grew up. Lots of little hut-like tin structures, all with equally tiny and usually immaculately maintained gardens.
I realise, out of nowhere, shockingly, that I’ve never been to Cornwall in the autumn. Much as I love the flora of high summer, and very little compares to a Cornish hedgerow teeming with honeysuckle, I prefer my nature a little more pared back, a little bit more sere, and so it is a new pleasure to walk a coast path edged with seed pods and heads, dry yellow grasses, and browning, curling bracken glowing russet in the low sunlight; and the lack of nettles along the more overgrown paths is a treat. A particular visual pleasure – I spot some slate wall, and some rusty posts against the bracken, and the colours tone perfectly.
I keep finding mushrooms – huge, parasol ones, as big as my face. It feels incongruent – you never think of mushrooms by the sea, they are woodland things. But here they are, happy as can be, magnificently undamaged by cows or kids and clearly the rapacious restauranteurs haven’t made it this far from London to strip the land of on-trend ‘wild food’.
Following the curve of Whitsand Bay the views are magnificent down steep paths to sandy beaches and rocks. Though beautiful, it is not a kind coastline – the beaches are cut off by high tides, there are dangerous riptides, and the wreck of HMS Scylla, sunk in 2004 to provide Europe’s first artificial reef had less than a month ago, claimed the lives of two experienced divers who are missing, presumed drowned. It is hard not to think of lives taken in exchange for the privileges of the sea.
More cheerfully, I hear cheers and whoops – a wedding I think, down at the now privately owned Napoleonic Polhawn Fort, one of Palmerston’s nineteenth century Follies. Originally called ‘Polhawn Battery’ and completed in 1867, this particular folly was more foolish than most, being obsolete even before it was finished.
In the twenty-odd years it took to design, develop, purchase the land from the Earl of Mount Edgcombe and then build the battery, weapons technology had moved on at such a pace that it’s original intent that the thick, angled stone walls would protect the cumbersome muzzle-loading cannons from attack was now redundant. The new breech-loading cannons had a much further reach, and were best protected by cliff top earthworks. And so the main site of defence moved to Whitsand Battery, just a short distance along the coast, and Polhawn was demoted to the role of gunners accommodation and occasional military detention cell.
Walking up the rise from Polhawn, past pale, exuberant lichen coating haw and blackthorn and looking back at the bay, I can just see the irregular polygon of Tregantle, looking as far in the distance now as St Michael’s Chapel did at the start, and I walk the last stretch of path to the end of the headland. I am pleased to see the wild horses there, particularly the two dappled greys, one of whom has a bronzed, metallic sheen to its tail and mane. Shades of deep, grey-blues and rusty browns and oranges are one of my beloved colour combinations, and this walk is rich with them.
I don’t spend much time at the chapel itself, it’s a bit busy and my mission today is to go beyond it and down onto the slopes of the cliff. They are full of jagged, pale grey rocks, bright orange and green lichens, and the fluffy, crispy dried heads of sea pink, or thrift. This was where I wanted to be today, and I get out my well-travelled ‘edgelands crochet’. It has travelled from the shores of the Severn to the edge of the sea, here. I may need to take it to some more ethereal edge lands, wastelands and wildernesses.
As I sit and work, or gaze, or crawl about with my shoes off taking photos, I enjoy the feeling of my mind unwinding, softening a bit, thoughts spooling out as if carried by the wind or tide, rather than driven relentlessly by pistons, luxuriating the feeling of being joyfully unrestricted by time in terms of duties and responsibilities. Time is problematic for me, and this is one of my deep and rare pleasures – to let go of time, and drift.
I am however, constrained somewhat by the shorter days. At the latest I want to be back at the car by six o’clock as I’m not prepared for night walking. I have no light and it seems a bit foolhardy to be walking either rough-terrained coastal paths or unlit roads in the dark. . I set off back along the path leaving myself enough time both for the walk and any interstesting detours that present themselves. I follow a very steep one down to an intriguing outcrop that I had noticed on my way up; it leads to a soft grassy bank, a bit of a scramble, and the rocks tumbling down into the tideline. The tide is on the turn, and I meet a couple of fishermen. One coming up, who had just finished – and I understand this, he’s been fishing the tide in – but also one coming down, and I wonder what he hopes to catch on the outgoing tide.
The walk feels easier on the way home, unusually, maybe because I am fully warmed up now and in the swing of walking rhythms and thoughts. I’m tired though, and a bit footsore, and looking forward to being home with a beer, bath and bed. But there is of course still time to collect seed heads, and the last photos of the day, and marvel at the setting sun lending an inner glow to many of the more broad leaved plants – crocosmia, harts tongue fern, pampas grass.
As I return to the car, I’m struck by the sheer 1970’s Dr Who weirdness of Tregantle Barracks, lurking on the headland above rifle ranges and walkers. This is a hexagonal fort, marked as ‘disused’ on the OS map, but is still operational as a rifle range. The grasslands on the flank of the cliff are bathed in a gentle silvery light, the solid stone hexagonal walls are glowing warmly in the evening sun with a light of their own, and the building is reminiscent of the authoritarian structures of Alan Moore’s comic dystopias. The easily defensible windows are very small in the solid, impenetrable walls, and it is easy to imagine them inhabited by political dissidents forgotten by their homelands; or the results of disastrous human experiments, sad remnants of a science that has an incongruent squeamishness of actual, rather than a living, death and so will not kill these poor souls through mercy; or more-than-humans, who whilst otherwise normal, may have a particular rare and supernatural talent that may one day be of use to the military and therefore must be contained, valuable resources for ‘peacekeeping’.
I take a photo of the site on the map, clearly showing it’s polygonal shape, and I am pleased by the shadows of the strands of my hair criss-crossing the image, obfuscating and confusing it. A frame from a not-yet -written comic.
Here I collect my last find of the day and it is a treasure. Hanging on the chain link fence is a rusty old key. Keys are richly symbolic, and often associated with Hecate. She is the archetypical Witch goddess, of magic and night, crossroads and entranceways, necromancy and sorcery, and I find this quote on Wikipedia; ‘she is more at home on the fringes than in the centre of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.’ A pleasingly liminal goddess!
She is not a goddess I feel a particular affinity to, but this is the second time I have found an object sacred to her. Unlike the first time however, when I found a knife at a crossroads, which I instinctively cast away the minute I picked it up, as if I’d picked up something rotten, this key feels friendly rather than repulsive. It is clear that it is so old and unusable no-one will be coming for it anytime soon – so I unhook it and bring it home. For some unknown reason though, it resists its image being stolen – I did not feel comfortable photographing it in situ.
Even stranger, though I normally relish solitude and have enjoyed having rare, extended time to myself, I feel a bit forlorn and lonely as I unlock the car. I realise that this is a walk I would have liked to share with someone else. I have loved, as I always do, the freedom to roam and range and spend ages taking photos and picking up walkfinds without having to worry if I’m holding anyone up, or being antisocial, or just feeling a bit exposed with my collecting wierdness on full display, but I still feel a little hollow.
This is a huge sea change for me, and I’m am circling round this new feeling with cautious curiosity. But I think, it is a good sign, in that I am not so permanently exhausted or uncomfortable with myself that I am no longer so desperate to be away from people, and rather, feel a new need for companionship.
Part Two: Penlee Battery – Rame Head – Penlee Battery
It is Sunday, the weather continues to be gloriously, unseasonably, warm and sunny and I decide to spend the day at Penlee Battery. No walking today – just relaxing in the sun and a picnic on this jagged, pretty outcrop. It’s a couple of miles further round the coast from St Michaels at Rame Head and sticks out like a set of teeth into the sea.
Wandering down from the carpark, the paths are lined with bucketfuls of ivy, in full bloom, and the hedges are abuzz with the sonorous drone of Ivy bees, making the most of this short season. It is shockingly loud, a sonic bath, and I wonder how the sound of so much industry can feel so soporific.
Now a nature reserve, Penlee was another Victorian defence outpost There are several steep concrete steps rising from the sea to the point. I think ‘ziggurat’ even though it can’t be so, and it a structure built in the 1880s to enable a team of 80 horses to pull a cannon from the sea to be mounted on the point. Another folly – on first firing the cannon split it’s concrete footing, rendering the whole thing unusable. This little stretch of coast is full of white elephants, it seems.
The geology here is fascinating – sharp spines of serrated grey shot through with white crystal quartz thrust themselves up into the sky and march out into the waters in oddly uniform, regimented lines. Cornish is a very site-specific, land-based, descriptive language, and the name Penlee comes from the Cornish ‘Penn Legh‘ which means ‘stone slab headland’.
I wander past Queen Adelaide’s Grotto and do a quick circuit of the point, looking for a good place to sit. As expected on such a gorgeous day, it’s quite busy here but I find a nice quiet spot on the grassy bank and settle down with a sandwich. I am actually quite tired, and decide to lie down and close my eyes. I listen to the waves, and I realise I have all but forgotten how to do this – to do nothing, simply be. I cannot stop my internal chatter and so meditation for me is less about stilling my thoughts and more to do with allowing them free rein, without the need to corral and order them. This is a rare luxury in a linear world of family and work and so I make the most of it here, resting with the sun on my eyes and warming my body, with no place to go or be.
After a time I decide to wander, clambering over the rocks and down into the crevices. There is a lovely little beach here, exposed at low tide, a perfect spot for swimming for those who are that way inclined. At high tide it forms a sea cave at the base of the rocks, nestling at the base of the organ pipe – like cliffs stretching up and away as if at some point in a very distant past, and unimaginable sea creature burst from beneath the /point, exploding the rocks. The cave music created by the tide washing in and out is otherworldly and unsettling, booms and sloshing echoes from deep within.
As I wander I start to collect. Sometimes on an adventure a theme, or obsession, or area of hyper focus develops – and this time, it turns out to be thrift. I collect a bouquet of these hardy little flowers, all dried up and flickering back and forth in the fresh breeze. They remind me of dancing jittery lambs tails, either an echo or a harbinger of spring.
Thrift is a much better name than the more prosaic ‘sea pink’ and they are indeed thrifty beings, surviving exposed to all elements requiring minimal resource on the barest of salty soils. I am also drawn to the firework explosions for what I think are will carrot – some umbelliferous anyway, a bit smaller than I’m used to growing here on the edge of the Sound. Together they work well, and I collect some, with a vague idea of ‘seed orbs’ growing in my mind for making later.
I sit again, and gaze at St Michael’s Chapel in the distance. I think how easy it would be to walk there, and having thought it, I have to do it. Not doing it now, and therefore missing the opportunity to join up Tregantle and Penlee, would feel like an itch I couldn’t quite reach. So I gather my things, and set off.
Unusually I feel a bit incongruous. Everyone else is wearing proper walking shoes, hats, some even have poles. I on the other hand, am wearing a faux fur collared cardigan, skinny jeans, and carrying a blue plastic Co-op carrier bag. To top it all off, due to unfortunate timing and forgetting my walking boots, I am not only wearing knee high brown fake leather boots but the sole has come away on one of them since I arrived. The people I pass are being exceptionally Britishly polite and determinedly not staring at my foot, flapping away as it is like a cartoon hobo’s shoe.
Still, it is a reminder of how little you really need to walk a few miles on a good path on a nice day and my broken boots serve just fine. I walk at pace, as I need to. get there and back and then back to the car, to drive to another cousin who is kindly putting me up in Ivybridge. Not so fast though, that I can’t stop to appreciate a single sprig of honeysuckle amongst the ferns. The gorse, still in flower, has lost its creamy cocoa butter summer scenl but the honeysuckle is still full of nectar. I bury my face in it, can’t get enough of the smell.
At one point a flock of crows rise silently from the bracken, black against the blue sky. On my return I hear a crow making noises I’ve never heard before – a particularly musical ‘Quoi’ rather than the harsh ‘Caaak’ I am more used to. Perhaps these are French crows, no longer deterred by the naval batteries, slightly classier than their English corvid cousins. It is a lovely sound, so much so that if I had perfect pitch I could name the note. I think it is somewhere around B flat, which would explain why it is so melodious.
I must look more incongruous still, reaching the chapel, storming up the stone steps in my tatty old shoes. I don’t even stop to take any photos, never mind take in the ambience – I did all that yesterday, not that my fellow pilgrims know this. The mission for this walk is to create a joining, link the two military points through this 14th century place of peace, and so I just lay a hand on the chapel and then march back down and away.
On the way back I stop to look back at the chapel, silhouetted against the descending sun. I haven’t seen it from this side before, and I am struck by the Pythagorean precision of the angle of the slope leading into the sea; a set square example of the Freemason’s Maker’s perfection. I see a triangulation of stink lily berries, sitting snug in their brown leafy beds; garlands of bryony lace the hedgerows, all colours from green through yellow-amber-orange to a rich, bright, poisonous jewel red. A traffic light plant.
Returning to the car, I have walked so fast on a hot day that it steams up when I get in. Opening the windows, I head back to the ferry. There’s a bit of a wait – everyone has been out on a Sunday afternoon, but when I roll on I’m at the front which means I have a great view of the cathedral-like naval hangars on the opposite bank, part of HMNB Davenport; either cathedrals, or huge spaceship docking ports.
I have been struck all weekend by this blending of the beautiful natural world and the naval history of Plymouth and it’s surrounds. Crossing repeatedly from Devon to Cornwall and back again, it is either extremely apparent – massive gunships and frigates, barbed wire, no entry signs and dire messages about the Official Secrets Act, or more covert – masts and antennae and signal arrays glimpsed behind copses; derelict gun aprons and footings wedged into cliff edges, little plaques warning against picking up military debris on beaches.
The ‘should’ in me says I should hate this, but in reality, all politics and environmental considerations aside, I absolutely love it. Like pylons and wind turbines in the countryside, I love the complementary contrasts – nature on its own a bit too boring to my sharp-edge loving eye, human infrastructure too harsh without the softening of the landscape. I see echoes of each in the other everywhere I look – the mathematics of form and function. It is mysterious and full of the unexpected and secret, rich with stories of the past both official and un-, and with those yet to be imagined, and I look forward to exploring here more.