I scrambled uphill through a tunnel of trees, catching spider webs around my ears. A heavy pulse hammered in my skull, stray stones slipping under my boots as I climbed higher. Twisted plants – insidious Japanese invaders – smothered the horizon, while unseen sheep jeered behind naked gorse, their plaintive cries soaking the salty air. As the path widened grassy pastures emerged, where a lolloping rabbit hopped for cover, its cheeks swollen like a spoiled hamster, and iridescent butterflies perched by my feet like brooches.
At the cliff top a low sun washed the mellow sea; which in the shelter of the bay appeared frozen and trackless like ice. Tiny shingle beaches filled the turquoise coves below. Breathless, I stopped; yet the dewy path undulated relentlessly, glittering on towards Falmouth and the pointed toe of the Roseland Peninsula.
Traversing the rugged shoreline for 630 miles, the South West Coast Path is the longest, and probably the toughest footpath in England. The amount of climbing involved is roughly equal to four Everest ascents, but I wasn’t trekking any further. The sun was rising, the day growing warm, and I wanted to swim.
Bounding back down the cliff – distinctly quicker than I came up – I arrived at the seaside village of Portholland; a mythical, castaway oasis that feels like it couldn’t possibly exist outside children’s books and jigsaw puzzles. There are no amusement arcades, chip shops or penny fall machines, so the locals entertain themselves; sea kayaking, spear fishing and floating peacefully amid the bustling wavelets until dark, and sometimes after. With the nearest main road five miles distant, the overwhelming sound isn’t the omnipresent growl of traffic, but the everlasting breath of the sea.
Owned by the Williams of Caerhays since 1860, Portholland has seen very little human interference in the last century; the only major changes being those forced upon it by the violent ocean. In February 2014, the Roseland Heritage Coast was battered by the same storms that demolished Brunel’s railway at Dawlish; and the scarred cliffs bore the thrashing of those monstrous waves. I walked the causeway beneath the crumbling headland, where slices of slate clinked beneath my soles like copper coins and the rusted warning sign seemed more apt than before. Clambering over the rocks by the converted fish sheds is now a distinctly precarious shortcut, and, most strikingly, the trademark hefty cobbles of West Portholland Cove are ground to volcanic dust.
But the beach was still spiky enough, and I waddled to the waves with the round-shouldered gait of someone more used to cushioned trainers than sharp pebbles underfoot.
I’d barely wet my toes, when at the mouth of the cove by Perbargus Point the sea’s lustrous veneer melted, and a dark form rose up like a rock from the tide, gleaming jet black and moving, the water squirming and whorling down its backbone as its body was swallowed by the sea, then a polished head popped up and the seal swam west, a rapidly vanishing wake the only mark of its passing.
Being naturally cautious of all marine wildlife, particularly Britain’s biggest mammal, I waited until he was out of sight and then swam briefly. From my low perspective at the meniscus of the ocean, I imagined the shining surface inscribed by the wingtips of swifts, dodging and harrying the oystercatchers shrilling their squeaky-clean calls above. The icy chill was a welcome alternative to the hot shower I’d normally immerse myself in at that time of day.
Feeling cold yet refreshed, I slipped on my flip flops and walked out of the sea, back across the coast path toward the spiky palm tree on the road to St. Austell, and real life.