How to walk 34 km: lessons we learnt today

You have feet in your shoes. – Dr Seuss

We realised last night that today’s walk was going to be longer than we had planned. We recalculated it to be about 30km. The first thing we did was to trim some of the excess weight we were carrying, being fairly ruthless with excising unneccessary pages from the SWCP guide book and half the contents of our full tube of toothpaste. Phase 2 (posting some stuff home) will be implemented as when we reach the post office in Newquay. We also threw away some of the food we have been pointlessly schlepping round the rocky paths of the Cornish mines for two days. Fill up with water en route rather than carry it all with us. And start early at 7.45 – which proved to be an excellent decision since as it was we didn’t finish until after 7pm! If we’d started an hour or two later we’d either have had to abandon the walk or risk pitching headfirst over the friable cliff edges in the twilight – something that would have been scarily easy to do.

We also planned to take more breaks – proper ones, sitting down with boots off and food. We reckoned a stop every three hours should divide the day effectively. Boots off. Boots off. What heaven that turned out to be. And the little spiky massage ball for feet which should be at the top of everyone’s packing list after boots and socks.

The first section of today’s route was 6.5km along the road through Gwithian village and up over the hill beyond. The lagoon behind the dunes was lovely, and I was unspeakably excited to find some fennel growing wild in the Cornish hedge amongst the Alexanders and campion. Cowslips everywhere.

We came out onto the coastal path at Hell’s mouth: a stunning rockscape with the sea slavering away far beneath. Amiable grassy path (I think the technical term is ‘sward’) and view after invigorating view.

There were some quite serious descents and ascents into and out of zawns, contributing to the day’s tally of 900m climb and the same down again, but I was pleased to discover that my walking fitness has already improved, even in only three days.

One rule of the walk is that whenever you see somebody with a pair of binoculars you have to ask them what they’re looking at because they are the people who know stuff. On the cliff above Portreath we met Mark from the British Trust for Ornithology. He was perched perilously close to the cliff edge with his tiny dog and larger bird-watching monocular, with which he was counting a cliff-face full of nesting pairs of kittiwakes. He let us look through the lens at a number of nests including one kittiwake from France (apparently you can tell by the bands on the ring on its legs. They have a code like naval flags). Stephen looked at four jackdaw chicks.

We reached Portreath in excellent spirits and excellent shape, and lunch at The Hub put us in an even better mood.

After Portreath the conditions underfoot deteriorated and the zawns came thick and fast. Even the word sounds kind of plungy. We don’t have a word in English for zawn, only in Cornish. This is because geological features of comparative fiendishness don’t exist anywhere else. There was one in particular which could easily have been avoided by an attractive-looking high-level curve around the top, but it was fenced off because it was MOD land. We might have considered climbing the fence to take a shortcut, had not a walker coming in the other direction explained his conspiracy theory to us that this was contaminated land from chemical experiments by the MOD. But we saw lots of active agricultural activity going on on the land, so I’m not sure that the conspiracy theory holds water.

The staging posts steadily fell. It had been lovely and cool first thing in the morning but around 2 o’clock heated up again and made the going that much more difficult. We found ourselves stopping on a regular basis as I needed to rest my feet: I complained yesterday about the amount of pavement, but of course rocky laid paths are just as brutal and unforgiving.

Several minor blisters developed. Being pre-prepared with blister plasters and spare socks helped (Sapiens qui prospicit) and the massage ball was heavenly, but I will admit to a brief tearful moment at the sight of a bench in the middle of a quiet hamlet just outside the extremely pretty village of St Agnes where we stopped for a cup of tea and to text family and friends.

In the shady ginnels and tiny twisty, leafy streets the Ordnance Survey map came into its own in helping pinpoint our position and leave the village’s Wheal Kitty behind for the high cliffs and open prospects of swell after Atlantic swell, with tiny ant-like surfers and early evening sea-swimmers doing their constitutional out to the buoy and back.

As it got later and later and at around the 32k mark the temperature mercifully fell, but nonetheless it became harder to appreciate (as opposed merely to notice) the landscape we were walking through: sea arches and other interesting rock formations at the edge of sea and land, a rainbow of coloured ores on cliff-faces and a particularly friable ex-mining area which looked like a set from Dr Who.

We just trudged on, one foot in front of the other. Thick clouds of tiny flies had hatched out in the heat all along the path, swarming at head-height. It became a head game. Physically legs were absolutely fine (let me say thank you again to Simon, Aidan and Liz for the miraculously effective preparation), but every step needed to be focused on the feet. Mini-stops helped. Around each corner Perranporth, discouragingly, simply wasn’t.

But eventually, of course, it was. Ordnance Survey and locals helped us locate our B&B, and there at last it was boots off, a shower and an opportunity to stretch. It turned out that this was the longest walk I had done to date: slightly more than 34km, with an average walking speed of 4.4km/hr (the top speed was 5.7 when we were nigh-on running through the clouds of flies).

Stats for today

Adult chough feeding chick: 1

Nesting kittiwakes: 1 cliff-face full

Clifftop motorbike cavalcade: 1

Clifftop police convention: 1

Blisters: 3

Steps walked (per GPS tracker): 41,870

Providential bench: 1

Today’s fly-through with photos and elevation

Hayle to Perranporth

15 thoughts on “How to walk 34 km: lessons we learnt today”

  1. Sophie you write beautifully! I am totally inspired sitting here in Abu Dhabi at my desk in front of year 9 during our ‘reading time’. How do you write so fabulously after a 34 K stroll? keep it up, can’t wait to read the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Can I just say that your B&B when you get to Catton (Northumberland) is excellent. Wonderful bed, great food, drench shower and fantastic company. Am following your every word xx

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Really enjoying the posts and looking forward to seeing you too but don’t want to wish away the time for you. Strangely, Holly was in Perranporth the same evening you were!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Another enjoyable read! The photos are fab…especially the one between the Dr Who and tiny flies paragraphs! It looks like an oil painting….what colours!
    What is the magenta flower in the first pic?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gill, I would also like to say that your biology lessons and birdwatching trips ignited a passion for the environment which has never left me. If it hadn’t been for my epic fail at Chemistry O-level my life would have been very different, although I don’t think that I was aware that environmental careers were even an option back then in the 1980s, and in fact chemistry wouldn’t have been a barrier now to me getting onto a course! But I thank you from the bottom of my heart for planting that little seed which has grown over the years into a deep desire to know the names of birds and plants and how they fit into their environments. And to try and conserve and restore these environments for the future. Xxxx


  4. I took a break from reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari to read your far more enjoyable lessons! I’m in total awe of your super human fitness and your ability to write such beautiful entries after such a long day. Photos and flypast tech also amazing. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh Sophie…thank you for sharing! I’m so very pleased that I could in some way make a difference…after all, that’s what teaching is all about, eh? xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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