Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2006.09.11 : Fording The Gannel
Plus Exploding Debris & Infinite Beaches
All On A Date Of A Certain Significance

So when we left our heroes, Tim and Michael had just drug their tired arses 22 miles from Padstow to Newquay (17 of them on the first day) – where they had rendezvoused with the newcomers, Charles and Meeyoung. Thusly federated, the group had enjoyed an evening of drinking, strolling the harbour, drinking, al fresco dining, Time Crisis 4, and drinking.

Morning in Newquay, early and misty and still, and I was up and out for a pre-departure run by Somerfields for provisions – and also the Kodak shop to burn CDs, and reclaim all of my camera memory. This was the self-same Kodak shop, actually, manned by the encephalitic clowns who lost all my Day 2 pictures. Heigh ho.

Slipping out of the B&B onto the main drag, I immediately encountered Meeyoung – ambling peacefully through the mist and slanting morning light. We exchanged pleasantries – and what could be more pleasant than running into her, randomly, on the street in Newquay – and then I was on my way again. Provisions duly bought, and photos duly deleted (well, okay, nearly 2/3 of them survived) I headed back – and got back just in time to find our steaming full breakfast laid out on the table in the room. Nice.

By this time the sun had long burnt off the mist and time it was a'wastin'. The four of us met in the lobby, settled up with the nice B&Bkeeper man, shrugged into our packs, and headed out.

Our first little stop on the edge of town was a 14th-century huer's hut – from which the huer would raise the alarm of fish spotted, so the men could take to their boats. (If there were a crier's hut in the area, we weren't shown it. Yes, that's where the word comes from. Or the other way round. I forget.)

Anyway, so the main thing about today's walk was that we had to get across something called the Gannel. I'm still a little vague on whether it's the River Gannel or the Gannel Estuary or just the damned Gannel. Anyway, this picture should make it clear why – if we wanted to start at Newquay, and carry on West along the coast – we had to get across it. We certainly weren't going around the beast.

But for the moment, we had only to worry about getting out of Dodge. Thusly did we bid adieu to Newquay, and begin our adventure together – a little, I imagine, like the Fellowship of the Ring leaving Rivendell. Except without Hugo Weaving to see us off. And without a dwarf. (Though we did soon pass some rose hip fields, and a pumpkin patch, which was some consolation for our stark dwarflessness.)

So if the thing about this segment of the walk is that it's bisected by the Gannel, the thing about the Gannel is that it's tidal. The best way to get across really depends on when you're thinking about doing it. And working out the details sort of requires a tide table, and an accurate timepiece, and maps, and at least one person in the party with some logistical skill. It doesn't hurt to know the difference between a spring tide and a neap tide. (Don't ask. I don't know.)

Gannel-Fording Options
  1. Fern Pit Ferry
    Upsides: No detour whatsoever required, only costs 70p, get there when the hell you like.
    Downsides: Only runs end of May through mid-September (were we cutting that too fine? out in the Provinces people shut their businesses down when business starts getting slow, or when they feel like it), would you trust your life to the "Fern Pit Ferry"?
  2. Penpol Footbridge
    Upsides: Free, open all year.
    Downsides: Three-mile detour, only actually above water (an important characteristic for bridges, in my view) outside of 2-4 hours on either side of high tide. (2 hours?! Or 4 hours?!)
  3. Laurie Bridge
    Upsides: Open year-round, free, above water all day long.
    Downsides: 5 mile detour, pretty damned unromantic, I lied – actually underwater an hour on either side of a high spring tide.

    We decided to split the differences and go with option two. We worked out when high tide was, figured we could get there about when the footbridge was crossable, and proceeded to trek through some pretty forest, finally descending to the waterline (which, funnily enough, took a bit of locating).

Gotta hate those underwater footbridges. However, that problem was auto-obviating, with the mere passage of time – and, hey, it's not like we were in any huge hurry. So we set up camp on the driest bit of shingle we could find, and got busy waiting.

While we did, a horse and rider crossed the river (no bridge required) and hung out on the bank for awhile. I went over and petted.

Charles had cleverly put a stick in the mud (no slight intended) at the initial waterline, so we could mark the passage of tidal time. Considering time, I suddenly remembered what day it was. (The 5th year on, in fact.) I'd nearly forgotten. I belatedly dug out the old black armband, and I remembered.

And so the waterline had gotten quite a distance from the stick in the mud (not to mention from the waterline marker he had cleverly planted), and the bridge had certainly become more visible; but it hadn't yet – what's the expression? – breached. But Tim was keen to put the waterproof claims of his boots to the test, and was generally keen, and so off he went for his Christ impression. This guy does it all.

I kind of wanted to wait a bit longer, but we didn't, and trooped across in file. One thing I hadn't really considered, but to which I was promptly introduced, was that the couple of inches of water still over the bridge weren't just sitting there – they were flowing. That is to say, getting swept off the bridge, if one didn't keep one's balance, wasn't a total impossiblity. But we hung in. That third photo below is the view downstream from the dead centre of the Gannel.

    So I can't recall if I mentioned how much of this trail is lined with blackberry bushes. Well, it is. Today I realised I was starting to get pretty good at plucking blackberries without slowing down. I wondered aloud if one could actually make better time through blackberry zones, as one wouldn't have to stop for food. Charles had the advantage of being able to reach the high ones – which were also the best ones, not having been picked over by shorter walkers.

So, right – the village of Crantock, then. It was a 5-minute walk off the path; but the guidebook described it as the first 'Olde English Village' we'd pass, and well worth the diversion. We diverted – straight to the quote Cosy Tea Nook unquote for a lovely sit down and a cuppa in their garden. Delightful! We not only got tea and cakes, but we got pretty postcards, which we filled out at the table, and then I ran round the corner to the post office to post them, while Tim paid for the whole spread, and we got on our way again.

Just outside of Newquay, by the way, the trail curved inland, and we hadn't seen the sea for a few hours, which we only realised later was a bit disconcerting on a coastal path, and so we were all kind of really pleased when the path slanted out through the dunes to the land's edge again and spilled us right onto the beach.

Me: "Look! It's the sea!"
Tim: "I've missed it . . . Hmm, the beach – good place for our geography game."

So from here on out we'd be doing a fair bit of walking on beaches, which turns out is harder than it looks – sand, wet or dry, fights your every step. But it had its consolations – like free mussels.

In places, where we weren't actually cutting straight across beaches, instead we took these occasional long, curving detours around the edge of deep inlets – walking maybe a mile to end up about 50 yards from where we started across the inlet. ⇒ Mark would have hated this trip. But we were loving it; check these out: ⇓

Someone: "Dammit, look back: it actually looks closer than yesterday. It's catching us up!"
Someone Else: "My God. We're being chased around Cornwall by a lighthouse."

Somewhere along here, we went through one of those kissing gates that were such a feature of the C2C walk – and but this time I was tickled to see Charles and Meeyoung comply with the tradition, and grab a quick smooche across it. I never quite got that on film, but Tim got this other fantastic shot that equally conveys the same sweetness. And on we walked – under a perfect sky and beside a perfect sea.

    Alongside another beach, we had to pick our way amongst towering and reedy dunes – trying to keep our feet, and not lose the path. I started running ahead to get shots of the others climbing and descending (and, in the case of Meeyoung, getting shots of me back).

Soon, predictably, I was running ahead (and up, and on) not for shooting angles and light, but just because it was fun. I shot this video from the top of the toppiest dune. (The scrambling and the tan colours reminded me of Spitzkoppe in Namibia.)

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

So after all that exertion in the warm sun, we stopped in the beach-side wide-spot known as Holywell por refrescos. We all sat outside the one shop, on the steps, amid the beach towels and sand shovels and postcards, relaxing and chatting and sipping.

From there, it was actually into and through the site of the British Army's Penhale Camp – barracks and radar equipment and intimidating signs. (Told you ramblers have an iron-clad right to roam in this country – we can walk across military bases.)

Charles: "I was going to go up there [a scrubby hill beside the path], then I remembered this is an unexploded shell zone…"
Someone (Tim?): "Imagine weeing on one and setting it off."
Charles: "And it blows your todger off."
Me: "…That's actually the first time I've ever heard that word used outside of the Monty Python Penis Song."

So aside from the various sign-based scare tactics (Well, thank God it's not ionizing radiation. And what the hell are those loopy steel things anyway? Is the Army conducting mass mind control experiments?), there was actually some nice walking through here:

Eventually, with not a little relief, we found ourselves exiting the Exploding Crap Zone – but now descending onto one edge of: the Infinite Beach.

This beach also happened to have great towering dunes on the landward side. Sort of shaking my head at myself, I once again split off from the group and took to the heights – once again for some elevated shots, but mainly for the sheer joy of clambering around.

Bounding up these steep and shifting soft sand dunes, I began to feel that perhaps all that (otherwise rather pointless-seeming) leg work in the gym was paying off. And, judging from this other "top of the (local) world" video, I must have found chewing gum in Holywell.

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

Eventually I leapt/slid back down, at an intercept angle to the three specs visible in photo and video above, and rejoined the group on the strand. By this time, fog had started to roll in. (It had felt more than a little spooky and treacherous up in the dunes by this time, which didn't have nothing to do with why I bugged out and sought the safety of numbers.) Because it was sort of misting, we stopped to take washing off the line (i.e. socks tied to packs). Then we continued on what turned into just a really stunningly long trudge.

Tim suggests that we are actually on a beach longer than which no other beach could, even theoretically, be. He is afraid we are on . . . an infinite beach. Together, we develop an alternate theory that the same people who are pushing the lighthouse after us are also pulling the town away from us. "Okay, lads – ready to screw with the tourists? Ready, pull!"

Well, the town-pullers must have tired slightly more quickly than we did, because we eventually reached Perranporth – a not terribly romantic seaside town cum family holiday resort. However, the weather was now so foul, and we four so knackered, that we checked into the first place we came to (despite the tariff being a bit more than Tim and I had planned to spend – when sleeping indoors at all). But, we didn't want to make everyone dodder around in the rain looking for someplace cheaper, so there we stayed. Imagine our surprise when, after getting settled, Tim and I discovered C&M had immediately checked right out again. Something to do with the bed. Something horrible to do with the bed. Okay, can't fault them that.

We agreed to meet up again at a pub called the Green Parrot. (Gotta love everyone on a long-distance walk having a mobile phone – makes so many things so much easier.) Tim and I got there first and so we sat and drank Doom Bar Ale, and had onion and garlic soup, and talked to some nice old people, and (in my case) chatted up the barmaid. When Chas and Meeyoung turned up, we agreed almost immediately to go to another pub which I forget what it was, but we had fun and drank and met some leftist called Jason and Meeyoung and I shot a couple of games of pool.

Before the night was over, I also made everyone join in what was possibly an overlong and slightly rambling toast to Todd Beamer, and Mark Bingham, and Jeremy Glick, and Thomas Burnett, and the other members of the General Militia of Flight 93 that mustered in the skies over Pennsylvania 5 years ago today.

From there, we repaired to the village Italian joint which, slightly strangely, was really authentic and run by an Italian family. Not sure if this is an accepted sign of authenticity, but Tim and I were both tickled to find hair gel in the gents. Here we are gelled. (You won't fail to note the contrast between Tim's "Modishly Tousled" treatment and my "Classic Wetback" effect.)

We drank some more and ate Italian food and did a bit of planning for the next day's walk. (You can see here Chas reading his galley proofs of the new edition of the Cornwall Coast Path guide – which was coming out two days after our trip started, but which Chas had the publisher send him photocopies of the proofs. Second photo shows my now-outdated bound edition.)

By and by, we staggered out, did a bit of provision procurement in the high street shop (strangely still open at this hour) – and then I buzzed off, as I do, while the others went out for a last round. You'll have to ask them what the rest of the night out was like. For me, it was all about – as my notes have it "good sleep, epic dreams".

Tomorrow: 8 miles from Perranporth to Porthtowan, to include: World-Beating Weeing Vistas, Disappearing Camp Sites – and the First Skirmish with our Nemesis Rain

Ohh! – it occurrs to me that it might be helpful, or at least amusing, to the reader to A) know where Cornwall is; and B) see where upon it we are each day. Image to the left, and to the right, respectively. Future days will include an updated progress map.

Michael's and Son's turned out to be not quite so waterproof!         (hide)
Er.. only if you're some kind of health nut! Anyone spot one of those?         (hide)

  9/11     cornwall coast path     drinking     photography     video     walking  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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