Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2006.09.23, Pt I : Penzance, I Hardly Knew Thee (Nor Much Cared To)
Plus Very Scary "Y"HAers
And Pooh Bear Merchandise

"That is really the only thing that journeys give you – talk. There is so much weariness and disappointment in travel that people have to open up – in railway trains, over a fire, on the decks of steamers, and in the palm courts of hotels on a rainy day."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

Special (Albeit Unwanted, Probably) Prior Day Wrap-up

And but so it might not have passed your notice that yesterday's dispatch ended rather abruptly, with me chucking it in and boarding a bus from Mousehole to Penzance. (Shame probably bade me leave off there – plus it was already too damned long.) Today's dispatch – while obviously intended to be in the business of covering today – will actually begin by wrapping up from yesterday. Yeah, cheers.

So – Ali was right. The bus driver really doesn't have anything better to do than tell you where to get off the damned bus. When and where I did so, I still found myself with a 10-minute walk (all uphill, needless to point out) to where the Penzance YHA was housed in a castle, as they all seem to be these days. I was checked in by a woman who was outwardly perfectly nice – but still seemed to have that slightly insecure and touchy authoritarian streak common to female YHA managers. I don't know. Maybe it's my imagination.

I decided – only barely – to sleep outside, rather than in. Just as I'd finished the lengthy operation of picking out the single very most favourable spot in the whole large camping yard, my lone neighbour in said yard turned up. He was too thin, too pony-tailed, and more than a little too old to be sleeping in a tent no larger than your average motorcycle cover.

This person immediately, and without the slightest preamble or prompting, launched into a lengthy and bitter tirade about how expensive everything in Britain had become in the 10 or 15 years he'd been away – presumably tramping around, sleeping under his motorcycle cover – starting, but not nearly ending, with the price of chips. This overture utterly failed to engage me in conversation; so much so that I couldn't even be bothered to suggest that one strategy for dealing with the high cost of things might be to get a job.

I went back inside the building, showered, dressed, and dropped sopping things in the drying room. I then proceeded to trudge, zombie-like, the mile or so back into town.

As I entered the commercial district, and as the light failed, I began sticking my head into pubs. Most of them were too sad and dumpy to consider sticking the rest of me into; and I looked for Skinners lager, but I looked in vain. Between and amongst the sad pubs, the streets were yobful and vaguely menacing. In addition to the yobs, there were a number of young girls, most of them talking far too loudly; or actually hollering.

The establishment that finally earned the tepid accolade of "nicest pub so far" commanded a sit-down with a half of Doom Bar. After joylessly pouring that down my throat, I found I was too tired to continue the pub crawl. Instead, I located the local co-op and encumbered myself with great bags of pre-chopped veggies, a large packet of sweet garlic sauce, two cans of Sweet Chili Mean Beanz [sic], two rolls of those choco-chip/hazelnut cookies you know I like, a litre of soya milk, and a 20oz Diet Coke.

I then numbly did the trudge back up the hill to the YHA, in the kitchen of which I cooked up a massive pot of goulash from said ingredients – plus some soy sauce and curry powder from the "free/abandoned" shelf. I then repaired to the lounge where I ate it, all of it, out of a beauty-shop-hair-setter-sized bowl, over a copy of National Geographic. (*).

Finally, I stumbled back to the tent in the dark pushing cookies into my face.


Morning: shave, wash, deeply consoling breakfast. None of it was cooked; but, armed with my carton of Alpro, I had white coffee – and not to forget Muesli with something more suitable than orange juice poured upon it. Double yum. Two cups of the former, three bowls of the latter – plus eight halves of wheat toast with sunflower spread and jam and a glass of juice – later, I retired to the lounge to catch up with these very notes. (You think I was up to note-taking the night before!?)

Castle Full of Ghouls
    Speaking of the lounge – or, rather of the other people in it: which part of YHA, actually, don't these guys understand? (Okay, that was a rhetorical question. Obviously, it's the "Y" part.) I was hard-pressed to find a single other person under the age of 50; and this was not unlike all the other YHAs I'd been in, it was just a bit more so. The codgers here were also of a particularly creepy breed: these strange, robotronic models of Teutonic-seeming efficiency, with their wrapped-up sandwiches and their foot cream and their OS maps and baseball caps. <shudder>

Anyway, after my sit-down, I had about 45 minutes to break camp, retrieve my now-mostly-dry belongings from the eponymous room, stow my gear, and dash into town for multifold erranding. (Toils never end!) Then, after retrieving said gear, it would be three miles down the road (literally a road) to the hamlet of Marazion, where I could make camp again – wherefore to check out St. Michael's Mount, tides permitting (you'll see what I mean).

I soon headed out into rather glorious weather. It was lovely to feel all light and springy in my boots, socks, and conspicuous lack of enormous, sagging, vertebra-crushing rucksack. I was soon yawning indulgently in the cool breeze and warm sunlight So, today's objectives: burn a photo CD, buy a proper replacement travel towel (I was told there was a Millet's, my preferred outdoors shit vendor), and then post back my emergency replacement towel to the Old Chapel Backpackers in Zennor. (*).

Ooh! Me!
Hey! I realised I'd got an entire five shots left, and not a damned thing to do with them in the five blocks before I burnt them onto CD. Amusingly, one thing I photographed was a Jobcentre Plus Centre [sic]. Amusing because, back when I was on Her Majesty's Civil Service, I happened to build a system used for trying to keep track of how very much money we give away each month to people who've been on long-term disability since the Macmillan government. And I happen to know that this system is used, at least sporadically, in every one of the hundreds of Jobcentre Plus offices all around the country. Wherever you find dossers queuing for government handouts, there is my monument.

Getting into Penzance proper, I passed a florist, which managed to smell great from a full thirty feet away. And then a produce shop, which was very nice to look at from the kerb. I paused to wonder: is Market Jew Street a slur? Or an homage? I found a Ryman's, The Stationer, and picked up a new, non-Frankensteinian, pen; plus a cool, police-style, flip-open notebook; both on sale.

In the camera shop, the nice camera shop man played with the digital processing kiosk for awhile on my behalf, trying to get it to recognise my movies; then finally burnt a bespoke CD for me behind the counter. Nice guy. While I waited, at the counter, an incredibly old gentleman picked up copies he'd had made of these tiny, grainy, 1930s-era photos. One of them showed a delivery truck, with driver, and the name of the firm painted on the side – along with the phone number: 22. (Seriously, that was the whole phone number. 22.)

The lovely, helpful camera shop man didn't only help me, he also validated me – expressing the greatest admiration for my now-rather-dated Fujifilm FinePix 2800. He said that even at 2 megapixels, it was an awesome camera; and the only problem was the difficulty of finding SmartMedia cards these days, which he characterised as being "like gold dust".

And then, immediately after, the woman at the Post Office was nearly unbelievably nice and patient as I had sheepishly to ask her to look up a post code for me. (I also had to convince her that Zennor didn't really have streets – and that Old Chapel Backpackers, Zennor, Cornwall, would pretty much do the job.) And so back the towel went.

And back I went to the YHA, smiling. It's amazing the lift you get from getting things done. (Though, I also realised I'd probably already walked five miles in Penzance.) Back in the camping yard, I ritually performed the seasonal sock harvest (from the branches of the trees where they'd been drying).

Woman Camper: "Forgot your socks?"
Me: "They're really ripe this time of year. You should pick yourself a few."

As I geared up to hit the road, I thought: My fingernails are too long. And then I thought: I think I may be a little tired of walking. Or, at any rate, I mentally added, tired of walking with this contraption on my back.

It all made me think that maybe two weeks is about the right amount of time for these sorts of things. And that maybe it was the duration, and not the distance, that really did it to you. For instance, we'd walked almost 100 miles further by this point in the Coast to Coast. But, then again, we'd agreed that the C2C was simply too much too fast. So maybe the rule should be 100 miles/2 weeks.

These Actually DO Rattle
As I made my slow, lazy exit all the way down that Jew St., I reflected that – as with so many towns of dubious cultural heft – the shopping really was good here. I supposed, on a walk like this, towns are basically only for refit and resupply, anyway. I had the bad luck to pass a charity shop selling some rather grabby hipster shirts; as I stood fingering through the outside rack, blocking the pavement because I was four feet wide, a random woman strongly advised me

Hipster For Life
against one rather more exuberant shirt I'd picked out. "Just put it back," she said, her tone brooking no dissent. As we got talking, I asked her why the young people in this town were so very, very, very loud. She said that they ask themselves the same thing everyday. I said I was glad it was not just me. Then, unable to resist, I ducked into the changing room with my hipster shirt selections – with my pack on. Jeesh. Sad.

Of much more significance, I also ducked into a shop that did wallets, gunning – as I had been for a long time – for a replacement for the one I'd bought for Africa (that was five years ago). I had some particular requirements.

Shopkeeper: "You alright?"
Me: "Have you got anything – other than this one – with both an attached keyring AND a change purse?"
Shopkeeper: "NO." (*)
Me: "That explains why I've been looking for one all over Britain."

And so that's how I came to own a Winnie the Pooh wallet (with attached Hunny Pot charm). And, let's face it, it's what I really wanted anyway. Plus it was half off.

Inside the public lav on my way out of town, there was a "sharp object disposal bin" – plastered with a list of local pharmacies participating in a needle exchange program. Gack.

Finally, ever so finally, I swung out onto the east-bound cycle path – which, according to the book, was slightly less awful than walking along the actual motorway. And here I was rewarded with my first distant views of my next trophy destination: St. Michael's Mount.


2006.09.23, Pt II : Saint ME
Beneath St Michael's Mount
With the Lurve Bug
"You get accustomed in a few weeks to the idea of living or dying in the most bizarre surroundings. Man has a dreadful adaptability."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

So the last photo in Pt I wasn't really my first long-distance glimpse of St Michael's Mount – this one here is – but it was the first shot where you could make out the castle proper.
From Guidebook:
    St Michael's Mount is steeped in history. In one of the earliest written records of Cornwall, a Greek historian wrote that in the 1st century BC tin was taken on wagons to Ictis [what they called it] at low tide, then by sea to Brittany. During the Civil War in 1645, it was one of the last royalist strongholds, eventually taken after a long siege. The spectacular 14th-century castle surmounting the Mount was originally a Benedictine Priory built in the 12th century. It is now the home of the St Aubyn family.
    Actually, it is now the spectacular 21st century backdrop for radical, air-grabbing kitesurfers! Hoo-ah! The cycle path out of town was hardly pretty to look at, or to walk on; but the spectacle of these death-defying (and prettily-coloured) bad boys was diverting enough. I interspersed walking with standing around waiting to get a shot of one or more of them going massively airborne. These events were instantly precipitated by the return of my camera to my bag.

So, anyway, this was my backdrop, which improved a slightly grim walk. On the approach to the town, I saw this. → Devotees of Sinner/Winner Man in Oxford Circus will appreciate the humour value.

I made it to the edge of town. I found the path down to the water, and the foot of the narrow land bridge that leads to the Mount. I found out that the castle was closed. "ALL day?!" "All day." Good thing I didn't schedule my whole day's walk around it. Oh, wait.

I carried on into town. Marazion quickly did one thing to win me over: traffic calming. See that flower planter jutting out into the road? No other purpose but to squeeze the road to one lane – making it impossible to drag race through town. Nice.

The camp site was, naturally, on the very far end of town. When I'd walked right back out the other side again without seeing it, and not in the mood for screwing around, I rang up and asked them where the hell they were. They said turn left off the main road at the sign. I said, There was no <mumblemumble> sign. I turned around and backtracked a half-mile. There was the sign: on a pole 15 feet off the ground, and on the right-hand side of the road. Perfect for knackered backpackers zombie'ing along with just enough energy to scour every detail on the left for signs of the camp site.

Having found the turn-off, I still had a long slog inland. I don't know. I was thinking – not about packing it in – but maybe cutting some of the remaining corners off. Leave it, though, to blackberries to restore my mood. I ate about four dozen along the lane before reaching the camp site entrance. Good God! Reception was on the far end! Bastards.

On this occasion, I was assigned a specific pitch – an absurdly rocky one. About one inch of sod sat upon solid rock, every damn where I stuck a tent stake. Too tired for this. Finally, I trudged back to reception – ostensibly to get some tourist info, but mainly to chat up the shapely, freckly girl on duty. (The daughter, it turned out, of the family-run operation.) She explained why the Mount was closed (I don't even remember now); and, moreover, informed me that the tide wouldn't be out until 11am tomorrow. Bugger.

Oh. Did I not mention that St Michael's Mount is accessible by a thin little curving cobblestone land bridge – but only when the tide is out far enough? Sounded familiar, actually. The campsite folks also told me that when the tide comes in, it comes in fast. There are always these people who get there at the very last minute, and they're told they shouldn't try to cross, and but of course they think they're smart and can make it, and then so you always see these clutches of people holding bags and babies above their heads and sprinting. Ha.

The Lurve Bug
    I went out and sat on a bench in front of the reception building – in part to consider my options, in part because I really had nothing else to do, and in part (yeah, okay) in the hope that the girl would come out. (She'd mentioned she was going off shift.) I happily discovered, and was kept company by, this totally fantastic beetle. It had a heart on its back.

Shortly after, while I sat deleting most of the 20-plus shots I shot of the heart-shaped bug, one of the two campsite collies sidled up and began rubbing against me, cat-like, looking for chin- and behind-the-ear-scratching. She was not afraid to ask for what she wanted; nor to tell you what she liked.

Bears Like Hunny
Anon, the rather dangerous-looking and ginger campsite cat appeared. The collie demonstrated its interest in playing with the cat. The cat demurred. Cats don't care what you want; cats don't want to know what you like. Whatever else, I considered, I could still take great delight in my Winnie the Pooh wallet.

    Pooh and I repaired to the tent, melancholy. I recalled that I'd always said this was what I wanted: peace, time – time to think, to read, to write. Like everyone else, I suppose, I'm a mass of contradictions. But tonight, at least, I did have a place to hang my hat.

I began the trudge back into town, for our regularly-scheduled drinks and dinner. The road from the camp site to the main drag was one of those narrow country lanes – not wide enough for two cars, never mind two cars and a pedestrian, and no shoulder at all. And darkness coming on. I realised the days were getting noticeably shorter. It was beginning to feel rather as if the season were over – which I suppose it was – and everyone else knew enough to go home.

This Lorry Goes to Eleven
    Just as I reached the intersection with Main St, I was passed by a guy driving a lorry. Picture this: he's got a perfect Nigel Tufnel haircut – fringe ("bangs" in American) cut straight across his forehead, hair long elsewhere. Muscle t-shirt, and a hook nose over a weak chin. He was hunched forward, arms draped on the wheel, intent on his lorry-driving job. (Good thing for me.) As he passed, he waved at someone he knew – with his burning cigarette. God, I wish I'd gotten a picture.

Coming down the hill, I got a look at the Mount from the town side. I ducked into the biggest joint in town, a hotel cum restaurant cum bar cum poolhall. Sitting by the pool table, I listened to a couple of late-middle-aged American ramblers, who didn't have a lot left to say to each other. They were awfully dry; but, substantially to their credit, they were also soft-spoken.

The Dave Mathews Band came on. I thought of Mandy. I thought of watching Boyd Tinsley play on a six-inch stage at the Sigma Nu house. As I picked up my hat to leave, I found an inchworm upon it. (A misnomer, really, as it was no more than a quarter inch long.) I had no idea how long it might have been riding on my head; but I wasn't going to evict it now. He and I exited together.

    Out on the street, the soft evening light was pretty on the painted stone. Though, I nearly immediately encountered another group of . . . boys. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my parents for not drowning me by age 10. I've no idea how you did it.

I passed Marazion's War Memorial. I passed the King's Arms – and saw from their menu they had nut roast! A bit further on, the Godolphin Arms had Skinners – and not to mention absurdly winsome 18-year-old waitresses. I bought some food, and a Guardian to read over it, and learned that Richard Dawkins was speaking in London next month, about his new book – The God Delusion – which was also written up in the review section, and which I'd be buying and reading instantly on my return. God save us (from God). I thought: . . . I want to go home.

Out the window, I could see St Michael's Mount in the last light. With the tide all the way in, the path was probably a fathom under water, and the sea was up. The surf splashed over the sea wall, swamping the waterside pub patio.

Walking back, I passed a lone man in the near-dark. It was Nigel. While I gaped, wide-mouthed and speechless, he cheerily said hello.

Route Follower Alongerer :

Tomorrow: Mounting St Michael's Mount; Plus More Walking! to Praa Sands – Home of the Single Most Annoyingly Located Camp Site Ever (in a Crowded Field), Prompting the Long-Fermenting Tirade in Which I Renounce Camping Forever

  ali     camping     cornwall coast path     food     humour     mandy     photography     walking     wildlife     graham greene  
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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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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