Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2006.09.25 : God's Own Privy
And The French Lieutenant's Woman
"So one always starts a journey in a strange land – taking too many precautions, until one tires of the exertion and abandons care in the worst spot of all."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

Room with a View
In nomadic camp life, you really do just get into the rhythm of waking at dawn.

Badger! badger! badger!
What I took to be a badger ran by, along the opposite edge of the field, with a crust of something in her jaws. This photo was the best I could do, given the dim light and her rapid pace. What is it, actually, with this dew? Not a drop of rain, and the tent was completely soaked again.

Camp on back and moving by 8am – a five hour improvement on the two previous days. Much nicer to get a jump on the day – and as a bonus it was all quiet and chirpy and deserted and pretty with the sun just coming up. I climbed down the mountain.

On the way out of town, I stopped at the Londis (also the Post Office – also pretty much everything) for a breakfast of cashews, bananas, a flapjack, and a Diet Coke.

Don't Make Me Angry. You Wouldn't
Like Me When I'm Angry…
    As I hit the trail, my legs were paining me pretty good; and were awfully weak as well. On the other hand, I'd got some confidence from having broken through yesterday. I paused on a climb and happened to look down at my calf, bulging. I copped a feel and it was solid muscle, hard as wood. I'd become a freak.

There were an awful lot of those "crumbling, undercut cliffs", "open mineshaft", and "KEEP CLEAR" signs along this initial stretch. I also passed through Spider Alley. I continue to think that the spider, and the spider web, are two of evolution's most dumfounding (if also slightly horrifying) tricks. Of course the danger always comes from where you're not looking for it: while squatting to shoot spider webs I fell into a stand of stinging nettles – resulting in a proper pox on my arm.

I finally got through to the no-answer/no-voicemail recruiter guy who'd left a message two days before. "I might have got the wrong Michael Fuchs," he said. "You're not an SAP consultant, are you?" "NO." Probably all to the good, were almost instantly cut off by spotty coverage. He never bothered, I noted, to try and call back afterwards. What a bunch of sinister clowns.

But – all this photo-snapping and phone-chatting wasn't getting Millie to church! (*)

Moody weather. Dead still – with big sprawling clouds hanging over the deserted tin mines. I'd walked well over an hour, and hadn't seen a single soul since Praa Sands. It looked like it had no particular plans to rain – but emphatically wasn't making me any promises.

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

God's Own Throne
    A steep and dodgy-looking trail led off to some rocks. I picked my way out, and found some dry stone to stretch on. And, oh, here it comes . . . I don't suppose I could have gone a whole trip without crapping out of doors at some point. Now how's this → for a God-like privy? Stone armrests on both sides, a mossy seatback, a flat stone bottom – and an unbeatable view. I settled down, wanting only a newspaper. Unfortunately, my subsequent well-intentioned attempt to tee off (with a rock) and drive the resulting material into the sea merely resulted in my splattering it, Pollock-like, across about ten feet of stone and gorse. I went to dispose of the befouled stone by throwing it into the sea; even that didn't make it, landing in plain view nearby. I could only ardently hope that the next rain came to this spot before the next coast walker.

I huffed up a next climb – and saw another (or the same) Coast Guard helo hovering over the water low enough to carve a crater out of it. I couldn't imagine what they were doing – unless looking for a lost swimmer or boater. 8^( I stopped and chatted with

God's Own Flashlight
a totally sweet Vancouverian couple (who had button-holed me on my North American accent). They were also walking for three weeks – from St Austell to Land's End, or perhaps further. As we parted, I wished them "all the best" – which, come to consider it, wouldn't involve stumbling upon my improvised latrine.

("What's the sheep count?" Darby had recently inquired, from California, via text message.)

But – all this sheep-bothering and texting wasn't getting Marguerita to the Cantina! Only walking, I realised, actually gets you there. Stretching doesn't do it, nor bouldering, nor note-taking or photo-snapping. Only grinding out trail under your boots.

Sorry About Your Coastline!
I kept having to circumnavigate these enormous hunks of coastline (of which this photo ← , alas, is not a particularly dramatic or deep example) which have fallen into the sea. Here's a much better one, in video form ↓ , with narration. Anyway, the diversions add up – and actually end up adding a fair bit of distance.

Though, come to consider it, what a stressful job that's gotta be – marking the diversions! Continuously walking this coastline and deciding when the (inevitable and ceaseless) erosion has gotten too close to the current path for comfort – and then deciding exactly what length of the path should be re-routed, and how far inland. Consider: if no one were doing this job, then walkers would be on their own and would know to look out for themselves. However, since it is being done, we trust and assume the marked path has been determined to be safe. Which, yowza, I wouldn't want the job of determining.

How much character has this tableau got? A cruciform waymarker, wrapped in barbed wire, on a lonely hill, overlooking the sea?

Sorry About Your Sailors
    I met another smiley, sweet couple – resting on a bench by this memorial →. (The first of more than one memorial I'd see to the mariners swallowed by Cornwall in one of its many bad moods.) Actually, I didn't speak to these two at first, but rather stood silently before the memorial, reading the inscription. It was a minute or so before I realised I was still wearing my hat – while contemplating the dead – and belatedly doffed it. As I went to leave, the man commented on my show of respect which, though delinquent, he found admirable. We got to talking. They told me they had a son in San Francisco (*) and that the warm weather was due to the recent hurricane pulling a bunch of warm air up from Africa, like a vacuum.

After that, I drove on pretty mercilessly into my mid-day stop of Porthleven. I was thinking, I'd personally drown a couple of sailors myself for a pot of tea. A pasty wouldn't go amiss, either. The waterfront of Porthleven is protected by a massive seawall – maybe 25 feet, by my (not terribly reliable) estimation. I'd read that, the seawall not withstanding, the very clock tower there on the front could occasionally be disappeared by waves and spray in a really heavy storm. Gack.

Porthleven is the most southerly port in Britain – and its deep, sheltered harbour was originally developed as a refuge from all those ferocious sailor-eating storms. It's also got cannon covering the entrance, which evidently were once fired in anger at Napoleon's fleet. More picturesquely, a nearby cove used to be run by a smuggling family whose operation was so successful they mounted a battery of guns at the entrance to ward off Customs men.

It was still twenty minutes to noon. I circled the waterfront, gunning for tea – eventually settling down in the place with the worst pun for a name. (Also the only place.) I surveyed the scene before me. This was a dramatic place, with that deep cove, and crying gulls, and working fishermen. And mud. The clock in the tower chimed noon as I drank my first (but not last) cup.

Pack-man: Wakka Wakka
If I falter, I thought, perhaps the Endless Journey will raise the socks and carry on. Or, conceivably, even carry me on its back for awhile. I shared the teashop patio with a person who looked like nothing so much as The French Lieutenant's Woman. Long black hair, pulled back from her face, but spread loose on her shoulders and back. Pale, serious, with fine features. Black, slightly lacy skirt and shawl, over white frilly shirt. Good posture. Poise. Self-possession, bordering on sadness – though that was probably just a flight of my dispatching fancy. (This bad photo is perfect in its air of mystery. I took a "better" one, in which she was smiling, the effect spoiled.)

That (or another) coast guard cutter steamed by – making me wonder again about that imagined lost swimmer/boater. 8^( On my circuit round the harbour, on my way to the teashop, I'd passed a hard-core-looking pasty shop. I backtracked to give them a shot at the title – and emerged with, not a head-sized pasty, but a head-dwarfing pasty – the biggest yet. I've got the proof right here.

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!
As I saddled up, the sun and breeze both perked up – making for outstanding sock-drying weather. Though, here ← was one last reminder that I wouldn't want to be around here in clocktower-drowning weather. Today's afternoon walk was the same as yesterday's: six miles from 1pm. I had a funny feeling, though, that the five miles I'd done this morning were going to make the remainder easier, not harder. I drew and snap-fired on some gulls drifting before still, huge, dramatic clouds. →

Random Woman, Passing By: "Did you get them to smile?"
Me, From Shooting Stance: "Yes, they're actually striking poses for me."

The path out of town was garrisoned by the most spectacular flowers. As I got down on my knees to shoot some flower portraits, two older women informed me that this one to the right was white (not red) bladder campion. They also enthusiastically pointed out some toadflax – including some more perfect specimens to shoot. Cheers!

While I could have cavorted among the flowers on this lane forever – or until it started raining on me, which it did – this definitely wasn't getting Maude to the Cheesemongers. I bid Porthleven – which I felt I missed already – a fond farewell.

I soon passed Loe Pool, an interesting bit of local geography. (As already documented by me in this video), it's Cornwall's largest freshwater lake – and formerly the estuary of the river Cober, until it was dammed by a cheeky shingle bar about 800 years ago. A beach shared by a lake on one side, and the ocean on the other, is a novelty.

And the sight of a bird of prey, just stopped dead in mid-breeze, I found, was still stirring.

Ringing up the next camp site, just to make sure they existed, I saw from the phone that it was still only 10 minutes to three. I figured I had maybe 3-4 miles to go. No problem. As before, I was kind of hesitant to make any corner-turning pronouncements – things seem to go to hell exactly as often as they looked up – but I was feeling great at that moment. And not just about the day, but about the future. In the murky depths of my generally bottom-dwelling thoughts, I'd long been afraid that I would get back from this trip and immediately be depressed; now I was actually excited about the possibilities that life held. (*)

As I stepped out to a crumbly cliff edge to take this shot ← , I thought about how very, very mordantly amusing it would be if that last sentence were the final entry in my notebook – found after my effects were recovered from amongst the rubble at the bottom of this cliff…


2006.09.25, Pt II : The Winning Photo
Plus the Winning Sunset (of All Time)
Minus the Worst Ever Walk from the Camp Site to Anything
"Time hung suspended – music lay on the air; anything might happen before it became necessary to join the crowd across the border. There was no inevitability anywhere . . ."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

So, me being me, I wasted no time in edging out onto another cool, curvy, but also rather dodgy finger of land. This ← is another one of those goofball "Is this thing on?" attempts to take a movie in camera mode. This ↓ is the movie (also goofball, but in a stupid way, with me playing at running off a cliff).

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

    Let me tell you, I was just loving these slashes of sunlight which would burst through the glowering clouds and spill incandescently onto the water in shifting patches. The only thing that could improve a shot like that is birds in the frame. Unfortunately, birds are flighty buggers. I stood there for rather longer than one wants to be standing in a heavy rucksack holding a camera to his face, trying to perfect the double-eye technique which is pretty much the only way to catch one of these creatures in the frame. (You have to see them coming before they're in the frame, when it's already too late). I imagined the technique would prove useful and, in any case, I felt this series was it's own reward.

From Guidebook:
Porthleven Sands is one of the most deadly places to be shipwrecked. In 1807, a local resident, Henry Trengrouse, witnessed such a disaster when the Royal Navy frigate, HMS Anson, was wrecked on Loe Bar. He and other onlookers were within hailing distance, but could only stand by and watch as the ship disintegrated and the sailors were sucked out to sea. Trengrouse was inspired to invent a rocket which fired a line aboard a ship, and brought people ashore by a chair pulley. It has saved thousands of lives, and has only recently been superceded by search and rescue helicopters.

I had to cut along the edge of a golf course along here – and actually had to wait behind a foursome until all of them had teed off, which was amusing up until about the second one. As I stood there, feeling rather heavy post-Porthleven, I considered what a "vegetable" pasty actually consists of: potato, swede, and onion in a thick fried pastry crust. Not quite my idea of vegetables; but, then again, stodgy – which is what you need when you're walking long fairways without a cart.

Exiting one, I thought forcefully: Man, these public toilets are about 145,000 times less pleasant to use than the worst cliff. Trying to clear my nostrils of the reek of concentrated urine, I vowed Never again. (And the real horror is that I had held it, knowing this little pissoir-cum-graffiti shack was coming up.)

Climbing up from the beach again, I beheld the most stunningly blue water in the sunlight.

This, I think, is the winning shot of the trip:

But of course all this Kodak-Award-Winning photography wasn't getting Marie-Clare to the Champs Elysee. Moving along, I came upon a monument to the Poldhu Wireless Station, which was built by the Marconi Co., and which sent the very first transatlantic wireless signals – and which were received in Newfoundland by Guglielmo Marconi himself on 12 December 1901.

As both the day, and the day's walk, wound down, the light was getting awfully good. (That third one below, for instance, might just be first runner up of the whole trip. I don't know, you tell me.)

So as I got close to closing today out, I faced a climb up to one edge of the rim of Mullion Cove, then a descent to the cove, then a climb to the other side of the rim. Much more disconcertingly – though I wouldn't give this nearly enough thought until later – was the spatial relationships amongst Mullion Cove, Mullion (the town), and the "camp site at Mullion" (aka Tenerife Caravan and Camping Park). (Suffice it to say for now that I was still in for the all-time ass-suckingest walk from camp site to food and back. One that was – not merely annoying and exhausting – but very conceivably fatal.)

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

So climbing up to the near rim of the Cove, I immediately came upon the grand, cliff-side-perching Mullion Cove Hotel. (Fairly obviously, I didn't take that third photo above, which pretty clearly shows the hotel, until later, when I was all the way up on the other rim of the cove; but, there's the Mullion Cove Hotel.) I paused briefly before sauntering in the front door, and straight into the restaurant, which was, let's call it high-class, let's say it wasn't pub food, and urbanely asked the first person I saw if I could see a dinner menu.

It should be stressed that I was not only in boots, shorts, hat, and grime at this point – but my very undergarments, scraggly socks and twisted underpants (see this photo again for reference) were still trailing, drying and flapping in the breeze, behind me. I think I was probably counting on them not seeing the undergarments until I turned to leave.

Their board of fare looked a winner, so I left in the happy expectation of returning after a quick trot to the camp site and tent set up. I was quickly disillusioned about the "quick" part (or any "easy" or "painless" or "short" parts I may also have had in the back of my mind). The climb up the other side of the cove was, let's call it, murderous. Broken trail, lots of sharp rock, lots of sheer edges. Not entirely clear where the path was. But I achieved the top, where I looked back and took that photo.

I then carried on – onto a mile-or-so-long slog through trackless cliff-side fields. I know you know I don't particularly enjoy these long, last, murderous stretches to the camp site. But a thing I also really, really don't like much is not knowing where I'm going, and/or having minimal confidence that I'm going the right way. Combine these two – 'exhausted' and 'lost' – and you've got the makings of a truly crappy end of day!

I eventually got off the cliffs, and wended my way through some sparse neighbourhoods, heading inland. Then it became rather like driving around a neighbourhood looking for an address, except with no car, and with 30 pounds on your back, and you just hiked 11 miles and climbed a huge cliff.

I can at least say that when I did eventually find the site, I was substantially recompensed for my effort and pain: a gorgeous pitch, and sparkling, proper, full-service facilities (starkly unlike the Land of Spiders and Coin Meters I'd camped in the night before). I got set up, then got talking with a nice English couple sitting outside their Winnebago. (Or whatever you call a Winnebago in this country, which is not "Winnebago".) The gentleman commiserated with me about how camp sites are always a million miles "from grub". He then whipped out his area map – and answered my major question of the moment: It would actually be twice as long to walk into Mullion the Town, as it would be to slog back to the hotel overlooking Mullion the Cove.

English Gentleman: "Well, you'll have to do a little backtracking."
Me: "That first pint should make it worthwhile."

In honesty, it was just really good to be in for the day; and this camp site was awfully pretty and peaceful. Too bad I'd have to leave it if I wanted to eat. (Mom, whatever you do, don't click here.)

So now I'm sitting in front of the Mullion Cove Hotel (which for some reason reminds me of the Nellie in Capetown, that reason probably being because it's yellow), drinking the 2nd best half-chilled bottle of Budvar of my life (the first was the one right before it) – and spectating what is without any possible question the most spectacular and heart-thrummingly lovely sunset of the whole trip.

You're not going to see this sunset – for reasons to be explained shortly – but suffice it to say it features a second horizon of fabulous, puffy, bruised-thigh-flesh and cotton-candy clouds which, with the normal horizon, are pancaking the last few minutes of the sun's time on (this part of) the Earth (today).

The sea is ripply-glistening in this completely, maybe even surreally, neutral colour; pairs of unidentifiable (by me) dark acrobatic birds are looping about and – oh my – the clouds all just spontaneously switched to all bruised-thigh-flesh. Really, actually, it's a gloriously-desaturated pale grape colour, their edges glowing just a smidgeon reddish, like those few grapes in the bunch that – oh my, the sun just re-flared starkly, turning all the air and the section of clouds before it into . . . into a sort of luminescent pink-to-orange gradient for which my poor powers of figurative language can find no ready comparison.

Let's call it – in an Umberto Eco hyper-reality kind of way – let's call it like a really rich and strikingly realistic oil painting of a sunset, like, maybe, a really good Turner, but not so faded, where oranges and blues and whites and pinks bleed into a . . . oh my – the sky in the foreground just filled with maybe two dozen of the indefinable black birds, moving together, but in an extremely wide and diffuse pattern, like riot police fanning out to face . . .

Oh my, the sun has hit the water – a thin, neon, electric warm orange slit, below God's own brush strokes of stringy, feathery, electric cloud, that below a big goulash of grape and pink, below striated white and blue and . . . and it's gone, just like that, swallowed by the insatiable ocean, down with those sailors . . . and the birds are back, like an honour guard for the burial at sea, and . . . and . . . I think I'll pipe down now. Silence seems the only apt description here.

for Leonard Fuchs

15 Nov 1922 - 7 Sept 2007


2006.09.25, Pt III : Signing My Own Death Warrant
Plus a Gallimaufry of AAs
"'Envy me, envy me,' a character remarks in one of Stevenson's stories, 'I am a coward.' And it is something to have some emotion to cherish in a place like Villahermosa, even if it's only fear."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

Oh, my. I was thinking that was in my Top 3 Sunsets – after a couple in Africa – but then I remembered that the real stunners in Africa were all sunrises. So . . . this was probably actually the winning sunset – of all time. And unexpected – they'd been unremarkable in Cornwall so far. And, mainly, such a blessing, really about the camera. As I'd sat and boggled at the sunset and wrote the above description thereof, I chanced to see a woman a bit further down watching all this . . . sublimeness – through a viewfinder . . . I was liberated from that, for once, though it took a catastrophe to make it happen. Right, then, flashback to earlier in the evening, at the camp site:

The showers at the Tenerife Caravan and Camping Park are enormous, and totally clean, and piping hot, and well into double digits on the PMS (the ISO-approved universal Pissing Monkey Scale of shower water pressure), and not a single creature, living or dead, other than your humble correspondent, in evidence anywhere. Ditto the toilet and washroom. I'd started to do the habitual routine of standing in my flops and carefully stepping into my trousers – but quickly realised that the floor was, at this point, almost certainly cleaner than my flops.

In fact, I only have one small cavil with the washroom: no hooks. It was as I was leaning into the toilet stall for a wodge of universal paper product to blow my nose and swab my ears, that I heard the . . . crash. Somewhere between a crash and a thump and a smash. It was my small bag – which I'd hung upon, I don't know, a soap dispenser or something – hitting the concrete floor. Camera-side first. Not a pretty sound. Rather an ugly sound.

Trepidly opening the bag, I immediately found a gallimaufry of AA batteries. Last time I dropped the camera, in the bookshop in St Ives, I reflected that the batteries always shoot out at such times. Intended or not, this is a pretty good design feature: the body of the camera has to absorb the force somewhere – and ejecting the force outwards is nearly ideal, really. In this case, though, the camera was also making scary little rattling noises as I put it back together. And pressing the power button resulted in: nada. Not a hum, not a shudder.

Suffice it to say, the future of photography on this trip wasn't looking good. Well, insh'allah. I had another look at the camera, there on the cliffside, after the sunset, and it still wouldn't start up . . . and the pen ran out of ink as I wrote these words. It was looking like a full kit mutiny. But, even if I were reduced to banging rocks in the nude . . . dinner was still on the menu, so life was okay.

And guess what, the hotel restaurant staff hooked me up with a new pen – a black, ball-point, standard-vanilla Bic (but who cares) – which is the only reason I was able to take the notes to tell you about it. And the pen was only the last in a long series of blandishments blandished upon me by these guys:

They dug around the cooler for the least-not-cold bottles of Budvar. They didn't protest when I ate all the bar peanuts. (Both before dinner, and after, when they had refilled them.) They didn't so much as smirk when I ordered every single plant-based dish on two menus – and a few plant-based ingredients from some other dishes. They dug me up a copy of the Daily Mail weekend magazine to read over my meal. (Big piece on the Holbein exhibit.) They brought me extra tomato ketchup; a lot of extra ketchup. And they even called for a cab for me at the end – agreeing that any attempt to climb the cliffs in the dark would be "signing my own death warrant".

It had been on the long walk back to the hotel from the camp site – as I pondered forks in unmarked tractor paths, vectored through vast trackless fields bordered by the sheer cliffs, leapt across a boulder-strewn stream, and, ultimately, managed a descent down a path that was steep, tortuous, narrow, rocky, and bordered closely by spikey thorn gorse – that I'd considered how very, very little fun it would be to try that again, backwards, in the pitch black, and after a few pints. It had been then that I'd resolved to call for a cab for the return journey.

So, there I sat, in the restaurant, happily polishing off the second batch of peanuts, belching, and patting my tummy, when the nice hotel lady returned to regret to inform me that: of the two cab companies within a hundred million miles, one had failed to answer the phone, and the other had only one driver on duty – having sent the other two home due to it being a slow night, and who were now totally booked.

Blessedly, the very nice hotel lady produced for me a photocopied page of a local area map – and instructed me how to walk back to the camp site via the roads. While this route was (<gurgle,sputter>) twice as long, it was only a fraction as likely to be fatal. (Though the cars still might get me in the shoulderless dark.)

I heaved my food-and-beer-besotted self up from my table. I let out a long, resigned sigh. And I got walking – for, even then, I had miles to go before I'd sleep. (*)

Route Follower Alongerer :

Pointlessly Detailed Map of
My Death Marches
Between Camp and Grub
(But, Hey, I'm Bitter)

Tomorrow: Asparagus Island, Gull Rock, and the Bishop; Porky and Rasher; The Lizard; BUT – Will There Be Any Photos??!! Tune in tomorrow – same Dispatch Time, same Dispatch Channel

  joy     camping     cornwall coast path     danger     depression     food     humour     photography     video     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.

You can reach him on .

my latest book
ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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