SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 28: Portscatho to Falmouth
Saturday, May 31, 2014
A 45 minute bus ride brought me back to the village of Portscatho, the gateway to the Roseland Peninsula, a fairly isolated area on the eastern side of the mighty Fal Estuary. From the tiny harbour (picture 1), I followed The Lugger past houses to the tip of the Pencabe headland, taking a narrow path between the last houses to emerge onto open ground (picture 2). The village is left behind as the Coast Path runs between fields and the low cliffs for a kilometre and a half to Greeb Point - the second place of that name I had visited on the Cornish coast.
From Greeb Point the path circles around the cliffs behind the wide sweep of Towan Beach, where huge patches of seaweed marked out the level of the previous high-tide (picture 3). In bygone times, local farmers would come down to the beach and take away large quantities of seaweed and sand to enrich their fields. Next to the path behind the beach is a tall pole with climbing steps built into it (picture 4), apparently part of a rescue training site.
Not far beyond the end of Towan Beach, the Coast Path makes a right-angle turn on Killigerran Head (picture 5) to take up a westerly course past the smaller Porthbeor Beach (picture 6) before the coastline swings to the south-west as the path crosses a small valley and climbs up onto Zone Point (picture 7). After skirting around a small, rocky inlet, the path reaches the remains of an old gun battery on St Anthony Head, overlooking the two-kilometre wide entrance of the Carrick Roads (picture 8).
The Carrick Roads (alternately known as the Fal Estuary) is a large natural harbour stretching seven kilometres inland to the mouth of the River Fal and also fed by a number of smaller rivers and creeks on both sides. Straight across the Carrick Roads is the Pendennis Headland, which shelters the town of Falmouth, an ancient port town on the south bank of the Penryn River. Falmouth and the Carrick Roads became particularly important from the 1500's onwards, as the first safe anchorage for an increasing number of ships crossing the Atlantic from the Americas, and the last port of call for ships headed the other way. These days, Falmouth is still a working port with a large dock complex that specialises in repairing large ships.
The Carrick Roads has also had great military importance, shown today by the remains of fortifications and defences built over the last five centuries. The most interesting of these is a pair Tudor-era castles, one standing atop Pendennis Head and the other a little further up the eastern side of the estuary, where the Percuil River meets the Carrick Roads near the town of St Mawes. Both castles were built in the early 1540's for King Henry VIII to protect the Carrick Roads from a feared invasion from the continent after the King's split with the Catholic Church. That invasion never came, and instead the castles didn't see serious action until the 1640's, when the English Civil War came to Cornwall.
From the gun battery on St Anthony Head, the Coast Path passes a National Trust visitor centre, turning left into trees just before the Trust's carpark to join a tarmaced downhill path. The path goes most of the way down to the water to meet a more level path. The route of the Coast Path turns sharp right here, but I first continued ahead for 50 metres to see the St Anthony Head Lighthouse, which is nestled below the cliff on the tip of the headland (picture 9). The lighthouse, built in 1835 to guide ships safely past the hazardous Manacles Reef and into the Carrick Roads, has been fully automated since 1987.
Turning around to rejoin the official route of the Coast Path, I followed the well-worn trail along the edge of St Anthony Head (picture 10), around a couple of tiny rocky coves and on to Carricknath Point (picture 11). Rounding the point, and now heading north-east, there is a good view across the mouth of the Percuil River to the town of St Mawes, with its castle a short distance to the left of the last houses (picture 12).
Back down at sea level now, the path follows the edge of a sloping meadow by the shore for about 400 metres before turning right and cutting across the back of a low headland to find a track running through a band of trees along the back of Cellar Beach. Turning left opposite a row of beehives, the path heads through the grounds of St Anthony Church (picture 13), emerging to turn left on a lane leading past an attractive little stone lodge and up to a slipway at the edge of Cellar Beach. From here, there is a good view back across to Place House (picture 14), which stands just in front of the Church.
The slipway is the high-tide departure point for the Place Ferry, which runs across to St Mawes, where the Coast Path then takes a second ferry across the Carrick Roads to Falmouth. As it was just before low-tide, the slipway was high and dry, so I continued ahead for a couple of minutes on a signed path to the low-tide slipway on the edge of the National Trust's Drawlers Plantation (picture 15). As the ferry timetable showed that I had the better part of half an hour to wait, I stopped at the bench in the shady clearing overlooking the slipway to eat my lunch. At this point my GPS showed 9.9 kilometres walked from Portscatho.
When I wandered down to the slipway, I discovered that the ferry had been temporarily suspended due to the extremely low-tide, and it would be at least another hour before the tide would rise enough to allow the ferry to resume. While I was waiting I got into a conversation with a German couple who had spent a fortnight walking selected sections of the Coast Path (most of which I hadn't done yet) and a lady from the village of Flushing (opposite Falmouth on the far side of estuary) who had walked most of the Coast Path while her husband kayaked around the coast. We all had plenty to talk about and the time passed quickly.
Eventually the small ferry appeared, crossing back and forth a few times to clear the backlog of about 50 people. Squeezing into the third load, I found myself alighting on the quayside of the busy little town of St Mawes (picture 16) just after three o'clock.
Before transferring to the second ferry I took a walk along the narrow waterside road (picture 17) to the western end of the town to visit St Mawes Castle. Coinciding with my arrival at the castle was the beginning of a rather loud and spectacular 40-minute display by the Red Arrows, flying back and forth over the Carrick Roads in a variety of formations (picture 18).
St Mawes Castle (along with its twin at Pendennis) was built in the 1540's and served as an important part of Falmouth's defences for more than four centuries until they were finally abandoned by the armed forces in 1956. Like many of the Tudor-era artillery fortresses, St Mawes Castle was built with a circular tower surrounded by interlocking circular bastions (pictures 19 and 20), the idea being that cannonballs would be more likely to be deflected harmlessly instead of doing serious damage.
After spending about 90 minutes exploring St Mawes Castle and its grounds, I headed back to the pier by the town centre to board the ferry Enterprise across to Falmouth. This is a much larger craft than the Place Ferry, and the journey is rather longer taking about 25 minutes to cruise by the castle, across the Carrick Roads and past the busy Falmouth Docks (picture 21) to reach the Prince of Wales Pier on Falmouth's waterfront (picture 22).
From the landward end of Prince of Wales Pier, the Coast Path turns left down Market Street, a street of closed-packed shops running parallel to the waterfront. After a block, Market Street becomes Church Street, continuing southwards to the Church of King Charles the Martyr, built in the 1660's and named after King Charles I, who was executed by the Parliamentarians in 1649 after the Civil War.
The road bends left then right in front of the church, then continues southwards down the long Arwenack Street, where the shops soon give way to houses on the right and a large marina development surrounding the National Maritime Museum Cornwall on the left (a little more about this later). At a mini-roundabout at the end of Arwenack Street, the Coast Path continues on Marine Crescent, turning right onto Bar Road after around 300 metres.
Bar Road heads under a railway line, a branch line that terminates a short distance to the left at Falmouth Docks Station and provides frequent services up to the mainline at Truro. The route continues ahead across another mini-roundabout onto Castle Hill, then takes the next left onto Castle Drive, which soon climbs up onto the northern side of Pendennis Head, overlooking the Falmouth Docks (picture 23).
Above the docks the road curves around to the right and the Coast Path soon leaves the tarmac to follow a well-trodden path through the woods to the left of the road. After the better part of a kilometre, the path comes upon the remains of an old gun battery, and about 200 metres further on reaches the tip of the headland at Pendennis Point, by the blockhouse of Little Dennis (picture 24). The blockhouse is the oldest part of the headland's defences, having been built in 1539.
From Little Dennis, the Coast Path skirts around a large carpark that occupies most of the tip of Pendennis Point, rejoining Castle Drive and following it through quiet woods for about a kilometre to reach Tunnel Beach, though the narrow strip of sand here was entirely submerged by the rising tide (picture 25). Having done an almost complete circuit of Pendennis Head, this is only about 100 metres from the point where I had initially joined Castle Drive, and is thus also just a short walk from Falmouth Docks station. This seemed like a convenient place to leave the Coast Path for the day, with a further 4.5 kilometres of the route covered since arriving at Falmouth, making a total of 14.4 kilometres of the official route walked for the day.
Somehow it wouldn't be right to visit Falmouth without visiting Pendennis Castle, of which I had caught a few glimpses as I made my way around the headland, so the next day I returned for a proper look. The castle keep (picture 26), of a similar design to St Mawes Castle, stands at the seaward end of a large open area enclosed by high earthwork bastions. From the roof of the keep there are magnificent views back eastwards across the Carrick Roads to St Anthony Head and St Mawes (picture 27), as well as westwards towards the Lizard Peninsula, where I would be heading on the next stage of the walk. As well as the Castle keep, the enclosure also includes various other structures and artefacts from four centuries of military occupation, including an impressive collection of cannon, a display on the castle's history housed in a Victorian barracks, and gun batteries from both World Wars.
One other place worth visiting in Falmouth is the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, which houses a large collection of small boats (picture 28), along with various other displays on Falmouth's seafaring heritage and stories of survival at sea. There's also the chance to step aboard an authentic navy rescue helicopter as part of a display on the devastating 2004 flash floods at Boscastle on Cornwall's north coast. This should be of interest to many Coast Path walkers, as the route passes through Boscastle, though I still had about 300 kilometres walking ahead of me to get there.