SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 21: Cawsand to Downderry
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
The day began with another journey across Plymouth Sound on the ferry from the Mayflower Steps to Cawsand Beach. The approach to Cawsand gave a good view of the twin villages of Cawsand and Kingsand and of the old artillery fort and green hills above the villages (picture 1). Alighting from the ferry onto the beach, I climbed up the little lane known as The Bound to The Square, which somewhat perversely is a triangle (picture 2).
Heading past The Shop in The Square, I soon turned left onto Pier Lane, which leaves Cawsand and becomes a quiet footpath through Penlee Wood. After a few minutes the path passes behind a row of former coastguard cottages, built in the 1820's in an attempt to stamp out smuggling, an activity in which many of the villagers of Cawsand were deeply involved.
The Coast Path continues through Penlee Wood on a quiet lane until, just after passing an isolated house, it bears right off the lane to climb past a shed with three big wooden doors. This turn was unfortunately not signposted, though one can only go another fifty metres along the lane before reaching a dead end at the gates of an MOD property.
The correct route climbs beside the perimeter fence, still in Penlee Wood (picture 3), eventually merging into the unsealed Earl's Lane, which runs southwards to emerge from the wood atop Penlee Point. From this windswept viewpoint there are far-reaching views eastwards across the mouth of Plymouth Sound to Wembury Point and beyond all the way to Bolt Tail (picture 4). On this particular day, there were also half a dozen navy ships off Penlee Point on some kind of exercise.
From Penlee Point, the Coast Path turns its back on Plymouth Sound, heading west on an easy path across the side of Homebarton Hill in the direction of the distinctive promontory of Rame Head (picture 5). After about two kilometres walking, the path reaches a junction of well-worn paths on the narrow neck of Rame Head (picture 6), which was once an Iron Age fort. The defensive ditch that was dug across the narrowest part of the headland as part of those fortifications is still easily discernible.
Before continuing along the coast, the path makes a short but steep return journey across the ditch and up to the little medieval Chapel of St Michael that stands atop the headland (picture 7). Immediately behind the chapel is a more recent addition; a concrete platform built during World War One to mount an anti-submarine gun. This installation never saw action, however, being completed on the very day that hostilities ended, Armistice Day 1918.
The reasons for the choice of this location are quite obvious, with superb views eastwards to Penlee Point and beyond, and northwards along the curving coastline of Whitsand Bay (picture 8).
After backtracking down to the path junction, the Coast Path skirts around fields on the top of Queener Point before gradually descending through scrub behind the former Polhawn Fort (which is mostly hidden from view) to the small hamlet of Polhawn Cove (picture 9). After passing behind a tennis court, the path drops down to cross the fort's access road then down concrete steps into another patch of scrub from which the path emerges behind Polhawn Cottage. A few metres up the cottage's driveway, a wooden kissing gate on the left takes the route onto a narrow path that follows the contours of the hillside above Wiggle Cliff (picture 10) and below Military Road, which is out of sight but had its presence given away by the regular passing of tourist coaches.
After about a kilometre along Wiggle Cliff the path abruptly turns right, climbing to within ten metres of the road before turning left on an unsealed driveway, heading downhill through an area occupied by a variety of haphazardly placed chalets and huts. Once again, after a kilometre the path almost climbs up to the Military Road before turning back downhill for a slightly shorter stretch amongst more hillside chalets.
At the third attempt the path finally joins Military Road, with the more densely-packed chalets of Tregonhawke on the hillside below the road and the former Whitsand Bay Battery, now converted into the Whitsand Bay Holiday Park, above the road on the right. A short way along the road, I passed by a large cross that stands as a memorial to the victims of a triple drowning here in 1878.
Leaving Tregonhawke, the road is followed for a little more than a kilometre, through the neighbouring village of Freathy and around a curve before the Coast Path leaves the tarmac to run a few metres below the road in the National Trust's Sharrow property (picture 12).
For the next one and a half kilometres the Coast Path mostly runs just below the road, with a couple of short stretches back on the road, crossing Sharrow Point, Sharrow Cliff and Tregantle Cliff, all owned by the National Trust.
At Tregantle Cliff the path reaches gates on the edge of a large military firing range occupying the next one and a half kilometres of the coast below the imposing edifice of Tregantle Fort, which stands on the hilltop on the far side of a deep coombe. When firing is taking place, the Coast Path has to follow Military Road inland all the way around the range. Fortunately I was passing on a non-firing day, and was able to follow the more interesting alternate route inside the firing range. This route skirts around the coombe to join a road along the seaward side of the fort (picture 13) before heading slightly inland to run along field edges above the various firing ranges (picture 14).
The path climbs over the next hill, where a small observation hut stands on a large man-made mound on the summit, and then over another hill to finally leave the Tregantle Ranges and enter the National Trust's Trethill property. The path above the sloping cliffs soon reaches a golf course, where an obvious route along the seaward side reaches a viewpoint overlooking the old fishing village of Portwinkle (picture 15).
The path soon descends to join Finnygook Lane, named after a local 18th century smuggler who met with a less than glorious end and is said to haunt the hill above the village. The lane runs parallel to the village's rocky beach to reach the old harbour at the far end of the village. Here the Coast Path turns right up Donkey Lane, ignoring the first likely looking path, signposted as The Nooke, before climbing higher to find the correct route indicated by a Coast Path signpost. An enclosed path soon leads to a field-edge path that runs around the edge of Britain Point (picture 16), where I was passed by a rather heavily-loaded elderly hiker heading the other way and singing rather tunelessly to himself.
On the tip of Britain Point, the path takes a right turn to climb steeply up a long flight of rough steps to get around the top of an almost sheer cliff, the path running very close to the edge of the vertiginous drop. When the path levels out, it heads westwards once again beside fields above Eglarooze Cliff, passing a small standing stone (picture 17).
Several more steep ups and downs follow over the next two kilometres as the path follows the bottom edges of successive fields, losing sight of the sea for a while as the path crosses Battern Cliffs (picture 18). Eventually the path regains its view of the sea at the beginning of a long descent to the town of Downderry (picture 19).
Nearing the edge of the village the path drops down more steeply from the fields into thick scrub, winding its way down to meet the B3247 Main Road. A few hundred metres down the road I reached a bus stop in front of the church (picture 20), and the end of the day's walk with 20.3 kilometres completed. Despite the relatively short distance, this had been quite a tiring walk, with several quite steep sections -- a first taste of what to expect on much of the Cornwall coast.
I had about 20 minutes to wait for the bus from Downderry to Liskeard Railway Station. The bus service only runs a few times a day, but as I was the only passenger for the entire journey, it would seem that a more frequent service isn't justified. The train ride from Liskeard to Plymouth was quite scenic, passing through fertile farmland and crossing several viaducts over picturesque river valleys before crossing Brunel's magnificent railway bridge spanning the River Tamar.