SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 44: Port Gaverne to Tintagel
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
The next morning I returned to the little harbour at Port Gaverne (picture 1) to resume my walk along the South West Coast Path. At 13.7 kilometres, the walk to Tintagel Head is not particularly long, but has a reputation for being one of the most challenging stages of the entire Coast Path, with no fewer than eight valleys to be crossed. To add to the degree of difficulty, the public transport in this part of Cornwall starts late and finishes early, leaving me just over five hours to complete the walk and find the last bus of the day.
A short distance back from the harbour, the Coast Path leaves the village on a path that climbs along the side of the Port Gaverne Hotel (picture 2), cutting across the headland on the eastern side of the harbour to meet a quiet road that overlooks a steep-sided little cove. From here, the sides of the cove frame the view north-west across Port Isaac Bay to the distinctive outline of Tintagel Head (picture 3).
Twenty metres up the road a Coast Path signpost points along a driveway, past a clifftop home and onwards along a grassy path beside fields that snakes along the ragged cliffs of Tresungers Point for about 600 metres to reach the first valley crossing of the day, St Illickswell Gug (picture 4).
Across the valley the path runs along the gorse-covered Bounds Cliff beside a fenced pasture. The path soon became a narrow furrow among waist-high grass (picture 5), and a little further along the cliff I passed a crew from the County Council who were trimming back the long grass. While it's nice to see the path being maintained, I was a little annoyed at having to walk much slower for a few hundred metres. The freshly cut grass made it impossible to see the edges of the furrow and I was already very conscious of the need to tread carefully as I had been nursing an injured ankle for a couple of months.
After slightly more than a kilometre, the path starts to descend across a field towards a stile, beyond which the route heads steeply down through gorse into the valley above Barrett's Zawn (picture 6). The path crosses a tiny stream before following it down to the edge of the cliff overlooking the rocky cove (picture 7).
A rather steep scramble for about 150 metres up a stony slope follows, with no steps. By the time I reached the top, rather breathlessly, I was quite glad that I wasn't going the other way, as it would be quite difficult to keep one's footing when descending that slope. At the top of the climb, the path crosses another stile and follows the cliff around the top of Barrett's Zawn before cutting across Delabole Point to descend into the next valley (picture 8).
After crossing a shallow stream running down the floor of the valley, the path climbs up over the next ridge to descend once again, this time into North Dinnabroad Valley (picture 9). A more vigorous stream flows down this valley and about fifty metres back from where the water tumbles over the cliff the Coast Path fords the stream and climbs up a steep, grassy slope into the National Trust's Dannonchapel property. As the path climbs around the top of a small cove, there is a good view back across Port Isaac Bay (picture 10).
Over the next grassy ridge the path reaches Tregragon Valley, where a rather vertiginous trail disappears over the edge (picture 11), winding its way down almost to sea-level to cross a footbridge over another tiny stream (picture 12) and then embarking on another calf-testing climb up onto Jackets Point.
After so many valleys in quick succession it was something of a relief to gain the top of Tregardock Cliff (picture 13), where the path is relatively flat for almost two kilometres until it reaches the Tregardock Valley, above Tregardock Beach (picture 14).
The path descends into the valley on a relatively gentle slope, passing behind a tall, marooned peak called The Mountain and crossing another well-worn track that leads down to the beach. The Coast Path ignores the latter trail and instead snakes its way back up the far side of the valley onto the plateau of Treligga Common, where another relatively level two kilometre stretch of clifftop path (picture 15) gave my calves some respite until the path approaches Start Point, overlooking the Backways Valley (picture 16).
The path zig-zags down to the floor of the valley, where two little streams converge above a rocky cove. About a hundred metres inland, just above the confluence of the streams, the path crosses each stream by little footbridges before angling up across the hillside to the top of Dennis Point, which is scarred by a couple of small, disused quarries down the steep slope to the seaward side of the path. Here I was passed by an elderly couple, who I realised were the first walkers I had seen since setting out from Port Gaverne.
Across the top of Dennis Point, the kilometre-long beach of Trebarwith Strand comes into view (picture 17). Another valley comes down to meet the southern end of the beach, but unlike the last seven, this valley has been developed. For several centuries, this little settlement was a port for the export of local slate, carried down the valley by donkeys from quarries on the cliffs and from the Delabole quarry, a massive hole in the ground covering about forty hectares beside the village of Delabole, about four kilometres inland. When the railways arrived in Cornwall in the mid 1800's the port declined and these days the hamlet of Trebarwith Strand is given over entirely to recreation.
The Coast Path makes its way about half way down the steep, fern-covered side of the valley before turning inland to proceed more gently down to the end of a small carpark to the landward side of the local pub, which still bears the original name of the village, The Port William. Opposite the exit from the carpark. a short path leads down through the outdoor eating area of a take-away shop to the foot of the main road that comes down the valley.
Across the road, beside the Strand Cafe, a Coast Path signpost points out the beginning of the fairly arduous climb up out of the valley and onto Treknow Cliff. Before embarking on the day's eighth steep climb, I paused to read a National Trust information board attached to the signpost, describing the three-kilometre walk along the clifftops to Tintagel. The Trust owns the entire stretch of clifftop.
Part of the way up the hill, I paused again to regain my breath and to admire the view over the village (picture 18) before continuing up through the heather and gorse. The cliffs here were quarried for slate from the middle ages until the 20th century, and before long the path veers a little inland around the tops of West Quarry and then Lanterdan Quarry, where a 25 metre tall pillar of slate has been left standing while all the rock around it has been removed (picture 19).
Soon the clifftop path curves around high above the end of Trebarwith Strand's beach, passing several more cliff quarries to reach Penhallic Point, where the path follows a wall built from the local slate (picture 20) before following the well-worn trail around the edge of the point and above the neighbouring Lambscombe Cove.
Just beyond the next little rise, the path passes behind the Tintagel Youth Hostel, just below the peak of Dunderhole Point. From that peak, Tintagel Head comes into view up ahead, while the 11th-century Norman parish church stands among fields on the high ground off to the right of the path (picture 21).
The Coast Path runs across the upper slopes of Glebe Cliff, eventually coming up alongside some medieval stone walls opposite the headland (picture 22). These are part of the ruins of the 13th century Tintagel Castle, which spanned the mainland and the headland. Following the wall, the path soon passes behind a tall outcrop, also part of the ruins, to find a zig-zag path that descends at some length into the next deep valley to a carpark just up from the castle's visitor centre.
Passing between the buildings of the visitor centre, the Coast Path reaches a viewing platform looking over the sheltered cove of Tintagel Haven (picture 23). Here I left the National Trail for the day, having taken about four and half hours to cover the 13.7 kilometres. This left me almost an hour until the last bus of the day; not nearly enough time to make a worthwhile exploration of the castle. Instead I popped into the visitor centre (picture 24) to buy an ice-cream then set off on the tenth serious climb of the day, up the road that climbs up the valley to Tintagel Village.
The climb up to the village, almost a kilometre inland, was quite exhausting with the last bit being quite steep. I discovered that English Heritage, which manages the castle, owns several Landrovers that ferry tourists from the visitor centre up to the village, but being a conscientious long-distance walker I laboured up the hill unaided, with a few pauses for breath and to admire the scenery (picture 25).
In the village I had enough time for a quick wander up and down the main street (picture 26) to get the lay of the land before heading for the bus, as I planned to come back another day to visit the castle and explore the village properly. The village is very touristy, and the hordes of visitors wandering around the village make the sparse public transport service in the area all the more mystifying. Many of the local businesses make much of the village's association with the legend of King Arthur, who is said to have been born in the Celtic settlement that occupied Tintagel Head between the fifth and seventh centuries, long before the medieval castle was built in the 1230's.
There are a couple of gems in amongst all the cafés and gift shops however, and I visited both on my return to the village.
On Fore Street, not far from the top of the climb from the castle, is the Old Post Office (picture 27), a medieval house, built some time in the 14th or 15th centuries, which also saw use as the village post office in the 19th century. It is now in the care of the National Trust and is open to the public, giving a fascinating insight into domestic life before the industrial revolution and the way houses were built -- there are very few straight lines here. There are also many objects on display that were once common in homes but are now all but forgotten. Luckily there are knowledgeable volunteers on hand to explain the more obscure items.
Further up the road, and much more modern, is King Arthur's Great Halls (picture 28), evidently rather popular with school groups, though I managed to get in just as one group was departing and had the place almost to myself, leaving just as another coach-load of noisy teenagers was deposited outside. The halls were built in the early 1930's by Frederick Thomas Glassock, an eccentric retired millionaire who was clearly captivated by the Arthurian legends. Inside, the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are illustrated by a laser light show, a long series of stained glass windows, a large collection of paintings, and various other displays of medieval flags, suits of armour, and not one but two round tables.
The main attraction of Tintagel is, of course, the castle on Tintagel Head. When the castle was built by Earl Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III, between 1233 and 1236, the land bridge connecting it to the mainland was fairly substantial, but over the centuries the land has eroded and now there is a deep chasm cutting across the narrow neck of the headland. While the headland is not yet an island, that's perhaps just a matter of time and it is already named The Island on some maps.
From the visitor centre, one must climb up wooden steps to the footbridge that spans the chasm (picture 29), then negotiate a much steeper climb up the other side to the castle entrance (picture 30). On the relatively sheltered shoulder of the headland, the most substantial part of the ruins, once the Great Hall, overlooks Tintagel Haven (picture 31). Beyond these, a path leads through an arch in a curtain wall that stretches away up the hill (picture 32), then climbs up to the top of the plateau.
On top of the headland there are at least five more clusters of ruined buildings, though the remaining walls are much lower and some are now covered with turf (picture 33). Excavations here have also revealed evidence of earlier settlements on Tintagel Head, one during the Roman occupation of Britain, from the mid-first to early-fifth centuries, and a later one between the fifth and seventh centuries, the time of the Arthurian legends.
From all over the headland there are great views back inland over the mainland part of the castle and on towards Tintagel Village (picture 34), south across Port Isaac Bay (picture 35) and north-east along the next dozen or so kilometres of the Coast Path (picture 36). The many rocky outcrops around the edges of the plateau are also good places to sit for a while and listen to the sounds of the Atlantic waves crashing into the cliffs below and the sea birds that nest in the cliffs.