Harlyn Bay in Cornwall is beautiful in the summer. There’s a lovely couple of beaches, some good places to camp, and you can look up and see the stars. If you’re lucky, like I was, you might even see some shooting stars.
I’ve been saying to my family “wow, it must be 20 years since I’ve been here!” and that’s probably nearly right. We first started going probably 25 years ago, maybe a little more. I spent fewer holidays with them from around 1998 as I used to spend my summers in Wales with a youth theatre group. Last week, though, I came back to Harlyn for a family celebration, and ended up taking on what has become a tradition for my parents: the walk from Harlyn to Padstow.
The walk follows a tiny part of the south west costal path, which runs from Somerset to Dorset and stretches for 630 miles. So we did a little over 1% of it.
The group comprised me, my mum and dad, and my foster sister, who’d completed it in record time last year. My dad’s still recovering from knee surgery so we were taking it slower, and aiming for around four to four-and-a-half hours.
We set off at around 10:35 on Friday, to begin the 7 mile walk to the harbour.
Now, when I say “7 mile walk”, yes that sounds like a good bit of walking, but not all that tough. Thing is, I’d been warned – a lot – about the traitorous nature of the footing, so I gathered it was somewhere between a walk and a hike.
And it was tricky going in parts… I even twisted my ankle at one point. (So brave.)
A little past Trevone, along the coastal path, you come to what was known to us as “the Boomer”, a natural bowl shape in a rocky outcrop that the sea water crashes around in. The height of the rock walls creates an echo chamber, amplifying the sound of the waves. It’s a good place to sit and listen.
This was our first major target. We knew that if my dad and I could make it here, we’d be in good stead to crack on.
That bit was easy. The hill that came directly after it was not. Steep bastard.
When I’m being kind to myself, I call myself a “big lad”. For a big lad (#biglad), I’m not horrendously unfit… or rather, it doesn’t take me all that long to get back into some kind of idea of fitness. I can walk for hours, I don’t particularly like running, and hills… hills can bite me.
Past Trevone and Crugmeer, you hit Butterhole Beach (mmmm… Butterhole), a V-shaped slice cut into the coastal path. Walk all the way around the edge and you get to Stepper Point, and the Daymark, a navigational beacon built to help seafarers orientate themselves during the day. It looks like a big chimney, and has lookout points carved into the stonework.
Somewhere in-between the Boomer and the Daymark, I’d sustained some kind of minor foot injury, which meant that bits of my foot were now falling off. My feet hate me, and are constantly after my attention, so not wanting to give them the satisfaction, I plodded on – I don’t call myself a hero; that’s for others to say – until we got to the old lifeboat station, where a doctor on his day off donated a plaster.
That put us about two thirds of the way through our journey, which is when general tiredness started to creep in. Not to any major degree; you just noticed how the bits and jokes were getting further apart, and there were a few more check-ins to make sure everyone still had everything in tact.
Along the final stretch, before you hit St Saviour’s Point, you lose sight of the sea and everything gets more woody. There’s also a village in there somewhere, and lots of rolling hills.
Oh man, the rolling of the hills. Every time I looked to my right, I heard a male voice choir singing in their strong manly baritone. Singing about England. Singing about preservation, and about appreciation for the beauties on our doorsteps or a short train ride away. Not with words, just with feelings. The hills and trees sing, and it’s glorious.
Although the walk finished at the harbour, the official unofficial final checkpoint was the war memorial at St Saviour’s Point. I checked my digital watch, and as I saw it hove into view, my mum and I had a mock race to see who could get there first and, more importantly, within three hours. I totally won.
After that, proving she had totally nothing to prove, was the younger of the party, followed by my dad, who’d had the hardest time of all, but he’s not writing this post.
Although entirely arbitrary, it felt like I’d achieved something. I don’t get to do that much, and it felt good (“like getting all your tests to pass” is the nearest thing I come to on a day-to-day basis, as a developer). It’s not life-changing or life-affirming, but just really, really satisfying.
The rest of the walk into the harbour itself felt like a nice cool-down. Rock gave way to brick, and the sound of the waves was slowly replaced with the burble of a busy harbour town, packed with tourists and trade.
Definitely time for a pasty.
A few things stand out to me from my memories of Harlyn as a kid. Micky John Bull, the racist children’s variety act, the lacklustre way the camp entertainment was laid on (you really don’t go to the Harlyn Sands campsite for the cabaret), watching the demos on the arcade machines and not spending my money until the evening (when I’d buy chips and Coke… #biglad), occasionally being on-stage in a show of rabid precociousness, the cheesy-but-lovely Special FX magic act (they gave me a free VHS tape), and sitting in Padstow Harbour, dangling my feet over the concrete walkway while eating a pasty.
In my mind, Newquay was always a much busier town, but now it’s been reversed. Padstow was packed, and we were lucky to get a seat.
As a kid, that pasty would have meant everything. It would’ve been the thing that kept me going (although in fairness I’d have been saying “why do I have to walk for this pasty when normally we just drive?”… #biglad). This time, it was the act of doing the walk that was the reward. Honestly, a nice Cornish pasty can be bought from anywhere up and down the country… they’re really not that different from what you get in a decent pasty shop anywhere (Greggs and Ginsters aren’t even in the running, naturally). The ice cream’s better though, so getting a splodge of mint-choc-chip and another of salted caramel was kinda the bomb.
But really, I felt like I’d won something. I was tired, and I’d earned it. I’d taken the best part of an entire day out of my holiday to do something you normally couldn’t pay me to do… not ‘cos it’s hard, just mainly ‘cos it’s boring. But this walk is beautiful, and far from boring. It’s the kind of walk that breeds tradition. It needs preparation and time to rest; it means something once you’ve done it.
In all this ancient and mysterious history, the most mysterious figures of all were without a doubt the Great Circling poets of Arium. These Circling Poets used to live in remote mountain passes where they would lie in wait for small bands of unwary travelers, circle around them, and throw rocks at them.
And when the travelers cried out, saying why didn't they go away and get on with writing some poems instead of pestering people with all this rock-throwing business, they would suddenly stop, and then break into one of the seven hundred and ninety-four great Song Cycles of Vassillian. These songs were all of extraordinary beauty, and even more extraordinary length, and all fell into exactly the same pattern.
The first part of each song would tell how there once went forth from the City of Vassillian a party of five sage princes with four horses. The princes, who are of course brave, noble and wise, travel widely in distant lands, fight giant ogres, pursue exotic philosophies, take tea with weird gods and rescue beautiful monsters from ravening princesses before finally announcing that they have achieved enlightenment and that their wanderings are therefore accomplished.
The second, and much longer, part of each song would then tell of all their bickerings about which one of them is going to have to walk back.
-- Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
The walk back was tough, though. Much quicker because we went a different route, but it sort of stopped being fun about 20 minutes in.
I don’t often take holidays anymore. They’re too expensive and, as I’ve said in previous posts, you can’t take a holiday from yourself, so you better have someone to share it with. I was lucky to be surrounded by family and was never left alone (in a good way). I didn’t slink off to the clubhouse on my own for a few, and I got to duff up my nephews, and beat one of them at a motorbike game (although not by much).
There are aspects of the British camping or caravanning holiday that feel uniquely tied to our way of life, and for me it all revolves around the on-site facilities. I love the electric hook-ups, the shallets, the static caravans, the touring caravans, the tiny tents, the trailer tents, the quirky shower system that you somehow still have to pay extra for, the playground, the clubhouse.
Ah, the clubhouse. The centre of the whole thing. The little restaurant, the kids’ bar, the snooker table, the stage and the DJ booth, the adult bar, the mirror ball and the dancefloor where Musical Statues is the only game in town and somehow The Birdie Song is still inexplicably on rotation. I love it all; the shittiness of it; the naked cash-grabs, the mild bullying of the compere or the main act. All of it just makes me feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, and I don’t want to leave.
But stepping outside, there are beautiful moments of quiet to be had, on the beach, on the rocks, on the grass. That’s what this walk was about, because for my parents, that’s what a holiday in Harlyn is. For me it was always about Harlyn Sands; for them it’s about the beauty of Cornwall. And now I’m 35, I get it completely. My first love is always going to be the dimly-lit close quarters of the clubhouse, but those are ten a penny all along the south west coast line. But that little patch of Cornwall, between Harlyn and Padstow is a piece of timeless, quiet, humble beauty.
My foot still really hurts, though.