June 22, 2011

A walk on the wild side.

Travelers to England often head straight for London and up into the country’s domesticated rolling hillside. But off in the southwest corner is Cornwall, a craggy isosceles triangle jutting west into the Atlantic Ocean, filled with wild moors, old smugglers’ coves, storybook coastal villages, and Cornishmen who still say, when they cross their eastern boundary, they’re “going up to England.”

Settled by Celts who, like the dauntless King Arthur, resisted Anglo and Saxon influences, it has remained wonderfully insular. Westerly gale-force winds pounding “inhospitable” harbors often make it impossible to arrive by sea. Town names still bear Celtic roots; the countryside retains a pre-Chauserian, druidical ruggedness, and mysteriousness. And except for the British, who explore Cornwall with the fervor of building an empire, it remains, owing to its distance from the main cities, largely undiscovered by outsiders.

Cornwall, I can re-imagine the writings of Daphne du Maurier, and the lyrical schemes of Gilbert and Sullivan, is filled with ancient cliffs, steep bluffs, and narrow, sudden outcroppings of rock – in short, it is a splendid place to conduct a coastal exploration.

There is no better way to discover Cornwall’s littoral than via foot. You discover old cliff-top tin mines, which lie sprinkled along its northwest coast and inland for approximately 100 square miles. Out on ledges hanging over crashing seas, they seem heroic when seen through the fog and brilliant in the sun. Many have operated since the thirteenth century. In the nineteenth century, they triumphantly supplied the world with tin. Tin, unlike coal, is found in almost vertical lodes, and many of the mines with 2,000-feet-deep veins, run down the side of cliffs. In the 1870s, on an economic depression, mine owners withdrew their investments, miners emigrated to Australia and Peru – the next tin mining centers of the world – and the mines began to fail.

Now, walking through the area, one sees the gaunt, bare bones of the industry – rectangular engine houses about three stories high, made of the same majestic stone as castles in the Loire Valley, and elegant smokestacks of stone and brick. One of the delights of such a tour, are the people encountered. To our pleasure, we met-up with an old timer who walks the cliffs around Botallack Head, some eight miles north of Land’s End, waiting for an audience. With his dog and a handhwen cane, he tells of miners at work during raucous gales.

Before you go, get a good guidebook on footpath touring and a good pair of walking shoes.

p.o.i. the Eden Project

Mona and Felix "roughing it." Just kidding, or am I?


Mona said...

I do have hiking boots!

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

I do love Cornwall too. Enjoy!