I wake up just after 5 and already it is getting light, the sky a purplish blue overhead. I am in my sleeping bag looking at the base of an ancient dry stone wall only 2 feet away from me as I come to and remember my strange sleeping arrangements for the previous night.
As my mind comes to life I roll over and take in an incomparable view: In front of me the tufty grass of a meadow runs a few metres to a thin sandy path beyond which the land disappears and the rest of my vision is filled with the sea and sky, the ocean gently rippling and whooshing against the cliffs below, half asleep in the early morning light.
I am sitting up now in my sleeping bag and across to my left I can sea bright pink streaks in the sky, harbingers of the late Summer sun that is about to rise like a god out of the Atlantic. There can’t be many hotels or holiday cottages that boast views like this and they’re all the better for experiencing them outside where I am amongst it, all my senses absorbed by the surrounding world.
There is something wild and mysterious about The Lizard. Even the name is unusual and unknown about (most people suspect it derives from the Cornish ‘Lis’ meaning place and ‘Ard’ meaning high).
I have come here to walk along the 37 mile section of the South West Coast Path that wiggles and meanders its way around The Lizard’s edges. I am doing it over a couple of days and sleeping out without a tent as I go. Starting at Helford at the top of this ‘semi’ island I would wander round Lizard Point – the Southernmost tip of the UK – before ending up at Porthleven on the North West corner.
There is something wild and untouched about this part of Cornwall, closer to the ruggedness of Bodmin Moor yet also lined with incredible coastline just as breathtaking as a Newquay or Porthcurno.
There is also something old fashioned and unchanged about many people’s way of life here. At Cadgwith on the East coast just North of Lizard Point, the slate grey roofs of the houses are cluttered on the hillside as it drops down to the small beach of the same fierce colour. On this small crescent of grey sand 3 trawlers are pulled up, the bright pnks and oranges of their paintwork bright in the midday sun. They are surrounded by coils of rope and enormous lobster pots.
There isn’t anything unusual about this in itself but I instinctively smile when I come across a wooden and stone building with bright turquoise painted window frames. Above the low open front door is what looks like a large piece of driftwood in which is carved ‘Cadgwith Cove Crab’.
Just the other side of the beach is another building which looks like a small barn where the repairs on the boasts takes place. Through a big set of wooden double doors I can see old chains and machinery. Above the doors are 2 more signs. One says Cadgwith Cove Grand Fishing Contest 1995 and below it 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in big blue letters. Whoever the winners and runners up were I can’t tell (the ink has long since gone) but it feels like this is the sort of place where someone would remember who they were.
Next to that is a sign that that says so much about the traditions of this place. It simply says ‘Buller & Hartley & their many friends loved to sing here on Summer evenings’. I had heard that the tradition of fishermen singing sea shanties like the classic ‘Spanish Ladies’ is still popular in these remote parts of Cornwall. There was something recognisably authentic about this.
Maybe I was imagining it but the unspoilt nature of The Lizard also extends to its wildlife. Often I would round a corner of a headland to see a jumping display of dolphins not far from the shore.
However it was at Porthleven that I witnessed something that seared an image indelibly into my memory. Porthleven Sands is pristine white sand curves North West as The Lizard morphs into the ‘mainland’ towards Helston. Porthleven Sands has notoriously severe currents that mean swimming is out of the question but at the Southern edge there is a set of rocks that stretch out into the sea like the open palm of a hand.
I tentatively clambered over these fingers of rock and dived into a 10 foot pool amongst the rocks. When I surfaced I was within almost touching distance of a young shag comically spreading its wings to dry in the sun. It eyed me with its bright green eye but was unphased by my presence. As I dived, wallowed and splashed next to this strange and most ancient of birds I suddenly froze, instinctively holding my breath. 10 metres away a huge grey seal – at least 6 feet long – was swimming past me its head turned to look at me with its large Labrador-like eyes and its back, sleak and mottled in the sun.
That evening driving back to the city the whole 48 hours seemed to me like some dream of a strange and imaginary foreign land. For a sheer unspoilt and ancient escape at a time when Covid has limited adventures further afield I cannot think of anywhere more mentally and physically stimulating than this Cornish outpost.