From the Camino addict’s point of view, there is more to Morwenstow than meets the eye, which is a very good thing, because not much meets the eye: a pretty ordinary looking old church, a farm cafe, an old pub and half-dozen assorted small dwellings. (Those unaware of this ailment called Camino Addiction, please go to <https://readingontheroad54893552.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/first-post/> on this site or google Camino, and you will find dozens of sites where walkers are talking incessantly about trails which start from various points in Europe and end in the Cathedral of Santiago in North Western Spain.) Of course, for the addict, the Camino is never far away. The foreshore in Minehead, the little tourist town where the South West Coast Path officially begins, is way-marked with shells. ‘Just decoration’ the young lass at the tourist office says, ‘No connection to the Camino’. But two weeks into the walk the Camino appears again, immanent and emphatic, an old love who won’t be forgotten, even though you are in this exciting new venture with this much younger road.
The official website for the South West Coast Path grades the section across the border of North Devon into Cornwall as ‘severe’, which is the highest in their four point scale of difficulty. Most through-hikers will take about 10 hours from Hartland Quay, the last hotel on the coast of North Devon to Bude, the first tourist town in Cornwall. We, very fortunately, have managed to book one of just 4 rooms available in Morwenstow, above the old pub called Bush Inn. So just 13 kilometres of treacherous roads rather than the 25 to Bude.
We had reached the Atlantic coast the day before, when at Hartland Point in Devon, marked only by a car park and a shack selling packaged soup, the Bristol Channel officially folds seamlessly into the ocean. From afar the Atlantic is still as a pond, rolling calmly off the edge of the earth. Closer up, sections of the stony shore have been slashed to shreds with vicious claws. Elsewhere, cliffs are chiseled into abstract angular sculptures which change shape with every turn in the path and this path wriggles like a snake, constantly, Boulders rise from the deep like temples.
The Atlantic is not the only architect of this scenery. These coasts have been stripped for slate and quartz for centuries. A variety of technologies for cutting and hauling stone have shaped much of the shoreline over which the current walking track is laid. With the quarries gone, the ocean has fully reclaimed its coast, which is eroding now, the papers say, at an alarming rate.
Our very own first hand experience of ‘alarming erosion’ comes an hour or so before Morwenstow. For various reason we are unusually late starting out. Our Hartland Quay hotel manager says ‘this is the most difficult day’s walking of the entire path’. We are more than usually apprehensive because we haven’t yet discovered that for the next 100 miles, every bar-tender insists that the next 10 are the hardest miles of the route. None of them appear to have walked much beyond the ten-mile radius of their pub. They do however know the near-by coast like the back of their own hands and can scare the daylights out of most outsiders (which is everyone who has not lived in that particular village for at least 30 years) with vivid descriptions of the rugged rocks and stormy seas.
The walk on this day is indeed gruelling. After about four hours of long climbs and sharp descents we enter the hallowed land of Cornwall, with due genuflection to WB’s (Walking Buddy) ancestors who left this lofty land for the sandy beaches in a flat land down under a hundred years ago. A few minutes after passing what might have been (not sure because one high rock feels much like another when you have been climbing all day) the second highest coastal cliff in Cornwall, about 230 metres above sea level, we arrived at what was definitely the end of the road, literally in the brambles, with no path ahead of us and where the right foot had to be placed precariously a foot below the left just to keep standing. A slightly bent wire fence separated us from the grazing cows on the hillside to our left! I’m not quite sure what was on the right; I wasn’t going to look. WB does not like crossing legal lines such as fencing. But this was no time to be finicky. We scrambled over the wires, fortunately not electrified or barbed, up the hill without a second thought and for once I was happy to be walking amongst cattle!
At the stiles, which we knew separated one paddock from another or paddocks from the path, we saw the small, mostly washed out piece of typed notice about the recent landfall, which has forced a re-direction of the route – yes, through this paddock! I guess we had missed the notice earlier on the path, at some point before it had fallen into the ocean, or the notice had been blown away.
Soon after this exciting diversion a church spire came into view. On the Camino almost inevitably the pilgrim sees the medieval church long before arriving in a village. But on the SWCP the distant view of an old church makes Morwenstow unique. Our hearts quickened with anticipation of our night’s stop as we arrived in front of a pretty ordinary looking two-storey building with a huge sign ‘Bush Inn: 13th century Freehouse’. My Camino Amigos will have guessed by now that this building had once given shelter to pilgrims on their way to Santiago.
‘The Bush Inn has a long history of hospitality dating back to 950 AD’, said the information sheet in our room. ‘It is believed at that time to have been the monk’s rest for those on the pilgrimage route from Wales to Spain who crossed Cornwall between the North Devon ports and Fowey.’ The South West Coast Path will later pass through Fowey, but alas, there are no more pilgrim boats from there to Northern Spain. Morwenstow to Fowey is about 420 kilometres. The Camino is coming with us, sort of, on this new journey we are on.
Post-script: It turns out that Bush Inn was expecting us on 30 June. When we didn’t arrive and they could not get us on the mobile number they had from our booking.com reservation, they called the only hotel in Hartland Quay, guessing correctly that, like most long distance walkers on this route, we would have stopped there on the day before getting to Morwenstow. Hartland Quay confirmed we were indeed there and the hosts at Bush Inn, simply moved our reservation to the next day, 1 July, with absolutely no penalty! As WB was profusely apologising to the wonderful surveyor-turned hotelier about putting him to so much trouble , the lady of the house explained to me quietly that they had been really worried about us: ‘Some walkers fall down you see and ‘ave to be fetched by helicopters. Mostly in winter of course. But cattle go over all the time. And dogs too…’
Yes, the walk into Cornwall takes your breath away in all sorts of ways. As our Morwenstow landlord put it: ‘the cliffs get MMOCCHH bigger as soon as yer’ cross into Cornwall from England’. We had crossed the second tallest Atlantic cliff in all of Britain today, he says, and tomorrow, we will cross the tallest.