With a weekend to spare and fine weather forecast for several days, our thoughts turned to a spring journey on foot with a clear beginning and end, preferably combined with a theme that would add an extra dimension to the scenery.
Backpacking is not only about trekking through high mountains and crossing remote passes; it can be a relaxed and sociable activity. A modest coast to coast walk sounded ideal but where and how long would it take? The answer lay in the west. The Saints’ Way crosses mid-Cornwall from Padstow on the north coast to the south coast port of Fowey, a distance of some thirty miles.
It appeared to follow a varied course through valleys, woodlands, pastures, moors and villages and formed a pleasant two-day backpack across country combining scenery, history and plenty of opportunity to relax. Summer weight sleeping bags, light air beds, a good tent, stove and cooking gear made up the basics.
Although there is no real historical evidence of the existence of a true ‘Saints’ Way’, sections of the trail are known to be ancient routes connecting shrines, standing stones, holy wells, chapels and churches. Footpaths, bridleways, ancient tracks and country lanes have been linked together to form a fairly direct cross-county trail that ‘may well have been used’ by Christian missionaries and pilgrims in the Dark and Middle Ages.
It was also known as the Mariners’ Way and used by traders from Ireland and Wales who wanted to avoid the treacherous waters around the Cornish coast. Bodmin TIC provided the route guide and bus info we needed and we were off before the forecast changed.
Padstow proved delightful and the walk proper started at the lychgate of the church dedicated to St Petroc, Cornwall’s ‘national’ saint. We climbed out of the town and over several small creeks as we made our way alongside the Camel estuary to Little Petherick.
Here the Way turned inland and left the sea to head south – to the sea again. Ahead lay St Breock Downs with the blades of the wind farm’s towers visible from afar.
On the map, the Lonstone of Men Gurta or ‘stone of waiting’ seemed a good place to pause for refreshment but the clue of the wind turbines escaped us until we found ourselves deciding that the howling wind made Men Gurta rather less than attractive as a stopping point.
With an attractive section of old tracks, prehistoric remains, ancient bridges, farmsteads and hamlets ahead, we ploughed on with the wind at our backs to Withiel. After a pause for tea and rolls, we struck out for Tremore with the semi-sunken Withielgoose Lane offering a real flavour of ancient ways.
By and large, the Way is well waymarked, though many painted signs are very weather-beaten, and the route guide is clear. As ever, it paid to read ahead and to use the OS Landranger map as well (200, Newquay and Bodmin).
Shortly after Tremore lay Lanivet, the halfway point and our pre-arranged lucky pitch in a field owned by a friend of a friend; one of the uses of Facebook for lightweight camping. Plenty of fresh water from a garden tap and access to the loo were real bonuses.
An early start saw us high, relatively, on Helman Tor without a soul in sight. Indeed, we saw no other walkers on the route over our own two-day jaunt. A welcome breeze proved fleeting as we embarked on a longish section of ancient hedged drovers’ track that cut out the breeze and raised the temperature several degrees.
At Lanlivery, we paused to air feet and slake thirsts and it wasn’t long before we were chatting to locals about the village and the Way itself. Time slipped away but with many miles to go, we avoided the pub and upped the pace away from this really attractive, lively village.
The busy A390 came as a shock after our quiet meanderings but after a few hundred metres, we turned off and turned back the clock again as we descended a heavily rutted bridleway. At times, this seemed more like a stream bed than a bridleway and we thought we had made a route-finding error.
We hadn’t and soon emerged near Milltown. As with many places along the route, this apparent village proved to be a handful of cottages and a house that was once, long ago, a pub. From here, we followed the River Fowey down to journey’s end but, as is often the case, the miles to journey’s end seemed interminable.
Glimpses of the river and the picturesque church of St Winnow kept our spirits high as we sped along before dropping down to cheery Golant and following a high path across the Downs with wonderful views of the estuary.
A final section along the busy road was marred slightly by drivers who appeared to think that grazing walkers with the wings of their cars was acceptable behaviour. Another use for trekking poles was discovered as we swung them about with gay abandon and avoided injury.
A welcome beer hit the spot while we waited for a taxi back to Padstow and the car.
© John Traynor – from the Journeys Of A Thousand Words series