As we take those initial tentative steps out of lockdown and towards freedom, we are once again afforded the possibility to cast our attentions a little farther from home.
To conclude their lockdown series, exploring their local landscape in West Penwith, Pete Geall and Jack Johns embarked on their own version of a pilgrimage from north coast to south - following an ancient path trodden for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The ‘St Michael’s Way’ is a one day, coast to coast pilgrimage route in West Cornwall. The ancient path has been in use by travellers, pilgrims and missionaries since pre-historic times. Pilgrims from Ireland and Wales followed this route on their long and arduous journey to the tomb of St James situated in the city of Santiago de Compestela, Galicia, North West Spain.
Conscious of the treacherous waters off Lands End and Cape Cornwall, many pilgrims would’ve opted for the safer overland route from Lelant, St Ives before rejoining another vessel in Mounts Bay on the south coast.
The 13.5 mile walk which cleaves the Penwith peninsula from the rest of Cornwall, takes on a satisfying narrative arc. One that begins on the sea, climbs to one of the highest points in West Cornwall, before returning once again to the sea.
I’d discovered the walk accidentally, having spotted the distinctive, stylised ‘scallop shell’ emblem embossed on a wooden way-finding post on another walk. Curiosity piqued, my research at home quickly hatched into a plan with photographer Jack Johns.
During recent times, we have both taken to exploring close to our homes. Expanding our spatial awareness of the terrain and drawing on the past experiences of local inhabitants to illuminate our understanding of current events. Regular readers of the Finisterre Broadcast might have joined us as we retraced my daily lockdown walk around my home in Newlyn - the lessons learned within a short walk from my house, helping me make sense of the choppy waters ahead. Or viewed Jack’s lucent photos of the summer solstice at a local, enigmatic stone circle - the steadying presence of ancient monoliths providing solace at a time of profound change in our lives.
The ‘St Michael’s Way’ seemed like a logical conclusion to our lockdown series. Taking in a variety of Churches, holy wells, myths and ancient history along its route through the bucolic countryside of the Penwith peninsula.
Not ones for following paths or religious dogma at the best of times, Jack and I decided instead to embark on our own pilgrimage along the route. Marking both our respect for the West Cornish landscape and the start of a new beginning, as the county begins to cautiously open up to visitors for the summer season.
The pilgrim paths that snake through Europe are well worn. During the Middle Ages, the Camino was responsible for the largest movement of people in Europe: millions of people, both rich and poor, made their way to the city of Santiago de Compestela, where the pilgrim mass and certificate of pilgrimage ensured they would reduce their time spent in purgatory. The personal journeys of the men and women who embark on the Camino continue to be as uniquely individual as the contour lines that map our fingerprints and flecked hue of our eyes.
It was this concept of individual pilgrimage that interested us; a common destination reached in an entirely personal manner. A riff on the saying: ‘Same mountain, different paths’. The following is our version of the beginning, middle and end of ‘The Way’. A hill, bookended on both sides by the sea.
The ‘St Michael’s Way’ begins at the churchyard of St Uny Church, Lelant. It was here at the Hayle estuary that the pilgrims would’ve disembarked from their boats before beginning the trek overland.
On a quiet mid-week morning, the church is a model of calm serenity. Having been intentionally left to nature, the old graveyard is bustling with wild meadow flowers. Tufts of marram grass poke out of the dunes that frame the Hayle estuary. Apart from a handful of golfers making good use of the bright, if blustery weather, there is no-one around.
We are on the look out for a specific gravestone - that of the artist Peter Lanyon. His oeuvre, shows a deep reverence for the West Penwith terrain. Paintings such as ‘Trevalgan’ (1951) capture an abstract, spherical landscape, criss-crossed by fields and circled by the sea. Figuratively combining the distinct elemental qualities of West Cornwall into a whole. Lanyon saw the area as a holistic experience, comprised of industrial, agricultural, spiritual and mythical aspects. His later work became heavily influenced by his aerial flights over the peninsula in a glider.
Poking around at our phones we discover in a twist of fate that it is exactly 60 years to the day that Lanyon took his first solo-glider flight. Inspiring his soaring work ‘Solo Flight’, an experience that afforded him:
“[a] sense of solitary quietness and sharp awareness of the substance of the ground below.”
Passing underneath the branch line to St Ives - we go for a quick dip at Porthkidney beach, collecting some seawater in a small bottle. In the past the pilgrims would’ve collected holy water from a number of natural wells along the route, to deliver as offerings to the ‘Giants well’ on St Michaels Mount. Keen to reinterpret this ritual, it felt more fitting to make a personal offering to the two coastlines that have given us so much joy through our surfing lives.
Inspirited by Lanyon’s artistic attempt to present West Cornwall as the sum of its parts. We aimed to reunite the north and south coasts by physically carrying them through the topographical, historical and mythological locations along ‘the way’.
The kit that takes you there...
Passing the newly constructed and currently redundant Carbis Bay Hotel, we start to gain elevation as we leave the relative urban setting. The narrow, winding Steeple Lane leads up to the John Knill monument, an imposing triangular needle placed here as a memorial to the eccentric mayor who died over 200 years ago.
The path joins Laity Lane, before making its way through some scrubby farmland dotted in battered equestrian equipment. We furtively sneak into a field to get a better view of Beersheeba Menhir, an ancient standing stone, 10.5ft tall. Jack gets a belt from an electric fence - I laugh momentarily before succumbing to the same fate.
Trencrom hill marks the half-way point of the walk, there is a pleasing balance to the symmetry of its position. We fill our water bottles from the natural well, hidden under the tor and enjoy lunch upon a granite slab warmed by the sun. From the summit of Trencrom, you gain a panoramic view from St Ives Bay right round to Mounts Bay. Allowing the rare perspective of seeing where you have come from and where you are going.
“While I’m moving about the country here, with all the history underfoot, I find the sky on my back as I climb the hills and the sea behind me, then at my side.”
Dropping down from the heights of Trencrom, we finally gain shelter from the westerly winds which have incessantly buffeted us from the start. From here we plan on stopping in on a friend of Jack’s at the village of Ludgvan, before skirting past the beautiful sculpture garden at Tremenheere.
A verdant tapestry of woodland, field networks and streams trickle down the valley below. We shed our shoes to cross the Red River at a ford at the base of the valley - the water worn granite slabs press satisfyingly into our rubbed arches. The river continues down towards Marazion where it will meet the sea at Mounts Bay, close to where our journey will conclude.
Like those small streams that feed the Red River, the ‘St Michael’s way’ is itself a tributary to the main pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago. Having walked a few sections of the Camino on a surf trip to Galicia a number of years ago, I had found myself drawn to the peripheral stories from the pilgrimage. Stories that offered an insight beyond that of the typical narrative focus on the oft repeated axiom: ‘The journey is the reward’. Tales which spoke of an end as well as a beginning.
I read that some walkers, not content with reaching the spiritual conclusion of the pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela, now continued on the final 100km or so to Cape Finisterre. There they seek a finality to their endeavours, a true end of the road. A smaller minority still, take it to another level, in an act discouraged by the local authorities: The literal burning of their hiking gear and belongings at the Cape. The blackened and charred remains of polyester hiking clothes, seared fast to the granite promontory and my memory ever since.
Jack and I didn’t feel the need to burn our material belongings at the Mount. The day long amble hardly comparable to the month long spiritual journey of the full length Camino. But the phoenix-like act of burning of ones spiritual and emotional baggage did have its appeal. With three months of lockdown coming to end, it felt appropriate to draw a line in sand under the upheaval, fear and profound change we have all been through.
Despite having timed our walk carefully to coincide with the afternoon low-tide (so that we could cross the tidal causeway to the island), we had forgotten to check whether the mount was open for visitors. It was to be that our pilgrimage ended abruptly at a padlocked gate on the perimeter wall of the island castle.
Whilst I didn’t mention it to Jack, I had been worried that our journey along the limits of the Penwith peninsula was a subconscious pissing exercise - a crude attempt to mark the boundary point of our home. But in the end, the walk felt more celebratory. A conduit between the two coasts we have both spent a significant portion our surfing lives immersed in. Inspired by the work of Peter Lanyon, we attempted to fuse the disparate dots of coast and land into our personal and holistic interpretation of home.
Retracing our steps back along the uneven granite causeway, we poured the sea water we had collected from St Ives Bay into the wind protected side of the path. It felt different than how I expected: A cathartic reconciliation of the two coasts. The reuniting of two close but distant neighbours that have been separated by a tall hill for a long time.
The journey over, we stripped off and flopped enthusiastically into the shallow tidal flats, letting the cold water wash away the accumulated dirt of the walk.
Our pilgrimage along the St Michael’s Way was an affirmation for our love for Cornwall and a timely reminder to overcome the many hills in our lives - no matter how insurmountable they seem. Whilst our personal pilgrimage over the summit might differ, the swim together at the other end will be always be worth it.
For more information on St Michael's Way or to find the route for yourself, visit the British Pilgrimage website here.