Cliff-top hike at Morwenstow yields memories of Wrecker's Coast of Devon and Cornwall
WE'RE all fed up with winter and bewildered by the fact that it won't go away. Far better to take it on the chin and go with it.
Which is why I found myself at Morwenstow in the teeth of an icy gale recently. I know of no other place which is at once so dark and grim and brooding – Morwenstow somehow matches the weather we've been having. It is like a kind of glorious accessory to a gale.
The lonesome place, on the cliff-lined coastal border of north Cornwall and Devon, seems to reflect the Atlantic's mood when the great ocean gets all dark and angry.
To go there on a wild wintry day is to celebrate the very glories of this peninsula that most visitors wish to avoid. If everything is a matter of balance, as Oriental philosophers would have it, then experiencing Morwenstow in a tempest is this region's yin to the more popular summery yang.
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I love the place, and I love the feeling you get walking along the Wreckers' Coast in a storm. But, hobbling up the hill towards Morwenstow with a knee that suddenly hurt in the full brunt of the gale the other day, I was glad I'd arrived by car and not by beleaguered boat. Glad too, that there were no wreckers around to welcome me with a bang on the head.
That's the way it was for unlucky visitors a couple hundred years ago. If the razor rocks of Cotton Beach, Higher Sharpnose Point or cynically named Lucky Hole didn't get you, the locals would.
Not that the good folk of Morwenstow had to resort to setting up dodgy lights to lure sailors to their doom. The wind, the sea and those terrible rocks meant they needed no help in dealing with little ships armed with nothing more than canvas wings.
As good a place as any then, for an atmospheric end-of-winter hike, especially if you wait for a day when low, black clouds and sleet scud off the Atlantic to give you the full, authentic effect.
There is a National Trust noticeboard showing a map of the land they own and how you can walk from the famous old church, down to the sea-cliffs, and back by a different route.
Tucked in the valley behind the board is Morwenstow Church, nestling in its wooded graveyard overlooking the sea. Rooks caw and flurry about in the wind, which moans through the bent old trees as you cross the stile by the lych-gate.
The white ship's figurehead you'll see as you walk down towards the church marks the grave of Captain Peter and many of his sorry men, who died on the nearby razor-rocks in 1842.
They had been on the brig Caledonia out from Rio de Janiero via Syra, Smyrna and Constantinople when her luck began to wane. It started when she reached the eastern Mediterranean where the cook was badly injured in a knife fight with an innkeeper.
What a rude awakening those wine and sun-soaked men must have had when they saw the cliffs of the Sharpnose on that cold black dawn.
Captain Peter ordered the men up the rigging as the Caledonia was pushed on to the rocks by the hard-blowing north by north-west gale, but no sooner had they climbed it than the mast came down, killing most of them. There were only two survivors: one was a tortoise, which somehow managed to swim ashore to be collected by a local boy, and the other was mariner Edward le Dain, found much bedraggled, but alive, by a farmer the following morning.
If he had any luck at all it was that he had washed up here during the time of the Reverend R S Hawker, the eccentric, intellectual and humanitarian parson.
A couple of years ago more than 150 people from as far afield as Canada and Scotland gathered in Morwenstow to commemorate the disaster and bless the figurehead, which had been returned to the church after a four-year restoration project.
Among those present were descendants of Caledonia's crew who joined in a dedication to the new grave marker, which is a replica of the original figurehead that has been placed inside the church for safekeeping.
Let's begin this short walk by taking the footpath to the right of the church and passing down between the outbuildings of the vicarage which Parson Hawker built.
The house is now a private residence, but while you're walking by, have a look at the chimneys which adorn the place. They represent each of the church towers which had been relevant to his life up to that point.
Not far beyond the vicarage the path turns left down through a small wood to follow the stream at the valley bottom to the sea. This can be very muddy.
After ten minutes or so of bog-hopping you'll come to the sea, but don't get any ideas about exploring the beach. An attempt to descend the cliffs around here would guarantee you a passage to join Capt Peter and his crew.
The squeamish had better skip this paragraph, but the sharp rocks far below are so efficient at cutting up human limbs that Parson Hawker used to dole out brandy to the men chosen to search the shores for bits of body, known locally as "gobbets".
Armed with such thoughts, go easy as you ascend the coastal path to your left – it is horribly steep but well worth the climb because you will eventually reach the hilltop where a tiny side-path leads down towards the cliff-edge and Parson Hawker's famous hut. It is still there, thanks to the National Trust, and is reckoned to be one of the smallest preserved buildings the charity owns.
Please do take the detour down the zig-zag path to the hut, which stands just the way it did the day it was built out of ship's timbers and driftwood a century-and-a-half ago. Open the stable door to sit in the tiny room and the place makes a fine and cosy refuge from the wind.
In here, gazing out at the ocean, you can almost feel the mental presence of Hawker next to you, puffing away at his opium, dreaming up new ideas such as the Church of England's harvest festival and writing lines such as: "And shall Trelawney die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornishmen will know the reason why!"
Leave him to his musings and walk down to Higher Sharpnose, the headland you'll see lurking below, and frighten yourself by leaning out to watch the waterfall tumble into the abyss.
Then turn inland up the footpath that follows the Tidna Valley. About threequarters of a mile up, a steep footpath will take you due north directly up the ridge and back over to Morwenstow.