Towards St. Michael’s Way

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Join Jackie Harding as she tells Cornish Story about her journey walking towards St. Michael’s Way in late Autumn last year. 

Towards the end of October, we met at the isolated railway station on the Hayle Estuary at Lelant. The wooden station building is now a house, weathered, with window boxes and a weather vane, rusty railings and a rickety garden bench. The autumn sun was setting as sea birds gathered and took to the sky, eastwards, reflections swooping among rocks, algae and blue painted boats.

The train arrived as light broke through the clouds, shimmering on the wet sand. Ticketed on board, we passed along the cobalt estuary, past a desolate boat yard. No one requested a stop at The Saltings and so we travelled directly to St Ives, the end of the line, to meet the final member of our band, Paul Evangeli.  A Greek Cypriot former underground train conductor turned Hackney housing officer, from Dagenham, Paul had not walked the Cornish Coast before.

Wielding a borrowed iPhone to record my observations in the dark and have them magically transcribed, we left the station, scrambling down a bank and under a tree. Already lost, like Hobbits out of The Shire, we followed a crazy golf course before we found the path passing the beach café on Porthminster Beach. The sand shone in the dying light; the moon half-visible.

Golden sands below hovered in the gloaming and merged with fading memories of small children digging by a stream on this same empty beach in another October. Rocks underfoot forced my attention back to the present as the footpath led through overhanging branches. Birdsong punctuated the twilight as we reached the baulking house where huers used to watch for shoals of pilchards. I listened for their cries in the layers of time but instead heard dogs barking, laughter and Paul’s stories of East End trains and buses, waiting times and queues.

I hang back and hear sea birds and the silence. Reflections play on the sand; ahead, bright lights of a conservatory with glass chandeliers. The route is diverted through hotel grounds past canoes and waterfalls, begonias and palm trees, to the car park at Carbis Bay Station.

Leaving the station, the sandy track gives way to squelchy mud. Paul shares experiences of sweat and hypothermia in the Territorial Army; I hear a chorus of late grasshoppers.  I am distracted from dire warnings of the Illuminati and a New World Order by a bat winging overhead. A blue light flashes over the sea and gorse bushes shaped by the relentless wind cast slanting shadows ahead.

Waves crash below as the path reaches a garden gate where a sign in a buoy advertises a reading from Ann Kelly’s A Snail’s Broken Shell. Her award-winning trilogy opens on the day of the total eclipse of the sun in August 1999 and, by celestial coincidence, shooting stars are in the Cornish sky tonight.  The meteors – vaporizing fragments of comet, ice and dust – appear like streaks of light in the firmament.

I hear whistling and rustling in the sand dunes. Bob points out Godrevey Lighthouse to Paul, who nods sagely. “Yeah, yeah, the ruby lighthouse.” Drawn by the constant surge of the sea to my left, I linger, my companions silhouetted ahead. Paul is speaking Greek when the train from St Ives appears out of the darkness like the Hogwarts Express and chugs right by us, snaking through the dunes. The track echoes with the hypnotic sound as the train vanishes.

Colorful lights shine from the new developments at South Quay in Hayle, but here across the water we are alone in the silence, feeling the weight of time.  We are walking in the footsteps of the first pilgrims and missionaries from Ireland and Wales who used this route when it was already ancient. St Michael’s Way, crossing the peninsula from Lelant to Marazion en route to Northern Spain, was safer than navigating the treacherous waters around Land’s End.

We pass a bird hide on stilts, a pillbox half buried in the sand and a footbridge over the railway. The sat nav on the phone does not work here so we navigate by the sea and the tower of St Uny Church. Autumn leaves on tarmac underfoot mark the end of our quest: The Badger Inn, Lelant.

Enjoyed reading this article? You can also read Jackie Harding’s article from last month by clicking here.

Photography credited to Robert Dooley.

Jackie Harding graduated from the University of London in 1987. With over 25 years teaching experience, she is also a published journalist and has an interest in teaching Creative Writing at university level.