Summer walks with the FT: Lizard Peninsula

I come back with a memento from my walk along the Lizard Peninsula – or, as it’s also known, the “Wreck Coast” or the “Graveyard of Ships” – with the historian and travel writer Philip Marsden. Sadly, it’s not a piece of smashed 17th-century trawler, or some buried treasure – which, Marsden’s research has told him, still exists, somewhere amid the cliffs of the Lizard Peninsula – but The Levelling Sea, the excellent book Marsden has written about the Age of Sail and the area around Falmouth. Fourteen kilometres ago, the book looked pristine, but now, soaked by the rain that leaks into my less-than-waterproof shoulder bag, a red, runny ink scar down its hardback spine, it could hardly appear more appropriately aged if I’d found it washed up on the rocks.

Marsden grew up in Somerset, but learnt to sail as a child at his grandfather’s house on the Fal Estuary in Cornwall. Two decades ago, he moved into the house itself, living a “solipsistic sea life” there until getting married in 1999. He knows this area intimately, and knows how much rain it gets, so unlike me he isn’t wearing a cardigan. Taking a glass-is-half-empty view of the situation, you could say that I’m depressingly soaked by the time we have negotiated our up and down, zig-zagging route from Coverack to the inland village of Manaccan, with its church that plays host to the bell from the Bay of Panama, a cargo vessel that sank not far from here on its way from Calcutta to Dundee during a blizzard (many of the crew froze to the rigging, after taking refuge up the masts). On the upside, for the last few miles I have reached a kind of rain tipping point: the God of Coastal Wet could spit his worst at me, and I doubt I’d notice it, or be more visibly bedraggled. It makes me think about a passage in Marsden’s book: “The sea cares nothing for us. Try to impose your will upon it and it will destroy you.”

When he’s not writing books or travelling, Marsden sometimes sails on an oyster dredger in Falmouth: the only oyster fleet in Britain that still operates by sail. He talks of a familiar, recurring character from these parts with “all sorts of problems in their personal lives, but who seem oddly comfortable when on the sea.” The former part, however, clearly doesn’t apply to Marsden himself. He’s an eloquent, attentive companion who constantly seems deep in thought. He’s a youthful, happy 50: possibly a result of an outdoorsy life that has included walking 600 miles in two months across Ethiopia and, more recently, a long meander through the hidden ancient byways of Cornwall to examine its antiquities and unknown treasures.

The churchyard at St Keverne, where the dead of the SS Mohegan are buried

After a pint of Cornish ale at the Paris Hotel at Coverack – named after the lavish American liner that ran aground off the adjacent Lowland Point in 1899 – we head inland to the church at St Keverne, whose lichen-heavy churchyard houses the bodies of the 106 who were killed the year before that when the SS Mohegan hit the dreaded Manacles: an infamously evil group of rocks less than a mile off the coast. The name, as Marsden explains, actually derives from the Cornish maen-eglos, or “church rocks”, but has taken on a darker meaning over the years.

It’s a foggy day, but as we walk along the clifftop, the Manacles are clearly visible: jagged black beasties as ominous as a half-submerged monster’s head, with blinking, piercing eyes hinting at a greater darkness below. Marsden almost shivers just to talk about them, recalling how a fellow Lizard Coast historian asked him to take him out there – the bass fishing around the deadly rocks is second to none – and he declined. Looking out, I feel the pull of them myself: a strange magnetic need to see the shine and texture of them up close, but the coast itself here is creepy enough: a disused quarry we have just walked through exudes foreboding.

So much is about the sea here, even a mile or two inland: from the churches to the houses we see with nautical roof gardens replete with mermaid busts and ship wheels. We’re only a few miles from Falmouth, but it feels farther: a combination of the high-hedged, one-car-width lanes, the literature about the revived Cornish Nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow, the blacked-out English Heritage signs and the wild ground. The sense of otherworldliness is emphasised when, just past Porthallow, we encounter some gunnera so huge, they make much of the flora at the Eden Project look ordinary.

In a way, our journey mirrors that of ships in the Age of Sail. OK, so we’re not worried about pirates – or the dastardly Killigrew family, the clan of royal-affiliated thieves who helped Falmouth grow out of a bog to be the port it is today – but there’s the feeling that if we can just get past this peninsula, the hard bit will be over.

Marsden tells me how Falmouth was the first safe place for ships coming from the south or across the Atlantic, a place “whose steep arc of growth reflects that of the era of sail, those ship-driven centuries that followed the Middle Ages”. If your vessel got beyond the Helford River – or, as it was known, “The Stealford River” – you’d be OK. We don’t get that far, and stop at Manaccan. It’s safe, leafy and kind of a cop-out, but perhaps sort of appropriate. My 19th-century equivalent, following the corresponding nautical version of our journey, clad in the inappropriate foppish attire of the day, would undoubtedly have perished by now.

The Levelling Sea: The Story of a Cornish Haven in the Age of Sail’ by Philip Marsden is published by HarperPress at £18.99

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