Once the majority of visitors have departed, and the long pull to Christmas with its shortening days and increasing gales is over, January is in some ways my favourite time of year. Daylight is almost imperceptibly growing again and we often find that gales and rain take a break for a while. We have grown used to the colours mainly being grey and brown, along with a lot of sticky mud and puddles, but just occasionally we get a diamond blue day which is breathtaking. Yesterday was one of those mornings: people were walking around smiling at one another, blinking in the sunshine and staring at the sea and the sky. I was awake early and had the urge to go to Gwennap Head, one of my absolute favourite places. It was a rare frosty morning involving de-icer and hard scraping of the windscreen with a Nectar card!
Gwennap is somewhere we talk about a lot on both our tours and in trip updates. Lying right at the end of Cornwall – in fact the most south westerly point of mainland Britain – it is wilder and more remote than the more famous Land’s End and, in my unbiased opinion, in terms of natural wonders kicks that more celebrated Cornish headland into touch. To get there you have to know where it is – down a long winding lane off not even the main road, which actually goes right through a farm and is often completely awash with mud and slurry. You may well have to reverse for a tractor or two, or a large 4×4 driven by someone unused to passing places and brambles. At the bottom of the valley lies Porthgwarra, with its solid granite houses, steep cobbled slipway and golden sand. A carpark can be found behind the seasonal cafe which serves up cake, ice cream and teas during the season (pay at the cafe to park, though it’s free at the moment). Porthgwarra is like the village time forgot, with its tunnels through the cliff built by miners from St Just to help access to the beach to collect seaweed as fertiliser. There are also some man made caves at the top of the cliff where pigs used to be kept, but which are now a perfect place for games involving smugglers or monsters. The village has a long fishing history, and small day boats are still to be found on the slipway during the summer.
It’s the wildlife which is just as much of a draw for nature enthusiasts. If you’re swimming here, never go too far out, because just beyond the cove is the infamous Runnelstone with its tidal race. Even on the calmest day, if there is a spring tide the sea here can look like a river, the current pouring past rocks and lobster pot buoys. You will be able to hear the mournful groaning of the Runnelstone buoy at the southern edge of the reef, a south cardinal which warns ships to give it a wide berth. The south west coast path can be accessed at the top of the slipway and this will take you up onto Gwennap itself. You can either continue to Land’s End, or do one of the circular walks marked on the OS map, though sticking to marked paths is a must to avoid further erosion of heathland habitat. You’ll see the daymarks which were built so that mariners could line them up against each other when out at sea and judge where they were in relation to that lethal reef, and at the top of the headland is the National Coastwatch Institute station. The colour of the rock here is extraordinary even on a dull day, and when the sun is out, the lichen covered granite glows a rosy gold. Looking westwards on a clear day, you can make out the Carn Base buoy and far beyond, the distant Isles of Scilly.
To be honest I rarely get very far, as I just end up staring at the sea through my binoculars. The interplay of tidal flow against seabed creates ideal conditions for feeding marine wildlife. Yesterday a squawking cacophony alerted me to the fact that the gulls were very interested in something – even without binoculars I could see the rush of fins through a blur of wings just out from the cove. Common dolphins! There were scores of them. There have been a lot round our coasts lately, brought in by mackerel and pilchards very closer to shore and the last three times I have been down to the coast for a walk I have seen them. Not this close in however.
I watched for a while and carried on round the headland on the lookout for choughs, kestrels and peregrine falcons which can often be seen here. During the late summer when the ground is ablaze with gorse blossom, heather and montbretia, rare butterflies and moths can be found and migrant seabirds spotted. These include the Balearic Shearwater, Europe’s only critically endangered seabird. It is rare not to see some kind of cetacean activity from Gwennap, from the small glinting roll of a porpoise up to the longer sleek curve of a minke whale. Patience of course is the key to watching any wildlife, especially animals which only have to swim to the surface to take a breath. At low tide, the rocks on the western shore of the headland are a resting place for grey seals, one of the rarest of all seal species but which we are lucky enough to find in abundance in this country. The NCI station is manned during daylight hours and its volunteers generally take a keen interest in the passing wildlife. In fact yesterday morning while I was there an email coincidentally pinged through from Carol who was on watch telling me about the dolphins, so I paid her a visit to say thanks.
Back to January: it is a month which people often simply endure. It’s midwinter, everything seems to be dead, and money is tight. I am starting to think of it though as a month in which to recharge, when living things – including me – are gathering energy for the year ahead and preparing for what it will bring. There’s already twenty minutes more daylight than there was at the winter solstice, and these sparkling blue days are all the more precious for their rarity.