In the week before Christmas, Andrew and I stayed in a centuries-old cottage in the Cornish hamlet of Coombe. It’s a homely place, safe in a quiet wooded valley, with a river running through it, sweet and clear, but relentless as time itself. Its rushing and babbling can be heard constantly from within the cottage, bringing peace and tranquility with a strange force and presence.
We arrived as the short winter’s day was drawing to its early close. The ancient white walls, thatched roof and warmth welcomed us in, but, not wanting to waste the waning light outside, we tugged on our walking boots and set out on the short walk to Duckpool beach, where we watched the sun set over Atlantic waves and round, tumbling, sea-worn rocks.
We returned with the roar of the sea behind us and the clean, salty air in our lungs, ready for a cosy evening of mulled wine and log fire, old books and board games. As I sifted through the well-stocked bookcase, I pulled out a copy of ‘The Vicar of Morwenstow’*, with musty pages and a faded hardback cover. Morwenstow, I knew, was a stone’s throw away from Coombe, so I selected this for my holiday reading and was absorbed straight away. First published in 1876, it told of an eccentric encumbent of Morwenstow church, Robert Stephen Hawker. The book carried me back to simpler, wilder times, a Cornwall of farming and labouring, of shipwrecks and smuggling, of superstitions and traditions. The landscape around me was brought to life, set within its own cultural and spiritual legacy.
The next day, we padded over the cottage flagstones to make coffee, listening to the ever-present sound of the river as we made our plans for the day ahead. I had read more of the vicar, Hawker, a poet who loved the Cornish landscape, and I hoped to discover some of the paths he trod. We set out from Morwenstow church, with its peaceful trees and sunlit roof, and crossed fields to join the coast path, with a low winter sun over us.
I had read in the book of one of Hawker’s favourite places to go:
“A little way down the side of the hill that descends in gorse banks and broken rock and clean precipice to one of the grandest caves, is a hut made of fragments of wrecked ships thrown up on this shore. The sides are formed of curved ribs of vessels and their entrance is ornamented with carved work from a figure head. This hut was made by Mr Hawker himself and it he would sit, sheltered from the storm, and look forth over the wild sea, dreaming, composing poetry or watching ships scudding before the gale dangerously near the coast.”
We found ourselves at the little hut, reading the poetry of more recent visitors, with the sea rumbling below us and the seabirds soaring by.
Walking onwards we descended and crossed a stream then climbed again and found Sharpnose Point, from which we could see along the coast, with the Atlantic rolling in in all its glory.
The week continued in much the same vein, with our boots becoming ever more mud-caked and our hair all the more windswept as the days went on. The coastline is wild, rugged and sweet. We had a windy walk across the beach at Bude, ending with a delicious lunch in Crooklets Bay cafe, and a scramble up and along the cliff to Sandymouth beach, as well as exploring Stowe woods. We paid a couple of visits to the ancient but cosy Bush Inn at Morwenstow, where we were served excellent steak and chips, washed down with good Cornish ale and cider. Back at the cottage, I continued my reading with a novel by the same author, In the Roar of the Sea, a somewhat fanciful, but no less engaging tale inspired by the real smuggler, Cruel Coppinger.
I would heartily recommend a trip to this little stretch of coastline, and as our second Landmark Trust stay (our first was on Lundy Island), I would also very much recommend their properties, which are so cosy and well equipped whilst retaining the character that only time and story can provide.
*By Sabine Baring-Gould. The title of this post is a quote from the book.