Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2006.09.20, Pt I : Asses and Holes in the Ground
"Outside was complete irresponsibility – waves of it breaking over a countryside – lawless roads, the reversed signpost, the desert pressing in."
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

    I was up early again (camping!), right on time for a truly fab cooked breakfast – and cooked by a really lovely old whiskered gentleman. I felt like calling him "Cookie" and asking if I could carry the tin mugs over from the wagon for him, or scrub the pots with sand down by the creek bank. And, really, the breakfast room was a really fab room. Upstairs, and cosy, and wood-panelled and just unexpectedly lovely. I was so moved, I shot a movie, which did not succeed in the dim light.

I shared this room and the meal with a single other guy, middle-aged, pleasant. On learning my nationality, he related that he used to work for Levis – and did four years in Marin County (the bit just north of San Francisco), then some time in NYC working on a B2B site during the boom. He warned me about some rumoured gale-force winds on the coast today.

    I broke down smartly, by 9:15; and got a more favourable forecast from the barmaid, along with a prediction of easy terrain on the stretch ahead. Stepping out into a cool, windy, and overcast day, I took a keepsake photo of the The North Inn, which had been good to me.

    Rather than backtracking through the town of Pendeen, to the coast at Pendeen Watch, instead I walked through the next-door town of Trewellard – and into the remains of a variety of tin mines. From the guidebook (a bit edited down):
For at least 2000 years tin has been extracted from the Cornish peninsula. In the early 19th century steam-driven pumps first allowed mines to be worked below the water table; with the invention of dynamite, shafts could be constructed to depths of over 300m, even below the seabed.
     Life in the mines was tough. Poor pay and extreme conditions led to a life expectancy of less than forty years. When the market collapsed due to cheaper sources being discovered in South America and Australia many Cornishmen emigrated.
    It's still said that wherever you go in the world, if you see a hole in the ground, you will find a Cornishman at the bottom of it. At any rate, all that was left here were the abandoned engine houses – and the hundreds of miles of underground shafts below. (This added a certain piquancy to any detour from the trail, as the signs depicted below will attest.)

    It was also windy as a son-of-a-bitch (that's the exact phrase I took time to write in the notebook, which was no doubt trying to fly away the whole time). It had been pretty windy overnight, but now the surf was starting to kick up. I took this photo by accident – trying to shoot a movie of myself in camera (not movie) mode. I think I got through my whole monologue before realising. I thought that first, frozen frame was funny. Here's the second take on the movie, as well.
Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

    In addition to blastingly windy (and getting more so), it was also deserted, and lonely. (I had that all-too-catchy Green Day "I Walk Alone" anthem going internally half the time.) When I hit the coast, I had to change out memory cards – facing the novel challenge of doing so without them blowing away.

Round about here, I rounded Cape Cornwall – just about Britain's only named Cape. It's also referred to as "the connoisseur's Lands End". (When you see the real Land's End, you'll know why we need one.)

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.
    This here was surely the most wind I'd ever seen yet – on this trip, or ever. I was still finding it entertaining at this point. (That would change.) Even with the lanyard, trying to wear the hat was an act of total pointlessness at this point. It now lived, balled up, in my bag.

    Off the scouring coast now, I stopped in the lovely peace of a valley to re-site my hat, and lick the sea-spray from my shades. But immediately after, I again found myself down on the flippin' beach. There was rusty mining equipment, which was interesting for 5 seconds.

     So this here sign just below I thought was very evocative in its illustration. But not evocative enough, evidently: As my notebook notes, "Ah! Coal mines. This is the part where I'm not supposed to deviate from the path. Ignore warning, cue Indiana Jones theme." In point of fact, the original path up into the hills looked lovely, and the new-ish detour down by the beach looked kind of crap. All that was keeping me from taking the former, much nicer path was this one little 8-ft stretch of totally unstable trail. (If you looked down on either side of it there, you'd see a whole lot of nothing – including underneath; it was a kind of crumbling-soil arch bridge.)

But, short as it was, I figured it could hardly collapse faster than I could dash across it. I was right, but I got my just desserts: not too much further along, despite my predictions of walker's nirvana, the path merely petered out into rough scrub. And I found I was also on too steep a hillside to cut straight down to the beach from there. Finally I had no choice but to turn back and give the collapsing path another crack at me. Real smart.

    "And here, we have a field with three asses." (Not a five-assed monkey, but what can you do.) It was also along here that I considered that the blackberry bushes' reproduction strategy was working a treat – they'd spread the entire length of the man-made coast path. A kind of symbiosis: they feed us, and we show them new worlds to conquer. (This notion was reinforced a bit later when I spotted what looked, precisely, like a blackberry turd.)

I passed a nice pair of through-hikers (those are the people, us, who are totally cooler than day-hikers). They were a father-son pair, also camping. It occurred to me that Pops would possibly like this. Perhaps a retirement activity.

    So, also a slight diversion inland was the hamlet of St. Just. However, it had a reputation as an artists community and a lovely place, so I figured maybe it was worth the slog. It is also the most westerly town in Britain – the first and last, as they think of themselves. Whether first or last, it took some finding; and, ultimately, it seemed more as if I had found it by chance than design, or navigation. When I arrived the time was… well, you can see for yourself.

I was bopping down one of the three or four streets that made up the town centre, looking for the guide-listed St. Just Tea Room, when I instead came upon The Cook Book: "St. Just's Cafe-Bookshop, feeding the body and mind." And how, really could that be wrong? I ducked in.

    The interior was winning as well – your basic sweet English tearoom, but with shelves of books on most of the walls, all of which were for sale. (The books, not the shelves. Nor the walls.) And when I thought things couldn't get cutesier, I saw the menu – in addition to offering "Cheesy, Garlicky Beans on Toast" – had this here → sweet supplication. Cor. And the back of the menu had the poem "The Lane", by Edward Thomas, which begins:
"Some day, I think there will be people enough
In Foxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane, where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse"
    So after all these days and miles of enduring dwarflessness, reclamation, it seemed, was at hand. The CookBook also had the prettiest loo I'd enjoyed in some time. I emerged from it ten minutes later – a new, lighter, and thinner, man. They even had fresh roses in there! (Good thinking.) I was on my way out when an 18-week-old golden retriever showed up "had a play" as the proprietors put it, with Aggie.

    Actually, in fact, it was when I was really on my way out, paying, and telling the proprietress what a really cracking place I thought it was, that disaster struck: she informed me that the real, much larger, book area was upstairs. And that I should have a look. "Oh, no, no, no," I demurred. "I'm a compulsive book-buyer, you see. And I'm walking 160 miles. Not a good idea, at all. Really not the thing. Thanks, keep the change. Thanks so much for everything, it was lovely. Those stairs right there? Ah. Well, maybe, you know, I can just stick my head in the room, just to see the room. I'll be safe if I don't actually look at any spines."

I emerged 25 minutes later, with an armful of books. "I nearly made it out," I grimaced. "Seriously. I was literally turning to leave, literally swivelling my body toward the stairs… when I saw the whole shelf full of orange spines." I'm a total sucker for 50s- and 60s-era Penguin Classics. I paid for my Bernard Shaw and Somerset Maugham, ran straight down the street to the Post Office, and posted them to myself. Took about 4 minutes. And, with postage, I calculated, it was all still cheaper than buying the same books in London. Not that that mattered.

From there, a quick run into the newsagents for batteries – as well as a new notebook. Not a moment too soon: I was literally down to the last line in the previous one. The new one was silvery and sparkly; like a mirrorball. [I'm looking at it now, as I type, naturally enough.] Then a friendly public toilet (where I wrote this); and into the two fresh fruit and veg places on the square, one of which being a health nut shop. I bought some of those dried apple rings you know I like.

Going for the hat trick, I attempted one last coup: there was a pharmacist in town – and I'd seen a computer in the back room. Could they burn me a CD? I wouldn't know until they reopened at 2pm.

While killing time and kickin' it (old school) in St. Just, I turned on my phone, mainly to text the URL "www.just-arts.co.uk" to D, so she could check out the scene. While the phone was on, a voice message came in, from a recruiter. It began: "I know you're on holiday, but…" (*) I still had 10 minutes to kill when it belatedly hit me: Oh! The church!

"Dear Lord, we hope that there be no shipwrecks, but if there be, let them be in St. Just for the benefit of the inhabitants."
- Parson Amos Mason, 1650
    The guidebook indicated the church here was a cracking place, not least for "its two splendid medieval frescoes: St. George and Christ of all Trades." So it was. You've got to like a Christ of all Trades. I got inside as the clock struck two – and there was his beatitude himself: St Just. I was particularly knocked out by these ancient Union and English flags, which just dripped character. It turned out that one of them – called "The White Ensign" and given to the church by Cpt. Russell Grenfell, RN – was actually the flag flown by HMS Revenge during the storied Battle of Jutland in May 1916. There were 15th-century paintings on the wall. I also found a Book of Remembrance for St. Just lads killed in the WWII. I read about Albert Ellis, born 1917, who enlisted on D-Day – and was killed before the year was out. He was an only son; and left a wife and daughter behind. It was really a remarkable church – drawing you in at every turn with historical notes and markers and artefacts. On my way out, beside the door, I found an inscribed listing of the rectors, then vicars, of the church – all of them, from 1297 to 1987. I think Americans find it very, very hard to imagine such continuity.

The nice, old, apologetic gentleman who ran the pharmacy told me Penzance was my next best bet for burning CDs. Heigh ho. For towels! For CDs! (For pirates!) For Penzance!


2006.09.20, Pt II : The Old Suck-Ass Inn
"Did I really expect to find there what I hadn't found here? 'Why, this is hell,' Mephistopheles told Faustus, 'nor am I out of it.'"
- Graham Green, The Lawless Roads

The Lawless Road
    So I dug a nectarine and an apple out of my bag, and dropped 'em in my pockets, for the trail; squared my shoulders to the wind; and hit the road! Great stop, that, St. Just. Angling back toward the coast, I used my compass for probably the 1st or 2nd time on the entire trip (but of course you can't not have a compass), just to reassure myself that the public footpath I'd stumbled onto was actually going my way.

It was, though it first led me through the middle of a field of cows – cows who seemed really surprised to see me. And, even despite the absence of bulls (I can tell bulls from cows now, I assure you, and I checked), I found myself strangely apprehensive about sharing the field with these huge animals – and despite having done just this 105 times last year on the C2C. Maybe it was due to being alone for the first time. On this one, I was always going to be the slowest guy running away from the bear.

Navigationally improvising, to my detriment, I found myself following some tractor paths that dead-ended in a cabbage field. I could actually see the coast from there; but I couldn't climb the damned hedgerows. (Not without over-exposing myself to shotgun blasts, or at least sharp language, from farmers.) Backtracking, I encountered a woman with two pooches.

Me: "Nice day for it."
Ww/2P: "Yes, it's been lovely for days."
Me: "Since I started this walk, in fact. God's smiling on my holiday. You have me to thank."

I could tell by her expression that my attempt at wry humour wasn't coming off – and that, in fact, she was taking me for one of those self-anointed American God-botherers, who genuinely thought I knew God, and that God was doing me favours. Oops.

Despite having passed up scaling the hedgerows on this occasion, I also realised that, overall, I was actually becoming less risk-averse since going solo. This for two reasons, I think:

  1. I wasn't endangering anyone else by my dare-deviling – asking them to follow me down some dicey path, or across a cliff-edge boulder field; and – and this took some sussing out –
  2. I also wasn't risking anyone else's holiday by expecting them to carry me off the mountain, go for help, or nurse me while someone else went for help, should I bite it myself.
The flip side of 2, of course, was that there was no one to carry me, go for help, nurse, etc., if I happened to bite it. Basically, any serious injury was markedly more likely to result in my (lingering) death. (*) Thus the dilemma of the solo through-hiker.

Coastest w/the Mostest
By and by, I did achieve the coast again. My path forward hugged same, flanked by flowering gorse,

A Gorse Of Course
and soothed with a mild onshore breeze. Nonetheless, after the wild ride of the morning, my hat was still safely tucked away. I didn't know this pleasantness was a mere interregnum between the earlier harbingers of windy doom, and… what was yet to come. Perhaps I somehow sensed it. As I stopped to make a few more notes, I began to think maybe I was getting the rhythm of this again.

Getting the Shaft

They Went THATaway
← New, even more terrifying, mineshaft graphic. → Winner, in a competitive field, for most confusing National Trails waymarker.

Get the Flash Player to see this movie.

I think I was pissing off another cliff when I chanced to look up: "What the hell?!" It looked like a huge flapping kite overhead (not the bird kite, an actual kite kite) – but was in fact an enormous, hovering bird of prey. I shortly met two guys doing the Porthcurno to St. Just slog (and looking completely knackered), who told me it was actually… a buzzard. Bit of a let-down, that.

    As the weather started to kick up again, and a bit of mist roll in, I suddenly realised, a propos of nothing, one huge reason why I like these kinds of trips: Basically, you're somewhere different everyday. You're always pushing on (to new frontiers); you never cover the same ground, or double back, or deal with the same people or places twice. And yet, and yet, at the same time, you have a very consistent daily routine – walk, rest, walk, make camp, drink, eat, sleep, wake, break camp, repeat – a constant rhythm, which is comforting. I like routine. I hate wherever I am and whatever I've got.

    More tempting piles of rocks, and I tried out another clamber, this time without taking the pack off. Had quite a close call with a turned ankle here. Note to Self: When jumping down a foot or more, fully-loaded (and thus weighing 20% more than normal), do double-check that the surface you're jumping onto – and not just the grass overlaying it – really is flat.

So let me tell you: a few hours of walking through incessant sea-spray makes a body nearly implausibly icky-feeling. Yech. Feeling all icky, I passed two people intently rooting around amongst the beach boulders. "Lose something? A contact lens? A friend?" On the last stretch into Sennen Cove, I took one last slash by the side of the path: "Sorry about pissing on your fence! Maybe you should have ELECTRIFIED IT!" Jesus, I was getting slap-happy. It was a long damn five miles (from St. Just to my terminus) – or perhaps I was turning into a wuss. I shot this here beetle for Mark. (Old habits.)

So finding the Whitesands Lodge – which the guidebook raved about through an entire paragraph which began, "A stunning independent hostel…" – involved a fairly ass-ramming climb up from the beach, along a broken 4x4 track; and then a 10-minute walk down a road to… well, to nowhere, as it turned out. But it took me awhile to find that out. While I still thought I was going the right direction, I passed a man, who was passing a woman.

Man (to me, sotto voce): "There's a footpath. And there's a lady, walking in the road."
Me: "That's women for you."
Man: "Ha ha! I didn't say that!"
Me: "Leave it to me."

About 20 minutes into the 10-minute walk, when the road was petering out, and there were no more structures, hostels or anything else, on the horizon, I went back to the guidebook. On closer inspection of the map, it suddenly appeared that the normally unimpeachable Trailblazer Guide people have, on this occasion, wildly unhelpfully drawn in an arrow pointing left up the road, beside the words "Whitesands Lodge, 10-15 minutes". When, again, on closer inspection, the Whitesands Lodge itself was clearly drawn in – in what turned out to be its actual location – much lower on the map, and thus not jumping out at you, and a stretch decidedly right down the road. Right, then. It was a nice night for a walk. Back I went.

I passed the 4x4 track to the beach again; and beyond that the real road seemed to take a number of turns that the map road did not. ("The map," I recalled from the old adage, "is not the terrain.") But, despite my growing apprehensions about all of this, and the rapidly encroaching darkness, the Whitesands Lodge finally appeared more or less where it should have been. It was where it should be, but was no longer what it should be. Approaching, I saw a "Vacancies" sign. Entering the lobby, I found it rather more posh than I would have expected. Inquiring at the desk, I learned several things, in awkward sequence: there was no longer any camping out back; there were no bunkbeds, or shared rooms, only plush private doubles and family rooms; and they absolutely did not take any single-night bookings. Ah. Goodbye, then.

I emerged back onto the road, which was now disappearing into the gloom, to try my luck elsewhere. I began the long slog toward town. But, as I slogged, I also started ringing, on my mobile, the local B&Bs listed in the guidebook. The first one did in fact have vacancy: at £40 for a single room! I hung up. I continued slogging, toward a B&B I could actually see a bit further down this road. Price tag: £50! The book indicated that one should charge £10.50. Clearly, Sennen Cove had been gentrifying. Tired, desperate, I rang back and booked at the first place, which at least was on the water.

But it was a long damn slog down to the water; and it was now pitch dark. I toyed with the idea of calling for a cab, but decided I'd sooner be damned. I thought about the room waiting for me: £40 – but, hey, I'd been 6 nights in a row out of doors, I was gross, I'd get an in-room shower, clean sheets… I could even do laundry in the sink! Immediately upon arrival – at the Old Success Inn, Sennen Cove – the shattering of my various dreams commenced.

First, I spent the better part of 15 minutes in the tiny lobby, waiting to be checked in. Standing stupidly before the desk, which was also halfway inside the lively restaurant, wearing a huge pack, after a 9-mile walk, in blasting sea-spray, I was feeling a little out of place. A little conspicuous – with diners coming in and out – there in my huge pack, filthy clothes, and sunburn. The proprietor finally saw to me, gifting me with room key on a truly absurd, monster, unwieldy keyring. The kind you not only can't steal, but you can't even put in a pocket. I cradled it and trundled numbly off.

I found my way upstairs, stopping once in a TV lounge to ask directions from a reclining maintenance guy, found the room, manipulated the Silly Key, opened the door… and found that it was not a room at all, but a closet. A £40 closet. And also, I was able to determine after no more than 2 seconds of searching, there was no bathroom in it. £40 for no en suite? Oh, sod it. It didn't matter. It was still a luxury, and I was still going to enjoy it.

I stripped off my hiking battle gear, peeled off my salty clothes, wrapped a towel around my waist… and proceeded to dodder around the hallways for 5 minutes looking for the shared bathroom. There wasn't one. I made my way back to the TV lounge. "Okay," I said, to the maintenance guy, clutching my towel (me clutching my towel, not him), "I'll bite. Where do I shower?" It turned out I did have a private bathroom – it was just not en suite, but on the other side of the hall from my room, behind a totally nondescript, locked door (which I'd thought, if I'd thought about it at all, was a supply closet). Okay. Fine.

I poured myself inside, fired up the shower, washed my hair… and then the water sputtered and went out. Entirely. Half-lidded, hopeless, dripping, I exited the shower, and went back down to the lounge – still in my towel, just a lot wetter this time. The maintenance guy advised me to wait in my room while he sorted the water. I began washing clothing in the sink (which, slightly annoyingly, still had water). The guy knocked on the door: I was sorted. I finished the shower. I finished washing clothes. I laid my socks out on the heater – on full blast – and hung my shirt and drawers in front of the window – wide open. ("People of Sennen Cove! Behold my underpants!") I decided the keyring was absurd, and I'd have nothing to do with, and removed the room key from it entirely. I then repaired to the bar and half-greedily/half-dazedly ordered a pint of Skinner's lager.

From notebook:
"Now I sit at corner table, wildly scribbling all this, and trying not to let the bellowing children – and the even more loudly bellowing huge puffy horrible woman – at the next table ruin my enjoyment of sitting down and not having boots on my feet, nor lodging on my back.
    On the upside, there are a lot of 'V's on the menu – and the puds section includes 'Figgy Pudding.' (And bring it right now.) I can also see the surf and the next couple of points of land out the window beside me."

Pretty and Depressing
    After a pint and a scribble – and checking in the room to make sure my laundry wasn't on fire – I took a night-time stroll down the promenade, alongside the main (and only) drag. Pretty – but this really was a one-seahorse town. I was kind of already looking forward to getting out of it. But in the meantime: tonight I'd sleep in a bed! How cool would that be? I ambled back into the pub/restaurant for the dinner phase of our operation.

At which my mood was instantly dragged back down again: The guy behind the bar insisted on me paying for my dinner order separate from my last drink order. On the former, he gave me back 10+ quid all in coins – they don't say "sound as a pound" for nothing; and it's not because of their suitability for carrying around on 12-mile walks – but then grudgingly offered to change it back into notes with the drink order! Basically, this place – The Old Success Inn – was rubbish. Advise avoiding (if you're ever, admittedly rather unimaginably, in Sennen Cove). I also settled on an official bastardization. Several suggested themselves, but none were the equal of "The Old Suck-Ass Inn".

Route Follower Alongerer :

Tomorrow: At Long Last Land's End – And Then 6 Miles of Increasingly Dicey Walking, Terminated by a Gale-Mandated Emergency Stop in Porthcurno

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close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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