Coasting along in Cornwall (2019)

A runner’s view from the path near Land’s End

A personal account of a runner’s holiday heaven, published as part of Runner’s World’s “My Favourite Run” series in August 2019.

IT ALWAYS starts the same way: hours of scenic west-country traffic jams; fumbles with a rusty key-safe; a bleary-eyed bundling of people and luggage into a creaking rented cottage. It’s not everyone’s idea of a dream holiday destination, but it works for me.

The excitement starts on the first morning, for me at least. A fitful night’s sleep is terminated prematurely by unaccustomed farmyard noises. There’s more bleary-eyed fumbling (running kit, this time); a tiptoed exit; a blinking emergence into a grey Cornwall lane. 

The run starts as a stiff shuffle. Luckily, there’s no one around to watch. The lane soon peters out; so does the subsequent footpath. I’m jogging by then, following a line of down-trodden earth across a field of cabbages. It barely looks like a path, but my brain’s too sleepy to re-route, and the gentle slope draws me down.

All this was an adventure the first time: a tentative exploration that might have led nowhere. It led instead to a running route that matched my needs so perfectly that I have been dragging my family back for the same holiday ever since. Even now, re-running it landmark by landmark in my head, I feel the momentum building: the wooden gate, the springy path through the gorse, the first rocks of the steep descent to the sea. With each stage, my engagement with the landscape increases. 

The path deteriorates as it steepens. My brain is soon at full throttle. Even at cautious, first-day-of-holiday speed, it’s hazardous. My muscles, too, are becoming animated, trying to maintain a semblance of control as the gravity starts to bite. Yet the gravity also does most of the work. By the time I’ve skidded down to beach-level, I’m wide awake – yet barely out of breath. It has all been downhill so far.

The path now crosses a shingly bay, with seal-grey waves flapping in the fresh sea on my right. Is that a sea-mammal’s snout by the rocks or just a sharper-than-usual ripple? There’s no time for more than a few sidelong glances before I’m starting up the path on the far side: a line of crude mud steps cutting up through bracken and brambles directly to the next cliff-top. It’s shockingly steep, but once you’ve started there’s nothing for it but to keep going. I don’t push myself – I’m on holiday – but I do maintain the rhythm: one stride, one step, irrespective of difficulty. I’ve no idea how long it takes, but there’s a sweet relief when the path levels out. I am drenched in sweat and breathing in desperate gulps. Yet the struggle is washed instantly from my mind as a thrilling realisation floods in: I am no longer hemmed in by vegetation and slope but, instead, am gazing out from a cliff-top over thousands of miles of shining Atlantic ocean. All my troubles shrivel to nothing in the face of its brilliant vastness. The clean sea-breeze fills my lungs, and I remember who I really am. This is freedom, I tell myself. This is happiness. This is where I belong.

Then the real run begins. 

Just writing that sentence makes my neck tingle – yet how can I describe what follows? The route constantly renews itself: not just each day but every few minutes. Each time the light or wind or weather shifts, or my direction changes, or my thoughts wander and refocus, everything becomes different. To write down every detail would take a lifetime, and I simply do not know the words to capture the thrill of recognition – the sense of homecoming – that shines through each variation. Perhaps a migrating bird experiences something similar, returning to its ancient nesting grounds.

I’ll stick to the basics. My outward journey takes me mainly southwards, then gradually east. (My starting point is close to Land’s End). The main trail, which I don’t always stick to, is the South-West Coast Path. If I chose, I could follow it in this direction for more than 300 miles, all the way round to Poole Harbour. Three or four miles is usually enough for me. Then I turn back, avoiding a relatively tiresome descent to the next village, and retrace (more or less) my steps. Often I barely recognise it.

This limited stretch of Coast Path is beautifully runnable throughout, undulating constantly but with no individual ascent or descent lasting more than a few minutes. There is enough challenge underfoot to engage your mind, but never so much that you cannot enjoy your surroundings: the wildflowers, the lichens, the kestrels, the buzzards. It’s like fell-running, but without the pain. The path, gravelly and vague, meanders through heather and cropped grass like a broad stream. Sometimes it splits into rivulets, or digresses towards promontories. There are rocks, stones, hummocks, holes, and patches of scree and mud. But most of it is gentle enough for – if you choose – flat-out running. The boulders invite you to leap among them playfully; the turf feels so soft it seems a shame not to fall on it. Often I find myself testing the outer limits of my speed, not because I am pushing myself but from sheer joy in the physical sensations of running fast.

Sometimes it rains. It’s summer, after all. But running makes most weathers tolerable, and so, more profoundly, does the sea. Sun, rain, wind, mist: each seems to come with cleansing waves of fresh sea air. The ocean heals everything. Indeed, on this route its spirit defines everything. Sometimes I see it, sometimes it is hidden. Always, I feel it. I sense its huge mass, its sway, its tide’s irresistible back-and-forward drag on a billion tons of shingle. No matter how hard I run, it fills my thoughts. There are ships on the horizon; strange shapes among the waves. Sometimes there are seals, and one day, I am sure, I will spot a dolphin. But there’s much more to the magic than wildlife-spotting. Something about that wide, shimmering expanse of sea reminds me of yearnings that first drew me into running. Back then, I was a confused young man, lost in a dead-end job and a strange, unfriendly city. Becoming a runner helped me convince myself that I had the strength to shape my own destiny. I learnt to believe that there was a world out there for me to discover; and that, if only I kept on running, new horizons would open up to me. 

Forty years later, running still empowers me. Yes, I have become middle-aged and boring: why else would I drag my family back to the same holiday spot year after year? But I’m drawn here by a thirst for liberation, not reassurance. Running by the mighty Atlantic rejuvenates me, releasing me from chains of routine and re-infusing me with a sense of possibility.

We’re about to return here for, I think, our fifth summer holiday in a row. My family, who mostly prefer walking to running, put up remarkably little resistance. Even they concede that this route has deep powers of spiritual refreshment. But running brings out the best of it. Part of its beauty, for me, is that its contours provide a perfect warm-up (low-effort descent followed by high-effort, low-impact ascent), ensuring that, by the time I emerge on to the main stretch of cliff-top path, every fibre of my body and mind is fully awake. The running that follows is enjoyable but in no way half-hearted. The last stages of the return journey are similarly satisfactory: careful but demanding descent of the mud steps, a final glance at the rippling bay, then a homeward climb that can be as lung-bursting as I choose to make it. 

I have often thought that, if we came to live here, I could get quite seriously fit, but to suggest that might push my family’s patience too far. In any case, fitness isn’t the point. This is a more important kind of running: the kind you do to feel alive. 

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