Walks trigger strange obsessions. Take the time resident Notes & Stories writer, Peter Kirby, set off to meet fellow artist Richard Long at Tate St Ives to talk about landscape.
Before they left their respective start points – Porthchapel on the south coast and Chapel Porth on the north coast – they agreed to grab a bag of sand in order to display each ‘beach’ in the gallery for the pleasure of the audience.The trouble was, this simple task proved to be addictive, as Kirby’s knees found out to their cost.
For some reason, he decided to visit every possible slither of sand he saw, however inaccessible, and wound up with 30 tiny bags, and roughly 10,000 feet under his belt. Think of it as an inexhaustible tour of every cove, zawn, bay, beach and inlet where you can get to the sea from the path without going headfirst over a cliff.
Some were only really accessible by boat for an hour a day at most when the tide hit rock bottom. This was the only other governing factor, the tide. He set off on foot and only took a tiny sample of what was there at the time. If the sand was submerged, so be it. You could put this down to luck, or simply the direction in which he chose to walk, or even common sense kicking in telling him that certain places were out of bounds.
All we know is we’ve caught the bug now. We’ve got sand under our fingernails. It’s matted in our hair. The bags are growing into mini dunes in our office. We even hope to one day nail the whole coastline of the South West and compile a census of sand. Imagine that, the first ever gathering of South West Coast Path sand in one place.
Projects like these throw up an amazing sense of scale. One minute you feel like Gulliver bounding from one beach to another, the next you find yourself honing in on the grade of each speck of sand, wondering why no two grains are the same. With fragments of quartz, coral, shell, limestone, basalt, gemstones and (naturally) sandstone, sand is made up of as many magical ingredients as human beings. You could even argue it does more good for this planet than we do. But that’s another story and one you can’t really fix on holiday.
This feature is not intended to be an A to B walk/run/crawl. It’s more of a geological comb along one epic chunk of coast and an unpredictable view of another stretch. Pluck one spot out at random from either area and head there on a sunny (or stormy) day. The seas churn the sands around so a beach can rise and fall as dramatically as the tide. One day it might feel sugary underfoot and almost fizzle as you run your fingers through it. On another day, it might feel twice the weight even though it’s as dry as a bone. We guess this is where we get the phrase ‘shifting sands’.
31⁄4 mile shingle ridge. Trillions of fine golden pebbles – natural acupressure. 10,000 year old beach, once grazed by elephants and hyenas, now rampant with plant life of all colours. Peer over skinny road to biggest freshwater lake in South West. Pram joggers love footpath. Steep cliffs and inns at either end. Dogs can go berserk, so much space. 749 American soldiers died here on D-Day bodge-up rehearsal. A Sherman tank tells the story.
Devon’s most southerly spot – park up at end of wiggly lane. Threecutecoveshideintinybay,WesternandLandingand Wollow. Standing stone sculptures. Sink carved into rocks. Collect terracotta powder sand at base of lonely cliff. Gemstones shine as tide drops. Play hide and seek in grassed over war bunker. Cliff arch off to the west. Bolshie sheep watch granite weight gate swing over stream. The Pigs Nose Inn at East Prawle looks charming but no time to spare.
East Portlemouth/Ditchend Cove
Sunny west-facing river beach with superfine Caribbean sand – now know why sand is a size term. Think of coconuts as trees arch overhead. Climb one. Swing from one. Skip like a boxer into glassy waters. Fall face first and get mouthful of beach. Crowded Salcombe looks on and laughs, but they’re still jealous. Sail rigging clinks in breeze. Boules pitch and roll leaving snake trails. Turquoise streaks meander upriver.
Bigbury-on-Sea at low tide – oh wow. What a view, what a come on. Sand as soft as silk and as dense as salt, darker up close than it looks from afar. Feels like a desert flanked on both sides by sea. Pipefish sunbathe as dusk dawns. Rush a pint and gaze up at Poirot Art Deco hotel. Tide still out so no tractor ride – notice says it transports more people in day than at night. Are drunks heavier?