It seemed like every time Cornwall came up in conversation, I was told that I had to go.
Normally I don't like to be told what to do by anyone (and as the story progresses, this will become a theme) but I was pretty okay with being told I had to go to the Wild West of England. This place, the long arm of southern England that reaches far beyond the rest of the Island, well into the currents of the gulf stream, south and west stretching until the land peters out and the Atlantic stretches on until the New World. A virtual tropical English paradise, with surfers and palm trees and balmier climes than what you might expect, and plenty of legends of pirates who called this wild bit of coast home.
Fantastically, there is also a coastal path that hugs the beaches and cliff-sides the entire peninsular. It's a national trail, well-loved and well-waymarked, with plenty of seaside pubs along the way. Yup. Paradise. 600 miles of it.
But getting there, oye. It's easier to get to Scotland or the Lake District, so that has been what I've been doing instead. The public transportation to get to Cornwall is grim: a 10 hour bus ride, or an 11 hour option that involves a train and two buses. This is probably why most people living in England that I had met hadn't been there yet, or no further than Plymouth.
My time seemingly running out, I took desperate measures.
I joined a hiking group on Meetup.com.
I've joined meetup groups in the past. I've met some really nice people- lifelong friends!- and it's a good way to jump into a social scene when you are new to an area. However, I've also met a lot of oddballs and uncomfortably awkward people that made me rethink how I think of myself as awkward, and I've backed away slowly and quite early out of more than one encounter.
So here I was with a decision to make. Three days in Cornwall with 30 strangers, or not seeing Cornwall.
I chose Cornwall.
Am I glad I did? You betcha. Did it have it's awkward moments? Quite a few. I survived and they didn't find my limbs discarded under the hostel bunk. Would I do it again? Probably not. I did, however, meet a few really nice people who I now consider friends, and having hiking friends was something I was sorely lacking as I ticked away the miles on a lonesome track.
Plus, it was just as beautiful as everyone said. In early December, the sun came up lazily late, and the Youth Hostel in Coverack had this for a view from the breakfast room:
Actually, I went outside to take that, as the windows in the hostel were filthy.
Getting out there ended up being fun- I found a random shout-out for a ride-share, took a deep breath and said WHY YES I'LL SPEND 5+ HOURS IN A CAR FULL OF STRANGERS. And much giggling and snack sharing ensued as a fearless Canadian who loved to drive long distances helmed the ship, and we took a detour to Dartmoor to have a dinner of rabbit pie in a lonely stretch of darkening moorland.
Bunking with three other strangers in a tiny room? One can only hope no one had beans and cabbage for dinner.
I woke up...not quite refreshed. But I survived the night and got to work helping to get breakfast on the table and eyed what I was up against. A great deal of the people didn't look like they did this often, and when all was said in done, we didn't hit the trail until 10:30.
The plan was to drive to Lizard point, the southernmost bit of Cornwall, and hike the 10 miles back to the hostel.
Right away, I knew I was in trouble. I walk slowly and take a lot of pictures, but most of the group seemed to be walking even more slowly than myself. I couldn't take a step without stepping on the boots of the person in front of me, and it was like a train of picture-taking fools that I was dodging mightily.
After about a mile of this, the hike leader split into two groups- a faster group reportedly hiking at 3mph, and a slower group. I jumped to the front group, whose leader I disliked just a bit at first, and then quite a lot as the day wore on.
True, I stop a lot when I hike to shoot, but I keep a good clip up and don't hold anyone up. I had never hiked in a group before, and this "leader" decided to stop us every 5 minutes or so to take headcount. As soon as I got my stride on, we'd be yelled at to stop and then "one....two....three..." until all 14 heads were accounted for.
Worse, the guy ended being a total misogynistic prick.
I tolerated (with gritted teeth) the slow pace and constant head counting and smart-ass remarks he kept making. At one point, as we found a public toilet to use (trying to pee on the trail with a big group with little cover is tricky, yo) and as the feminine faction broke off to use it, he said to me, "don't take ten minutes doing your makeup now".
Fuck you, little man.
And after that, I offered him nothing but strife and ill will. I have no problem working on a team or taking instruction or guidance from someone in charge, but only if I have an ounce of respect for that person. This guy was now blacklisted from my respect list irrevocably.
I put the walk leader on "ignore" setting and walked on.
But what a lovely bit of coastline- cove after hidden cove, with rocks breaking the crashing surf at every angle, sandy crescents of beaches, a bit of sunshine here and there, and very few other people on the trail. While walking with such a large, chatty group of people meant I saw next to nothing as far as birds went, I found the Cornish cost perfectly agreeable.
The only time the trail came into contact with tarmac was to dodge through a tiny fishing port.
I got to know a few of my fellow hikers- most of them seemed like nice, decent people- and about 10 of us walked at the same pace more or less. I hung toward the back as to not cause a pile up as I was stopping to shoot here and there, but there were so many frequent stops for headcounts, I had no problem at all keeping up. In fact....there was one woman (hiking in jeans, with a handbag) who was the main hold-up, and refused to join the slower-paced group. Just to be a menace.
There were loads of Shetland ponies running feral on the clifftops.
The trail had a lot of steep ups and downs, but stayed flat in between beaches. It was pleasant, and the day was windy but not so much that it felt like the wind was stealing your will to live.
Hey, this looks pretty. Let's stop here!
Oh, wait...why are we stopped again? one....two.....
My patience wearing thin and the sun gone, I headed the last mile back to the hostel with two other fed-up rebels, and we started whispering about the next day's hike.
As lovely as the walk was, It took us nearly 7 hours to walk 10 miles. That's about 3 hours slower than what I usually hoof it in, and I've earned the nickname "molasses ass". Plus, my dentist will be horrified when he sees my teeth next as I gritted them more than I do on a NYC subway during rush hour. All those stops and I was cold and frustrated and despite the settings, not having a grand time.
Over dinner and drinks at the local pub, whispers of a real rebel fraction began. Planned for tomorrow would be a 7 miler starting from the same point and going up the west side of Lizard point. Ever the troublemaker, I convinced the athletic few to do the 14 mile option with me up to Porthleven and to say goodbye to the hike leaders, as I didn't need my diaper changed at this late date.
I had an adventure of scrambling down to the local beach (after a bottle of wine, which totally makes me more athletic!) to see starfish under the full moon, of which I saw none and then even more dangerously, scrambled up the ladder to the top bunk.