Sunday, April 6, 2008


One warm, clear, summer day in 1999, I found myself making a solo trek along the Cornish Coastal Footpath, from the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno, to Land’s End.

I ‘d come to Cornwall at the suggestion of a pleasant and persuasive man, a film director, with whom I’d been working in the London office of a British film and television production company in the effort to transform one of my screenplays into something the producers thought they could find backing for. Over the course of several days’ work, the script had come to resemble a sort of gentle thriller, not at all what I'd had in mind when I wrote it. But, innocent that I was, I still believed I could find a way to please them while keeping the story mine.

I hungered to see my words brought to life on screen, and the director’s desire to set the story in Cornwall was perfectly acceptable to me, so I took him up on the idea of doing a little location scouting myself. It’s possible he thought that wild and beautiful landscape would work some magic on my writer’s brain, filling it with the sort of scenes he wanted to see in the next draft of the script.

But this side trip, my solo walk, was entirely unplanned. I’d left my bed & breakfast in Penzance that morning and taken a bus to Porthcurno, planning only to visit the theater and return. Innocent of the abrupt change of plans awaiting me after I discovered the possibility of walking along those cliffs, I’d brought no lunch; not even a bottle of water. I think I had an orange and a bar of chocolate in my jacket pocket. I was hot, hungry, and very thirsty when I reached Land’s End. And as happy as I could remember being in a very long time.

During my walk along that spectacular coastline, with fields on my right, sheer cliffs dropping to the sea on my left, I had it all to myself, encountering only three or four other people the entire time. The distance between Porthcurno and Land’s End seems to depend on how closely one sticks to the path; the length given in guides ranges from four to six miles. If my memory is accurate, it took me between two and three hours, with much meandering, such as a couple of side trips down to the water which was an irresistible blue.

So despite the occasional sight of another hiker half a mile ahead of me, and those few whose paths crossed mine, I was alone on the journey. And I felt utterly anonymous. No one in the world who knew me, knew where I was that morning. Had I tumbled down the cliffs, been eaten by a rabid sheep, or washed out to sea, no one would have even known I was missing for days.

My screenwriting career ignited, burned merrily for a few years, then died. Sometimes I scratch sadly through the ashes, wondering how it might have turned out had a thousand things been different.

But the memory of those hours in Cornwall stays with me like an epiphany. Being entirely on my own for these few hours, with only myself to take care of, and only myself to take care of me, was an ecstatically liberating feeling. I know the feeling was partly due to the brief escape from my ordinary responsibilities, but beyond that, I think it was due to the spontaneous decision I’d made to try the walk, consulting no one, setting out unprepared, just seeing an opportunity and impulsively acting on it. I felt happiness settling in on me like a barometric change.

[If you’d like to read a detailed account of someone else’s journey on this leg of the path, but in the reverse direction, i.e., Land’s End to Porthcurno, and see his stunning photos, look here:]


Beth said...

This was wonderful. Cornwall has called to me since I was little and reading Arthurian legends. I've only been there once, not all the way to the coast, and already so foggy we couldn't see a thing. So I enjoyed your account immensely and also the beautiful photos you linked to, which made me long to go there all the more.

flip said...

Thanks, Beth (and for your welcoming comment a few weeks ago; I'm still not up to speed managing this blogging thing--either posting as regularly as I want to, or responding to comments).

I'm pleased to know that you grew up beguiled by Arthur, too. I think my father started me off by reading T. H. White's "The Sword in the Stone" aloud when I was still quite young and needed numerous things explained.

His family was English, and when I see photos of the English countryside I feel something like nostalgia; as if there's a sort of genetic recognition of "home" happening in my bones. One more ingredient of my experience in Cornwall.