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A risky shortcut across a Cornish beach

I think it’s important to mention at this stage in the proceedings that all this End to Ending business was not what you would really call a mid-life crisis. I can say that with some degree of certainty because I’d been through all that mid-life stuff ten or more years previously. I’d even go so far as to say I enjoyed it. I’d swapped my glasses for contact lenses, bought myself a red sports car and combed my hair over the balding bit. I might have enjoyed it even more if I’d gone the whole hog and found myself a trophy girlfriend half my age but as far as a mid-life crisis went it wasn’t bad. So if this wasn’t a mid-life crisis, what was it? I think I’ll have to settle for calling it a mid-retirement or redundancy crisis. Much as I might try to pin the blame on poor old John Hillaby, if I’m brutally honest with myself a lot of this End to End walk was about flying in the face of the accepted attitudes to redundancy and retirement (early or otherwise). It was a project to get me through those first few days, weeks and, as it turned out, years of retirement. To try and shake off all of those snide, yet insidious, comments about pipes, slippers and being put out to grass. Something to provide a degree of the structure and sense of purpose which had previously come from work. Pipe and slippers be damned, if you can walk End to End you can’t be that old and knackered.

Perran Beach just looked so inviting, and I’d already had enough of the rollercoaster-like clifftop paths which were such a feature of the South West Coast Path. Every day would start with a hike to the top of the cliffs, where the path, instead of staying at this airy and elevated level, would immediately plunge back down again to sea level and then, a matter of a few yards further on, it would start another long and tedious climb all the way back to the top of the cliffs with not a thought for the legs of the post-midlife End to Ender. One South West Coast Path enthusiast I met at Tintagel Youth Hostel gleefully informed me that if you were to add up all the uphill bits on the South West Coast Path it would be the equivalent of climbing to the top of Mount Everest. Perran Beach, a flat expanse of smooth sand still damp from the last tide, stretched out across the bay and, some distance away, the headland of Ligger Point looked purple in the haze. Out to sea, almost at the edge of my vision, the waves were piddling and tiny and they sparkled in the May sunshine. There can be no better, or more exhilarating, sensation than walking along a beach, over firm, hard sand, with the wind blowing through your hair. Cutting across Perran Beach would give me a chance to pick up the pace and catch up on my schedule a bit. Over that hard, flat, even surface my legs would simply eat up the miles, my boots would hardly leave an imprint and the fresh sea breeze would blow away that persistent head cold which had been dogging me for the last couple of days. Or so I thought. I’d scarcely gone 300 yards away from the seafront at Perranporth when I realised I’d got it wrong; very wrong.

The sand was not hard, nor was it very smooth. The wind was brisk all right, but it had worked itself up to something like a half gale and it had swung around to the north so I was walking with it full in my face. If I had been smart I would have done something about it there and then, admitted my mistake, turned around and quickly backtracked, pretended I needed more coffee and headed back to the Dolphin Café at Perranporth without looking the least bit shamefaced. Then I could have headed off along the official route of the South West Coastal Path, through the dunes, and avoided the beach altogether. I could already see a party of walkers up there on the path and it looked to me as if they were making good time. But I didn’t. I was still held in thrall by my wind-in-your-hair, sea-spray-on-your-face type of beach fantasy. The surface was sure to improve, I told myself, all beaches are like this, always softer near the shore where they’ve been churned up by the bucket and spade brigade. Half a mile out and it still wouldn’t have been too late to retreat. After a mile I had stopped kidding myself. This was all a big mistake. The sand, instead of being smooth, was a mass of wavy ridges, a bit like a corrugated iron roof. Neither was it as firm or as hard as it looked. The first step was like walking on a ploughed field or across uneven cobble stones. It would hold firm at first, until the full weight of my boot was on it, then it would sort of implode, crumble and turn into the mushy consistency of Demerara sugar. In order to keep upright on these shifting sands my legs would splay out to the side in something like an ungainly sort of doggy paddle. To add to my miseries, the wind, which was coming in gusty and uneven blasts, had dried out the top layer of sand and was blowing it in clouds along the surface of the beach just above ankle height. I was wearing cropped, rolled-up walking trousers and my lower legs, which were not used to being exposed to the light of day, were beginning to feel as if they were being shot blasted.

No matter how hard or how fast I tried to walk through these quagmire sands, the crags at Ligger Point never seemed to get any closer and, if anything, walking faster and harder only made my boots sink in deeper and my progress slower and even more laboured. My floundering course, when I looked back at my footprints, had become anything but direct and they showed just how far I’d drifted out into the bay, where those piddling little waves were now becoming serious breakers and rolling in uncomfortably close. Another ten minutes and I would be paddling. Ten minutes on top of that and I might be swimming. I tried to walk even quicker. The official coast path was now something like a mile away to my right and on top of a set of steep and unstable-looking sand dunes, so retreat in that direction did not seem to be much of an option. My calves, unaccustomed to this sort of treatment, were protesting and my rucksack, which seemed to have become a stone or two heavier, only served to push me deeper and deeper into the sand. Cornwall wasn’t supposed to be like this. Cornwall was supposed to be the easy bit. Quicksand had never even figured in my reckoning.

I began to worry about the cliffs, still some distance away at Ligger Point. Assuming I made it there before being washed out to sea, would there be a path out from the beach to the top of the crags? My map was somewhat ambiguous on this point. It was becoming a race, me versus the tide. The only race I had ever won in my life was an egg and spoon race at Greenhill Primary School when I was six. I wasn’t hopeful. After three miles of remorseless trudging I seemed to hit on a patch of firmer sand and at about the same time the oncoming tide seemed to check its advance and my situation changed from critical to merely serious. Another quarter of an hour of footslogging and I finally reached the base of the cliffs, where I found a nice broad path and a helpful signpost pointing to the top of the cliffs. I arrived hot, grimy and lathered in sweat, looking more like the survivor from a disaster movie than an End to Ender and feeling just a tiny bit foolish while all around me relaxed-looking holidaymakers were eating their sandwiches or building sandcastles on the beach. On the map the route from St Agnes to Newquay via Perran Beach didn’t look very far but with the up and down nature of the path, the convoluted coastline, the trauma of the sands and my energy-sapping cold I was at something of a low ebb. Then I committed a bit of a social gaff when I offended a small group of middle-aged ladies, sitting down taking afternoon tea outside the Bowgle Inn at West Pentire. I sat down at the next table and took my sock off revealing a blister so big it looked as if I was trying to grow another toe.

Extracted from Robin Richard’s new book, Le-Jog-ed, available here.

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