I arrived in the drizzling rain. My hotel in Newquay hasn't been aired for months. Decent local restaurants were fully booked, but surfing enthusiasts bobbing on the waves reminded me that there is no such thing as bad weather as long as you have the right attitude. The following morning was still uncertain whether to rain or to shine but I set off to Perranpoth, an 18km (11 1/4 mile) day with 580m ascent. At Towan Head I heard the roar of the ocean and inhaled that magical smell I have missed so much in the urban environment. I thought "I'm so happy I came here", and just then the sun appeared from behind the cloud. That first day turned out spectacular. I can only recommend that stretch of the Path: the Fistral beach, crossing the Gannel, Crantock Beach, the beautiful Holywell Bay and the never-ending Perran Sands, which reminded me on remote beaches in New Zealand.
The hike to St Agnes wasn't too dramatic. Once there I ordered tea but when two huge beer garden umbrellas took off simultaneously, I knocked off a paper cup trying to help lift them back up. At that time none of the Cornish establishments let you come inside because they could not provide the required anti-Covid arrangements. The only chance you had to get some respite from the elements was to sit on a loo for a minute or so.
The next stretch to Portreath via Porthtowan was character-building. The rain wasn't crazy but I had to navigate a cliff path battling a gale, so the progress was slow. There was just one place which offered hot drinks and some shelter. It wasn't much. That day I wrote a story in my head to keep my mind occupied on anything other than my soggy circumstances. Later it took me two months to type it up and eight versions (so far) to edit it into shape. I hope to get it published one day, but I'm already most grateful that its heroine helped carry me to safety. My boots were completely soaked, an unfortunate manufacturing error, I was told, and, indeed, the replacement pair seems to be fine although it's yet to be tested properly. The lady at the inn took a remarkably long time to read me their Covid rules, but eventually I was in that bath. There were a couple of luxury biscuits on a tea tray. It even felt like a holiday.
The rain clouds opened their hearts mid-morning. The few people around walking their dogs sensibly turned back. The wind picked up, the rain became a shower and the visibility dropped. So did the temperature. By comparison to my previous ordeal, it was colder, wetter and windier. There was no shelter whatsoever, no company, no way out other than to cross a boggy field to find a road and try to hitch a car. Another hiker I met a couple of days later who wasn't carrying a tent did just that and returned to St Ives. I'm not proud of myself for pressing on; there is a fine line between admirable perseverance and blind doggedness - I may have crossed it that day. Following the path seemed like the easier choice. It meant putting one foot in front of another and hoping that in time I make it. Isn't it what we do when we find ourselves in dire straits or the sea of grief?
It took me many months to sit down to describe this adventure I so craved. I've been thinking about it a lot. It was hard, really hard, I cried only to tell myself to stop because the visibility was poor as it was. I tried to think of positive lessons I could learn from that endeavour ("Must buy a proper waterproof jacket - no sh*t, Jana!") or the tales I'd tell. I got angry. There was a sign advising hikers to give space to cattle but no button to press in emergency. Even at the time I thought about the incredible human resilience. All my senses were at high alert. I wasn't worried I would slip or get tired. I felt disconnected from myself as one feels when having to deal with a crisis. You shut one part of your brain to put down the fire. You won't feel the burn until much later. When I finally got to Pendeen Watch, I had to walk on a paved road into town. This is where I was near breaking point. A car passed by but wouldn't stop for me. I was so close that I began to feel the cold, the wind and the rain. At the inn I asked for a shot of brandy. Their room too had a bath. I filled it with scalding hot water but I couldn't warm up for a long long time.
The next morning I woke up to the blue sky. I walked to Porthgwarra Beach via the Land's End, the most westerly point of mainland England. I found a spot to camp and even had a cheeky dip in the sea at sunset. The next few days took me to Porthcurno beach and Mousehole with a lovely campsite at a local football club and decent eateries, and then onwards to Penzance, Marazion and Porthleven. I met up with a friend at Marazion where we enjoyed a hot bank holiday weekend until my body couldn't take it anymore, and I fell ill from exhaustion. Of course, at the time I thought it was Covid and returned to London in panic but that's another story. The point is that days got sunnier and warmer, I took photos of wildflowers and even ate ice cream to cool myself down. This time I walked 153.5km (95 1/4 miles) in eight days from Newquay to Porthleven and experienced enough joy to make me eager to return to the Path. The tough two days stayed in the past.
It is reportedly Anton Chekhov who said that any idiot can face a crisis, it's the day-to-day living that wears you out. Life in the pandemic has not been easy. Some of us who were fortunate to enjoy safety and security still struggled. Life without enjoyment, without challenges just hard enough to keep you eager, without regular social contact and without a little spice is hard. Any disabled or chronically ill person could tell you that but most people haven't experienced such dreariness until 2020. Thinking back to my adventure and the enforced monotony of Covid diaries, I wonder if we need to inject life with reasonable challenges every now and then or whether we should learn to embrace boredom as some philosophers suggest.
And this is what I'm going to I leave you with, my dear reader. Will you put a kettle on or will you order a copy of The South West Coast Path by Paddy Dillon along with a proper waterproof and a tent?