Tregardock Cliffs, Cornwall

Tregardock Cliffs are terrifying, inhospitable and tremendous. They lie on the windswept eastern side of the parish of St Teath (pronounced to rhyme with death), where only a few scattered farms hang well back from the edge and brave the sea gales. This particular stretch of coast between Port Isaac and Tintagel is bleak, inaccessible, little developed and rife with centuries of calamitous shipwrecks. ‘From Padstow Point to Hartland Light / Is a watery grave by day or night.’

Tregardock_Waves_-_geograph.org.uk_-_275248Though the professional wrecking along this coast may have stopped and ‘Cruel Coppinger’ with his smuggling lugger, the Black Prince, ceased to terrorize these waters, still the sea continues to reap its tragic toll. It can run mountains high and sometimes the lifeboat at Port Isaac cannot leave the harbour. In 1995, when the  Maria Assumpta, the last old square-rigger in existence was sailing on a westerly wind off the Rumps she was tragically smashed to pieces on the rocks and three of her crew were drowned.

To reach the wilds of Tregardock you must come first to the middle of the parish where the long, grim looking village of Delabole hugs the road — once three separate hamlets called Rockhead, Medrose and Pengelly, each with its own Methodist chapel. John Wesley’s influence in Cornwall was enormous.  Delabole was named after the famous slate quarry, which has been worked for well over four centuries and has produced a gigantic crater, 400 foot deep. It is an astonishing sight.

Huge slabs of dark blue-grey Delabole slate is used to bound gardens and fields in and around the village and the memorials in the graveyard of the Victorian church of St John the Evangelist go black in the rain. Down the narrow lane towards the tiny chapel hamlet of Treligga tucked up above the cliffs the oaks are stunted and dwarfed by the wind. There are slate rubble walls, lush ferns and thorn bushes thick with sloes. Most Cornish lanes feel haunted to me but perhaps this is because I read the hymn-writer S J Baring Gould’s In the Roar of the Sea as a teenager, followed by Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. A bumpy track leads off to Tregardon farm and the lane dips steeply down to reveal a view of distant Tintagel and King Arthur’s castle. Treligga lies below around a bend, its whitewashed cottages and farms huddled together around the chapel, long ago converted into a holiday home with rubber tree plants in its windows and a Volvo at its west door.

The track to Tregardock sinks down between brown sunburnt banks and ends at a large group of ivy-clad farm buildings hovering above the sea. Glistening granite posts support slate-roofed cattle sheds. Around the gateway to the seaward path there is silver weed growing and on the gable end of a barn a faded and faintly alarming notice reads: THERE IS NO LIFEGUARD COVER AT TREGARDOCK CLIFFS. BATHING IS PROHIBITED WHEN THE TIDE IS IN.

The path is wet and slatey, woody nightshade grows below the sloe bushes and once through the kissing gate made of huge six-foot high bits of Delabole slate it widens out between gorse bushes. Above the cleft, scattered with wild honeysuckle, the southward coast line comes into view curving gently past Jacket’s and Tresunger’s Points to the fishing village of Port Isaac and on past Kellan Point and the ghost village of Port Quin, to the furthest visible point of the islanded Rumps and the Mouls.

Steep concrete steps lead down the last dizzy height. The long sandy beach strewn with blue lagoons where live cowries live and shining black rocks is only revealed at low tide and behind the grim cliffs of Tregardock loom. It is a frightening place.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Phil Jolliff

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