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Explore the myths and legends of this ancient coastline

Words and photographs by Rebecca Bentley

Passing by looming woodland and countless signs for cream teas, the B3306 west of St Ives turns wild all of a sudden as fern-strewn moorland, punctuated by craggy granite rocks and tumbling tors, opens out either side of the road. Here caramel-coloured cows graze on ancient farmland nestled amongst the untouched terrain, while the Atlantic Ocean sweeps out from the cliffs in a haze of blue merging into the white wispy sky.

Approaching the village, you’ll be greeted by the medieval Church of St Senara – home to a 600-year-old carved bench-end depicting the Mermaid of Zennor, whose legend has made the small village a popular destination for walkers and tourists. Appearing as a beautiful and richly dressed lady, the mermaid’s bewitching voice is said to have enticed a local man called Matthew Trewhella towards the cliffs, never to be seen again.

The village is also famed for its connection to DH Lawrence, who stayed in Zennor between 1915 and 1917 with his German wife, until suspicions about his allegiances were raised and he was asked to leave. In his new book Rising Ground (Granta, £20), award-winning author Philip Marsden explores shifting human attitudes to place and why layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape. He was inspired to write the book after moving to a creekside farmhouse near Philleigh on the Roseland, and the book covers his rambles through Cornwall, Scilly and Somerset.

“Rising Ground tells the story of a journey I’d been waiting to take for years – a westward hike through inland Cornwall, a burrowing into those corners of the county that are less well known, less trodden,” he says. “I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, but I was richly rewarded. I bumped into all sorts of people, stumbled on ruins and ancient monuments, pockets of woodland, meadow and bog. All of it fed into an exploration of the idea of ‘place’, that enigmatic response we have at certain sites, and one which has played a central role in our history and cultural life for thousands of years.”

Marsden devotes a chapter to Zennor, which he describes as “one of Cornwall’s most intriguing villages – the moors above, the sea below, the old field systems all around”. He first walked the coastline here at the time of the Hale-Bopp comet in the mid-1990s: “Although it was no more than a marginal scribble in the night sky, its presence embodied the strangeness of the landscape here – and still does. The land of northern Penwith is a world apart, and Zennor stands at the heart of it.”

The village’s only pub, The Tinners Arms, was built in 1271 and has retained much of its original charm, with open log fires and exposed stone walls. It’s the perfect place to start the walk, and even better to return to for some refreshment afterwards.
From The Tinners Arms, follow the road round to the left with the church on your right hand side and a white stonewashed house on your left, behind which you’ll see a sign saying “coast path only”. Take this path; after a little while it will join the South West Coast Path, which you take round to the left, passing Pendour Cove – this is where the Mermaid is believed to have lured Matthew Trewhella.

Beneath the footbridge looking out to the Pendour Cove runs a pretty little stream bordered by a rainbow of ferns and flowers bounding from the rocks. The coastal path from here is a bit of a roller coaster, and the rocky steps can be quite challenging – but it gets a lot easier once you come to the next cove along, where the steps thankfully come to an end.

Further along, a narrow path will appear on the right – it might be a slightly trodden gap through a mass of overgrown ferns depending on when you visit, but if you’re brave enough to take the steep and rather precarious descent to Veor Cove, you will be well rewarded. You can, of course, continue along the coast path if you’d rather avoid the odd slip and bog-sodden feet.

Clambering over boulders and onto the smooth creamy sand, you can’t fail to spot the delicate waterfall cascading down the cliffs and winding its way out to the crystal-clear waters that have become a hotspot for wild swimmers and, due to its sheltered position, the occasional naturist. But there wasn’t a soul in sight when I made it to the beach, dotted with huge flat rocks where a mermaid wouldn’t look at all out of place.

Back at the top, the path bends round, bringing the cove into view across luscious green ferns, looking out to turquoise waters and a topaz sky separated by fingers of land reaching into the sea. Further along the path and the headland grows craggier, the ferns turn orange and purple heather sprouts from behind the rocks, while to your right lies nothing but an open expanse of sea. Round the bend the sight of Gurnard’s Head will appear before you, and while this is a view that retains its beauty even in the worst conditions, it’s arguably at its best against a glorious Cornish sunset watched beside Carnelloe Long Rock. From here, you can continue along the coast or take the small path up towards a cottage overlooking the headland.

Past the cottage, the blackthorn-lined lane takes you to a junction of pathways; take the one to your left over a small bridge and on through a series of fields in the direction of the village. You’ll soon find yourself at the other end of village, passing the Wayside Folk Museum where you can learn about the lives of Zennor’s inhabitants from 3,000BC to the 1950s through a collection of over 5,000 artefacts.

Decadent darkening hydrangeas bulge from hedgerows and gardens around the village, signalling the transition from autumn to winter and serve as a reminder of the year-round beauty of this little corner of the world.