Natural charms in Cornwall

Malcolm Senior has seen the Cornish village of Portscatho transformed since his childhood, but it's what remains that makes him return
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The Independent Travel

There are moments in any journey that you look forward to with such intensity that it seems impossible not to be disappointed when they come around. But, thankfully, some moments never disappoint - the water meadows on the road to Milford Sound in New Zealand, the cable car ride from Mont Blanc into Italy, sailing through the San Juan Islands that make up the maritime border between Canada and the US. Grand places indeed. But for me, nothing can beat the moment when you turn off the "main" road in the Cornish village of Gerrans and make the short, steep descent into its conjoined sidekick - Portscatho. The first time I travelled this route I was just a few weeks old in the summer of 1964. I've just done the same journey with my wife and baby boy.

Portscatho is a former pilchard-fishing village on the south coast of Cornwall, on the Roseland peninsula. Roseland is a place of narrow lanes, high hedgerows, peppered with wild flowers breaking up the green with pinks and yellows. The roads link tiny villages, often curled around tidal creeks, with former fishing ports etched into the rocky coast. Portscatho's pilchards left a century ago, and many of the lichen-speckled skippers' houses are now holiday homes. There are some people who live here all year round, some even who still fish, mackerel and lobsters now, but in the main Portscatho's population changes weekly.

I have watched Portscatho change over the years, yet, in so many ways, stay the same. We would come for the same week every year, with a few exceptions. I have seen the guest houses turn into private houses and a nursing home, watched private houses become guest houses. The village's restaurant was once a souvenir shop, where you could slurp green-mint choc-chip cornets, a rare luxury in the vanilla-coloured Seventies. Two bric-a-brac shops have merged into a very smart gallery, where well-heeled South Ken types now discuss which two paintings to buy at a £1,000 a time. Once, the village had a Barclays Bank, only open twice a week, but a bank nonetheless. That, too, has gone. It's now a room with an en suite bathroom. We all slept in it last time we were there. It still has the bars on the windows with the splendid Barclays eagle etched on the frosted glass. The back office is now the bathroom. We looked for hidden safes, but to no avail.

The things that have remained unchanged include the excellent grocer's shop, run by Ralph. It has a new name and brands, but it's always been run by Ralph. I've never known his surname - he's just Ralph. Tastes and trends have altered, but Ralph's marches on. It has seen the video revolution come to Cornwall. Shrimping nets and plastic sand castle buckets now share shelf space with new world wines. It's a great place to browse, because you never know what Ralph thinks we incomers will want next. Across the sloping square is the magnificent Plume of Feathers pub, still owned by the St Austell Brewery. Once it was pints of Tinner's and Hicks Special Draught that filled the pint-pots, now it's the mighty Tribute and IPA. The bar staff are still wonderfully blasé about the tourist drinkers who make it their local for the week that they stay. Last time we were in, a lawyer, who had to get to Birmingham for a court case the following morning, was fretting about whether he would make it in time. The bar staff calmly sorted him out with a local driver.

What doesn't change is the simple, natural beauty of the place. Portscatho has a small, sandy beach, where my sister and I competed in village running races to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. Twenty-five years later, my wife-to-be and I, pints in hand, watched fireworks break the warm evening sky as royal silver turned into gold. The harbour, with its steep ramp and small collection of boats moored to plastic rope-linked buoys, has seen countless squealing kids daring to jump into the clear, green water from the sheltering quay. A red, spiky land mine is still used as a container to collect money for charity - but now it shares space with a memorial to those killed in Burma, but who have no known graves - the only one of its kind in the country. Next to it is the shelter where old men once sat, and village teenagers have a crafty smoke. Now it's my turn, as I sit and rock my baby boy and watch the waves drift in.

Along the coast, there are small beaches, some sandy, some stony. Each linked from the main Cornish Coastal Path by tiny tracks and a quick scramble over rocks. East of Portscatho is Porthcurnick beach. The path from the village still takes about 15 minutes to walk, but its route has changed as the sea has re-arranged the cliffs. You can see metal handrails hanging precariously over the edge waiting for a winter storm to seal their fate. Invisible are the stiles swallowed up by gorse, bramble bushes and nettles, as the paths they once linked have disappeared over the edge. At low tide, Porthcurnick has acres of sand, perfect for playing football, splashing in the sea or simply running around with the joyous salt air bursting through tired city lungs. Keeping watch, a volunteer coastguard sits in the lookout. From there, my father and I watched a seal wrestle with an enormous conger eel - it lasted so long, we had to leave the duel unfinished and come home for tea.

Further east still is Pendower Beach. Spilling out of the family Renault, I would rush to cross a fast flowing stream, to find just about the perfect family beach. The rocks at the foot of the squat cliffs seemed set out like parking lots. En masse, we Seniors would find our lot, lay our towels over the rocks, dig improbable sand castles and then paddle and swim in the gentle, lapping sea. My dad would never allow his head to dip in the water, but swim breast stroke, blowing out noisily, whale-like, through puffed out cheeks. I remember grandmother, then in her seventies, splashing around in my mother's swimsuit, the years rolling off her like the sea from her shoulders. It was here that my son, James, first saw the sea. We'd waited in the car for the rain to roll away. As the weather cleared we dashed on to the beach. Soon, the sun was shining brightly lighting up his face. Pendower is that kind of place.

West of Portscatho is St Anthony Head, a lighthouse, surrounded by conifers, which looks out across Carrick Roads. Here, dad would peer through his ancient ivory binoculars at the Royal Navy ships moored up in Falmouth docks. Then as the 1980s came, the excitement would be the sight of a submarine or perhaps one of the enormous, sinister Eastern Bloc factory ships. Here I learnt about flags of convenience and trade, of whaling and fishing. Up one of the many tendril-like creeks of the Fal river, where the King Harry Ferry has crossed for hundreds of years, we could monitor the state of the fuel markets. In the bad times, huge tankers would stay moored up the river for months, if not years, waiting for someone to need gas or oil. I loved the incongruity of the ports of registration - Nassau, Limassol, Panama fading slowly on the sterns of clunking vessels, here in this very Cornish green, salty tanker park.

So, I hope that my son learns to love this wonderful part of Cornwall, as I do. I hope that if he's lucky enough to visit Big Sur, in California, that the cliffs and pines will remind him of here. Or if he swims in any sea, his abiding memory will be of these beaches, be them sandy or stony. I hope that he compares all beautiful seaside villages to this one and judges that there are none finer. And I hope that he gains the same sense of tranquillity and peace of mind that for 40 years, Portscatho his given his father and grandfather before him.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Portscatho's nearest train station (08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk) is Truro, about 12 miles away.

STAYING THERE

Whimbrel cottage is available from £283 a week through Portscatho Holidays (01326 270 900; www.portscatho holidays.co.uk). Driftwood Hotel is nearby in Rosevine (01872 580644; www.driftwoodhotel.co.uk). Doubles from £170 with breakfast and afternoon tea. Hillside House, 8 The Square, Portscatho (01872 580526; www.hillsidehouse-portscatho.co.uk). Doubles from £65 with breakfast.

EATING AND DRINKING THERE

Plume of Feathers Pub, The Square, Portscatho (01872 580321).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Visit Cornwall (01872 322900; www.cornwalltouristboard.co.uk).

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