MOUSEHOLE-LAMORNA COAST PATH, WEST CORNWALL FEB 1985/2017

First published: The Cornishman 21.2.1985

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Kemyel Crease wood

FEBRUARY 1985

The five-acre wood known as Kemyel Crease is a distinctive feature on the coast path between Mousehole and Lamorna .  Last week, in strong southeasterly winds and with a hint of snow in the air the trees at Kemyel gave welcome shelter. The wood is said to have been first planted with conifers in the early 20th century. Later, in 1940, local farmer Hartley Giles added deciduous species. The trees acted as windbreaks for small meadows, or ‘quillets’ that for many years yielded violets and early potatoes. Now, only the walled outlines of the quillets survive among the crazed tangle of trees.

Among the salt-resistant Monterey Pines and Cypresses that lend Kemyel Crease its ‘forested’ look, Mr Giles planted ash, sycamore, horse chestnut, poplar, privet and a few mimosas.  A fine stand of flowering cherry trees survives at the western end of the wood.

At present, in cold February, the wood is bleak and dark though even a near gale seems to make little impact here. Only the cypresses sway uneasily where they stand tall and mast-like among the heavier conifers. Kemyel’s survival in such a hard maritime environment proves that development of woodland in Penwith is feasible.

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Tangled up in blue

Today, with a fierce onshore wind and breaking seas, leaving the shelter of Kemyel Crease for the open coast to the west was like leaving harbour. The air was full of wheeling gulls while in line with the low cliff top, stiff-winged Fulmars dipped in and out of the chanks and small bays. These tough little northern petrels moved south from Scottish waters between the wars, feeding on fish offal dumped from southbound fishing boats. They were first known as St Kilda Hawks after the remote islands west of the Hebrides where they nested. Lowestoft fishermen heading home from the herring grounds first reported fulmars off North Cornwall in the 1930s. Nowadays they are commonplace around the South West of Britain. Their defence mechanisms include the swift ejection of foul-smelling stomach oil to deter predators and any humans who get too close.

On shore, there were no signs of land birds until inland from the headland of Carn-du, a Green Woodpecker rose like a game bird from the dead bracken. Its bright colours stood out against the still wintery landscape like a harbinger of Spring.

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Lookout post…
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Rock Gendarmes on the coast path

KEMYEL CREASE: An Update February 2017

In 1985, I said of Kemyel Crease woods –  ‘Even a near gale seems to make little impact here’, a comment that deserved to be blown away. Written over thirty years ago it was nothing if not naive. In January 1990, a ferocious gale ripped the wood of Kemyel Crease apart, felling mature conifers and choking the undergrowth with debris. Even today, in 2017, the wood seems crippled, though it is not forlorn.  There is still a dramatic contrast between the shadowy cloisters of the wood and the exhilarating openness of the coast path to either side.

The Cornwall Wildlife Trust has owned Kemyel Crease since 1974 and much work was done after the 1990 storm in managing the routed timber and in replanting. The ill wind also blew in some good. The fallen trees left skylights in the tree canopy through which the sun penetrated and enlivened the once sterile ground beneath. Flowering plants and shrubs flourished among the wrecked timber and broken walls.  Another noticeable change over the years is that dense bracken now covers the slopes on the Lamorna side of Kemyel woods where daffodils once speckled the ground in early Spring. Now, the dull fronds of withered brown dominate throughout the winter.

 MACKEREL

The Kemyel woods are a well known feature among local mackerel fishermen and today you’re still likely to fill a few lines when fishing offshore between Penzer Point to the south of Mousehole and ‘The Trees’.

Mackerel fishing featured in a famous grounding below Penzer Point in December 1977 when the Grimsby stern dragger, Conqueror ran aground. The Conqueror was one of the big northeast boats that, during the 1970s, had been drawn to the huge winter mackerel fishery of Mount’s Bay, a proper Klondike that had been exploited in a sustainable way by hand line Cornish boats for many years. Word soon got out regarding the huge resource of mackerel in the Western Approaches and, in the mid-1970s, three Scots herring trawlers appeared unannounced in Newlyn Harbour to a cold welcome from locals.

The dire warnings in Newlyn’s Fishermen’s Mission were that these Scots raiders would soon be followed by half a dozen more, but for anyone who knew the Scottish industry or had seen a hundred strong Scots’ herring fleet moored off Ullapool for the week-end, the gates were already open, especially since there was a mid-Seventies stoppage to the herring fishery in Scottish waters.  In no time, dozens of huge vessels, including pair trawlers, rust bucket stern draggers from Hull and, the most ruthlessly efficient catchers of all, Scottish purse seiners, were hammering the mackerel in Cornish waters.

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Bound away

The boats came from Shetland, Peterhead, Buckie, Hull and Grimsby and they did not let up until the winter mackerel were fished to pieces.  The only foreign vessels in evidence during that 1970s bonanza were Russian, Ukrainian,  Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Dutch freezer factory ships moored off Falmouth. They were not fishing, but buying and processing the fish that were being caught by British vessels.  They were essential to the fishery, yet, there was still paranoia among the non-fishing public that these were foreign vessels ‘robbing’ UK fishing grounds.  The foreign crews of the factory ships were also spending tens of thousands of pounds in Falmouth shops and pubs.  The fishing by British boats was massively efficient, ruthless, relentless and often against the rules.  The Scots ran much of the marketing from offices ashore. I f you complained that your catch total had been underestimated, the answer was always…‘Oot you go and catch some mair…’

SWAN SONG

I worked occasionally on a pair trawling team in the early 1980s. I remember a quiet winter’s night, deep to the south east of St Agnes Island, when what was probably the swan song of the big mackerel fishery took place.  About thirty boats had been hunting for twenty-four hours without luck when a seiner hit a small shoal of mini mackerel. The rest of the boats, pair teams, sterners, and pursers all came in like wolves on the fold, but to no avail. The seiner cleared about thirty tons of small fish only.  The rest of us had nothing and the fleet dispersed. The Shetlanders, the Scots and the east coast boats headed off on their final long trips north. The bonanza was over.

Once, they ran like rivers through the sea, those fish

And our one thought was on their hunting;

We took the lot…

This is how fishing works, inevitably. But, fish have tails and no one ‘owns’ them until they’re caught. These days we should be careful what we wish for.  Especially with the Scots on the case. I can say this without fear of being accused of prejudice…

 THE CONQUEROR

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Conqueror conquered

The Grimsby-registered Conqueror was a footnote to all of this.  She was just over 230 feet in length and had been recently refitted with extra freezer capacity in Hull.  It was just after Christmas 1977 and a near gale was blowing from the southwest, although the sea was fairly quiet close to the Mousehole shore. The Conqueror was dodging to and fro when, for unresolved reasons, she ran aground on the rocks below Penzer Point. There were no casualties. The Penlee lifeboat, Solomon Browne, took off most of the crew although a skeleton crew remained aboard to assist in ensuing salvage attempts that proved fruitless.

The vessel remained upright and appeared to be in one piece, but she never came off. It was a post-Christmas spectacle along the cliff and crowds came to view the wreck. The story goes that someone was selling tea and pasties up on the coast path by The Crackers, the pathside rocks just south of Penzer Point. Not even the official enquiry established a reason for the grounding of the Conqueror in such relatively manageable weather and since  the vessel was not disabled in any way. The stories along Newlyn Quay rose and fell. It was all down to the time-honoured conclusion of ‘finger trouble’ – or worse. There were various efforts to haul the Conqueror off, but she would not budge. Eventually she keeled over, languished for nearly a year and finally slid off into deep water from the angled slabs that gripped her. She had been well gutted.

NATO EXERCISE

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Penzer Point Lookout

Auxiliary coastguards manned the Penzer Point lookout mainly during storm watches in its later years. I did some watches at Penzer as an auxiliary in the mid-1980s. It was a quaint little berth although the equipment was minimal. The outlook across the great bay was inspiring.

Once, there was a NATO naval exercise in Mount’s Bay, a mock-up of a supposed ‘Russian’ invasion. The ships that took part were from the UK, Dutch and French navies, as far as I remember. It was a major event and the onshore security was under scrutiny because the exercise included potential clandestine landings by ‘enemy’ personnel.  Auxiliaries were tasked to carry out secure watches. We had strict instructions to keep the lookout doors securely locked and were forbidden to let anyone into the lookouts regardless of who they said they were. I was working an early dawn shift at Penzer during the exercise when I let my country down.

It was one of those glorious Autumn mornings, utterly still;  a faint offshore mist painted the sea with pastel colours of green and blue as the sun struggled through.  In those days, from the lookout, you could see anyone coming along the coast path from the Raginnis Hill direction.  I spotted a burly figure ambling  towards the lookout. I did not recognise him. He was wearing a white fisherman’s sweater and to me looked decidedly ‘Russian’.

Sure enough, he was making for the lookout. I checked that the door was locked and when my visitor arrived he started banging on the door and gesticulating at me through the windows.  I could just make out that he was telling me that he was the watchkeeper from the previous afternoon stint  and that he had left his bag, complete with keys and valuables, under the lookout  table. I stalled until the standoff became embarrassing, at which point, I betrayed my country.  I opened the door to let Europe in although it was more a case of ‘Sod it! This is just a game…’

Was my early morning visitor truly a fellow watchkeeper?  I’d never seen him before.  He may well have been part of the exercise, an official plant  checking on the competence of those taking part in the exercise on land. If so, I had disobeyed orders and there may still be a mouldering MI5 file somewhere with a minor entry fingering me as being… Unsound; a threat to national security…

I hope so.

ENTERTAINMENTS

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Tol-pedn lookout today

There were other entertainments attending the naval exercise. A couple of days later I was on regular watch at the Tol-pedn lookout at Gwennap Head above Porthgwarra. It was a grim day.  Various NATO vessels were still wandering  aimlessly across the slate-grey sea when there came a thunderous knocking on the lookout door. There was no stricture on answering the door at Tol-pedn as news of an accident could be the reason and thus took priority.  This time it was an earnest couple of visitors their faces creased with concern, their voices faintly alarmed.

‘Hello watchman!’ said the burly gent half of the couple. I liked the watchman bit.

 ‘Listen!’ he said.  Our Navy lads are out there…’

I recognised a sincere patriot.

‘I know,’ I said. ‘It’s a NATO exercise. Don’t worry. It’s not an invasion.’ I quite liked the gentle irony of that, but my visitors were not amused. Neither was their dog. It snarled at me. It knew an Unsound when it smelt one.

‘This is serious!’ said the burly gent sternly. ‘We’ve just spotted four people on the slope below the cliff edge. They’re all dressed in dark green camouflage and balaclavas and they’ve got some pretty serious-looking binoculars and cameras. We think they might be spies..!’

You let well-meaning people down gently, but you have to let them down all the same.

‘That is interesting,’ I said. ‘I’ll log that, and thank you for it, but I think you’ll find that they’re birdwatchers. There’s a lot of bird action around at this time of year…’

Cue well-camouflaged deflation and a friendly but faintly embarrassed farewell, although the dog was still snarling at my traitorous ankles. *

Today, the Tol-pedn lookout is staffed by volunteers of the National Coastwatch Institution, but  the lookout at Penzer is derelict and engulfed by undergrowth.  It ceased to function years ago after  the Coastguard Service closed down its lookouts during the early 1990s and  the paid auxiliaries were disbanded.  Many of the smaller lookouts were demolished, but Penzer remains, although in a sorry state. Its windows are sealed with concrete blocks, an ironic memorial of sorts to the days when local  service and local eyes mattered and the electronic revolution had not entirely overwhelmed the past, like the sea overwhelmed the Conqueror.

* I expect a retrospective visit from MI5 as soon as Teresa May triggers Article 50.

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Way back from Lamorna

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Cornish Landscapes

6 Comments

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  1. What a lovely piece! I always wonder what those trees are doing there when I walk between Mousehole and Lamorna. And now I know. It is a lovely place for wildlife, one day we spent ages talking to a robin that was so tame that you could almost touch him.

    Thank you.

    Love, Philippa

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  2. A beautifully written narrative Des, with humour in all the right places and regret too for what’s been lost. We, Chris and I, have walked that path way many times, it’ll have an added piquancy for us now. Thanks again.

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  3. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to discover this site! I lived in Middle Kemyel with my parents from the late 1970s to say 1988 I believe. It was a wonderful place to live and your article brought back many happy memories. I note what the newspaper said about the woods changing after the 1990 storm but I also recall the great storm of 1987 which changed the layout of the woods almost over night. The next time I went down there following the storm it felt like a completely different place. The panoramic view of the sea is really breathtaking when you start to walk down the fields towards the woods – you can imagine what it was like as child first going down there and realising the enormity of the sea. I also recall the little stone shed I assume for use by those tending the quillets and the tree had come down right on top bringing the roof down. I vividly remember the fields like a sea of yellow around Easter so it was disappointing to read that may no longer be the case. I would often go to bed at night hearing the fog horn (Tater Du?) in the evening, quite a strange sound when you live in the middle of nowhere. It was probably the winter of 1987 which persuaded my parents to move closer to Penzance, we had enormous snow drifts that became impassable and my aunt and uncle who came in their Land Rover to deliver supplies ended up being stranded and snowed in with us for almost a week. I still go back from time to time, but the last occasion I slipped and broke my ankle getting into the woods as it is now so overgrown you cannot see where you are going – the younger me who lived there as a child was more nimble and wouldn’t have made such a mistake! I really enjoyed this article – thank you!

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    • Hello Mark; so good to hear from you! And my thanks for your kind appreciation. Living at Middle Kemyel would have been a wonderful time for you. Do you know Mike and Liz Sagar-Fenton? I think you are correct about the storm dates. I think there was another storm in 1990 but the 1987 storm was the killer. Peter Perry, again whom you may know, did work on the devastated woodland, I remember. I shall check carefully and make date changes! I can well imagine the difficulties of getting through the woods from above. Terrible bad luck to break your ankle. I’m sure you’ll be back there soon. Time to appreciate the spring along the coast. I live at Trevowhan on the Morvah coast where this wretched ‘lockdown’ has been no real hardship given the glorious coastline here, and the moors above, although I feel guilty at times when I think of so many souls trapped in high-rise flats and cramped city streets. Once again, I’m more than pleased that the piece inspired good memories for you, Mark. I’ve had to neglect my website in recent years because of other commitments, but I keep perking it up a bit now and then. Writers cannot stop writing! very best regards to you; Des

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