Friday, May 05, 2006

Cathedrals of the Tin Age

Cornwall is a scarred beauty. It is picturesque yet with a rugged coastline, and pock-marked with injuries it has received in its industrial past. Yet these monuments to its former glory, the winding houses of the old stannary mines are now a symbol or talisman of its tourism-led future.

We were on the Bissoe Tramways cycle trail which is waymarked by stones bearing the above device, making it simple to follow for novice navigators. Cornwall is a thin county, making a coast to coast trip a real possibility in a day. We didn't quite manage it with the children, but we had a good go and experienced a stunning variety of landscapes in a few hours of the Easter holidays.

We had hired mountain bikes from the Bissoe Cycle Centre and Internet Cafe, which was a few minutes drive from where we were staying at Carnon Downs. The centre was located on the trail running from Devoran, situated on an inlet on the south coast up to Portreath on the opposite coast. The sectional view of the route shows it to be two gentle inclines from each shore leading up to the A30 which runs down the raised spine of Cornwall to Land's End. The whole route is 11 miles one way, with Bissoe two miles from the southern end.

We set off toward Portreath, gently uphill, but off-road and safe for the whole family. The trail itself was mostly off-road segments with some country lanes joining them and a more busy section to get across the A30 - on a bridge; there is no dodging cars on this highway to the sun.

The scenery was fantastic, with gentle streams and rolling hills giving way to more rugged sections with capped mines and the spoil from them forming mounds round about. You didn't realise you were climbing, but climb you did up the old mining tramways. This area is criss-crossed with the workings of mineral extraction on an industrial scale. Cornwall has given up its riches hidden deep underground, but it has paid a heavy price for this in the effect it has had on its more visible part. The contrasts between lush green sections and the lunar landscape of the heavily mined areas helped keep things interesting.

After journeying along the edge of a park-like stretch, conveniently off-road, we came to the Fox and Hounds at Scorrier, where we took on board liquid refreshments before we set off again across the A30 and heading on the scarcely noticable downhill side toward Portreath. We were looking for somewhere to enjoy the lunch that we had brought with us, but that was the only real disappointment of the day, as we came to no real picturesque spot where the trail opened out enough to sit down and eat. So, we were forced to do so standing up by the side of the pathway before turning round and retracing our route.

This is when the hills really became apparent as we whizzed away from the main road and down the trail back towards the hire centre in record time. I suppose we could have reached the other coastline, but instead we handed back our bikes, and quenched our thirst at the handily adjoining cafe. The weather had been kind to us, after the horizontal rain of the day before at Land's End. It was dry with a perfect cycling temperature of not too hot and not too cold. I would definitely recommend it as part of a more active day on your next family trip to Cornwall. Start early and the more experienced of you should manage the whole trail.

"Coast to coast in a few hours by bike": now that's not something that you could say everyday.

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