A lot of bad things are written about LAND'S END, the westernmosttip of the Cornish peninsula. I loved it... but only when I stepped away from the commercialised blemish at its heart.
To get here requires driving as far as you can go - the A30 starts in Hounslow and ends at the gate to the car park. Cars and coaches rumble down the final twisty lane, past a kiosk which later in the season will collect their parking fee. Those who've walked from John O'Groats are afforded a painted finishing line, simultaneously marked up as 'Start' for those heading in the opposite direction, its chequerboard pattern barely visible after last winter's storms. And straight ahead is what looks like a late-1980s carpet warehouse, with white-pillared portico and Land's End written boldly above the colonnade. You're welcome.
In good news, stepping inside this mini theme park is free, as is access to the coast beyond. The owners hope you'll wander into the West Country Shopping Village for something to take away, and the coach parties duly do, picking over the branded leisurewear, scented candles and boxes of fudge. They hope you'll get hungry and stop for a snack-on-the-go or pause for a cream tea, then extend your stay with a meal in the hotel restaurant. But most of all they hope you'll buy tickets for their interactive attractions, especially targeted at children they know will get bored of looking at the sea after a few minutes.
Throughout my visit the Wallace and Gromit theme tune blared out on endless loop, with a member of staff stood outside A Grand Experience attempting to shame passing parents into allowing their offspring inside. I saw no takers for Arthur's World, an interactive mythical challenge in a big shed, nor for the Lost World cinema show, described as 4D because it includes a bit of shaking and squirting. The gloomiest employee sat waiting inside a kiosk entitled Land's End Doughnut Company, mute and inactive until a mother with a pushchair finally put his fryer to use by purchasing a single greasy ring. I spent 25p on a postcard, and left it at that.
Walk round the back of this obstructivecluster and there, finally, is the sea. It's immediately obviously that geography got lucky here. England's easternmost point is a drab coastal defence in Lowestoft, but the landscape at Land's End is blessed with an igneous intrusion of microgranite, and clifftops careering down to frothing Atlantic breakers. A mile offshore is a rocky reef named the Longships, complete with working Victorian lighthouse to keep shipping firmly at bay. Rather further out lie the Scillies, although they weren't visible last weekend, even if you fired up the Talking Telescope, and beyond that three thousand miles of ocean.
This is where Land's End's famous signpost is located, and jealously guarded by the custodians of the alphabet tiles. It stands on a chained-off terrace slap bang in front of the best view, and belongs not to the company that owns the theme park but to an independent family business. Nobody prevented me from snapping my own photo of the post, from a distance, but if you want to be stood grinning beside it, expect to pay. I guess everyone who's walked from John O'Groats coughs up.
To get your hometown added to one arm, plus its approximate mileage, costs a minimum of £9.95. The photographer will zoom in for a professional photo, then go away and develop it, and eventually post a mounted copy to your home address. In this selfie age it's all very old-school, a bit like the service provided by a school photographer. Gary Barlow's had his taken, and Professor Brian Cox, and a Dalek, according to the samples pinned up alongside, as did a family from Nepal and Dave♥Samantha on the day I was there.
Intriguingly the Land's End resort isn't built at the mainland's absolute westernmost point, which is about 200 metres to the north. That's the delightfully named Dr Syntax's Head, a stubby finger of land descending sharply out to sea and ending in a stump of granite columns. However most of this extremity is fenced off, behind copious signs saying Dangerous Cliffs and a slew of information boards (whose information appears to have been removed for winter). The accessible part includes the First and Last House, which has been dishing out souvenirs and refreshment since the 19th century, although this year's ice cream season isn't yet underway.
I suspect this is as far as the majority of visitors get. But from here the South West Coast Path heads off uphill as a rough track, and within a few strides you can leave the commercial heart of the Land's End resort far behind. I was fortunate and timed my assault during Saturday's single hour of sunshine, and had the subsequent mile of undulating trail pretty much to myself. These scenic rocky uplands are protected by the National Trust, swinging high over sheer cliffs I could only see properly once I'd walked further round.
The path remained just-about trainer-friendly throughout, even where it crossed tiny streamlets channelling recent rain towards a coastal waterfall. I picked up a couple of tiny chunks of sparkly granite I thought would be nice to take home. I paused partway round to enter the remains of Maen Castle, an Iron Age fort on a promontory, whose ramparts now appear as an oblique scattering of rocks. And I peered cautiously down into the cove at Castle Zawn where the cargo ship RMS Mülheim ran aground after the chief officer fell unconscious after a trouser-related incident. The wreck occurred 15 years ago this week, and even now the remains of the bulkhead remain smashed and rusting, jammed into the shore.
My destination was Sennen Cove, England's westernmost village, squeezed in above the sweep of Whitesand Bay. Half its residents live along a single road along the clifftop, and the other half along the promenade (where'll you'll find the lifeboat station, gift shop and chippie). What brings the place to life is its surf school, taking advantage of the phenomenal waves which, on my visit, were crashing in at the lower end of the beach. I stood alongside a bloke with a zoom lens wrapped up in a Co-Op carrier bag, and numerous yappy dog walkers, watching chilled rubber-clad bodies braving the swell. And then I walked back to Land's End.
And then I carried on along the cliffs to the south, for good measure. Daytrippers are encouraged this way to visit Greeb Farm, another paid-for attraction nestled up a tiny valley, whose off-duty llamas and Shetland ponies can be seen for free in stonewalled enclosures out front. But climb the footpath round the back, following the track by the footbridge, and you'll emerge onto what the resort's map describes as Wild Land's End, i.e. nobody's yet wrecked it.
Wahey, this is "I can't believe they're letting us get this close to the edge" territory. The path opens out onto an exposed rocky headland, Carn Greeb, offshore from which is a heavily-jointed granite stack in whose clefts numerous seabirds reside. The next big rock along the shore has even more birdlife, plus two seaward holes, one of which passes straight through to create an arch while the other is 'merely' a cave. Standing here brought my old school geography textbook properly to life, amid coastal geomorphology at its most fetishistic.
The official South West Coast Path traverses a little further inland, but this little footpath hugs the coastline improperly close, ducking down into sodden grass then rising sharply upwards round the rim of a crumbling ravine. Ten minutes of careful tread - walking boots recommended - will set you up on top of the next headland looking back across thunderous waves towards scoured cliffs and a distant four star hotel. Wallace and Gromit are not required, the landscape of Land's End is perfectly spectacular enough as it is.