“For many connoisseurs the cliff walks between Boscastle and Tintagel are the finest in the whole of the Cornish coast . . . fantastically shaped rocks amuse the lonely walker with the attempt to read some significance into their contorted features, but are, at dusk, too frightening to linger by.” S.H. Burton
The stretch of coast close to the tiny hamlet of Trevalga is one of my favourites. Though I admit I have never done the whole stretch between Boscastle and Tintagel in one go as Burton suggests, I have walked the cliffs here on my way to Rocky Valley and St Nectan’s Glen further in land. But there is one feature on this windswept corner of Cornwall that draws me to it (and the edge of the cliff!) every time. The Lady’s Window.
The Lady’s Window is a simple geological feature. An aperture in the rocks formed by chance, time and the elements. But it is one of those unusual aspects of the coast that stops you in your tracks. That makes you catch your breath and wonder at the magic hand of mother nature at work.
A Dramatic Setting
“A lane leads from the hamlet out to a strange ‘terrace” of heather-peppered cliffs. If you have walked from Tintagel over the cliffs to Boscastle you will know that words can only convey a fraction of the drama and the beauty.” Michael Williams, 1975
The cliffs on this stretch of coast are some of the highest in Cornwall. Just walking along the coastal path here can at times require a certain amount of nerve. Stepping through the small window in the rock to the narrow ledge beyond requires caution and a good head for heights. But beyond that portal it feels as if there is nothing between you and the abyss. The narrow, precipitous zawn in front of you is known as the Trevethet Gutt, somehow a sufficiently ominous name. It’s sheer sides drops an estimated 200ft (60m) to the roaring sea below.
The whole headland here is known as Lady’s Window Head, above it rises Firebeacon Hill. Small off-shore islands dot this piece of the coast, as much a sign of the malleability of the slate cliffs as the window.
Furtherest north Meachard’s and Grower Rock, then close to the window – Short Rock. And then towards Tintagel is the aptly named Long Rock – a sky-scraping tower of stone which has legends all its own.
Slate, formed some 360 million years ago, was once quarried from this coast. Close to the Lady’s Window was one such quarry known as Blackapit. Here the slices taken out of the cliff-face by the miners can still be seen. The work has left yawning chasms. The name of the quarry perhaps refers to the particularly dark colouration of the slate found here, caused by high concentrations of carbon and pyrite.
In 1928 A.G. Folliett-Stokes wrote:
“From Willapark to Tintagel a distance of about four miles the coast is extremely picturesque and grand. Though the cliffs are not so high as many we have passed . . . they are by reason of their abruptness, the fine contours of their little bays and the grandeur of their sentinel island rocks as scenically effective as anything to be found in the Duchy . . . we note how grandly the blue grey slate walls sweep round in a fine curve to Lady’s Window Head. Keeping along by the cliff edge we come in to what looks like a fortress wall. It is impossible to pass on the seaside so we clamber up the least lofty part and find that the summit is flat open space strewn with slate debris. It is indeed a disused slate quarry known as Blackapit. Looking over a precipice we see the clean slice the miners took out of the cliff.”
In the 19th century pulley systems where set up along these cliffs to bring the quarried slate up from the base. Much of the slate was used for roofing in surrounding villages and towns.
Birds above, otters below
This quiet corner of Cornwall was, like so many other now silent places, once a hive of industrious activity. Those days are long gone. Now this coast is the noisy home to numerous bird species. Guillimots, razorbills, cormorants, shags, puffins, kestrels and numerous gulls, their cries echoing in the depths of the dark zawns.
Otters too have been spotted here as Edward Thomas recorded in 1907:
“In time of storm, otters driven from the cliffs take refuge inland and it is then that their tracks are oftenest found. I have frequently happened upon them at these times but in all my searches along the Cornish coast I have nowhere seen so many traces as in a muddy adit near the foot of Trevalga cliffs between Boscastle and Tintagel. The footprints on the floor of this antechamber to the old mine workings are of all ages and in all stages of obliteration, forming as strange and irregular a pattern as can be anywhere be found.”
You may not find any otters these days. But beneath the swirl of wings you will certainly find profusions of lichen, moses and thrift, damp in winter with the spray of crashing waves.
The Lady’s Window, an ancient geological peculiarity, ‘a perforated rocky crag, sharply silhouetted against the sky’, makes a dramatic and picturesque frame for it all.