I have crossed the Cornish border many times. By car and by train, on big bridges and small. But I realised a few days ago that I have never actually crossed it on foot. So the next day I set out to Marsland Mouth to change that.
The Cornwall/Devon border wiggles it’s way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Channel for roughly 65 miles (104km). The River Tamar creates a natural barrier for just over 60 miles (98km) of that. The source of the Tamar can be found on Woolley Moor and roughly a mile away from where it rises another stream bubbles up. This river wanders off in the opposite direction towards the north coast. Marsland Water – this other unsung river also marks our border with Devon.
So, Cornwall truly is surrounded by water.
I set out to cross the Marsland Water at Marsland Mouth on the North Coast, where one steep side of the valley is Devon and the other side Cornwall.
As I stand looking down at the grey slate beach from the Devon side I decide it’s a scene that has changed very little in centuries. And certainly very little since Folliett-Stokes walked the same path in 1928 or thereabouts.
Four hundred feet beneath us a stream dashes in torturous windings between fern-covered banks fringed with blackthorns and elders. As it approaches the sea it rushes into a canyon that it has carved for itself out of the valley bed.
The Marsland valley covers 523 acres and is cared for by the Devon Wildlife Trust. It was donated to the Trust by Christopher Cadbury who died in 1991. As a young man Christopher Cadbury worked in the family firm of Cadbury Brothers, the chocolate manufacturers. He retired from the food industry in the 1950s and devoted the rest of his life to the cause of wildlife conservation.
The Marsland valley has become a real haven for wildlife. Its variety of habitats supports a wide range of birds and mammals, including the rare and elusive dormouse. In spring and early summer it’s here that two rare butterflies, small pearl-bordered and pearl-bordered fritillaries, take to the wing.
And on my walk, as if by magic, one appears at my feet and kindly poses for a picture. In recent years some 34 species of butterfly have been recorded here.
I am also struck by the huge range of wild flowers too. There are so many, some that I recognise but so many I don’t. And the air is alive with bugs!
The White Witch
The whole valley is lush and vibrant with fresh spring growth. From the cliff top my eye traces the river’s path back up the valley to a little white cottage huddled on the Devon side. This is supposedly the house of Lucy Passmore, the white witch.
At the bottom of the valley not far from the shore and close to the stream is a cottage. It is an old mill and we see the great overshot wheel making a rich brown note against the ivy coloured wall. A few yards above the house is a millpool. It was here that Lucy Passmore, the white witch came to live. . . Thinking to gain a little local information we knock at the door. There is no answer and we find it is locked. On passing the front room window we peep in through the dusty glass. The room has whitewashed walls. In the centre of the floor is a table, close to it, on the window side, is a chair pushed slightly to one side. On the table opposite the chair is a large open Bible, on it’s right-hand page is a half eaten pasty. It is curious we think that a scene so characteristic of Cornwall should greet us on it’s threshold. For the Cornish, as everyone knows our great Bible readers and eat pasties all the year round.
This was Folliett-Stokes fascinatingly vivid description of the cottage in 1928. Today the house is privately owned, so no peering in the windows! But the public footpath up the valley passes close by. And I try to recreate his early photograph.
From the cottage I retrace my steps to the beach. Here at Marsland Mouth a little wooden bridge that takes you from one county to the other without getting wet feet! It was a different, rather wilder scene in 1907.
I found no Coastguard path, no track of any kind and soon ceased to trouble about seeking one. It was simpler to climb a cliff clinging to rocks and undergrowth with hands and toes. To mark the narrowest point of the rushing stream far below and to scrambled down towards it. Wet feet where a trifle but it was uncomfortable to slip on the fording stones and fall shoulder first into the stream. – C Lewis Hind, Days in Cornwall, 1907
The beach itself feels isolated and wild. It is covered with sea smoothed slate pebbles and drift wood.
The coastline here at Marsland Mouth has some of Cornwall’s most impressive geology. Upper Carboniferous rocks belonging to the Crackington and Bude formations are exposed in very large, sharp folds. According to geologists this area provides ‘an excellent demonstration of the nature of folds produced during the Variscan Orogeny near the northern margin of the Culm Synclinorium’.
This area also shows the geomorphological relationships between coastal and fluvial features. It contains fine examples of hog’s back cliffs and shore platforms.
It is noted for a remarkable set of former valleys which have truncated by the retreat of the cliff-line so that their floors now lie well above present sea-level.
I cross over the Marsland Water and its deep-cut valley into Cornwall. As always I am delighted to see the Kernow sign. As always I get that same old feeling – pride, happiness and hireth.
*Notes & Directions
To cross the Devon/Cornwall border border on foot I walked from the Devon side. You can find parking at Welcombe Mouth – EX39 6HL.
There are some VERY steep hills on both sides of the border.