Nearly every day, before breakfast, I go for a nature walk. I live in Hayle, which sits at the mouth of an estuary and looking across St Ives Bay — so there’s plenty of scope for a spot of early morning exercise in a lovely location. Sometimes, I stroll through a riverside garden; often, I opt for a more energetic mini-hike among sand dunes carpeted with wild flowers.
King George V Memorial Walk — usually known simply as “the Walk” — runs for nearly a mile through the centre of Hayle. Subtropical shrubs flourish throughout the year in this sheltered space between steep wooded banks and an avenue of specimen trees on one side, and on the other, a tidal creek which is of national importance as a habitat for waterfowl and wading birds.
The site was once part of the Hayle to Redruth railway line, which opened in 1837, but was later re-routed when a viaduct was built close to the harbour. A century later, the land was landscaped as a public open space. It is now looked after by Hayle Town Council, with the help of an enthusiastic team of volunteers who work with the Walk’s professional gardener.
The Towans — the Cornish word for dunes — surround the town and are home to a fifth of all plant species which grow in the county, so this breathtakingly beautiful landscape is West Cornwall’s largest wild garden.
There are multiple ownership and management patterns across the Towans — Gwithian Towans is privately owned but managed by Cornwall Council, while Upton Towans is owned by the council but managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust! Fortunately, the Towans Partnership, an advisory forum set up in 2002, has been very successful in bringing together all organisations involved in the conservation and protection of the dunes. It’s good to know that the Towans and the Walk are both in safe hands.
Something which these contrasting sites have in common is that each offers a congenial environment for lime-loving plants. Here in Hayle, our soil tends to be calcareous, in contrast with the acid granite characteristic of most of Cornwall. Lilac grows lush on the Walk, and wild thyme, lady’s bedstraw and bird’s foot trefoil are in their element on the grassy dunes.
I was intrigued to discover that the Walk and the Towans were once connected by rail. During the First World War, long after the main railway route was re-routed, the old line running through what would one day become the Walk was used to link Hayle Harbour to the National Explosives Works at Upton Towans. Wildflowers now scramble among the ruins of this industrial complex, which once employed more than 1,500 people.
The more I learn about both the Towans and the Walk, the more I want to know about their past and their present, and their plant, bird and insect residents. So I’ve arranged to have a monthly chat with the Towans ranger, Martin Rule, and the Walk’s gardener, Olivia Pellowe, two people who share a passion for the special places they serve. I’m looking forward to hearing their stories.