Hiking the Cornish stretch of England’s 1015km South West Coast Path in 1987, I reached Padstow village where a ferry is required to cross the Camel River.

It was market day and stalls crowded the quay. A local’s outstretched hand pointed me to a Ferry sign where stone steps led to a smallish wooden boat. I descended, plonked my backpack against a bulkhead and joined the other commuters.

A leathery, wiry Cornishman, revealed as the skipper, satisfied himself there were no more passengers and we motored off, bon-voyaged by discordant seagulls. I relaxed, confident of rejoining the trail before the sun dipped near the yardarm.

We took a diagonal route across the estuary. I assumed the skipper was navigating sandbars or currents, and would soon tack toward the opposite bank, but he continued a beeline to the river mouth.

Perhaps our destination was on the ocean side, in a village obscured by the headland’s bulk? I concluded that to be impractical, but the boat continued its seaward direction. As the headland loomed, the knot of uncertainty tightened in my stomach. I turned to a passenger: “This is the ferry, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s a fishing trip …we’re looking for mackerel.”

After initial surprise, I saw the humour in my error, but this piscatorial expedition was an inconvenient diversion. I approached the skipper expecting sympathetic ears, a hearty laugh and possible transportation to the other side.

“Too bad,” he blurted, before I had time to explain. “You’re on board and going fishing.”

His accent reminded me of the stereotypical Disneyland pirate.

“Didn’t you see my backpack?.”

“Plenty of people bring packs with them.”

Yes, I thought, those that think they’re catching a ferry.

“You’re paying the four quid, and that’s it.”

A quick scan of the other passengers revealed a quiet, polite lot. No chance of a mutiny here. I glanced at the skipper, concluded salty tales, a sing-song and a jug of whisky were unlikely additions to his itinerary, so I returned to my seat and went with the flow, which, in this case, meant a couple of kilometers out to sea. I had no interest in fishing, but the skipper’s sidekick, his son of around eleven years, offered me line and bait, and I acquiesced.

The weather was fine, the sea calm and the shoreline provided a pictorial backdrop. A passenger’s son vomited at our feet. This served to heighten the territorial disdain already felt toward him by the skipper’s boy.

The fishing was surprisingly easy and the mackerel plentiful. The South West Coast Path originally served as a route for the Coastguard in pursuit of smugglers. A deceptively hilly trail, one calculation has it that walking the entire length is the equivalent of climbing the height of Mount Everest four times. There is accommodation along the route, but I would be camping this night.

We continued rolling in mackerel like tuna fisherman, and the skipper’s son gathered the catch. Eventually we pulled up anchor. The son divvied up the fish and asked how many I caught. I had no idea, so said: “Twenty”. He wrapped them in newspaper. The skipper softened and complimented my catch then we returned to shore.

Lugging twenty mackerel in a backpack would quickly become a smelly proposition and I had no desire to be Pied Piper to a flock of seagulls. I approached a local restaurant hoping for a sale. The kitchenhand inspected my catch and disappeared inside for a verdict.

“How much do you want?” he asked on returning.

“Four quid.” Done deal.

I returned to searching for the ferry departure point and discovered it several hundred meters downstream from the sign. On a sandbar.


NOTE: The South West Coast Path is still one of England’s most popular hiking trails and the hills are not any shorter.

A version of this was published in the Weekend Australian. Last time I checked subscription fees had been introduced for its online publication. However, it still displays a basic layout copy.