Golden hour at Crowns, BotallackPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 28mm f/16 4 seconds ISO 100
There’s a dialect saying in Cornwall, ‘ee dusn’t knaw Cornwall that only Cornwall knaws’, which broadly means that someone who has never left Cornwall doesn’t really know the place. This might seem somewhat paradoxical, but being a Cornish exile I can vouch for this. And even more so since I took up landscape photography and returned to my homeland this May to view it through a camera lens for the first time. It was a real revelation.
The Duchy of Cornwall, a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean in the far south west of Britain, is the setting for TV series Echo Beach and Doc Martin, and has provided backdrops for scores of films including Straw Dogs, Ladies in Lavender, Hornblower and Die Another Day. It’s also been the setting for numerous TV adaptations of novels: Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home and The Shell Seekers; W.J. Burley’s Wycliffe; Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek; and most famously Winston Graham’s Poldark. With its rugged cliffs, golden sandy beaches and picturesque fishing villages, Cornwall has some of the best coastline in Europe, and the quality of the light here attracted many top artists in the early-twentieth century, giving rise to the famous St Ives School.
The Penwith area in the far west contains more ancient monuments and sites than almost any other place in Britain. This is one of the longest consecutively settled landscapes in the world, where Neolithic megaliths, Bronze Age field systems, Iron Age hill forts and Celtic holy wells are sited cheek by jowl with medieval farmsteads and abandoned tin and copper mines. Cornwall was at the very vanguard of the British Industrial Revolution, producing the majority of its tin and copper, and its iconic engine houses and other industrial buildings now form part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape UNESCO World Heritage Site (hereafter referred to as the Cornish Mining WHS). With its mild climate due to the Gulf Stream, spring in Cornwall is delightful, as a dazzling display of wild flowers pepper the cliff tops, moors and valleys.
Indeed, early May in Cornwall is my favourite time of the year. The days lengthen, the winter-weary land is suddenly transformed into an artist’s palette of vivid colours, and our ancient festivals - Padstow Obby Oss and Helston Flora - announce the rebirth of the land and the promise of summer.
Although Cornwall is a narrow peninsula there is so much to photograph. Knowing how fickle the weather can be, and in order to give ourselves enough time to capture the scenes we wanted during our seventeen day stay, we decided to restrict ourselves to sites west of Truro. Luckily, we had our Land Rover Defender camper with us which allowed us to park up close to prime locations for dawn and dusk shots, as my mother would have been none too happy being woken at stupid o'clock each day as we set off well before dawn!!
We brought along a copy of Fotovue Outdoor Photography’s Photographing Cornwall and Devon (2016) by Adam Burton. It always irks me when Cornwall gets lumped in with Devon; the dreaded ‘Devonwall’ phenomenon. Quite apart from the obvious mistake on a map (p165) which incorrectly marks the Okehampton bypass the A38, rather than the A30, and the annoying description of mining ‘seams’ of tin (when it should actually be lodes), the book focusses only on coastal sites. But there is far more to Cornwall than this, and it’s my opinion that this edition could easily have been a photo guide dedicated solely to Cornwall. Nonetheless, for those who aren’t very familiar with Cornwall, Burton’s book describes most of the honeypot photography sites and is a very worthy companion.
Marked on the map below are some of the sites we shot at, which will be described individually.
Wheal Coates is sited just outside the charming former mining village of St Agnes. It forms a part of the Cornish Mining WHS and is in the care of the National Trust. From the Chiverton Roundabout on the A30, once in St Agnes, follow the brown heritage signposts for Chapel Porth. After about a mile take the road marked Beacon Drive. The entrance to a small and easily missed dirt car park is situated on the left just before the St Agnes Beacon Caravan and Motorhome Park.
Tin and copper mining along this rugged stretch of coastline goes back to at least medieval times, maybe earlier, and the first written record of a mine at this site was in the late-seventeenth century. The present mine opened in 1802 and finally closed in 1913, but most of the buildings on site date from the mid- to late-nineteenth century when deep lode mining commenced.
Besides an early-twentieth century calciner that roasted the tin to remove impurities such as arsenic, there are three extant Cornish engine houses which accommodated high-pressure steam engines. Two of these were for stamping and winding. But it’s the iconic Towanroath pumping engine house (built in 1872) to unwater submarine workings which is the main focus of photographers. It clings dramatically to a sloping clifftop which is carpeted in late-spring with gorse and patches of candy-pink thrift, while far below it the relentless Atlantic surf booms into hidden zawns (sea caves). It doesn’t get more quintessentially Cornish than this!
The best time of day is undoubtedly from the late afternoon onwards, when the low sun angle bathes the cliffs and the engine house in golden light. Excellent views can be had by contouring round the cliff to the left to capture a shot of the building’s cylinder doorway with Tubby’s Head in the background, or to the right to shoot its plug doorway with the coastline towards Porthtowan in the background. Equally good is a shot of the sunset over the Atlantic looking down on the engine house silhouetted in the foreground. This site is worth taking some time to explore, and a walk along the SW Coast Path towards Tubby’s Head and then using a zoom lens to compress the view towards Porthtowan can yield good results. For something entirely different, park at the nearby Chapel Porth car park and walk along the beach at low tide to get a view up the cliff face of the engine house.
Sunset over Wheal CoatesPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 28mm f/6.3 60 seconds ISO 100
The Kennall Vale Nature Reserve near Ponsanooth ('Pons an Woodh' Cornish for ‘bridge at the stream’), is a quiet riparian setting with an explosive past! Turn off the A393 at Ponsanooth into Park Road by the Village Stores and follow this until you see the sign for Cot Hill. Parking on Cot Hill is awkward, with limited space close to the entrance to the reserve, so we parked downhill along the road where there were no visible restrictions.
From 1812 to 1910, this was the site of the Kennall Gunpowder Company which harnessed the power of the fast flowing River Kennall which falls rapidly through the valley. At its height, the works was the most successful of its kind in Cornwall and mainly supplied gunpowder for the mines and quarries in the thriving Central Mining District, but it also exported worldwide. Today the remains of a series of incorporating mills (some with in situ machinery) can still be seen, where the gunpowder was manufactured in stages and powered by waterwheels fed from a series of leats on both sides of the river. Emerald-green moss, ferns, and a dense canopy of foliage create a magical atmosphere that would not be out of place in a Tolkienesque film. The site is in the care of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and forms part of the Cornish Mining WHS.
The woods contain bluebells, but we were not that impressed with this year’s display, and the pathway behind some of the incorporating mills, one of which we particularly wanted to photograph, was closed for urgent maintenance, so we focussed on the Kennall River instead. As with any woodland setting, the green hue makes photography challenging, and getting a composition that works well is difficult. We eventually captured a long exposure shot of a small rapid lit by some soft light filtering down through the tree canopy. Autumn here would probably offer the best compositions as the woods are comprised of deciduous trees which would give some intense colour.
River KennallPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 37mm f/13 8 seconds ISO 100
From the Cornish for ‘sandy cove’, Portreath with its sandy beach and pretty offshore island called Gull Rock, is a popular surfing beach. It lies within the Cornish Mining WHS and is sited about 5 miles from Redruth. There is plenty of (metered) parking right above the beach, but to avoid paying, locals park up Tregea Hill.
Portreath was first recorded in 1485 and tin streaming in the valley was documented in 1602. In 1713 Devonian, Samuel Nott, was engaged to build the first quay on the western side of the beach. This was destroyed by storms before 1749. The harbour we see today was started in 1760 to service the expanding mining industry in the hinterland, but it was also home to a significant fishing fleet, mainly for pilchards. In the late 1770s, during the American Revolutionary War, lieutenant-colonel of the North Devon militia, landowner Francis Basset of Tehidy who owned the port, commanded local miners to fortify it, which helped counter a Franco-Spanish invasion fleet. The Outer Basin was constructed in in 1801 and by 1827 Portreath was described as Cornwall's most important port for sending the copper ore mined in the Gwennap-Redruth area to Swansea for smelting. The ships returned with Welsh coal to fire the steam engines used on the mines. The peak of this enterprise was around 1840, when some 100,000 tons of copper ore were shipped out each year. The harbour was enlarged by adding the Inner Basin in 1846, and in the 1860s New Dock was constructed. Sadly some of the historic fabric of the site was destroyed for housing in the 1970s, but the old harbour is still intact and in use.
Being a native of Redruth, I know Portreath well, my paternal grandfather was born there. As an adolescent, his first job was working on the coal ships to Swansea, but he never did find his sea legs and hated his time aboard ship. The north Cornwall coat is renowned for its lee shore (winds blowing towards the coast), making it extremely dangerous for ships to manoeuvre in stormy weather, and the narrow harbour entrance at Portreath made docking treacherous in high seas. Grandpa could be anchored offshore for days and could see the lights of his home village but his ship was unable to put into port. I have often hastened there during stormy weather to marvel at the fury of the ocean crashing against, and breaking over, the granite sea walls of the harbour.
Our visit happily coincided with such weather, and after a rainy front had passed over, we managed to get some great mid-afternoon shots of huge waves breaking over the harbour wall and the iconic Monkey House with steel grey skies behind. This circular building dates back to the heyday of mining and was used for shelter by the harbour pilots who would wave flags or lanterns to guide ships into harbour, or warn them away if conditions were too dangerous. The original structure was destroyed by a severe storm in January 2014, but has been rebuilt.
Waves crashing over the Monkey House, PortreathPentax K1 Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm f/14 1/200 second ISO 100
The best time to visit Portreath is undoubtedly at sundown. Good images can be shot from the beach, with Gull Rock silhouetted against the setting sun, or the wet sand reflecting the colours of sunset, but for a great shot of the sun setting over the Atlantic, take the road marked Lighthouse Hill. Just after it begins to bend to the right, pull over and take a cliff path on the left to an iconic daymark on top of North Cliff. Be very careful, as the pathway is badly eroded and perilously close to the cliff edge in places. Built in 1846 and known locally as the Pepperpot, this whitewashed tower was built as an aid to navigation for passing shipping and was also used as a coastguard lookout. Using a wide angle lens, frame your image to capture the Pepperpot with Gull Rock to the left and the setting sun on the horizon.
The Pepperpot at Sunset, Portreat, CornwallPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 19mm f/14 160 seconds ISO 100
Tehidy (from the Cornish 'chy' meaning house and a personal name) is an historic manor in the parish of Illogan located on the north coast some two miles north of Camborne, two miles west of Redruth, and about a mile south of the harbour at Portreath. In 1983 the local authority purchased 250 acres (1.0 km2) of the parkland and estate around a former mansion. Now owned and managed by Cornwall Council as a Country Park, Tehidy boasts over 9 miles of paths and 250 acres of mature woods and ornamental lakes, together with a visitor centre, café (with toilets), and a picnic area. The car parks for Tehidy are free and located at North Cliffs, East Drive and South Drive.
Tehidy was in the ownership of a junior branch of the Basset family from Norman times. By 1330 a substantial mansion had been constructed which was destroyed during the Cornish Rebellion of 1497 in revenge for the Basset’s loyalty to the English Crown. Over the centuries the mansion underwent several rebuilds, financed by the enormous wealth being generated by the local tin and copper mines and land rents paid by the local mining workforce. In 1915 the mansion was vacated and after 700 years of Basset ownership, the estate was sold in 1916. In 1918 the house became a hospital for tuberculosis sufferers. In 1919 it was destroyed by fire but had been completely rebuilt by 1922. The core of the historic house served as a hospital until 1988 and has now been converted into luxury apartments.
Swathes of the woodland towards North Cliffs are comprised of ancient sessile oak and beech trees. This access point into the park is much quieter than the East or South Drive car parks, and is best for spring flora. We were rewarded with carpets of indigo bluebells. The weather was fickle, with watery sunshine and intermittent rain which brought out the loamy smell of the woodland floor and the intense perfume of the bluebells. But the midges were out in force! Woodland photography is among the most challenging of all, and it can be almost impossible to find a composition with dense enough patches of bluebells interspersed with tree trunks free of cluttering branches or chaotic tangles of vegetation, and we were hoping to use one of the russet-coloured pathways as a leading line. Shooting with a zoom lens wide open can produce some stunning results.
After wandering around for over two hours without getting the 'wow' shot we wanted, we decided to experiment with ICM. We focussed on a group of ivy covered tree trunks with a deep patch of bluebells in the foreground and moved the camera vertically. As with any woodland scene, light is everything, and a low sun angle or some mist can make a scene really pop. Next time!
ICM Tehidy bluebell woodsPentax K1 FA 100mm f/20 1.6 seconds ISO 100
Site 5: Godrevy Lighthouse, Gwithian
Godrevy Lighthouse sits astride Godrevy Island in St Ives Bay near Gwithian. The cliffs adjacent to it are in the care of the National Trust and there is car parking close to the Godrevy beach café or further along the road. In summer, there is overflow parking in the fields close to the toilet block. Around dusk, the best time for photography, there is no charge to park here. By day it is an eyewatering £6 (to non-Trust members!!).
Standing approximately 300 metres off Godrevy Head, this iconic lighthouse marks The Stones Reef, which has been a hazard to shipping for centuries. The Stones claimed many ships, prompting calls for a lighthouse to be built, but nothing came of plans until the wreck of the iron screw steamer SS Nile during a storm in the winter of 1854. Some 40 lives were lost and consequently the lighthouse was constructed in 1858–1859. The writer, Virginia Woolf, who spent her childhood holidays at Talland House in St Ives, used Godrevy Lighthouse as the inspiration for her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.
This is without doubt my favourite place in all of Cornwall. Throughout my adolescence, my parents kept a caravan on Gwithian Towans and I spent many happy hours on the nearby beaches. In those days the lighthouse still had a fog horn and I recall lying in my bunkbed listening to its eerie, plaintive moan. And running across the wet sand in the dead of night as the beam of light swept over the bay to where a group of old Crofty miners, just visible in the light of their storm lanterns, were fishing for mackerel off Godrevy Rocks.
Sunset is the optimal time to shoot the lighthouse and we were headed for those very same rocks which lie opposite Godrevy Island. From the top of the cliff path at the northern end of a small sandy cove, a flight of concrete steps lead down to the beach. This vantage point is best at low tide when the majority of the ledges of rock below Godrevy Point are accessible. Time is required to scout amid the rock pools, outcrops and deep channels to pick a spot that suits. We were fortunate to get a good swell hitting the rocks below us, which added drama to the scene, and the side light during the golden hour was excellent. Sunset however, was not to be, as this was obscured by a thick bank of cloud on the western horizon.
Godrevy Lighthouse, Cornwall, in the golden hourPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 68mm f/13 100 seconds ISO 100 We returned a few days later to shoot here once again, but this time we chose a more elevated position right on the tip of Godrevy Point so we could capture the sun setting behind the lighthouse. We were rewarded with a gorgeous red orb that sank slowly into a haze of sea mist directly behind the tower.
Sun setting behind Godrevy LighthousePentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 73mm f/8 8 seconds ISO 200 The red orb of the setting sun behind Godrevy LighthousePentax K1 Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm f/9 1/40 seconds ISO 100
The village of Botallack (Cornish, Bostalek) is on the B3306 road, in a former tin and copper mining area situated between the town of St Just in Penwith and the village of Pendeen. To reach the mine pass through Botallack from either the first road on the right (if coming from St Ives), or on your left (if coming from St Just). At the first junction take the road leading towards a large farm. The road to the mine swings to the left past Botallack Manor down a gravel trackway with the sea directly ahead. Continue along this until you reach a large building on the right which was the former Mine Count House. There is parking beyond this. The site is in the care of the National Trust and forms a part of the Cornish Mining WHS.
This is undoubtedly one of the jewels in the crown (pardon the pun, you’ll see why below!!), of Cornish mining. Mining goes back many centuries here, with the suspicion of extraction in prehistory. Botallack is famous for being a submarine mine, with tunnels extending under the sea in places for half a mile. It attracted royalty, including the Prince (later King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales. In 1865 they bravely descended a new diagonal shaft accessed by a frightening trackway elevated on wooden trestles that traversed a gaping void before plunging into subterranean darkness, creating a mini-boom in tourism that caused the operators to charge visitors a guinea per person!
The mine closed in 1895 as a result of falling tin and copper prices, but has been kept alive in the public’s imagination through being a location in the 1970s blockbuster Poldark series, as well as the equally successful new series starring Aidan Turner.
Photographers are drawn to the sight of the Crowns granite-built engine houses clinging like limpets to the craggy cliffs not far above the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean. It doesn’t get much better than this! The best time of day is the golden hour when the engine houses are side lit. There are myriad viewpoints to select here, and one of our favourites is from a series of rocky ledges down the cliff slope to the south which lie immediately opposite the engine houses. Care must be taken on the approach track which crosses a razor thin spine of land with precipitous drops on both sides. Here you can either zoom in to focus on the engine houses clinging to Crown’s Rock, or frame your image to include a series of jagged rocky ledges jutting out from the cliff base against which waves break. At high tide, and especially in high seas, this can be incredibly dramatic.
On our first visit this trip, the golden hour failed to deliver the light we would have liked due to a bank of thick cloud on the western horizon. We packed up quickly and headed up the cliffs towards Wheal Owles (pronounced ‘alls’ from the Cornish for cliffs) which featured in the recent Poldark series as Wheal Leisure. From the trackway above this mine the typical Cornish-type engine house was silhouetted against a pearlescent sea and colourful sky with a thin crescent of a moon during the blue hour. Use of a wide angle lens meant that you could get close enough to Wheal Owles but also include the distinctive extant remains of nearby Wheal Edward further along the cliff top. I posed on the top of a mine burrow to give the image some scale. Martin has dubbed this shot ‘Three Cornish Ruins’. Charming!
Blue hour at Wheal OwlesPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 28mm f/16 0.5 seconds ISO 100 A further return to Botallack with our friend and local photographer, Ainsley Cocks, was rewarded with excellent light during the golden hour (see leading blog image above), and due to high humidity, a muted sunset of soft pastel shades captured from the cliff top looking down on the engine houses. Sunset at Botallack MinePentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 26mm f/10 30 seconds ISO 100
Penwith is a treasure trove if you’re into prehistory. I love the timeless feel of this part of my homeland which, unlike so much of Cornwall, sadly blighted by ugly new housing estates and unsympathetic fringe urban development, is unchanged since my childhood. For me this place provides an unbroken link into the distant past, where I can almost feel the presence of my ancient ancestors who roamed this land long before the arrival of the Celts or Saxons.
The quoit at Chûn (pronounced ‘choone’ from the Cornish chy woone ‘house on a downs’) is located about 2 miles inland from Pendeen. It can be seen clearly on the horizon from the B3318 road that runs from Portherras Cross at Pendeen to join the A3071 road to Penzance, and can be reached from three directions: from Keigwin near Pendeen by a public footpath; from the B3318 road, where there is a small car-parking area and a permissive path that climbs up to the hill; and from Trehyllys Farm to Chûn Castle (a nearby Iron Age hillfort).
‘Quoit’ is the Cornish name for a type of megalithic structure comprising a number of large stones set upright to support a massive horizontal capstone forming a small chamber. Archaeologists call such sites chambered tombs or portal dolmens and they were used for communal burials in the early Neolithic period (3500-2500 BC). Chûn Quoit is one of a small group of similar monuments restricted in distribution largely to Penwith, though there are two or three further east in Cornwall and they are also common in Wales, Ireland and Brittany.
Comparison with similar monuments elsewhere suggest that they functioned as repositories for safeguarding ancestral remains which might have been used in tribal ancestor cult ceremonies. During the Neolithic people were becoming more sedentary, farming crops and raising livestock, and their connection to their land might have been expressed by attempts to establish hereditary ‘ownership’ of a territory and to develop a communal or tribal identity. Up close, one can’t help but marvel at the engineering sophistication of the people who raised these enormous megalithic structures.
Chûn Quoit, like many other dolmens, sits atop a bleak wind-blasted heath with extensive views inland and also to the Atlantic Ocean, which perhaps reflected the local tribe’s ambition to define or control a specific territory and to bring its community into a closer relationship with it by signposting landscape features which featured in communal histories, or which enjoyed particular mythical associations. Bone does not fare well in Cornwall’s acidic soils and no human remains have been found on site.
Chûn Quoit is a good site for a sunrise or sunset shot and we made two visits there on this trip. We were hoping to capture the quoit silhouetted against the sun setting over the Atlantic, as the view of the megalith facing this direction looks best. However, grey sea mist was billowing across the heath like smoke, and the plantive cry of a buzzard was the only sound to break the unnerving silence. Wearing wellies we pushed our way through gorse and heather some distance away to obtain a shot with a zoom lens to give a sense of the quoit looming out of the mist on this desolate heath.
Chûn Quoit in the mistPentax K1 DFA Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm f/10 0.3 seconds ISO 100 We returned a few days later for a sunrise shoot. It was a cold and grey morning which didn’t deter the cuckoo whose fluty notes wafted across the heath! Although dawn was not as spectacular as we would have liked, as the sun rose through cloud, we managed to capture some fleeting colour in the sky which briefly illuminated the upright megaliths of the structure.
Chûn Quoit at dawnPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 17mm f/8 30 seconds ISO 100
This iconic and highly photogenic site is one of the best-known megalithic structures in Cornwall. Men-an-Tol means ‘holed stone’ in Cornish and despite having been considered a significant and popular monument from a very early date, its true purpose remains a mystery.
There is no vehicular access to the site. Limited car parking can be had at a small informal car park along the Madron to Morvah road. Crossing a stile by a farm gate brings you onto a gravel trackway. Follow this for just over half a mile until you see a signpost to the site on the right. After crossing another stile it’s a short distance to the megaliths surrounded by open heathland within an area designated as being historically and ecologically valuable, as well as being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Mên-an-Tol consists of four stones, the most iconic being the circular and pierced upright stone. It is thought to belong to the Bronze Age (making it around 3,500 years old), though little evidence has been found to confirm this.
The Mên-an-Tol has had many a curative and magical power attributed to it, certainly in terms of more recent folklore. The local moniker the ‘Crick Stone’ alludes to its alleged ability to aid those with back pain, and children suffering from rickets and tuberculosis were also taken here for cures. Passing through the hole was central to the healing process, with importance being attached to the direction, the number of times (commonly 3 or 9), and the point on the lunar cycle. With its obvious feminine symbolism, the holed stone was also believed to aid fertility and its powers were sought by barren women, pregnant women desirous of an easy childbirth, and farmers seeking bountiful crops. Now a popular tourist attraction, very few children born and raised in West Cornwall would not have passed through this stone in their childhood!
We arrived at the site after midnight hoping to try out some astrophotography in Cornwall’s uncharacteristically clear skies. The ground was wet with dew which amplified the sweet smell of the heath and the dizzying perfume of bluebell and gorse. We had the place entirely to ourselves and for a brief moment in time I could almost see our ancient ancestors solemnly parading across this landscape brandishing flaming torches wearing animal masks, chanting and making music with drums and horns. However, the creeping cold and the constant churring of a nightjar out on the heath soon brought me back to my senses!
Unfortunately, the short nights meant that the moon would not have set sufficiently to enable us to get enough frames to compile a panoramic capture of the Milky Way over the site before the eastern horizon began to glow in advance of the rising sun. As we beheld the ancient scene before us, the International Space Station soared overhead amid a canopy of brilliant stars, a thrilling juxtaposition of old and new.
Dawn brought a better bounty. The eastern horizon was free of cloud and we managed to capture a shot of the rising sun, star-bursting round the edge of one of the megaliths, framed by the holed stone.
Sunrise through the Mên-an-TolPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 31mm f/29 1/6 second ISO 100
Situated on the wild, windswept heath just over the hedge on the road between Madron and Morvah, Lanyon Quoit, along with other Cornish dolmens, dates back to the Neolithic period. The site is in the care of the National Trust. There is no car park, but a couple of laybys on the road give enough space for a few cars. Hop over the stile in a Cornish hedge to gain access to the site. Be aware that cattle often graze in the vicinity of the quoit.
Some believe this site was a burial chamber enclosed by a large mound, while others argue that it was never completely covered, but rather used as a mausoleum and the imposing backdrop to ritual ceremonies, especially since it is believed that in its original form the quoit was aligned with cardinal points. Another theory is that bodies were placed on the capstone to be excarnated by carrion birds. Nearby lie a number of small stone burial chambers, known as cists, and evidence that there were a number of neighbouring barrows. Signs indeed that this was a sacral landscape for our ancestors.
Once high enough to allow a horse and rider to pass underneath, Lanyon Quoit is certainly one of Cornwall’s most recognisable and important megalithic sites. The mammoth capstone, weighing over 13 tonnes and measuring 9 feet by 17 feet, originally sat atop four upright stones until a thunderstorm in 1815 dislodged it. Attributed in part to soil removal by treasure hunters, the fall broke one of the supporting stones, hence the diminished stature achieved when the megalithic structure was re-erected by local public subscription.
This site is an excellent choice for a dawn shoot, with the spring sun rising behind the quoit towards Ding Dong Mine standing proud of the horizon. Our first attempt at a sunrise capture was a wash out, with leaden skies and persistent drizzle. This type of occurrence is particularly galling when you have to rise at way before stupid o’clock, and the days are long and punishing for landscape photographers! However, our patience and persistence was finally rewarded on another day.
I wasn’t sure at first whether the weather would yet again throw a spanner into the works, as on our arrival, thick swathes of sea mist lay over the heath like a ghostly shroud. But by degrees the eastern horizon brightened and the sky overhead turned a gorgeous shade of rose-pink. The mist instantly responded, slowly whirling dervish-like in great columns, backlit by the feeble pre-dawn light. Finally, the great orb of the rising sun stode upon the eastern horizon like a blood red troubadour serenading the break of dawn. It was a spine-chilling moment I shall cherish for many years. Such are the rewards of landscape photography.
Sunrise at Lanyon QuoitPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/8 1/5 second ISO 100
Ding Dong Mine is an old and extensive mining area within an extremely ancient landscape, a palimpsest of history reaching back to the early-Neolithic. Situated in the parish of Madron some two miles south of the St Just to Penzance road, mining in this area is alleged to date to prehistoric times, and local legend claims that Joseph of Arimathea visited the area with the young Jesus who addressed the miners, although there is no evidence whatsoever to support this! The mine forms part of the Cornish Mining WHS.
The easiest access to the mine is via the Madron to Morvah road (B3312). After you have passed out of Madron, take the second right, a small road marked Bossilack and continue along this until you hit a dirt track (the track hereafter might pose difficulties for cars with a low suspension). Keep to this track past Lowery Farm and a water works on the left until you reach the open heathland where you should spot the stack of the Greenburrow Engine House, also down a track to the left. There are several places to pull your vehicle safely off the track to park. The area near the Greenburrow Shaft served as our base camp for much of our stay in the Penwith area. Here we were woken well before dawn each day by a croaking pheasant, several cuckoos and a posse of very noisy chaffinches!
The earliest written record of mining here is at the beginning of the seventeenth century when a number of smaller mine setts were in production. Ding Dong was created in 1813 by combining 16 smaller mines in the area. Falling tin prices led to the closure of the mine in 1877. Today, one of the most prominent features of the mine is the Greenburrow Engine House built in 1865 to accommodate a 40-inch cylinder pumping engine.
The Greenburrow Engine House makes a great subject for astrophotography, despite some light pollution on the south eastern horizon from Marazion and Penzance. Our visit to Cornwall happily coincided with some uncharacteristically clear night skies, enabling us to experiment with the Pentax K1’s astrotracer feature. A mosaic of 18 separate frames, each of 60 seconds exposure, were stitched together to achieve a panorama of the Milky Way soaring over the engine house. Merged with this was an image of the foreground to retain sharpness, and another of the engine house illuminated by torchlight.
Milky Way over Greenburrow Engine HouseMosiac of frames each taken with the Pentax K1 FA 35mm f/2.2 60 seconds ISO 800 This spot is a great choice for a sunrise too. We were treated to an unbelievably colourful dawn with a sky tinted mauve and cerise pink in advance of sunrise. We managed to capture a great shot of the engine house reflected in a heart-shaped pool along the track which mirrored the unreal technicoloured sky. Racing round to the west of the engine house, we caught the sun exploding over the horizon, bathing its plug doorway and bob wall in warm light.
Predawn light at Greenburrow Engine HousePentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 73mm f/14 5 seconds ISO 100 Greenburrow Engine House at dawnPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/22 1/3 second ISO 100
Cape Cornwall is one of only two capes in Britain and is often dubbed the connoisseur's Land’s End. It marks the spot where the Atlantic currents split, either going south up the English Channel, or north into the Bristol Channel and Irish Sea. Bought by Heinz for the nation as part of their centenary celebrations, it was presented to the National Trust in 1987 and is part of the Cornish Mining WHS. From the town of St Just, Cape Cornwall Road leads straight to the National Trust car park at the site.
The iconic chimney atop the cape was built in 1864 to provide updraft for an engine house on the Cape Cornwall Mine which operated intermittently between 1838 and 1883, after which time it closed permanently and the engine house was demolished. The chimney was retained as a navigational aid to shipping, while the former ore dressing floors below the large white house (formerly the mine Count House) were, for a spell in the early twentieth century, converted into greenhouses and wineries.
A concrete slipway leads down to the very rocky Priest’s Cove, which has been a landing place for local fisherman for centuries. About a mile offshore lies a twin peaked island named The Brisons (French: brisant, ‘reef, breaker’; Cornish: An Gribow – ‘the reefs’), which for some strange reason locals decided looked like General Charles de Gaulle in his bath!! In 1851, the 250 ton brig New Commercial struck the ledge between the Great and Little Brisons, resulting in the death of all but two of the members despite a dramatic rescue attempt. As a result of this disaster, a lifeboat station was established in Sennen Cove in 1853, where one is still based today.
We made two visits to Cape Cornwall, one in the company of local photographer, Ainsley Cocks, who joined us for a sunset shoot. We wanted some elevation to ensure that the setting sun was not obscured by the cape, so we climbed the very steep SW coast path from Priest’s Cove towards a small car park near Ballowal Barrow. Before you arrive at the car park there are a series of crags jutting up from the sloping clifftop which provide some interesting foreground, or added elevation for your shot.
There was some cloud banked up on the western horizon, which was a feature of the weather on this trip, but it was not thick enough to totally obscure the sinking sun which bathed the cliffs with a warm golden glow, and we captured some interesting long exposure shots.
Golden hour at Cape CornwallPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 58mm f/14 30 seconds ISO 100 Cape Cornwall sunsetPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 34mm f/11 70 seconds ISO 100 On our return to Cape Cornwall, we ventured down to Priest’s Cove at low tide for sunset, and slowly and gingerly picked our way across a chaotic jumble of angular boulders slick with seaweed and algae. One slip could have resulted in damage not only to our camera equipment, but the very real risk of a broken limb! We found a ledge of rock right at the water’s edge which gave a good view of The Brisons riding the horizon. There was quite a swell, and with the tide crashing over partially submerged boulders and literally swirling round our feet, we were initially somewhat crestfallen as the western horizon was once more choked with grey cloud and hopes for a colourful sunset were fading fast. But then gaps appeared in the cloud and some lovely diffuse pastel shades appeared in the sky, making for an interesting long exposure capture.
The Brisons from Priest's Cove Cape CornwallPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 23mm f/10 25 seconds ISO 100
This tiny cove is located half-a-mile west of the town of St Just at the end of a lush sub-tropical glen known to locals as Cot Valley. From the town square, take the Cape Cornwall Road, then the second left into West Place and the first right onto Bosorne Road. Follow the sign for ‘Cot Valley’ along a road that gets increasingly narrow and steep with few passing places. At the end is a small car park right above the cove. Offshore lie The Brisons.
Porth Nanven has been dubbed ‘Dinosaur Egg Beach’ because of a remarkable deposit of ovoid boulders covering the beach and foreshore. These come in all sizes, from that of an ostrich’s egg to a metre or more in length. Local people once carried these away for garden ornamentation, but they now lie within a SSSI and are legally protected by the National Trust which owns the cove.
These weirdly-shaped boulders are the work of the sea 120,000 years ago. Sea levels have changed several time since then and are now much lower than they were back then, causing the ancient beach to be suspended in the cliff high above the present level. This deposit is the source of the ovoid boulders.
This quirky cove has captivated me ever since my childhood, but through the lens of a camera it is even more enchanting. Knowing that this spot has become very popular with photographers, we arrived well before sunset to scout a place to shoot. Recent storms had flung huge quantities of kelp above the high tide mark which lay metres deep and rotting, attracting swarms of flies and sand fleas. We avoided the worst of this by donning wellies, crossing over the small river bridge on the left of the car park, then walking downstream.
Where the stream meets the beach, we encountered some smooth scalloped outcrops of granite on the left with several boulders in the foreground and The Brisons riding the horizon. Although we spent some time hopping across the tops of the boulders and walking along the disused concrete sewage outflow pipe to the right of the cove seeking out other compositions, we decided this one worked best. As the tide retreated, uncovering more boulders, in the blazing hot sunshine of late afternoon we sipped a cool Mena Dhu stout (St Austell Brewery, my absolute favourite Cornish tipple!), watching choughs and swallows swooping over the clifftops, while a lone seal entertained us just offshore.
However, it soon became apparent that a thick bank of cloud lying over the Celtic Sea which had plagued our trip was going to dampen the sunset yet again. We took some long exposure images before it was swallowed in the grey gloom. A couple of other visits to this beach yielded no better results, as it was either too bright with glassy sunlight to shoot during the afternoon, or a repeat of the previous night regarding sunset.
Porth Nanven sunsetPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 19mm f/16 170 seconds ISO 100
Sennen (Cornish: Porthsenen) is a small coastal village just off the A30 two miles from Land’s End. The access road descends steeply to the pretty village with its small harbour and life boat station, founded in 1853. The large sandy beach along Whitesand Bay is very popular with surfers. Metered car parking is available above the beach, and there is another very small (metered) car park above the harbour and a large overflow car park at the top of the cliffs on the road leading down to the cove.
Sennen was once one of Cornwall’s most important seine fisheries, and is still home to a small fishing fleet. It was here in 1881 that Faraday landed the eastern end of the transatlantic cable known as the Direct American Line, the western end of which was at Sable Island, off Canada.
I’ve always loved Sennen Cove, and can vividly recall seeing the lifeboat launched in stormy weather while I and a group of colleagues were trying to make the best of a damp Cornish summer evening by having a beach barbeque!
Our two visits here couldn’t have been more contrasting weather wise and brought different challenges. Our first was during a very grey and overcast afternoon threatening rain. We decided to focus on the old harbour area and found three small fishing boats tethered at the top of a granite slipway. A large rusty iron chain made an interesting foreground feature. Using a wide angle lens we were able to get up very close to the chain and the boats and decided that this shot might actually look better in black and white.
Sennen fishing boatsPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 18mm f/2.8 1/800 second ISO 100 We returned with Ainsley on a burning hot day with clear blue skies and not much of a swell. Hardly weather conducive to photography either! We decided to try a long exposure shot from the beach out to sea, to obtain layers of colour in the sky, deep sea, nearshore and sand. The resulting image made Sennen look positively tropical!
Whitesand Bay, SennenPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 68mm f/13 15 seconds ISO 100
Sited close to the very tip of Cornwall – Land’s End – the Enys Dodnan sea arch is one of the most sought after locations for photography in Cornwall. The A30 leads straight to a car park at the Land’s End ‘complex’, into which no self-respecting Cornish person would bother setting foot these days! Fortunately, the time to shoot Enys Dodnan is at sundown, by which time there is no fee to use the car park.
Take the SW coast path towards Greeb Farm, a quirky 200 year old restored Cornish farmstead, towards Carn Cheer which will take around 10-15 minutes. The section of the SW coast path from Land’s End to Lamorna is my very favourite, the views are quite simply breath-taking.
From the sloping cliffs below Carn Cheer, the small island (enys means island in Cornish) containing the arch can be clearly seen. Behind Enys Dodnan is another rocky island dubbed the Armed Knight. To the far left and over a mile offshore are a group of islets, upon the largest of which - Carn Bras – is the Longships Lighthouse. The islands and the towering cliffs are comprised of late-Carboniferous early-Permian granite, part of the Cornubian batholith. The ocean seething round the base of these gnarly cliffs and islands make them strong subjects for a classic wide angle seascape.
Anticipating that the site might attract other photographers (which it did, four more in total!), we arrived early on a warm and very calm evening, and were treated to some lovely soft light during the golden hour. The sunset was beautifully muted due to mist far out at sea, and a long exposure image catching the setting sun sinking into this created a truly mystical and magical image.
Sunset over Enys DodnanPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 53mm f/10 20 seconds ISO 200
Pedn Vounder is a tidal beach immediately to the west of the Treryn Dinas headland, below Treen Cliff, and is a popular site for nudists. The name is from the Cornish ‘pedn’ (head, end) and ‘vounder’ (lane). To access the cliffs and/or beach, park at Treen and take the footpath across roadway fields to join the SW Coast Path. Alternatively, you could park and walk from Porthcurno, but as this is usually manic during tourist season, and parking at a premium, I wouldn’t recommend it!
The great attractions here are the incredible weathered granite cliffs and golden sandy cove washed by crystal clear aqua water, scenery which could easily be mistaken for that in the Caribbean. In spring, the clifftops are peppered with flowers including Bluebells, Sheep’s-bit, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Sea Campion and Thrift, which mingle with the yellow gorse flowers. The final stage of the descent from the coast path to the shore is steep and requires some clambering over rocks at the western end of the beach. We were joined by Ainsley for this shoot, but none of us thought it was worth venturing down to the beach on this occasion, as the tide was almost in meaning there were no photogenic water ripples; the remaining sand had been churned up by countless feet; and it was teeming with people. In my opinion, this location is best shot well out of season.
With so many people on the beach and bathing in the sea, we didn’t bother walking to the classic viewpoint of the beach from the top of the cliffs nearest Porthcurno, but opted instead for an elevated view of the cliffs towards the Treryn Dinas headland. Virtually the whole of this rugged headland was enclosed as a promontory fort in the Iron Age, protected by sheer cliffs to three sides and heavily defended on the landward side by a series of large ramparts and ditches.
We carefully scrambled up onto a rocky spire atop the towering Treen cliffs and took a long exposure wide angle shot back towards the headland bathed by the aquamarine sea. Cornwall never looked so tropical!
PednvounderPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/16 25 seconds ISO 100
This is undoubtedly a Cornish photo location on everyone’s bucket list. Described as a fairy-tale island by the National Trust that manages the site, this small offshore island in Mount’s Bay near Marazion is accessible by a granite causeway at mid and low tide, and has an equally famous sister in Normandy: Mont-Saint-Michel, with which it enjoyed close historical links. There is plenty of (paid) parking along the seafront (at Marazion Car Park and Folly Field), but at dawn and dusk, optimal times for photography, you can get away without parking fees.
St Michael’s Mount has a rich and varied past and is steeped in myth and legend. Its Cornish language name, Karrek Loes yn Koes (grey rock in the woods), recalls a time when Mount's Bay was wooded with hazel (it is thought that this marshy landscape finally flooded around 1,700 BC). In antiquity the Mount was referred to as Ictis, and it is believed that tin was traded here with merchants from as far away as the Levant. A former priory of the Norman Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, it has been in the St Aubyn family, who still reside at the castle, since the seventeenth century. The earliest buildings at the summit date to the twelfth century, and the castle is surrounded by exotic subtropical gardens with a small village and harbour on the Marazion side.
The Mount makes a good subject for a dawn or dusk shot when it is side lit. Personally, I think dawn is best as there’s only likely to be other photographers and the odd dog walker or jogger around. Dusk can get seriously busy! Ideally the tide should be neither fully out or fully in, so that the appealing line of the granite causeway tapers off into the water. Using a wide angle lens allows you to get up quite close to the Mount when the tide is favourable, and the spot where the causeway bends slightly to the right towards it provides a strong leading line, drawing the eye in. Equally interesting are the shallow rock pools and expanse of wet sand (sometimes with good ripples) between the causeway and Chapel Rock which can reflect colourful dawn/dusk clouds and make interesting foreground features. Chapel Rock itself gives an elevated position from which to shoot the Mount.
Equally impressive shots can be taken when the tide is fully in. The concrete jetty down a narrow alley behind the post office which is used to ferry passengers across to the Mount at high tide is one location. It dog-legs to the right midway along, creating a strong leading line right towards it. This composition works well using a wide angle lens in portrait orientation. It’s also quite gratifying to shoot from the beach and use a long exposure to smooth out the surface of the water and to frame the foreground with some colourful beach pebbles.
Further along the beach, the point where the Red River passes under a small footbridge close to the road and curves across the beach towards the mount also makes for an interesting composition. The blue hour would also make a great capture, especially if the lights come on in the castle. I’ve also seen some excellent astro-shots of the Mount and causeway, with the core of the Milky Way soaring up behind it, but that would be dependent on the time of year.
During this visit we shot here twice: at dawn and late afternoon. Out dawn visit coincided with a full tide which limited the choice of compositions, and the beach to the left of the concrete jetty was crawling with other photographers. The dawn wasn’t that spectacular, with dull light and no cloud behind the Mount to add some drama to an otherwise empty sky, so we planned to return another day.
It doesn’t pay to write off a drab and overcast day, especially when the most recent weather had been wall to wall sunshine in cloudless skies! We arrived late afternoon just as the tide was retreating revealing the causeway, the granite cobbles of which were gleaming in the feeble light. With the waves literally lapping round our feet, we captured a moody long exposure shot of the causeway tapering off into the sea towards the Mount with some cloud streaked across the sky behind it for added drama.
St Michael's MountPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 28mm f/10 15 seconds ISO 100
Sited dramatically above Porthcew beach and the steep cliffs of Rinsey (from the Cornish words ‘rynn’ and ‘chy’ meaning house on the point), is yet another quintessentially Cornish-type engine house. This is Wheal Prosper, but it never lived up to its name, unsuccessfully working for tin and copper from 1860-1866. There is a choked adit at the back of the beach below the engine house. To reach it you take the steep cliff path and pass through a narrow cleft in the cliff, blasted out by miners. Some three miles from Porthleven, the engine house lies on the SW coast path. At Ashton leave the A394 and take the road marked Rinsey Lane which leads to a small car park on the cliff top.
This was one of the earliest engine houses to be consolidated in Cornwall, and was used by the BBC for the filming of Poldark in the 1970s. The site has been under the stewardship of the National Trust since 1969 and lies within the Cornish Mining WHS.
Our visit coincided with some exceptionally clear night skies, and with the car park close at hand we considered this to be a great site to set up the camera and try to capture the Milky Way rising behind the engine house. We walked down the cliff path some way to obtain a view up towards the engine house and which also obscured the light pollution from nearby Helston and from shipping entering the English Channel. Yet again, past and present engineering prowess were briefly juxtaposed, as the International Space Station zipped across the sky directly over a building that housed a 30-inch cylinder pumping engine, the epitome of cutting-edge technology in the mid-Victorian period.
Kynance Cove (Cornish: Porth Keynans, meaning ‘ravine cove’) is situated on the Lizard peninsula approximately two miles of Lizard Point, the most southerly point of Britain. Described by the BBC as ‘one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the South West’, the cove became popular in the early-Victorian era attracting many distinguished visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the poet Alfred Tennyson. Kynance Cove featured in the 2015 period drama production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It was also used as a location for the recent TV series of Poldark, and in the episode ‘The Devil's Foot’ from The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Kynance and the wider Lizard peninsula is of great geological interest due to the presence of serpentine which is easily eroded, giving rise to a number of interesting sea stacks and tiny offshore islands. Asparagus Island, the largest of these, dominates the view of Kynance Cove and gets its strange name due to the fact that the rare wild asparagus (Asparagus prostratus) grows there. The cove and the surrounding coast are owned and managed by the National Trust. It is part of the West Lizard Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is in the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a good site throughout the year for dawn or dusk shots.
At Helston take the A3083 towards the Lizard. Just past Ruan Major follow the brown heritage signposts for Kynance Cove. Access to the site is down a gravel trackway leading to ample car parking at the National Trust car park. If arriving close to dawn or sunset (during summer months), parking should be free.
The day we visited, the place was virtually deserted on account of the weather. Visibility was poor and we had already spent a virtually fruitless day of photography in the St Just and Rinsey Head areas. Satellite images suggested that there was likely to be a bit of a break in the cloud cover round the Lizard Peninsula, so we had made our way to Kynance in the hope of a sunset.
The tide was only just on the turn when we arrived, so any hopes of a shot on the sandy beach between the mainland and Asparagus Island were out. Instead, we focussed on shooting from two viewpoints along the clifftops. A gravel trackway leads from the car park towards the cliffs where you can pick up the SW coast path. From various vantage points along this, the views towards the cove are excellent. Even on the dullest day, the azure and aquamarine colours of the water shine though. Our first spot was to the left of the cove, looking back down the coast towards Kynance Cliffs and Rill Point, with some interesting saffron-coloured lichen covered rocks in the foreground. A long exposure image worked quite well here, smoothing out the sea and lending the shot a somewhat melancholic quality. I actually prefer days like these for photography; they’re certainly preferable to clear blue skies and glassy light!
Kynance CovePentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/14 120 seconds ISO 200 We then took the footpath down to the cove, where we only just managed to pick our way across the back of the boulder-strewn beach to re-join the SW coast path up the cliffs. It was steep and hard-going with all our camera equipment! Our second image was taken from a viewpoint looking back down the coast towards Lizard Point showcasing Asparagus Island, the small headland with two zawns (sea caves) and the cluster of rocks beneath the cliffs. By now the sun had set, but there was a slight pink tinge in the leaden clouds during the blue hour which made for an interesting long exposure shot.
All too soon our time in Cornwall seemed to be over, but it was a wonderful experience visiting some of my favourite spots, camera in hand, especially in the company of my great friend and Cornish photographer, Ainsley Cocks. I came to realise just how much I took Cornwall’s beauty and uniqueness for granted when I lived there. Having viewed it through a camera lens, I feel I know the place of my birth so much better now!
We hope that you have enjoyed reading about our photo tour to West Cornwall, and for those who visited our Facebook page and Instagram feed during our tour (for which many thanks), we hope that you enjoyed our regular Kartennow post a Dre (Postcards from Home)!
If you're interested in capturing some of the above scenes, then join us on our West Cornwall spring phototour. Booking information on our website! Please do leave a comment, and if you have any queries or questions, pm us, and we’ll be delighted to answer them. Meanwhile, whet your appetite for some of what our tour has to offer with our short promo: