The powder-blue sky is full of screaming gulls and cawing crows. Amid the aerial melee, two circling buzzards are mewing loudly to one another. Many metres below them, we are traversing the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall, through an ancient, largely unchanged landscape. Isolated farmsteads are set within an intricate patchwork quilt of irregularly shaped fields enclosed by earth hedge-banks faced with granite rocks which are havens for wildlife. Those around Zennor Head were constructed 4,600 years ago, and are among the oldest manmade artefacts known to be still in use for their original purpose. Undulating across the countryside, they tumble towards cliff edges and sweep up to tracts of moorland to merge with gnarly granite tors. In the Neolithic and Bronze Age, the hills hereabouts were crowned with megalithic monuments, and in the Iron Age some were repurposed as hill forts.
Timeless footpaths worn bare by countless generations, from farmers and tinners, to saints and seiners, meander across the countryside in all directions like the threads of a giant web, linking places with exotic-sounding names of Cornish language derivation. These encapsulate the links forged between our distant ancestors and the discrete features of the landscape in which they lived, worked, and died. The continued usage of these Cornish place names forms an unbroken cultural chain that nourishes a sense of belonging.
In our oft-confusing and rapidly changing world, it’s a comfort to return to places that ‘anchor’ you. West Penwith, which has largely escaped the scourge of out of control development blighting modern Cornwall and whence some of my bloodlines spring, has always been my Shangri-la, a place little changed since my childhood. My roots run deep in this ancient land and I find solace here, especially so during a tumultuous year dominated by Covid-19 when I yearned to return to my homeland from Donegal. Now freed from the fetters of lockdown, with the sound of Atlantic rollers crashing in my ears, the salt-laden wind caressing my face, and the autumn sunshine warming my back, I’m finally ‘home’, and I feel as free as the birds circling high above me.
It's mid-autumn and Martin and I are en route to Zennor from St Ives, day one of a five-day circuit of the ‘Granite Kingdom’ of West Penwith. We’ll spend the first four days trekking around 70km from St Ives to Penzance which offers some of the finest cliff walking along the entire 1,014km South West Coast Path (SWCP). The final day will take us almost 20km across country from Penzance to St Ives along St Michael's Way, an ancient route used by Irish and Welsh pilgrims who came by sea to the sheltered Hayle Estuary to avoid the perilous sea passage around Land’s End. From there they travelled overland to Marazion to take ship to France on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Opened in 2004, St Michael’s Way is the only pilgrimage route in Britain officially recognised as part of the Camino de Santiago.
Campsites and B&Bs are now closed, so by necessity we are discreetly wild camping until we reach Penzance. During the peak holiday season, this wouldn't be possible as suitable camping spots along the coastline are hard to find and the land is either in private ownership, or in the care of the National Trust which does not permit wild camping. There are numerous B&B's in West Cornwall and companies that specialise in transferring your luggage from one accommodation to another, as well as many excellent official campsites along the route, so please respect Cornwall and its communities, abide by the rules and always leave no trace.
After arriving on the train from Redruth, we set out from St Ives Railway Station, stopping on the harbour to buy a couple of Cornish pasties for supper. This old fishing town languishes in exquisite light, reflected back off the sea, sand, and granite buildings, bathing everything in a luxurious Mediterranean-white glow. In the mid-twentieth century, it became something of a Mecca for artists drawn by the primitive and elemental landscape of West Penwith, and the sublime quality of the light. The SWCP passes below The Tate St Ives, a striking building constructed to showcase the work of the St Ives School of Artists and includes pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Bernard Leach and Peter Lanyon.
Today’s section of the route is particularly challenging, following the ins and outs of headlands and inlets, passing through remote and rugged countryside with numerous steep ascents and descents of valleys. Often it resembles a threadbare tightrope suspended between sea and land, surrounded by salt spray, wild winds and whirling gulls; sometimes it’s very muddy, or stony and indistinct, an actual scramble in places. We scurry along it like giant beetles, swaying under the weight of our heavy packs. The aqua-hued Atlantic is still unsettled by the recent passage of Storm Epsilon, and the sea is dotted with scores of white horses which rear up majestically as they gallop ashore.
We pause at the trig point at Carn Naun to admire the view of The Carracks, home to a colony of grey seals, before dropping into a valley where a stream plunges over the cliffs as an impressive waterfall. A spectacular view over the maritime heath and grassland and of the rugged granite cliffs of the Zennor coastline ravishes the eye from Mussel Point, before the path plunges down to Wicca Pool over a series of knee-crunching boulders. We thought this was tricky, but after another wearisome ascent to Tregurthen cliffs, onetime home of novelist, D.H. Lawrence, the path descends steeply towards the rocky shoreline through an immense boulder field, which proves awkward to navigate with our large packs.
We’ve walked almost 13km when we pause at the rocky tor on Zennor Head above Pendour Cove, where the Mermaid of Zennor (in the famous Cornish droll story) allegedly lured a local boy to a watery death. After trudging down more than 100 granite steps to a bridge at Carn Cobba, the light is fading and I seek out a discreet camping spot off the path, somewhat difficult along a coastline dominated by dense scrub falling steeply seaward. Local knowledge comes in handy as I make my way down a steep and indistinct path towards Veor Cove to a perfectly flat rectangular patch of grass not consumed by bracken on the cliff top. After erecting our tent, we greedily consume our pasties. Belly full and snuggled up in my sleeping bag, waves of fatigue immediately wash over me and I drift off to sleep serenaded by the steady symphony of Atlantic breakers crashing ashore, intermingled with the low, plaintive moans of seals and the squeaky cries of oystercatchers on the beach below.
We are woken by sparrows squabbling noisily in the nearby blackthorn bushes as the first light of dawn begins to seep like pink ink into puffs of cotton wool-cloud. It’s unseasonably warm and there is scarcely any condensation on the flysheet. Within an hour we have broken camp and are on the cliff path leading to Carnelloe headland. It looks dead, cold and bracken-brown, until the rising sun clears Zennor Hill, whereupon it immediately explodes into life, resplendent in the rich russets and golds of autumn. It promises to be another glorious day.
The first section of today’s 21km walk traverses a bucolic haven forming part of an Environmentally Sensitive Area. A narrow patchwork quilt of prehistoric field systems lies between sea and moor, protected by grants that allow farmers to work the land using traditional methods which has safeguarded the timelessness of this special landscape. The second section enters an altogether different landscape which fans of the TV blockbuster series Poldark will instantly recognise, and which forms a part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site.
The views from Carnelloe to Gurnard’s Head over Porthglaze Cove, a delightful expanse of turquoise-blue water, are magnificent. At Boswednack we encounter our first mine engine house, forlorn and fractured as an old tooth, and the history keeps coming as we pause to view Gurnard’s Head, site of the Trereen Dinas Iron Age promontory fort with the remains of 18 hut circles. There are many such ‘castles’ along our Cornish coastline. These strategic and prestigious sites were undoubtedly sacred places to our distant forbears, which existed between sea, land, and sky, where the boundaries between worlds merged. Archaeologists have speculated that they probably had a multitude of uses, including religious, ceremonial, trade and administrative functions.
Above Porthmeor Cove a footbridge passes over a cellophane-clear stream where we collect some drinking water. The sun is hot on our backs as we clamber over ancient granite stiles and pass hedges fringed with pink campion, briars of salt-speckled juicy blackberries, and blackthorn bushes heavy with sloes.
Resisting the temptation to gaze only seawards, my eyes alight on the rocky tors atop Carn Galver and Watchcroft and the twin engine houses of Carn Galver Mine dramatically nestled below.
Behind the remains of a tin dressing water mill at Bosigran, loom the craggy granite buttresses of Commando Ridge rising from the Mediterranean-blue waters of Porthmoina Cove like spine of a giant marine reptile. It acquired this name when the Marine Commando Cliff Assault Wing trained here in the 1940s and 50s, and having scaled it several years ago, we can vouch for the fact that it's one of the best ridge climbs in Britain.
The path now traverses high cliffs matted with sweet-smelling gorse and areas of boulders and bog, before it descends steeply towards the flaxen-coloured sand of Portheras Cove. Above it, the 17-metre-high white tower of Pendeen Watch rides the flank of the cliff.
Past the lighthouse the scenery changes dramatically and the level gravel trackways make walking easier. Ahead is a forest of mine chimneys surrounded by otherworldly hummocks of multi-coloured mineral-stained dumps. Worked since antiquity but now abandoned, these mines include Geevor and Levant, both museums. The path passes right through the dressing floors of the former mine, where my paternal great grandfather was the chief mining engineer.
Further along the exposed moorland of gorse and heather is the famous Botallack Mine, home to the iconic Crowns engine houses, dramatically perched right above the seething ocean on exposed rock-cut platforms. The waves are tremendous, and the sound of them booming into zawns (sea caves) at the base of the cliffs below is exhilarating. Now in the care of the National Trust, Crowns has been a tourist hotspot since the mid-1860s after a visit by the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Appearing as Wheal Grambler in the new series of Poldark will undoubtedly ensure the site's continuing appeal.
Salt spray gently touches my face as we head across the cliffs towards the Wheal Owles engine house, its weathered granite façade glowing honey-gold in the early evening sun. This served as Poldark’s Wheal Leisure. Deep within its labyrinthine workings lie the remains of nineteen men and a boy who lost their lives in 1893 when a team of miners accidentally blasted into the flooded workings of a neighbouring mine.
Once past neighbouring Wheal Edward, we pause at Kenidjack Castle to watch the sinking sun floating above the horizon like a giant Chinese lantern. Silhouetted against the burnished gold of sea and sky, the Isles of Scilly look abnormally close to shore. As we ascend Kenidjack valley, the nineteenth century chimney of Cape Cornwall Mine (purchased in 1987 for the nation by the H. J. Heinz Company) is etched in pin sharp detail against the beautiful post-sunset amber glow over sea and sky. Finally, I spot the twin-peaks of the Brisons, an islet lying just offshore, meaning it’s not far to our intended camping spot, but my legs protest bitterly as I climb the steep rocky path towards Bollowall Beacon.
Wood smoke from cottages several hundred metres away wafts on the wind as we descend the trail into Cot Valley, a delightful small cove littered with large, ovoid boulders which resemble a clutch of eggs laid by a sea serpent. The light on the western horizon is a chrome-orange line merging to indigo as we make a beeline for a tiny, yet level grassy cliff ledge just off the SWCP at Carn Leskys.
It’s sheltered, well away from prying eyes, and offers grandstand views towards Sennen Cove. By the time we’ve pitched the tent, darkness has fallen, the Milky Way has begun its celestial journey across the heavens and the entire sky is ablaze with stars.
We are woken by a noisy kestrel shrieking atop on the rocks behind our tent. Beyond the Brisons, the pre-dawn sky is candy-pink and a dewy light softens the sea and the land’s rich autumnal colours to the pastel shades of an Impressionist painting. Before we break camp, we collect some drinking water from the tiny stream flowing through Cot Valley before beginning the 20km trek to Treryn Dinas, which will take us around the tip of Cornwall and through some of the most wild and dramatic scenery yet.
Past Gribba Point the wind in our faces makes the going tough, and there are a couple of steep descents almost to sea level and a few rocky tors to scramble over before we approach Whitesand Bay. The tide is almost in as we walk across the fine golden sand, watching surfers catching the aqua-hued waves. After crossing a series of sand dunes covered in lush swathes of marram grass whipped into a frenzy in the ceaseless wind, we reach Sennen Cove where the tide is dramatically washing over the harbour breakwater. This quaint fishing village, now unfortunately blighted by holiday lets, an all too common occurence in Cornwall, is deadly quiet as we walk through it to take the steep cliff path towards an old coastguard Lookout.
The well-trodden path to Land’s End traverses wind-cropped heathland studded with lichen-encrusted boulders, passing Maen Castle and the wreck of the RMS Mülheim, which foundered en route from Ireland to Germany in 2003. Carefully descending the slippery, rocky gully, between the veils of sea spray we catch sight of the twisted mass of metal being buffeted by the raging tide.
It’s eerily deserted at the boarded-up First and Last shop at Land’s End where the wind is ferocious, the salt-laden air is full of whirling, shrieking seagulls, and the petrol-blue Atlantic is crashing round the Longships Lighthouse 2km offshore. Past the monstrosity of the Land's End Hotel, which has annoyingly commercialised what was once a picturesque and free-to-visit spot, the granite cliffs are truly majestic. Weathered into mysterious totem pole-like formations bristling with lichen, they appear as timeless sentries that stare off into the Atlantic.
Keenly eyed by a couple of cawing choughs, we stop to photograph the Enys Dodnan sea arch before continuing along the muddy track. It’s precariously close to the cliff edge at Nanjizal where the surf is pounding the rocks below and the air rushes upwards carrying a jet of cold, oxegenated sea spray. What an exhilarating antidote for the Covid-19 blues!
Just before the steep climb out of the valley, the path crosses the top of the beach opposite Zawn Pyg (pointed cave), an arch at the end of a tall, narrow passageway fronted by attractive aquamarine pools, which has been dubbed the 'Song of the Sea'. However, I rather suspect that instead of being a natural phenomenon eroded by wave action, it's a man made feature caused by the extraction of a narrow lode of tin bearing rock many hundreds of years ago. For a few weeks in the autumn, the setting sun casts a magnificent golden glow through this arch and zawn.
After a stretch of stunted heathland patrolled by a kestrel, we arrive at the National Coast Watch Station at Gwennap Head. Thereafter the vegetation becomes luxuriant, sporting vivid patches of wildflowers, and the air is heavy with the sharp tang of nettles and bracken as we descend the steep path to Porthgwarra, a picturesque fishing cove with a tunnel blasted through the cliffs to the beach, which also featured in Poldark.
Although tired, I rally as we approach The Minack, a unique open-air cliff face theatre, but by the time I have trudged down over 150 steps to the beautiful beach at Porthcurno, site of a former submarine communications cable station, my feet are in agony and I barely notice the beauty of the aquamarine sea washing its white-sand shore.
Sunset is less than an hour away but we deviate from the path to admire the Caribbean-esque beach of Pedn an Vounder, poster child for Cornwall’s most stunning beaches, before tucking our tent behind a hedge just off the SWCP at Treryn Dinas promontory fort.
It rained heavily in the night but I was too exhausted to notice. The wind has finally dropped, it’s overcast and the path is slick with mud as we begin the 17km trek to Penzance, a challenging section through remote wooded valleys and coves and along rugged cliff tops, before the descent to the fishing village of Mousehole. After that, it’s a level trudge along pavements and promenades through Newlyn to Penzance.
Past Cribba Head the path falls steeply towards the picture-postcard pretty fishing hamlet of Penberth Cove, another Poldark location, which features a granite cobblestone slipway atop which sits an enormous wooden capstan. A set of stepping stones cross the river here and the steep cliff path out of it is a scramble in places as we head towards St Loy.
I can’t believe the number of spring and summer flowers still in bloom along this section of coast which has a sub-tropical climate, most noticeably the thickly wooded valley of St Loy, where exotic vegetation graces the houses’ gardens. Here we emerge from hedges of wispy tamarisk to cross the top of a bay comprised of slippery ovoid boulders dating to the early Quaternary.
We are then delivered into the skeletal arms of stunted oak and sycamore, before passing onto open cliff approaching the lighthouse at Tater-Du, built in 1965.
Wraith-like strands of mist envelop the coast as we near the fishing cove of Lamorna, where a tricky decent brings us to the deserted harbour. The light is fading rapidly but the going is easier on a track crossing the cliff top where we finally glimpse St Michael’s Mount, a rocky island connected to Marazion by a tidal causeway. The sweet aroma of woodsmoke welcomes us to Mousehole as we trudge down the steep hill to its quaint harbour. Many of the old fishermen's cottages and the pubs are dark and unwelcoming, a combination of forced Covid-19 closure and the curse of second homes and holiday lets, but golden rectangles of light emanating from the windows of those that are occupied contrast with the lavender-blue of the early evening sky and twinkle in the inky water below.
The lights of Penzance don’t appear to be getting any closer as we pass through the narrow streets of Newlyn. The pungent scent of fish hangs in the air in this, one of Britain’s largest fishing ports, where we pause to wolf down fish and chips which have never tasted this good! The path along Penzance's promenade seems to take forever and I’m exhausted by the time we reach our harbourside hotel, where sleep hits me like a speeding freight train after a welcome hot shower.
The rising sun warms our chilled faces as we arrive at the mouth of the Red River opposite St Michael’s Mount, scattering a large flock of dunlin. Here we pick up the first scalloped-shell signpost for St Michael’s Way, which will take us through a land of saints and giants. The iconic Mount, a former Benedictine Priory, now a castle, is thought to be the Island of Ictis where tin was traded in prehistory. It’s Cornish name, Carrek Loes yn Coes (grey rock in the wood), recalls a time when Mount’s Bay was densely forested, before rising sea levels submerged the trees. The beach is deserted, all bar a couple of distant dog walkers and a group of intrepid middle aged ladies who are enjoying a bracing dawn dip in the tranquil sea.
A thin band of translucent mist hovers over the Marazion Marsh RSPB reserve. The vegetation near the river is white with hoar frost, and the lowest branches of the willow trees are frosted like the velvet on a stag's antlers. Once over the Great Western Railway track, a raised boardwalk crosses a reed bed full of pools of ink-black water which form mirrors reflecting the eggshell-blue sky. We startle a heron hidden amid the whispering rushes, which rises awkwardly on sail-like wings.
The long, wet grass rasps at our gaiters as we cross several dew-soaked roadway fields abetween the busy A394 and A30, heading towards the imposing 15th-century granite tower of Ludgvan Church, allegedly founded by 6th-century Irish missionary, St Ludewon. The church is built on the site of an ancient Celtic lan, or circular enclosure, and the current churchyard follows its outline. Water from a nearby holy well was believed to cure blindness, and it was also claimed that those baptised in its waters would never be hanged.
Above the church door is a carved figure leaning on a staff and wearing what is claimed to be a broad-brimmed pilgrim's hat. Discovered in the wall of the rectory garden, it could also represent a monk with a spade in one hand and a cross in the other, although some have speculated that it's St Ludewon himself. What is certain, is that the pilgrims of old paused to pray here at Ludgvan and to obtain local guides prior to crossing the wooded marshlands which were infested with brigands.
It's worth looking inside the church, one of the last to hold services in the Cornish language after the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language which was fiercely resisted the length and breadth of Cornwall in the sixteenth century. Here are memorials to the great eighteenth century Rector of Ludgvan and Cornish antiquarian, William Borlase, author of the influential book Natural History of Cornwall (1758), and Humphrey Davy, President of the Royal Society, who died in 1829 and was buried in Geneva. He invented the Davy safety lamp which safeguarded the lives of generations of coal miners.
From the church, the route descends steeply amid woodland and over streams running through steep meadow-sided valleys grazed by creme-caramel coloured cattle. A ford (and footbridge) crosses the Red River, before the path traverses umpteen stiles and rough meadows to the foot of the gorse-covered Trencrom Hill (175m).
It’s worth the short detour to gain the rock-strewn summit, a former Neolithic tor enclosure/Iron Age hill fort, and home of the legendary giant Trecobben. The droll stories of West Penwith tell how he and Cormoran, the giant of St Michael’s Mount, supposedly enjoyed hurling huge boulders to each other, hence so many littering the area! Sitting on one such boulder warmed by the strong autumn sun, we scoff sandwiches brought earlier in Penzance, enjoying the extensive views over the ‘Granite Kingdom’, including an unsual obelisk on Worvas Hill, our next destination.
After descending Trencrom Hill and crossing the road near Bowl Rock (an enormous granite boulder supposedly hurled by Trecobben), the route follows a series of minor roads and trackways towards the 15-metre-high granite obelisk. This Grade II* Listed structure was erected in 1782 as a mausoleum and memorial for a former mayor of St. Ives, John Knill. He prescribed a quinquennial ceremony on St. James the Apostle’s Day involving ten young dancing girls dressed in white from the families of fishermen, two widows clad in black, and a fiddler to play the 'Furry Dance', which is still performed today.
After descending Worvas Hill to Carbis Bay, we leave St Michael’s Way (which continues to Lelant) and re-join the SWCP to St. Ives, which threads its way along a delightful wooded track above the turquoise waters and beautiful golden sandy beaches of Carbis Bay and St Ives. The façades of the town’s cottages are burnished bronze in the setting sun as we reach the Railway Station to catch the train back to Redruth after completing one of our most enjoyable treks.
In a year when our personal freedoms have been curtailed in ways we would once have believed impossible, contact with blue-green spaces has never been as important for our mental health and wellbeing. The benefit of the last five days of unbridled freedom during a much longed-for return home and a welcome reprieve from the doom and gloom of the pandemic, has been incalculable. I feel truly revived after communing with nature amid the grandeur and magnificence of the ancient landscapes of Cornwall’s ‘Granite Kingdom’.
We run phototours to Cornwall throughout the year. Contact us for a bespoke tour.