Description of the Path
North Cornwall (Marsland Mouth-Portreath)
Landscape Overview of the Coast - North Cornwall
This length of coast trends either north-south or north east-south west. As such, it faces the prevailing Atlantic westerlies, making for a sometimes exposed landscape. This is exacerbated by the fact that much of the length comprises high cliffs, often quite sheer, with prominent headlands giving excellent coastal vistas.
In places the feet of these cliffs are fronted by extensive sandy beaches, as north of Bude or at Watergate and Perran Beaches, north and south of Newquay. The cliff line is also punctuated by numerous sandy coves.
There are also two main breaches in the cliff where river estuaries reach the sea, the Camel at Padstow and the Gannel at Newquay. These estuaries are also flanked by extensive sandy beaches. The uncompromising nature of the cliffs means that there are few ports or harbours. Padstow, sheltered within the Camel estuary, is an ancient port and Newquay has a medieval origin, sheltered behind the promontory of Towan Head. Newquay has now, of course, expanded into a major holiday centre. Smaller 19th century harbours at the north-east end at Bude, originally largely based on its canal, and at the south-west end at Portreath, originally based on exporting mineral ores, have also expanded into tourism centres, but these are very much exceptional settlements on this coast.
Geology of the Coast - North Cornwall
The most northerly end of this length of coast, between the Devon border and the area around Boscastle, is composed of Carboniferous rocks laid down about 300 million years ago, largely on what were then ocean beds. Subsequently these rocks were squeezed and squashed, resulting in irregular patterns that are visible in the cliff faces. These Carboniferous rocks are similar to those on the Devon side of the border and, like them, are locally known as "Culm measures" and often give rise to areas of nature conservation importance. Geologists recognise two areas of the Carboniferous in North Cornwall - the Bude Formation of massive sandstones with thin shales between the beds in the far north and further south the Crackington Formation of shales and mudstones with thin beds of sandstone.
South of these Carboniferous rocks are the older Devonian rocks, of 360-400 million years ago, the basis of most of Cornwall's geology. These are hard rocks, resistant to erosion, resulting in often dramatic sea cliffs and frequently flat cliff tops. In Cornwall, these Carboniferous rocks are all frequently referred to as "killas".
Later deformation of strata has complicated the geology but broadly speaking the age of the rocks is older the further west along the coast. Often, this later deformation has resulted in the formation of slates, found at various places on the North Cornwall coast, where there is sometimes evidence of former slate quarrying.
Historical Development of the Coast - North Cornwall
The earliest evidence of mankind on the North Cornwall coast comes in the form of flints dating to the Mesolithic period of c.8000-4000BC, found near Trevose Head and on the Camel estuary. Almost certainly, the area has been occupied to some degree ever since. Evidence is also known of Bronze Age habitations (c.1500-1200BC) at Cubert near Newquay.
There is substantial evidence to suggest that in the Iron Age (600BC-1st century AD) fortifications and trading posts were established on the North Cornwall coast. Best preserved are the cliff forts at Trevelgue near Newquay and The Rumps by the Camel estuary.
Tintagel had become a royal stronghold and a centre of trade by the 6th century AD and the area would have been well populated by the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Tintagel is most associated with the stories of King Arthur. The best known legend has it that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel Castle and, by extension, stories have grown that it is also his birthplace. However, how much is history and how much myth or legend is much debated.
Farming and fishing would have been the main trades during the medieval period. There is an interesting remnant of medieval farming methods at Forrabury near Boscastle where strip fields known as the Stitches survive, now owned by the National Trust.
From medieval times onwards slate quarrying was taking place in North Cornwall, including at coastal locations such as near Tintagel. Remains of later, 19th century quarrying are still visible here. There were also probably small-scale surface mining activities for metal ores in the area around St Agnes. This grew in later centuries and during the 18th and 19th centuries deep mining on and near the coast near St Agnes transformed the landscape, leaving the evidence still seen today.
The mining industry also gave rise to the port of Portreath, which dates from 1760. This is thus a relatively new coastal settlement, and there are indeed few historic settlements of any size along this coast, a product of the exposed and unforgiving nature of the coastline. Padstow, sheltered in the Camel estuary, and Newquay, in the lee of large headlands, are old fishing settlements and Padstow was also an early religious centre. There was also a small early settlement at Bude, but this only really grew in the 19th century with the coming of a canal.
Today, of course, all these centres depend largely on tourism and have been joined by other smaller tourist centres based around some of the coves and beaches.
Character of the Coast - North Cornwall
The main characterising feature of this length of coast is that of a line of high, exposed cliffs standing against the Atlantic Ocean and its westerly winds. There are only two main breaks in the cliff line - where the estuary of the River Camel meets the sea near Padstow and where the smaller River Gannel has its mouth just south of Newquay.
For much of the length of North Cornwall the cliffs tend to be flat-topped. They are punctuated by small coves, usually sandy, sometimes rocky and almost always picturesque. Elsewhere, the high cliffs may be fronted by extensive lengths of sandy beaches. Perhaps most notable are those north and south of Newquay, Watergate and Perran Beaches.
The highest cliffs are in the north, and here also the cliffs are most cut by deep and steep valleys reaching the sea, making a very rugged coastline. Here also may be found North Cornwall's only wooded cliffs, an area of ancient woodland part of which is quite possibly untouched by the hand of man, between Bude and Boscastle.
The two major breaks in the cliffs present a softer face. Both the Camel and the Gannel are scenic estuaries, lined by sandy beaches and backed by rolling green hills.
Overall, this is an impressive length of coast. In places it is very dramatic, as at the rugged and sometimes jagged cliffs north of Bude, elsewhere austere and resistant to the constant pounding of the sea, as along most of the high cliffs, and occasionally soft and welcoming as in the sandy estuaries and little coves. In the south, around St Agnes, the sometimes dramatic and picturesque, sometimes almost sad, remains of the mining industry add a further character. Other features such as the modern facilities of a settlement such as Newquay, the more subtle attractions of Padstow, a range of superbly picturesque little settlements, of which Port Isaac is arguably the pick and the open-air qualities and extensive beaches of North Cornwall all go together to cater for most tastes.
Walking the Coast - North Cornwall
North Cornwall includes some of the most taxing lengths of the Coast Path. In the north, the length between Hartland Point, over the Devon border, and Bude contains the most consistent length of climbs and descents anywhere - and long and steep climbs and descents at that. It is a magnificent and picturesque length, but will truly appeal only to the dedicated walker. A similar description could be applied to the length between Tintagel and Port Isaac and on to Port Quin.
However, the often level cliff tops of North Cornwall do mean that quite substantial lengths require relatively little effort to walk, other than accessing the occasional coves along the way. Lengths both north and south of Newquay, north and south of Padstow and south of St Agnes offer such opportunities.
This coast also includes one of the Coast Path's gems, a walk of great beauty with something of everything - headlands, bays, beaches and history. The length between Boscastle and Tintagel is a great favourite, ideal for a half-day walk and linked by a parallel bus route.
There is bus access at Morwenstow, Bude, Crackington, Boscastle, Tintagel , Port Isaac, Polzeath, Rock, Padstow, Constantine Bay, Porthcothan, Bedruthan Steps, Watergate Bay, Newquay, Crantock, Perranporth, St Agnes, Porthtowan and Portreath. National Express coaches serve Bude and Newquay. There is a branch line rail station at Newquay which connects to the mainline railway to Penzance at Par. Regular bus services link Padstow with the mainline railway at Bodmin Parkway and St Agnes with the railway at Truro.