Walk - Penzance to St Ives - Day 2
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
If travelling from Penzance by bus from Penzance take either First in Devon & Cornwall Bus 1A towards Land’s End (a 45 minute journey) or the Western Greyhound Bus 504 towards St Just (an hour’s journey). Both stop in Porthcurno.
- From the car park in Porthcurno take the road down to the beach and keep bearing right when the path divides towards the bottom to pick up the South West Coast Path. From here it heads through the Minack theatre car park to travel around Pedn-mên-an-mere and Carracks.
As well as its gloriously remote and beautiful beach with its turquoise waters and white beach made of crushed seashells, Porthcurno has two other famous features: its importance in the history of international communications, and its open-air theatre set high on the cliffs above the bay.
The hamlet was the British end of the first submarine cables laid between England and its colony in India in 1870. The 14 cables used the binary code which much later became the basis for the internet. Porthcurno was chosen rather than Penzance, because there was no chance of the cables being snagged by shipping. It remained the hub of international cable communications for the next 100 years and was the largest cable station in the world.
"Minack" in Cornish means a rocky place, and the unique Minack Theatre has the Logan Rock headland as a stunning backdrop. During the summer months it hosts a range of plays, (weather permitting!), from Shakespeare to contemporary works. The theatre was the brainchild of Rowena Cade, daughter of the owner of a Derbyshire cotton mill and great great granddaughter of Joseph Wright, the painter of the industrial revolution. Past performers here include Michael York, Sheridan Morley, John Nettles and Sue Pollard.
Turning the corner above the headland, the path drops towards Porthchapel Beach. It passes St Levan's Well as it climbs up the other side.
St Levan was a sixth-century Celtic saint who built a chapel on the site of the present-day Parish Church in St Levan, and a hermit's cell at the side of a well which was already considered a sacred spring with healing properties. Both the cell and the well can be seen beside the path.
Fork left above Porthchapel to carry on around Carn Barges ('buzzard crag'), forking left again on the other side to carry on to the hillside above Porthgwarra. Fork left once more and descend steeply, scrambling over granite boulders in places, to turn left after the houses and drop down into the hamlet of Porthgwarra.
The tiny secluded cove at Porthgwarra is known to be one's of Britain's best birdwatching sites, with frequent sightings of rare species, including Yellow-Browed and Dusky Warblers and Red-eyed Vireo. In summer skylarks, stonechats, linnets and wheatears are commonly seen.
The tunnel from the slipway towards the road at Porthgwarra was excavated by miners from St.Just to enable farmers to gather seaweed for fertilising the fields. A second tunnel, leading seawards, gives access to the tidal 'hulleys' built in the rocks to store shellfish.
- In Porthgwarra the Coast Path carries on above the beach to climb Hella Point, travelling over the top around Gwennap Head before dropping downhill above Porth Loe and heading out again around Rôskestal and Ardensawah Cliffs.
At Gwennap Head, both Soft-plumaged Petrel and Black-browed Albatross have also been sighted. The headland is a great spot for seeing cetaceans with dolphins often passing, and basking sharks are frequent summer visitors. As you approach the headland, and the seas are rough you may hear an eerie moaning sound.
Offshore is the Runnel Stone, a hazardous rock pinnacle which became invisible to passing vessels after a steamship struck it in 1923. It is now marked by a buoy fitted with a flashing light and a bell which peals with the movement of the waves. In the buoy there is also a whistle set in a tube. In a heavy swell, water rises and falls through the whistle creating a mournful noise. There are also two cone shaped navigation markers on Gwennap Head to warn sailors of the rock's position. If, from a boat, the view of the inland (black and white) marker is completely obscured by the more seaward (red) marker, then the boat would be bang on top of the Runnel Stone, and so obviously skippers aim to keep them well apart.
The buildings on the headland were originally a Coastguard lookout, but cut-backs in the service led to their closure in 1994. In 1996, the charity, The National Coastwatch Institute took over the building and their dedicated band of volunteers continue the vital work of watching out for seafarers, climbers and walkers. A room beneath the station is open to the public and has displays on shipping, wildlife and the history of the area.
The treacherous nature of the waters around here is illustrated by the number of lighthouses that can be seen. 7½ miles off-shore in a south westerly direction is the Wolf Rock, mounted on an isolated outcrop of rock. Off Land’s End is the Longships Lighthouse, and roughly due west, and midway to the Isles of Scilly is the Seven Stones lightship, marking the Seven Stones Reef, which is infamous for causing the wreck of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon in 1967.
The heath between here and Land’s End is crossed by a myriad of small paths, and as it is almost all ‘Open Access’ land you are free to take your pick, and so long as the sea is on your left hand side you shouldn’t get lost. One word of caution though, the cliffs are unfenced and some are crumbling and so you are advised not to get too close to the edge, and keep a close eye on children and dogs who may not be aware of the danger.
A number of artefacts have been found in this area. Archaeologists have been able to date them to prehistoric times. These include flint tools from the Middle and Late Stone Ages, as well as a cup-marked stone and a socketed stone, both from the Iron Age, and traces of Bronze and Iron Age middens, an iron Age courtyard house and a Romano-British Round .
- Past the outcrop of Carn Trevean the path carries on through the boulder-strewn landscape to the promontory fort at Bosistow Island and the Bronze Age tumulus above before descending to the beach at Nanjizal.
- Cross the stream at Nanjizal and carry on around the coastline. Shortly after you pass the wall which crosses your path a little further on there is a cave, and there are granite outcrops all around this part of the Coast Path. Passing Carn Cravah the path drops to the little cove at Zawn Reeth and then climbs Trevilley Cliff. This is the first of a series of small headlands between here and Land's End, running between a number of carns (crags) and zawns (gullies).
Cornwall has always been an important mining area. As well as tin which made Cornwall one of the world's biggest mineral traders even as long ago as the Bronze Age, and copper for which it was particularly famous during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lead, zinc and silver were also mined in the county. China clay, which is still one of Cornwall's main industries, is also derived from an altered form of granite.
The granite around Land's End was formed some 275 million years ago. Granite in this area has very large white feldspar crystals in it: a sign that the magma cooled down very slowly after it was formed.
The action of the sea on the hard granite has resulted in the large rectangular blocks and long narrow buttresses in the cliffs here, forming a classic castellated coastline, the best and most spectacular of its type in Britain. As the Atlantic hurls its massive breakers at the cliffs, the compressed air resulting from the impact is forced into the lines of weakness in the rock, resulting in new caves, fissures, blowholes and zawns.
- At Land's End the Coast Path passes in front of the buildings to carry on along the road ahead and around the point itself.
Land's End is England's most westerly point, and looks out over the mythical Arthurian lost lands of Lyonesse. It is a great place for wildlife, and in spring and summer it is a riot of colour when the gorse and heather are in bloom, and the pink thrift and white sea campion grow in banks between them. Dolphins and basking sharks can often be spotted offshore, and sometimes a chough.
From the Land's End headland bear left to carry on along the coastline towards the headland of Pedn-mên-du, passing Maen Castle, another of the many Iron Age promontory forts which defended the coastline some two thousand years ago. Rounding the point, the path drops down into Sennen Cove, coming out through the car park above the slipway.
Sennen Cove still has a small fishing fleet as well as a few pleasure boats, but it does not offer anchorage to other seafarers, because the frequent heavy swells make it a hazardous destination. Visit it on a windy day, and you will see why!
- From Sennen Cove carry on along Cove Hill to the beach. Either walk along the beach or make your way through the beach car park to pick up the Coast Path at the far end and follow it towards Carn Towan, going past the paths down to the beach to fork left in front of the houses and carry on above the shoreline.
The sweep of Whitesand Bay extends some distance ahead.
At Trevedra there is another sandy beach, with paths heading inland across the Coast Path. Carry on ahead along the shoreline as the path travels past more rocky outcrops beneath Gurland and Nanjulian Cliffs.
- When the main path sweeps inland on the open ground after Nanjulian, fork left to carry on along the Coast Path, heading northwards, high above Gribba Point. From here the path starts dropping down Hermon Hill to Porth Nanven.
Porth Nanven, at the mouth of the Cot Valley with its lush sub-tropical vegetation and its many remnants of the old mining industry, is another place beloved of birdwatchers, who come here hoping to see another rarity like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo sighted in 1999. Known as Dinosaur Egg Beach, it is also an important geological site, and it is illegal to remove the large round boulders which fell from the cliffs above and piled up on the wave-cut platform after falling sea levels left the old beach stranded above the modern-day one.
- At Porth Nanven cross the stream and head inland up the road through the Cot Valley to pick up the South West Coast Path once more as it climbs steeply up the hillside to your left. When the path starts to flatten out, near the top, take the second path on your right, carrying on uphill and forking left a moment later to reach Carn Gloose Road at the top. Turn right on the road and follow it up to St Just, turning right on Cape Cornwall Road, at the houses, and continuing ahead to come out on the main road through the town.
If you are travelling back to Penzance the bus leaves from Lafrowda Close, just to the south of Cape Cornwall Road. The First in Devon & Cornwall bus 10 (a 30 minute journey) or 10A (a 45 minute journey) both stop on St Clare Street (Windsor Place) in Penzance.
During the nineteenth century the ancient settlement of St Just was one of Cornwall's most important mining centres. The resultant boom took its population to 9290 by the time of the 1861 census, although when the tin trade collapsed in the twentieth the population dwindled. In 2006 it became a major centre in the newly-designated Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site, and a number of local mines have been restored and are open to visitors.