Walk - Perran Sands - Penhale & Holywell

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.

Route Description

  1. From Perran Sands Holiday Park take the footpath heading northwards into the dunes, towards St Piran's Oratory, which is marked with an interpretation board.

The fifth century Irish missionary St Piran arrived here on a millstone, having been thrown into the sea with it tied around his neck. He built his Oratory here and preached to crowds of pilgrims who flocked to hear him (see the St Piran's Oratory Walk).

  1. From the Oratory take the path heading to your right, eastwards, and follow it to the ruins of St Piran's Church, half-buried in the sand a little way to the left of the modern cross. En route you will pass the inland route of the South West Coast Path on your right.

This is the site of the church that was built sometime in the ninth century, after the Oratory was overwhelmed by wind-blown sand. The cross in the dunes beside it is believed to be the oldest of Cornwall's many ancient crosses, and was recorded in AD 960, by which time it was already long-established.

  1. From the ruined church retrace your steps to the Coast Path and turn left onto it, to follow it to  Tollgate Road, ahead.
  2. Turn left on the road and follow it past higher Mount Farm and gently downhill through Mount, to where it takes a sharp turn to the right.
  3. Turn left at the bend, onto the footpath beside the MoD drive.  Follow the path as it bears gently right to lead into the trees beyond about half a mile ahead.
  4. Reaching the path which crosses yours as you pull uphill out of the trees, turn left and follow this footpath along the bottom of the hill to Ellenglaze, ahead.

In 1945, archaeologists discovered lines of walls previously covered by wind-blown sand, about 280m west of Ellenglaze Manor. When the site was later excavated, fragments of pottery were found in the walls confirmed that and other similar walls nearby were from an early medieval settlement associated with Ellenglaze Manor.

The original Manor dates from some time before the 1086 Domesday Book, although the present house is thought to have been built in the eighteenth century around a seventeenth-century core.

During another dig, a quantity of brick red ware was found nearby and subsequently identified as Phoenician red slip ware from western Turkey, dating from sometime between the fifth and eighth centuries. This is further evidence of the strong trade links known to have existed between Cornwall and Mediterranean lands at that time.

However, there is evidence of settlement in the area from much earlier. Traces of human activity have been found around Kelsey Head dating back to Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) times, around 8000-4000 BC. This includes flint tools, as well as shells and bone in what is thought to have been a midden, suggesting that there was a settlement here. There are also remnants of field systems on Kelsey Head dating back to prehistoric times, as well as burial barrows from the Bronze Age, around 3000 BC, and two cliff castles.

Cliff castles date from the Iron Age, generally between AD 100 and 200, and are coastal enclosures making use of the natural defences of precipitous cliffs around a headland. The

prehistoric inhabitants would fortify the landward side of the headland by means of ramparts and ditches. The low bank and shallow ditch across Kelsey Head can still be seen, although the area enclosed is much smaller than it would originally have been, since the north and west sides of what was probably a rectangular fort are assumed to have fallen into the sea. It is also thought that the building of the castle was unfinished, although it was possibly used later as a Roman signal station.

  1. Bear left and then turn left onto the path leading towards the bottom hedge and turning right onto the footpath, to follow it along the valley to Holywell.

There are two wells in Holywell, and it is not known which gave the village its name.

Holywell Cave can be seen at low tide on the beach beneath the southern cliffs of Kelsey Head. Although it seems to be no more than a slit from the beach, on entering the cave it is possible to make out some slimy steps leading up a series of pools to a hole in the roof of the cave. Tinted red and blue, with the edges of the pools encrusted with calcareous deposits formed by water rich in minerals dripping from above, the cave was seized upon by Victorian Romantics as the holy well after which the bay was named. However, it is likely that it is an entirely natural feature, and the real well of Holywell is St Cubert's, midway between the village and the coast, in the Trevornick Valley and on land which is now part of the Holywell Bay Fun Park.

Thought to be fourteenth century, Cubert Well is reached via a high Gothic arch set into an ivy-clad perimeter wall. Inside, a series of stepping stones leads across marshland to a granite well house, built into a rocky and overgrown bank. Two sides of the well house are lined with stone seats and there are niches cut into the back well, probably for candles or statues. The well was discovered in a ruined state in 1916 and has been restored by the Newquay Old Cornwall Society.

Cornish crime writer W. J. Burley, who was born in Falmouth, lived in Holywell until his death in 2002. Best known for his detective novels featuring Charles Wycliffe, televised in the mid 1990s, Burley won a scholarship to study zoology at Oxford after the Second World War and was Head of Biology at Newquay Grammar School until he retired in 1974, by which time he was well established as a novelist.

  1. Reaching the road in Holywell, turn left to pick up the South West Coast Path heading to the right. Follow it around Penhale Point and on past the military camp, the masts and the mine workings, to Hoblyn's Cove. Carry on around Ligger Point and on to the dunes at Penhale Sands.

A striking feature of this part of coastline is the extent of the mine workings on and around the cliffs. The earliest records of Penhale Mine show it as producing some 41 tons of lead ore in 1777, but undoubtedly the area's mineral resources were exploited for many centuries before this. Ligger House, on Penhale Point, is the former count house for the mine. Auctions were conducted in the building, and miners would bid for underground leases (or pitches).

  1. The path passes a disused quarry with an old cave nearby and then carries on along the edge of the dunes. It is important to take heed of the notices along here requesting that you stay on the Coast Path. There is no right of way in the dunes behind, which are used by the MoD for firing practice, and the Coast Path travels along a permissive path to the natural valley running through the dunes about a mile from the quarry.
  2. Bear left with the Coast Path to head inland along the edge of the MoD territory until you come to the footpath back to Perran Sands.

Nearby refreshments

In Crantock and Holywell


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