Walk - Lizard Point
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2019. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- Parking on the village green at Lizard village, take the road signed to Lizard Head and follow it slightly downhill. Go straight ahead then when the road curves to the left follow the footpath waymarkers downhill until the track stops in front of some houses. Pick up the footpath through the gate straight ahead of you, to the right of these houses. Follow the track towards the coast, to join the South West Coast Path at the Caerthillian National Nature Reserve.
The exposed coastal grassland at Caerthillian provides a unique habitat for a wide variety of wildflowers. Part of the Lizard National Nature Reserve, it is also designated as a Special Area of Conservation and is one of the richest wildflower areas in the UK. A number of rare maritime species grow here, including Cornish heath and wild asparagus and a number of rare stoneworts.
Beside the path at Caerthillian is a wreck post, once used as a substitute mast in practice rescues. When the sea was too rough to launch a lifeboat, a small cannon was used to fire a rocket to the floundering ship, carrying a double line and pulley. With the landward end of the rope anchored to a frame in the ground, the ship's crew tied their end to the mast, and a harness (‘breeches buoy’) was sent to the ship to enable rescuers to haul the men ashore.
As you walk southwards from Caerthillian the rock changes from serpentine through hornblende schist to mica schist, a dark rock with wavy bands of silver mica. This was formed from recrystallised sediments and lava flows deposited on the floor of the Rheic Ocean 400 million years ago, when the Lizard lay to the south of the Equator.
- Turn left on the Coast Path and follow it through the National Trust land at Old Lizard Head, continuing above a tiny cove with steps carved into the rock and a ladder at the bottom, and a cave in the cliff beyond. From here you can see the lifeboat station ahead at Polpeor Cove.
Old Lizard Head has claimed more than its share of ships over the centuries. Between 1859 and 1961 the lifeboat stationed at Polpeor Cove was launched 136 times, saving a total of 562 lives. Less fortunate were the 163 bullocks on the 'Suffolk', a ship wrecked in fog in 1886, part of a cargo that included 24,000 sacks of flour and 8,000 bushels of wheat, as well as some tinned oysters. Most of the bullocks drowned, but the 26 that did not had to be slaughtered on board, as there was no way of getting them up the cliffs. Another ship wrecked here was the Danish brig 'Ospra,' grounded in 1832, whose crew scrambled to safety over the rocks at low tide. The ship became known as 'the coffee wreck' after locals raided its cargo and were drinking Havana coffee for months afterwards.
- Carry on along the Coast Path, dropping down some steps to another tiny cove and ignoring the path inland at the bottom. Instead, cross the footbridge into the tamarisk grove on more National Trust land at Pistil Meadow. Carry on up the steps, passing above the lifeboat station to come out at Lizard Point, Britain's most southerly point.
The peaceful tamarisk grove at Pistil Meadow is believed to be the location of the mass grave of 207 people, drowned when the military vessel 'Royal Anne' went down after striking Stag Rocks, below, in November 1720. The ship was transporting Lord Belhaven and his family to Barbados, where he was to be governor, and there were just three survivors of the wreck.
Look out for seals below as you head towards Lizard Point. Look out, too, for the large brightly-coloured flowers of the Hottentot fig. This is a native of South America but found in various places around the Devon and Cornwall coastline after being introduced about 100 years ago. Like other exotic species brought home by enthusiastic horticultural explorers, the vigorous growth of the Hottentot fig threatens to overwhelm less hardy native species and steps are being taken to curb its spread.
- Ignore the road heading uphill to your left (unless you want a shortcut back to Lizard village). Carry on along the Coast Path, past the youth hostel and the lighthouse, to drop down some steps into a gully above Housel Bay.
A third of the world's shipping passes Lizard Point each year, and over the centuries there have been many wrecks. The first lighthouse was built in 1619 by Sir John Killigrew. As he could not afford its maintenance, King James I introduced a toll of a halfpenny per ton for passing vessels. This caused such an uproar that it was withdrawn and the lighthouse rapidly fell into disrepair and was finally demolished. Within 150 years, so many ships had been lost that the current lighthouse was built in 1751. It consisted of two towers, with a cottage built between them, in which an overlooker lay on a couch, with a window on either side commanding a view of the lanterns. When the bellows-blowers relaxed their efforts and the fires dimmed, he would remind them of their duties by a blast from a cow horn. Trinity House assumed responsibility in 1771. Described by Tennyson as 'the southern eyes of England', it is the world's largest independent lighthouse complex, with a 107-decibel foghorn and a 1000-watt lightbulb. The lighthouse tower is 19 metres high, 70 metres above the sea at high water. Its white light flashes every 3 seconds and can be seen for 26 nautical miles. The fog signal gives one blast every 30 seconds.
On your right beyond the lighthouse is the Lion's Den, a crater formed after the roof of a sea cave fell in. The original hole was 15 metres deep when it was created in 1847, but the sea's erosion has since enlarged it to 35 metres.
- Climbing the steps beyond, carry on past the Housel Bay Hotel (open to non-residents), the Lizard Wireless Station and the Lloyd's Signal Station, to Bass Point.
The two sheds at Pen Olver were used by radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi for his early experiments (see the Mullion Walk) and now house a small radio museum. The large square building, painted white, is the Lloyds Signal Station. It was built in 1872 for ships entering and leaving the English Channel to send messages by semaphore that Lloyds then telegraphed to the ship’s owners.
At Bass Point is the National Coastwatch Institute (NCI) lookout post, manned by volunteers and opened in 1994 after two fishermen drowned within sight of the recently-closed Coastguard lookout.
- Passing beneath the Coastwatch hut, keep going around Bass Point. After the houses the Coast Path runs along a track for a few metres and then pulls away to the right on a small path. Carry on along the Coast Path to round Hot Point, coming in to the new lifeboat station at Kilcobben Cove.
Around this part of the coast look out for choughs. These are large crows whose red legs and beaks are said to symbolise the wounds King Arthur received before his soul was flown away in a chough's body. Cornwall's national bird disappeared from England in 1973, but a breeding pair set up home here in 2002. The species is now well established, thanks to the efforts of conservationists.
- Drop down a few steps beside the lifeboat house – with a detour to the right if you want to view the slipway – and follow the Coast Path around to the left to round its final headland before Church Cove.
The Lizard Lifeboat Station was opened in Kilcobben Cove in 1961 to replace the one at Polpeor Point. It sits in one of the most remote and rugged settings in the whole of Great Britain – at the foot of a 140ft (45 metre) cliff less than a mile from England’s most southerly point. Its wild location means that every time the boat is launched, the crew have to run down more than 200 steep steps from the station car-park to the boathouse in Kilcobben Cove. When the boathouse at Kilcobben opened in 1961, the station became known as The Lizard Cadgwith Lifeboat Station. The name was officially changed in 1987 to its present The Lizard Lifeboat Station.
The abandoned one at Church Cove was only used twice between 1885 and 1899, thanks to the difficulties encountered in launching it from the steep slipway.
- Coming in to Church Cove, a small footpath leads away inland. Turn left onto this and follow it up onto the grassland above, carrying straight on ahead at the top along a narrow path through some trees which will bring you to the top of the hamlet at Church Cove.
- Turn left on the road, bearing left a moment later. Coming out opposite the school, bear left to carry on ahead along Beacon Terrace, which will bring you back to the green at Lizard village.