Walk - Porthcurno from Porthgwarra
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2018. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- Heading towards the coast from the Porthgwarra car park, turn left to walk past the shop and and then right to follow the South West Coast Path along the road. Bear left and then fork right through an archway formed of the feathery fronds of the Mediterranean salt and sand-loving tamarisk bushes. The Coast Path climbs steadily uphill through heathland to travel alongside fields for a couple of hundred metres.
On your right as you walk downhill through Porthgwarra there is a tunnel, cut in the rock by miners from St Just. This was excavated from the slipway towards the road, to make access easier for fishermen with their carts, as well as farmers collecting sand and seaseed to fertilise their fields. A second tunnel was carved nearby, leading towards the sea, giving access to 'hulleys', tidal rock pools used for storing shellfish after they had been collected.
Glance through the tunnel in the spring or autumn and the chances are you will see a number of birdwatchers hoping to see one of the rare migrants that blow in here from time to time. Watch out for scoters and divers among the gannets and fulmars on the rocks, and maybe even a red kite or a honey buzzard hunting overhead.
In the Poldark TV series based on books by Winston Graham, this is Ross Poldark’s favourite spot for a swim. Various scenes were filmed at this rugged cove with the distinctive tunnel.
- When the path splits, fork right to stay with the Coast Path as it descends gently through the heathland above the rocks at Carn Barges and then the beach at Porth Chapel.
If you look closely at the granite boulders strewn around the heathland, you will see that they contain particularly large strips of white felspar crystals. The size of these shows that the magma colled very slowly before it crystallised, and it is a characteristic of the granite on this part of the Penwith coastline.
In summer skylarks trill overhead, and stonechats, linnets and wheatears call from the bushes. The path is lined with wildflowers: bluebells, starry white stitchwort, creeping yellow kidney vetch, clumps of pink-headed thrift. In the autumn it's a good place for spotting migrant butterflies and moths, and occasionally thousands of day-flying silver-Y moths can be seen browsing in the heather before their long journey south.
As you walk above the sandy beach at St Levan, the Coast Path descends a set of ancient granite steps that have recently been restored. Beside it is the holy well and baptistry of St Levan. Also known as St Selevan (the Cornish form of 'Solomon'), St Levan was one of many medieval missionaries arriving in Cornwall from Ireland, Wales and Brittany to help combat the rising tide of paganism after the Romans left Britain in the Dark Ages. He established his hermitage here, where there was running water, and a church was later built on the hillside above, dedicated to him.
- Carrying on above the beach at Porth Chapel, the Coast path pulls out above a rocky headland and on to the car park by the Minack Theatre.
The headland is known as Pedn-mên-an-mere - 'Headland of the Big Stone'- and like much of the coastline around Land's End it is a wonderful area of granite cliffs sculpted by sea and weather into fantastic formations. Look out for dolphins below, and maybe harmless basking sharks, too.
The Minack Theatre was the brainchild of Rowena Cade. She was the daughter of a Derbyshire cotton mill owner and the great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Wright, who was known as the ‘painter of the industrial revolution’. Cade carried out much of the back-breaking construction work herself. Her replica of an ancient Greek or Roman cliff theatre was finally finished in 1932, when it opened with a performance of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. Actors who performed here include Michael York, Sheridan Morley, John Nettles and Su Pollard.
The Cornish word 'Minack' means 'rocky place', and as you round the headland you have a breathtaking view of the towering cliffs of Treryn Dinas across the cove. The astonishing natural buttresses were further fortified in the Iron Age, some 2000 years ago, when ramparts were built across the promontory to create one of the 'cliff castles' unique to the south west coastline. On the tip of the promontory is the Logan Rock, famously dislodged in the nineteenth century by a group of high-spirited British sailors (see the Porthcurno & Penberth Walk).
- Carry on past the Minack car park, following the path to where it splits above Porthcurno Beach. Detour right down the steep path here to visit the beach; but otherwise bear left to follow the public footpath up to the road.
At the end of the nineteenth century the secluded cove of Porthcurno was chosen at the ideal location for the British end of the first submarine cables laid between Britain and her Empire. Over the next 100 years Porthcurno was the hub of international cable communications, becoming the largest cable station in the world. Today it is still the landing point for international cable networks terminating at Skewjack, a couple of miles inland (see the Porthcurno & Penberth Walk).
- Turn left on the road, following it steeply uphill and staying with it as it doglegs above the theatre and makes its way to the church at St Levan.
The St Levan Stone, on the south side of the church in the medieval churchyard, is said to have been split in two when St Levan struck it with his staff; and local legend says that if a packhorse with panniers ever rides between the two halves, then the world will end (see the St Levan Walk). The stone was a sacred monument to the pagans worshiping here before the saint arrived, and the large cross beside it was erected to make it holy. There are several such stone crosses in the area, marking the way to the church, as they do all over Cornwall (see the Lankelly & Menabilly Walk).
- Before you reach the church take the footpath opposite, a footpath leaves the road on the left. If you carry on ahead to visit the church, return to this point to follow this footpath across the valley above Porth Chapel Beach. Carry on past two paths descending to your left. A little further on you will find yourself back at 2, where you left this path to descend towards Porth Chapel. From here retrace your steps through Porthgwarra to the car park.
In Porthgwarra (seasonal) and Porthcurno