Walk - Embury Beacon

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.

Route Description

  1. From the car park at Welcombe Mouth take the stepping stones across the stream to pick up the South West Coast Path. Follow the path as it climbs the hill, gently at first and then more steeply, turning abruptly left towards the top to continue along the edge of a plateau above the cliffs. Carry on around Knap Head and then Embury Beacon, still walking along the top of sheer cliffs with a dramatic drop to the rocks below.

The suffix 'bury' comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means 'fortified place'. At Embury Point there are the last remains of an Iron Age promontory fort with double defences. Most of the fort has fallen into the sea, but the main rampart still runs across the headland where it once defended the site from possible land-based attacks. Archaeologists were able to date the site through pottery they found here, which was handmade in Glastonbury and popular throughout the south west in the Iron Age. They found whetstones, spindle whorls and hearths here, too, as well as postholes indicating that there was a rectangular building within the enclosure.

They were also able to identify the mound nearby as a burial mound dating from the earlier Bronze Age, some 4000 years ago. The 'beacon' element of Embury's name suggests that the site was used at a later date for keeping a lookout over the Bristol Channel and raising the alarm if enemy vessels were spotted.

  1. Just after Embury Beacon the path forks. Fork left with the Coast Path to continue above the cliffs around Nabor Point, heading towards the mast.

The coastline here has a deadly reputation for shipping. There is an old saying: ’From Pentire Point to Hartland Light, a watery grave by day or night’. By the time the Atlantic breakers reach this shore, having travelled without interruption all the way from North America, they have built a force of around 3–4 tons per square foot when the weather is stormy. The long reefs of hard unyielding rock at the base of these cliffs continue a long way out to sea, hidden underwater, and when the gales were in the northwest there was little a captain could do to avoid being flung onto them.

In the 1840s Britain's coastline was trashing ships at a rate of two a day, and it was estimated that along the 'Iron Coast' between Tintagel and Hartland Point, 200 vessels had came to grief within living memory. According to the 'Shipwreck Index of the British Isles', published in 1995 by the Lloyds Registry of Shipping, seven ships were lost on Knap Head alone in the period 1858-1879. Even as late as the beginning of the twentieth century, ships were wrecked here so often that many of the local fences were made of their timbers, and figureheads were to be found in graveyards and gardens. One of the cottages at South Hole was built from the timbers of a 1940s wreck. At nearby Morwenstow, Cotton Beach was named after the cargo that fetched up there after a nineteenth-century shipwreck.

  1. Just in front of the mast, leave the Coast Path to take the path on the right and walk to the road.
  2. On the road turn right, bearing left to carry on ahead along the lane when the road curves to the right and heads downhill. Follow the path along the hedge behind South Hole to come out on the road again beyond. Bear left on the road to continue ahead.

South Hole was the home of the Gifford family. Emma Gifford was staying at her sister's house in St Juliot, near Boscastle, (where her brother-in-law was vicar), when she answered the door to a young architect, sent to oversee the refurbishment of the church. The architect was the writer Thomas Hardy, and the two struck up a close friendship and were married in 1874 (see the Beeny Cliff & Pentargon Falls Walk). 

  1. When a small road leaves on the left at Parkvale cottage, carry on along the road ahead, walking through woodland around the bottom of the hill.
  2. At the junction at Cranham bear right on the road, signed to Welcombe Mouth.
  3. Ignore the footpath heading steeply uphill through the trees, just after the cottage, and carry on along the road to the next footpath on the right, just after the bridge. Climb the steps to follow this footpath over the stream and on around the bottom of the hill, following the stream as it makes its way over the heathland and back to Welcombe Mouth. Cross the stream on the stepping stones again to return to the car park.

In Welcombe village, the church was under the control of the Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow (see the Hawker's Hut Walk) and is dedicated to Saint Nectan, one of numerous Welsh missionaries to have established hermitages on this coastline in the fifth and sixth centuries (see the Speke's Mill Mouth Walk). Just across the road from the church is St Nectan's well. The present wellhouse, like the church, dates back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, but the well was mentioned in King Alfred's will in AD 881 and is thought to date from much earlier.

To your left as you walk along the road back to Welcombe, The Hermitage was built in the late nineteenth century as a retreat for the use of priests from London's Brompton Oratory. In the 1960s it was host to the rock band, Deep Purple, who wrote one of their most successful albums here. A few years later it became the home of poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, who was encouraged in his early writing by Ezra Pound and later published by TS Eliot, who became a personal friend. During the Second World War, Duncan was a conscientious objector, and established a co-operative farming enterprise at nearby Mead Farm.

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