Walk - Upton Towans & Gwithian

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.

Route Description

  1. Start from first the car park on the right-hand side of St Ives Lane (the left fork after Loggans). Take the footpath opposite the entrance to the car park, and follow it through the dunes to where it joins the South West Coast Path, still some distance from the beach.

This is the second largest dune system in Cornwall, and it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its geology and wildlife. The dunes are exposed to fierce Atlantic storms, which blow the sand inland, continually reshaping the dunes and providing a habitat rich in shell sand which gives rise to an abundance of plants, including some rare ones.

Over thousands of years, as the sand is blown inland, the dunes retreat too, leaving a coastal landscape of cliffs, caves, stacks and arches. On the sea, the rock stacks are topped with remnants of the dunes that sat on them when they were still part of the mainland. This makes the towans a particularly valuable area for the study of erosion and deposition.

The quality of the sand has encouraged the growth of a tremendous range of plants, and more than a fifth of the total species to be found in Cornwall can be seen here. some of them are very rare, such as some wonderfully-named species like Balm-leaved Figwort and Hairy-fruited Cornsalad. The extensive plant life supports many species of butterflies and other insects. Look out for the silver-studded blue, the grayling and the white-letter hairstreak, as well as several species of fritillaries and a number of moths, including the six-spot burnet moth. The wealth of insects encourages a wide variety of birds too. Listen out for the trilling of skylarks as they hover overhead.

Upton Towans are also known as Dynamite Towans. They were formerly the site of the National Explosives Company, established in 1888 to produce dynamite for use in the mines and quarries. Remnants of the buildings can be seen throughout the dunes (see the Dynamite Towans & Copperhouse Pool Walk).

  1. On the Coast Path turn right towards Gwithian and Godrevy, following the path past the Gwithian Towans car park on the right and Strap Rocks, on the beach to your left.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tin was extracted from the sand in this area and taken to the sandsifting site on the far side of Gwithian, in the Red River Valley. Horses and carts were used to carry the ore. It was also transported by means of huge buckets suspended on cables. These were strung between pylons bedded in concrete blocks, some of which can still be seen in the dunes.

  1. Stay on the main path above the rocks as it bears right, but take the footpath to the left a moment later, continuing above the beach to go into the dunes). After the last buildings, take one of the paths to your right, heading directly away from the beach, and follow it past the campsite and on to Churchtown Road in Gwithian.
  2. On the road turn right again, watching out for traffic, and walk through the village, past the church. At the pub bear right with the road and walk to the footpath signed on your right after the last houses.

Like Perran Sands (see the Crantock & Penpol Creek Walk), there is said to have once been an ancient city between Gwithian and the sea, known as 'Connor'. It was the seat of a Celtic prince, and an Anglo-Saxon settlement, Conerton, was later built on the same site. The medieval village that evolved from it became the central town of the Penwith Hundred, but its role as the district administrative centre was taken over by Penzance by 1771, after Conerton had been buried in drifting sand.

St Gothian's Church was built in the thirteenth century to replace the chapel of the same name which served Conerton until this, too, was buried by the sand. The early chapel was itself built in the tenth century to replace a Celtic oratory established in AD 490 by St Gwithian ('Godhyan' in Cornish, also known as Gocianus). The Celtic saint was one of a great many missionaries arriving on the North Cornish coast to help defend the beleaguered Christianity as Anglo-Saxon pagans sought to fill the political vacuum left in Britain when the Romans departed (see the Porthkidney Sands Walk).

Beyond the pub, the Red River Valley Local Nature Reserve is located in what was one of Cornwall's most industrialised valleys during the peak mining period. Most of the activity associated with mineral extraction in the valley revolved around the recovery of tin that had been lost from mine dressing floors, and this form of tin streaming was carried out here right up to the 1960s. Today the Red River runs through a peaceful, partially wooded valley, with some lakes and ponds and areas of heathland (see the Reskajeage & Tehidy Walk).

  1. Turn right onto the footpath, following it across the field to the far hedge. Turn left along the hedge and walk to the corner of the field, passing the hedge on your right and then turning right beyond it to take the path alongside it to the track beyond.
  2. Turn left on the track, crossing the lane ahead onto the small path through the dunes. Turn left onto the next small path and follow it parallel to the road to return to the car park at the start of the walk.
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