Walk - Black Head & Castle Gotha

4.3 miles (7.0 km)

Ropehaven car park - PL26 6BH Ropehaven car park

Moderate - A strenuous route, with some steep ascent and descent which can be slippery after rain.


A figure-of-eight walk visiting the sites of two prehistoric forts in an area said to have been the seat of King Mark of Cornwall, uncle of the tragic Tristan of Arthurian legend. The route travels through the woodland above the steep cliffs at Ropehaven, where past landslides have created a haven for wildlife. Look out for fulmars and housemartins overhead.

Interactive Elevation

Route Description

  1. From the car park at Ropehaven walk along the road ahead, forking right to walk through Trenarran. From here follow the lane down to the cottage above the beach at Hallane.
  2. Cross the bridleway running over the lane from left ot right, turning left over the stile just before the cottage, and take the South West Coast Path uphill over Drennick.
  3. Reaching the headland, detour right to visit Black Head.

The granite memorial stone on Black Head was erected in the memory of 'Lef a Gernow', the 'Voice of Cornwall', Arthur Leslie Rowse, a Cornish writer and historian. Rowse was born in 1903, the son of an uneducated china clay worker. He was the first Cornishman to win a university scholarship, reading English at Christchurch College, Oxford. A brilliant scholar who was particularly obsessed with the correct use of the English language, at Oxford he was nonetheless persuaded to change from English to history. His autobiographical 'A Cornish Childhood' brought him world-wide fame. He was much in demand as a speaker. He remained passionate about his native Cornwall, however, and spent most of his life here, living and dying at Trenarran. 'This was the land of my content', reads his memorial stone. Rowse was made a Companion of Honour in 1996.

Little is known about the promontory fort at Black Head. It is thought to date from sometime around the third century BC, in the Iron Age. Little remains of it today. There are three lines of banks across the neck of the headland, although there is scarcely any trace of the outer rampart and ditch. The central and inner banks are a little over five metres high, with ditches about two metres deep. It is thought likely that this was a defensive site. Promontory forts are unique to the coastline of south west England. They are thought to have been introduced from Brittany, which had strong links with Cornwall throughout the county's early history.

Returning to the Coast Path from Black Head, carry on around Gerrans Point, ignoring the paths to the left, until you come back to the road and the car park. Walk straight ahead along the road to the left-hand bend, where there is a footpath into a field on your right.

  1. Follow the footpath along the right-hand hedge, going through into the next field and heading a little left of centre in the far hedge. To your right here as you enter the third field is the site of the ancient Castle Gotha, although only the semi-circular shape of the hedges shows that it was ever there. From here head for the gate in the left-hand hedge and go out onto the road.

A little more is known about Castle Gotha. It was an oval-shaped Iron Age settlement with a single ditch and rampart, constructed during the second century BC and inhabited for some 400 years. Archaeologists found the sites of timber huts, just inside the rampart. They believe that this was a metalworking site with no real defensive function. Evidence for this included an ingot mould embedded in the floor of one of the huts, and pits and hearths, as well as a stone mould for casting brooches.

There are many of these Iron Age settlements and enclosures dotted around this part of Cornwall. The Celts who occupied them continued to do so when the rest of England fell under Roman rule. Some of the settlements were later refortified for the use of local chieftains and kings. Castle Dore, to the north of Fowey, is known to have been reoccupied in the fifth to eighth centuries AD. It is said to have been the main residence of sixth-century King Mark of Cornwall.

Mark features in Arthurian legend, although it is as a cowardly and treacherous man whose behaviour flew in the face of the chivalry promoted by Arthur and his nobler knights. Ninth-century scholar Paul Aurelian identified Mark as the Welsh leader known as Cunomorus. Mark inherited the throne when his father was murdered during an Irish raid on the family's secondary castle at Tintagel. Mark negotiated a peace treaty with King Anguish of Ireland, which was to be sealed by his marriage to the Irish princess Iseult. When his nephew Tristan was sent to Ireland to escort the princess back to Cornwall, the unfortunate youth drank a love potion intended for his uncle and he fell in love with the beautiful princess himself, with tragic consequences for both of them.

On the road from Fowey towards Castle Dore stands the Tristan Stone. It is thought to have been moved here from a Bronze Age henge near Castle Dore, sometime around 550 AD. On the north side the stone is inscribed with a T, an early form of the Christian cross. On the opposite face is some lettering, believed to date from the sixth century, which reads: 'DRASTANS HIC LACIT, CVNOWORI FILIVS'. The plaque beside the stone, put in place by the Fowey Old Cornwall Society, translates this as: 'Trystan here lies, of Cunomorus the son'.

The lovers' tragic tale is recounted in Daphne du Maurier's novel 'Castle Dor'. Cornish author Arthur Quiller Couch started writing it. He died before it was finished so his friend Du Maurier adopted it and completed it herself. Both lived within a stone's throw of Castle Dore and fell under the legend's romantic spell as a result (see the Lankelly & Menabilly Walk).

  1. Turn right and walk a few yards down the road to take the lane on your right leading to the modern-day Castle Gotha. Bear right with the lane, and then take the footpath into the field on the left just before the buildings. Walk to the diagonally-opposite corner to continue into the field beyond, descending steeply to join the Coast Path at the bottom of the hill.
  2. Turn right on the Coast Path and follow it around the bottom of the hill, climbing steeply through the trees in the nature reserve and back up to the car park.

Ropehaven Cliffs Nature Reserve was purchased in 1986 with the help of a grant from the World Wildlife Fund and it is noted for its birds and geology. The rocks were laid down some 400 million years ago and are among the oldest sedimentary rocks exposed in the south west. They also include old slate workings and thin bands of limestone, which is not widely found in Cornwall. They are rich in fossils showing that Ropehaven once lay under tropical seas, where coral reefs were home to sea lilies, shellfish and primitive squid and fish.

The cliffs are steep and prone to landslides, which, combined with the coastal woodland, makes for a diverse range of habitats between the Coast Path and the shoreline. One of the birds to take advantage of this is the fulmar, a large petrel similar in size and colour to the herring gull, with grey back, wings and tail, and a white head and underparts. Fulmars spend much of their lives out at sea, only coming in to nest in colonies on the rocky cliffs. Housemartins nest here, too. Look out for their breathtaking aerobatics high above the cliffs as they hunt insects.

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