Hiking the South West Coast Path: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “wow” (out loud, to myself). The scenery — rugged cliffs, sweeping vegetation, sparkling beaches — is stunning. There are ancient monuments and the fascinating and forlorn remnants of tin mining days. And wildlife — seals and birds in particular (haven’t seen any dolphins yet). It’s hard to describe without veering into hyperbole.
The coast path is a 630-mile trail around the coast of southwest England. I first encountered it five years ago, when I walked the sections from Instow to Westward Ho!, then Westward Ho! to Clovelly. Ever since, I’ve wanted to return to tackle a longer section.
So here I am, taking on this solo walking adventure, which will see me complete (more or less) the stretch from St Ives to Falmouth — a total of ~103 miles.
Okay, so I hadn’t added that up until right now… 103 miles! Blimey. No wonder I have sore feet.
I’m currently in Penzance for a couple of rest days. It’s not even halfway, it turns out; but as I limped into Mousehole on Tuesday I was extremely thankful I’d allocated the break. The coast path is TOUGH! It’s very up and down, rocky in parts, muddy in parts, steep in (lots of) parts. At the end of each day my knees ache, my feet scream, and I collapse in a heap.
So two days to mooch around Penzance have been bliss. (Right now I’m in a cafe, using my Bluetooth keyboard with my phone… it’s almost like home. In the last five years England seems to have found out about flat whites!)
I arrived in St Ives last Tuesday, after a long journey from Australia. The train ride from Paddington to St Erth seemed never ending. Then the last short train journey to St Ives followed the Hayle estuary — very pretty. My hotel (Regents Hotel) stood high over the town, giving stunning sea views.
I spent the following day exploring (geocaching) the town, completely falling in love with it. It’s a tourist mecca — but I can see why! I loved the harbour, where a couple of seals hung out near the fishing boats bringing in their mackerel haul.
A stroll about St Ives Head gave views back over the old town with its twisty cobbled streets. I had lunch at the popular Porthmeor Beach Cafe, and found truly good coffee at Mount Zion (where the owner refuses to make cappuccinos… flat whites, espresso, long black or pourover only!). I also hung out in the Cemetery for a while, looking for family names, since we hail from here (Richards, Thomas).
St Ives to Zennor Head (6 miles/10km)
On Thursday I started walking. This was a “short” but strenuous stage. I encountered many people out for the day, although I seemed to be the only person staying in the village of Zennor. Most availed themselves of the bus to/from St Ives.
My approach from the start has been to take my time — take photos, enjoy the views, stop to look and breathe it all in. (I also stopped for a few geocaches along the way.)
I took a delicious sandwich from a recommended deli, and ate it at River Cove overlooking a beach with seals. Another Australian couple were there too — they pointed out the peregrine falcon perched on the cliff nearby… my jaw dropped. The peregrine perched there for at least 20 minutes and I couldn’t leave until it did.
In the afternoon my boots started falling apart. Literally. They were old and I suspect the adhesive had degraded — meaning the soles sheared clean off both boots. I finished the walk gingerly, after taking an alternative path (shortcut) that cut off the final route around Zennor Head. Luckily they didn’t fall apart completely!
At the iconic Tinners Arms pub (where I stayed) I enjoyed a St Ives gin (or two) with tonic in the late afternoon sunshine. I ate dinner in the pub, while chatting to locals. They have folk music there on Thursday evenings, but unfortunately I crashed into bed instead.
Penwith Peninsula Ancient Stones walk (7 miles/12km)
Now, a dilemma. I had arranged for a car to take me onto the moors today, intending to visit some of the ancient stones and walk back to Zennor for a second night. But my boots were dead. I did, however, have my trail runners as a backup, so resolved to keep to the plan and see how they went.
The car took me to Lanyon Quoit, where I clambered over a stile into a field. And immediately my shoes and feet were wet. Not good. The quoit was cool, though. Dated to neolithic times, Lanyon Quoit is one of the best known monuments in the area.
I then followed a designated route around the moors that took me next to the Ding Dong Mine Engine House (Greenburrow) — its hilltop tower visible for miles around.
Next my walking route took me to the neolithic or bronze age Boskednan (Nine Maidens) Stone Circle nestled in the heather. I actually met two different groups of people here and had to wait until they left to take my photos. The circle was quite difficult to capture in full.
The Men Scryfa (written) stone stands alone in a field, accessed by a stile. There was more damp grass to traverse (my feet were pretty wet and cold). The stone has writing on it (dated 6th to 8th C AD): RIALOBRANI CUNOVALI FILI (of the Royal Raven, son of the Glorious Prince). It is thought to commemorate the death of a Celtic royal soldier.
The Men an Tol (stone with hole) is another of the best-known prehistoric monuments on the moor. Apparently holed stones are very rare in Cornwall and it’s likely this one had a specific ritual purpose.
At this point, I will mention the awesomeness of the British OS Maps App! I downloaded this onto my phone before I left home, and it shows all the tracks, monuments, places of interest etc. It ALSO shows you where you are using GPS. I have used this frequently this past week when figuring out my route. I love it. (You have to buy the maps, though.)
My next stop was the summit of Carn Galver — where there was a geocache. I also managed to stumble and rip my hiking pants while scrambling over rocks. The weather for this day was mostly overcast, although the sun came out a few times.
I was delighted to find the Rosemergy Farm tea rooms open when I descended from the moor. This meant hot coffee and a cream tea! After that I trudged/squelched back to Zennor (couple of miles) where I dived into the shower.
Zennor to Pendeen
Instead of walking this leg (approx. 7-8 miles), I went to Penzance to buy new boots. The bus timetables weren’t friendly, so I caught a taxi there, then a bus straight to Pendeen, once my mission was accomplished. I could have possibly returned to Zennor and walked, but wasn’t sure about the lost time. My walking pace is proving to be slower than I expected. I also thought I should break in the new boots a bit first…
I was sorry, though, to miss Pendour Cove, which birthed the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor.
Once in Pendeen, I checked into my room at the North Inn and then went exploring (geocaching). It was another gorgeous day and, although I missed the coast path leg, I enjoyed my day and got up to the lighthouse at Pendeen Watch. (Had a good view of the path I had skipped.)
Then I climbed the hill behind the town, where some interesting sights awaited…
By the end of all this I was pretty weary (!) and availed myself of the bath in my suite. So far this has been my only available bath — I’ve wished for one since!
Pendeen to Sennen Cove (9 miles/15km)
Finally back on the coast path! This has been the longest (and possibly my favourite) leg so far. First was the four-mile section to Cape Cornwall, past the fascinating remains of Geevor, Levant and Crown Mines. Geevor has not been closed all that long (1990) and is now a working museum with underground tours. Both Levant and Crown are mostly beautiful ruins.
After leaving the mines, I arrived at Kenidjack Castle, an Iron Age fort. I sat here for a while admiring the view, which included Cape Cornwall. It also happened to be near a geocache, so I clambered down to retrieve it. (I also picked up a couple earlier in the day.)
At Cape Cornwall, the seasonal snack van was still open, so I grabbed a light lunch, plus coffee and cake. To my amusement and delight, this was served on a tray using china crockery.
Then it was another five miles to Sennen Cove, past Ballowal Long Barrow and numerous mine shafts. This was fascinating, since some of the shafts were fenced and signed, but others were not!
The walking for this day was rated “moderate”, but I found it just as difficult as the first day. The last couple of miles heading towards Sennen Cove were not hard walking, but I was fairly shattered. At one point, I just sprawled on some grass and rested in the sun for a while, trying to gather my reserves for the last push.
It didn’t help that my B&B was in Sennen village at the top of the hill, with no nearby eating options. My room was also tiny. This was my least favourite accommodation — despite there being nothing intrinsically wrong with it — and I went to bed at 7pm without dinner. (I was just too tired and footsore to get myself anywhere else.)
Sennen Cove to Porthcurno (6-7 miles)
Another “moderate” day of walking, a bit shorter. I had loads more energy at the end of the day, but my feet were still sore!
Soon after leaving Sennen Cove (where I grabbed a couple of geocaches), I stopped to look at the cliff top Maen Castle, which overlooked the fascinating wreck of the RMS Mühlheim (2003). There was a geocache here too.
I continued along a beautiful stretch of the path to Land’s End, which is a popular route with day walkers. Lands End itself was surprisingly deserted. I had been hoping to find the restaurant open, but I guess I was too early in the day. Instead, I had to make do with a kiosk that served the worst “coffee” in the history of ever. I also picked up a pre-made wrap to eat later for lunch.
After Lands End, more walking over and around cliff tops with interesting rock formations towards Porthgwarra. I stopped to eat lunch overlooking Carn Guthensbras, near the holed headland (which I totally missed), before heading down to the cafe and a much better coffee — and cake! Any excuse to rest the feet.
Onwards then for another hour or so to Porthcurno,which is famous for its open air Minack Theatre built into the cliff. You can’t see it from the the path, unfortunately, so I missed this too.
There’s a perilous descent from the entrance of the Minack Theatre into Porthcurno by way of cliff stairs. In Porthcurno, I stayed in the delightful Seaview B&B not too far from a pub — where I had a cider and a chat with the proprietor (and later, dinner).
Porthcurno to Mousehole (7 miles)
This was the final leg of the first stage of my walk, and I was feeling pretty well ready for my Penzance rest days! The trail for this day was rated “strenuous” but felt similar in difficulty to the previous “moderate” sections.
It was yet again beautiful walking on leaving Porthcurno, with views across fields of the Logan Rock, which I elected not to visit. (By this stage of the walk I wasn’t taking many diversions.)
The path passed high and low (i.e. up and down) through scrub, gorse and woodland areas. The small fishing village of Penberth was deserted when I went through (although thankfully there was a toilet).
This section of the path was far less populated than other sections I’ve walked — possibly not such a popular stretch for day walkers; although I did encounter some here and there. There were a lot more wooded sections too.
At Lamorna Cove there was a cafe where I had soup for lunch — with coffee, of course. Quite a few people lurked here, enjoying the sunshine. I stayed for about an hour to gear up for the final stretch of the week.
And then I only had two and a half miles to go. I had always intended to catch the bus to Penzance from Mousehole, which I reached at about 4pm. It’s a quaint village. I would have liked to wander around a bit, but I was pretty weary by this time and looking forward to having a couple of days break.
It’s now the end of my second rest day (this post has taken me quite a few hours to compile on my phone!) — tomorrow I head off along the path again. It will be a bus to Marazion, then walking to Porthleven and the longest distance yet at over 10 miles. Gulp.
There’s more to say, but phone blogging is a bit limited, so this will have to do for now. I still have almost 60 miles to walk in the next 6 days… reckon I’m gonna feel it! (And there’s always the bus!)
I’ll be back with a report on the second half of this expedition in another week or so.
3 Dec: I’ve edited this post a fair bit. Corrected some things, added some detail and tidied up the formatting.