South West Coast Path
The South West Coast Path is one of Britain’s longest and most famous walks. The paths were originally made in the 18th and 19th centuries by the revenue and customs officers and their militia, which later (1822) became a unified force called the coastguard. Their role was to seek out and apprehend smugglers all along the coastline. The coastal paths would also have been used by villagers to look out for shoals of pilchards and to check for incoming storms. Although the full 630 miles of the SWCP runs from Somerset, around Devon and Cornwall and into Dorset, it is the Cornish section that we find perhaps the most enchanting and certainly the most spectacular.
The South West Coast Path is a long or short distance footpath which completely encircles the coastline of Cornwall and beyond, giving unmatched access to the loveliest coastal scenery to be found anywhere in the country. It loops in and out of coves and villages taking in the best of the spectacular topography. As such, the visitor can select easy walks, or longer/steeper ones taking in headlands, villages and beaches all at once. Many tourists set out to walk a section of the path each day, and some will come back year after year, completing more and more of the entire circumnavigation.
Not part of the SWCP, but for fans of Kernow in particular, or those whose passports or ideologies do not encourage them to step outside the county, it is possible to tie up the two ends of the coast path and circumnavigate the Duchy. This can be done by turning east at Mead or Morwenstow towards the source of the River Tamar at Youlstone, surprisingly close to the north coast. From there, the Tamar builds in volume, might and majesty all the way to the south coast at Saltash (though it may be more convenient to rejoin the SWCP at Portwrinkle), and forms the border between Cornwall and neighbouring Devon. Or you can do it the other way round. Obviously…
The coast path website contains some excellent tools and advice for selecting a destination or route. There is a “day walks” section, for instance, detailing a number of walks that are typically less than five miles long, and grouping them into a number of useful categories, including discovery walks, seasonal wanders, easy access walks, cafés and teashops, pub walks, treasure trails, train trips and family walks. There is whole section offering advice about how best to photograph the coastline (don’t forget to enter our photo competition), as well as geology, heritage, wildlife and culture. Using the Walkfinder tool, we can select a route by interest and difficulty or location. It really takes the hard work and navigation out of the equation, if not the walking itself!
Dog owners will be pleased to learn that their furry friends are permitted on all parts of the South West Coast Path at any time of year. Walkers must take care to look after their canine companions in a responsible manner, thus ensuring that they do not disturb livestock or wildlife and that they won’t cause a nuisance of any kind. The website even has a section specifically designed to help dog owners look after their animals correctly while enjoying the path.
Recommended Day- or Week-long Walks
The South West Coast Path’s circuit of Cornwall can be broken down into a number of day trips suited to most visitors. It should be emphasised that although these are a breakdown of the path’s entirety recommended by southwestcoastpath.org.uk, it is perfectly possible to make your own itinerary, stopping for the night in different towns. The following is based on travelling the coast path in an anti-clockwise direction, from the north coast around Land’s End and back along the south. But it’s easy enough to reverse the direction of travel. The path is clearly signposted in both directions with the distinctive acorn waymark.
The section which is often regarded as the most challenging is that of the Celtic coast (from the Devon border on the north coast down to Padstow) because of the sheer number of hills and valleys to be negotiated. This section would typically break down into five days, each covering ten to fifteen miles (16-24km), and it’d be a brave or very fit person who tried to double them up. From Hartland Cornwall Heritage Coast, it’s a good march down to Bude. From there on to Crackington Haven, then Tintagel, then Port Isaac, and finally it turns along the Camel from Pentire Point to Rock. The route traverses the estuary between Rock and Padstow by means of the Black Tor Ferry. This is a regular foot ferry to and from Padstow during daylight hours, a major source of tourist traffic to Rock. There is also a water taxi available for those staying out late.
Continuing down the coast from Padstow in the same westerly direction, we can plan another six days on the path, enjoying a section that still has the dramatic cliffs of the first, but now many more headlands and the classic surfing beaches for which Cornwall’s Atlantic coast is famous. This bit totals sixty-six miles (106km), the longest (at 13.5 miles/22km) being the first day from Padstow to Porthcothan, but the last one, from Hayle to St Ives, only six (less than 10km). One might be tempted to bolt this one onto the previous day if things were going well, but why would you leave out a stopover in Hayle? It’s pretty nice! But make sure you walk around the head of the Hayle estuary. It can look tempting to try to wade across these waters at low tide, but this is very much inadvisable! The intervening days, by the way, can be Porthcothan to Newquay, then Perranporth, then to Portreath.
We should note here that there are firing ranges at Nancekuke near Portreath that should be negotiated with care. Take notice of signage, flags and other warnings. The Gannel River at Newquay is crossed by a tidal footbridge (say three hours either side of low tide) at Penpol, or the Fern Pit Ferry in the summer. Or further upstream at Trenance, there is another footbridge which is passable except in very high water.
Around the End
From St Ives, one can plan a week (six days, 69 miles/110km) that takes in the tip of Cornwall at Land’s End and then heads back east to the Lizard. This section has a sub-tropical sort of climate, with sheltered valleys and coves adorned with palm trees and other exotica by virtue of the mild temperatures. You’ll also take in a lot of the county’s rich mining heritage (Poldark country, too) on this part of the walk. The .org’s recommended stops are Pendeen, Sennen, Lamorna, Marazion, Porthleven and the Lizard, with none of these days exceeding thirteen miles (21km).
This part of the South West Coast Path is potentially the least physically demanding, but it still has hills and narrow paths to contend with. The journey from the Lizard to Par is longer, at seventy-two miles (115km), but is easily completed in six days. It includes two of the river crossings that the coast path makes in Cornwall. The Helford river must be crossed by ferry, as is the Falmouth natural harbour which is traversed on the St Mawes ferry. Coverack, Helford, Falmouth, Portloe and Mevagissey are the interim stops in this week-long jaunt if you choose to do it that way.
Back to the Border
The Tamar River at Plymouth marks the boundary of the Cornish section of this illustrious journey in. From Par, you can be there in three days, taking in Polperro and Portwrinkle along Cornwall’s heritage coast before taking the Cremyll Ferry from stunning Mount Edgcumbe over to Plymouth, Devon, England. Not on the path, but Torpoint Ferry is also an option, for both cars and for foot passengers.
Should you wish to make your own travel plan, here follows a (fairly) exhaustive list of the towns and villages that one passes on the Cornish part of the South West Coast Path. This tool on the SWCP website is a fantastically useful thing for figuring out the distances between the places:
St Columb Minor
Cape Cornwall/St Just
Major River crossings
Camel Estuary – Black Tor Ferry
Gannel Estuary – ferry or 2 x tidal crossings
Hayle Estuary – do not cross; go inland.
Gillan Creek – low tide only
Helford River – Helford Passage Ferry
Fal Estuary – St Mawes Ferry
River Fowey – Polruan Ferry
River Looe – Bridge
River Seaton – Bridge
River Tamar – Cremyll Ferry