The western tip of Cornwall stands firm against the Atlantic waves like the prow of some giant ship, its figurehead Land’s End thrusting forth into the Celtic Sea. The bit of the county commonly described as West Cornwall is the part of the peninsula to the west of a line from St Agnes to Cornwall. The rest of the area we split into North and South Cornwall along a line approximating to the spine of the region. West Cornwall is geologically and geographically quite different from the other two, and reminds us that it may once have been an island in its own right!
The South West Coast Path along the slate cliffs and sand and the pleasant heathland dotted with granite outcrops inland appeal to walkers and wildlife enthusiasts too. The cliffs around West Cornwall rise to great heights in places, but in others curve down to form gentle dunes and lush green hills and valleys.
Geologically speaking much of Kernow is usually associated with granite, but this bit of the coast is characterised mainly by slate rock, grey but sometimes interrupted by a beautiful striated pattern of green serpentine rock. This is particularly prolific in Mount’s Bay where legend has it the giant Cormoran collected it. The Penzance chapel that gave the holy headland its name (Pennsans) was built from greenstone. This stone is called Elvan in Cornish and is native to West Cornwall. It features in the myth of the giant, and a vast slab of it lies on the causeway to St Michael’s Mount.
Around four hundred Stone Age greenstone axes (known as Group 1 prehistoric axes) have so far been discovered around Britain, and all are thought to have come from Cornwall. Although the source has not been categorically pinpointed, it’s believed that a reef called The Gear, an island now submerged off Penzance, may have been where they were quarried.
West Cornwall is where we can find Great Britain’s most southerly point, The Lizard, and the mainland’s most westerly point, the famous Land’s End. Twenty-odd miles further west lie the Isles of Scilly.
The distribution of attractive places in the North and South of Cornwall is heavily biased towards the sea – there are iconic coastal towns and villages every few miles along the coastline. While the latter is still true in West Cornwall, there is a greater number of charming places to visit inland than in the other two regions. This is mostly because the population of the western part is substantially higher than that of the rest, in part because of the beautiful but sparsely populated wide open spaces of Bodmin Moor taking up much of the eastern half of the county.
West Cornwall’s Towns and Villages
Just along the coast from little-known St Agnes, where better to begin than St Ives, one of Britain’s most famous seaside towns. Its reputation is well-deserved, with proximity to beaches for all conditions and a plethora of attractions including the famous Tate Gallery. Just next door, Hayle too is a firm favourite, from whence you can follow the coast path towards Godrevy Lighthouse in the north, or head towards St Ives past Porthkidney and Carbis Bay.
High above the rocky cliffs of the coast lies Zennor, in a romantic yet forbidding landscape that has been inhabited for at least four thousand years. Zennor itself is replete with history, including the six-hundred-year-old carving of a mermaid in the church, which is associated with a local legend. St Just is the westernmost town in Cornwall, a mile inland and six from Land’s End. It’s a good size, with a comprehensive selection of shops and hostelries. It feels very Celtic here with all the old Cornish place names, and there are many small coves to explore. Cape Cornwall is a headland closer to Land’s End with the Cornish name of Kilgood Ust, meaning “St Just gooseback”. The beach at Sennen is on the very tip of Cornwall and is a world class surfing destination, also known as Whitesands (but not by many).
Moving around to the southern part we find Porthcurno, a stunning beach destination but more famous for its Minack open-air theatre and the Telegraph Museum which celebrates the fact that undersea cable communication was pioneered here. Incidentally, Poldhu, a stunning cove further east, is famous as the place from which the first Trans-Atlantic radio signal was sent, in 1901. Only ten miles away is the large town of Penzance, with excellent facilities as well as a huge beach and one of the best sunshine records in the UK.
Mousehole, pronounced “Mow-zel” by the way, is a pretty and very popular village full of character cottages, craft shops and cafés. Its harbour and boats are festooned in coloured lights at Christmas time, a spectacle well worth travelling to behold.
Marazion is next along the coast and is Cornwall’s oldest town, which looks south to the fairytale island of St Michael’s Mount. Helston is a very lovely market town which is well known for its Flora Day and the Furry (faery?) Dance, a Celtic spring celebration on an epic scale.
Halfway between Marazion and the surfing and storm watching mecca of Porthleven, Praa Sands is an excellent family holiday destination, with a super sandy beach, shops and a golf course. It’s just a short car journey to either Helston or Penzance for the bigger shops. Mullion is on the west side of The Lizard, a large peninsula jutting out of the south coast. Lizard Village, Lizard Point and the Lizard Lighthouse and Heritage Centre are all clustered, unsurprisingly, on the Lizard Peninsula. The lighthouse is the oldest mainland light in Cornwall. There are lots of little shops and cafés in the area, and the utterly beautiful Kynance Cove is nearby, with its crystal waters that sparkle turquoise in the sun.
Cadgwith, near to the tip of The Lizard, has a shingle beach not sand but is nevertheless a lovely destination with cottages and lobster pots, a proper community pub and a nice atmosphere.
Coverack, on the eastern face, is a village with houses and shops built on a rocky headland, affording it the most excellent sea views. It has an interesting beach with pebbles and rocks as well as sand and is perfect for watersports of all kinds, as well as crabbing and fishing.St Keverne, with its interesting square, has pubs and shops and many beaches nearby. It’s also close to Glendurgan Gardens and the village of Mawnan Smith. The Helford River, Helford Passage and the village of Helford itself completes West Cornwall before we reach the South Cornwall town of Falmouth with its huge natural harbour.
Particular Things To Enjoy in West Cornwall
Legendary Land’s End is the westernmost place in the British mainland. There are exhibitions and attractions here, an extremely touristy signpost to just about everywhere, and the 200′ (66m) cliffs command spectacular views to the Longships Lighthouse and the Isles of Scilly. In between, legend tells of the sunken land of Lyonesse, which may be more than just a story. The Romans called Land’s End Belevian, the “seat of storms”.
While Cornwall does boast many, many top surf spots – at least seventy-five at the last count – the west part of the Duchy has the ones that catch the biggest swells. Portreath, Gwithian and Hayle can handle some simple colossal waves. Sennen is on the very tip of Cornwall and can work up to 25′ (8m). Praa Sands and Porthleven on the southern side of the tip are absolute classics and complete the picture with quality tubing waves. This is just one of the reasons that West Cornwall is such a popular destination for surfers. It’s also the very soul of Cornish surfing culture, because of the sheer class of the main surf spots. And of course, the north coast beaches are never too far away, should conditions demand a relocation!
Read our surfing blog series here >
Most of the beaches in West Cornwall are the classic golden sand for which Cornwall is famous. This makes them very child-friendly, and since most of them are safe for swimming, this is ideal for families, especially since so many are close to car parks and other facilities.
Almost every coastal town or village in West Cornwall has a beach within an easy dog-walking distance and others not more than a short drive away. Most of these beaches are dog-friendly, although certain ones do not allow dogs onto the beach in the holiday season, between Easter and October.
The coastline of West Cornwall is spectacular in the extreme. Atlantic waves rebound from towering cliffs, line up into classic surf at the wide flat beaches, and wrap gently into the many small and sheltered coves.
Much of the area is good for climbing and the hybrid sport of coasteering, but do see to it that you have an experienced guide to tell you what and where is safe to explore – the rocks and seas are treacherous to the inexperienced!
Cornwall might not be especially famous for its roads, but it certainly holds a place in the heart of many a motorist or biker. The pressure of its tourist traffic and a good deal of EU investment has ensured that they are mostly in tip-top condition, but it is the sweeping character that is most noticeable. Not for us the straight, Roman roads in other parts of the country. The A39 Atlantic Highway cuts down the north coast, joining in West Cornwall with the equally wondrous A30, which has blazed its way across Bodmin Moor further east. Both are highly regarded as among the best non-mountainous sight-seeing and touring roads in Europe.
The history of the Cornish coast is founded in boatbuilding, fishing, smuggling, wrecking and often piracy – nowhere can you experience this enduring culture better than at the many quaint and beautiful coastal villages of West Cornwall. The harbours here are particularly varied and interesting, many of them still working fishing ports. We have a page dedicated to the harbours of Cornwall – check it out here…
Porthleven is one of the most photographed storm-watching spots in the country, its iconic clock tower and resilient harbour wall the perfect counterpoint to some of the biggest waves that make landfall anywhere!
A world famous open-air theatre, resembling a Greek or Roman amphitheatre, carved into the rocks of Porthcurno by one very determined woman from 1931 until 1983. It’s simply incredible, if a little vertigo-inducing!
St Michael’s Mount
A fairy-tale castle, a close-knit island community and a sub-tropical paradise, accessible to visitors via a walkway at low tide or a boat in high water. A very special place.
The West Cornwall part of the South West Coast Path contains some fairly demanding terrain, but it’s incredibly rewarding. From St Ives, one can schedule a week (six days, 69 miles/110km) that takes one to the tip of Cornwall at Land’s End and then heads back around to the east and The Lizard, all the time in a sub-tropical sort of climate (in summer). Sheltered valleys and coves are dotted with palm trees and other exotic flora by virtue of the mild temperatures. You’ll also absorb a lot of Kernow’s rich mining heritage (it’s Poldark country, too) on this section of the path. The recommended stops to break it down are Pendeen, Sennen, Lamorna, Marazion, Porthleven and The Lizard. None of these sections would be more than thirteen miles (21km). You can read our more detailed information on the SWCP here…
While many visitors naturally look to the Newquay part of the county as they plan their visit to Kernow, you will find the West Cornwall region not much further to travel and has a lot going on. It’s a very rewarding place to visit – we find here more remnants of Cornwall’s mining industry, many examples of still-thriving maritime activities, and the history of some of the locals’ previous nefarious pastimes – smuggling, wrecking, and outright piracy. All the while, surfing, sailing and family beach fun is just as much on your doorstep as anywhere in the county.
If you’d like to come and visit West Cornwall, there are lots of lovely cottages to rent in the area, with Cornish Traditional Cottages – at any time of the year.
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