Wednesday, 18 May 2011

South West Coast Path Section 20 Portreath - Hayle

Godrevy Lighthouse
Choosing my last walk of my week away was quite tricky as I was conscious that I would have a 300 mile+ drive after I had finished for the day. It was imperative therefore that I didn’t wear myself out too much! I also had the tricky prospect of finding a walk with good transport links as some had awkward services on a Saturday. In the event I settled on the 12 mile section from Portreath to Hayle as the guide book promised easy walking. As connections looked awkward I parked at Redruth Station to save myself a potentially long wait between connecting bus and train. I caught the bus for the short trip over to Portreath, biding my time until the right stop. Portreath reminded me of Combe Martin in North Devon as the town straggles its way along a steep sided valley, with only a short stretch of coast at its head. Getting off before the beach would have left me with a lengthy and unnecessary walk so I was glad I paid attention!
Portreath was originally one of the centres of exporting metal ore to Swansea for smelting (along with Devoran on the south coast). Evidence of the various tramways that were constructed can still be seen in the valley and there is also a cycle path that connects the two ports using the route of one of the tramways. I had hoped that I might explore during the week but it wasn’t to be and will have to wait for another trip. Evidence of this former industrialisation is fairly scant now though and the town seems far more geared up for tourist traffic, just like so many other Cornish towns.
Rocky Coast
Having been dropped at the beach front there wasn’t much opportunity to look around the town, the heart of which was some way behind me. Knowing that I wanted to get back to Hayle before 3pm to catch my onward train to Redruth (I would have a couple of hours wait otherwise!), I was keen to press on. It looked like the perfect day for a beach trip although at this early hour it was still quite deserted and even the café was only just beginning to stir into life.
West Hill View
While the guide book describes this as an easy walk, they do not mention the steep hills at the beginning. The first of these is West Hill overlooking the cove of Portreath. My heart sank when I saw the path heading straight up the side – no zig-zags here! The view at the top was well worth it though with a huge sweep of the coast to the north offering a tantalising glimpse of sections I haven’t yet completed. These sadly will have to wait for another trip…
Zig Zag Path
As I rounded West Hill the view of the first part of today’s walk emerged. Far away in the distance was the lighthouse of Godrevy, a milestone that rather reminded me of my walk yesterday to Pendeen. The similarity ended there though as the weather was rather better today! My immediate view was of high cliffs rather unlike those that I had got used to on the Lands End peninsula in that they were sheer and not rocky slopes with odd steeper spots. One of the cliffs below was known as The Horse and when I looked I could see why it was, using my imagination in a kind of ‘magic eye’ kind of way! On the other side of this was an extremely steep sided ravine, intriguingly named ‘Ralph’s Cupboard’. A feature of Western Cornwall are the plethora of interesting names given to the various coastal features I have come agross.
Hairy Blighter

No sooner had I got settled into walking along the ridge of the cliffs when I had a nasty shock at Porth-cadjack Cove. Here the path plunged almost down to sea level before heading straight back up the equally steep valley side to resume the walk no more than about 400 metres ahead of me at the same height! I was beginning to think that the writer of the guide book was having a laugh at my expense. On the way back up the other side, I then almost tripped over the biggest and hairiest caterpillar I have seen in a long time! Once at the top I thought that might be the end of climbing, only to find another valley drop just ahead. This third one though was nothing like the previous two climbs and thankfully after that the path did finally level out.
Looking Ahead to Godrevy
The way ahead now proved to be a very quick and delightful walk. Unlike so many cliff walks this was almost entirely flat, if not slightly downhill all the way to Hells Mouth, a local beauty spot. Almost all the way the landmark of Godrevy Lighthouse beckoned to me. As I glanced at my watch I was pleased to see that I was making excellent progress and could probably fit in a lunch stop at the café I had heard a lot about at Gwithian Beach. Just before reaching Hell’s Mouth I took yet another look over the cliff edge (difficult to resist on this kind of walk!) to find an unannounced shipwreck! Not much was left of the stricken vessel and I haven’t managed to find any information about it since although it may be wreckage from the Escurial, a steamship that sank hereabouts in 1895.
Escurial Shipwreck
Away from the coast I was also rather fascinated by a large gymkhana that was being set up in a field across the way. Many horseboxes were arriving and the whole event looked like it was going to be pretty large. I was surprised that more preparation hadn’t already been done for the time was now cracking on towards late morning and the event looked far from being ready to start. Still once underway, the setting for the event was cracking as by now the sweep of St Ives Bay on the other side of Godrevy Point had come into view.
Godrevy Point
I had Godrevy Point and the Knavocks to negotiate before I would get to Hayle Bay, but first I lingered awhile at Hell’s Mouth, a very aptly named cove cut deep into the cliffs by the relentless sea. Inland from here is a very popular looking café, with many punters already sitting outside eating their all day breakfasts and supping coffee. I resisted, promising myself that Gwithian was a better place to stop as it marked the end of the cliff top walking for the day.
At Hell’s Mouth the direction of the path changed to head north, which meant that I swung round and had a view to my right of the coastline already negotiated today. It was amazing how far I had travelled in a fairly short space of time! The cliffs looked like a wall of rock and not the indented and angular coast I had actually seen as I walked along it. Ahead of me now the Knavocks were covered in bright yellow gorse, so vivid that I was glad of my sunglasses. The smell of the blossom was almost overpowering and I guess that there are probably some people that don’t appreciate the sickly and coconutty smell. If that is you, come to this part of the world in the autumn as there is no avoiding it otherwise!
Gorse View
As I crossed the Knavocks at the far end the most amazing view from the trig point at the top. Godrevy Lighthouse was now far below me and I just had Mutton Cove to negotiate. As I reached the side of the cliffs again I looked down and was delighted to see grey seals bobbing about in the sea far below. Their antics amused me, although there were a few heartstopping moments as these creatures got rather close to the cliffs and I felt sure that would be bashed against the rocks.
Looking Back to Godrevy
As I got to Godrevy Point a crowd had developed on the cliff top with afternoon strollers clocking the presence of the seals. However, the action they were watching was only one seal, rather than the small group I had had all to myself further back along the path.
Hayle Sands
At Godrevy Point I paused to look at the lighthouse on Godrevy Island just opposite. This is the lighthouse that features in the Virginia Woolf story To The Lighthouse. It was built in 1858-9 after the SS Nile was shipwrecked on the reef offshore with the loss of all hands. As with all other lighthouses, this is now automated and no keeper has to negotiate the short water crossing from the mainland.
Dune View
At Godrevy it was a short walk down to the crossing of the Red River. The beach was busy with visitors although most were hiding out of the wind in the shelter of the rocks. The Red River is so called after the discharge of iron oxide into the sea here from waste material produced by the many mines inland. Now the waters flowing into the sea are pristyine and only the name of the small river gives any hint to its previous nature. I found the café here and was very pleased to get myself a sandwich and cuppa. It was all very nice and worth a stop, although I couldn’t help thinking that the food came out rather slow (30 minutes after the order). Although reasonably busy, the place could hardly be said to be packed out as there were several empty tables around. Be warned! (food was lovely though).
Abandoned Buildings
From Gwithian the coast path negotiates its way through some very large sand dunes. It swings around through the dunes and although mostly well signposted there were some annoying looking sections where the path headed away from the coast. I was tempted a couple of times to take what I took to be short cuts through this section to make sure I got back to Hayle in plenty of time. However, this was definitely a bad move as on both occasions I ended up getting myself in a bit of a pickle as the initially promising path soon ended up negotiating some very steep looking sand dunes, leaving me to curse and rejoin the coast path anyway. In the dunes were some abandoned buildings, suggesting perhaps that there were some attempts to colonise the area with housing. The sand probably put paid to that on account of the maintenance required to keep the sand out!
Beach Football
As I got closer to Hayle activity on the beach increased once again and I was amused to see a couple of lads playing football. They had spent a long time marking their pitch out on the sand using a stick! Ahead of me was the familiar sight of St Ives, albeit from a different angle. The guide book suggested this as the final destination for today, but I think Hayle is a rather better staging point as the coast along the other side of the Hayle River I think deserves a bit more attention than would be given if at the end of a very long section of walking (St Ives is almost 18 miles from Portreath). By the time I turned from the open coast into the Hayle River, I had had enough of sand dunes and was relieved that I didn’t have too much of the day left.
Looking Ahead to St Ives
Away from the breeze of the coast I also became aware of how warm the day had become. Cloud had bubbled up from the west though, which suggested that I might have had the best of the weather for the day. Apart from another sculpture made out of buoys and the view across to Lelant Church the way into Hayle wasn’t the most pleasant. The harbourside is in the early stages of redevelopment and as a result I was marshalled through fencing, which rather cut off the views across the river. I suspect originally that mineral and fishing traffic would have made Hayle a busy port, but there was little evidence of this now.
Buoy Collection
At the end of the harbour wall I crossed the old swing bridge, which is reputedly the oldest in the country and followed the old harbour branch line which used to run down from the main line. Sadly, although much effort had been made to open this path up for the public to use, it is already being badly mistreated with flytipping and dog mess everywhere. A sad sight to end my day. The good news though was that I made it to Hayle station with 20 minutes to spare!
This was a lovely end to my week away and I brought up the 90 mile mark for the eight walks I completed (a leisurely average of 11.25 miles per day). This was perfect for a day with so much driving ahead of me, although the dunes section was far from easy at the end. As with so many of these walks, there were two parts of very different character and yet both were equally enjoyable. Pick a day with good visibility though – it deserves that for the views!


  1. Excellent article, very thorough with some great photographs. Nice profile picture with the child carrier too - mine is almost exactly the same! Check it out here:

  2. Thanks - you are most kind! I'm liking the look of your blog - shall have a good read through later. I tend to be a lone walker for these trips as I can take in more then, but hopefully in the next few years my kids will develop the passion too!