Wednesday, 4 May 2011

South West Coast Path Section 24 St Just - Porthcurno

Cape Cornwall
Knowing that there was only one more guaranteed day of good weather in front of me directed me to this walk as it was one of the most eagerly anticipated of the whole trip! It would take in the delights of Cape Cornwall, Sennen Cove and Lands End before finishing up at Porthcurno, where I had already undertaken the onward section to Penzance.
St Just
Careful planning is required for this walk during the winter bus timetables. There are only a small number of through bus services between Porthcurno and St Just, but one conveniently runs at around 10am. Be warned about parking in Porthcurno however.Although there are plenty of spaces it was one of the few car parks I came across that only accepted cash payment and not via a mobile phone (possibly due to lack of signal). Make sure you have plenty of cash available as the cost is £5 (2011 prices) for a day.The Cable Station car park does not charge after 6pm so may be a better bet than the Cornwall Council owned car park next door.The bus leaves from a stop between the two car parks.It’s a bit of a white knuckle ride through the lanes to St Just & not for the faint hearted!
Tin Mine Country
St Just is a former mining town and its roots are quite obvious, even though it has gentrified somewhat in recent years. There is a good collection of shops in the town centre arranged around the main square and I immediately headed to Warren’s Pasty Shop ( across the way. At the time I did not realise it, but the smell from elsewhere in town should have alerted me to the fact that the pasties are actually made in St Just. I soon walked past the small factory on my way to Cape Cornwall.For devotees they are also available from the website by mail order.I must admit to being seriously tempted! Before heading out of town I also took a look at the rather austere and prominent church in the centre. It was more welcoming inside it has to be said!
I made my way out of St Just town and headed down to the coast slightly to the north of Cape Cornwall. St Just’s mining heritage was very obvious from this valley with several ruined engine houses and chimneys in the immediate area. These old ruins are all that is left of a once thriving industry digging out mostly tin, but other metals such as copper too. The engine houses powered the machinery that hauled the mined material to the surface (and in some cases the miners). Now the empty carcasses of the buildings are slowly falling down, although in some cases they are being maintained in a ruined state and not left to deteriorate any further. Nevertheless their presence adds a unique character to the local landscape.
Cape Cornwall Chimney
After wandering down the valley to meet with the official path I rounded the coastline to be greeted with the magnificent sight of Cape Cornwall. Once thought to be the furthest extremity of mainland Britain it is now a quiet backwater with fewer visitors than Lands End, some 6 miles further south. Yet this low hummock of a headland is far more interesting than its more visited neighbour since it forms the point at which Irish Sea and Celtic Sea waters meet and this results in some big waves as the currents collide.As I got nearer to the CapeI realised that what I had always taken to be some form of monument on the top of the hill (never having been here before) was actually a tin mine chimney!The tin mine had a patchy existence, only being open for approximately forty years on and off during the period 1839 to 1883.In all it produced only about 35 tonnes of tin. I was also rather fascinated by the ruins of St Helen’s Oratory, a building which has served as an early church, a huer’s hut and latterly as a farm building.It is now just a lonely ruin on a rocky coast.
Lands End Country
I climbed up on to the Cape Cornwall hill and found myself a sunny spot on the far side of the chimney. This proved to be a great place to have a spot of lunch and I sat fascinated by the crashing waves and seabirds going about their business for some time. Although a brilliantly sunny day, my energy levels were feeling a bit low today – I think that I am just not used to walking any sort of distance day after day. The sun was getting increasingly hot too and there was precious little wind, unusual for this part of the world I’m sure.
Rocky Outcrop
After sitting around for half an hour or so I decided it was time to move on. My immediate goal was Sennen Cove some 6 miles away. It was one of those walks where you could see the destination some distance away, although it looked a lot closer than it actually was! There seemed to be a lot more walkers about on this section than I had thus far encountered and I sensed that this is possibly one of the most popular stretches of the path locally.Every half mile or so it seemed as if I encountered a waymarker reminding me how far I had to go. Although initially it felt like I was making good progress as the distance seemed to be dwindling as it should, every now and again the distances seemed to increase!It was a bit demoralising at times…
Rocky Beach
The coastline was awash with gorse, which looked absolutely radiant on such a bright sunny day. Although I have had not had a bad day so far, conditions today were by far the best I had encountered thus far. There was a brilliance in the light and visibility that was second to none. Despite being able to see my interim destination for some time the walk was surprisingly varied, with sections along little more than goat tracks on rocky cliffs to others that crossed large fields. Eventually I came upon beaches once again, the first being a fairly small one at Tregiffian.Despite being a little more secluded and out of the way there were a few visitors including a surfer who looked the part but seemed a little unsure of whether to go in the water (I don’t blame him – the water must have been freezing!).Elsewhere there was a family playing quite an intense looking game of cricket with the small children seeming to take it quite seriously.
Wonky Horn
The next mile or so was through yet more sand dunes. I have decided that this terrain is actually more difficult than the rocky paths, especially during this period of dry weather for walking on the sand is a little like a conveyor belt. The next mile or so wasn’t particularly easy as a result, but there were plenty of distractions to help keep my mind off the conditions underfoot. I smiled at the surf schoolers that I could see in the distance going through their warming up exercises. It actually looked like beach aerobics!
Sennen Cove
By the time I finally reached Sennen Cove I was ready for some refreshment. Although the Cove is an agreeable place with a less commercial atmosphere than Lands End, I expected a little more from the café. True it is a state of the art building, but the ice cream that I bought promised far more than it delivered (sorry!). It was a bit lacking in flavour for so-called ‘premium’ ice cream and I felt slightly cheated. Still it was good to get something cold, for by now the day had really warmed up a lot and I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. Sennen Cove was crowded, even the beach was pretty packed which made me wonder what it must be like on a really good day in the summer?
Beach Games
Sennen Cove boasts the most westerly of all the mainland lifeboat stations and this is a very prominent feature on the seafront, with another scary looking slipway enabling the boat to be launched in all states of the tide. A lifeboat has been stationed here since 1853. All was quiet today when I passed, although it did seem that the boathouse was open to take visitors. I didn’t go in this time as time was slipping away fast and by now it was already mid-afternoon! I was only halfway and progress had been very slow. I was also conscious of other attractions to see further on.
Surf School
I climbed up out of Sennen Cove for the 1 mile or so walk across the clifftops to its more famous neighbour at Lands End. At the edge of the cliffs were a group of army cadets abseiling and climbing the sea cliffs – perhaps skills they put to good use in these parts. Further up on the cliff was an old lookout station, now owned by the National Trust and used as a visitor centre of sorts. The view from here was quite superb looking back across Sennen Cove to Cape Cornwall in the distance (showing my day’s walk so far) and Lands End beyond (still to come). Although the view was great I don’t doubt that this lookout had a much more serious function originally, to help keep shipping safe.
A little further along the coast was a stark reminder of how dangerous this coast is. Far below me in the rocky cove of Castle Zawn was the carcass of the ship Mulheim that foundered here in 2003. With its cargo long since removed and all the fuel and other pollutants removed during a salvage operation, the remaining part of the ship is now left to nature to take care of. Given that the vessel has only been here for eight years, it is surprising how little is left. No doubt many poundings from the sea, crashing the remaining part against the rocks many times has ensured that it is not long left for this hapless vessel.I understand that at the time it ran aground, it provoked much interest and lots of additional tourists came to visit.Now it is just another wreck among so many that this coast has claimed.
Mulheim Wreck
What followed was a very pleasant and extremely popular mile or so of mostly level walking to Lands End, officially the most westerly part of mainland Great Britain. Lands End has an almost mythical status, with many people doing the long run from here to John O’Groats, the other extreme point at the far end of Scotland (874 miles away). Walkers, cyclists, runners and all manner of other modes of transport are used to undertake this longest of journeys completely within the British Isles. Yet despite its status as a special place, it is uniquely naff. A sort of theme park has grown up around the hotel that occupies the area around Lands End.Yet, coming on foot rather than by car doesn’t detract from the natural beauty of the place. The hotel is merely a distraction from the grandeur of the scenery.The First and Last House, proclaiming that it is the first and last refreshment house in Britain didn’t live up to its name today as it was closed.I’ll bet that annoyed a few people who had trekked the quarter of a mile or so from the car parks!
Lands End
Using the South West Coast Path enabled me to avoid the worst parts of the tourist attraction that is Lands End, although I did run into a group of foreign students that were desperate to have their picture taken altogether and roped me in to be their David Bailey. I tried to explain that their preferred location to have their picture taken would suffer from being against the sun but to no avail. They were young I suppose and viewed me as old and not be listened to…
End of the Land
Once I had cleared Lands End I allowed myself the opportunity to sit down and study the islands that host the Longships Lighthouse just offshore. The lighthouse has long since been automated, but I couldn’t help but think what a thoroughly tough job it must have been to be the lighthouse keeper back in the day, especially on a rock a mile offshore. Apparently the lighthouse had a near miss back in the late 1800s when one vessel almost demolished it when it ran aground during a particularly violent storm.
Lands End Coast
I soon became aware that I had lost the crowds just beyond the craft shop at the far end of the Lands End complex. It seems that most walkers head towards Sennen Cove and not south from Lands End. Yet this part of the walk was more spectacular in my book! At Lands End I had turned to head in a south easterly direction. This subtle change of direction worked wonders, for the sun was now behind me and not ahead. This had two effects – firstly that I did not have to squint and secondly I got to see the light across the sea and the cliffs in its full glory! Soon I came to Nanjizall (also known as Mill Bay) and the light across the ocean was truly amazing, with various shades of turquoise and deep blue depending on the depth of the water. In some places the shadows were beginning to creep a little too as afternoon wore on.
High above Nanjizal was a large house with possibly one of the best coastal views in the whole of Britain. A few hardy souls were enjoying the beach far below me, although it isn’t the easiest to access, being some considerable distance from the nearest road. A stiff climb followed to the top of the cliff at the other end of the bay but for the most part the path was quite level for much of the way to Gwennap Head. A couple more coves were passed with equally breathtaking cliffs and sea colours and this was possibly my favourite stretch of walking in the whole week.
Gwennap Head
At Gwennap Head I got a surprise when admiring the latest of the Coastwatch stations ( I had come across. This particular one is manned every day by volunteers and the man on shift today called to see if I wanted to come up and take a look from the top of the station. I forgot briefly about my target time of getting back to the car and went in to see all the equipment that they used for tracking various ships offshore. I was amazed at how much detail could be seen on the tracking diagrams, even down to how many people on board and what kind of cargo was being carried. Many of the ships that were on the tracking map were way out to sea, little more than dots on the horizon. The chap waxed lyrical about his local area for some time, telling me all the places I should visit before the week was out. If I had taken him up on many of his suggestions I would probably still be there! Before leaving I took the opportunity to look out right across St Michael’s Bay to the Lizard beyond, several days hiking from here!
Gwennap Head Coastguard
Eventually I bade him farewell and continued on my way. Just below the station were a couple of navigational aids in the shape of a red cone and a black and white cone. Apparemtly if the black and white one is obscured by the red one when you are offshore you are in deep trouble, for you have just run aground on the Runnel Stone, an infamous reef in these parts!
Day Markers
Any idea that it would be an easy walk back to Porthcurno were soon dispelled when I descended into the hamlet of Porthgwarra. Apparently there is a café here, but I didn’t try to find it as by now it had gone past 6pm and I felt sure it wouldn’t be open. Having descended into Porthgwarra inevitably I had to climb back on to the cliff on the other side. As I did so I caught sight of another group of army cadets scaling the cliffs – it must be a regular haunt for this type of activity.
Final Push
There was time for one more spectacular cove before I reached Porthcurno, this time at St Levan where the cove was known as Porth Chapel. A group were down on the beach fighting against the stiff breeze tring to sort their tent out presumably to camp the night. Would be a nice place – not sure what permission might be needed though. The path teased me one last time by descending almost down to the beach before heading up to the top of the cliff once more before the final little push to the top of the Minack Theatre ( The theatre was now closed for the day but is the most phenomenal place, being carved out of the cliff face for perhaps the most spectacular setting for any theatre anywhere in the world. I was truly awe-inspired by this place when I visited last year and have included a picture from that visit as it feels wrong not to include one here. I have yet to witness a show here (summer season doesn’t start until May), but one day I feel I must!
St Levan
The descent from the theatre to Porthcurno beach is a bit of an experience – down some extremely steep steps down the side of the cliff to complete a truly memorable last few miles. I was so glad that I had done this hike out of sequence during the week to get the best of the weather. It truly deserved a day like this!
Minack Theatre
On the whole, the walk over from St Just isn’t too bad, but I think my several days of walking had caught up with me a bit and I found it more of a struggle than I think it really should have been. The main thing to be careful of is to ensure that you complete the public transport part of the expedition first as the buses are too few and far between to rely on trying to catch one at the end of the day. In summer you will have an easier time as there are more buses available, but its best not to hurry this day. Make the most of the views, the various attractions en route and even leave yourself time for a refreshment stop!


  1. 'Uniquely Naff'....What a wonderful and accurate description of Lands End. Mind you, it hasn't always been so horrible. Back in the mid sixties it was minus the mini theme park and seemed a much nicer place.

    Although John o'Groats is shown as 874 miles on the finger board, most walkers and cyclists etc seem to clock more miles. When I cycled it I clocked 937 miles on my Garmin and we had stuck to main roads in order to complete it in a fast time.


  2. So interesting! I love that open air theatre, its awesome. I like the information regarding the navigational cones and the photos make me want to tramp around the area too - thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks for your kind comments folks! Looking back I think this walk was the highlight of my week away in Devon and Cornwall. Three more walks to add over the next week or two as soon as I write them up! Flickr pictures will follow in due course but I don't want to flood the site so only uploading 10 per day.

  4. I completed this walk on Wednesday and the scenery is stunning. The weather was sunny to overcast, very windy, but dry. I left St Just at 9.15, stopped for a coffee & pastie at Sennen half way round, and reached Porthcurno at 14.40. However, there wasn't a bus again that day (schoolboy error) so I walked the 4 miles into Sennen, had a pint at the Old Success pub and cabbed it back to St Just. This is one of the most beautiful coasts I've ever seen and I'm definately going to do it again in the summer some time.

    1. Hello Tom, Thanks for looking and commenting. This day was definitely the stand out day for me from my week of coastal path walking last Easter. The public transport does require careful planning as I seem to remember that there were only 3-4 buses per day to Porthcurno. You did well to walk back to Sennen - I was more than satisfied with my walk in one direction!

  5. Thank you for this description! I just did this walk today and don't feel that I appreciated it fully, as I wasn't sure I would make it! As it was, it took me 8 hours with hardly a break, which tells you something about my level of fitness and age. One very lovely surprise was a cream tea in Porthgwarra. Someone had also trimmed all of the gorse back from the path around there. I'm onto Penzance tomorrow, was in St Ives the day before yesterday. It's 5 years later, and Land's End is definitely still uniquely Naff.

    1. Thanks for your comment! It is a tougher section than first appears. Looking back though I think it is the most enjoyable section I have yet done. Hoping for a few more days at the end of the summer :)