Walking St Ives to Penzance
The South West Coast Path is England’s longest way-marked long distance footpath, hugging the coastline for 630 miles and meandering through some of the best views England has to offer. Walkable from either direction, it starts at Minehead in Somerset and goes through Devon and Cornwall, concluding at Poole Harbour in Dorset. The route includes the moorland of Exmoor, the craggy cliffs of North Cornwall, the slightly more relaxing south coast, and the muddy yet stunning Jurassic Coast in Dorset.
There was a forecasted sunny week late in summer 2020 so I decided it was time to revisit deepest Cornwall and do the coastal path properly. This means wild camping as much as possible and gradually completing the SWCP sections. The whole thing would probably take around 50 days to do consecutively and that’s not including the detours to other interesting sights, so I am going to do it in phases over however many years it takes.
I decided to start with perhaps the most famous section – from St Ives to Penzance as there is a reliable train connecting the two towns which isn’t impacted by Covid. Lizard Peninsula is a favourite of mine so I then skipped a small section (about 20 miles which I’ll have to do another time) and walked from Mullion around the peninsula to Helford.
The downside and upside to walking any coastal route is that every view is stunning and so it gets very hard to choose which photos to share with people. I also wrote a very small diary entry for each day which I have adapted into this.
Day 1 – St Ives to Porthmeor Cove
I parked on a side road in St Ives and wandered around the village trying to figure out how to join up with the coastal path. If you look at the below left photo, I spent ages walking around that sticky out bit and after an hour found myself back where I started. Whereupon I realised I had only needed to cut across to the opposite coast all along!
When backpacking the main thought in the morning is “where should I have lunch?” It’s not a particularly important question but gives your mind something to dwell on. My family have been known to be so particular about lunch spots that we walk an extra two or three hours before finding the perfect location. The more pressing question arises after lunch. “Where should I sleep?”
On my first day from St Ives I didn’t see anywhere with both flat ground and water. My general rule is walk until 4pm, look for somewhere to camp between 4pm and 5pm, start getting nervous at around 6pm and to stop being fussy and camp wherever possible at 7pm. I was fortunate this time in that I found Porthmeor cove at about 4pm and decided not to gamble and set up camp. The spot was ideal, with a large flat area on the cliff overlooking the beach and a river tumbling into a small pool where I had a bath whilst keeping careful lookout for other walkers.
I had plenty of time to relax and wash before cooking. The best wild camping on the coast is when you can get down to a beach. This one was fascinating with huge and very slippery round pebbles. All in all, a great first night of backpacking in Cornwall.
Day 2 – Porthmeor Cove to Nanquidno
The second day was incredible! From historic Cornish tin mine chimney stacks to clifftop castles and towering cliffs. Its only day two and I think this stretch was my favourite. I barely saw a soul all morning and then it gradually got busier towards the mining centre. The first stop was Bosigran Castle Promontory Fort. A promontory fort is a defensive structure located on a steep cliff and so making use of natural defences. Often it is only connected to the mainland on a single side by a narrow stretch of land. Bosigran Castle is an Iron Age fort and a bit of a mystery as there is no evidence to suggest defence ditches or that it was ever occupied. Nowadays it’s popular with the climbers.
Many years ago I went cycle touring with family and we had a guided tour through the depths of an old Cornish tin mine. On this walk, many years later, I walked around a headland to see the Levant mines laid out before me. Despite being man-made it was one of the most beautiful (and interesting) spots along this section of the SW Coast path.
I got to Sennen Cove at around 3pm and decided to carry on in the hope of finding another stream coming down but had no luck. I walked for about 20 minutes and then decided to turn back and make camp on the least lumpy patch I could find. A local family came over to say hello whilst I was relaxing and we started chatting. I mentioned the lumpy ground and they pointed out a flat spot on the cliffs which they had used before. I moved on and discovered it was next to a small track leading to the sea.
As I was eating, a fisherman turned up and made his way down the small track. This seemed like a great opportunity so I quickly finished eating and went down to photograph him against the sunset. He finished after about an hour and I offered to send him the photos.
Day 3 – Nanquidno to Boscowen point
From the beauty of Sennen Cove to the hideous commercial nonsense of Land’s End. It baffled me why people pay the exorbitant prices of the signpost when there is the incredible coastline and Dr Syntax’s Head a short walk away. Due to this I barely stopped at Land’s End (and not to mention a pandemic), instead preferring to get away from the crush of people and back onto the quieter stretches of the Coastal Path. There are a few pasty shops at the Land’s End commercial complex but I arrived too early and preferred to get going instead of waiting an hour for the first one out of the oven.
My camping rule came into effect at 4pm when I reached St Loy Cove and found it was full of houses with nowhere nice to camp. I had two options; 1. Stealth camp in some scrappy woodland, or 2. Fill up with water and find somewhere on top of the cliffs. I settled for option 1, and then changed my mind and went for option 2. Unfortunately I was only carrying a 1 litre bottle, so I washed in the sea and then rinsed off using the bottle. Then filled it up again at the stream and carried it up the cliffs.
I had a few points to remember from that night:
- If you plan to walk on and camp away from the water source, be sure to properly hydrate before leaving.
- Wash at the water source.
- Make sure your bottle is properly closed!
I walked on from St Loy Cove and found a flat spot amongst the fields at the top of the cliffs.
Day 4. Boscowen Point to Penzance
I awoke at my clifftop camping spot to a beautiful sunrise over the clouds and took my time getting going. I left around 8.20am and almost immediately bumped into a woman I had met a few times already. Her name is Karen Penny and she is walking the coast of Britain and Ireland. It was the fourth time I had passed her so I figured it was about time I said hello, we chatted for half an hour and spotted a few seals out at sea. She’s still ‘rolling on’ and the latest news article I could find places her along the South Coast somewhere working up towards Shetland.
It was a quick walk from Boscowen Point to Mousehole and even quicker from Mousehole to Penzance and I arrived around lunchtime. And in case you are wondering, Mousehole is pronounced ‘mowzle’. Probably because saying “I spent the summer in mouse-hole” sounds a bit ridiculous.
As I mentioned at the beginning, there is both a train and bus connection between Penzance and St Ives. The easy connection between the two towns and train line up to Exeter and beyond makes this the perfect 3 to 4 day backpacking trip.
The next step in walking the SW Coastal Path is to hop across to the Lizard Peninsula and walk from Mullion to Helford.