Holywell to Crantock

The walk starts by crossing the sandy beach at Holywell and follows the coast path around Kelsey Head to the pretty cove of Porth Joke. The walk continues around West Pentire point, which is famous for its wildflowers, past the blowhole, to Crantock beach and comes inland at the Bowgee Inn. From here, the return route is over Cubert Common along the edge of the Holywell dunes forming part of the Penhale Sands dune system which is important for wildlife.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 4.7 miles/7.5 km
  • Grade: Moderate
  • Start from: Holywell car park
  • Parking: National Trust car park. Follow the road down the hill and past both pubs. The car park is on your left just after St Pirans Inn on your right. Satnav: TR85DD
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots, trainers in summer

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • The Holy Well - an amazing natural series of basins created from dissolved minerals
  • Spectacular display of poppies and corn marigolds in June
  • Panoramic views of the rugged coastline from the coast path, including a blowhole at Crantock
  • Golden, sandy beaches at Holywell, Porth Joke and Crantock
  • Wildlife along the coast and on the dunes of Cubert Common
  • Pubs at Holywell and the historic Bowgee Inn at Crantock

Alternative walks in same location

Directions

  1. From the car park, cross the road to the information board with a map. Follow the path to a fork by the end of the fence/wall on the right.

    Holywell Bay unsurprisingly gets its name from a holy well, but there are 2 rival holy wells contending for this! The first is in the valley at Trevornick (near the 18th hole of Holywell Golf Course). The second, and more likely the original, is a freshwater spring in a sea cave at the north end of the beach. In Cornish, the name is Porth Elyn, meaning "cove of the clear stream" which could either be a reference to the spring in the cave, or simply the stream running across the beach which runs some distance over the sand dunes before reaching the beach.

  2. Keep right at the fork and follow the path to a footbridge. Cross this and head to the planks bridging a tiny tributary stream.

    The sand dunes provide a good habitat for adders, which bask in the sun in warm weather.

    Adders are easily identified by the pretty diamond pattern along their backs. Also known as vipers, these are Britain's only venomous snake though no-one has died from an adder bite in over 20 years. They are a protected species, are not aggressive, and generally only bite if trodden on or picked up (unsupervised dogs or children may attempt the latter). On warm days from late April, you may be lucky enough to witness the "dance of the adders" (a pair of adders wrestling). This was once thought to be a mating display, but is actually a larger male attempting to drive away a smaller one.

  3. Cross the planks over the tiny stream and continue to reach a small stone bench in front of the large sand dune. Pass to the right of the bench and follow the path along the line of posts to cross the dunes to the beach.

    The pair of rocks off Penhale Point at Holywell Bay are owned by the National Trust and are known either as Carter's or Gull Rocks. It has been reported that some locals refer to them as "Fishtail Rocks", which nicely describes their shape.

  4. Turn right and walk along the beach until you reach the cliffs.

    At low tide, if you walk to the north end of Holywell beach (along Kelsey Head), you can find a sea cave containing a freshwater spring. Calcium carbonate dissolved in the springwater has created a spectacular series of natural basins fed by the well. The source of the calcium carbonate was originally thought to be the fragments of shell in the sand dunes as there are few sedimentary rocks in this part of Cornwall. However, there are thin bands of limestone in this particular area and current thinking is that the source may be one of these, but it is not known for certain.

  5. Turn right up the steep path into the dunes, alongside the cliffs, until it joins another path.

    The holy well in the cave on Holywell beach was documented in Victorian times by Polwhele in the "History of Cornwall":

    In this parish ( St Cuthbert ) is that famous and well-known spring of water, called Holy Well, so named, the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water were first discovered on All Hallow's Day. The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea cliff rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring tides. The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.
  6. Turn left onto the coast path and go through the kissing gate onto The Kelseys. Follow the coast path to another kissing gate.

    The shipwreck visible at low tide on Holywell beach is generally thought to be the remains of the SS. Francia, a 700 ton steam-powered Argentinean coaster. It was wrecked in 1917 shortly after setting out from Newquay with a cargo of coal. However, some reports state that the Francia sank 4 miles offshore, so exactly what happened is a bit of a mystery.

  7. Go through the kissing gate and follow the coast path, across Kelsey Head, until you reach a fork in the path.

    Look out for Fulmars which nest along the cliff faces. You'll often see them soaring over the tops of the cliffs as they circle in to land.

    The fulmar is a grey and white bird related to an Albatross although it can be mistaken at a distance for a gull. Close up, the beak is the giveaway: the fulmar has a tube on its beak which is visible as a black bar across the beak at a distance. The tube is a gland for excreting salt from the seawater that they drink. As a defense mechanism, the fulmar regurgitates foul smelling oil from its stomach - the name comes from the Old Norse for "foul" (full) and "gull" (mar). The oil, potentially fatally disrupts the waterproofing of predatory birds' feathers in a similar way to a crude-oil spill, so they avoid preying on fulmars.

  8. At the fork in the path, keep left until you reach another fork in the path where the path from the right rejoins.

    Also on the offchance that you see any black birds with red legs...

    The chough is a member of the crow family, with striking red legs and a red beak. It was known as the "Crow of Cornwall" and appears on the county coat of arms. The birds have a distinctive call which is perhaps best described as resembling a squeaky dog toy! They are also recognisable from feathers, spread like fingers, on their wings.

    In the 1800s, many choughs were killed by "sportsmen" and trophy hunters. Also around this time, grazing livestock were moved to inland pastures where they could be more easily managed. The result was that the cliff slopes became overgrown and choughs found it increasingly difficult to find suitable feeding areas. By 1973, the chough had become extinct in Cornwall.

    Since then, clifftops have been managed more actively which has included the reintroduction of grazing and choughs have returned to Cornwall by themselves from colonies in Wales or Ireland. The first pair settled in 2001 on the Lizard Peninsula. Since then, the birds have successfully bred and been joined by a few more incoming birds, and the population has slowly but steadily grown. Each chough is fitted with one leg ring in the colours of St Piran's flag and two other colours on the opposite leg to identify them.

    Although the principal populations are around Lands End and The Lizard, choughs have been sighted on a few occasions on the North Coast around the Newquay beaches. If you think you've seen a chough, take a photo if possible and google "chough watch" to report the sighting.

  9. Keep right at the fork and follow the path around the inlet to reach a waymark.

    Thrift is a tough plant, able to withstand salt-laden winds and high levels of copper in the soil from mining. The name "thrift" has been suggested to arise from the plant's tufted leaves being economical with water in the windy locations where it is found. It's common all along the Cornish coast and in April-June produces pale pink flowers, hence its other common name: "Sea Pink". The plant grows in dense circular mats which together with its covering of pink flowers gives rise to another less common name: "Ladies' Cushions".

  10. At the waymark, keep right and follow the path to a second waymark and then follow along the ramparts of the hill fort to a third waymark.

    At the end of Kelsey Head, between Holywell Bay and Porth Joke, is an L-shaped bank which is thought to be the remains of a hill fort from the Iron Age. It's possible that it was abandoned before it was completed as the ramparts are much more developed at one end than the other.

  11. At the waymark, turn right in the direction indicated. Follow the path until it descends into a valley by the beach to reach a footbridge.

    Look out for seals in the bay; there are some quite tame seals around here who sometimes visit Newquay Harbour.

    Seals are not closely related to other marine mammals. In mediaeval times seals were classified as fish and could therefore be eaten during lent and on fridays and saturdays. However, as you might be able to guess from their features, seals are closely related to dogs, bears and otters. In fact, a dog is very much more closely related to a seal than a cat. The seal species most frequently seen along the Cornish coast are grey seals and common seals.

  12. From the footbridge, continue until the path forks to descend to the back of the beach.

    Grey Seals are one of the rarest seal species in the world and the biggest land breeding mammal in the UK. Roughly half of the world population of grey seals is found in Britain, a large proportion of which are found in Cornwall. They are big animals with the larger males often over 10ft long; the females are somewhat smaller at around 6ft and usually lighter colours than the males. The latin name for the grey seal translates to the somewhat unflattering "hooked-nosed sea pig" and the alternative common name of horsehead seal isn't much better.

  13. At the fork, turn left and follow the path along the back of the beach, over a small wooden footbridge, to reach a kissing gate.

    The sandy cove known both as Porth Joke and Polly Joke belongs to the National Trust and is completely uncommercialised except for the occasional cow wandering on the beach. The confusion about the name arises because it was originally known as Pol Lejouack (the old Cornish words for "Jackdaw Cove") and sounds a bit like "Polly Joke". Porth (beach or port) and Pol (cove or harbour) were used fairly interchangably, which possibly gave rise to the two competing names.

  14. Go through the kissing gate and keep left to reach an ivy-covered post with a coast path waymark on the corner of the hedge.

    According to Winston Graham, Nampara Cove in the Poldark novels was based on a composite of Porth Joke and the small cove on the west side of Crantock beach.

  15. From the post, keep left along the coast path, through a pedestrian gap in a fence, until you reach a bench.
  16. At the bench, bear right uphill and follow the coast path until you reach a fork in the path.

    The headland is known as West Pentire

    The name "Pentire" is common on the coast for the simple reason that it means "headland": in Cornish pen means head or top and tir means land. Some Anglicised names such as "Pentire Point" (i.e. Headland Point) are somewhat tautological.

    West Pentire headland, between Porth Joke and Crantock beach, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its wildflowers and rare plants. In June and July, there are carpets of red poppies and yellow corn marigolds.

  17. At the fork, keep left and follow the path, past some quarries and past the end of a wall, until you reach a crossing of paths.
  18. At the crossing in the paths, turn right and follow the path until you reach a kissing gate.

    The beach ahead is Crantock Beach and the headland opposite is East Pentire, along which the River Gannel flows.

    Crantock beach is a dune-backed beach south of Newquay across which the River Gannel runs. Due to the strong currents associated with the tidal river, the northern area of the beach is not recommended for swimming. The best place to swim is towards the southern side, backed by the cliffs of West Pentire.

    In summer, there is a ferry service across the river to the Fern Pit Café opposite, and Fistral Beach is just the other side of the headland.

  19. Go through the kissing gate and where the path splits, turn left. Follow the path downhill until you reach a small flight of small steps leading down to the beach.

    The settlement of Crantock dates back to 460 AD, when a group of Irish or possibly Welsh hermits founded a chapel there. The parish was once known as Langurroc, which translates as "The Dwelling of Monks". The chapel of Langurroc was said to have been covered up in a sandstorm, and may lie beneath the sand dunes behind Crantock Beach. The village church is dedicated to St Carantoc - said to be one of the founders of the village. In its heydey, when the River Gannel was navigable, Crantock was a river port.

  20. When you reach the steps, you can take a diversion to the left, to reach the beach. The walk continues to the right, along the coast path, to reach a flight of wooden steps leading up to the Bowgie Inn.

    The deep gulley on the west side of Crantock Beach is known as Piper's Hole. Within this, inside the first cave on the right is a flat surface with carvings which include a female figure, a horse and a few lines of verse.

    This has given rise to romantic stories that the poem and drawings were carved by an an artist after his lover got cut off by the tide on her horse and both were washed out to sea. However the horse was added around 40 years later and its tail wasn't added until 2011!

    The original carving made of the female figure was made by London artist Joseph Prater who often visited relatives in Crantock and made the carving on one of his visits, probably in the early 1900s. The identity of the women is not known. The horse was carved in the 1940s by James Dyer of Crantock but for some reason this didn't include a tail. The carving was tidied up by an artist commissioned by the Parish Council in 2011, removing some graffiti, re-carving the poem and adding the missing tail.

  21. Keep right, up the wooden steps, into the car park of the Bowgie Inn. Bear left out of the car park towards the road, then right at the fork to a wooden signpost at the edge of the road.

    The Bowgie Inn is a public house located in the hamlet of West Pentire, slightly west of Crantock and south of Newquay. Bowgie is a Cornish word meaning cow shed. The building that is now the pub was indeed a cowshed for the nearby farm until the 1950s and there are pictures in the pub of the building before it was converted. It was originally built in the 18th Century and the cob walls are nearly a metre thick; they act as a storage heater, keeping the cows (and today's non-bovine occupants) warm during cold nights.

  22. Turn right onto the road, in the direction signposted to Polly Joke; follow the road a short distance to a fork with a pair of public footpath signs.
  23. At the fork, turn left towards the car park. Follow the track until you reach the car park entrance.

    In June you may wish to take a short diversion to see the poppies by following the path to the right. The fields alongside the track have a spectacular display of poppies and corn marigolds. These have been featured in articles such as "The 21 most colourful places in the world". Return to the car park here to continue the walk.

  24. At the car park, keep right on the track, past the barn. Follow it downhill until it ends at a house.
  25. Take the footpath indicated, to the right. Follow it over the bridge and along a hedge, to a kissing gate.
  26. Go through the gate and continue ahead to reach a track. Turn right onto the track and follow it, towards the car park, until it forks.
  27. At the fork, bear left onto the track and follow it until, just past the quarry on your left, it forks.
  28. At the fork, take the right (lower) path. Where it forks again, keep right towards the stream. Follow the path upstream, with the strean on your right, to reach a crossing with a wooden plank.

    Kestrels can often be seen on the dunes of Cubert Common.

    Kestrels are the most common bird of prey in Europe, although in Britain, numbers have declined in recent years. They are easily spotted when hovering, watching their prey. Whilst hovering, they have the extraordinary ability to keep their head totally still, even in strong winds. They feed mostly on mice, voles and shrews, but will also take birds as large as starlings, and will feed on insects if larger prey are not available.

  29. Cross the stream, via the plank, and continue ahead up the bank. Follow the path, along the hedge on the right, until it ends in a junction with another path.
  30. Bear right to join the path and follow it to a gate.
  31. Go through the gate and turn left. Follow the left hedge to a kissing gate.

    Dunes (called towans in Cornish) form when dry sand from the beach is blown by the wind, and initially lodges against an obstruction, eventually forming a ridge. More sand can then accumulate against the ridge and vegetation such as marram grass can then take hold, preventing the resulting sand hill from washing or blowing away. Erosion of the vegetation by foot traffic can cause the dunes to disintegrate, so areas are sometimes fenced off to allow the all-important weeds to recover. Most of the major dunes on the North Cornish coastline are thought to have formed more than 5,000 years ago when sea levels finally stopped rising after the glacial ice from the last Ice Age had finished melting.

  32. Go through the kissing gate and keep left, along the path, to reach the fence of the golf course. Follow the path, along the fence, until you reach a blue sign for the golf course on the left.

    It is thought that the holy well in the valley was built in the 15th Century to commemorate St Cubertus. By the end of the 19th Century it had become dilapidated and it was restored in 1936 by the Newquay Old Cornwall society using the original stones.

    To reach the holy well from the blue sign for the golf course in the dunes, bear right though the gap to go into the valley to the right of the golf course. Continue ahead towards the centre of the valley to reach a path leading through the bushes. Follow this down to the stream and keep the stream on your right to eventually emerge onto a gravel path with wooden edging. Continue through the gap ahead towards the bushes to reach a lake with the holy well on the left.

  33. Bear right into the sand bowl and continue up the back of it to join a path. Follow the path until you reach a wooden post.

    Before Christianity, the Pagan Celtic people of Cornwall worshipped wonders of the natural world. Where clean, drinkable water welled up from the ground in a spring, this was seen as pretty awesome. Where the springwater dissolved minerals, for specific conditions (e.g. deficiency in a mineral) or where the water was antibacterial, the water appeared to have healing properties. The sites were seen as portals to another world, and is why fairies are often associated with springs.

  34. Follow the path along the line of posts until the path forks to go through a gap in the hedge on your left.

    One of the plants that grows in the dunes is Sea Holly

    The plants are also known by the common name eringoes which stems from the Latin name for the Genus Eryngium. In Elizabethan times, they were believed to be a strong aphrodisiac and were mentioned in Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor".

    Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green-sleeves, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes, let there come a tempest of provocation...
  35. Turn left, through the gap in the hedge, and follow the path through an open space to reach another path crossing at a right angle.
  36. Turn left onto the path and follow it alongside the houses to reach the area between the stores.

    Several beaches in Cornwall have a large rockpool known locally as the "Horse Pool": at Trebarwith Strand it's the large pool ahead of the entrance onto the beach and at Holywell Bay it's in front of the cave just before the Holy Well cave. Treyarnon and Porthcothan also have pools known by this name. The name stems from when working horses were given a wash off and cool down on hot days. In the case of Trebarwith Strand, many of the horses were involved in hauling slate from nearby quarries or sand from the beach.

  37. Bear right to reach the road. Turn right onto the road and follow it, past the pub, to the car park.

Help us with this walk

You can help us to keep this walk as accurate as it possibly can be for others by spotting and feeding back any changes affecting the directions. We'd be very grateful if could you look out for the following:

  • Any stiles, gates or waymark posts referenced in the directions which are no longer there
  • Any stiles referenced in the directions that have been replaced with gates, or vice-versa

Take a photo and email contact@iwalkcornwall.co.uk, or message either IWalkCornwall on facebook or @iwalkc on twitter. If you have any tips for other walkers please let us know, or if you want to tell us that you enjoyed the walk, we'd love to hear that too.

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