Holywell to St Piran's Oratory

The walk starts from Holywell Bay where the sacred spring forming limestone cascades can be seen at low tide. The route follows the rugged coast around Penhale Head and Hobyln Cove to reach Ligger Point where there are panoramic views over Perran Beach and the St Agnes coastline. The walk follows the beach then climbs the dunes to St Piran's Oratory, thought to be the oldest religious building in mainland Britain. The return route is across Penhale Sands which is nationally important for wildflowers and butterflies.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 7.4 miles/11.9 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 seashells
  • Long, sandy beaches of Holywell and Perran
  • Rugged coastline around Hoblyn's Cove
  • Panoramic views from the coast path
  • St Piran's Oratory - thought to be the oldest religious building in mainland Britain
  • St Piran's Cross - thought to be over 1000 years old
  • Remains of St Piran's Church, itself nearly as old
  • Penhale Sands - the tallest dunes in Britain and largest in Cornwall

Directions

  1. From the car park, cross the road to the information board with a map. Follow the path to a fork at 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 left at the fork and follow the path along the fence until you reach a waymark carved onto a large piece of slate.

    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.

  3. At the slate waymark, bear left and follow the path to a kissing gate.

    From this point, until you reach Perran Beach, it is important that you stick to the path. As well as the risk of being blown up by military ordnance, there are also disused mineshafts to fall down.

  4. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path around the headland to a pedestrian gate through a wooden fence.

    Blackthorn trees were planted as hedges to keep out cattle and they are still common in Cornish hedgerows today. In Celtic tree lore, blackthorn was associated with evil and in the Celtic language of Ogham was known as Straif. This is thought to be the origin of the English word "strife" and a bad winter is sometimes known as a Blackthorn Winter.

  5. Go through the gate and pass one waymark to reach a second waymark between the fenced-off areas.

    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.

  6. Follow the path past more waymarks until you reach a waymark which appears to point left towards the MOD driveway, despite the path continuing ahead.

    Penhale Camp was established in 1939 as a World War II emergency measure to train anti-aircraft gunners On 7 June 1940, the camp was bombed by a single German bomber, thought to be looking for the nearby St Eval airfield and 22 men were killed. After the war, the camp was used for training. A 40-acre area (containing the camp) was sold by the MoD in 2010, however nearly 950 acres of the Penhale Dunes were retained for training and this provides a large undeveloped area of the important dune habitat in which wildlife can flourish.

  7. Continue ahead on the path, ignoring the confusing waymark, and follow the path until it reaches a gate entering a fenced section of path.

    Penhale is from the Cornish words pen meaning top or head and heyl meaning estuary or bay. Unsurprisingly it crops up in a few places in Cornwall including house names (typically situated overlooking a bay).

  8. Go through the gate and follow the path along the fence until you reach a gate.

    Along the cliffs of Penhale Point and around Hoblyn Cove are the remains of lead mines that date back at least to the 16th century, and mining continued through much of the 19th century. Little remains of the mine buildings as there were cleared to build Penhale Camp, but a number of mineshafts still exist on the cliff edges. The sea cave beneath the fault in the rock near Hoblyn's Cove is reported to be the result of mining.

  9. Go through the gate and follow the path along the fence then along the line of waymarks to reach a waymark on the top of the headland.

    The prolific yellow flowers along the coast herein the late spring and early summer are those of the kidney vetch.

    The carpets of yellow flowers on the coast in June and July are Kidney Vetch. The flowers are red when they open and then turn yellow, and appear to be on a woolly cushion. The plant gets its common name as it was used to treat kidney troubles. Its other name - woundwort - is because it was also used to treat wounds. It is the food plant of the small blue butterfly, which is consequently quite common on the coastal heath.

  10. From the waymark, bear left and follow the waymarked path until you eventually reach a stile.

    During the late spring, pink bunches of thrift flowers are also visible along the coast.

    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".

  11. Cross the stile and follow the path to a waymark, a short distance past the information board.

    The hill is known as "Gravel Hill" and the name may have arisen because there was a quarry in the gully to the left which extracted blue elvan.

    Elvan is very hard volcanic rock formed where magma intruded into other rocks to form a (vertical) dyke or (horizontal) sill that cooled fairly quickly, resulting in fairly small crystals. Chemically it is very similar to granite, but in the case of granite, slower cooling resulted in large crystals. Elvans can be seen in many of the churches across Cornwall where it is often used for intricate parts of buildings, such as doorways, so they can be finely carved.

    The term "greenstone" is used by quarrymen to describe igneous rocks that, unlike granite, are rich in iron and magnesium and these give it a blue-green colour. When greenstone is formed as a sill or dyke it is sometimes called "blue elvan". This is also quite common in Cornwall and has been quarried for a long time: in the Neolithic period, stone axes made from blue elvan were exported from Cornwall to various parts of Britain.

  12. Turn right at the waymark (yellow arrow) and follow the waymarked path until, just after a waymark pointing to the right, the path forks.
  13. At the fork in the path, keep left to follow the (less overgrown) path ahead. Follow it to where it ends on a track, in front of a post.
  14. Turn right onto the track and follow it to the end. Follow the path from the bottom to the beach.

    The pool (known locally as "dead man's pool") and the holes directly above it in the cliff are the remains of the Gravel Hill iron mine. The mine is known to have been active before the 18th century and thousands of tonnes of ore were extracted in the 19th century. The mine worked a huge lode of iron, known by the utilitarian name of The Perran Iron Lode, which meets the cliffs here. This extends for about 3 miles inland and there were a number of mines along it.

  15. Turn left and walk along the top of the beach until you reach a path leading from below a rocky outcrop in the dunes just past a pair of figures created from debris washed up on the beach.

    At high tide, there are two distinct beaches within Perran Bay: the long, thin Perran Beach (also known as Perran Sands) to the north, between Carn Clew and Ligger Point, and small Perranporth beach to the south between Cotty's Point and the river beside Chapel Rock. At low tide, the beaches combine into a 2.2 mile stretch of sand between Droksyn Point and Ligger Point, up to a quarter of a mile wide. The northern end of the beach is generally much quieter due to the town of Perranporth and associated holiday parks being at the southern end of the beach, and much of the dunes to the north (known as Penhale Sands) being military land with no public access.

  16. Follow the path up from the beach and along the front of the dunes until you reach a fork.

    In March 1901, the Dutch ship Voorspoed ran ashore on Perran Beach in a northerly gale, on its way from Cardiff to Bahia. The wreck was looted by the local population, who used horses to cart away the cargo. The captain commented:

    I have been wrecked in different parts of the world, even the Fiji islands, but never amongst savages such as those of Perranporth.
  17. Keep right at the fork and follow it until another path leads off from the left.

    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.

  18. Turn left up the valley and follow the path along the base of the V-shaped valley until you reach a wooden post protruding through the vegetation at the top.

    St Piran was born in Ireland in the 6th century. According to legend, he had miraculous powers and a group of kings grew afraid of his powers. They, somewhat unsportingly, tied a millstone round his neck and threw him into the sea. However due to his powers, the millstone floated and he was washed ashore at Perranporth.

    Saint Piran is the patron saint of tin-miners and is generally regarded as the national saint of Cornwall. St Piran's flag - the white cross on a black background - is said to represent the black tin ore and white molten metal. Celebrations on St Piran's Day (5th March) involve lots of alcohol and gave rise to the expression "drunk as a Perraner".

  19. From the top of the valley, continue on the path ahead to the top of the ridge.
  20. Follow the path down the other side to reach a gate.

    Some time in the 6th Century, St Piran was thought to have landed near Perranporth, where he built a tiny chapel (also known as an Oratory). This is thought to be the oldest Christian site in Cornwall. The original chapel was probably built of wattle and daub. A little later, this was replaced by a stone building. This small chapel was finally abandoned in the 10th century, due to the encroaching sand.

  21. Go through the gate and follow the path ahead. Continue on the path until you emerge close to a mound with the large cross then climb the mound to the base of the cross.
  22. From the cross, bear left and follow the path to the concrete structure surrounding St Piran's Oratory.

    St Piran's oratory lay buried under the sand dunes near Perranporth for nearly a millenium, until 1835 when some stones were noticed, sticking out from the dunes. It was excavated and found to be in remarkably good condition. It was thought to be the oldest extant building of worship on mainland Britain, second only to Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland.

    Within the oratory, one of the walls contains a stone inscribed with upside-down Roman capitals which is thought to date back to the 6th or possibly even the 5th century. It is therefore posulated that the building may have been constructed using remnants of an earlier chapel on the same site.

    After it was excavated, quite a number of the stones were stolen as "souvenirs" and it suffered constant erosion by wind, sand and rain; eventually two of the walls collapsed. In 1910, an ugly concrete bunker was built over the oratory to protect it. In the 1980s, the bunker was removed and the remains of the oratory were reburied beneath the sand to protect it from both the elements and vandals. The oratory once again lay beneath the sand with a small mound marking it. Steps lead to the top, on which a small granite stone sat, inscribed with the words St Piran.

    In 2000 a trust was set up to re-excavate the Oratory. Work began in October 2013, and the Oratory is now uncovered.

  23. Bear right from the oratory to follow the path past the information board to a white stone on the top of the hill. From here bear, right slightly to follow the well-worn path and reach a footbridge.

    There was once a churchyard in the dunes surrounding St Piran's Oratory and Church, just north of Perranporth. As the sands shift, or during excavations, human bones have occasionally been exposed. Near the Oratory doorway, the skeleton of a woman was uncovered with a child in her arms. Other skeletons discovered in the early 20th Century were all laid out East-West with their legs crossed.

  24. Cross the bridge and take the path ahead. Follow this until you can see a stone Celtic cross on the skyline. Make your way to this.

    After St Piran's Oratory, in the dunes near Perranporth, was abandoned in the 10th century due to the encroaching sand, another church was built a little further inland beside the Celtic cross. Known as St Piran's Church, this was built around 1150 and then enlarged in the 15th century. It was abandoned in 1804 and much of the stone and fittings were moved to a new site, further inland at Perranzabuloe, leaving just the foundations that you see today.

  25. From the cross, turn right and take the path marked with a stone. Follow the main path to pass a waymark post and follow a line of white stones to reach a second waymark post with a black arrow.

    St Piran's cross stands close to the remains of St Piran's church, on the dunes near Perranporth. This is one of two three-holed crosses in Cornwall (the other is near Wadebridge), but it may simply be the 4th hole just wasn't finished in both cases. The cross is certainly likely to be as old as the church and probably older. It may well be the one referred to in a charter of AD 960 as "cristelmael".

  26. At the waymark, follow the path ahead with a white stone and keep left along the path at any forks until you reach a waymark post with a white arrow.

    In 2014, the skeletons of 2 adults and 10 children were excavated which have been dated to the 8th or 9th Century. These pre-date the St Piran's Oratory building and it is thought that they may relate to an earlier building on the site.

  27. At the waymark, turn left (ignoring the direction of the arrow) and follow the path along the fence until you reach another waymark at a junction of paths.

    Hawthorn berries have been used to make jellies as they contain pectin. However the seeds in hawthorn berries should be avoided as they contain a compound called amygdalin, which is cyanide bonded with sugar. In the gut this is converted to hydrogen cyanide. Apple pips contain the same thing but if you accidentally swallow a couple then don't panic: you'd need to chew and swallow around 200 apple pips to get a fatal dose of cyanide.

  28. At the waymark, turn left to join the waymarked path along the wall and follow it to a kissing gate.

    In August, blackberries start to ripen on brambles. Blackberries are closely related to raspberries and technically neither is a berry but an aggregate of many individual tiny fruits, each containing a tiny stone like a miniature cherry. Blackberries are high in vitamin C, K and antioxidants. The seeds, despite being a bit crunchy, contain omega-3 and -6 fatty acids and further enhance blackberries' "superfood" status.

    According to folklore, you should not pick blackberries after Michealmas Day (11th October) as this is when the devil claims them. The basis for this is thought to be the potentially toxic moulds which can develop on the blackberries in the cooler, wetter weather.

  29. Go through the kissing gate and turn left onto the lane. Follow the lane until it reaches a triangular junction at the bottom of a valley.

    To make blackberry wine, combine 2kg blackberries + 4 litres of boiling water in a plastic container with a lid. Once the water has cooled to lukewarm, mash blackberries and add red wine yeast and pectic enzyme (blackberries are high in pectin so this is needed to stop the wine being cloudy). Cover for 4-5 days then strain through muslin.

    Transfer the liquid to a demijohn and add 1kg of sugar. Top up with a little more water to make it up to a gallon. After fermentation, the wine should clear by itself; in the unlikely event that it doesn't, use some finings. Rack off from the sediment and bottle; it's worth allowng the wine a year or two to mature as it massively improves with age. As a variation, you can add 500g of elderberries and increase the sugar content for a more port-like wine.

  30. Turn left at the junction and follow the path to the right of the Ministry of Defence entrance to reach a gate. Go through the gate and follow the path along the right hedge until it splits.

    Penhale Sands, located between Holywell Bay and Perranporth, is the largest dune system in Cornwall and the highest in Britain, rising to 90 metres. In places, the sand is nearly 50 metres deep. The area has been designated an Important Plant Area by Plantlife due to the rare plant species and lichens. The soil here is, unusually for Cornwall, alkaline which is why rare plants can thrive here. This is due to the high density of shell fragments in the sand, which are composed of calcium carbonate (limestone). The area has also been designated a Special Area of Conservation due to the range of butterfly and moth species which live on the plants here.

  31. Where the path splits, take the middle path (passing the bushes) and follow it to a kissing gate beneath the trees.

    The calcium carbonate from seashells has been a key factor in Cornwall's natural and industrial history due to the shortage of lime-rich rocks. The golden colour of the sand on the beaches is due to the small fragments of shell and in the past this was transported around Cornwall using horses, donkeys, canals and even by railway. You may be wondering where the shellfish themselves got the calcium carbonate from in the first place, since it was so scarce. As well as the "salt" (sodium chloride) that you can taste, sea water contains a range of other dissolved salts and around 1% of the dissolved material is calcium. Molluscs are able to extract the calcium ions from the seawater which they use to construct their shells.

  32. Go through the gate and follow the path over a number of boards crossing the marsh until you reach a full-size footbridge.
  33. Cross the footbridge and follow the path directly ahead between two rows of trees, and uphill until it ends on a track.
  34. Turn left onto a track and keep left, following it until it eventually ends at a gate
  35. Go through the gate and cross the field to a stone stile directly opposite.

    If you are crossing fields in which there are cows:

    • Do not show any threatening behaviour towards calves (approaching them closely, making loud noises or walking between a calf and its mother) as you may provoke the mother to defend her young. Generally the best plan is to walk along the hedges.
    • If cows approach you, do not run away as this will encourage them to chase you. Stand your ground and stretch out your arms to increase your size.
    • Avoid taking dogs into fields with cows, particularly with calves. If you can't avoid it: if cows charge, release the dog from its lead as the dog will outrun the cows and the cows will generally chase the dog rather than you.
  36. Cross the stile and bear right across the field to the gate, to the right of the house.
  37. Go through the pedestrian gate to the right of the farm gate. Then turn left and follow the left hedge to a larger wooden gate.
  38. Go through the gate and follow the left hedge to another gate.

    The group of houses here is part of an ancient settlement known as Ellenglaze. It was mentioned in Domesday book as having 20 households in 1086. The name is from the Cornish elynglas, meaning clear blue/green stream. The name is quite fitting as the sandy soil here filters the water running into the river which means it is usually absent of any muddy sediment.

  39. Go through the gate and follow the track leading ahead (the second left) round a bend to the left to reach a gate on the right with a waymarked path to Trevornick.
  40. When you reach the gateway on the right, stay on the track and follow it a little further until it ends at another waymark.
  41. At the waymark, turn right onto the path along the fence and follow it alongside the river until it eventually emerges onto a lane.

    You may expect such a sandy river to be barren of life but in fact the clear water supports a surprisingly large population of small trout. If you creep up quietly to the stream you can often see them swimming against the current.

    Trout are members of Salmon family who all have an extra tiny (adipose) fin on their back towards their tail, that most other fish don't have. No-one is quite sure what the purpose is of this fin but a neural network in the fin indicates that it has some kind of sensory function.

    The native trout in the UK is not the trout that supermarkets and trout farms stock (the Rainbow Trout, which has red flush along its side and is native to North America), but the Brown Trout which has well-defined dark red spots along its sides. You can often make out the spots when you see them lying in pools. Rainbow Trout are often stocked in fishing lakes so do sometimes escape into the wild.

    Small trout typically feed on invertebrates whereas larger trout generally feed on other fish but have been known to eat anything of a suitable size unlucky enough to fall into a river. In fact in New Zealand, mouse-shaped lures are sold for trout fishing!

  42. Bear left onto the lane and follow it to the traffic island at the reception area.
  43. At the island, keep ahead in the direction signposted, and follow the lane until it passes through a hedge at a waymark.
  44. Ignore whichever directions children have configured the waymark to point, and continue on the lane until it ends in a T-junction.
  45. Turn left onto the lane and follow it past St Piran's Inn 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
  • If you have a large dog, let us know if you find problems with the stiles on this walk (e.g. require the dog to be lifted over). A rough idea of how many problematic stiles there are is also useful.

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.

A free way to not kill penguins: discarded ink cartridges float in rainwater, can wash into rivers, be broken up by the sea into reflective shards eaten by dopey fish, and build up in the stomachs of seabbirds, causing them to starve to death. Google "stinkyink" and click on "free recycling" for a freepost label.
If you found this page useful, please could you
our page on Facebook?