King's Wood and Pentewan

The walk descends to the valley floor and follows paths along the bottom of the valley, eventually emerging beside the St Austell River and joining the Pentewan Valley Trail. The route then follows the trail along the floor of the valley to Pentewan. The return route is along the St Austell River to the King's Wood car park and then along a footpath following the meandering stream up the valley.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 105 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 3.2 miles/5.2 km
  • Grade: Easy
  • Start from: Shepherdshill Wood car park
  • Parking: Shepherdshill Wood car park. Turn left after London Apprentice signposted Retail Leisure Warehouse. Keep right when the track forks and follow the track past one car park until it ends at a second small parking area by a gate. Satnav: PL266DN
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots, or trainers in summer

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Broadleaf woodland and meandering streams in King's Wood
  • Wildflowers and damselfies along the St Austell River
  • Sandy beach at Pentewan

Directions

  1. From the car park, go through the lower gate and follow the track down the valley until, just as a bench ahead comes into view, you pass a well-defined path descending from the left, and a few steps later, reach another descending to the right.

    Kings Wood is a relic of an ancient woodland dating back several hundred years. It was originally owned by the realm - hence "The King's Wood" and at some point by the Earl of Lancaster. In more recent times, the woodland was managed by the Forestry Commission who planted some of it with conifers in the 1960s, and in the late 20th Century it was used for shooting. It is now managed by the Woodland Trust who have marked trails through the woods to promote public access, and are slowly clearing the conifers to promote broadleaf species which support more diverse native wildlife. Some rare butterflies have been found here and it is also an important habitat for woodland plants.

  2. Bear right down a path leading down into the valley. Follow the path until it meets several other paths at the bottom of the valley.

    The Woodland Trust was founded in 1972 and is dedicated to providing a UK rich in native woods and trees. They summarise themselves as "the RSPCA of trees" and have set themselves the ambitious target of doubling native tree cover throughout the UK over the next 50 years. They now look after more than 1,100 woods and over 110 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and are committed to providing free public access wherever possible.

  3. When you reach the bottom, take the last (and largest) of the paths leading to the right and follow this a short distance to a junction with another path with a wooden fence and Woodland Trust waymark on the left. Turn left and follow the path to reach another Woodland Trust waymark.

    The chestnut tree originated in Sardinia and was introduced into Britain by the Romans who planted chestnut trees on their various campaigns to provide an easily stored and transported source of food for their troops. In terms of nutrition, chestnuts contain very little fat and are in many ways more similar to a cereal than other nuts, containing principally starch and sugars. They are consequently much less calorific: the kernels contain around a third of the calories of a similar weight of other nuts.

    The size of the nuts from British trees is quite variable but the largest approach that of the nuts sold in supermarkets. Nuts that are very flat or less than the girth of your little finger are not worth harvesting; anything bigger is viable. A painless way to extract the nuts is to grip the husk between your feet and rub it between your boots or against the ground. This saves having to handle the spiky husks as the spikes are very sharp and tend to break off under the skin to leave behind splinters. Often the husks contain one (fairly round) large nut surrounded by several small, flat nuts, so it's worth squeezing out quite a few husks to get the larger nuts. Discard any nuts with holes in (as they will contain maggots) or that are very dark in colour - the fresher ones will be "chestnut" brown rather than dark brown.

  4. Follow the main path ahead from the waymark until you reach a clearing where you can see a walkway and footbridge to your right, marked with a Woodland Trust waymark.

    Compared to many native trees, the beech colonised Great Britain relatively recently, after the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. The fruit of the beech tree is known as "mast" or, less crypically, "beechnuts". The small triangular nuts are encased in spiky husks which split and drop from the trees from late August to early October. The kernels of these are edible and are similar to hazelnuts. They were once used as a source of flour, which was ground after the tannins had been leached out by soaking them in water. If you find them too bitter, you might want to try this trick, although toasting them in a hot pan is also a good option. Young beech leaves can be used as a salad vegetable, which are apparently similar to a mild cabbage, though much softer in texture. Older leaves are a bit chewy, as you'd expect.

  5. Bear right to follow the path along the walkways and footbridges. Keep following the path until it ends at another Woodland Trust waymark, overlooking the St Austell River.

    The St Austell River is also known as the White River due to the china clay that used to colour it and was heavily modified during the Industrial Revolution so that it now resembles a canal. Habitat improvement work is being done on the river as part of the South Cornwall River Improvement Project.

    The South Cornwall River Improvement Project is a partnership programme lead by the Westcountry Rivers Trust, and is aimed at improving the river habitats around St Austell Bay. The project focuses on both reduction of river pollution and habitat improvement particularly on the lower sections of the St Austell and Par rivers which have been heavily modified and straightened. One of the major objectives of the project has been the reconnection of the St Austell River's major tributary, the Polgooth river, which was previously isolated through a series of culverts that fish such as trout and salmon would not swim through.

  6. Turn left and follow the path downriver a short distance to reach a wooden signpost for the Pentewan Valley Trail.

    The Pentewan Valley Trail runs along the trackbed of an old railway. This was originally built as a horse-drawn tramway to transport china clay from St Austell to the new port at Pentewan which was completed in 1826. The line opened in 1829 and used gravity to transport the loaded wagons down the incline from St Austell and then horses to pull them along the flat section to Pentewan, and to return the empty wagons.

    In 1874, plans were made to upgrade the line to a railway with steam locomotives. Although the track strengthening had been implemented, shortly after this, a strategic decision was taken by Great Western Railway to direct its china clay traffic to Fowey. By 1877, the shipments were dwindling and by 1880 the operation became unprofitable. However a boom followed only two years later and the line continued until the First World War. The track was the same gauge as that used to service the trenches in France and both the track and locomotives were acquired by the War Department.

  7. Follow the track into the woods, indicated by the wooden signpost for the Pentewan Valley Trail. Continue over a bridge and follow the trail along a fence beside some lakes until, just after the path emerges from between the fences, a line of trees cross the path at a junction of paths just before the cycle hire hut.

    The lakes beside the wooden railings are the remains of 4 reservoirs.

    The series of 4 reservoirs above Pentewan were used to collect water both from the stream running along the back of the valley and the St Austell River. These were controlled with numerous sluice gates at the entrance to the reservoirs and between them. The body of water was periodically released to flush sediment out of the harbour and the shipping channels approaching it. The sequence of reservoirs and sluices allowed the water to be collected from whichever was the cleaner of the two sources to ensure that the water being released into the harbour was itself free from sediment.

  8. If you want to explore Pentewan before continuing, follow the track ahead to reach the road and turn left to pass the Ship Inn to reach the village and beach. To continue the walk, take the path currently on your right to reach the river.

    Pentewan dates back to mediaeval times when it was mainly a fishing village with a harbour. The harbour was rebuilt in the 1820s both for the pilchard fishery and to create a china clay port. At its peak, a third of Cornwall's china clay was shipped from Pentewan. However the harbour had continual silting problems which meant that it was eventually overtaken by Charlestown and Par. As well as longshore drift carrying sand east across Mevagissey Bay, there was also silt being washed down the river from china clay works and tin streaming. Consequently, the harbour gradually silted up with the last trading ship leaving in 1940 and World War II literally sealing its fate. By the 1960s, the harbour was only accessible to small boats and today the harbour basin is entirely cut off from the sea.

  9. Turn right and follow the path upriver until you reach a gate across the path with a small stile on the right of it.

    The buildings on the opposite side of the river were originally a bone mill.

    Bone mills used the power from a waterwheel to crush animal bones and produce bonemeal. The bonemeal was primarily used as a fertiliser to release phosphorus into the soil, which is a vital mineral for healthy crops. In the 20th century, fertilisers based on phosphate minerals, which could be mined cheaply, made bone mills uneconomical. However, the known phosphate reserves are expected to run out within a few decades and so organic phosphorus sources such as animal bones, and even urine, may become increasingly important for farmers.

  10. Cross the stile and follow the track ahead alongside the river to reach a footbridge to Heligan. Keep ahead alongside the river to where a path departs to the right, just before the gate into a car park.

    If you happen to notice several hundred yellow rubber ducks on the river, you are likely witnessing St Austell's version of the National Lottery. During the summer, usually on Friday evenings, rubber duck races are held to raise money for local charities. Ducks can be hired for a modest fee and there is a cash prize for the winning duck.

  11. Bear right onto the path running along the car park fence. When you reach the National Cycle Network post, bear right between the wooden fences down the small path into the woods, passing between more wooden fences. Continue along this to reach a fork in the path at a Woodland Trust waymark.

    The first method to extract tin was known as "tin streaming" which reached its peak in the 12th Century, though continued until the mid 20th Century.

    Alluvial deposits occurred where a river had eroded the tiny crystals out of mineral veins. Due to tin being so heavy, the crystals had become concentrated on the bottom of the stream as the lighter rocks around them were washed away. Over time these deposits were buried in gravel and sand, and eventually soil.

    Using quite elaborate banks and channels, the river was diverted to wash away the soil and gravel, leaving the heavy tin-rich rocks behind which could be dug out once the river was diverted away.

    One side-effect of all this industry was that the topsoil, sand and gravel washed downriver caused the silting of many river estuaries and once-thriving mediaeval river ports literally dried up and were superseded by sea ports.

    Once the relatively rich alluvial deposits had been used up, mostly by the 18th Century, mineral veins were instead mined directly.

  12. Take the left-hand path and when the path climbs onto a bank, follow along the top of the bank until the path descends to a meandering stream, then follow alongside the stream upriver until the path ends on a more well-defined path.

    For such a widespread tree, the oak is surprisingly inefficient at reproducing naturally. It can take 50 years before the tree has its first crop of acorns and even then, the overwhelming majority of the acorns it drops are eaten by animals or simply rot on the ground. Squirrels play an important part by burying acorns and occasionally forgetting a few, which have a much better chance of growing than on the surface.

    Oak was often associated with the gods of thunder as it was often split by lightning, probably because oaks are often the tallest tree in the area. Oak was also the sacred wood burnt by the druids for their mid-summer sacrifice.

    Wood from the oak has a lower density than water (so it floats) but has a great strength and hardness, and is very resistant to insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. This made it perfect for shipbuilding, and barrels made from oak released preservative tannins into their contents.

    The high levels of tannins make large amounts of oak leaves and acorns poisonous to cattle, horses, sheep, and even goats, but not to pigs as wild boar were adapted to foraging in the oak forests.

  13. When you reach the path, turn right onto it, and right again where it meets a track, to reach the car park.

    Grey Squirrels were introduced to the UK from the USA in the late 19th Century and within decades they had replaced the native Red Squirrel in most parts of the country. Compared to Red Squirrels, Grey Squirrels are able to eat a wider diet (including acorns), are larger so can survive colder winters, and are better able to survive in the fragmented habitats created by urbanisation. They are also thought to be carriers of a squirrel pox virus which they usually recover from but has been fatal to Red Squirrels, although Red Squirrels are now also developing some immunity. As the Grey Squirrel is classified as an invasive species, it is illegal to release a captured animal into the wild but it is also illegal to kill it in a way that is deemed as causing "unnecessary suffering". This has resulted in members of the public being prosecuted for e.g. drowning a squirrel caught in a trap, believing they were doing the right thing. To date, culling of Grey Squirrels has not reversed their domination of woodland habitat and alternative approaches such as planting food with contraceptives are being explored as a means to control the population. The theory is that infertile squirrels can compete for food against fertile squirrels, whereas culling can create a glut of food resulting in a higher number of squirrels surviving which replace those that were exterminated.

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 also very grateful if could you look out for the following:

  • 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 useful as some single women can just about manage one or two but not a dozen.

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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