The Lizard and Kynance Cove

The walk winds through Lizard to the lighthouse and the old lifeboat station at Polpeor cove then follows the coast to Lizard Point. The route then crosses the boundary where the ancient rocks of the headland give way to serpentine rocks ejected from the Earth's mantle in a continental collision. The route continues past a shipwreck on Pentreath beach to Kynance Cove where the multicoloured rocks have been sculpted by the sea into islands. The return route to Lizard is across the serpentine heathland where the stone stiles have been polished by the boots of many generations of walkers.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 103 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 4.4 miles/7.1 km
  • Grade: Moderate
  • Start from: Lizard Car Park
  • Parking: Lizard Car Park. Satnav: TR127NH
  • Recommended footwear: Walking shoes, or trainers in Summer

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Lizard Point - the most southerly point in Britain
  • Lizard Lighthouse
  • Sandy beach at Kynance Cove
  • Serpentine rocks polished by the sea
  • Wildflowers including Cornwall's county flower

Directions

  1. Make your way to the signpost on the small grassy island between the roads. Follow the narrow lane in the direction signposted to the most southerly point to reach the Top House Inn.

    The name Lizard comes from the Cornish lysardh which literally means "high court" but could also be interpreted as "fortress". It is possibly a reference to the high cliffs along the coast and maybe also that it is a peninsula. Much of the rock making up the peninsula is known as "serpentine" but this is thought to be a coincidence; the name is thought to be based on the appearance of the rock and not a reference to the placename.

  2. Turn right past the Inn and follow the road past the Caerthillian hotel, then keep left at the Post Office to reach a narrow lane on the left with a yellow hydrant marker.

    The Top House Inn was for many years, as you might have guessed, the most southerly pub in mainland Britain. It was originally a farmhouse and was converted to an Inn during early Victorian times. The benches for one of the tables are made from a German sailing ship that was wrecked on the Lizard in 1900. In 1619, Sir John Killigrew, who built the first lighthouse on The Lizard, noted that many of the houses on The Lizard were "built with the ruins of ships".

  3. Turn left down the lane and follow it to a junction. Turn right at the junction and bear left past the pump to reach a footpath on the right.

    A number of shops in Lizard sell serpentine ornaments made from the local stone.

    Serpentine is not a single mineral but a broad group of minerals formed when minerals rich in iron and magnesium react with water in a series of chemical reactions known as serpentization. Rocks containing these minerals are known as Serpentinite. The name is due to the resemblance of the patterning in the rocks to the skin of reptiles.

  4. Bear right down the footpath and follow this to a road crossing. Cross the road and continue on the path in the direction of the lighthouse to a junction of paths with a "Footpath to Lizard Point" sign.

    The first lighthouse on the Lizard was built in 1619 by Sir John Killigrew of Falmouth, whose family had a colourful history involving smuggling and piracy. A few years before, Sir John had divorced his wife, accusing her of having become a prostitute after having been "first debauched by the governor of Pendennis Castle". Sir John applied for a patent to build the lighthouse and this was granted on the understanding that it be extinguished on the approach of pirates or enemy vessels. The lighthouse maintenance was intended to be funded by collecting voluntary contributions from the ships that passed it. Once built, despite its great benefit to shipping, the shipowners contributions did not materialise. The maintenance cost was bankrupting Killigrew, so James I set a fee of 1 halfpenny per tonne on all vessels passing the light. The uproar at this from the shipowners was so great that the lighthouse was demolished in 1630.

  5. Keep left in the direction signposted to meet a track in the National Trust car park. Cross over the track to the path opposite and follow this to an information board.

    If you want to visit the heritage centre (there is an entry fee) or have a tour of the lighthouse, the entrance is from the left side of the car park. Return to the information board in the car park to continue the walk.

    The current lighthouse building was completed in 1751, which Trinity House describes as consisting of "two towers, with a cottage built between them, in which an overlooker lay on a sort of couch, with a window on either side commanding a view of the lanterns. When the bellows-blowers relaxed their efforts and the fires dimmed, he would remind them of their duties by a blast from a cow horn." The twin towers were described by Tennyson as "the southern eyes of England". However, since 1903, only one of the two towers has been used and the lantern has been removed from the other tower. The lighthouse is the most powerful in the British Isles: the light has a range of 21 miles and its reflection can be seen 70 miles away.

  6. Follow the path downhill from the information board, signposted to Lizard Point, to reach a junction of paths on the other side of the line of trees.

    The large black fog horns in front of the lighthouse were installed in 1878 and were driven by compressed air. By 1998, they were the last operating compressed-air horns in Britain and were finally decommissioned but are still in working order. The replacement is a high-pitched electric fog signal which is automatically triggered when the humidity exceeds a threshold value. The sound emitted twice a minute is at just under 120 dB which is roughly 30 times louder than a pneumatic drill and can be heard over 4 miles away. The lighthouse cottages have been converted into holiday accommodation where foggy nights have been reported as not conducive to sleep!

  7. Turn right, in the direction indicated for the steps to Lizard Point. At the bottom of the steps, turn right onto the path and follow it to the Café and Most Southerly Gift Shop on Lizard Point.

    The most southerly point of the British mainland - Lizard Point - protrudes far into The Channel and it is surrounded by shallow reefs which extend for roughly half a mile south of the Lizard. The individual rocks each have names: Ennach, Maenheere (furthest south) and Carligga, Carnvel, Man o' War and Mulvin (furthest west).

    Also, even without any wind, the tidal race around the headland can reach 5-6 knots. The combination of these factors makes it the single greatest hazard for shipping in British waters. The Admiralty still advises navigators to stay at least three miles away from the Lizard in rough weather.

  8. Bear right through the car park to reach the steps marked with a coast path sign, opposite the serpentine workshop.

    In March 1907, the 12,000 ton liner SS Suevic ran into thick fog off the coast of Cornwall and, unable to use stellar navigation, calculated their position using the light from the lizard lighthouse. The crew were confident they were at least ten miles offshore so pressed on at full speed rather then approaching slowing and using a sounding line to check the depth. Their calculations proved to be incorrect when the ship ran aground at full speed onto the Maenheere Reef a quarter of a mile off Lizard Point. In the biggest rescue of the RNLI's history, the crews of the Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven lifeboats rowed the half mile round trip repeatedly for sixteen hours in a gale to rescue the 456 passengers and the crew of the ship without a single loss of life.

    With the weather still worsening and the bow of the ship completely stuck, engineers from White Star liners salvaged the stern half of the ship by severing the ship along one of its watertight bulkheads using carefully placed charges of dynamite. The rescued half-ship was able to sail (in reverse) under its own steam with tugs boats for guidance back to Southampton. A new bow section was built in Belfast and once the two halves were united, the ship continued in service for another 20 years before being sold to a Norwegian who converted her into a whaling factory ship.

  9. Go up the steps to follow the coast path, descending a flight of steps into the next valley to reach a footbridge in Pistil Meadow.

    In 1721 the HMS Royal Anne - a wooden galley with 42 cannons, and the last fighting ship with oars built for the Royal Navy - was carrying 127 men including Lord Belhaven, the new Governor of Barbados, to the West Indies but had to turn around due to bad weather and was wrecked on Stag Rocks on her way back to Falmouth. There were only three survivors and Lord Belhaven was not one of them.

    The wreck was discovered in 1969 but not identified until 1992 when cutlery was raised bearing Lord Belhaven's family crest. None of the wooden structure remains but other artefacts have been found on the sea bed including musket shot and coins. It is now a protected wreck site and there is no diving allowed within a 100 metre radius.

    Since the 1720s there have been unsubstantiated claims that over 200 bodies washed ashore from the Royal Anne were buried in mass graves in Pistil Meadow. In 2014, a geophysical study revealed sub-surface structures that could correspond to a mass burial pits. However, when excavations were carried out in September 2016, no human remains were found. It is possible some single or small graves were missed but any large pit would have been found by the work. It is now thought likely that the legends have become successively taller stories with each telling: one account mentions hungry dogs scavenging bodies on the beach which was later embellished into dogs digging bodies out of the graves.

  10. Cross the footbridge, turn left and follow the path out of the valley and around the headland. On the other side, where the path splits, the outermost path offers the best views. Continue to where the paths rejoin and cross through a wall at the Old Lizard Head National Trust sign.

    Some of the oldest rocks in Cornwall are around the Most Southerly Point which are over half a billion years old and thought to be formed by volcanic activity around the time when the single supercontinent began to break apart. These were metamorphised around 150 million later when Cornwall was pushed out of the ocean between two colliding continents. The resulting upwellings of hot magma melted the existing rocks which recrystallised into the hard rocks which now form the headlands. Unlike the barren heathland which occurs over the serpentinite rocks, the soils above these old rocks are quite fertile: cauliflowers and potatoes are grown in the fields on Lizard Point.

  11. Cross through the wall, and follow the path to a waymark where the path splits into four.

    The unusual geology of The Lizard peninsula combined with its mild maritime climate has resulted in a landscape of great conservation interest, supporting over 250 species of national and international importance, many of which are found nowhere else in Britain. Consequently, over 1,600 hectares of The Lizard are designated a National Nature Reserve and managed by Natural England and others are managed by the National Trust and Cornwall Wildlife.

  12. Take either of the middle two paths which rejoin and again follow the path along the coast past a bench on the end of a headland to where it passes through a gap in a wall.

    The post in the field on the right is a wreck post.

    Wreck posts, resembling a telegraph pole with wooden steps, were used for Coastguard practice exercises. The post emulated the mast of a sinking ship. A "shore" team would fire a rocket carrying a light line known as a whip to a man on the post. Once he caught this, it was secured to the post and a heavier line known as a hawser was pulled out using the light line and secured to the post. This was then used to haul out the Breeches Buoy (a lifebelt with an attached pair of shorts) that the crew member could be rescued with.

  13. Follow along the wall on the left and descend into a valley, cross the two small streams and climb the steps to a waymark on the other side.

    The small, rocky inlet is called Caerthillian Cove.

    In 1941, the SS Gairsoppa was torpedoed in the Celtic Sea whilst returning from India to Britain. Three lifeboats were launched and two of these never made it to the shore. The third, in the charge of the ship's Second Officer, drifted for hundreds of miles before reaching land in Caerthillian Cove at The Lizard. After 13 days, only three of the seven men aboard were still alive. The boat capsized before the Lizard Lifeboat could reach it and only the Second Officer was pulled from the sea alive. The other two seamen are buried at St Wynwallow's church.

  14. Turn left at the waymark and follow the path up some steps to the top of the headland and then up another flight of steps to a stone stile crossing the wall.

    Rock Samphire grows on the rocky cliffs within the valley.

    Rock Samphire has been a popular wild food since Celtic times. It was very popular as a pickle in 16th century Britain until it almost died out from over-picking in the 19th Century. Consequently, it's currently a protected plant but is now making a good comeback. In Shakespeare's time, a rope was tied to a child's ankles and he was dangled over the cliff to pick the rock samphire that grew in crevices and clefts in the rocks.

    The completely unrelated but similar-looking Golden Samphire also grows around the North Cornish coast. The leaves look almost identical, but the daisy-like yellow flowers in summer are a giveaway, as Rock Samphire has tiny green-white flowers that look more like budding cow parsley. Golden Samphire is edible, but is inferior in flavour to Rock Samphire; it is also nationally quite rare in Britain.

  15. Climb the wall and turn left. Follow the path along the wall and up the steps to an impressively short waymark where the path crosses over another wall.

    The wreck of the SS Gairsoppa was discovered in 2011 in a three mile deep area of the Celtic sea. The ship was carrying 200 tonnes of silver when it sank, worth tens of millions of pounds today. By 2013, 61 tonnes of silver bullion had been recovered, and in 2014 the Royal Mint used a portion of the recovered silver to issue 20,000 commemorative 50p coins.

  16. Cross over the wall and continue along the coast path, over another wall and uphill to a gap through a wall with a fence along the top.

    The remnants of a wreck visible at low tide on Pentreath beach are from the steam-powered trawler, Maud, which was wrecked in 1912. The damaged trawler was on tow by a tug and the captain ordered the engines of the trawler to be run to reduce drag on the tug. The strain caused by the engines on the damaged boat caused it to leak. On finding water was coming into the cabin floor, the engineer bored holes in the watertight bulkhead, to allow the water to drain into the engine room bilges. Salvage pumps were taken onboard at Milford Haven but the vessel's bilges were not properly cleaned out. As they rounded the lizard in a gale, the pumps clogged and the trawler began to take on water. The holes drilled through the (no longer watertight) bulkhead allowed water to flood the engine room, extinguishing the boiler and thus permanently killing all the pumps except hand pumps which were inadequate. The tug tried to get the trawler ashore but could not move the waterlogged boat against the gale and its crew had to abandon it. The trawler washed ashore just before it sank. A formal investigation found the actions of the Captain and Engineer to be "wrongful" and suspended the Captain's licence.

  17. Go through the gap and continue on the coast path along the cliff top. Just as the hut in the car park comes into view, the path forks. Keep right at the fork to a gap in the wall.

    On 31st August 1924, the Bardic went aground on Maenheere at the Lizard. The Lizard lifeboat brought her 93 crew ashore but 44 returned to the ship to keep the refrigerators running as the ship's cargo was frozen rabbits. On 8th September the increasing winds meant it was no longer safe for the crew to remain aboard and they were taken ashore by the lifeboat. Without the crew to attend to the refrigerators, they stopped working and the rabbits began to decompose. Once the wind dropped, the ship was towed into Falmouth, the smell of which would not have delighted the residents. The rotting rabbits were dumped down a mineshaft at St Day.

  18. Go through the gap, turn left and head towards the offshore islands, then bear right and follow the path along the top of the rock outcrops on the edge of the coast. Continue until you reach a gravel track leading from the car park. Bear left onto the track and follow this until it ends at a bench constructed from boulders.

    Choughs nest in the area and, if you are lucky, you may see (or equally likely hear) some as you walk along the coast.

    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.

  19. Go down the steps and follow the path to reach another track.
  20. Turn left onto the track and follow this down to the beach.

    The shallow bed of white sand surrounding the spit of land forming the beach results in brilliant turquoise water surrounding the islands. Consequently, Kynance Cove is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and attracts a quarter of a million visitors every year. The cove first became popular in the early Victorian era, with Queen Victoria and Alfred Tennyson being amongst the visitors.

    Consequently the caves have acquired suitably Victorian names such as The Parlour, The Drawing Room and Ladies Bathing Pool. The rock stacks also have colourful names including The Lion, The Bishop, Steeple Rock and Sugarloaf Rock, and no Cornish beach would be complete without a Gull Rock. Asparagus Island, accessible at low tide, is more functionally-named - it is one of the few remaining places in the UK where wild asparagus still grows.

  21. Cross the beach until you reach the first lifebuoy and then turn right up the path beside the café, which opens out into a track and passes the toilets. Continue, around two sharp bends, until you reach a short waymark with a blue arrow. If the tide is completely in, you'll need to backtrack a short distance to the high tide path and turn right at the top onto the track to reach the waymark with a blue arrow.

    There is a blowhole in Asparagus Island, known by the same name as the one at Boscastle - The Devil's Bellows. When there is a swell, at mid tide, it ejects water through what is termed The Devil's Letterbox. The blowhole is connected to a sixty metre long tunnel which passes all the way through Asparagus Island. On the southwest side, buckles and coins have been found in the sand which it is thought may be from a Dutch wreck in the early 1700s.

  22. At the waymark, bear right onto the small path and follow it across the heath until it rejoins the track.

    The open heathland provides an ideal habitat for a more literal serpent - the adder.

    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.

  23. Bear right onto the track and follow it until you reach a small path leading into the Kynance car park.

    Serpentine rocks produce soils which are low in nutrients and sometimes contain metal compounds that are toxic to many plants. The areas above these rocks are consequently known as Serpentine Barrens. The flora that is found here is very specialised and often slow growing due to the limited nutrients. The resulting low growth means that it is a good habitat for lizards and snakes to "catch some rays" but this is a happy coincidence rather than anything to do with the name.

  24. Turn left onto the small path leading inland, away from the car park, and follow this until it ends on a lane at a waymark with six arrows! After prolonged wet weather the moor here can be muddy so during the winter you may instead wish to continue following the track alongside the car park and the lane away from the car park to reach the waymark with six arrows.

    The county flower of Cornwall is the Cornish Heath - a plant that most people (Cornish included) have never heard of let alone seen. The only place in England that the shrub grows is on the Lizard Peninsula and it looks fairly unremarkable until August and September when it produces the most beautiful tiny lilac-coloured flowers.

  25. Bear left onto the lane and follow it to a bend where a track and footpath both depart from the right.

    In January 2004, a trawler from Brittany, the "Bugaled Breizh", sank off The Lizard with the loss of 5 lives. After raising the vessel, it was found to have sustained no impact but to have been crushed by water pressure. Accident investigators concluded that the vessel was most likely to have been pulled under by its nets snagging a submarine, which could take down a vessel of this size in just over a minute. There were several British, French and Dutch submarines in the approximate area at the time on a NATO exercise, but none of these were reported to be at the location where the boat sank. There was also an unidentified submarine in the area, observing the NATO exercise, and the conclusion of the Inquiry by the French authorities was that this "spy" submarine may well have been the cause of the sinking.

  26. Follow the footpath ahead marked with a green sign, over a stile and into a field. Cross the field to the stile opposite.

    The cattle breeds known as Devon were also the traditional breeds used in Cornwall until recent years. The South Devon breed, affectionately known as "Orange Elephant" or "Gentle Giant", is the largest of the British native breeds: the largest recorded bull weighed 2 tonnes. They are thought to have descended from the large red cattle of Normandy, which were imported during the Norman invasion of England. The other breed, known as "Devon Ruby" or "Red Ruby" (due to their less orange colouration), is one of the oldest breeds in existence, with origins thought to be from pre-Roman Celtic Britain.

  27. Cross the stile and the one at the other end of the gravel path, then follow the path through the bushes to a waymark where another path joins from the right.

    Part of the Earth's mantle, normally tens of miles below your feet, was once bulldozed onto Cornish mainland in front of the advancing continent. The mantle contains elements such as iron, magnesium and calcium which are less common in the Earth's crust as they are comparatively heavy and normally get chance to sink back into the mantle. The rocks rich in these minerals, such as Greenstone, are referred to as "mafic" whereas those containing relatively little (e.g. granite which is formed from magma which slowly works its way up through the Earth's crust) are referred to as "felsic".

    It is these mafic rocks, from the earth's mantle, that have reacted with water to form the Serpentinite that The Lizard is famous for. As you have been walking along the path, you may have noticed how Serpentinite rocks have been polished by the feet of generations of walkers, often resulting in some spectacularly colourful steps.

  28. Continue ahead at the waymark to a stile. Climb this and follow the path along the top of the wall until it descends in front of a cottage.

    In nuclear reactors, high energy neutrons are produced. If these escape from the reactor, they are biologically harmful. Materials containing hydrogen atoms are the most effective at slowing the excited neutrons down so that they can be re-absorbed within the reactor. Because of its high level of bound water, Serpentine makes a very good neutron-shield and Serpentinite gravel is therefore added to make the special concrete used in reactor shielding.

  29. Follow the path along the hedge on your left, passing the footpath sign and continuing along the hedge to merge onto the lane. Follow the lane back to the car park to complete the circular route.

    The village of Lizard dates from early mediaeval times. It was recorded in the Domesday survey of 1086 which at the time was held by Richard and had 1 hide, 4 wild mares, 3 cattle, 20 pigs and 60 sheep. The relatively small amount of beef available in mediaeval times is notable. It would have been eaten mainly by the wealthy landowners and the peasants would have kept a pig. At this point in time, a pasty, based on the meat of the gentry and on potatoes from undiscovered South America, would have been a decadent and futuristic fantasy.

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