Morwenstow to Marsland

The walk starts beside the churchyard and follows Rev Hawker's route to Vicarage Cliff. Here it joins the Coast Path and passes above St Morwenna's Holy well then up and down a series of hanging valleys to reach Marsland Mouth on the Devon border. Staying on Cornish soil, the route turns inland along a path through the woods and then follows a series of tracks and footpaths back across the fields to Morwenstow Rectory, church and ending at the Rectory Tea Rooms.
The footbridge at Marsland Manor (directions 24-25) is unsafe so the path is closed until it is repaired. Diversion requires following the lanes from direction 20 towards Cornakey Farm then resuming the walk from direction 31 or 34.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 126 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 4.5 miles/7.3 km
  • Grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Start from: Rectory Tea Rooms car park
  • Parking: Church car park in front of the Rectory Tea Rooms. Follow signs from the A39 to the Bush Inn and then to the Rectory Tea Rooms Satnav: EX239SR
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Panoramic views of the rugged coastline and Lundy Island from the coast path
  • Pretty wildflowers in spring and summer, blackberries and mushrooms in autumn
  • Sand, pebbles and rockpools on the beach at Marsland Mouth
  • Marsland wood nature reserve
  • Ornate Morwenstow church and rectory
  • Local food and drink at the historic Bush Inn and Rectory Farm Tea Rooms

Directions

  1. Facing the church, turn left onto the track signposted to the Coast Path and follow it until you reach a gate.

    The church is dedicated to St Morwenna.

    St Morwenna was an early 6th century saint from Ireland, and is said to have been one of the many children of the Celtic King Brychan. She settled in Morwenstow and her brother, St Nectan, lived nearby at Hartland. Ethelwolf, the Saxon King, appointed Morwenna to be the tutor for his daughters, for which service, Morwenna requested land to build a church. It is recorded that as she lay dying, St. Nectan came to see her, and she asked him to raise her up so that she might look once more on her native shore. She was buried at the church in Morwenstow.

    Images of her, in stained glass, may be seen in the Morwenstow parish church and a painting on the North Wall shows a gaunt female clasping a scroll to her breast with her left hand; the right arm is raised in blessing over a kneeling monk.

  2. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the gate and follow the track along the left hedge past a wooden gate to reach a gateway in the far hedge of the field.

    Brychan was a legendary Celtic king (originally born in Ireland) who ruled over Breconshire in South Wales. He had a large number of children, and most of these were reported to have evangelised Cornwall and North Devon, with many of the churches dedicated to them. Consequently, many of the place names in North Cornwall (St Teath, St Mabyn, St Endellion, St Minver, St Clether, Egloshale, Egloskerry, Advent, Morwenstow, Lelant etc) are from the names of his children. Brychan is buried on Lundy Island, known in the Celtic language as Ynys Brychan.

  3. Go through the gateway and follow the left hedge to reach another gate.

    There are 33 regions in England designated Areas Of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which were created in 1949 at the same time as the National Parks. In fact the AONB status is very similar to that of National Parks. There is a single Cornwall AONB which is itself subdivided into 12 sections. 11 of these are sections of the coastline and the 12th is Bodmin Moor.

    This walk lies within the northernmost of the coastal areas that make up the Cornwall AONB.

  4. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the gate and follow the left hedge until you reach a kissing gate beside a gateway on the cliff edge.

    By taking a short diversion through the gate on the left and following the coast, you can reach Hawker's Hut. Return here afterwards to continue the walk to the right.

    Hawker built a small hut from driftwood, on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Morwenstow. He spent many hours there "communing with St Morwenna" (i.e. smoking opium) and writing his poems and letters. One of these was Cornwall's anthem - Trelawney - which he published anonymously but was later credited with, by Charles Dickens. Hawker's Hut is now the smallest building owned by the National Trust.

  5. Turn right and follow the cliff edge to reach a kissing gate to the left of a stile.

    Morwenna's Holy Well, restored by Rev Hawker, survives in a virtually inaccessible position part-way down the cliff at Morwenstow. It was lost for many years and rediscovered after much searching towards the end of the 20th Century. Following this, the National Trust cleared a rough path and provided ropes to assist descent half way down the 450 foot cliff to reach the well. In the early 1980s, before Health and Safety had been invented, the local primary school children were taken on a school trip here and fortunately survived to tell the tale. Subsequently the ropes were removed and the path became overgrown with brambles, nettles and blackthorn. During this period, the path was used by at least one local family as a test of dedication for potential suitors. Recently the path has been cleared again but is definitely not recommended without safety equipment as it is dangerously steep and precarious.

  6. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path to a footbridge at the bottom of the valley.

    The name Morwenstow has been Saxonified at some point in history and had "stow" added to indicate the presence of the church, perhaps replacing a "lan-" at the start. According to legend, the "morwen" part comes from St Morwenna. However, it's also worth noting that mor is the Cornish word for "sea" and gwenn means "white", so it's also possible that the name may have its origins in the rough seas around the rocky shores here.

  7. From the footbridge, follow the path up the other side of the valley to reach a waymark.
  8. Continue ahead at the waymark, following the coast path though a kissing gate and past a waymark to reach a second waymark.

    On a clear day, you can see Lundy Island on your left. There is a Cornish saying along these lines: "if you can see Lundy it's going to rain; if you can't see Lundy then it's raining".

    Lundy is largest island in the Bristol Channel, situated about one-third of the way to Wales. It is an outcrop of granite, which rises 400ft out of the sea and was England's first marine reserve.

    The entire island is owned by the National Trust who lease it to the Landmark Trust and thus development has been tightly controlled: the island doesn't have a single tarmacked road, pavement or streetlight, and the electricity is turned off a night, resulting in incredible views of the night sky.

  9. From the waymark, cross the field straight ahead to reach a path leading down into the valley ahead (not visible until you are near the opposite side of the field).

    Hanging valleys are common on the North Cornish coast and are created due to erosion of the relatively hard cliffs by the Atlantic waves being faster than erosion of the valley by a small river. In many cases, this results in a waterfall where the small river meets the sea cliff, though many of these are little more than a trickle in dry weather. When there is a strong onshore gale, the waterfalls sometimes run backwards!

  10. Follow the path from the edge of the field to a footbridge at the bottom of the valley.
  11. From the footbridge, keep left along the coast and follow the path along the cliff edge to reach the first of a pair of kissing gates.
  12. Go through the two kissing gates and follow the path around the edge of the next field to reach a third kissing gate.

    The rocky ridge protruding into the sea ahead is known as Gull Rock.

    It has been suggested that a law must have been passed in Cornwall whereby all offshore rocks must be renamed to Gull Rock! It seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon as many reports from the 1800s use different names for the rocks now named Gull Rock.

    In the local dialect, the word "Orestone" was used to describe such offshore rocks. An object was described as "orey" if covered in seaweed (Oarweed being another name for the commonest kelp found around the Cornish coast).

  13. Go through the gate and follow the path along the edge of the coast to reach a kissing gate.
  14. Go through the gate and follow the path diversion across the field to another kissing gate, and down the steps to reach a footbridge at the bottom of a valley.

    The hollow in the field where the cliff is beginning to slip is thought to be a crater from a somewhat off-target WW2 bomb.

  15. From the footbridge, follow the path up the steps and onwards, passing through a gate, until the path eventually forks.

    Heather plants can live up to 40 years. Heather plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungi which grows inside and between some of the plant root cells. Up to 80% of the root structure can be made up of fungi. The fungi are able to extract nutrients from poor, acidic soils that plants struggle with. Conversely the plant is able to generate other nutrients that are useful to the fungi by photosynthesis.

  16. At the fork in the path, keep left and follow the path down into the valley to another fork at a waymark.

    At the very bottom of the valley is the Devon border, beyond which, cream teas are not the same.

    The Devonshire method for preparing a cream tea is to saw a scone in half, paint each half with clotted cream, and then add strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, things are done differently!

    • No scone: in Cornwall, a cream tea is traditionally served with a "Cornish split", a slightly sweet white bread roll, rather than a scone.
    • Butter: a warm split is first buttered.
    • Jam before cream: the buttered split is then spread with strawberry jam, although raspberry jam is also traditional.
    • No spreading of cream: the jam is finally topped with a spoonful of clotted cream.

    Many commercial cream teas in Cornwall resemble Devonshire cream teas, using scones and no butter, with a token reversal of jam and cream. Fortunately, armed with a few splits from a traditional bakery, you can prepare your own to exacting standards.

  17. At the waymark, turn right and follow the path to a gate.

    A diversion to the beach is possible by following the path to the left from the waymark and returning here afterwards.

  18. Go through the kissing gate next to the gate and follow the path until it ends on a track.

    The Marsland valley nature reserve is located on the Cornwall-Devon border and managed jointly between the Cornwall and Devon Wildlife Trusts. The reserve provides habitat for a number of butterfly species including the Purple Hairstreak and a butterfly recording transect has been running here since the 1980s.

    The land was donated to the Wildlife Trust by Christopher Cadbury who pieced together land purchased from 32 owners to form the 500 acre reserve. Christopher was grandson of John Cadbury who invented the chocolate bar, and he worked in the Cadbury Brothers factory as a young man. Later in life he spent much of his time and fortune on setting up nature reserves such as this one.

  19. At the end of the path, turn right onto the track and follow it until it ends on a lane.

    The Purple Hairstreak butterfly gets its name from an iridescent purple streak present only on the female of the species (the males are dark). Despite being reasonably common, the butterflies are difficult to spot for two reasons: they spend a lot of time stationary, basking in the sun and when they do fly, they do so high above the oak trees. The best chances of seeing them are in late July and August.

  20. Turn right onto the lane and follow it until you reach Marsland Manor.
  21. Turn right onto the track to Marsland Manor and keep right past the Hunter Lodge sign until you reach a cottage on your left.

    One of the dwellings here was converted from a building used to house a "horse engine". These buildings were often originally circular and contained a capstan-like device known as a "whim" which the horses would turn to provide the source of power. A popular design involved a central wooden pole which rotated in a stone on the ground containing a central hole.

  22. Bear left across the yard to a metal gate in the opposite corner beside a stone barn.

    The settlement of Marsland is first recorded in 1284 when it is spelt "Maddokeslonde" and is thought to be based on the name of the landowner. The farmhouse and some of the outbuildings date from the 17th or possibly 16th Century. Many of the surrounding fields are remains of a mediaeval field system.

  23. Go through the gate, and the metal gate on the opposite side of the yard into a field. Walk parallel to the right hedge towards a large tree with a white arrow pinned to it. As you approach the tree, bear right though a small opening to reach a waymark.
  24. From the waymark, follow the path along the right hedge to a pair of footbridges. Continue on the waymarked path up the other side of the valley to reach a stile into a field.

    The platform beside the river is thought to have once been the site of a corn mill and the footpath would have originally been a steep cart track connecting it to the farm.

    Watermills were first documented in the first century BC and the technology spread quickly across the Roman Empire with commercial mills being used in Roman Britain. By the time of the Domesday survey in the 11th Century, there were more than 6,000 watermills in England. During Norman times, the feudal system lead to a greater proliferation of mills with each manor being self-sufficient with its own mill.

  25. When you reach the stile, cross it into the field and bear right slightly, across the field, to a stile in the middle of the hedge ahead.
  26. Cross the stile and bear left to cross the field diagonally to a pair of gateways in the opposite corner.
  27. Go through the (rightmost) waymarked gate onto a track and follow the track along the left hedge to a gate in the far corner.
  28. Go through the gate and follow the track until you reach a sign on your left marked "Alternative path", just before the track reaches a farmyard.

    The farm here, known as Cornakey, was first recorded in 1327. It is thought that the name is mediaeval English for "heron stream". Just near the "Alternative path" sign is a well where a spring rises and this feeds a small stream leading into Cornakey Woods.

  29. Go through the gate on your left into the field and turn right. Follow the hedge past the barn to a gate in the far hedge.
  30. Go through the gate onto the lane and turn left. Follow the lane a short distance to a corner where a track departs from the right.
  31. Turn right onto the waymarked track and follow it until you reach a gate for Yeolmouth.

    The settlement of Yeolmouth is first recorded in 1327 and shortly afterwards in 1340 it is recorded as a pair of settlements named "North" and "South Yulemouthe". One of these remains and the other was last recorded as a deserted farm in 1915 and has since disappeared. The name is English and the "yeol" may be a form of "yellow", though there is no sand where the cliff meets the sea so this may be a reference to Gorse.

  32. Go through the pedestrian gate on the left. Bear left, past the building, in the direction indicated "this way" on a wooden signpost, to reach a stile.
  33. Cross the stile and follow the right hedge to a gateway in the corner of the field.
  34. Go through the gate and pass the gate on the right to reach a waymark. Turn right and follow the track along the hedge to reach a waymarked metal gate in the far hedge.
  35. Go through the gate and turn left. Follow the left hedge about a quarter of the way along the field until you reach a ladder stile.
  36. Cross the ladder stile and follow the left hedge to a gate in the corner of the far hedge.
  37. Go through the gateway and follow the left hedge to a waymark at the bottom of the field.
  38. From the waymark, follow the path ahead through the woods to a footbridge and keep left, past a waymark and rectory, to reach a stile into the churchyard.

    Morwenstow Rectory is situated next to the churchyard, facing the fields of the appropriately named Vicarage Cliff. The rectory was built by Rev. Hawker and is, as you might expect, remarkable. The chimneys are modelled on the towers of the churches in his life: Morwenstow, Welcombe, Tamerton (where he had been curate) and Magdalen College, Oxford. The old kitchen chimney is a replica of Hawker's mother's tomb.

  39. Cross the stile and bear right on the path along the hedge to reach another path; turn right and follow it to the church.

    The church at Morwenstow today is of the Norman period, but before this, it is believed that a Saxon church stood on the site. In a document dated 1296, the church was referred to as an 'old and well-known structure'. The church is dedicated to St Morwenna and St John the Baptist. Originally, it was just St Morwenna, but St John was added as a dedication around 1285 when the church was gifted to the hospital of St John the Baptist, in Bridgewater. Amongst the tombs and gravestones in the churchyard is the preserved figurehead from a ship - The Caledonia - which was wrecked nearby. More than 40 seamen are buried in the churchyard.

  40. From the church door, bear left onto the second (upper) path and follow it out of the churchyard to the Rectory Tea Rooms car park to complete the circular walk.

    Rectory Farm is situated next to the church and Rectory at Morwenstow - thus the name. Rectory Farm dates back to 1296 when it belonged to an order of Monks. The house contains oak beams salvaged from shipwrecks, floors of local slate, and a number of antique furnishings. The house was opened as a Tea Room in 1950 and since then has won a number of awards. A number of the ingredients are grown on-site in the kitchen garden or are from the farm, and many others are locally sourced.

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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