Porthcurno, Porthgwarra and Gwennap Head

A circular walk from Porthcurno, passing the Minack Theatre, St Leven's Holy Well, Porthchapel and Porthgwarra beaches, to Gwennap Head where the English Channel meets the Atlantic and the Runnelstone Reef has claimed so many ships that divers are unsure where the wreckage is from.

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The walk starts at Porthcurno and climbs the cliff to the Minack Theatre with spectacular views over Pedn Vounder. The coast path then forms the route via Porth Chapel and St Levan's Holy Well to the tiny cove of Porthgwarra, now famous for the nude swimming scene in Poldark. The walk continues around Gwennap Head passing the abyss formed by a collapsed cave and coastguard lookout before returning across the fields via St Levan's legendary stone in the churchyard.

Reviews

Awesome. I saw Choughs and seals and numerous other wildlife. The coastline is fantastic which white sand, azure blue sea and wonderful cliffs. This area is a must see in Cornwall
A great walk and brilliant directions as usual from Iwalk Cornwall!

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 102 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 5.4 miles/8.7 km
  • Grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Start from: Porthcurno car park
  • Parking: Porthcurno car park TR196JX
  • Recommended footwear: Walking shoes, or trainers in summer

OS maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Sandy beaches at Porthcurno, Chapel Cove and Porthgwarra
  • Spectacular coastal scenery
  • Views of the Runnelstone buoy, Wolf Rock + Longships lighthouses and The Scilly Isles
  • Wildflowers in late spring and early summer
  • Wildlife including seals, birds of prey and choughs
  • Ancient relics including St Levan's well, chapel and stone.

Adjoining walks

Directions

  1. Make your way to the bottom of the car park and follow the path starting beside the information board near the toilets towards the beach to reach another information board just before the lifeguard hut.

    From 1870 to 1970, Porthcurno valley was a hub of international communications and, for a time between the First and Second World Wars, was the largest submarine cable station in the world. Up to two million words per day could be transmitted using up to 14 cables. It was chosen over Falmouth to reduce the risk of damage to cables by shipping. Even today, fibre-optic cables land at Porthcurno, connecting the UK to the internet backbone.

  2. The walk continues to the right, but the beach can be reached to the left if you want to go there first. Follow the path to the right and keep right to cross a stream and join the coast path.

    In common with most of the other beaches around Penwith, the sand at Porthcurno is composed of fragments of seashell. Larger pieces of shell, and some intact shells, are usually washed up along the high-tide line. These mostly seem to be venus clams which are very pale in colour and may explain the particularly white sand around this coast. Another factor is that, unlike the slate in much of the rest of Cornwall, the granite here does not weather into minute flakes which mix into the sand and darken the colour.

  3. Bear left onto the Coast Path and follow it past the building to a waymark, where a path descends from the Minack Theatre.

    Cornwall bounces by around 4 inches every time the tide goes in and out. As the tide rises, the extra weight of water on the continental shelf deforms the Earth's crust; as the tide goes out, it springs back. The tidal range is greatest on the southwestern side of the British Isles and so Cornwall is one of the bounciest places in Britain.

  4. The route ahead involves climbing up steep steps up the cliff which have spectacular views but are quite exposed. If you are uncomfortable with this then turn right at the waymark, follow the path to reach a Minack Theatre sign, then follow the signs to a wooden Coast Path sign, beneath which is a kissing gate. Otherwise continue on the path to the next waymark.

    The name Minnack is from the Cornish word meynek.

    In English we often add a -y ending to a noun to turn it into an adjective; for example "rock" becomes "rocky". For many of the nouns imported from French, we add -ic (acidic, magnetic, artistic...). The equivalent in Cornish is to add -ack or -ek to the end of the word. Thus meynek is "stony" (men is stone), stennack means "tinny" (sten is tin).

  5. Carefully climb the steps to reach the entrance to the Minack Theatre.

    The Minack open-air theatre was created by one remarkable woman - Rowena Cade - who financed, planned and physically built the theatre. Initially she worked as apprentice to two Cornish craftsmen to cut stone for the stage and seating, with one wheelbarrow lost over the edge of the cliff in the process. The first performance was "The Tempest" in 1932 which was lit by car batteries and headlights. From this point until her death, Rowena worked relentlessly on improving the theatre, which included carrying sand on her back from Porthcurno beach to make concrete.

    When wreckage from a Spanish Freighter washed onto Porthcurno beach, Rowena single handedly carried twelve 15ft beams up to Minack. When Customs officers on the beach enquired as to whether she had seen the timber, Rowena admitted that she had collected some wood that morning. Concluding that such a frail-looking woman could not have lifted what they were looking for, they went on their way. "I didn't tell them a lie now did I?" Rowena remarked as she built the new dressing rooms from the beams.

    Just before she died in 1983, she left elaborate sketches of how the theatre might be covered when it rains. So far there have not been the funds to implement them, but maybe one day there will.

  6. Continue ahead past the entrance to reach the car park and cross this to reach a kissing gate beneath a wooden Coast Path sign.
  7. Go through the gate and follow the path across the headland until you reach a waymark.

    Just before you reach the waymark, a path leads to the left onto Rospletha Cliff.

    The headland of Pedn-men-an-Mere is known locally as "Wireless Point" as a 170ft mast with a large antenna was erected here in 1902 by the Eastern Telegraph Company to monitor the early activities of the potential competitor, Marconi. The antenna base and tether points are still visible on the headland. The conclusion from the monitoring was that Marconi's newfangled wireless technology was no threat to the cable telegraph companies. In fact, Marconi's shortwave wireless system turned out to be so successful that it almost bankrupted the cable companies in the 1920s.

    The smaller of the two boulders on the end of the headland is what is known locally as a logan stone. The weight of a teenager or adult on the edge closest to the land is sufficient to make the huge boulder rock back and forth.

  8. Keep left at the waymark to follow the coast path ahead until you reach a waymark and signs for the path being diverted to protect the remains of St Levan's Chapel.

    The Runnel Stone is a pinnacle reef situated roughly a mile south of Gwennap Head which is a notorious shipping hazard and was responsible for the grounding of at least 30 steamships between 1880 and 1923 alone. The reef used to break the surface at low water until 1923 when a 6,000 ton steamship called The City of Westminster, which was laden with maize from South Africa, ploughed into the reef with such force that the top 20 feet of the reef was broken off. The ship didn't fare too well either and sank, but fortunately all aboard were saved by the Sennen and Penlee lifeboats. The bow and stern of the wreck are still identifiable by divers but there is so much wreckage from other ships that it's hard to tell which is which.

  9. The path ahead leads to the beach which you may want to visit first, otherwise turn right up the steps and follow the path over a footbridge to reach a waymark at a junction of paths.

    Porthchapel is a small cove between Porthcurno and Porthgwarra, and should not be confused with Chapel Porth which is near St Agnes. Like Porthcurno, Porthchapel is a beach of shell sand, situated between two granite headlands. Porthchapel faces south, making it a sun trap, and is a nice spot for swimming when there isn't a swell running, although it is advisable to stay within the lee of the headlands as exceptionally strong currents run along this area of the coast.

  10. At the waymark, continue ahead up the steps to reach a junction of paths with a waymark on the left-hand path.

    St Levan's chapel was built on platforms cut into the cliff face and could date as far back as the 8th Century, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest Christian building in Cornwall. It's likely that the spring forming the Holy Well pre-dates the chapel and could have been a sacred spring in pre-Christian times. In the 18th Century, the well building still had a roof but little remained by the end of the 20th Century; the walls were partially reconstructed in 2003. Water from the well is still used for baptisms at Levan's Church. The Holy Water was thought to be a cure for toothache and eye diseases, and sleeping the night by the well was said to increase its powers. Perhaps during a freezing night in a howling gale on a cliff edge, the toothache seemed a less pressing concern!

  11. Continue ahead in the direction waymarked until you cross over a line of boulders and descend a rocky path to reach a yellow waymark at a junction of paths.

    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. When you reach the waymark, keep left at the junction and follow the path downhill to reach a red waymark opposite a high stone wall.
  13. Turn left at the waymark, in the direction of the red arrow, to reach a track. Follow the track past the beach to a footpath signpost.

    The beach at Porthgwarra is privately-owned but well-behaved members of the public are permitted access. The tunnel to the beach was dug by miners from St Just to provide easier access for fishermen to the beach and so farmers could transport sand and seaweed from the beach by horse and cart to fertilise the fields. The cove is quite sheltered between the headlands, but swimming beyond the headlands is inadvisable as there are extremely strong currents here where the English Channel meets the Atlantic.

  14. Turn left at the signpost and pass between the buildings to another signpost. Take the path directly ahead of this, signposted to Land's End. Follow the path through a kissing gate to reach a fork in the path.

    As you come out of the tunnel on the beach, on your left is a second tunnel which leads to a neighbouring rocky cove. This provided convenient access to the "hulleys" which were built into the rocks. These were similar in principle to a "keep pot", used to store crabs and lobsters for a few days prior to taking the catch to market. However unlike keep pots which remain offshore below the water, these were tidal and took the form of a cage built from wood with a solid wooden top (which provided shade) containing a trapdoor.

  15. Keep left at the fork and follow the path around the headland to rejoin the other path at a waymark. Then continue until you reach another fork in the path at a second waymark.

    Keep a look out for choughs which can sometimes be seen on the headland.

    After several decades of extinction, a pair of choughs 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 steadily grown. Each Cornish 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.

  16. The walk continues on the right-hand path. The path to the left leads to the blowhole; if you want to have a look then return to this point to continue without missing the Runnel Stone markers. Continue on the right-hand path to reach another fork in the path.

    The headland has been known as Gwennap Head only since 1888. Before this, the headland was known as Tol-Pedn-Penwith which is Cornish for something along the lines of "Hole Head of Penwith", referring to the blowhole in the cliff leading into a large sea cave.

  17. The paths to the right lead to the Runnel Stone markers if you want to have a closer look before continuing. Keep left to stay on the main stony path and reach the Coastguard Lookout.

    The pair of cones on Gwennap Head are daytime navigation markers, erected in 1821, indicating the position of the Runnel Stone. The innermost marker is painted black and white and when this is completely obscured by the outer red cone, the observing ship would be directly on top of the Runnel Stone. The objective is therefore always to be able to see the black and white marker.

  18. Walk around the outside of the Coastguard Lookout and follow the coast path across the headland and into a bay. Follow the path up from the bay to reach a fork at the top of a small headland, with a larger headland directly behind.

    The coastguard station on Gwennap Head was built at the start of the 20th Century and was in service by 1910. When a French fishing boat was wrecked at the foot of the cliffs, it was realised this was invisible from the one-storey station so the second storey was added. Due to cost-cutting in the Coastguard service, the station was closed in 1994. Shortly after this, it was taken over by the National Coastwatch Institute and reopened in 1996.

  19. At the fork, take the right-hand path. Follow the path to reach a kissing gate in a stone wall.

    Wolf Rock is a pinnacle seven miles southwest of Gwennap Head which rises more than 60 metres to break the surface. The rock earned its name from the howling sound caused by gale force winds blowing through fissures in the rock.

    In the 1830s, a beacon was built on the rock which has survived into the 21st Century. The beacon consists of a metal cone, just under 5 metres in diameter and height, constructed of iron plates and filled with cement rubble. The difficulties of building this were enormous: during 5 years, there were only 302 hours during which work could be carried out. Work on a 25 metre lighthouse began in 1861 and took 8 years to complete. It is constructed of granite quarried at Lamorna Cove and until 1988, it was manned.

  20. Go through the kissing gate and take the left-hand path at the fork. Follow this to reach another fork in the path shortly after the two paths rejoin.

    The Scilly Isles lie 28 miles off Lands End and can be seen with the naked eye on a clear day. Scilly has been inhabited since the Stone Age and the inhabitants originally spoke the Celtic (Cornish) language. It is thought that possibly even as recently as Roman times, the 55 islets were once part of one large single island that has since been flooded by rising sea levels. During low spring tides, it is still possible to wade between some of the islands.

  21. Keep left at the fork to follow the more scenic path around the headland to where the two paths rejoin.

    Land's End is the most westerly point on the English mainland and is consequently the last place that the sun sets on mainland England. It is 5.73 degrees west of the Greenwich Meridian and since each 15 degrees is an hour of time difference, Land's End is 22 minutes and 28 seconds behind London. It's therefore possible to drink a couple of glasses of wine watching the sun set whilst all the while it's been dark in London. The official Cornish name Pen an Wlas means "End of the Earth". The earliest record of a name is Penwith Steort from 997 which is Old English for "End of Penwith". As the name was by non-Cornish speakers, they probably didn't realise that Penwith already meant "extreme end".

  22. Continue ahead to cross a stream and climb up the other side of the valley until you reach a small grassy path departing to the right towards a fenced wall.

    The Longships Lighthouse is located just over a mile off Land's End on the highest of the islets known as Carn Bras. The original tower built in 1795 was 40ft high, perched on the 39ft high rock but despite the lantern being nearly 80ft above the sea, it was sometimes obscured by the huge waves off Lands End. A new taller tower was therefore constructed starting in 1869 and completed in 1873 and was manned until 1988. The current lantern emits a white flash seaward, but red-tinted glass colours the light for any vessel straying to the headlands to the north or south.

  23. Take the right-hand path and follow it parallel to the wall on the right until the path ends at a gate.

    In 1898, the Longships lighthouse was almost obliterated by an offcourse ship. The SS Bluejacket ran up the reef and its remains now lie in the shallows. The captain left course instructions with the first mate and then retired to his quarters. On passing Wolf Rock, the mate asked the captain for further instruction but the captain was reluctant to return from his quarters. The inexperienced mate decided to steer directly at the Longships lighthouse with predictable consequences. The captain was charged with neglect of his duties. A reason was not stated, but amongst those saved by the Sennen lifeboat was the Captain's wife.

  24. Go through the gate and follow the grassy path between the hedges to reach a cottage.

    Dragonflies are named after the way they hunt, as both the larvae and adults are carnivorous predators. Their two sets of wings beat out of phase, and the frequency, amplitude and the angles of each set of wings can be controlled. This allows dragonflies to hover in a completely stationary position for over a minute, perform extravagant aerobatic manoeuvres and even fly backwards.

  25. Follow the track ahead, away from the cottage to reach a waymark at a junction.

    A popular misconception is that a butterfly was originally called flutterby. In fact, the name stems from the Old English word buttorfleoge which literally means "butterfly". Exactly why they were associated with butter is a bit of a mystery. One theory is that they were seen hovering over pails of milk and thought to be stealing or protecting the butter. Another is that the Yellow Brimstone was the species for which this name was first devised. The term "flutterby" is thought to have been coined by Shakespeare.

  26. Turn right at the waymark, as indicated by the red arrow, and follow the track towards a farm to reach a waymarked flight of steps on the right, just before a barn.

    The farm at the junction is Higher Bosistow. Further along the lane to the left is Lower Bosistow.

    The higher of the two farms is first recorded in the 13th Century as Bodestou. The building has been rebuilt and modified over the years but parts of the current building may date back to the 17th Century. In the 18th Century, the farm was bought by a wealthy landowning family. One of their descendants in the 19th Century decided to build a more elegant residence to reflect his perceived status and this is the Lower Bosistow farmhouse (his parents remained in the upper farmhouse).

  27. Climb the steps and follow the left hedge to a gateway.

    The number of cows in Cornwall has been estimated at around 75,000 so there's a good chance of encountering some in grassy fields. If you are crossing fields in which there are cows:

    • Avoid splitting the herd as cows are more relaxed if they feel protected by the rest of the herd. Generally the best plan is to walk along the hedges.
    • Do not show any threatening behaviour towards calves (approaching them closely to take photos, making loud noises or walking between a calf and its mother) as you may provoke the mother to defend her young.
    • If cows approach you, they often do so out of curiosity and in the hope of food - it may seem an aggressive invasion of your space but that's mainly because cows don't have manners. Do not run away as this will encourage them to chase you. Stand your ground and stretch out your arms to increase your size. Usually if you calmly approach them, they will back off. It's also best to avoid making sudden movements that might cause them to panic.
    • Where possible, avoid taking dogs into fields with cows, particularly with calves. 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.
  28. Go through the gateway and bear right into the right-hand field. Cross the field to a gateway in the middle of the right hedge.
  29. Go through the gateway and cross the field towards the barns. As you approach, bear left to reach a stile about 20 metres to the left of the gate.
  30. Cross the stile and turn left onto the track. Follow this a short distance to a lane and turn right. Follow the lane past the farm and past a footpath sign on a bend to reach a second Public Footpath sign above a stile.
  31. Cross the stile and follow along the right hedge to a gateway on the far side of the field.
  32. Go through the gateway into the field on the right-hand side. Follow along the left hedge then cross the field to the gateway opposite.
  33. Go through the gateway and cross the field towards the church tower to reach a stone stile.
  34. Cross the stile and head straight across the field to a stone stile on the right of the gateway.
  35. Cross the stile or go through the gateway and follow the right hedge to reach a stone stile in the corner of the field.

    Cow parsley, also known by the more flattering name of Queen Anne's Lace, is a member of the carrot family. Over the last few decades, cow parsley has substantially increased on roadside verges: there is more than half as much again as there was 30 years ago. The reason is thought to be to an increase in soil fertility caused by a few different factors. In the more distant past, verges were grazed or the grass was cut and used for hay. Now when it is cut by mechanical devices, it is left to rot in place forming a "green manure". In the last few decades there has also been an increase in fertilising nitrogen compounds both from farm overspill and from car exhausts. Whilst this extra fertility is good news for cow parsley and also brambles and nettles, it is causing these species to out-compete many other wildflowers along hedgerows.

  36. Cross the stile and follow the right hedge to another stone stile in the corner of the field.
  37. Cross the stile and bear left to a stone stile in the middle of the left hedge.

    The reason moles create tunnels is that these act as worm traps. When a worm drops in, the mole dashes to it and gives it a nip. Mole saliva contains a toxin that paralyzes earthworms and the immobilised live worms are stored in an underground larder for later consumption. Researchers have discovered some very well-stocked larders with over a thousand earthworms in them! To prepare their meal, moles pull the worms between their paws to force the earth out of the worm's gut.

    Moles have a special form of haemoglobin that allow them to tolerate high levels of carbon dioxide in the low-oxygen environment within the tunnels. In wetland areas where there is no gradient available to retreat uphill, moles construct a large mound protruding around half a metre above the ground to act as an emergency flood shelter.

  38. Cross the stile and follow along the right hedge to reach a wooden stile.

    The nutritiousness of nettle leaves makes it a preferred food plant for the caterpillars of many common butterfly species including the Red Admiral, Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Comma.

  39. Cross the stile and follow the path past the cottages to emerge onto a lane, opposite the church.

    The churchyard of St Levan is thought to date back to the 9th or 10th Century and an original church of wood and thatch may have been replaced by one built of stone before the Norman conquest. In the 12th Century, a stone church was built using Norman techniques and elements of this survive today, including a Norman font which dates from the beginning of the 12th Century. In the 15th Century, the building was extended and the tower was added.

  40. Cross the lane to the church and go up the steps towards the church. Turn left and follow the path to an opening into a field with a coffin rest at the top of the churchyard.

    In St Levan's churchyard, near the porch, is a large boulder in two pieces known as St Levan's stone. It is thought that the stone was originally associated with Pagan fertility rites before Christianity reached Cornwall. When the Christian church adopted it, a legend was created that St Levan broke it in two with his staff whilst making the prophecy about the end of the world:

    When with panniers astride
    A pack horse can ride
    Through St Levan stone
    The world will be done
  41. Exit the churchyard and follow the right hedge of the field to a pedestrian gate in the top hedge.

    Rabbits were originally from the Iberian peninsula and were brought to Britain by the Normans and kept in captivity as a source of meat and fur. Rabbits are able to survive on virtually any vegetable matter and with relatively few predators, those that escaped multiplied into a sizeable wild population. Rabbits provide food for foxes, stoats, weasels and birds of prey.

  42. Go through the gate and follow the grassy track across the middle of the field towards the building to reach an iron kissing gate next to a farm gate.

    There are said to be 360 wayside crosses in Cornwall. In the mediaeval period, stone crosses were sometimes placed by the road or path. There have been various reasons for erecting these: markers placed along routes used by Christian pilgrims, or as a shrine in reverence, perhaps to a saint who has some connection to the locality. Others mark burial sites, a disaster, a miracle, or some other event that should be remembered. In some cases, they were erected to mark meeting places for Christian worship and later churches were built adjacent to the cross, resulting in the cross being within the churchyard or close by.

  43. Go through the gate and turn left. Follow the track to a gateway leading out of the settlement.
  44. Continue on the track through the gateway to a pair of gates. Go through the gate on the right and follow the track to reach a road.
  45. Cross the road to the gap opposite. Then follow the small lane ahead to reach the Telegraph Museum.

    During the Second World War, Cornish miners dug a series of tunnels to create an underground bomb-proof and gas-proof building, housing all the telegraph operations at Porthcurno. This also included a secret escape tunnel leading to a concealed entrance in a field. In total, 15,000 tons of rock were excavated and an office space was created in the excavated area complete with a pitched roof to shed seepage, a suspended ceiling and plastered walls. Porthcurno is ranked alongside Bletchley Park as one of the 6 key sites that were instrumental in ending WW2.

    Known as "The Tunnels", the dry space at constant temperature proved to be the perfect environment for the sensitive telegraphy equipment and so operations stayed there after the war and the equipment continued to be upgraded until the 1970s. It now forms part of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and houses the main museum displays.

  46. Turn right down the steps at the front of the museum to return to the car park and complete the circular route.

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.

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