Roughtor and Brown Willy

The walk climbs to the summit of Rough Tor, via the Holy Well, and follows the ridge Showery Tor, where there are spectacular views to the North Cornish coast. The route then drops into the valley and climbs to the top of Brown Willy - the highest point in Cornwall - where there are views south to the China clay hills around St Austell. The return route circles the base of Rough Tor, through the remains of prehistoric settlements overlooking the Fernacre stone circle.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 109 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 5.2 miles/8.4 km
  • Grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Start from: Roughtor car park
  • Parking: Roughtor car park. From the A39 in Camelford, turn down Higher Cross Lane. signposted to Tregoodwell. Keep following the road until it ends in the car park. Satnav: PL329QG
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots (marshy even in summer)

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Roughtor - Bodmin Moor's most rugged and iconic tor
  • Weather-sculpted granite on the top of Showery Tor
  • Spectacular panoramic views from the summits of Roughtor and Brown Willy
  • Cairns, stone circles and other remnants of ancient Neolithic civilization
  • Brown Willy - the highest point in Cornwall
  • Bronze Age hut circles, field systems and enclosures

Adjoining walks

Directions

  1. From the car park on Poldue Downs, head through the gate to the bridge over the stream.

    Poldue means "black pool" in Cornish and seems to crop up quite a lot on Bodmin Moor, maybe as a result of the dark moorland peat.

    An 18-year old girl - Charlotte Dymond - was murdered near Roughtor in 1844 and her body was found near the clapper bridge. A granite memorial post stands nearby. Her ghost is said to haunt the moors. Her boyfriend was hung for the offence, despite protesting his innocence, with a verdict based on circumstantial evidence and a confession which appears to have been faked. The trial is re-enacted at Bodmin Jail.

  2. Cross the bridge and follow the track ahead until it peters out.

    On the approach to Roughtor from the car park, in the open grassy moorland the north-west of the tor, is the remains of a settlement consisting of over 120 hut circles, small enclosures and fragments of field systems. The majority of the round houses are laid out in a broad north-south band and linked by the stony banks of a series of six small irregular enclosures. Excavations have shown these to date from the early-mid Bronze Age.

  3. Head between the middle two rock stacks on the skyline. As you approach, follow the line of reeds upwards to reach the spring emerging from Roughtor Holy Well.

    The Roughtor Holy Well was discovered in 1970 on the slopes of Rough Tor, then lost again and re-discovered and restored in 1994. Unsurprisingly, given its history, it's not that easy to spot from a distance in all the granite fragments on the slopes of Rough Tor. A spring rises in the well but the stream runs only a few hundred metres before disappearing again into boggy ground. The reeds that grow along the stream are the easiest way to locate it.

  4. From the Holy Well, make your way to the top of Rough Tor on your right.

    Before Christianity, the Pagan Celtic people of Cornwall worshipped wonders of the natural world. Where clean, drinkable water welled up from the ground in a spring, this was seen as pretty awesome. Where the springwater dissolved minerals, for specific conditions (e.g. deficiency in a mineral) or where the water was antibacterial, the water appeared to have healing properties. The sites were seen as portals to another world, and is why fairies are often associated with springs.

  5. From the top of Rough Tor, turn back on yourself and follow the ridge to next largest rock stack (Little Rough Tor).

    Rough Tor is the second highest peak on Bodmin Moor. It is pronouced "row-tor" because the local dialect word "row" meant "rough". The summit of Rough Tor is encircled by a series of rough Neolithic stone walls which link natural outcrops, to form a tor enclosure. Also on the summit are the foundations of a mediaeval chapel, built into the side of one of the larger cairns.

  6. Continue along the ridge to Showery Tor - the isolated leftmost granite stack at the far end of the ridge.

    The word granite comes from the Latin granum (a grain), in reference to its coarse-grained structure. Granite forms as a pluton - an intrusive igneous rock, formed from a big blob of magma slowly cooling below the surface of the Earth, resulting in the large crystals. Granite mostly contains slightly acidic chemical compounds, and consequently there is nothing to neutralise acids from plant decay and carbon dioxide dissolved in rainwater, resulting in acidic moorland soils.

  7. Walk to the opposite side of Showery Tor and turn right along the line of rock stacks. Pass a big pile of rocks on your right and then bear right slightly to reach a tall stack of rocks on the edge of the valley.

    Tors are the result of millions of years of weathering. They started out as a molten blob of rock beneath the surface, which cooled and crystallised into granite, cracking (mostly vertically) as it cooled. Hot water circulated through the cracks, reacting chemically with the rocks and depositing minerals. As the softer rocks above were worn away fairly quickly, the reduction in pressure from the weight of the rock above caused the granite to crack (this time more horizontally). Water, acidic from carbon dioxide in the air, circulated in the cracks, causing weathering. Repeated freezing and thawing during Ice Ages caused blocks of varying sizes to break off. The "basins" on the tops of some of the tors are also the result of repeated freezing and thawing of water which has collected on the surface.

  8. From the pile of rocks, bear right into the valley between Roughtor and Brown Willy to reach a bridge at the bottom of the valley where the path leads up to Brown Willy.

    The De Lank River springs from Rough Tor Marsh, between the two highest peaks on Bodmin Moor and joins the River Camel near Blisland. It is an important wildlife habitat, noted for diverse and abundant flora and fauna and its surrounding banks, woodlands and marshes have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Together with the River Camel, the De Lank is an important habitat for the otter which is present along the whole length of the river.

    The name is reported as being from a Cornish name which is recorded as Dinlonk. The Cornish word lonk means gully. The name of the riverside settlement Lank is almost certainly related.

  9. Cross the bridge and follow the path uphill from the bridge to reach the trig point beside the cairn on the top of Brown Willy.

    Brown Willy is a tor on the north-west area of Bodmin Moor.The name "Brown Willy" is actually a distortion of the Cornish Bronn Wennili which means "hill of swallows". The summit is the highest point in Cornwall, at 420m above sea level, but only 20m taller than Rough Tor.

  10. From the trig point, continue along the top of the ridge along the several small peaks of Brown Willy to reach the cairn on the southernmost peak.

    These are amongst the most intact cairns on Bodmin Moor due to their remote and inaccessible location. The larger cairn has been postulated to have a calendric function as the sun rises over the Brown Willy cairn from the Stannon Stone Circle at the Equinox. Unless the weather on Bodmin Moor was significantly less prone to mist and cloud in Bronze Age times than it is now, it's unlikely this would have been very effective, as on a misty day seeing the other side of the stone circle is hard enough! An alternative hypothesis is that this is a burial mound; it has never been excavated so whether this is true remains unknown.

    The piles or rings of stones known as cairns, were built for a variety of purposes: some ceremonial including burials, some practical such as markers in a calendric sundial. Although much speculation has taken place, the reason for the construction of each is now unknown. When radiocarbon dating was done on nine of the cairns on Bodmin Moor, eight gave average date ranges between 2162 to 1746 BC, suggesting the early Bronze Age was the main building period. The remnants you see today are in many cases a small fragment of the original structure as the rocks from many cairns have since been "re-purposed" for use in drystone walls, buildings, roads etc. The Cornish word for cairn is karn or carn (from karnow, meaning "rock piles") and Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape.

  11. From the southern cairn on Brown Willy, double back to the bridge at the bottom of the valley.

    Looking across the barren granite landscape of Bodmin Moor, it may seem strange that so many settlements can be found here from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. About 10,000 years ago, Bodmin Moor was almost entirely covered in forest, and the Neolithic tribes would have lived in forest clearings. During the Bronze Age, the majority of forest was cleared for farmland. The burning and grazing, over several thousand years, has resulted in poor soils which are naturally quite acidic due to the granite rocks. This, together with the exposure to the wind, is why the few trees on the moor today are generally stunted.

  12. From the bridge, bear left along the wall then skirt around the base of Rough Tor. Once the car park comes back into view then join the path leading to the bridge.

    As you skirt around the base of Rough Tor, you pass close to the remains of another settlement.

    On the southern slopes of Roughtor are the remains of a large number of hut circles. The houses and the small enclosures probably represent an economy based on stock rearing, with perhaps a little cultivation of cereals. The extensive field system is likely to be from a later period, representing a time when arable farming was predominant.

    The stone circle to your left is known as Fernacre

    The Fernacre stone circle is located on the slopes of Rough Tor. The name dates back to the Middle Ages. It is thought either to mean "bracken land" or "fairy land" as Feren was the old plural of fairy. Fernacre is one of the largest stone rings in Cornwall, with a diameter of approximately 44m by 46m. Only about 61 stones survive, the possible total originally being between 77 and 95. From Fernacre, it has been suggested that a standing stone on Brown Willy marks the equinox sunrise, which is also aligned with two cairns, and sunset over Louden Hill marks May 1st.

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. email contact@iwalkcornwall.co.uk, or message either IWalkCornwall on facebook or @iwalkc on twitter.

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