Week St Mary to Penhallam

The walk heads out of the village to the hill at Ashbury which was chosen as the vantage point for a fort in the Iron Age. The route then descends through broadleaf woods to the remains of Penhallam manor. The walk follows the woods downriver and then crosses to the opposite side of the valley. The final stretch, across the fields to the church, is past an earthwork remaining from a mediaeval castle.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 111 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 2.9 miles/4.7 km
  • Grade: Easy-moderate
  • Start from: Week St Mary town square
  • Parking: The town square in front of the church. Satnav: EX226XH
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Broadleaf woodland surrounding Ashbury
  • Remains of 800 year old Penhallam manor
  • Elegant Church of Week St Mary with curious carvings
  • Views over the tributary valleys of the River Neet from the fields near the church
  • Historic Old College at Week St Mary

Directions

  1. From the war memorial, head down the main road, away from the church, until you reach a junction signposted to Penhallam.

    Week St Mary is a small village in northeast Cornwall. The Anglo-Saxon name for the village was Wyke meaning "dairy farm". "St Mary" was added to distinguish it from the more than one or two others in the area.

  2. Turn right in the direction signposted to Penhallam. Follow the lane to a sharp bend, with a public footpath sign on the left.

    The Saxons had a stronghold in northeastern Cornwall, which is reflected in many of the place names (-stow, -bury, -ton, -worthy, -cott, -ham, -ford etc). As you move further west, the Celtic place names (Tre-, Pen-, Lan-) become more common.

  3. Turn left onto the footpath signposted to Week Green; go through the gate and follow the path until you reach another gate.

    Holly grows beneath the canopy of the trees along the track.

    The association of holly with winter celebrations pre-dates Christianity: druids were known to use holly wreaths which, it is likely with some discomfort, they wore on their heads.

  4. Cross the stile next to the gate. Follow the lane until you reach a track on the right opposite a wooden fence on the left, just after a garage.
  5. Turn right down the track (marked with a footpath sign), and follow it to a gate beside a barn.
  6. As you approach the gate, bear right down the path indicated by the waymark and follow it through the woods to a stile

    Blackbirds are one of the most common birds in the UK with a population of somewhere between 10 and 15 million. However, blackbirds were in steady decline from the 1970s through to the mid-1990s. The population has only relatively recently recovered.

    The reference in the nursery rhyme "sing a song a sixpence" to "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" is thought to be to the 16th Century amusement (though not for the blackbirds) of producing a large pie with a chamber for live birds which would fly out when the pie was cut open.

    Baby blackbirds usually leave the nest before they can actually fly then hop and scramble through the bushes. Their parents watch over them so don't attempt to rescue them.

  7. Cross the stile and follow the track until it ends in a gate at Ashbury farm.

    Gorse, also known as furze, is present as two species (Common Gorse and Western Gorse) along the Atlantic coast. Between the species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrases: "when gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion" (which is recorded from the mid-19th century) and "when the furze is in bloom, my love's in tune" (which dates from the mid-18th century).

  8. Go through the gate and continue ahead towards the farm. Walk straight ahead through the farm, passing the house and barns on your left and going through any gates across the yard, to reach a final waymarked gate ahead into a field.

    From Tudor times onwards, the majority of farming in Cornwall was based around rearing livestock with dairy cattle being predominant. This is reflected in traditional Cornish dairy produce including clotted cream and, later, ice cream and in the North Cornwall dialect where the pejorative for "farmer" was a fairly graphical description of the act of milking before the introduction of milking machines which rhymed with "bit fuller".

    Since 1984, the European Common Market agricultural policy - to restrict milk production - has reduced dairy herds and prompted shifts to beef and lamb production, and arable crops - particularly maize and oilseed rape. Two large buyers of Cornish milk - Rodda's for their clotted cream and Diary Crest for the production of Davidstow and Cathedral City cheeses - have helped to buffer the Cornish dairy industry from this to some degree. Post-Brexit, there is speculation that Britain may become more agriculturally self-sufficient and this could change the dynamics once again.

  9. Go through the gate and bear left to follow the track to a waymarked farm gate and kissing gate.

    The summit of the hill is where Ashbury Fort was located.

    Ashbury Fort was located on the summit of a hill that forms part of Westwood Common, just west of the village of Week St Mary. Ashbury was an Iron Age (600 BC to 43 AD) fort consisting of 2 concentric earth ramparts standing over 3 metres high. Typically, the central area would have contained many houses and, when being used to repel marauders, the space between the ramparts would have been used to graze livestock. Ashbury farm, just to the south-east, takes its name from the fort.

  10. Go through the kissing gate and keep left to stay in the left-hand field. Follow the fence on your right, along the field, to the woods.

    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:

    • Do not show any threatening behaviour towards calves (approaching them closely, making loud noises or walking between a calf and its mother) as you may provoke the mother to defend her young. Generally the best plan is to walk along the hedges.
    • If cows approach you, do not run away as this will encourage them to chase you. Stand your ground and stretch out your arms to increase your size.
    • Avoid taking dogs into fields with cows, particularly with calves. If you can't avoid it: 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.
  11. Follow the path along the fence and into the woods, until you reach a crossing over a spring.
  12. Cross the spring and continue to reach a waymark ahead. Bear left in the direction indicated by the waymark, following the path downhill to a stile.

    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.

    The older an oak tree becomes, the more acorns it produces. A 70-80 year old tree can produce thousands. As well as for squirrels, acorns are a really important food for deer and make up a quarter of their diet in the autumn. Acorns are high in carbohydrates and were also eaten by people in times of famine. Acorns were soaked in water to leech out the bitter tannins and could then be made into flour.

    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. Cross the stile and follow the path a short distance to another stile.
  14. Cross the stile and turn right onto the track. Follow the track a short distance until you reach a stile on the right with a permissive path sign.
  15. Cross the stile on the right, and a second, to an information board about the De Cardinhams. At this point you can cross the footbridge over the moat to see the remains of Penhallam then return here afterwards. Then follow the path anticlockwise around the moat until you reach a gate.

    Penhallam, situated close to Week St Mary is the remains of an 800 year old moated manor house. This was originally owned by the Norman landholding families, and included a Hall, bakehouse and chapel. It was only rediscovered in 1967 when the area was being prepared for forestry planting.

  16. Exit through the gate onto a track. Follow the track through Harris' Wood until it eventually ends in a gate.

    There is a large Elder tree near the gate on the exit from Harris' Wood.

    Elderflowers appear in June and are easily recognisable as large white umbels on the shrubby green trees. Elder trees were associated with witchcraft which may have arisen because their berries were used in medicines. Consequently there were many superstitions about cutting down or burning elder trees.

    Elder be ye Lady's tree, burn it not or cursed ye'll be.

    If you are harvesting the flowers to make cordial or wine, avoid picking umbels where the flowers are going brown or haven't opened yet; they should be bright white with a yellow centre. If you are harvesting the berries they should be black (not red) and not shrivelled.

  17. Go through the two sets of gates to reach a lane. Turn right on the lane and follow it to a T-junction.

    To make elderflower cordial, remove the bitter stems from about a 20 flower heads and soak overnight in 1 litre of water containing the juice of 2 lemons. Strain the liquid and dissolve around 600g sugar to make a sweet cordial. To make dissolving the sugar easier, you can pre-dissolve the sugar in the water in advance by boiling the water and allowing it to cool before adding the elderflowers, though you lose some of your sugar on the discarded elderflowers that way. Dilute with water or sparkling water to serve.

  18. At the T-junction, bear right to the footpath opposite, signposted to Week St Mary. Cross the stile and follow the right hedge to a stile in the corner of the field, leading to a footbridge.

    To make Elderflower wine, make a slightly lower sugar elderflower cordial in enough quantity to fill a demijohn and ferment with a white wine or ideally champagne yeast. By varying the amount of sugar from about 1kg to 1.5kg to a gallon of liquid, you can create either a dry or sweet wine, or with a champagne yeast, a very strong wine. The wine needs a little aging to become less rough, but less than many fruit wines - a year is typically adequate.

    To create a sparkling wine, make a dry wine and rack the wine into 2 litre plastic bottles with a small amount of airspace and add half a teaspoon of sugar - this is enough to generate some carbon dioxide and, unlike glass wine bottles, the plastic bottles are able to withstand the pressure. Don't use more sugar or completely fill your bottles with liquid or you risk an explosion. In this case, aging of 6 months to a year is generally adequate.

    Too much pollen from the flowers can make the wine bitter and murky yellow. Pre-washing the elderflowers before de-stalking and soaking them will remove some of the pollen as well as any creatures hiding in the flowers.

  19. Cross the footbridge and the stile into the next field. Follow the right hedge to a corner with a tree, just before an earthwork.

    If there are sheep in the field and you have a dog, make sure it's securely on its lead (sheep are prone to panic and injuring themselves even if a dog is just being inquisitive). If the sheep start bleeting, this means they are scared and they are liable to panic. If there are pregnant sheep in the field, be particularly sensitive as a scare can cause the lambs to be stillborn. If there are sheep in the field with lambs, avoid approaching them closely, making loud noises or walking between a lamb and its mother, as you may provoke the mother to defend her young. Sheep may look cute but if provoked they can cause serious injury (hence the verb "to ram"). Generally, the best plan is to walk quietly along the hedges and they will move away or ignore you.

  20. From the corner of the hedge, follow the bank to reach the stile ahead.

    The earthwork on your right is the remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle.

    A bailey was essentially a fortified settlement, typically surrounded by wooden pallisades. If breached, the motte provided an even more fortified position for retreat and defence during a siege.

  21. Bear right slightly around the mound, towards the church, to a stile into the churchyard.
  22. Cross the stile and make your way (possibly via the church) to exit the churchyard via the gate opposite (in the corner of the far hedge).

    On the tower of Week St Mary Church, there are some fine carvings. If you look high up on the west side of the tower you can see hounds chasing a hare. The tall tower has been struck by lightning several times. In 1935, the southwest pinnacle was hit during a hailstorm and fell into the church. There are impressive photos on the village website.

  23. Exit the churchyard onto a path which brings you out into the Lower Square on the main road.
  24. Turn right and follow the road to return to The Square in front of the church.

    Behind a piece of castellated wall in Week St Mary, hides one of the most historic buildings - The Old College. The Old College was restored by the Landmark Trust who now let it as a holiday cottage. Originally, the house would have been set in a square courtyard, and approached from a courtyard door opposite the front door - where the mainly 19th century house called 'New College' now stands (look out for the odd bit of Old College masonry in New College's wall). The windows either side of the door would have been gothic. If you peek around the back of the Old College, you can see examples of these. The far, west, side of the building would have been much longer, and would have joined to further buildings, filling the west side of the courtyard where there is now just a farm gate.

    The story began with the birth of the remarkable Thomasine Bonaventure in Week St Mary in 1450. She married three times, each marriage gaining her more money and status, until she was finally left as the widow of Sir John Percival, the Lord Mayor of London. At this point, Lady Percival returned to Week St Mary and began charity work. In 1506, she founded a school - Week St Mary College, with an endowment to pay for a schoolmaster, graduated from Oxford or Cambridge, who would also pray for her soul in the parish church. 40 years later, it was written about in glowing terms, but then suddenly something mysteriously caused the school's collapse and decay and the children were moved to a school in Launceston.

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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