Altarnun and West Moor circular walk

Altarnun and West Moor

A walk from Altarnun across the downs and out onto the open moor where the relics of mediaeval tin workings and prehistoric roundhouses can still be seen

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The walk passes through the village and then follows a footpath across the fields to Trewint. From here the route is alongside the Trewint Downs to Westmoorgate and then out onto the moor. The walk climbs to Black Rock where there are panoramic views across West Moor and then joins a track from Leskernick. The walk then follows along the boundary wall along the edge of the moor passing prehistoric hut circles and tin streamworks. The return to Altarnun is along quiet country lanes.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 109
  • Distance: 5.5 miles/8.8 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 109 OS Explorer 109 (laminated version)

Click or tap on map for more info (blue=laminated)


  • Panoramic views across Bodmin Moor
  • Prehistoric remains including hut circles and cairns

Adjoining walks


  1. Make your way to the bridge opposite the church and cross this. Continue ahead onto the lane and follow it through the village and up the hill until you reach a metal kissing gate on the right just before the word SLOW painted on the road.

    The slate bridges from the doorways of the row of cottages along the road span a leat that was once used to power a mill in the village.

    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.

  2. Go through the kissing gate (or the gate next to it if you wearing a backpack) and follow the path through another iron kissing gate to reach a stone stile.

    Altarnun is a pretty village to the north-east of Bodmin Moor. The name "Altarnun" is a corruption of "Altar of St Nonna" although the village was originally known by the Cornish name Penpont (hence the name of the river - Penpont Water). The Old Rectory near the church was featured by Daphne Du Maurier in "Jamaica Inn".

  3. Cross the stile and follow the path to reach another stone stile.

    Beech trees form part of the canopy overhanging the path.

    Beechwood ageing is used in the production of Budweiser beer but beech is not the source of flavour. In fact beechwood has a fairly neutral flavour and in the brewing process it is pretreated with baking soda to remove even this. The relatively inert strips of wood are then added to the fermentation vessel where they increase the surface area available for yeast. It is the contact with yeast that produces the flavour in the beer, not the beech itself.

  4. Cross the stile into the field and follow the right hedge to reach a wooden stile in the corner.

    Some of the larger trees overhanging the field are beech and ash.

    Ash trees are often easy to spot by the knobbly twigs all over the ground beneath the trees. They also have distinctive rows of quite small leaves. Ash trees can live for over 400 years and the life of the tree can be prolonged further by coppicing. Ash was traditionally coppiced to provide wood for firewood and charcoal. However, the name is nothing to do with this. It is from æsc - the old English word for spear. This comes about because ash is one of the toughest hardwoods and absorbs shocks without splintering. It is still used for making tool handles and sports equipment, including hammers, axes, spades, hockey sticks and oars.

    Ash trees in Britain are now under threat from a highly destructive fungal pandemic similar to Dutch Elm Disease, known as chalara or "ash dieback". Rather than being spread by beetles, this one is simply carried by the wind. Work is underway to try to find genetic factors which allow some trees to resist infection in order to breed a new generation of disease-tolerant trees.

    The Living Ash project started with over 150,000 seedlings gathered from a wide range of areas, planted during 2013 in locations with the most ash dieback. In 2018, grafts were taken from the 575 trees which appear to have resisted infection and planted alongside 420 grafts from trees in woodlands and hedgerows which also seem to have survived infection. The idea is that these can all cross-pollinate to maximise genetic diversity and it is hoped this will eventually become a source of seeds of disease-resistant trees.

    Similarly to Dutch Elm Disease, the chalara fungal disease that causes ash dieback is originally from Asia and the ash species there have co-evolved to be tolerant. In case attempts to breed disease resistant native ash trees are unsuccessful, work is underway to create hybrid species that closely resemble the Common Ash but with the disease resistance from an Asian parent plant.

  5. Cross the stile and descend the steps to the road. Cross to the pavement opposite and turn right. Follow the pavement until you reach a lane on the right signposted to Westmoorgate.

    The manor of Trewint was first recorded in the 1086 Domesday survey as Trawint held by Roger. The name is thought to mean something along the lines of "windy farm". Before the Norman invasion it was held by Burgred whose taxes included 4 smallholders and one slave.

  6. Turn right onto the lane to Westmoorgate and follow it to a cattle grid.

    Whilst it's fairly obvious why cows are reluctant to cross a cattle grid, you might be surprised to learn that cows will also not cross a "virtual" cattle grid composed of dark and light lines painted on a completely solid surface. This even works with wild cattle who have never encountered a "real" cattle grid before and so is unlikely to be learned behaviour. It is thought that the reason is due to the limitations of cows' vision, specifically their limited depth perception means that they cannot discriminate between bars over a pit and a series of light and dark lines.

  7. Cross the cattle grid and continue on the lane to where a track forks to the right to Tredarras.

    Sheep roam free on the Trewint Downs and you may even encounter some on the lane.

    The words "lamb" and "sheep" are from Germanic languages via Old English. The word "mutton" came via Norman French from a Latin word multonem which itself is thought to have come from a Celtic word for ram. The Cornish word for a neutered male sheep - mols - is thought to be from the same origin.

  8. Keep left to stay on the tarmacked lane and follow it to Westmoorgate.

    The settlement of Tredarras was first recorded in 1433 as Dyrras More.

  9. Continue ahead across the parking area to the left-hand of the two gates ahead. Go through the gate and follow the stony track until it bends sharply and a grassy path leads ahead between the banks.

    The banks are the remains of surface workings for tin possibly dating back as far as mediaeval times.

    Tin is a semi-rare metal well-known for its corrosion resistance which is used extensively in electronics, engineering alloys and anti-corrosion coatings. Unlike many other "heavy" metals, it is not poisonous which has resulted in its use within food packaging - the ubiquitous "tin can" - and increasingly as a replacement for lead, which was used extensively before its toxicity was understood.

    Tin is found in Cornwall as the ore cassiterite (tin oxide) which occurs in small crystals amongst other rocks; even a "rich" tin ore only contains 5% tin. The name for the ore is thought either to come from the Greek kassiteros meaning "tin" or from the Phoenician name Cassiterid for Britain and Ireland.

  10. Continue ahead onto the grassy path and follow it until it forks.

    The first method to extract tin was known as "tin streaming" which reached its peak in the 12th Century, though continued until the mid 20th Century.

    Alluvial deposits occurred where a river had eroded the tiny crystals out of mineral veins. Due to tin being so heavy, the crystals had become concentrated on the bottom of the stream as the lighter rocks around them were washed away. Over time these deposits were buried in gravel and sand, and eventually soil.

    Using quite elaborate banks and channels, the river was diverted to wash away the soil and gravel, leaving the heavy tin-rich rocks behind which could be dug out once the river was diverted away.

    One side-effect of all this industry was that the topsoil, sand and gravel washed downriver caused the silting of many river estuaries and once-thriving mediaeval river ports literally dried up and were superseded by sea ports.

    Once the relatively rich alluvial deposits had been used up, mostly by the 18th Century, mineral veins were instead mined directly.

  11. At the fork, bear left and follow the track until it peters out on the moor. Continue in the same direction and when a rock outcrop comes into view on the skyline head for this.

    The little yellow flowers with four petals all over the moor in July are tormentil (Potentilla erecta). Its common names include Bloodroot and Flesh and Blood because roots yield a red dye which is still used as an ingredient for artists' colours (tormentil red). The roots also have very a high tannin content and have even been used to tan leather. Extracts from the plant have been widely used in folk medicine and is it still used as a remedy for diarrhoea and as a lotion for skin sores.

    The Leskernick stone circle is situated further along the valley, near the building in the distance.

    It is not fully understood what function the stone circles served, although excavation of some monuments has shown an association with burials. Some circles also appear to have been used to mark the passage of time and seasons, which is indicated by the alignment of stones with landmarks, to mark important solar or lunar events such as the sunrise and sunset at the winter or summer solstice. Where excavated, they have been found to date from the Late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age (2400-1000 BC).

  12. At the rock outcrop, turn right and descend into the valley. Keep going until you eventually meet a stony track which runs along the length of the valley. Turn right onto the track and follow it back towards Westmoorgate to reach a wall on the left, just before it returns the way you came.

    The rock you are standing beside is known as Black Rock. If you are facing across the valley, to your left the stony hill on the opposite side of the valley is Leskernick Hill. You can optionally extend the walk to the top of there and then drop down to the bottom of the valley and follow the stony track back towards Westmoorgate.

    On Leskernick Hill, near Altarnun, is the remains of a Bronze Age settlement which originally had over 44 round houses with two stone circles nearby.

  13. Turn left and follow along the wall. Keep the wall on your right to join a track leading into a gully.

    Just before you reach the gully there are two rings of stones which are prehistoric hut circles.

    The low stone walls remaining as hut circles were once the foundations of a round house. The granite foundations were likely to have been set into cob (mud and straw) walls which provided insulation and draft exclusion over bare-stone walls. A conical thatched roof on a timber frame rested on top of the walls. Heating was via a central fire which required some care with the thatched roof - presumably roof fires were not unheard of! These buildings varied in size from a just over a metre in diameter up to 10 metres. Some had walled enclosures attached and a few also had internal partitions.

  14. Follow the track up the other side of the gully and keep following the wall on your right until you reach the end of the wall.

    The gully is the remains of another tin streamworks.

    The final stage of tin production was a process known as smelting which produced the pure shiny metal which was known as "white tin". The smelting process used charcoal or coal as a source of carbon to chemically reduce the tin from the oxide to its elemental form, similar to the blast furnaces used for producing iron.

    Particularly in the earlier years of mining, this was typically done in a specialised facility (known as a "blowing house") to which the concentrated tin oxide (known as "black tin") was transported from the mines. In Victorian times, reverberatory furnaces using powdered anthracite replaced the charcoal and forced-air furnaces powered by water wheels, and more smelting was done onsite at the mines.

  15. At the end of the wall, bear right to reach a sunken track along the middle of the field. Bear right onto this and follow it until it ends in a gate.

    In summer, swallows may swoop past your feet. The swallows have learned that sheep (and walkers) disturb insects on the ground.

    Swallows migrate to India, Arabia and Africa for the winter. Swallows cover about 200 miles in a day when they are migrating. Journeys of over 7000 miles have been recorded.

    The word "downs" may seem strange for hilly moorland areas which are, if anything, "up". The reason is that it's derived from the Old English word dun meaning hill or moor which itself stems from the Celtic word din for hillfort (e.g. Castle-an-dinas and London). The word "dune" applied to sand is from similar origins but may have come from the original Celtic via Dutch and French where the meaning is "sand hill" rather than "moorland".

  16. Go through the gate and continue ahead to reach a lane. Turn right onto this and follow it to a farm where a track forks off the road to the right, beside a yard.

    The word "crow" is sometimes used to refer to the whole crow family (including jackdaws, rooks and ravens) and sometimes specifically to the common (carrion) crow. Carrion crows can be distinguished from their cousins by being totally black (jackdaws have grey heads, rooks have pale beaks) and having a slender and fairly straight beak (i.e. not the broad beak with a hooked top that a raven has). Biologists use the word "corvids" for "crow family" to avoid ambiguity, or to show off.

  17. Keep left and follow the road a short distance to pass between the barns on the left and cottages on the right and reach a fork.

    A beef cow produces around 30kg of dung per day. As dairy cows need to eat more to produce milk, they also produce roughly double the amount of dung which adds up to around 20 tonnes per year.

    Cow dung is high in nitrogen compounds which makes it a useful fertiliser but depending how this is spread on the fields (e.g. sprayed as a liquid), harmful ammonia can be released into the air and run into watercourses. Large tanks of slurry can also decay anaerobically releasing methane so storage mechanisms are being re-examined in light of climate change.

  18. Keep left at the fork and follow the lane to a river crossing.

    The river is the Penpont Water which passes through Altarnun and is a tributary of the River Inny which it joins at Two Bridges near Polyphant.

  19. Bear left over the footbridge to cross the river then merge back onto the lane. Follow the lane uphill and continue until it ends in a T-junction.

    Clapper bridges are an ancient form of bridge built out of stone slabs spanning piers in the river. Most were built during mediaeval times, often beside a ford where horses and carts would cross. There is disagreement over the origin of the word "clapper". One candidate is an Anglo-Saxon word cleaca meaning "a bridge of stepping stones". Another is a mediaeval Latin word clapus which is is thought to have originated in Celtic Western Europe and to mean "pile of stones".

  20. Turn right at the junction and follow the lane until you reach a gate leading into the churchyard with a "warning stairs" sign.

    The cross at the entrance to Trekennick Farm was previously a little further along the road towards the church but was dislodged and damaged by workmen repairing the road in the 1930s. It is thought to date from around the 11th Century.

    There are over four hundred complete stone crosses in Cornwall and at least another two hundred fragments.

    A number of mediaeval crosses have been found built into walls, used as animal rubbing posts, gateposts and stream crossings. Many were rescued and moved into churchyards during Victorian times. A number were also moved from their roadside locations into churchyards.

  21. Go through the gate into the churchyard and follow it around the church to the main gate. Go through this and turn right to return the church hall to complete the circular route.

    Altarnun church is located beside Penpont Water - a tributary of the River Inny - in the centre of the small village of Altarnun which is just to the north-east of Bodmin Moor. The 15th century church, dedicated to St Nonna, has an amazing collection of carved pew-ends from about 1520 (including one that mentions the artist - Robert Daye), a striking Norman font with the original colour still visible, and 15th century Rood screen. The church is known as "Cathedral of the moors" due to its impressive 109ft tall tower on which you can still see the deep padlocks that once held its scaffolding in place. A 6th century Celtic Cross stands in the churchyard, from the time before the Celtic Cornwall had been conquered by the Anglo Saxons.

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