Coombe and Old Kea circular walk

Coombe and Old Kea

A circular walk on the creeks of the Fal river network settled by Celtic monks where the ruin of a huge mediaeval church still towers above the trees

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The walk begins by following Cowlands creek with views over the area surrounding Trelissick Gardens. The route then turns inland to reach the ruined mediaeval church tower of Old Kea and Victorian church built first as a Poor House from the mediaeval remains. The walk then descends the Truro River to its confluence with the River Fal and completes the circle on woodland paths overlooking the creeks.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 105
  • Distance: 4.2 miles/6.7 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 105 OS Explorer 105 (laminated version)

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


  • Views over the creeks of Carrick Roads
  • The ivy-clad ruined church tower at Old Kea
  • Wildflowers throughout the spring including snowdrops, daffodils, primroses and bluebells


  1. If the tide is out, facing the river, turn right and follow along the shoreline until you reach a waymark where a track descends to meet the path along the water's edge. If the tide is fully in, making it impossible to follow the shoreline, then follow the track marked with the Public Footpath sign to Lower Lanner Farm which goes up, then along, then down to rejoin the path at the waymark by the water's edge.

    The village of Coombe and much of the surrounding land is owned by The Tregothnan Estate (of Lord Falmouth). Coombe had no road access until 1926 and for centuries was occupied by two ancient Cornish families (Gunn and Ferris) and so was alternatively known as the "Gunn Valley" (as Coombe just means "valley"). A stone enclosure part-way down the creek is thought to be the remains of a mediaeval oyster keep.

  2. Follow the waymarked path along the edge of the creek until you reach the point where the path turns away from the creek.

    Over 400 years ago, plums were discovered growing beside Cowlands Creek on land owned by the Tregothnan Estate. Soon this had been multiplied into a number of small orchards and by the 19th Century, pickers would arrive by steamer to help with harvest. This was done my shaking the tree to ensure only ripe plums were harvesting. Since some of the plum trees overhung Cowlands Creek, boats needed to be positioned beneath the tree to catch falling plums. The plums were stored in baskets lined with ferns to allow air circulation and protect the fruit from any mould.

  3. Follow the path uphill to a waymark and turn left past the Turn-a-Penny sign then follow along the hedge to join a path and reach a stile.

    In the late 20th Century, the Kea Plum was largely forgotten. A number of trees still grew in back gardens in Coombe but the fruit was just used by tenants living in the cottages. In the 21st Century, interest in reviving heritage varieties of fruit and veg has generated a market for the Kea Plum. Residents were contacted by the Tregothnan Estate to inform them that their fruit belonged to the estate who now once again collect the plums each year. Tregothnan sells Kea plum jam and frozen plums online and is working on making the area a Protected Designation of Origin.

  4. Cross (or go around) the stile and follow the path to emerge on a track beside the white cottage (ignore the waymarked path to the right).

    In spring, bluebells and early purple orchids flower in the woods.

    The early purple orchid has a Latin name meaning "virile" which is in keeping with the word "orchid" coming from the Greek word for testicle (on account of the shape of the tuber).

    This particular species is the con-man of the plant kingdom, with brilliant purple flowers resembling those of other nectar-rich orchids. When the insects arrive and push through the pollen to investigate the promising flowers, they discover that the flowers contain no nectar.

    Wood anemones can be recognised by their white star-like flowers growing in shady locations during the spring. Hoverflies are important pollinators of the plant so you may also see these nearby. Avoid touching the plants as they are poisonous to humans and can cause severe skin irritation.

    The anemones grow from underground stems (rhizomes) and spread very slowly - to spread by six feet takes about 100 years! This makes it a good indicator of ancient woodland.

    A flower is effectively an advert to insects that nectar is available and the reason that flowers are coloured and scented is so these adverts get noticed. The basic idea with most flowers is to lure the insect in with a bribe of nectar and then whilst they are there, unload pollen they are carrying from another flower, stick some pollen to them from this flower, and send them on their way.

  5. Follow the track around a bend to the right, signposted to Cowlands, until it ends on a lane.

    Anyone who has sat on a holly leaf will know how prickly they can be but the leaves particularly on larger holly bushes often vary considerably with less spiky leaves nearer the top.

    Holly is able to vary its leaf shape in response to its environment through a chemical process known as DNA methylation which can be used to switch genes on and off. If its leaves are eaten by grazing animals or trampled by walkers, the holly will crank up the methylation level to produce really spiky leaves on these stems. Conversely on the stems where the leaves are able to grow old in peace, the holly will produce versions that are flatter and therefore more efficient at catching the light. An individual leaf can last up to five years.

  6. Turn left onto the lane and follow it over the bridge until you reach a public footpath on the right just past the thatched house.

    At high tide, swans can paddle up to the top of the creek to get at the weed growing the in fresh water coming down under the bridge.

    Swans usually mate for life, although "divorce" can sometimes occur if there is a nesting failure. The birds can live for over 20 years but in the 20th Century many swans were found to be suffering from lead poisoning. This was tracked down to the tiny "lead shot" weights used for fishing that swans would hoover up with weed and roots from the bottom of rivers and lakes. Since the introduction of non-toxic metals for making fishing weights, incidents of poisoning have disappeared and the swan population is now even growing very slightly.

  7. Turn right onto the footpath and follow it along fence to keep the fence on your right. Continue on the path through the woods to emerge into a field.

    Lesser celandines are common plants along woodland paths recognisable by their yellow star-shaped flowers. Despite their name, they are not closely related to the Greater Celandine. Lesser celandines are actually a member of the buttercup family and, like buttercups, they contain the poisonous chemical protoanemonin.

    During periods of cold weather, spring flowers, such as bluebells, have already started the process of growth by preparing leaves and flowers in underground bulbs during summer and autumn. They are then able to grow in the cold of winter, or early spring, by using these resources stored in their bulb. Once they have flowered, the leaves die off and the cycle begins again.

    Other species (such as cow parsley or dandelions) require warm weather before they are able to germinate and grow. With the warmer springs induced by climate change, bluebells lose their "early start" advantage, and can be out-competed.

    Black fungi that resemble lumps of coal are known as coal fungus but also King Alfred cakes due to a legendary baking disaster by the regent. The dried fungus can be used with a flint as a fire starter - a spark will ignite the inside which glows like a piece of charcoal and can be used to light dry grass. There is evidence that prehistoric nomadic tribes used glowing pieces of fungus to transport fire to a new camp.

  8. Continue ahead up the field towards the houses to reach a small gap in the bank.

    Dandelion is a corruption of the French dent de lion (lion's tooth), which is thought to refer to the shape of the leaves. The plant is a member of the sunflower family.

    Both celandines and buttercups produce yellow flowers here in spring. Buttercups are the later of the two, flowering in May and June rather than March and April.

    There are a few different species of buttercup. One of most common is meadow buttercup (unsurprisingly found in meadows!) which is the tallest member of the family. Another common one is creeping buttercup which as the name suggests spreads through rhizomes so is more likely to be found in dense clumps in damp places. Its leaves are also more golden and glossy.

    Plantains are common weeds found alongside footpaths. Confusingly, members of the banana family are also known as plantain (e.g. "fried plantain") but despite the name the footpath weeds aren't closely related to bananas.

  9. Cross through the bank and continue a few paces to a track. Turn right onto the track and follow it until it emerges onto a lane beside a farm.

    From April to June, white flowers of Greater Stitchwort can be seen along hedgerows and paths. The petals are quite distinctive as each one is split almost all the way to create pairs - most of the flowers typically have 5 pairs. The name comes from alleged powers to cure an exercise-induced stitch. Other common names include Star-of-Bethlehem (due to the shape and perhaps Easter flowering time) and Poor Man's Buttonhole for budget weddings. It is also known as Wedding Cakes but that may be more due to the colour than anticipation of what a buttonhole might lead to. The seed capsules can sometimes be heard bursting open in the late spring sunshine which gives rise to another name: Popguns.

    Stoats and weasels are related to badgers and to otters, which they more closely resemble. The stoat is roughly twice the size of a weasel but can be distinguished without the need to measure it by its black-tipped tail. The weasel preys mostly on voles, but the stoat will take on prey much larger than itself including birds and even full-grown rabbits. During the winter, the coat of the stoat (and also some populations of weasel) changes colour from brown to white to camouflage it in the snow.

    The soft, silky winter fur of the stoat is known as ermine and garments made from this were a luxury associated with royalty and high status. Given that stoats mark their territory using pungent anal scent glands, it’s likely a fair amount of washing of the furs occurred before being draped over royalty.

  10. Turn left onto the lane and follow it until it ends in a T-junction.

    The lane forms part of National Cycle Route 3.

    National Cycle Route 3 runs 338 miles from Bristol to Land's End. The route is a mixture of lanes, byways and some tracks not open to road traffic including the upper section of the Camel Trail from Wenfordbridge to Dunmere.

  11. Turn right, signposted to Old Kea. Follow the lane until you reach a junction.

    A Celtic monastery at Kea was recorded in the Domesday book in 1086 and is thought to have dated from around AD 500. There are references to a Celtic monk named Kea who rose to the status of Bishop. During mediaeval times, the parish of St Kea was large and important, reflected in the size of the mediaeval church tower. The parish stretched as far as Chacewater and Scorrier.

  12. Turn left, signposted to Old Kea, and follow the lane to Churchtown Farm.

    The riverside settlement you can see to the left is Malpas, on the confluence of the Tresillian River (which you can see ahead) and Truro River (to the left but mostly hidden by the hills). This was the site of a mediaeval ferry crossing and a public footpath from Churchtown Farm leads to the water's edge to connect with the ferry. Due to silting of the creeks from mining activities, Malpas is now the highest navigable point at low tide on the Truro river and so ferry services to Truro terminate at Malpas when the tide is low.

  13. Bear right at Churchtown Farm to follow the lane towards the gate of Old Kea church which you might want to explore before continuing. Then continue on the lane until it ends beside a gate with a public footpath sign.

    A substantial church was built at Old Kea in the 13th Century or before with some early 16th Century restoration, from which the ruined tower remains. The church fell into ruin because it was located in the extreme east of the parish resulting in 10 miles of walking on a Sunday for some of the congregation. A new church was built in Kea in 1802 and the old church was largely dismantled, with some of the window tracery sold off to construct Perranzabuloe church and the font and bells used in the new church at Kea. Some of the building materials were used to construct a parish poor-house on the site which was later rebuilt into the small church building initially in the 1850s and extended into its present form in the 1860s, when the stained glass was added.

    More about Old Kea church

  14. Go through the pedestrian gate on the left and follow the path between the two lines of fence posts across the field to a stile on the far side.

    Swallows can sometimes be seen skimming the fields whilst hunting for insects.

    In areas where ospreys are common, swallows will nest below an osprey nest and form a cooperative relationship where the swallows warn the osprey of nest raiders and the ospreys drive away other birds of prey that eat swallows. The osprey became extinct in England and Wales during Victorian times due to egg collecting but through a combination of reintroduction from Scotland and natural recolonisation from Scandinavia, ospreys are gradually returning. They are regular visitors to West Cornwall and are most likely to be seen on big lakes or estuaries in April or September.

    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.

  15. Cross the stile and continue ahead to meet a track. Turn right onto the track and follow it until it emerges onto a lane.

    The settlement of Trevean was first recorded in 1278 and is Cornish for "small farm". The originally Cornish word vean was still in use as a dialect word for "small" within English in Cornwall during Victorian times.

  16. Turn left onto the lane and follow it to Higher Trelease Farm.

    Trelease was first recorded in 1278 but is thought to date from early mediaeval times. It is thought that part of the field system adjoining the farm may also date from the mediaeval period. The name is based on the Cornish word lys, meaning "court", which may suggest a high-status farmstead.

  17. Keep left to stay on the lane and follow it until it ends at a turning area.

    The lane is likely to be a mediaeval holloway.

    Some of the Public Rights of Way originating from mediaeval times appear as sunken paths, also known as holloways from the Old English hola weg, a sunken road. There are different reasons for the lane being lower than the surrounding land. In some cases it was simply erosion caused by horses, carts and rainwater over hundreds of years. There are also examples where ditches formed between banks as a boundary between estates and then later adopted as a convenient location for travel or droving animals.

  18. Join the track indicated by the "Public Footpath Coombe" sign. Follow the track until you reach a cottage ahead with a gate marked "Private" with a stile to the left.

    The settlement of Halwyn was recorded in 1278 and is based on the Cornish words hel, meaning "hall", and gwyn, meaning "white". The settlement was formerly a farm which was still present in the 1970s.

  19. Climb the stile and follow along the left edge of the gravel area to pass to the left of the cottage and reach a waymarked gate on the far side. Turn right and follow along the line of trees a path up the bank to reach a stile leading into the field.

    This area of the estuary contains wild oyster beds.

    Native oysters rarely produce pearls (Pearl Oysters live in warmer seas) although all molluscs theoretically can and most would be tiny. The commercial value from native oysters comes from eating them and it takes around 4-5 years for an oyster to reach full size.

  20. Cross the stile and turn left. Follow the grassy area along the bottom of the field to reach a waymarked stile at the far end.

    During Victorian times, Norwegian vessels of nearly a thousand tons anchored at Malpas and unloaded their cargoes of timber. These were formed into rafts, and floated to the terminus of the West Cornwall Railway, on the river bank, ready to be transported to the mining districts.

  21. Cross the stile and follow the path until it eventually emerges onto a lane.

    Roughly mid-way along the path are a number of patches of wild garlic. Possibly due to the sheltered, south-facing woodland, they seem to shoot quite early.

    Unlike their more versatile narrow-leaved cousins the three-cornered leeks, ramsons grow mainly in shady places such as woodland. Their broad leaves are solar panels that have evolved to capture the weak winter light early in the year before the trees are in leaf. They are an indicator that woodland is ancient and has provided a shady environment over a long period to colonise.

    There are two types of ivy leaf. Those on creeping stems are the classic ivy leaf shape with 3-5 triangular lobes - they grow towards shade to find a tree to climb up. However, more mature ivy plants grow aerial shoots with a completely different (teardrop) leaf shape. These are the shoots that bear the flowers and fruits and are typically located in a sunny spot such as on an upright ivy bush or top of a rock face. The reason for the different shapes is that the larger, multi-lobed leaves are able to catch more light in shady areas whereas the smaller, stouter leaves are more resistant to drying out.

  22. Turn right onto the lane and follow this back to Coombe beach.

    The moon's gravity pulls the water in the oceans towards it causing peaks in the ocean both directly under the moon but also on the opposite side of the Earth so sigh tides occur every 12-13 hours when the moon is either directly overhead or is on the opposite side. There are therefore just over 6 hours between low and high tide.

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