Cotehele to Calstock circular walk

Cotehele to Calstock

A circular walk through the gardens of Cotehele to Calstock where Cornwall's largest Roman fort once stood, the Vikings allied with the Cornish to fight off the Saxons, and more recently railway wagons were lifted over 100ft by steam power from the quay to the top of the viaduct.

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The walk passes through Cotehele gardens and then circles the Danescombe valley on the way to Calstock Church. From here, the route joins the Tamar Discovery Trail, passing Okel Tor mine on its way to Calstock. The return route is along the River Tamar via Lower Kelly and Cotehele's chapel.


  • The footbridge across the Danescombe river can become quite slippery after wet weather.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 108
  • Distance: 5.9 miles/9.5 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Walking shoes or trainers in summer; walking boots in winter.

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 108 OS Explorer 108 (laminated version)

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


  • Cotehele House - a well-preserved Tudor mansion
  • Spectacular Victorian gardens with Mediaeval dovecot
  • Historic engine houses, quays and limekilns
  • Views along the River Tamar
  • Wildflowers including bluebells and orchids

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Boot Inn
  • The Tamar Inn

Adjoining walks


  1. Make your way out of the car park and head towards the Discovery Centre until you reach The Edgcumbe and then bear right to follow the lane uphill to a junction with the road.

    The Shamrock was built in 1899 as a Tamar sailing barge, named after an Irish entry to the Americas Cup Race in that year. After a long working life she ended up being used as a scrap iron store in Plymouth. She was rescued in 1973 and taken to Cotehele where she was restored over 6 years. She is now the largest Tamar barge still fully working and occasionally makes trips up and down the river.

  2. When you reach the road, turn right up the drive to Cotehele House, signposted to the house and car park. Continue until you reach a pair of car park signs on the bend.

    By Victorian times, the parish of Calstock had more lime kilns than any other in Cornwall, with many of these along the river at Lower Kelly and Cotehele where coal and limestone were landed. Often culm (a local soft, peaty coal) was used as the fuel. The coal and limestone was loaded into the top of the kilns and was allowed to burn for a week; this produced quicklime which was raked out of the bottom. The lime from the kilns was transported by horse and cart to the nearby farms and market gardens.

  3. Keep left at the car park sign, signposted Main Car Park, then almost immediately turn right, signposted to House and Garden. Follow the road to a corner with a white gate ahead and granite gateposts on the right leading into a gravel area containing the reception.

    Cotehele House belonged to the Edgcumbe family for nearly 600 years before being donated to the National Trust in 1947, together with over 1000 acres of land. The house is largely Tudor, and by the 1750s it was already attracting tourists seeking to visit a historic building.

  4. Bear right between the granite gateposts to the gravel area and pass the reception on your left to reach a waymarked gate to the right of the toilets.

    Cotehele house includes a turret clock which is powered using weights on a rope wrapped around a capstan, rather than a pendulum. The clock has no face and instead strikes a bell on the hour. It is the earliest turret clock in its original position and still working, and possibly the earliest working turret clock in the world. The design was relatively common in the 14th Century but most were replaced and scrapped.

  5. Go through the gate and follow the track, passing beneath the house and formal gardens. On the other side of the house, keep right to follow the track around a bend to the right. Follow the path to a junction of paths.

    The gardens at Cotehele were constructed during Victorian times and are now Grade II* listed in the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historical Interest. The formal Italian terraced gardens around the house are connected by a tunnel to the Valley Garden, which is planted with trees including rhododendrons and azaleas which produce profuse amounts of brightly-coloured flowers in spring. Within the Valley garden is a Victorian Summerhouse and former mediaeval elements including an exceptionally well-preserved dovecote and a pond which was originally used to farm carp to supply fish for the kitchens.

  6. Continue ahead at the junction for a few paces in the direction signposted to Calstock, and then bear left onto the smaller path ahead leading uphill. Continue following it uphill until it ends in a junction with another path.

    Bluebells are very vulnerable to trampling. The reason for this is that when their leaves emerge in the early part of the year, they are powered by the stored sugars in their bulbs. Sunlight is very limited at this time of the year and even more so in the shady places where they grow. In order to survive, they then need to photosynthesise flat-out to store enough starch in the bulb for next year's growth. If a bluebell’s leaves are crushed, it cannot photosynthesise and and doesn't have enough reserves left in its bulb to grow new ones. It's therefore important to stick to footpaths in bluebell woodland and best to take photos with a zoom lens from there as wandering around in the bluebells to take photos will inadvertently kill them.

    Generations of plants and algae alternate between two different kinds of life form. One generation produces spores and these grow through cell division into a new organism. This then produces eggs and sperm which combine to grow into the first kind of organism again.

    In the case of flowering plants, the organism that produces the eggs and sperm is only a tiny beast consisting of a few cells that is contained entirely within its parent. In mosses, it's the other way round: the organism that produces the eggs and sperm is the main one and the spore-producer is a smaller plant, reliant on its parent. In the case of algae, both are independent organisms in their own right.

    The evolutionary advantage is that the overhead of sexual reproduction can be deferred for a generation, so the spore-bearing generation can be optimised to produce loads of clones cheaply with the safety net that next time around the genes will get a mix-up. That gene mix up from the sexual reproduction phase provides insurance in case something in the environment changes or there is some dodgy genetic copying that would scupper ongoing generations of clones.

  7. When you reach the junction, turn right and follow the main path past a bench on the left. Continue until you reach a fork in the path immediately after a large bench on the right overlooking the valley.

    The mines in the valley at Danescombe extracted tin, copper and arsenic. The ore was transported down the tramway which is now the track along the valley and was loaded into boats at Lower Kelly Quay.

  8. At the fork in the path, take the right-hand path to descend into the valley.

    During the 9th Century, the Danes are thought to have landed in the Tamar Estuary; the Cornish allied with the Danes to fight against the Saxons who were at the time pushing into East Cornwall. It is said that Danescombe takes its name from the Danes landing and settling in the valley. At one time this was celebrated in Calstock with locals dressed as Vikings rowing up the river to Danescombe.

  9. Cross the bridge and turn left. Follow the path upstream a short distance until you reach a path on the right. Turn right onto this path and follow it to meet another path beside some wooden railings.

    Just before the path ends in a junction, it passes some iron railings. This is a well and is recorded in the first Ordnance Survey map from the 1880s.

  10. Continue ahead on the path for about half a mile until it eventually joins a track beside a garage and concrete block building. Continue downhill a short distance on the track to reach a path on the left, opposite a parking area on the right and just before a telegraph pole with one yellow and two white-and-green waymark arrows.

    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.

    The rate at which a tree grows varies through the year depending on the amount of light and moisture available. This is visible in a sawn tree trunk as a ring where the wider lighter area wood is laid down more quickly in spring-early summer and then the narrow darker area more slowly in late summer-autumn. Each ring corresponds to a year and so the age of the tree can be worked out by counting the rings.

  11. Turn left up the path opposite the passing area. Follow the path to pass beneath a footbridge and emerge onto another path.

    Buddleia are originally from northwest China and Japan where they grow in forest clearings, on riverbanks and on limestone outcrops where they are able to survive with minimal nutrients. They were introduced into the UK as an ornamental plant in the late 19th Century and can found in many gardens. Some have escaped and established a niche on industrial land which resembles their native limestone outcrops.

    The shrub is commonly known as the Butterfly Bush as the flowers are profuse, rich in nectar and are in the shape of champagne flutes; butterflies and bees have sufficiently long drinking apparatus to reach the bottom.

    The plant has two types of leaf; the broad green leaves are replaced with shorter hairy grey leaves during the winter which are more resistant to frost and the drying effect of cold winds.

    Squirrels are rodents, closely related to chipmunks and slightly more distantly to dormice. The word "squirrel" originates from an ancient Greek word meaning "shadow-tailed", referring to the bushy tail of a squirrel. A family group of squirrels is known as a "drey" (also the word for a squirrel nest). A group of unrelated squirrels is known as a "scurry", though squirrels tend not to hang out in groups.

  12. As you emerge from beneath the bridge, turn left onto the path and follow this uphill to merge onto a track. Follow the track beneath a bridge and continue until you reach a public footpath sign pointing towards you, opposite a small path on the right.

    A railway opened in 1872 to bring minerals from more mines in the area to the Calstock incline leading to the quay. The new railway ran for just over 7 miles to Kelly Bray. At the time, there was no main line nearby so the line was not connected to any other. It wasn't until the early 20th Century that the new railway in Plymouth allowed the Calstock railway to be connected, and much of the trackbed of the East Cornwall Mineral Railway was re-used for the Tamar Valley line.

  13. At the footpath sign, turn right onto the small path and follow this over a wooden bridge to reach a waymark.

    The bridge crossed an inclined plane of the original East Cornwall Mineral Railway that was abandoned in 1908 when the rest of the mineral railway was re-purposed as part of the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway.

  14. Turn left at the waymark and follow the path beneath the trees to emerge onto a lane at the far end of the path.

    Rhododendron is a member of the Ericaceae family to which heathers also belong and like its cousins, it is tolerant of acid soils. The word rhododendron is from the Ancient Greek for "rose tree" due to their spectacular flowers. As a result of these, rhododendrons have been popular ornamental plants for over two centuries and the species that we now call the common rhododendron was introduced in 1763. The plants thrive in the UK climate and were once native but were wiped out by the last Ice Age. Being a vigorous plant, common rhododendron was often used as a root stock onto which more fragile but exotically-coloured hybrids were grafted.

  15. Turn left onto the road and carefully follow it uphill a short distance to a junction.

    Cotehele and Calstock lie within the Tamar Valley AONB.

    The Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has a similar conservation status to a National Park. It encompasses an area of 75 square miles around the rivers Tamar, Tavy and Lynher, partly in Cornwall and partly in Devon. This also includes an area of Cornwall and West Devon mining landscape World Heritage Site, 41 county wildlife sites and over 1700 hectares of woodland. It was first suggested in 1963 that the Tamar valley area should be designated but this was only eventually granted in 1995.

  16. Turn right at the junction, signposted Parish Church, and follow the lane to the gate into the churchyard.

    In 2006-7 a team from Exeter University were doing surveys to investigate mediaeval silver mines when they accidentally discovered a Roman Fort. This is only the third one found in Cornwall and is the largest. It is thought to have been in use from the 1st Century AD. It was enclosed by two ramparts and ditches and finds have included remnants of furnace-lining, ore and slag which indicate metalworking was taking place. For a long time there was a suspicion that there might have been a Roman military interest in Cornwall's mineral resources and this is some of the first evidence that supports this.

  17. If you don't have a dog, go through the churchyard gate and keep right along the path to pass the church door and reach an iron gate leading out of the churchyard. With a dog, turn left at the junction to reach the next direction at the far end of the churchyard.

    Calstock church was consecrated in 1290, is dedicated to St Andrew and is under the Patronage of The Duke of Cornwall. The current building dates from the 15th Century and includes a mediaeval wall painting which was rediscovered during a Victorian restoration. The porch includes a built-in fireplace, the purpose of which is not definitely known but it is thought that this was believed to keep disease out of the church, along the lines of "keep warm or you'll catch a cold".

  18. Go through the gate and turn left onto the lane. Follow the lane until it you reach a level crossing.

    The Vikings used crushed conkers to make soap as they contain saponins. As fresh conkers dry out, the saponins are released and scientists have found these repel moths. However no evidence has been found that they repel spiders despite many people believing this to be the case.

  19. Carefully cross the level crossing and turn left at the junction. Follow the lane until you reach a track on the right before a gate for Handel Wood where the lane forks.

    The section of the railway across the Calstock viaduct from Bere Alston was built in the 1900s just as the surveying was taking place for the 2nd edition of the OS map. Consequently various sections of the half-built railway are recorded on the map as "Railway in the course of construction" and the viaduct was just a series of pillars at this point. The new railway joined the existing East Cornwall Mineral Railway at Albaston (between Calstock and Gunnislake station) and the new station at Calstock opened in 1908. This created a railway line all the way from Plymouth to Kelly Bray. The section from Kelly Bray to Gunnislake was eventually closed but the remainder survives as the Tamar Valley Line.

  20. Turn right onto the track and follow it downhill until it ends on a lane.

    Okel Tor mine operated between 1849 and 1887 and extracted primarily copper and arsenic. Tin and lead ore (which also contained silver) were also extracted. In 1865, it was recorded as having two engines and employing 107 people: 80 men, 15 boys and 12 bal maidens.

  21. Join the lane ahead then turn left at the waymarked bridleway sign opposite the lime kiln. Follow the path through a kissing gate and along the river until you reach a pedestrian gate into a sports field.

    The name Tamar is documented in the second century and likely to be substantially older. It is thought it might share a common origin with the River Thames and both might stem from an ancient Celtic word meaning "dark". The source of the river is within 4 miles of the North Cornish Coast and the river flows 61 miles south across the peninsula forming the majority of the historic border with Devon. Work is being done by the Environment Agency to improve the water quality of the Tamar and its tributaries by reducing the amount of run-off of phosphate fertilisers into the rivers.

  22. Go through the gate and follow the path along the fence of the sports field, then continue along the river to reach the landing stage for the ferry.

    The Calstock viaduct is part of the Tamar Valley railway that was constructed at the start of the 20th Century and still runs between Gunnislake and Plymouth. The viaduct was built between 1904 and 1907 from 11,148 precast concrete blocks. It is 120 feet high with twelve main arches each 60 feet wide, and one mini-arch at the Calstock end. Originally, a steam-powered lift was attached to it which could raise and lower wagons from the quays over 100 feet below.

  23. From the ferry pontoon, go down the steps to the road and turn left. Follow the road a short distance past the pub until it ends in a junction.

    The first record of Calstock is in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it had 30 villagers and 30 small farms and encompassed 100 acres of woodland as well as pasture land. The name is Old English (stoc means "dwelling" or "place"), reflecting the Saxon influence stretching into this area of Cornwall before Norman times. The place name expert Craig Weatherhill suggests the original meaning may be along the lines of "outlying farm near a bare hill".

  24. Turn left at the junction and follow Commercial Road a short distance to pass a junction on the left leading downhill and reach Lower Kelly immediately after this on the left.

    The land on the opposite side of the river is Devon which according to Cornish folklore is where the Devil lives. This is apparently not due to Devon's cream tea heresy but due to the Devil's fear of being used as meat to fill pasties in Cornwall!

    "Pasty" was another word used for "pie" throughout England from the Middle Ages onward, and did not necessarily imply the characteristic shape and crimping we associate with the Cornish Pasty. A pasty recipe from 1746 contains no veg, just meat (venison), port wine and spices. The first "Cornish pasty" recipe is from 1861 which contained just beef and no veg.

    Even during Victorian times, main meat available to poor people would have been pork. The Cornish dialect word for a pork flatbread eaten in the mines during the 18th and 19th Centuries is hogen (pronounced "hugg-un") which evolved into "oggy" - the dialect word for pasty. The really poor had a "tiddy oggy" (with no meat at all).

    The "traditional" Cornish Pasty recipe contains beef, onion, potato and swede (referred to as "turnip" in the local dialect from its more formal name of "Swedish turnip") seasoned with salt and pepper. It's thought that this probably dates from the late 18th Century (when the Poldark novels were set) when potatoes and turnips were a staple diet for the poor but the first documented "traditional" recipe is not until 1929. Over 120 million Cornish pasties are now consumed each year.

  25. Pass the block-paved driveway leading to the river and turn left onto the tarmacked Lower Kelly Road. Follow the road until you reach Danescombe Valley House at the far end and continue a few paces to where the tarmac ends at a fork.

    The bridge over Lower Kelly once carried the railway incline leading to Danescombe Quay, built in 1859. It consisted of a 1 in 6 gradient leading to the top of the valley. Wagons were lowered on a rope and raised with the help of a steam engine at the top.

  26. At the fork, keep left to take the lower of the two tracks ahead. Follow this to reach a large sign for Cotehele House.

    Kingfishers are found near slow-moving or still water where they dive to catch fish, as their name implies, but they also eat many aquatic insects, ranging from dragonfly nymphs to water beetles.

    The Kingfisher is able to switch between light receptors in the main central area of its eye and a forward-facing set when it enters water, allowing it to judge distances accurately underwater. It is estimated that a female needs to eat over twice her own body weight in order to increase her condition sufficiently for egg laying.

    The unmistakable metallic blue and orange birds fly fast and low over the surface of the water so may only be apparent as a blue flash. The pigment in their feathers is actually brown but the microstructure of their features results in light interference patterns which generate the brilliant iridescent blue and orange colours. Unfortunately the result, during Victorian times, was that kingfishers were extensively killed for display in glass cases and for use in hat making. The population has since recovered and is now limited by the availability of suitable waterways.

  27. Turn left at the Cotehele House sign and follow the path uphill to a junction and continue until you reach a fork in the path.

    Chestnut trees grow over the path and green spiny husks containing the nuts can seen in October.

    Since chestnuts don't need to hang around for a long time on the ground, they are nutritionally more similar to a cereal - containing principally starch and sugars - than a typical nut. They contain very little fat and are consequently much less calorific than other nuts: the kernels contain around a third of the calories of a similar weight of other nuts.

  28. When you reach the fork in the path, bear left and follow the footpath downhill past the chapel to return to the car park.

    In 1483, Sir Richard Edgcumbe joined a rebellion against King Richard III. The rebellion failed and Edgcumbe was pursued by the King's troops into the woods at Cotehele. Edgcumbe managed to escape by throwing his hat into the river, giving the impression he had drowned, and lived in exile in Brittany until Henry Tudor took the throne. On his return, Edgcumbe built the chapel in the spot where he had thrown his hat into the river to give thanks for his escape.

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