Danescombe Valley short circular walk

Danescombe Valley

A circular walk from Cotehele Quay into the broadleaf woodland of the Danescombe Valley where bluebells and orchids flower in spring and fungi erupt through the carpet of autumn leaves.

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The walk starts at the quay and climbs to Cotehele where it's possible to visit the house and gardens before continuing. The route then passes between areas of the gardens and circles the Danescombe valley. The return route is via 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: 2.5 miles/4 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


  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. Keep right to follow the lane downhill to reach a junction with a track at the bottom of the hill.
  12. At the junction, turn right onto the track almost doubling back on yourself. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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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