Falmouth and Pendennis Head circular walk

Falmouth and Pendennis Head

A circular walk around the thriving town of Falmouth which didn't exist until Elizabethan times when Sir Walter Raleigh suggested that the largest natural harbour in Europe would be a good place to build a port town.

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The walk begins through the bustling streets of Falmouth and then heads past the National Maritime Museum to the quiet wooded paths of Pendennis Point to reach the blockhouse. From here the route follows the seafront to Gyllyngvase beach and joins the coast path to Swanpool beach. The walk passes around the lake within the nature reserve and then crosses the railway line to descend back into Falmouth via Killigrew Street and complete the circular route.


  • Note that most coastal walks in Cornwall have paths close to unfenced cliffs.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 103
  • Distance: 5.3 miles/8.6 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Walking shoes, or trainers in summer

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 103 OS Explorer 103 (laminated version)

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


  • Historic port of Falmouth
  • Pendennis Castle and Little Dennis Blockhouse
  • Gyllynvase and Swanpool beaches
  • Swanpool nature reserve

Pubs on or near the route

  • 5 Degress West
  • The Cutty Sark
  • The Prince of Wales
  • The Quayside Inn

Adjoining walks


  1. Turn left out of the car park and walk a short distance up the hill to a path leading off to the right signposted Falmouth Art Gallery.

    In Elizabethan times, the town of Falmouth did not exist, only a few small settlements around Carrick Roads which had been there since mediaeval times. A few castles had been built during the Tudor period to defend the river system and there was a manor house of Arwenack which was owned by Sir John Killigrew. When Sir Walter Raleigh visited Arwenack in 1598, he was so impressed with the natural harbour of Carrick Roads that he recommended that it should be developed as a port. Following this, the town of Falmouth was created in 1613.

  2. Bear right down Webber Hill to emerge down some steps onto the pavement. Follow the pavement ahead until the road ends in a T-junction.

    As you walk down Webber Hill, the point that you can see on the opposite side of the water is Trefusis Point.

    King Henry VIII planned to build a castle in the field on Trefusis Point as part of the Falmouth coastal defences to go alongside the castles at St Mawes and Pendennis. However, the funds had to be diverted in order to finance the front line of his wars in France and Scotland, so the castle was never built.

  3. Turn right at the junction and follow the road a short distance to another junction.

    A small mediaeval settlement, recorded as Smythwyck in 1370, once stood close to the present Market Strand in Falmouth. The settlement had a harbour and remains of the quay walls have been found near the current Prince of Wales Pier. The settlement still existed in the early 17th Century, after which it was probably subsumed into the new town of Falmouth.

  4. Bear left at the junction onto the cobbled street and follow the pavement through the shopping area to reach the church.

    As well as having a university, Falmouth is also where the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society is based.

    In 1832 the Cornwall Polytechnic Society was founded by a prominent Quaker family to promote the ideas and inventions of the workers in their Perran Foundry. This was the first use of the word "Polytechnic" (meaning "of many arts and techniques") in Britain. In 1835 the society received Royal Patronage from King William IV and changed its name to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society. The Society played a prominent role in industrial development in the 19th century, being instrumental in the development of the "Man engine" and explosives in mines. The society is still running as an educational, cultural and scientific charity, as well as a local arts and cinema venue, and is the only remaining Polytechnic in the United Kingdom.

    Cornwall was a Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War and Falmouth Parish Church is consequently dedicated to King Charles I under the title "King Charles the Martyr", commemorating his execution in 1649. A little over a decade after the war ended, the building of the church began - in 1662 when the first foundation stone was laid by Sir Peter Killigrew. One historian suggests that since then the church has probably undergone more alterations and additions than any other church in the United Kingdom.

    Other than the organ at Truro Cathedral, the church has the largest organ of any church in Cornwall.

  5. At the church, bear left to follow the road. Continue past Trago and the Maritime Museum to reach a roundabout.

    The National Maritime Museum was the result of an architectural design competition and was built in 2003. The museum manages the National Small Boat collection and its galleries include the maritime history of Cornwall. The building also includes an underwater viewing zone and a vast library which holds many of the original Falmouth port documents.

  6. Continue ahead at the roundabout and follow the road past the docks and under a railway bridge to another roundabout.

    Falmouth harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the world and the deepest in Western Europe. The large waterway of Carrick Roads, forming the junction of seven estuaries, was created after the Ice Age from an ancient valley which flooded with the rising sea levels as the ice caps melted.

  7. Cross the roundabout onto Castle Drive, signposted "Scenic Route". Keep following the pavement past a viewing area overlooking the docks to where the pavement ends.

    Falmouth docks were built during the 1860s and at roughly the same time, the railway was extended into Cornwall, allowing the docks to be used for import/export. During Victorian times, the docks included a granary to store imported cereals, which still exist as a store room. The docks were extended between the 1920s and 1950s and a number of wharves were added in this period, with intensive activity during WW2. A map of the docks from 1983 is inscribed into a metal disc set in granite just before the end of the pavement at the viewing area. More recently, in 1988, the Pendennis Shipyard was established as one of the world's leading builders of multi-million pound super yachts.

  8. At the end of the pavement, cross the road to the pavement on the other side. Continue following this until you reach a path on the left-hand side of the main road, just before the pavement ends in a junction.

    St Anthony's Lighthouse was built out of granite in 1835 on the eastern entrance to Falmouth Harbour to guide vessels clear of the Manacles rocks. In most directions, the light is white but a sector close to The Manacles rocks is coloured red, warning vessels to steer offshore. The lighthouse was featured in the UK version of the TV series "Fraggle Rock" as "Fraggle Rock Lighthouse". Until 1954, the lighthouse possessed a huge bell which hung outside the tower and was used as a fog signal. This was later replaced with a foghorn.

  9. Bear left across the road to the path, and take the rightmost of the two tracks to follow parallel to the road. Continue along the track to where a path splits off from the right, just before track goes between two metal posts.

    The name "Carrick Roads" is thought to be a mangling of the Cornish Karrek Reun meaning "seal rock". It is now known as "Black Rock" and located in the centre of the harbour entrance, between Pendennis Point and Carricknath Point, and marked with a large conical beacon. It is still used at low tide as a haul-out spot by seals.

  10. Bear right onto the path and follow this until it re-emerges beside the road on the driveway for Pendennis House.

    The trees that overhang this stretch of path include chestnuts.

    The chestnut tree originated in Sardinia and there is evidence of its cultivation by humans from around 2000 BC. It was introduced into Britain by the Romans who planted chestnut trees on their campaigns to provide an easily stored and transported source of food for their troops.

  11. Cross the driveway and bear left down the path leading from the coast path sign. Follow this for some distance, sticking to the main path, to reach a junction of paths. Keep right here to reach a flight of steps leading to the car park.

    In the late 1530s is was decided that a blockhouse, which became known as Little Dennis, was built as an interim measure so cannons could be quickly put into place to defend Carrick Roads whilst the larger fort on Pendennis Head was under construction. It once had several gun ports facing the sea but these were replaced with a single port for a single large gun. During Elizabethan times, the blockhouse was extended into a small fort which included three batteries at sea level and a drawbridge. This continued to be used until the 18th Century.

    More about Little Dennis Fort.

  12. Climb the steps and bear right to the top of the car park to reach a road. Cross the road to the Coastguard entrance then turn left and follow the path alongside the road, leading downhill. Continue to reach a sign on the left marked Beaches and Disabled Parking.

    Pendennis Castle was built by Henry VIII to defend the coast against a possible French attack and was reinforced during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the English Civil War, more reinforcement took place and the castle withstood five months of siege from Parliamentary forces before it was captured. The castle was adapted for the World Wars of the 20th Century and the guardhouse has been restored to how it might have looked in the First World War. During the Second World War, underground tunnels and magazines were added which can now be visited.

  13. You can either continue along the road or walk on the path through the park on the left which re-emerges further down the road. Keep following the road until it ends in a junction.

    The headlands you can see ahead from right to left are Pennance Point (quite near, between Falmouth's Swanpool and Maenporth beaches), Rosemullion Head (in the middle distance, on the mouth of the Helford River) and Manacle Point (the furthest and the most easterly point on The Lizard).

  14. Bear left at the junction and follow the pavement until, just after the Royal Duchy Hotel, the path splits between the road and the sea front.

    Eight German U-boats surrendered at the end of the war were moored in Falmouth Bay, anchored at Gyllyngvase. Two were intentionally sunk during Navy exercises, and the remaining six broke free from their moorings in a fierce winter gale and were swept onto the rocks along Castle Drive. The remains of one can be seen at low tide at Castle Beach. The others have broken up but fragments of hull can seen amongst the rocks on low spring tides or by snorkelling.

  15. Bear left onto the seafront path and follow this until it re-emerges onto the road.

    Whilst ships were returning to England, often on a voyage of several months, merchants would explore the markets to find the best port to land the goods. They had no means of communicating with the ships whilst at sea, so ships were often told to sail for "Falmouth for Orders". Falmouth, being the first large port on The Channel, provided a "holding pen" for ships with incoming cargoes whilst their final destination was being decided and communicated. The ships were often badly in need of repair and supplies from their journey across the Atlantic so during the wait they could be restocked and patched up. It is thought the practice and possibly also the phrase originated in the late 17th century, soon after the Royal Mail Packet Station was established at Falmouth which involved relatively fast communications with London. Falmouth is still a major refuelling port. Ships are required to use low-sulphur oil in the English Channel to reduce emissions.

  16. When you emerge onto the road, turn left and follow the path alongside the road until you reach the entrance for Queen Mary Gardens.

    The name Gyllyngvase is from the Cornish words an gillynn vas meaning "the shallow inlet". The beach is known locally as Gylly beach.

    There's a sandy beach at all states of the tide at Gyllyngvase. At low tide, rock platforms either side of the beach are revealed with plenty of rockpools. The rocks extend further into the sandy area as the tide goes out so it's worth keeping a lookout for submerged rocks when paddling near the sides of the beach.

  17. Bear left into the gardens and keep left along the path parallel to the beach to reach a small flight of steps leading from the far side.

    Queen Mary Gardens are laid out in a formal style and framed by Monterey Pines. The were opened next to Gyllyngvase Beach in 1912 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Mary, the wife of George V.

  18. Climb the steps and keep left along the path to emerge through a gate onto the coast path.

    Although propelling a floating platform with a pole or paddle dates back thousands of years to multiple cultures, the modern sport of propelling a surfboard with a paddle is thought to stem from surfer in Hawaii who was getting a bit too old to keep getting up and down to paddle and so used a long-handled wooden paddle so he could stay upright. His son and other surf instructors known as the Waikiki Beach Boys realised that standing up offered a better vantage point to keep an eye on their students and it became known as "Beach Boy surfing". It was adopted in the 1990s by big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and took off as a sport in its own right in the early 2000s.

  19. Go through the gate and continue ahead onto the coast path. Follow along the coast, to pass a waymark post and reach a fork in the path beside the second of two benches on the right.

    The Manacles reef stretches for a mile and a half out to sea and has numerous submerged rocks just below the surface which are all covered at high tide apart from one. The reef has been named "the grave of 1000 ships"; over 100 have certainly been lost here, which is more wrecks than any other comparable reef on the south coast of England. The name "Manacles" is thought to be a garbling of Meyn Eglos meaning "church stones" and may either refer to St Keverne church or the gravestones of over 1000 people who have drowned here.

    The proverbial silver lining is that the shipwrecks and surrounding reefs provide a good habitat for marine life and consequently the reef has some of the best diving in Britain. In 2013, The Manacles was designated a Marine Conservation Zone as the wide range of habitats it provides support species such as spiny lobsters and sea fan anemones.

  20. Turn left at the fork and follow the path downhill. Head up the beach towards the top to reach the track leading onto the road to the left of the Swanpool café.

    During the 17th and 18th Century, the Killigrew family flew a red flag from an elm tree as a navigational aid to guide shipping into Falmouth harbour. It was eventually taken down in 1779 to stop it being used by invading fleets.

  21. Cross the road to the bus shelter and turn right. Follow the pavement past the crazy golf and then continue on the path beside the road to reach a junction at the top of the lake just after the 30mph sign.

    Coots a black with a white beak and head shield. This white patch is the origin of the phrase "bald as a coot". Moorhens look similar but have a red beak.

    Coots are extremely aggressive, especially in breeding season. If their chicks annoy them, the parents will bite them. Consequently quite a few coot chicks starve to death due to mean parents.

  22. Turn left and follow the path a short distance to another junction with a 30mph sign.

    The lake at Swanpool was once part of the sea but after the last Ice Age, a shingle bar formed (similar to the Loe Bar near Helston) which cut off the lake from the sea and it became a freshwater lake, roughly three times the size of the current lake. In the mid 1820s, a culvert was dug to drain much of the lake into the sea, creating the lake you see today. On high Spring tides, the seawater flows back through the culvert into the lake so the water is brackish (slightly salty).

  23. Turn left and follow the lane until you reach a junction of driveways and lanes in front of the Swanpool Gardens sign.

    The brackish lagoon forms an unusual habitat that supports some rare wildlife. This includes the Trebling Sea Mat which is found nowhere else in the UK. The wooded wetland behind the lake is criss-crossed by six small streams and it provides a valuable habitat for birds and small mammals. The whole area is now a designated nature reserve.

  24. Turn right and follow the lane a few paces to where a public footpath departs to the right between 2 black metal bollards. Join the footpath and follow this until it ends via 3 metal bollards on a track.

    During the Second World War, a large fuel depot for use in the D-Day landings was located on the hillside behind Swanpool. During the final air raid on Falmouth, the depot was hit by a bomb and a flood of burning fuel swept down the valley towards the houses below. An American navy officer managed to use a bulldozer to divert the flow away from the houses and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.

  25. Turn right onto the track and follow it to the gateway of The Pump House then join the small path with the metal bollards immediately to the right of this. Follow the path uphill until it ends on a road.

    The tall trees at the top of the path are beech.

    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.

  26. Cross the road to the residential road opposite and follow the pavement on the right to the railway bridge. Go under the bridge and uphill past the turning to Pengarth Rise to the next junction, just after the postbox.

    A pale green jade axe was found in Falmouth during the early 19th Century. It is though to be a ceremonial item dating from Neolithic times and is similar to those found in Brittany from this period. The axe is now on display in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.

  27. Turn right at the junction after the postbox and follow the road until it ends in some railings.

    Postboxes are a Victorian invention. The first pillar boxes were erected in the 1850s and by 1857, the first roadside wall boxes were in place. Early postboxes were green and it wasn't until 1874 that some in London were painted red. Over the next 10 years this was applied elsewhere. Postboxes are initialled with the reigning monarch at the time which allows them to be approximately dated. For example Edward 7th (marked as E VII) was only on the throne for 10 years so these date from the 1900s before the First World War.

  28. Pass through the railings and turn left. Follow the road a short distance to the traffic lights and cross the road at the pedestrian crossing. On the opposite side of the road, turn left to continue a short distance to a roundabout.

    In 1863 Alfred Nobel patented nitroglycerine as an industrial explosive marketed as "blasting oil". A demonstration was carried out at Falmouth docks in which a wrought iron anvil of about three hundredweight was destroyed by a small quantity of the innocuous-looking oily liquid. Following this, Novel was awarded a Silver Medal by the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society at their 1865 Exhibition.

  29. Turn right onto Killigrew Street, signposted Town and Shops. Follow the road downhill until you reach a crossroads with no-entry signs.

    The first lighthouse on the Lizard was built in 1619 by Sir John Killigrew of Falmouth, whose family had a colourful history involving smuggling and piracy. A few years before, Sir John had divorced his wife, accusing her of having become a prostitute after having been "first debauched by the governor of Pendennis Castle". Sir John applied for a patent to build the lighthouse and this was granted on the understanding that it be extinguished on the approach of pirates or enemy vessels. The lighthouse maintenance was intended to be funded by collecting voluntary contributions from the ships that passed it. Once built, despite its great benefit to shipping, the shipowners contributions did not materialise. The maintenance cost was bankrupting Killigrew, so James I set a fee of 1 halfpenny per tonne on all vessels passing the light. The uproar at this from the shipowners was so great that the lighthouse was demolished in 1630.

  30. Continue ahead at the No Entry sign to reach a square with a car park and memorial.

    From 1688 Falmouth was used as the port for mail to Spain and the Mediterranean and by 1763 it was used for trans-Atlantic communication. Mail was wrapped in brown paper and oiled cloth to repel seawater, then placed in weighted leather folders which could be thrown overboard to sink if the ship was under threat of capture. The sailing ships were known as Packets which sailed from the Packet Quays, and the office where the mail was prepared was the Packet Office.

  31. Turn left to cross the top of the square and then head up the hill with the "20 zone" signs to return to Town Quarry car park.

    Initially, mail from the Falmouth Packet Station was transported to London on horseback as the roads were not suitable for carriages. Towards the end of the 18th Century, suitable road surfaces were put in place between London and Exeter so that mail from Exeter could be transported by coach. By 1799, the road had been extended to Falmouth so that mail could be transported all the way to London. As the mail often contained sensitive dispatches, the coaches travelled under military escort.

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