Helman Tor and Red Moor circular walk

Helman Tor and Red Moor

The paths are very boggy in places during the winter - deeper than a walking boot at some points so wellies are recommended until the spring.

A circular walk to the neolithic enclosure on summit of Helman Tor and through the woodland of Cornwall's largest nature reserve.

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The walk begins with a short climb to the summit of Helman Tor then descends to the tree-covered moor. The route follows paths through the woods and then enters the Red Moor nature reserve. The walk passes through woodland and clearings to reach the lake and then an area of denser tree cover. The final stretch of the route is through meadows.

Considerations

  • This is a wilderness reserve so expect some vegetation encroaching onto paths particularly on the descent from Helman Tor where secateurs are recommended to clear any recent bramble or gorse growth.
  • This is also a wetland nature reserve so it can get pretty boggy after prolonged wet weather. Select footwear accordingly. The boardwalks obviously rot quite quickly in the damp conditions so expect some wobbles but they do eventually get repaired or replaced by CWT.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 107
  • Distance: 3.2 miles/5.2 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Waterproof boots (even in summer). Wellies in wetter months.

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 107 OS Explorer 107 (laminated version)

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

Highlights

  • Cornwall's largest nature reserve
  • Views from Helman Tor

Directions

  1. Follow the path uphill from the top-left corner of the car park through the kissing gate. Continue up to the top of the tor to reach the trig point.

    The process of placing trig points on top of prominent hills and mountains began in 1935 to assist in the retriangulation of Great Britain - a project to improve the accuracy of maps which took three decades.

    The brass plate with three arms and central depression was used to mount a theodolite which was used to measure the angles between neighbouring trig points very accurately. These angles allowed the construction of a system of triangles which covered the entire country and provided a measurement system accurate to around 20 metres.

  2. Continue along the ridge along the top of the hill to reach another area of rock outcrops.

    Tors started out as a lump of granite beneath the surface, which cracked vertically into squares and then part-way through horizontally to form something resembling a stuck-together stack of square pancakes. Millions of years of weathering then gradually rounded these off and widened the cracks between the layers to result in a more burger-like appearance.

    In some cases the horizontal cracks didn't go all the way through so the layers are still joined (the skewer through the brioche bun to stretch the burger analogy to its limit). In the cases where they did fully separate, a massive rocking stone such as the famous Logan Rock at Treen could be created, or the whole lot could collapse into a pile of huge rocks.

    The "basins" on the tops of some of the tors are also the result of repeated freezing and thawing of water which has collected on the surface.

    The word is from the Celtic language but is likely to have come from the Latin turris, meaning "tower", derived from a similar word in Ancient Greek.

  3. Continue into the grassy hollow before the next rock outcrops and bear left to start heading downhill. Head between the 2 trees on the right then follow the path to a gap in the wall.

    The summit of Helman Tor is enclosed by the stony banks and walls of a Neolithic Tor Enclosure. Excavations have revealed evidence of occupation, including houses, pottery and stone tools carbon-dated to the Early Neolithic.

    A stone axe was found in 1971 on the flanks of the tor. It was given to the Royal Cornwall Museum who examined the greenstone it is made from and concluded that it's likely to have originated from Mount's Bay. This gives some suggestion of the trading taking place in Early Neolithic times. Clay from the pottery sherds on the site has also been found to be made from "gabbroic" rocks which only occur in the St Keverne area within Cornwall, suggesting a trade in pottery. This is also supported by finds of "gabbroic" pottery at other Neolithic sites such as Carn Brea.

  4. Go through the gap and bear left along the grassy area until you are beneath the outcrop then follow the path leading from the area on the terrace with some large boulders. Follow the path downhill to the stile in the fence ahead, winding between the brambles and gorse as necessary.

    Gorse is also known (particularly in the Westcountry) as furze from the Middle English word furs. This itself is from the Old English word fyres, closely related to the Old English word for fire.

  5. Cross the stile and turn right onto the lane. Follow this until it ends in a T-junction.

    Like sloes and damsons, bullaces are a member of the plum family and may originally be native to Great Britain. The fruits resemble sloes but are a bit larger and bullace trees are not so thorny as blackthorn. Despite being a distinct species from sloes, the name is from the Old French for sloe - beloce. The Cornish dialect name is bullum tree.

    The taste of bullaces is astringent like sloes when unripe but when fully ripe (quite late in the autumn) some are just about sweet enough to eat raw. As with sloes, freezing them (traditionally the first frost in the days before freezers) makes them less bitter. They are typically used in cooking to make jams or for fruit wines where their tannin content makes the wines age well. They will also do just as well as sloes for flavouring gin.

  6. Turn right at the junction and follow the road until a woodland path departs to the right marked with a "Red Moor and Lowertown Moor" sign.

    The taller trees along the road are oak.

    The older an oak tree becomes, the more acorns it produces. A 70-80 year old tree can produce thousands. Acorns are high in carbohydrates and as well as being a staple food for squirrels, they are also a really important food for deer and make up a quarter of their diet in the autumn.

    The (leather) "tanning" process got its name as it involved extracting the tannins from acorns or oak bark and soaking these into animal hides over 1-2 years to preserve them. From the brown oak juice containing the tannins, the colour "tan" was named and from this the expression "sun tan" arose.

  7. Turn right onto the path (for Red Moor) and follow this to a gate.

    Cornwall Wildlife Trust was founded in 1962 as the Cornwall Naturalists' Trust and was run entirely by volunteers until 1974. It was renamed in 1994 as part of a national initiative to unify the names of wildlife trusts across the country. It now manages over 50 nature reserves and has over 17,000 members with over 1,000 active volunteers.

    There's a volunteering section on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust website which includes lots of marine activities as well as things in the nature reserves.

  8. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the main gate and follow the path through the woods, alongside a meadow and through more woods for roughly half a mile until you eventually pass through a kissing gate, cross one final walkway and reach a lane.

    In marshes, micro-organisms thrive in the wet mud and use up the supply of oxygen. To survive being partially buried in mud with low oxygen levels, many marsh plants have therefore evolved snorkels: air channels in the stem which allow oxygen to reach the base of the plant. This is why the leaves of reeds feel spongy.

  9. Turn left onto the lane and walk a short distance to reach a gate on the right with a Red Moor sign.

    The magpie is believed to be one of the most intelligent of all animals. The area of its brain used for higher cognitive function is approximately the same in its relative size as in chimpanzees and humans. Magpies can count, imitate human voices, recognise themselves in a mirror and have been observed regularly using tools to keep their cages clean. It has even been suggested that magpies may feel complex emotions, including grief.

  10. Go through the pedestrian gate on the left of the gate and follow the track to where a grassy path departs to the left, marked with a wilderness trail symbol on a wooden post.

    A tributary of the River Par flows along the edge of Red Moor and tin-bearing gravels were deposited which became buried under the topsoil. This had been discovered by the Early Mediaeval period and the gravel was mined for tin until the 19th Century. As well as the valuable tin oxide (which is typically black), the gravel also contained some iron. When this comes into contact with air and water, rust-coloured iron hydroxides are formed which colour the lakes and this is thought to have given rise to the name of the moor.

  11. Bear left onto the grassy path and follow this to a gate with "No Shooting" painted on it.

    Catkins begin to form on hazel trees from November onwards and in February these reach full size and flower before the leaves appear. The word is from the Dutch katteken (meaning "kitten") as the catkins resemble small cats' tails.

    Hazelnuts can be found beneath the trees in September and October and are a favourite with squirrels so you'll need to forage those that haven't already been nibbled. Once harvested, the nuts need to dried before shelling and eating. Wash and dry the nuts first to reduce the chance of them going mouldy. Then lay them out on something where the air can circulate and dry them for 2-4 weeks. An airing cupboard is a good place. You can tell that they are ready when the nuts rattle in their shells. Once shelled, the nuts can be stored in a fridge or even frozen for a couple of years.

    Hazel is one of the smaller native trees, reaching only 20ft. When allowed to mature, the tree lives for about 70 years.

  12. Go through the gate and follow the path to emerge in a small meadow. Continue until the path eventually ends in a T-junction in front of a lake with a wooden walkway to the right.

    The number of cows in Cornwall has been estimated at around 75,000 (a lot of moo is needed for the cheese and clotted cream produced in Cornwall) so there's a good chance of encountering some in grassy fields, but also on open moorland and sometimes for conservation grazing on the coast path too.

    The Ramblers Association and National Farmers Union suggest some "dos and don'ts" for walkers which we've collated with some info from the local Countryside Access Team.

    Do

    • Stop, look and listen on entering a field. Look out for any animals and watch how they are behaving, particularly bulls or cows with calves
    • Be prepared for farm animals to react to your presence, especially if you have a dog with you.
    • Try to avoid getting between cows and their calves.
    • Move quickly and quietly, and if possible walk around the herd.
    • Keep your dog close and under effective control on a lead around cows and sheep.
    • Remember to close gates behind you when walking through fields containing livestock.
    • If you and your dog feel threatened, work your way to the field boundary and quietly make your way to safety.
    • Report any dangerous incidents to the Cornwall Council Countryside Access Team - phone 0300 1234 202 for emergencies or for non-emergencies use the iWalk Cornwall app to report a footpath issue (via the menu next to the direction on the directions screen).

    Don't

    • If you are threatened by cattle, don't hang onto your dog: let it go to allow the dog to run to safety.
    • Don't put yourself at risk. Find another way around the cattle and rejoin the footpath as soon as possible.
    • Don't panic or run. Most cattle will stop before they reach you. If they follow, just walk on quietly.
  13. Turn right and follow the wooden walkway. Continue on the path until it passes a shed and ends in a T-junction with a track.

    The lakes are the remains of the Wheal Prosper tin streamworks.

    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.

  14. Turn right onto the track (signposted for Helman Tor) and follow it via the walkway until you reach a fork at a wooden marker post.

    The common earthball is a woodland fungus that looks a bit like a scaly white or pale yellow potato and its external appearance could be confused with a small puffball fungus.

    Earthballs have a slightly different approach to release their spores than puffballs. When mature, puffballs have a central opening in the top through which the spores puff out. With the earthball, the surface of the cap ruptures when the spores are ready to release.

    Since puffballs are edible and earthballs are poisonous, it is a common offender for stomach upsets arising from misidentification. This might seem strange as puffball flesh is pure white whereas the internal earthball flesh is dark (purple/brown/black) when mature. The potential for confusion arises because when very young, the earthball flesh is pale.

  15. Keep left in the direction waymarked and follow the path past an information board. Continue until you reach a stile.

    Cuckoos are migratory birds that overwinter in Africa and are first seen, or more often heard, in Cornwall during the spring. The cuckoo is well-known for laying its eggs in the nests of other bird species. The adult cuckoo is a mimic of a sparrowhawk - a predator; this causes other birds to abandon their nests, allowing the female lay her eggs. Although cuckoo eggs are larger than those already in the nest, cuckoos produce eggs in several different colour schemes to match those of several species of bird. Since the cuckoo chick is a much larger than even the full-grown foster parents (which they seem not to notice, assuming their offspring is just a bit portly), it needs to monopolise the food supply. It therefore methodically evicts all other eggs and chicks from the nest.

    The information board mentions that the hazel in the woods is coppiced.

    Coppicing is a traditional form of wood production that became redundant when industrial sawmills could easily cut full-grown trees into a range of timber sizes.

    The approach with coppicing is, rather than simply planting trees and letting them grow to full size, that the trees are grown only until the trunks are suitable for use as poles and then they are cut to the ground and allowed to regrow.

    The cycle produces varied habitats of clearings, bushes and small trees which each support different types of wildlife. Coppicing has therefore been reintroduced in many places as part of a conservation woodland management scheme to promote biodiversity.

  16. Cross the stile (or with dogs it can be bypassed by walking around the end of the fence to the right). Follow the path across the walkways and a footbridge and climb a couple of steps to reach a junction of paths.

    Sphagnum (peat) mosses use compressed air to launch their spores. To get an idea of the acceleration that the spores are launched with, an astronaut in a rocket launch experiences an acceleration g-force of about 3 g and the maximum in a fighter jet is about 9 g. Sphagnum moss spores are accelerated at 36,000 g!

  17. Turn right and walk a short distance to where a path departs to the left onto a wooden walkway. Turn left and follow the path over the walkway. Follow the path - indicated by wooden posts with Wilderness Trail markers - through the woods until you emerge in a clearing beside a Wilderness Trail marker.

    By using their tail as a parachute, squirrels are able to survive falls from high trees. This allows them to attempt risky jumps between treetops that don't always work out. They are one of the few mammals that can (but not always) survive an impact at their terminal velocity i.e. if a squirrel jumped out of an aeroplane, it may well survive.

  18. Locate the small path ahead and cross the clearing to this. Follow the path to reach a pedestrian gate.

    Bracket fungi can be recognised by tough, woody shelf-like growths known as conks. Bracket fungi can live for a very long time and are often coloured with annual growth rings. Many begin on living trees and can eventually kill a branch or whole tree by damaging the heartwood and allowing rot to set in. They can continue to live on the dead wood afterwards.

  19. Go through the gate and follow the path indicated by the marker posts across the meadow to reach a stile.

    Devil's bit scabious can easily be confused with sheep bit, so much so that sheep's bit is sometimes called "sheep's bit scabious", despite not being a member of the scabious family. Both plants have blue pom-pom-like flowers and although sheep's bit has its main flowering period in May and June before devil's bit gets going, their flowering periods do overlap in the late summer. Devil's bit is usually a taller plant and has pink-purple anthers protruding above the blue flowers. It also has quite big leaves whereas sheep's bit leaves are small and hairy.

    The name "devil's bit" has come from the Middle English develesbite although the thinking behind the mediaeval name is not completely obvious. According to folklore, it's from the short black root, bitten off by the devil in a sulk. The scabious family of plants are said to be named for their treatment of skin ailments so "devil's bite" could have been a name for a particular condition.

    The jay is a member of the crow family recognisable by the flash of electric blue on their otherwise brown body. Their natural habitat is woodland, particularly oak.

    Like squirrels, jays collect and bury acorns as a winter food store. Once jays were the main means by which oaks colonised new locations as a population of 65 jays can bury (but not always find again afterwards) half a million acorns in a month. Jays prefer to bury their acorns in open ground which is an ideal spot for a new oak tree.

  20. Cross the stile and follow the path through the bracken into a field to reach a marker post. Follow the path through the field to the next marker post and a little further until you reach a gap in the hedge into a final field.

    The field is grazed by a lot of rabbits as well as some cattle.

    If a rabbit is placed on its back and its legs are stroked, it appears to go into a relaxed trance and many owners of pet rabbits thought this was a cute thing to do that was enjoyable for the rabbit. It's now understood that this reaction, known as "tonic immobility", occurs when the rabbit is extremely stressed because it thinks it is about to be eaten by a predator! It is effectively a "playing dead" reaction to lull a predator into a false sense of security so the rabbit can make a sudden escape when the predator isn't paying attention.

  21. Go through the gap and then climb up the middle of the field. As a wooden gate at the top comes into view, bear left along the top hedge to reach a stile hidden in the very corner of the field.

    Field mushrooms are very closely related to the familiar supermarket button mushrooms and are the most commonly-eaten wild mushroom in Britain. They usually appear in grazed fields between July and November. As there are a few species of white mushroom that all look quite similar, care needs to be taken to avoid eating poisonous species.

    In particular, the common but poisonous "yellow stainer" looks very similar to a field mushroom, but if the flesh is cut or bruised, a yellow liquid starts to seep out. This normally takes a few minutes to be apparent so it might not be until you get them home that you notice yellow patches where the caps have rubbed against something. A small minority of people have been reported as suffering no obvious ill effects from (presumably accidentally) eating yellow stainers but for the vast majority of people they cause stomach upsets which can be severe including cramps, voting and diarrhoea.

    A pair of buzzards have a territory which includes a number of possible nesting sites which can be as many as 20. They move nesting site each year which prevents a buildup of nest parasites such as bird fleas. The new nest is decorated with fresh green foliage.

  22. Cross the stile (dogs might need sending under the wooden gate instead) and turn right onto the track. Follow this to reach the entrance to the car park (with a Helman Tor sign) to complete the circular route.

    The Saints' Way runs for 30 miles from Padstow to Fowey, and follows one of the likely routes of early Christian travellers making their way from Wales and Ireland to the Continent during the Dark Ages. Rather than risk a premature martyring on the rocks around Land's End, they would disembark their ships on the North Devon and Cornish coast and cross the peninsula, on foot, to ports on the south coast such as Fowey. The Bush Inn at Morwenstow is thought to be one of the stopovers from the North Devon ports. The route from Padstow to Fowey was in use before the Dark Ages which is evident from Roman coins found along the route. However it is thought that it was likely to have been in use even earlier still, in the Iron Age.

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