Holywell to Crantock

Holywell to Crantock

A circular walk from Holywell Bay past the remarkable sacred spring and along the coast to the sandy beaches of Porth Joke and Crantock, returning via the poppy fields of West Pentire and the Cubert Common nature conservation area.

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The walk starts by crossing the sandy beach at Holywell and follows the coast path around Kelsey Head to the pretty cove of Porth Joke. The walk continues around West Pentire point, which is famous for its wildflowers, past the blowhole, to Crantock beach and comes inland at the Bowgie Inn. From here, the return route is over Cubert Common along the edge of the Holywell dunes forming part of the Penhale Sands dune system which is important for wildlife.


  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104
  • Distance: 4.7 miles/7.5 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots, trainers in summer

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 104 OS Explorer 104 (laminated version)

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


  • The Holy Well - an amazing natural series of basins created from dissolved minerals
  • Spectacular display of poppies and corn marigolds in June
  • Panoramic views of the rugged coastline from the coast path, including a blowhole at Crantock
  • Golden, sandy beaches at Holywell Bay, Porth Joke and Crantock
  • Wildlife along the coast and on the dunes of Cubert Common
  • Pubs at Holywell and the historic Bowgie Inn at Crantock

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Bowgie Inn
  • The Treguth Inn


  1. From the car park, cross the road to the information board with a map. Follow the path to a fork by the end of the fence/wall on the right.

    Holywell Bay unsurprisingly gets its name from a holy well, but there are 2 rival holy wells contending for this! The first is in the valley at Trevornick (near the 18th hole of Holywell Golf Course). The second, and more likely the original, is a freshwater spring in a sea cave at the north end of the beach. In Cornish, the name is Porth Elyn, meaning "cove of the clear stream" which could either be a reference to the spring in the cave, or simply the stream running across the beach which runs some distance over the sand dunes before reaching the beach.

  2. Keep right at the fork and follow the path to a footbridge. Cross this and bear left to the Holywell Bay lifeguard information sign with a red section at the top.

    The pair of rocks off Penhale Point at Holywell Bay are owned by the National Trust and are known either as Carter's or Gull Rocks. It has been reported that some locals refer to them as "Fishtail Rocks", which nicely describes their shape.

  3. From the beach information sign, follow the sandy path to the left between the large dune and the main stream onto the beach. Bear right around the base of the dune to reach the seashore and walk along the beach past the lifeguard hut until you reach a large gap in the dunes about half-way between the lifeguard hut and the start of the cliffs.

    At low tide, if you walk to the north end of Holywell beach (along Kelsey Head), you can find a sea cave containing a freshwater spring. Calcium carbonate dissolved in the springwater has created a spectacular series of natural basins fed by the well. The source of the calcium carbonate was originally thought to be the fragments of shell in the sand dunes as there are few sedimentary rocks in this part of Cornwall. However, there are thin bands of limestone in this particular area and current thinking is that the source may be one of these, but it is not known for certain.

  4. Bear right into the gap and walk to the back of this to reach a path slightly to the right leading inland. Follow this until it ends in a T-junction with another path.

    The holy well in the cave on Holywell beach was documented in Victorian times by Polwhele in the "History of Cornwall":

    In this parish ( St Cuthbert ) is that famous and well-known spring of water, called Holy Well, so named, the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water were first discovered on All Hallow's Day. The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea cliff rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring tides. The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.
  5. Turn left onto the path and keep right when you climb the dune. At the top also keep right to pass around the rim of the large dip and reach a waymark. Continue following the waymarked path through the dunes to reach a kissing gate.

    The shipwreck visible at low tide on Holywell beach is generally thought to be the remains of the SS. Francia, a 700 ton steam-powered Argentinean coaster. It was wrecked in 1917 shortly after setting out from Newquay with a cargo of coal. However, some reports state that the Francia sank 4 miles offshore, so exactly what happened is a bit of a mystery.

  6. Go through the kissing gate onto The Kelseys. Follow the coast path to another kissing gate.

    If there are sheep in the field and you have a dog, make sure it's securely on its lead (sheep are prone to panic and injuring themselves even if a dog is just being inquisitive). If the sheep start bleating, this means they are scared and they are liable to panic.

    If there are pregnant sheep in the field, be particularly sensitive as a scare can cause a miscarriage. If there are sheep in the field with lambs, avoid approaching them closely, making loud noises or walking between a lamb and its mother, as you may provoke the mother to defend her young.

    Sheep may look cute but if provoked they can cause serious injury (hence the verb "to ram"). Generally, the best plan is to walk quietly along the hedges and they will move away or ignore you.

  7. Go through the kissing gate and follow the coast path, across Kelsey Head, until you reach a fork in the path at a waymark.

    Look out for Fulmars which nest along the cliff faces. You'll often see them soaring over the tops of the cliffs as they circle in to land.

    The fulmar is a grey and white bird related to an Albatross although it can be mistaken at a distance for a gull. Close up, the beak is the giveaway: the fulmar has a tube on its beak which is visible as a black bar across the beak at a distance. The tube is a gland for excreting salt from the seawater that they drink. As a defence mechanism, the fulmar regurgitates foul smelling oil from its stomach - the name comes from the Old Norse for "foul" (full) and "gull" (mar). The oil disrupts the waterproofing of predatory birds' feathers in a similar way to a crude-oil spill, so they avoid preying on fulmars.

  8. At the fork in the path, keep left until you reach another fork in the path near another waymark.

    Also on the offchance that you see any black birds with red legs...

    After several decades of extinction, a pair of choughs settled in 2001 on the Lizard Peninsula. Since then, the birds have successfully bred and been joined by a few more incoming birds, and the population has steadily grown and spread further across Cornwall. Each Cornish chough is fitted with one leg ring in the colours of St Piran's flag and two other colours on the opposite leg to identify them.

    Although the principal populations are around Lands End and The Lizard, choughs are now becoming more common on the north coast around the Newquay beaches.

    If you think you've seen a chough, take a photo if possible and email choughs@cbwps.org.uk to report the sighting. This will help the "Chough Watch" team keep track of the growing population.

  9. Bear right to rejoin the more well-worn path and keep right on the waymarked path and the headland to where it descends into a valley to reach a footbridge.

    At the end of Kelsey Head, between Holywell Bay and Porth Joke, is an L-shaped bank which is thought to be the remains of a hill fort from the Iron Age. It's possible that it was abandoned before it was completed as the ramparts are much more developed at one end than the other.

  10. From the footbridge, continue until the path forks to descend to the back of the beach.

    Seals are easily disturbed by the presence of humans (and dogs) and this is can be the difference between life and death for seals in several different ways. Perhaps the most obvious is that a panicking seal is liable to injure itself rushing for the water. When breeding, even mild disturbance can lead to mothers abandoning their pups which then starve to death. More subtly, disturbance also causes seals to burn up their precious energy reserves. Even in a "good" year, 75% of young seals can end up dying due to insufficient energy reserves (95% in a very bad year!). If a seal looks at you, this should ring alarm bells as it means you're too close. To watch seals responsibly, it's important to keep your distance (at least 100m), avoid being conspicuous (e.g. on the skyline) and minimise noise.

    The Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust gather information about the numbers of seals in each location to study migration behaviour. Each seal has a unique pattern of spots which is like a fingerprint, allowing individuals to be identified so photos are also very useful.

    If you see one or more seals, take a photo if possible but never approach the seals to take a photo - use a zoom from a clifftop. Send the location, date, number of seals and photos if you have them to sightings@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk.

  11. At the fork, bear left down the steps and follow the path along the back of the beach, over a small wooden footbridge, to reach a kissing gate.

    The sandy cove known both as Porth Joke and Polly Joke belongs to the National Trust and is completely uncommercialised except for the occasional cow wandering on the beach. The confusion about the name arises because it was originally known as Pol Lejouack (the old Cornish words for "Jackdaw Cove") and sounds a bit like "Polly Joke". Porth (beach or port) and Pol (cove or harbour) were used fairly interchangeably, which possibly gave rise to the two competing names.

  12. Go through the kissing gate and keep left at two forks in the path to reach a gap in the wall with an ivy-covered post on the corner of the hedge.

    Because bluebells spread very slowly, they're considered to be an indicator of ancient woodland sites. In areas where trees are not very old, the fact there are bluebells around can indicate that there has been a wood on a site for a very long time. Even if there are no trees there at all, bluebells tell us that there was woodland there some time in the past. The bluebells along the coast are a relic of the gnarled oak woodland that used to grow here before it was cleared for grazing. There is still a patch of the ancient oak woodland left along the coast at Dizzard.

    According to Winston Graham, Nampara Cove in the Poldark novels was based on a composite of Porth Joke and a small cove on the west side of Crantock beach (possibly the one just below the Bowgie Inn between Vugga Cove and Piper's Hole).

  13. Follow the path leading out onto the headland past the post. Continue through a pedestrian gap in a fence. Carry on following the path to reach a bend where the path turns right uphill to cross over the headland.

    The headland is known as West Pentire.

    The name "Pentire" is common on the coast for the simple reason that it means "headland": in Cornish pen means head or top and tir means land. Some Anglicised names such as "Pentire Point" (i.e. Headland Point) are somewhat tautological.

  14. At the bend, bear right uphill and follow the coast path until you reach a waymarked fork in the path.

    West Pentire headland, between Porth Joke and Crantock beach, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its wildflowers and rare plants. The south-facing (Polly Joke) side of the headland is a particularly good area for sun-loving wildflowers. In spring, tiny blue squill flowers and then pink thrift flowers can be seen here.

  15. At the fork, keep right in the direction waymarked and follow the path to a gap in a wall.
  16. Go through the gap and then follow the path downhill to a waymark beside a wall. Keep right and follow the path to a junction with a waymark.

    The beach ahead is Crantock Beach and the headland opposite is East Pentire, along which the River Gannel flows.

    Crantock beach is a dune-backed beach south of Newquay across which the River Gannel runs. Due to the strong currents associated with the tidal river, the northern area of the beach is not recommended for swimming. The best place to swim is towards the southern side, backed by the cliffs of West Pentire.

    In summer, there is a ferry service across the river to the Fern Pit Café opposite, and Fistral Beach is just the other side of the headland.

  17. At the junction of paths, turn right and follow the path to reach a kissing gate.
  18. Go through the kissing gate and where the path splits, turn left. Follow the path downhill until the path becomes tarmacked and a small path leads down to the beach.

    The settlement of Crantock dates back to AD 460, when a group of Irish or possibly Welsh hermits founded a chapel there. The parish was once known as Langurroc, which translates as "The Dwelling of Monks". The chapel of Langurroc was said to have been covered up in a sandstorm, and may lie beneath the sand dunes behind Crantock Beach. The village church is dedicated to St Carantoc - said to be one of the founders of the village. In its heyday, when the River Gannel was navigable, Crantock was a river port.

  19. Continue uphill on the tarmac path to reach a path with a line of granite posts leading up to the Bowgie Inn.

    The deep gully on the west side of Crantock Beach is known as Piper's Hole. Within this, inside the first cave on the right is a flat surface with carvings which include a female figure, a horse and a few lines of verse.

    This has given rise to romantic stories that the poem and drawings were carved by an an artist after his lover got cut off by the tide on her horse and both were washed out to sea. However the horse was added around 40 years later and its tail wasn't added until 2011!

    The original carving made of the female figure was made by London artist Joseph Prater who often visited relatives in Crantock and made the carving on one of his visits, probably in the early 1900s. The identity of the woman is not known. The horse was carved in the 1940s by James Dyer of Crantock but for some reason this didn't include a tail. The carving was tidied up by an artist commissioned by the Parish Council in 2011, removing some graffiti, re-carving the poem and adding the missing tail.

    More about Piper's Hole

  20. Follow the path with the granite posts into the car park. Bear left out of the car park towards the road, then right at the fork to a wooden signpost at the edge of the road.

    The Bowgie Inn is a public house located in the hamlet of West Pentire, slightly west of Crantock and south of Newquay. Bowgie is a Cornish word meaning cow shed. The building that is now the pub was indeed a cowshed for the nearby farm until the 1950s and there are pictures in the pub of the building before it was converted. It was originally built in the 18th Century and the cob walls are nearly a metre thick. They act as a storage heater, keeping the cows (and today's non-bovine occupants) warm during cold nights.

  21. Turn right onto the road, in the direction signposted to Polly Joke; follow the road a short distance to a fork with a pair of public footpath signs.

    A settlement at West Pentire is recorded as far back as 1202. Initially it as just known as "pentire". Mentions of it being subdivided into East and West were recorded later in the 13th Century. The farmhouse includes the base of a mediaeval cross and boundaries of some of the fields are also thought to be based on the system of strip fields used during mediaeval times.

  22. At the fork, turn left towards the car park. Follow the track until you reach the car park entrance.

    In June you may wish to take a short diversion to see the poppies by following the path to the right. The fields alongside the track have a spectacular display of poppies and corn marigolds. These have been featured in articles such as "The 21 most colourful places in the world". Return to the car park here to continue the walk.

  23. At the car park, keep right on the track, past the barn. Follow it downhill until it ends at a house.

    The fields on West Pentire are owned by the National Trust and managed as a nature reserve. From late May to July, there are carpets of red poppies and yellow corn marigolds with over 150 other wildflower species also recorded. The seeds have survived here in the soil from a time before intensive farming with herbicides. Each year, fields are cultivated in a cycle as the plants rely on soil disturbance for their seeds to germinate.

    The National Trust request that people stay on the paths to take photos and avoid walking into the flowers as they are quite fragile and don't recover well from trampling.

  24. Take the footpath indicated, to the right. Follow it over the bridge and along a hedge, to a kissing gate.

    Damselflies are predators similar to dragonflies but are easily distinguishable by the way their wings fold back parallel to the body when at rest whereas the dragonflies' wings are fixed at a right angle to the body. The Damselfly has a much smaller body than a dragonfly which means it has less stamina for flight. Nevertheless, it can hover, in a stationary position, long enough to pluck spiders from their webs.

    Extracts from ivy were used in herbal remedies and still form the basis of some modern-day cough medicines. It is said to have both antibacterial and antiviral properties. A study for English Heritage also found that roadside ivy absorbed particulates from the atmosphere which may lead to its use in improving air quality.

  25. Go through the gate and continue ahead to reach a track. Turn right onto the track and follow it, towards the car park, until it forks.

    A project to analyse blackberries picked from busy urban roadsides vs quiet rural lanes found that there was a slightly elevated level of lead in the blackberries from busy roadsides which is thought to have accumulated in the soil when leaded fuel was in common use. Surprisingly, commercial blackberries from supermarkets also showed higher levels of lead than the wild blackberries from rural lanes.

    As well as through pollen being transferred by insects from other plants, if there are not many insects around (e.g. in cold or wet weather), bramble flowers are able to produce seeds without being fertilised (the flower is able to use its own pollen).

  26. At the fork, bear left onto the track and follow it until, just past the quarry on your left, it forks.

    The yellow water iris (also known as yellow flag) is a native plant but can become invasive and have a negative effect on biodiversity due to its ability to out-compete many other water plants. It is thought by some to be the original plant on which the "fleur-de-lis" heraldic symbol is based.

    If heavy metals are present in the soil, the plant is quite effective at absorbing these. This together with its aptitude for growing in pools of shallow water makes it potentially useful for detoxifying mine drainage.

    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.

  27. At the fork, take the right (lower) path and follow this keeping right at any junctions to stay on the main path until you reach a wooden signpost.

    Kestrels can often be seen on the dunes of Cubert Common.

    The size of the kestrel population is very dependent on the vole population. The mortality of young kestrels is high. Around 60-70% don't survive their first year and the main cause of this is starvation.

  28. At the signpost, turn right to Holywell and follow the main path until you reach a gate in the far corner.

    Grasshoppers and crickets look fairly similar. The main visual difference is that crickets tend to have long antennae and grasshoppers have shorter ones. However, only grasshoppers are active during the day so these are ones you are likely to encounter when walking.

    Most of the major dunes on the North Cornish coastline are thought to have formed from around 5,000 years ago when sea levels finally stopped rising after the glacial ice from the last Ice Age had finished melting.

  29. Go through the gate and turn left. Follow the left hedge to a kissing gate.

    The word "tee" is from the Scottish Gaelic word taigh meaning "house" and is related to the coloured circles known as a house in the sport of curling. Teeing off was originally done within a circle of one gold club length from the hole. A mound of sand would be placed somewhere within this circle and the ball rested on top. In 1892, an Englishman patented a rubber-topped wooden peg which was sold as the "Perfectum". In 1899 an American dentist designed "an improved golf tee" consisting of a wooden cone containing a rubber sleeve to hold the ball but this didn't seem to catch on. Peg-based tees were adopted widely by the 1920s.

  30. Go through the kissing gate and keep left, along the path, to reach the fence of the golf course. Follow the path, along the fence, until you reach a signpost near a blue sign for the golf course on the left.

    It is thought that the holy well in the valley was built in the 15th Century to commemorate St Cubertus. By the end of the 19th Century it had become dilapidated and it was restored in 1936 by the Newquay Old Cornwall society using the original stones.

    To reach the holy well from the blue sign for the golf course in the dunes, follow the path along the fence of the golf course, then take the path to the right.

  31. Bear right in the direction indicated for Holywell and continue over the dune to join a path. Follow the path until you reach an area of brambles and low bushes ahead.

    Before Christianity, the Pagan Celtic people of Cornwall worshipped wonders of the natural world. Where clean, drinkable water welled up from the ground in a spring, this was seen as pretty awesome. The sites were seen as portals to another world, and is why fairies are often associated with springs. Where the springwater dissolved minerals, for specific conditions (e.g. deficiency in a mineral) or where the minerals present had antibacterial/fungal properties, the water appeared to have healing powers.

  32. Follow the path to pass along the right side of the bushes and continue until the path forks to go through a gap in the hedge on your left.

    One of the plants that grows in the dunes is Sea Holly

    Sea holly has a number of adaptations to survive in arid sand dunes. Its waxy leaves minimise water loss, the pale colour reflects sunlight and the root system can extend downwards for two metres to find less salty water. In dry conditions, the level of chlorophyll is reduced and so the bluer the plant becomes.

    Since water drains away quickly through the sand, marram grass has evolved a number of strategies to capture and retain water including its waxy, curled leaves which contain hairs inside to minimise evaporation caused by moving air. Its roots form a fibrous mat which traps water but also plays a vital role in stabilising the dunes by stopping the sand blowing away. During the 17th Century, large amounts of marram grass were harvested for thatch and this destabilised the dunes so much that farms, estates and even entire villages were buried.

  33. Turn left, through the gap in the hedge, and follow the path through an open space to reach another path crossing at a right angle.

    The sand dunes provide a good habitat for adders, which bask in the sun in warm weather.

    On warm days from late April, you may be lucky enough to witness the "dance of the adders" (a pair of adders wrestling). This was once thought to be a mating display, but is actually a larger male attempting to drive away a smaller one.

    The sandy soil along the coast is able to support plants more commonly seen on chalk downs such as cowslips, due to the sand being comprised of small fragments of shell (calcium carbonate). The majority of the soil in North Cornwall is acidic, particularly towards Bodmin Moor, so sand from the beaches was used extensively to improve the soil fertility for farming.

  34. Turn left onto the path and follow it alongside the houses to reach the area between the stores.

    Several beaches in Cornwall have a large rockpool known locally as the "Horse Pool": at Trebarwith Strand it's the large pool ahead of the entrance onto the beach and at Holywell Bay it's in front of the cave just before the Holy Well cave. Treyarnon and Porthcothan also have pools known by this name. The name stems from when working horses were given a wash off and cool down on hot days. In the case of Trebarwith Strand, many of the horses were involved in hauling slate from nearby quarries or sand from the beach.

  35. Bear right to reach the road. Turn right onto the road and follow it to the car park.

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