Holywell to Polly Joke

Holywell to Polly Joke

A circular walk from Holywell Bay on the dunes and Kelsey Head to the sandy beach of Polly Joke.

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The walk starts by crossing the sandy beach at Holywell and follows the coast path around Kelsey Head to the small cove of Porth Joke where there is another sandy beach. The return route is along the edge of Cubert Common and the Holywell dunes.


  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104
  • Distance: 3.9 miles/6.2 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
  • Golden, sandy beaches at Holywell Bay and Porth Joke
  • Wildlife along the coast and on the dunes of Cubert Common

Pubs on or near the route

  • 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 to a signpost where a path departs to the right just before a footbridge.

    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. Turn right and follow the path up the valley to a gate. Go through this and continue on the path to eventually reach a gate into a car park.

    The domestic radish has been cultivated from one of the subspecies of wild radish - a member of the cabbage family. Another of its subspecies is found on the coast and appropriately known as sea radish.

    Sea radish is a biennial plant (2 year lifecycle) and during its first year it creates a rosette of leaves that are dormant over the winter. These are quite noticeable during January and February when there is not much other vegetation. The leaves are dull grey-green, slightly furry and each leaf consists of pairs of fairly long thin leaflets along the length of the stem plus a final bigger one at the end. Alexanders grows in similar places at similar times but its leaves are glossy green and each leaf is made up of 3 leaflets.

    By the late spring, sea radish is a reasonably tall plant, recognisable by its yellow flowers that have 4 narrow petals. The flowers go on to form tapering seed pods later in the year with 2 or 3 large seeds in each pod with a spike at the end.

    The plant is edible and probably at its best in the autumn and winter when the leaf rosettes are present. The leaves have a mild cabbage flavour but the leaf stems and ribs taste like a milder version of radish.

  13. Go through the gate and cross the car park to the entrance gate. Go through this and cross the stream to reach a junction with a track.

    Recreational camping was first popularised in the UK on the river Thames as an offshoot of the Victorian craze for pleasure boating. Early camping equipment was very heavy and so transporting it by boat was pretty much essential. By the 1880s it had become a pastime for large numbers of visitors.

  14. Turn right onto the track and follow it until, just past a 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

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

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