Circular walk from Kilkhampton to the Coombe valley

Kilkhampton to the Coombe valley

A circular walk though the wildflowers of the Kilkhampton Common nature reserve and woods of the Coombe Valley, returning via the remains of the Norman castle at Penstowe which consisted of a stone tower perched on the top of a steep hill but surrounded by two baileys, rather than the usual one, the reason for which is a mystery.

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The walk starts at the church and follows West Street out of Kilkhampton. The route then follows the stream through Kilkhampton Common before climbing the valley across the Common to reach a bridleway leading into the Coombe Valley. The route continues along lanes and tracks into the valley to reach Stowe Woods. After passing through the woods, the route loops back along small lanes and the footpath around Penstowe Castle to reach Kilkhampton churchyard and complete the circular route.


  • After wet weather, the areas of bedrock along path after Kilkhampton common get quite slippery so you may wish to take a walking pole if you have one.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 126
  • Distance: 5 miles/8 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 126 OS Explorer 126 (laminated version)

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


  • Kilkhampton Church with magnificent stained glass and carvings
  • Kilkhampton Common nature reserve
  • Wildlife in and around Stowe Woods
  • Remains of Penstowe Castle

Pubs on or near the route

  • The London Inn
  • The New Inn

Adjoining walks


  1. From the car park, make your way to the church door. Facing the church, turn right and follow the path to a gate out of the churchyard.

    The church building dates from the 12th Century and the carved doorway is from the original building. In the 15th century, the church was remodelled in the Perpendicular Gothic style and the tower was added. The church was restored in the 19th century but retained, from the early 16th Century, carved benches and a font made of granite with an octagonal bowl.

    The church is dedicated to St James the Great which may date from the Middle Ages when Kilkhampton was briefly in the hands of the Priory of St James in Bristol. Another theory for the dedication is that Kilkhampton was on a pilgrim route to Compostela in Spain, where the relics of St James were thought to lie.

  2. Go through the gate and between the buildings to reach the road. Turn left and follow the road a short distance to the memorial.

    Kilkhampton is located on an ancient ridgeway which connected a monastic grange at Alder Combe, Launcells church and the abbey at Hartland; the route was then incorporated by the Romans into their road building. The settlement is mentioned in the Domesday Book as "Chilchetone" which is thought to be from a Saxon name of Kilkton. It has been postulated that this name itself derives from the Cornish word kylgh meaning "circle". Due to its roadside position, it was a market town and the Lower Square is still sometimes known as "The Bull Ring".

  3. At the memorial, turn left down West Street and follow the small lane out of Kilkhampton until you pass Primrose Cottage and reach a public footpath sign on the right, opposite Underhill Cottage on the left.
  4. Bear right to a gate with a pedestrian gate alongside. Go through the gate and follow the track until it ends at a stream bed, opposite a gate marked "No Public Right of Way".

    The land inside the gate is known as Kilkhampton Common.

    Kilkhampton Common is owned and managed by the Westland Countryside Stewards - a small environmental charity formed in Kilkhampton. The chairman of the trustees purchased the site from a local farmer and gifted it to the charity with a view to restoring its ecology and also providing access to the public. As well as their restoration and management of the common, the Stewards are involved in the reintroduction of water voles to the area and contribute to both Westcountry and national wildlife projects.

  5. Bear left over the footbridge to join a track. Follow this a short distance to a waymark.

    The woodland along the stream is predominantly a mixture of broadleaf trees such as ash, hazel and sessile oak. This kind of habitat is a priority habitat for conservation, supporting a rich wildlife including birds such as grey wagtails and dippers.

  6. Turn left off the track at the waymark and follow the steps down to the steam. Follow the path along the edge of the stream until it emerges onto a track.

    If you're walking here in early spring, there is a lot of wild garlic. However, before you get your carrier bags out: this is a wildlife reserve so leaving the plants in pristine condition for others to enjoy is good manners; it is also popular with dog walkers, which may result in "territory marked" leaves; there is a huge patch of wild garlic away from the path in Stowe woods later on in the walk, which is the recommended spot for harvesting.

  7. Bear left onto the track and follow it parallel to the stream, past a pond, until you reach another waymark.

    The pond has the potential to support breeding populations of frogs, toads and newts.

    Biologically, there is no such thing as "toads": there are just many species of frog, some of which were given the name "toad" if they were a bit drier- or wartier- looking. However, the 2 species of frog known as the "Common Frog" and "Common Toad" are those you are most likely to encounter in Cornwall, so for discerning fairytale princesses, here's how to tell them apart:

    • Common Frog: always found in or near water; smooth moist skin (green or brown and able to change colour slightly to match surroundings); lays eggs in a cluster.
    • Common Toad: quite often found in dry places; dry, warty skin which is always grey or brown; lays eggs in long strings.
  8. At the waymark, bear left off the track and follow the path along the edge of the stream, crossing a number of footbridges, until you emerge from the trees at field bounded by a wire fence and a path joins from the right.

    A number of plants in this area are indicators that the woodland here is ancient. These include wood sorrel with delicate white flowers in spring as well as the unmistakable bluebells.

  9. Continue ahead to follow the fence on your right to reach the corner of the field. Then turn right to keep the fence on your right and follow it to the base of a flight of steps.
  10. Climb the steps and follow the path up the hill until you emerge into a field.

    In early spring, common dog violets flower on the bank. The "dog" in their common name indicates that they are not the perfumed variety of violet. Nevertheless they support a population of butterflies including the pearl-bordered fritillary.

  11. When you reach the field, follow the fence on your right, all the way along the hedge to reach the top corner of the field where there is a gate.

    There are actually two different species of dog violet although they can interbreed to form hybrids. The common dog violet prefers shade whilst the heath dog violet prefers sunny spots and historically this is what kept them apart as separate species, although they are both relatively tolerant of a wide range of conditions. Human activity, particularly felling of woodland, has resulted in them ending up in each others' "territory" and they can sometimes even be seen growing side-by-side. The easiest way to tell them apart is from the shape of the leaves leaves which are heart-shaped in the common dog violet but upside-down teardrop-shaped in the case of the heath dog violet.

    Birds are technically considered reptiles and the only surviving group of dinosaurs as they are the descendants of the group known as theropods (that Tyrannosaurus rex belonged to). The oldest bird fossils are about 150 million years old and looked like small, feathered dinosaurs with sharp teeth.

  12. Turn left through the gate and follow the path to a waymark.

    Some of the Public Rights of Way originating from mediaeval times appear as sunken paths, also known as holloways from the Old English hola weg, a sunken road. There are different reasons for the lane being lower than the surrounding land. In some cases it was simply erosion caused by horses, carts and rainwater over hundreds of years. There are also examples where ditches formed between banks as a boundary between estates and then later adopted as a convenient location for travel or droving animals.

  13. Ignore the arrow to the right on the waymark and continue ahead. Follow the path until it ends on a track.

    An elm tree has been planted on Kilkhampton Common as part of Great British Elm Experiment.

    Dutch elm disease wiped out over 25 million elms in Britain but a small number of trees survived. Cuttings taken from mature trees that have survived Dutch elm disease for over 60 years (mostly wych and field elm) have been micro-propagated. The resulting saplings have been distributed to schools, community groups, local authorities and private landowners who have signed up to take part in The Great British Elm Experiment. It is hoped that a proportion of these trees may prove resistant to the disease. It's also likely that amongst the millions of small elms in the hedgerows, disease-resistant mutations will eventually occur.

  14. Bear left onto the track and follow it to a gate leading to a driveway starting beside a house.

    Wildflowers along the tracks and lanes sustain a number of different bumblebee species.

    Bumblebees were originally called "humble bees". From the 16th Century onward, both terms were in use but even during Victorian times, "humble bees" was the term that Charles Darwin and other naturalists used for them. After the Second World War, the humble version rapidly died out.

    Trees need a lot of water. A large oak tree can absorb around 450 litres of water per day, most of which is released into the atmosphere as water vapour through transpiration. Trees therefore help to reduce flooding from heavy rain in low-lying river floodplains and also reduce erosion from runoff.

  15. Go through the gate and follow the driveway away past the house and away from the other houses to reach a lane.

    A flower is effectively an advert to insects that nectar is available and the reason that flowers are coloured and scented is so these adverts get noticed. The basic idea with most flowers is to lure the insect in with a bribe of nectar and then whilst they are there, unload pollen they are carrying from another flower, stick some pollen to them from this flower, and send them on their way.

  16. Turn right onto the lane and follow it over the bridge and past Burridge House. Continue until you reach a wooden signpost on the right.

    The settlement of Burridge dates from mediaeval times. It was recorded in 1296 as Berigge which is from the Old English for "barley ridge". The settlement was once larger, extending down the valley a little. There is a well in the middle of the field behind the house and some buildings once stood close to this.

  17. At the signpost, turn left down the track towards Sanctuary Farm. Follow it until it forks by a second Sanctuary Farm sign.

    The word "farm" has the same origins as (e.g. law) "firm". Both words are related to the mediaeval Latin word firma meaning "fixed payment". Its original use in English was to do with contracts and leasing (which is why "to farm out" means "to subcontract"). In fact the word "farm" had no association with food production until the 19th Century. In the 16th Century it began to be applied to leasing of land and the association with farmland developed from this.

  18. Take the right-hand track towards Sanctuary Farm and follow this until you reach the farm cottages.
  19. Continue a short distance on the track, past the first few cottages, until you reach Orchard Close.
  20. At Orchard Close, bear left down the unsurfaced track and follow it to where the track forks to go through two wooden gates.
  21. Go through the right-hand gate and continue until the track ends at a waymarked gateway into a field.

    In June, foxgloves flower along the track.

    As well as attracting insects, the brightly coloured foxglove flowers serve as a warning for animals that the plants contain toxins. All parts of the plant can cause a range of ill-effects in humans from nausea to heart and kidney problems which can be fatal.

    Many flowers have patterns not visible to the human eye because they require ultraviolet wavelengths to distinguish them. Humans only have 3 colour receptors (red, green and blue) whereas many pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies have more receptors that span into the ultraviolet. They perceive colour quite differently from us and the ultraviolet patterns often point to the location of the nectar within the flower, much like a coloured arrow used to indicate where to open a food package.

  22. Go through the gateway and follow the right hedge of the field, then head for the wooden gate in the middle of the far hedge.

    An impressively purple blackberry, pear and ginger chutney can be made with blackberries stashed in the freezer. Simmer 500g blackberries, a few chilli flakes, 4 chopped pears and a finely-chopped 8cm piece of fresh ginger until the liquid reduces. Add 150ml distilled or white wine vinegar, and sugar to taste (amount will depend on tartness of the blackberries). Reduce a bit longer until the desired "gloopy" consistency is achieved and finally season with a little salt to taste to balance the sweetness.

    Bramble roots are perennial but its shoots last just two years. In the first year, the shoots grow vigorously (up to 8cm in one day!). In the second year, the shoots mature and send out side-shoots with flowers.

  23. Go through the gate and follow the path until you reach a wooden signpost.

    The woodland ahead is known as Lee Wood.

    The paths through Lee Wood and Stowe Woods, adjacent to the hamlet of Coombe, were laid in 1970 by the Forestry Commission as part of the Coombe Valley Nature Trail, when many of the conifer plantations were created. Coombe is a Cornish word for "valley", so "Coombe Valley" is another of the tautologies which have arisen from appending an English word to an already fully descriptive Cornish name.

  24. Bear left in the direction indicated as "Public footpath" and bear left when you reach the path. Follow the path over the bridge and uphill to reach a junction of paths.

    About half-way to the bridge, a small path leads off the the left to an area overlooking the stream with some rope swings.

  25. At the junction of paths, pass the small path joining from the left then take the left-hand of the two paths ahead. Follow this until you reach a fork in the path just before a stream.

    On top of the elevated area to the left, beneath the trees, is a circular earth embankment which is thought to be the remains of an Iron Age settlement. The elevated position and nearby stream were probably factors in selecting the location.

  26. Take the right-hand path over the stream and follow it to another stream-crossing where a small path departs from the right.

    A short distance up the stream on the right is a large patch of wild garlic on the right-hand bank.

    Wild garlic is best harvested in early spring before it flowers and the leaves start to die off. Unlike domestic garlic, the leaves are generally used rather than the bulb, which is very small. Note that there are some lilies that look very similar and are poisonous! If it doesn't smell strongly of garlic/onions, then it's not wild garlic and should be avoided. A schoolboy error is to rub the leaves between fingers where the smell lingers so a subsequent poisonous lily leaf could be misidentified.

    Trees grow from a microscopically thin layer of cells that sits between the bark and the wood. On the outside it produces the inner bark (phloem) and on the inside it produces the outer section of wood (xylem).

  27. Keep left to stay on the main path and follow it around a bend to the right to reach a fork in the path.
  28. Keep right at the forks to follow the path uphill until it passes between two overlapping wooden fences just before a waymark.

    The first trees evolved about 360 million years ago which were a bit like tree versions of mosses. Seeds hadn't evolved at this point and so they reproduced via spores. After the arrival of the seed came conifers which were the dominant form of trees for nearly 200 million years. The flower evolved around 100 million years ago and following this, broadleaf trees appeared and eventually out-competed conifers in many habitats.

  29. Follow the middle of the 3 paths, leading ahead from the waymark (not right to Stibb). Continue on the path until you reach another waymark.

    The woodland contains quite a mixture of trees. The broadleaf species include beech and oak.

    For such a widespread tree, the oak is surprisingly inefficient at reproducing naturally. It can take 50 years before the tree has its first crop of acorns and even then, the overwhelming majority of the acorns that it drops are eaten by animals or simply rot on the ground. Squirrels play an important part by burying acorns and occasionally forgetting a few which have a much better chance of growing than on the surface.

  30. At the waymark, bear left along the path to reach a gate.

    Young beech leaves can be used as a salad vegetable, which are described as being similar to a mild cabbage, though much softer in texture. Older leaves are a bit chewy, as you'd expect.

    Beech trees can live up to 400 years but the normal range is 150-250 years. Beech trees respond well to pruning and the lifetime of the tree is extended when the tree is pollarded. This was once a common practice and involves cutting all the stems back to a height of about 6ft during the winter when the tree is dormant. The 6ft starting point kept the fresh new growth out of the range of grazing animals. When allowed to grow to full size, a beech tree can reach 80ft tall with a trunk diameter of around 3ft.

  31. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the gate and follow the path until it reaches a gate into a field.
  32. Go through the gate and follow the track along the right hedge of the field to reach a gateway in the far hedge.
  33. Go through the gateway and follow the track. At the junction, keep right along the track to reach a lane.
  34. Turn left onto the lane and follow it for about half a mile to a junction signposted to Kilkhampton.

    In late summer, purple betony flowers can be seen in the hedgerows. Sheltered from the winds, the plants grow quite a bit taller than on the coast.

    Betony is a grassland herb, common on the coast, with pretty purple anthers that stick out from the plant. The name is derived from the ancient Celtic words bew (meaning head) and ton (meaning good) as it was used as a cure for headaches. From Roman times onward, it was believed to be a cure for a number of things (the Romans listed 47!) including drunkenness; even as late as the 1800s, Richard E. Banks stated that you should "Eat betony or the powder thereof and you cannot be drunken that day" and John Gerard (1597) said that "It maketh a man to pisse well". Betony was also used to ward away evil spirits (hence it is planted in a number of churchyards) and also to make a dark yellow dye for wool.

    Cornwall had a number of its own peculiar units of measurement:

    • A Cornish Gallon was a unit of weight (10 lbs) rather than volume. A Cornish Apple Gallon however was 7 lb, rather than 10 lb. Given the strength of Cornish Rattler, this is probably wise.
    • When counting fish, a Cornish hundred was, in fact, 132.
    • Finally, a Cornish Mile is 1.5 miles. Though you may suspect otherwise when walking up a steep hill, our walk distances are not measured in Cornish Miles.
  35. Turn right in the direction signposted to Kilkhampton. Follow the lane until you reach a public footpath sign on the right, just after Four Acres Cottage.
  36. Turn right onto the footpath and go through the middle of the three gates. Continue ahead to another wooden gate with a National Trust badge.

    The National Trust is the largest owner of farms in the UK. It has around 2,000 tenants and over 600,000 acres of land. It has been calculated that 43% of all the rainwater in England and Wales drains through National Trust land.

  37. Go through the gate and head slightly right of the top the hill to reach a waymarked path into the undergrowth.

    Buttercups produce a toxin called protoanemonin, which is at its highest concentration when flowering. It is thought that buttercups may be partly responsible for Equine Grass Sickness. Fortunately the toxin is quite unstable and drying of the plant in haymaking leads to polymerisation into non-toxic anemonin. Buttercups are also toxic to dogs, cats and humans. They have a bitter taste which puts dogs off eating the plants but pollen can collect on fur and be ingested, particularly by cats when they clean themselves. A man in France who drank a glass of juice made from buttercups suffered severe colic after four hours and was dead the next day!

    During Victorian times and earlier, small amounts of land in Cornwall were measured by the goad - a unit of nine feet in length, derived from the name of the staff used to drive oxen.

    An English acre was less generous (at 43,560 square feet) than a Cornish acre (51,840 square feet). Although both were defined as 160 smaller land units, the English equivalent to the Cornish goad was a perch but this was 5.5 yards (16.5 ft) rather than the two-goad length used in Cornwall of 6 yards (18 ft). It is thought that the reason the perch ended up as a non-round number of feet is that it was originally measured from 20 averaged-sized human feet in Saxon times when nutrition wasn't great.

  38. From the waymark, follow the path up the hill until you reach a waymark below a kissing gate.
  39. When you reach the waymark, head uphill through the kissing gate and follow the steps over the rampart and into the ditch. Turn right and follow the ditch along the length of the fort until you reach another pedestrian gate on your right.

    The ramparts are the remains of Penstowe Castle, built to the Norman motte and bailey design.

    A bailey was essentially a fortified settlement, typically on the top of an embankment and surrounded by wooden pallisades. If breached, the motte provided an even more fortified position for retreat and defence during a siege.

  40. Go through the gate and follow the left hedge of the field to reach a farm gate in the far hedge.

    Just before you go through the gate, the path to the right leads onto the top of the Norman castle remains. There are good views from the top of the motte.

    Penstowe castle was built to a motte and bailey design, positioned on a knoll and surrounded by steep slopes. Penstowe is unusual in that it has two baileys. The inner bailey contained a hall and other administrative buildings. No building remains have been found in the outer bailey so its function is a bit of a mystery. It's possible that it did once contain buildings but these were wooden and so no trace remains.

    The motte would have been accessed by a drawbridge over the ditch to the bailey and topped with a tower (circular stone foundations have been found). Excavations of the motte in 1950 revealed 12th Century pottery so is thought that the castle may have been built during the 12th Century civil war period known as The Anarchy and that it was destroyed during the reign of Henry II towards the end of the 12th Century.

  41. Go through the kissing gate next to the gate and bear right onto the lane. Follow the lane for half a mile, back into Kilkhampton. Continue until you are level with the churchyard and reach a public footpath sign on the right, just past Little Combe cottage on the left.
  42. Turn right and follow the path through the churchyard to complete the circular route.

    Britain lost most of its wild Yew trees due to longbow production in the Middle Ages. Once the national supplies had been exhausted, Britain began importing yew wood from just about any European country that had any, rendering yew trees extinct or rare in many parts of Europe. Ironically, Britain now has possibly the world's greatest collection of yews and the majority of these are in churchyards where it was deemed inappropriate to fell them for longbows.

    These are some of the oldest Yew trees found anywhere in the world and Yews can live for thousands of years: the Forestry Commission described them as "the toughest, most indestructible and longest lived tree we have". It is therefore possible that some of the ancient yews are older than the adjacent church buildings as Christianity took over many sacred places from the previous religious traditions: in AD 601, Pope Gregory advised his followers not to destroy places of Pagan worship but to convert them into Christian Churches.

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