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.


Beautiful varied walk with perfect instructions.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 126 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 5 miles/8 km
  • Grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Start from: Kilkhampton churchyard entrance
  • Parking: Church car park EX239QQ
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots

OS maps for this walk

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

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 Compostella 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 a waymark.

    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 unmistakeable bluebells.

  9. At the waymark, bear left and 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.

  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 Kilhampton Common as part of Great British Elm Experiment.

    The first epidemic of Dutch elm disease occurred in the 1940s but a more agressive form swept across Britain in the 1970s and wiped out over 25 million elms. However, a small number of trees survived. Cuttings taken from mature trees that appear to have resisted Dutch elm disease for over 60 years have been skillfully micro propagated. The resulting saplings are being 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 significant proportion of these trees will prove resistant to the disease and further cuttings can then be taken to begin re-establishing the elms that were for so long an iconic feature of Britain's landscape.

  14. Bear left onto the track and follow it 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" and this name was still in use until early 20th century. There is an urban myth that according to aerodynamics, bumblebees should not be able to fly, leading to statements by US presidential candidates such as:

    It's scientifically impossible for the bumblebee to fly; but the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, flies anyway.

    You may not be too surprised to discover this assertion was based on flawed calculations in the early 20th Century that neglected to include the bees flapping their wings. In fact, during flight, they beat their wings around 200 times every second. However, the buzzing sound they make is not from the beating wings but from the bee's vibrating flight muscles. On cold days, by using their flight muscles, the bees are able to warm up their bodies to temperatures as high as 30 Celcius. In spring, queen bumblebees need to visit up to 6,000 flowers per day to gather enough nectar and pollen to establish their colony.

  15. Follow the driveway away past the house and away from the other houses to reach a lane.
  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.
  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 gate into a field.

    In June, foxgloves flower along the track.

    Foxgloves are reliant on bumblebees for pollination and bumblebees are much more active when the weather is good. As an insurance policy against bad weather, foxgloves have evolved to stagger their flowering over several weeks, starting with the flowers at the base of the stalk and working up to the top, where the higher flowers protrude over other vegetation that has grown up in that time.

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

    The woodland has been invaded by Rhododendrons whose only redeeming feature are the pretty pink flowers in spring which the insects also seem to appreciate.

    Rhododendrons are so successful in Britain that they have become an invasive species, crowding out other flora in the Atlantic oak woodlands. They are able to spread very quickly both through suckering along the ground and by abundant seed production. Conservation organisations now classify the Rhododendron explosion as a severe problem and various strategies have been explored to attempt to stop the spread. So far, the most effective method seems to be injecting herbicide into individual plants which is both more precise and effective than blanket cutting or spraying.

  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.

    The woodland contains quite a mixture of trees. Along this stretch of path there a quite a few beech.

    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.

  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 lillies 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 lilly leaf could be misidentified.

  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 fork and follow the path until it passes between two overlapping wooden fences just before a waymark.
  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.
  30. At the waymark, bear left along the path to reach a gate.
  31. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the gate and follow the path until it emerges into a field.
  32. Follow the track along the right hedge of the field to reach a gateway in the far hedge.
  33. Go through the gateway and either follow the track or the path that rejoins it. 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.
  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 618,000 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 for the top the hill to reach a waymark on the edge of 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. 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! Fortunately the toxin is quite unstable and drying of the plant in haymaking leads to polymerisation into non-toxic anemonin.

  38. From the waymark, follow the path up the hill until you reach a waymark next to a kissing gate.
  39. When you reach the waymark, go 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.

    Penstowe castle was built to a motte and bailey design, positioned on a knoll and surrounded by steep slopes. The bailey was essentially a fortified settlement typically surrounded by wooden pallisades. If breached, the motte provided an even more fortified position for retreat and defence during a siege. 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). 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. 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.

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

    The gate lies beneath a massive old oak tree.

    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 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.

    The older an oak tree becomes, the more acorns it produces. A 70-80 year old tree can produce thousands. As well as for squirrels, acorns are a really important food for deer and make up a quarter of their diet in the autumn. Acorns are high in carbohydrates and were also eaten by people in times of famine. Acorns were soaked in water to leech out the bitter tannins and could then be made into flour.

    Oak was often associated with the gods of thunder as it was often split by lightning, probably because oaks are often the tallest tree in the area. Oak was also the sacred wood burnt by the druids for their mid-summer sacrifice.

    Wood from the oak has a lower density than water (so it floats) but has a great strength and hardness, and is very resistant to insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. This made it perfect for shipbuilding, and barrels made from oak released preservative tannins into their contents.

    The high levels of tannins make large amounts of oak leaves and acorns poisonous to cattle, horses, sheep, and even goats, but not to pigs as wild boar were adapted to foraging in the oak forests.

  41. Cross the stile 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.

Help us with this walk

You can help us to keep this walk as accurate as it possibly can be for others by spotting and feeding back any changes affecting the directions. We'd be very grateful if could you look out for the following:

  • Any stiles, gates or waymark posts referenced in the directions which are no longer there
  • Any stiles referenced in the directions that have been replaced with gates, or vice-versa
  • If you have a large dog, let us know if you find problems with the stiles on this walk (e.g. require the dog to be lifted over).

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