Looe woodland, river and coast

A walk following the West Looe river from woods to its confluence and then to meet the Atlantic beside one of Cornwall's mediaeval ports.

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The walk winds into the mature broadleaf woodland of Kilminorth Woods by following the Giant's Hedge, built in the Dark Ages before a woodland existed here. The walk descends to the riverbank and then follows the West Looe river down to its confluence beside the pool that powered Looe's mills. The route follows the river to the bridge and crosses this to East Looe, continuing all the way along the quay to where the river meets the sea at the Banjo Pier. After passing along the beach, the walk winds through the mediaeval alleyways past some of Looe's oldest buildings before returning to the car park.

The woodland paths can be slippery after wet weather.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 107
  • Distance: 3 miles/4.8 km
  • Grade: Easy-moderate
  • Start from: West Looe Car Park
  • Parking: West Looe Car Park PL132AH. If you're coming from the west, as you come down the hill into Looe, keep a lookout for the road to the car park on the left opposite a road to the right. Follow this to a roundabout and turn left to reach the car park entrance.
  • Recommended footwear: Walking shoes

OS maps for this walk

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

Highlights

  • Mature broadleaf woodland with squirrels and chestnuts
  • 6th Century Giant's Hedge
  • River wildlife including herons, egrets and kingfishers
  • Mediaeval streets of East Looe
  • Possible to combine with a trip to Looe Island

Directions

  1. Make your way to the furthest end of the car park (towards the woods) to reach a slipway in a separate boating car park. Follow the path from the other side of the slipway, uphill towards the woods to reach a tarmacked track on the left just before the Kilminorth Woods sign.

    Kilminorth Wood is the largest area of sessile oak woodland in this part of Cornwall. A Local Nature Reserve was created in 1993 and is owned by Cornwall Council. A local group, known as the Friends of Kilminorth Woods, promote the conservation and improvement of the woods and its use for education and recreation. The woodland is classified as ancient and contains other broadleaf species including beech and chestnut. The woodland bordering the West Looe River provides a habitat for an array of wildlife including birds and mammals.

  2. Turn left and follow the track through the gate (or go over the stile if the gate is shut). Continue along the track until you reach a path on the right marked with a public footpath signpost.

    Many of the trees forming the canopy over the track are beech.

    Compared to many native trees, the beech colonised Great Britain relatively recently, after the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. Beech trees can live up to 400 years.

  3. Turn right up the steps and keep left at the fork to follow the path uphill between the banks. Continue to reach a junction of paths at a bench.

    The bank on your left is the Giant's Hedge and the path runs along a ditch that accompanied the bank.

    The Giant's Hedge is the remains of a wall from the Dark Ages which runs for ten miles from Looe to Lerryn. In some places it is still twelve feet high and it was recorded as being 16 feet high in Victorian times. Where it is best preserved, it is stone-faced and has a ditch running alongside. It is thought that it marked and defended the border of a Cornish Kingdom, which was otherwise surrounded by water from the River Fowey to the West Looe River.

  4. Pass the bench and continue ahead at the crossing to reach a wooden post with three coloured dots where a path joins from the right.

    As well as forgetting where they buried some, squirrels may also lose a quarter of their buried food to birds, other rodents and fellow squirrels. Squirrels therefore use dummy tactics to confuse thieves by sometimes just pretending to bury a nut.

  5. Continue ahead from the wooden post to reach another post with three coloured dots with a flight of steps leading down to the right.

    The size of the nuts from wild British chestnut trees is quite variable but the largest approach that of the nuts sold in supermarkets. Nuts that are very flat or less than the girth of your little finger are not worth harvesting; anything bigger is viable. A painless way to extract the nuts is to grip the husk between your feet and rub it between your boots or against the ground. This saves having to handle the spiky husks as the spikes are very sharp and tend to break off under the skin to leave behind splinters. Often the husks contain one (fairly round) large nut surrounded by several small, flat nuts, so it's worth squeezing out quite a few husks to get the larger nuts. Discard any nuts with holes in (as they will contain maggots) or that are very dark in colour - the fresher ones will be "chestnut" brown rather than dark brown.

  6. Pass the steps then keep right at the fork in the path towards a tree in the middle of the path. Pass around the tree to reach a footbridge, cross this and continue on the uphill path. Follow the path until you reach a path descending to the right with a signpost indicating "Alternative Return Route" with a yellow dot.
  7. Bear right onto the path leading downhill to emerge on a larger path. Turn right onto this and walk a few paces until you reach a flight of steps to the left marked with a signpost labelled "To Riverside" with a yellow dot. Descend the steps and follow the path to reach a post with a yellow dot at a junction of paths near a fence.

    Ferns evolved a long time before flowering plants and dominated the planet during the Carboniferous period. The bark from tree ferns during this period is thought to have been the main source of planet's coal reserves.

    Ferns lack seeds as well as flowers and reproduce via tiny spores which are most commonly distributed by the wind. This allows them to colonise some quite random places.

  8. Turn left down the steps and follow the path to reach a gap in the wooden fence with a flight of steps descending to the right.

    Anyone who has sat on a holly leaf will know how prickly they can be but the leaves particularly on larger holly bushes often vary considerably with less spiky leaves nearer the top.

    Holly is able to vary its leaf shape in response to its environment through a chemical process known as DNA methylation which can be used to switch genes on and off. If its leaves are eaten by grazing animals or trampled by walkers, the holly will crank up the methylation level to produce really spiky leaves on these stems. Conversely on the stems where the leaves are able to grow old in peace, the holly will produce versions that are flatter and therefore more efficient at catching the light. An individual leaf can last up to five years.

  9. Go down the steps (signposted to Looe). At the bottom of the steps, turn right and follow the path past a picnic area to reach a low bridge over a small stream.

    The West Looe river rises near Dobwalls and runs for roughly 8 miles through Herodsfoot and Churchbridge before entering the creeks of the flooded river valley just below Milcombe with a final mile along the creek to its confluence with the East Looe river. The sedimentary rocks surrounding the river form an aquifer reserve which results in the river levels being topped up by groundwater during periods of low rainfall.

  10. Cross the bridge and join the tarmacked path. Follow this to a gate leading out of the woods.
  11. Go through the gate and follow the tarmacked path alongside the river to the slipway.

    The grey heron is an unmistakably massive bird with a 6ft wingspan and is most commonly seen in or near freshwater. The call of the heron is equally unsubtle - it is more like grating metal than the sound of birdsong. Although herons primarily eat fish, they will eat frogs, rodents, moles, ducklings and even baby rabbits! In Tudor and Elizabethan times, hunting herons with peregrine falcons was considered a royal sport which resulted in the birds being protected from peasants who might otherwise have caught and roasted them.

  12. Cross the top of the slipway and bear left between the bollards to continue following the path alongside the river. Continue to the edge of the mill pool.

    The little egret - a white member of the heron family - can be seen on many of the creeks in Cornwall and yet is only a very recent settler in Britain. The birds first appeared in Britain in any number in 1989 and the first to breed was in 1996 in Dorset.

  13. Go down the steps and cross the dam (or walk around the pool if the causeway along the top of the dam is underwater) to reach the other side.

    The Herring Gull is the gull most commonly encountered in Cornwall and is an example of a "Ring Species". In Europe, the Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull are distinct species, yet as you circumnavigate the globe, the populations become more similar until they merge in the middle as a single species.

    Despite a growth of urban populations inland, particularly around rubbish tips, the Herring Gull population has dropped to half its size in 25 years. It has been driven inland in search of food and roosting sites due to declining fish populations and lack of undisturbed coastal nesting sites. In urban areas, streetlights allow gulls to forage by night and there is no longer competition from Red Kites, which scavanged the rubbish tips in the Middle Ages.

  14. At the top of the steps, continue following the path along the edge of the river until the waterside path ends in a chained gate into a boatyard.

    The large black birds nesting on offshore rocks, known colloquially as the cormorant and shag, are two birds of the same family and to the untrained eye look pretty similar. The origin of the name "shag" is a crest that this species has on top of its head and the cormorant doesn't. The cormorant is the larger of the two birds with a whiter throat. The shag's throat is yellow, and mature shags have a metallic green sheen on their feathers which cormorants lack.

  15. Turn right and follow the narrow path until it ends in a bollard at a lane.
  16. When you reach the lane, head towards the Ambulance Station then turn left to follow the lane to the Old Mill. Continue on the lane to a tarmac area immediately after the Old Mill and before the Amusements building.

    The Old Mill gift centre was the location of a tidal mill, known as Polvellan, first built in 1621. The name is from the Cornish words pol and melyn meaning "mill pool". The mill pool on the edge of the car park today is a small remnant of the original which extended for 13 acres and was surrounded by a high wall. The mill, which had 4 waterwheels, was initially used to grind corn for brewing and was last used in the 19th Century for grinding bones to make bonemeal.

  17. Bear left off the lane past the Amusements entrance and follow the path alongside the river. Walk through a tunnel beneath Looe's bridge and continue for a few metres until you meet the ramp leading down from the bridge.

    The name Looe is from the Cornish word logh (meaning sea lake, similar to the Scottish word) and on 17th Century maps the name still appears as "Low" or "Lowe". East Looe and West Looe originated as separate towns. East Looe is the older of the two and by 1310, Looe had five ships in the wine trade with Bordeaux. There are still a number of mediaeval buildings in the old town.

  18. Turn right, back on yourself, to follow the ramp up to the bridge then cross the bridge. As you reach the other side of the river, keep right to reach the war memorial.

    By 1411, the two towns of East and West Looe had been joined by the earliest estuary bridge in Cornwall, which was recorded as having 14 arches in 1698. The bridge was replaced in 1853 by the current one which is about a hundred metres further upstream than the original.

  19. Turn right through the gap between the bridge and war memorial to reach the quay. Turn left and follow the quay downriver taking note of any ropes, chains and raised ironwork on the quay edge. Continue along the quay as far as you can go until you reach some gates with No Public Access signs.

    Many guides to crabbing mention changing water in a bucket containing crabs. There are two reasons why changing water frequently (every 10 mins) is vital to keep crabs alive:

    Crabs have gills and get their oxygen from the water. There is not much water in a bucket and the oxygen quite quickly gets depleted. Too many crabs in one bucket also depletes the oxygen too quickly.

    The temperature of the sea in Britain rarely exceeds 19°C and most marine animals can only survive short periods at higher temperatures where their metabolic processes don't work efficiently. Crabs will avoid water warmer than 25°C (room temperature) as long periods in warm water will kill them. The small amount of water in a bucket has a small heat capacity (like in a nearly-empty kettle) and so will warm up quite quickly. Keeping the bucket out of the sun will also help to stop the water getting too warm before it is changed.

    Increasing the amount of water will also help by holding more oxygen and staying cool longer.

  20. Bear left and pass around the railings to reach a lane behind the fish landing area. Turn right and follow this past Dave's Diner to where a paved area leads back to the quay on the right.

    There are several reasons why seagulls should not be fed.

    One is that human foods are not nutritionally suitable for seagulls but seagulls are not smart enough to know these can damage their health.

    Another is that seagulls become dependent on humans and lose the skills to obtain food from natural sources.

    The reason most affecting us is that feeding seagulls makes them less scared of humans. Since seagulls do not have have the emotional wiring to empathise with humans, fear is the only thing preventing that interaction being aggressive. There are many examples of children being attacked (who then drop food, reinforcing the behaviour) and even one case of a dog being killed by a pack of seagulls.

  21. Bear right to reach the quayside then continue walking down the river. Follow this to a yellow boxed area just before the Lifeboat station.

    Boats for Looe Island depart from this area of the quay.

    Looe Island has been inhabited since the Iron Age. Roman coins, pieces of Amphora and stone boat anchors all point to continued habitation and possibly trade before the Dark Ages. From the 13th to the 16th Centuries, the island was known as St Michael's Island, and after 1584 it became known as St George's Island. In 1965 the island was bought by two sisters who lived there for the rest of their lives. The island was left to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust who now manage it as a nature reserve.

  22. Walk along the front of the lifeboat station then join the path between the railings and follow this to the start of the pier.

    The Looe lifeboat was established in 1866. The current lifeboat station houses two inshore lifeboats (RHIBs).

    The RNLI was founded in 1824 under the original name of the National Institution for Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. It was renamed to the RNLI in 1854. Until 1890 all the lifeboats were rowed with oars until some steam-powered boats were introduced. By 1905, petrol-powered boats were being trialled and fairly quickly replaced the bulky steam-powered predecessors. Today a fleet of over 340 lifeboats provide a 24/7 search and rescue service around the UK. The charity has saved over 140,000 lives since it was set up.

  23. After exploring the pier, walk along the railings behind the beach to the far side where the roadside car park ends in front of the Boscarn Free House.

    The Banjo Pier was created by Joseph Thomas in the late 19th Century as the previous pier wasn't effective at stopping the river silting up. Thomas worked out that a circular pier head would hold the sand back and was so confident in his design that he refused payment until it was built and proven effective. The Looe pier has become the prototype for other banjo piers around the world.

  24. Bear left to pass in front of Boscarn Free House and left again onto the lane. Walk back a short distance on the lane to pass the church.
  25. Immediately after the church, turn right to follow alongside the church building with it on your right. Walk all the way to the far end of the church then join the cobbled alleyway leading towards Osborne House to reach a pair of no-through signs.
  26. Turn right through the gap below the building and go through the gap opposite, and the next, to reach a building with a boat on the wall. Turn right until you reach an alleyway on the left just as the Old Vicarage comes into view.
  27. Turn left through the alleyway and then left again to pass the Museum. Continue following the lane towards Smugglers Cott to reach a passageway with a postbox immediately in front of Smugglers Cott.

    Smugglers Cott in East Looe dates from 1430 and was restored in 1595 using timber salvaged from one of the ships from the Spanish Armada. The name of the building alludes to a tunnel from the cellar which led to the quay.

  28. Turn left to go through the passageway and then right onto the cobbled street. Follow this until it ends on the tarmacked road.

    Another of Looe's mediaeval buildings is on the left as you emerge onto the tarmacked road.

  29. Turn right onto the road and follow this back to the war memorial.

    Clotted-cream fudge is traditional in Devon and Cornwall but this is a relatively recent tradition. Fudge is thought to have first been made in the USA during Victorian times when a recipe for caramel went wrong hence "fudge" is also used to mean "to not do correctly". The basis of fudge is sugar, butter and milk but in the Westcountry, clotted cream is used in place of butter and milk, resulting in a basic recipe of just 2 ingredients.

    The traditional flavouring is vanilla, which itself is also clue to the period from which the recipes originate. It wasn't until Victorian times that a hand pollination technique was discovered for the vanilla orchid by a 12-year-old slave in the French colonies. This allowed commercial vanilla production to take place outside of Mexico and this made vanilla much more affordable. The pollination technique discovered by the young boy is still the basis of commercial production today.

  30. Pass the memorial and make your way onto the bridge but cross via the pedestrian crossing on the bridge to the opposite side. Continue across the bridge to reach a small gap in the wall leading towards the Amusements building.

    Swans usually mate for life, although "divorce" can sometimes occur if there is a nesting failure. The birds can live for over 20 years but in the 20th Century many swans were found to be suffering from lead poisoning. This was tracked down to the tiny "lead shot" weights used for fishing that swans would hoover up with weed and roots from the bottom of rivers and lakes. Since the introduction of non-toxic metals for making fishing weights, incidents of poisoning have disappeared and the swan population is now even growing very slightly.

  31. Go through the gap and pass the steps to stay on the upper level, then bear left in front of the building to reach a walkway down the left side. Follow this to reach the lane. Follow the lane back to the car park to complete the walk.

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

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