Morwenstow to Marsland

A circular walk from Vicarage Cliff along the coast path to Marsland Mouth at the Devon border, returning through fields to Morwenstow rectory, church and the Rectory Tea Rooms - the last stand of the Cornish cream tea before the Devon border.

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The walk starts beside the churchyard and follows Rev Hawker's route to Vicarage Cliff. Here it joins the Coast Path and passes above St Morwenna's Holy well then up and down a series of hanging valleys to reach Marsland Mouth on the Devon border. Staying on Cornish soil, the route turns inland along a path through the woods and then follows a series of tracks and footpaths back across the fields to Morwenstow Rectory, church and ending at the Rectory Tea Rooms.

The coast path here includes some steep sections without steps. Out of the summer, the north-facing slopes can remain damp from dew and become slippery. Boots with good grip and a pole are recommended.

Reviews

Stunning walk from Morwenstow to Marsland this morning.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 126 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 4.4 miles/7 km
  • Grade: Strenuous
  • Start from: Rectory Tea Rooms car park
  • Parking: Church car park in front of the Rectory Tea Rooms EX239SR. Follow signs from the A39 to the Bush Inn and then to the Rectory Tea Rooms
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

OS maps for this walk

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

Highlights

  • Panoramic views of the rugged coastline and Lundy Island from the coast path
  • Pretty wildflowers in spring and summer, blackberries and mushrooms in autumn
  • Sand, pebbles and rockpools on the beach at Marsland Mouth
  • Marsland wood nature reserve
  • Ornate Morwenstow church and rectory
  • Local food and drink at the historic Bush Inn and Rectory Farm Tea Rooms

Directions

  1. From the car park, cross over the road and make your way into the churchyard. Follow the path to the church.

    The church at Morwenstow today is of the Norman period, but before this, it is believed that a Saxon church stood on the site. In a document dated 1296, the church was referred to as an 'old and well-known structure'. The church is dedicated to St Morwenna and St John the Baptist. Originally, it was just St Morwenna, but St John was added as a dedication around 1285 when the church was gifted to the hospital of St John the Baptist, in Bridgewater. Amongst the tombs and gravestones in the churchyard is the preserved figurehead from a ship - The Caledonia - which was wrecked nearby. More than 40 seamen are buried in the churchyard.

  2. Facing the church door, turn right and follow the path along the front of the church to a waymark.

    Robert Stephen Hawker was the vicar at Morwenstow from 1834-1875. Before this, there hadn't been a vicar here for over a century. Hawker was regarded as a deeply compassionate person, giving Christian burials to shipwrecked seamen washed up on the shores of the parish, and was often the first to reach the cliffs when there was a shipwreck. He was an accomplished poet, publishing a number of works. Hawker was also something of an eccentric: he wore brightly-coloured clothes including a pink hat, talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and took his pet pig for walks. Other eccentricities attributed to him include: dressing as a mermaid ( with seaweed for hair) and excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sundays. His funeral was noteworthy because the mourners wore purple, instead of the traditional black.

  3. Just past the waymark, turn left along the wall to a stone stile. Cross the stile and follow the path past the rectory and down into a wood, keeping right until you reach a footbridge.

    Morwenstow Rectory is situated next to the churchyard, facing the fields of the appropriately named Vicarage Cliff. The rectory was built by Rev. Hawker and is, as you might expect, remarkable. The chimneys are modelled on the towers of the churches in his life: Morwenstow, Welcombe, Tamerton (where he had been curate) and Magdalen College, Oxford. The old kitchen chimney is a replica of Hawker's mother's tomb.

  4. Cross the footbridge and stile and follow the path out of the woods to a waymark in the corner of a field.

    The Harvest Festival was invented in Morwenstow in 1843 by Rev. Hawker. He invited his parishioners to a Harvest service, as he wanted to give thanks to God for providing such plenty. The service took place on the 1 October, and bread made from the first cut of corn was taken at communion. It quickly caught on and spread throughout Cornwall and beyond. In the Port Isaac Harvest Festival celebration, fish, nets, oars and lobster pots took the place of the more conventional flowers and fruit.

  5. In the field, turn left in the direction indicated by the waymark, following along the left hedge to a stile.

    St Morwenna was an early 6th century saint from Ireland, and is said to have been one of the many children of the Celtic King Brychan. She settled in Morwenstow and her brother, St Nectan, lived nearby at Hartland. Ethelwolf, the Saxon King, appointed Morwenna to be the tutor for his daughters, for which service, Morwenna requested land to build a church. It is recorded that as she lay dying, St. Nectan came to see her, and she asked him to raise her up so that she might look once more on her native shore. She was buried at the church in Morwenstow.

    Images of her, in stained glass, may be seen in the Morwenstow parish church and a painting on the North Wall shows a gaunt female clasping a scroll to her breast with her left hand; the right arm is raised in blessing over a kneeling monk.

  6. Cross the stile into the next field and follow the left hedge until you reach another stile.

    Brychan was a legendary Celtic king (originally born in Ireland) who ruled over Breconshire in South Wales and was viewed as the father of the Celtic saints.

    Most of his children were reported to have evangelised Cornwall and North Devon, with many of the churches dedicated to them. Consequently, many of the place names in North Cornwall (St Teath, St Mabyn, St Endellion, St Minver, St Clether, Egloshale, Egloskerry, Advent, Morwenstow, Lelant etc) are associated with the names of his children.

  7. Cross the stile and turn right onto the coast path. Follow the coast path through a kissing gate, across the field edge and through an area of scrub to re-emerge in a field.

    On a clear day, you can see Lundy Island on your left. There is a Cornish saying along these lines: "if you can see Lundy it's going to rain; if you can't see Lundy then it's raining".

    Lundy is largest island in the Bristol Channel, situated about one-third of the way to Wales. It is an outcrop of granite, which rises 400ft out of the sea. The name of the island is thought to come from an old Norse word for puffin.

    The island is now owned by the National Trust who lease it to the Landmark Trust and thus development has been tightly controlled: the island doesn't have a single tarmacked road, pavement or streetlight, and the electricity is turned off a night, resulting in incredible views of the night sky. Lundy was England's first marine reserve and subsequently the first Marine Conservation Zone.

  8. Continue parallel to the coast to cross the field and reach a path leading down into the valley ahead (not visible until you are near the opposite side of the field).
  9. Follow the path from the edge of the field to a footbridge at the bottom of the valley.

    Hanging valleys are common on the North Cornish coast and are created due to erosion of the relatively hard cliffs by the Atlantic waves being faster than erosion of the valley by a small river. In many cases, this results in a waterfall where the small river meets the sea cliff, though many of these are little more than a trickle in dry weather. When there is a strong onshore gale, the waterfalls sometimes run backwards!

  10. From the footbridge, keep left along the coast and follow the path along the cliff edge to reach the first of a pair of kissing gates.
  11. Go through the two kissing gates and follow the path around the edge of the next field to reach a third kissing gate.

    The rocky ridge protruding into the sea ahead is known as Gull Rock.

    It has been suggested that a law must have been passed in Cornwall whereby all offshore rocks must be renamed to Gull Rock! It seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon as many reports from the 1800s use different names for the rocks now named Gull Rock.

    In the local dialect, the word "Orestone" was used to describe such offshore rocks. An object was described as "orey" if covered in seaweed (Oarweed being another name for the commonest kelp found around the Cornish coast).

  12. Go through the gate and bear right towards the waymark, then follow the path to the gate ahead beside the hedge.
  13. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the gate and cross the field to another kissing gate.

    The hollow in the field where the cliff is beginning to slip is thought to be a crater from a somewhat off-target WW2 bomb.

  14. Go through the gate and follow the path to reach a footbridge at the bottom of a valley.
  15. From the footbridge, follow the path up the steps and onwards, passing through a gate, until the path eventually forks.

    Heather plants can live up to 40 years. Heather plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungi which grows inside and between some of the plant root cells. Up to 80% of the root structure can be made up of fungi. The fungi are able to extract nutrients from poor, acidic soils that plants struggle with. Conversely the plant is able to generate other nutrients that are useful to the fungi by photosynthesis.

  16. At the fork in the path, keep left and follow the path down into the valley to another fork at a waymark.

    At the very bottom of the valley is the Devon border, beyond which, cream teas are not the same.

    The Devonshire method for preparing a cream tea is to saw a scone in half, paint each half with clotted cream, and then add strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, things are done differently!

    • No scone: in Cornwall, a cream tea is traditionally served with a "Cornish split", a slightly sweet white bread roll, rather than a scone.
    • Butter: a warm split is first buttered.
    • Jam before cream: the buttered split is then spread with strawberry jam, although raspberry jam is also traditional.
    • No spreading of cream: the jam is finally topped with a spoonful of clotted cream.

    Many commercial cream teas in Cornwall resemble Devonshire cream teas, using scones and no butter, with a token reversal of jam and cream. Fortunately, armed with a few splits from a traditional bakery, you can prepare your own to exacting standards.

  17. At the waymark, turn right and follow the path to a gate.

    A diversion to the beach is possible by following the path to the left from the waymark and returning here afterwards.

  18. Go through the kissing gate next to the gate and follow the path until it ends on a track.

    The Marsland valley nature reserve is located on the Cornwall-Devon border and managed jointly between the Cornwall and Devon Wildlife Trusts. The reserve provides habitat for a number of butterfly species including the Purple Hairstreak and a butterfly recording transect has been running here since the 1980s.

    The land was donated to the Wildlife Trust by Christopher Cadbury who pieced together land purchased from 32 owners to form the 500 acre reserve. Christopher was grandson of John Cadbury who invented the chocolate bar, and he worked in the Cadbury Brothers factory as a young man. Later in life he spent much of his time and fortune on setting up nature reserves such as this one.

  19. At the end of the path, turn right onto the track and follow it uphill until it ends on a lane.

    The Purple Hairstreak butterfly gets its name from an iridescent purple streak present only on the female of the species (the males are dark). Despite being reasonably common, the butterflies are difficult to spot for two reasons: they spend a lot of time stationary, basking in the sun and when they do fly, they do so high above the oak trees. The best chances of seeing them are in late July and August.

  20. Turn right onto the lane and follow it to reach Marsland Manor.

    The settlement of Marsland is first recorded in 1284 when it is spelt "Maddokeslonde" and is thought to be based on the name of the landowner. The farmhouse and some of the outbuildings date from the 17th or possibly 16th Century. Many of the surrounding fields are remains of a mediaeval field system.

  21. Continue ahead on the road until you reach a metal gate and wooden stile on the right with a waymark and permissive path notice.

    One of the dwellings here was converted from a building used to house a "horse engine". These buildings were often originally circular and contained a capstan-like device known as a "whim" which the horses would turn to provide the source of power. A popular design involved a central wooden pole which rotated in a stone on the ground containing a central hole.

  22. Cross the stile and follow the path alongside the hedge then along the bottom of the bank. Keep following the path ahead as it crosses onto the top of the bank to reach a waymark beside the hedge.
  23. From the waymark by the hedge, turn left to follow the path downhill along the right hedge to a footbridge. Continue on the waymarked path up the other side of the valley to reach a stile into a field.

    The platform beside the river is thought to have once been the site of a corn mill and the footpath would have originally been a steep cart track connecting it to the farm.

    The simplest design for a waterwheel is known as an undershot wheel where the paddles are simply dipped into flowing water. This works well in large rivers where there is a strong current. However, in hilly areas with smaller streams (such as Cornwall), the overshot design is more common where the water is delivered via a man-made channel (leat) to the top of the wheel where it flows into buckets on the wheel, turning the wheel through the weight of the water.

  24. When you reach the stile, cross it into the field and bear right slightly, across the field, to a stile in the middle of the hedge ahead.

    The number of cows in Cornwall has been estimated at around 75,000 so there's a good chance of encountering some in grassy fields. If you are crossing fields in which there are cows:

    • Avoid splitting the herd as cows are more relaxed if they feel protected by the rest of the herd. Generally the best plan is to walk along the hedges.
    • Do not show any threatening behaviour towards calves (approaching them closely to take photos, making loud noises or walking between a calf and its mother) as you may provoke the mother to defend her young.
    • If cows approach you, they often do so out of curiosity and in the hope of food - it may seem an aggressive invasion of your space but that's mainly because cows don't have manners. Do not run away as this will encourage them to chase you. Stand your ground and stretch out your arms to increase your size. Usually if you calmly approach them, they will back off. It's also best to avoid making sudden movements that might cause them to panic.
    • Where possible, avoid taking dogs into fields with cows, particularly with calves. If cows charge, release the dog from its lead as the dog will outrun the cows and the cows will generally chase the dog rather than you.
  25. Cross the stile and bear left to cross the field diagonally to a pair of gateways in the opposite corner.
  26. Go through the (rightmost) waymarked gate onto a track and follow the track along the left hedge to a gate in the far corner.
  27. Go through the gate and follow the track until you reach a tiny stone building with a wooden door on the left and sign marked "Alternative path", just before the track reaches a farmyard.

    The farm here, known as Cornakey, was first recorded in 1327. It is thought that the name is mediaeval English for "heron stream". Just near the "Alternative path" sign is a well where a spring rises and this feeds a small stream leading into Cornakey Woods.

  28. Go through the gate on your left into the field and turn right. Follow the hedge past the barn to a gate in the far hedge.
  29. Go through the gate onto the lane and turn left. Follow the lane a short distance to a corner where a track departs from the right.
  30. Turn right onto the waymarked track and follow it until you reach a gate for Yeolmouth.

    The settlement of Yeolmouth is first recorded in 1327 and shortly afterwards in 1340 it is recorded as a pair of settlements named "North" and "South Yulemouthe". One of these remains and the other was last recorded as a deserted farm in 1915 and has since disappeared. The name is English and the "yeol" may be a form of "yellow", though there is no sand where the cliff meets the sea so this may be a reference to Gorse.

  31. Go through the pedestrian gate on the left. Bear left, past the building, in the direction indicated "this way" on a wooden signpost, to reach a stile.

    Male ducks (drakes) have a penis which falls off every autumn and regrows the following spring. The length each year depends on the amount of competition for females and varies up to a maximum of the duck's whole body length.

  32. Cross the stile and follow the right hedge to a gateway in the corner of the field.
  33. Go through the gate and pass the gate on the right to reach a waymark. Turn right and follow the track along the hedge to reach a waymarked metal gate in the far hedge.

    Although it's obvious that you should ensure any gates that you open, you also close, what about gates you find that are already open?

    If the gate is fully open then leave it alone as it may well be providing livestock access to a water supply, and by closing it you could end up killing them.

    If the gate is ajar but not latched then it's possible that the gate was left open a by previous group of walkers. Properly closing the offending gate behind you will not only bring joy to the landowner but you can feel good about saving a small child from being run over by a car swerving to avoid a cow in the road.

  34. Go through the gate and turn left. Follow the left hedge about a quarter of the way along the field until you reach a ladder stile.
  35. Cross the ladder stile and follow the left hedge to a waymarked gate in the corner of the far hedge.
  36. Go through the gate and follow the left hedge to a waymark at the bottom of the field.

    GCHQ Bude is a satellite ground station, just south of Morwenstow, comprised of 21 satellite antennas which are through to span the full range of communication frequencies. It is staffed by GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), the British signals intelligence service, and the United States NSA (National Security Agency). The activities at GCHQ remain classified but it's thought that the station specialises in the interception and decryption of electronic communications, both domestic and foreign. Prior to the GCHQ station, the site was the location of RAF Cleave, a World War 2 airfield used by Fighter Command.

  37. From the waymark, follow the path ahead through the woods to a footbridge and keep left, past a waymark and rectory, to reach a stile into the churchyard.
  38. Cross the stile and bear right on the path along the hedge to reach another path. Continue to reach a path descending from the left with a metal railing. Follow this out of the churchyard to the Rectory Tea Rooms car park to complete the circular walk.

    Rectory Farm is situated next to the church and Rectory at Morwenstow - thus the name. Rectory Farm dates back to 1296 when it belonged to an order of Monks. The house contains oak beams salvaged from shipwrecks, floors of local slate, and a number of antique furnishings. The house was opened as a Tea Room in 1950 and since then has won a number of awards. A number of the ingredients are grown on-site in the kitchen garden or are from the farm, and many others are locally sourced.

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).

Take a photo and email contact@iwalkcornwall.co.uk, or message either IWalkCornwall on facebook or @iwalkc on twitter. If you have any tips for other walkers please let us know, or if you want to tell us that you enjoyed the walk, we'd love to hear that too.

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