Morwenstow to Stanbury Mouth circular walk

Morwenstow to Stanbury Mouth

A circular walk from Morwenstow along the shipwreck coast to Stanbury Mouth where only nature's by-the-wind sailors now run aground

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The walk starts at Morwenstow Church and reaches the coast on the cliffs above St Morwenna's Well. The walk then joins the coast path past Hawker's Hut and across the Tidna Valley to the old coastguard lookout on Higher Sharpnose Point. The route continues along the coast to Stanbury Mouth where a path leads onto the beach. The return route is via the manors of Stanbury and Tonnacombe and ending at the Bush Inn and Rectory Tea Rooms beside the church.

Considerations

  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 126
  • Distance: 3.8 miles/6.2 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)

Highlights

  • Ornate Morwenstow church and rectory
  • Coastal views from Hawker's Hut - the National Trust's smallest building
  • Beach at Stanbury Mouth (sandy at low tide)
  • Pretty wildflowers on the coast path in spring and summer
  • Panoramic views from Higher Sharpnose Point
  • Local food and drink at the historic Bush Inn and Rectory Farm Tea Rooms

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Bush Inn

Directions

  1. Facing the church, turn left onto the track signposted to the Coast Path and follow it until you reach a gate.

    The church is dedicated to St Morwenna.

    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.

  2. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the gate and follow the track along the left hedge past a wooden gate to reach a gateway in the far hedge of the field.

    There are 33 regions in England designated Areas Of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) many of which were created at the same time as the National Parks. In fact the AONB status is very similar to that of National Parks.

    There is a single Cornwall AONB which was established in 1959 and is itself subdivided into 12 sections. 11 of these are stretches of the coastline and the 12th is Bodmin Moor.

    This walk lies within the northernmost of the coastal areas that make up the Cornwall AONB.

  3. Go through the gateway and follow the left hedge to reach another gate.

    Buttercups grow amongst the grass and can provide a display of yellow during spring.

    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!

    Lundy Island can be seen along the coast to the right on a clear day.

    Lundy is the 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.

    There is evidence for human habitation from the Neolithic period onward. There are also Celtic remains from the early mediaeval period. Several inscribed stones have been found and also the remains of a chapel.

  4. Go through the kissing gate on the left of the gate and follow the left hedge until you reach a gateway at the end of the wall.

    St Morwenna's Well is located part-way down the cliff a short distance to the right of the waymark.

    Morwenna's Holy Well, restored by Rev Hawker, survives in a virtually inaccessible position part-way down the cliff at Morwenstow. It was lost for many years and rediscovered after much searching towards the end of the 20th Century. Following this, the National Trust cleared a rough path and provided ropes to assist descent half way down the 450 foot cliff to reach the well. In the early 1980s, before Health and Safety had been invented, the local primary school children were taken on a school trip here and fortunately survived to tell the tale. Subsequently the ropes were removed and the path became overgrown with brambles, nettles and blackthorn. During this period, the path was used by at least one local family as a test of dedication for potential suitors. Recently the path has been cleared again but is definitely not recommended without safety equipment as it is dangerously steep and precarious.

  5. Go through the gateway and follow the right-hand edge of the field along the coast to reach a slate with a sign for Hawker's Hut.

    Skylarks are the most common member of the lark family in Britain and are often known simply as "larks".

    The phrase "to lark about" may have its origins in the aerobatics of the skylark. At the start of the 19th Century, young boys who played about in the rigging of ships were known as "skylarks". The use of "to lark" as a verb can be traced back as far as the early 19th Century. By the middle of the century, it had reach America where "larking about" is first recorded.

  6. After having a look at the hut, continue along the right edge of the field to a kissing gate on the end of the wall ahead.

    Hawker built a small hut from driftwood, on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Morwenstow. He spent many hours there "communing with St Morwenna" (i.e. smoking opium) and writing his poems and letters. One of these was Cornwall's anthem - Trelawney - which he published anonymously but was later credited with, by Charles Dickens. Hawker's Hut is now the smallest building owned by the National Trust.

  7. Go through the kissing gate and follow the right-hand edge of the field until you reach a waymark.

    The name Morwenstow has been Saxonified at some point in history and had "stow" added to indicate the presence of the church, perhaps replacing a "lan-" at the start. According to legend, the "morwen" part comes from St Morwenna. However, it's also worth noting that mor is the Cornish word for "sea" and gwenn means "white", so it's also possible that the name may have its origins in the rough seas around the rocky shores here.

    There is no actual village of Morwenstow - it's just the name of the parish. The central settlement in the parish is simply called Shop, and does indeed have a shop (aka "the shop in Shop"). However, the origin of the several places in Cornwall with "Shop" in the name is actually from "workshop" i.e. a blacksmith.

  8. Bear left from the waymark in the direction indicated to reach a kissing gate in the fence roughly 20 metres inland from the corner of the field.

    At the bottom of the Tidna valley, rather that meeting the coast at the part of the valley most eroded by the sea, the river Tidna continues along a gully carved into the soft shale rocks along the side of Higher Sharpnose Point. The Tidna Chute ends in a waterfall which tumbles down the cliff at the end of the point.

  9. Go through the gate and follow the zig-zag path downhill to reach a kissing gate.

    Large daisy-like flowers on the coast are likely to be oxeye daisies, also known as the dog daisy or moon daisy - the latter is said to be because they are so bright that they appear to glow in the evening. The flowers of oxeye daisies are edible and can be used in salads or deserts. The flower buds can also be picked in vinegar and spices and used like capers.

    The interdependency between plants and pollinating insects is thought to have accelerated the formation of new species (i.e. a group where members can only reproduce successfully with other members from that group, not from other groups) both for the plants and for the insects. This is thought to explain why there are a few hundred species of conifer but a few hundred thousand species of flowering plant. This has allowed flowering plants to become highly specialised for habitat niches (e.g. salty coastline) and so dominate many of them.

  10. Go through the gate and follow the footpath down to the bottom of the valley to reach a waymark.

    Several species of heather grow in Cornwall and are most easily recognised when they flower from July to September. The one with the most brightly coloured (purple) flowers is known as bell heather due to the bell-shaped flowers. This is the earliest one to start flowering - normally in June. Bell heather is usually interspersed with ling or common heather which has much smaller flowers which are usually paler and pinker and come out at the start of July. A third kind known as cross-leafed heath is less abundant but can be recognised by the pale pink bell-shaped flowers that grow only near the tips of the stems, resembling pink lollipops. A fourth species known as Cornish heath grows only on the Lizard and has more elaborate flowers which are mostly pale with a dark purple crown at the front.

    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!

  11. Keep right at the waymark and follow the path over the bridge to a kissing gate. Go through this and follow the waymarked path to a junction of paths at the top of Higher Sharpnose Point.

    Stonechats are robin-sized birds with a black head and orange breast that are common along the Cornish coast all year round.

    During the summer months, stonechats eat invertebrates. As temperatures drop and there are not so many of these about, they make do with seeds and fruit such as blackberries. Quite a few die in cold winters but this is offset by their fast breeding rate during the warmer months.

  12. At the point, the route continues to the left. The path to the right leads out to the end of the point where there are panoramic views. Follow the coast path past the lookout and continue to reach a wooden walkway over a small stream.

    The headland is known as Higher Sharpnose Point as there is another headland further along the coast to the south near the satellite dishes known simply as Sharpnose Point. The lookout building beside the coast path was built by the Coastguard. The Caledonia was wrecked on the headland here; the figurehead was salvaged and placed as a memorial in the churchyard.

  13. Cross the walkway and continue on the path up the steps and over a walkway to reach a waymark (pointing towards the sea!). At the waymark, turn left to follow along the fence. Continue to reach a kissing gate.

    The satellite dishes ahead are part of GCHQ Bude.

    C.S.O.S. Morwenstow is a satellite ground station, comprised of 21 satellite antennas which are thought 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 remain classified but it's thought that these relate to the interception and decryption of electronic communications. Prior to the satellite station, the site was the location of RAF Cleave, a World War 2 airfield used by Fighter Command. Some of the concrete foundations of the airfield buildings are visible near the coast path.

  14. Go through the kissing gate. Follow the path to reach a waymark on a piece of wooden fence with a waymarked kissing gate to the left.

    On a sunny day you might see lizards disappearing into the undergrowth as they spot you walking along the path.

    Lizards are cold-blooded so they need to bask in the sun to warm up to their "operating temperature" which is around 30 Celcius. They usually do so with an area of cover nearby which forms an escape route from predators. You're therefore likely to encounter them in sunny spots on footpaths and footbridges. Once they spot you, they will usually make a hasty escape - they can move pretty quickly once they are warmed-up. During winter they hibernate as in cold temperatures they are too slow to catch any food (insects, spiders etc. which are also less numerous over the winter).

    The white spheres amongst the dishes are radomes.

    The thing that resembles a giant golf ball is known as a "radome" - a weatherproof enclosure that protects a microwave RADAR antenna from the elements. In particular, if ice forms on the antenna, this can detune it. Often the antenna inside rotates, hence the need for the round shape.

  15. Continue ahead through the waymarked gap next to the fence to follow the coast path to a bench. Continue on the path to descend into the valley at Stanbury Mouth and reach a junction of paths beside a waymark.

    By-the-wind sailors can often be found stranded on the beaches along the coast here.

    By-the-wind sailors consist of a ring of blue jellyfish-like material around a central plastic-like sail and can sometimes be found blown onto beaches. Like jellyfish, they catch prey using stinging cells (not perceptible by humans although some people can get a rash).

    The direction of the sail along the float determines which way they travel. Those with a sail running top-left to bottom-right drift left of the wind, whereas those with top-right to bottom-left drift to the right of the prevailing wind direction.

    They are not a single organism, but a whole colony of coral-like polyps that are interconnected with a canal system to distribute the food caught in the tentacles. However each colony is all of a single gender. If that wasn't complicated enough, alternate generations are singular planktonic jellyfish-like creatures that don't even form a by-the-wind sailor, but their offspring do!

  16. The walk continues to the left but first you may want to visit the beach via the path to the right. To resume the walk, follow the footpath inland to reach a pair of gates.

    At high tide, Stanbury Mouth is a pebble beach but as the tide goes out, first a series of rocky ridges are revealed and then an expanse of sand. The beach is quite good for surfing when the tide is low although it's a long trek with a surfboard so it tends to only be the most dedicated locals. The relatively isolated location also means the beach is quite often visited by seals. The darkest grey pebbles occasionally contain fossils (visible on the surface where they have been polished by the sea) of ammonite-like creatures.

  17. Go through the left-hand pedestrian gate and follow the grassy track to a waymark at a bend.

    Most primroses tend to be pale yellow but in residential areas, extensive hybridisation occurs with pink and purple garden primulas to create all kinds of weird and wonderful mutants, with some even shaped like cowslips. However, there is a pale pink variety of primrose (known as rhubarb and custard) that is thought to be a naturally-occurring variant of the pale yellow (rhubarb-free) version as it has been found miles away from any domestic plants.

    Despite how tough mature dock plants are, at the seedling stage docks are very poor competitors with other plants such as grass. On grazing land, farmers can use docks as a warning sign that there have been bare patches of earth. This could have been caused by livestock damage or uneven spreading of manure which has killed patches of grass by blocking sunlight.

    The plant with sticky green seeds is known as cleavers due to the ability to attach to clothing or animals. The use of "to cleave" meaning "to adhere" has Saxon origins but has become less common in recent years perhaps due to the confusion of having a more well-known meaning which is virtually the opposite. A Cornish dialect name, recorded as cliders in Victorian times, is likely to be a corruption of this. Other common names include sticky willy.

    Goosegrass is another common name of the plant due to its attractiveness to poultry as a nutritious food. It contains tannins which make it too bitter for humans. The plant is in the same family as coffee and the seeds have been dried and roasted to make a (lower caffeine) coffee substitute.

  18. Go through the kissing gate ahead into the field. Follow along the right edge of the field and bear left as you approach the far side to a kissing gate roughly 20 metres from the corner of the field.

    If you are crossing a field in which there are horses:

    • Do not approach horses if they have foals, make loud noises nor walk between a foal and its mother as you may provoke the mother to defend her young. Generally the best plan is to walk along the hedges.
    • Horses will often approach you as they are used to human contact. If horses approach you, do not run away as this will encourage them to chase you. If you are uncomfortable with their proximity, calmly walk away.
    • Do not feed the horses with sweets or otherwise. Some food which is harmless to humans can be deadly to horses.
    • If you have a dog, keep it under close control in a visible but safe place, and as still and quiet as possible.
  19. Go through the gate and follow the winding path ahead to meet a fence. Follow along the fence until you reach a wooden gate in the fence.

    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 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.

  20. Go through the gate and cross the footbridge. Follow the path up some steps and over a stile into a field. Head uphill and once the hedge at the top of the field comes into view then head for the stile in the middle.

    The wildflowers in the field provide nectar and pollen for insects such as bumblebees.

    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!

    Some perennial grasses spread via underground stems, cloning genetically-identical copies of themselves. This way, a single plant can spread to cover an area of over a hundred metres across and live for hundreds of years.

  21. Cross the sequence of stiles then follow the left hedge to reach a gateway on the left with a metal gate ahead.

    An acre is a unit of area dating back to mediaeval times, based on the amount of land that could be ploughed with a yoke of oxen in one day. It was standardised in 1824 as a rectangle of 4 rods (66 feet) by one furlong (660 feet). The 10:1 "letterbox" aspect ratio comes from the long, thin field shapes in mediaeval times to minimise the awkward process of turning the oxen around. In fact the name "furlong" comes from the Old English for "one furrow long". The acre has since lost its prescribed shape and now just means 43,560 square feet.

  22. Stop short of the gate onto the road and instead turn left to go through the opening into the field on the left, then cross the field to a stile just to the right of where the line of trees ends part-way along the hedge opposite.
  23. Cross the stile and continue ahead across the field until three gates in the hedge opposite come into view. Head to the middle gate of the three, almost directly ahead.

    The number of cows in Cornwall has been estimated at around 75,000 (a lot of moo is needed for the cheese and clotted cream produced in Cornwall) so there's a good chance of encountering some in grassy fields, but also on open moorland and sometimes for conservation grazing on the coast path too.

    The Ramblers Association and National Farmers Union suggest some "dos and don'ts" for walkers which we've collated with some info from the local Countryside Access Team.

    Do

    • Stop, look and listen on entering a field. Look out for any animals and watch how they are behaving, particularly bulls or cows with calves
    • Be prepared for farm animals to react to your presence, especially if you have a dog with you.
    • Try to avoid getting between cows and their calves.
    • Move quickly and quietly, and if possible walk around the herd.
    • Keep your dog close and under effective control on a lead around cows and sheep.
    • Remember to close gates behind you when walking through fields containing livestock.
    • If you and your dog feel threatened, work your way to the field boundary and quietly make your way to safety.
    • Report any dangerous incidents to the Cornwall Council Countryside Access Team - phone 0300 1234 202 for emergencies or for non-emergencies use the iWalk Cornwall app to report a footpath issue (via the menu next to the direction on the directions screen).

    Don't

    • If you are threatened by cattle, don't hang onto your dog: let it go to allow the dog to run to safety.
    • Don't put yourself at risk. Find another way around the cattle and rejoin the footpath as soon as possible.
    • Don't panic or run. Most cattle will stop before they reach you. If they follow, just walk on quietly.
  24. Go through the gate and follow the grassy track to a yard.

    The settlement of Stanbury was recorded as Stanberi in 1201 and the name is Mediaeval English, meaning "stone fort". The buildings there now are much more recent.

  25. Turn right and follow the concrete track to a lane; turn left on the lane and walk a few paces to the Public Footpath sign on the opposite side for Crosstown.

    The top of the stile at the start of the Crosstown path is an architectural fragment from a mullioned window. It is likely that this may be a relic of the mediaeval manor house of either Stanbury or Tonacombe.

    The settlement of Tonacombe was first recorded in 1296 and the name is based on a personal name and the mediaeval English for "valley". In the mediaeval period there were at least three distinct tenements here with names such as Westovertunnecombe and by the Jacobean era there were at least six with names such as Nether West Tonacombe and Higher East Tonacombe. It is not known from which of these the mediaeval manor house that remains today survives.

  26. Climb the stile into the field and walk straight ahead across the field to a gate in the middle of the opposite hedge.

    There is a somewhat brutal rural tradition of hanging dead crows in fields with crops. Scientists now understand why this was so effective. Research has shown that crows understand the concept of death and can distinguish an (obviously) dead crow from a taxidermically-stuffed (alive-looking) crow. Crows often gather around a dead individual in "crow funerals" to try to determine the cause of death and assess the threat to themselves. They become wary of the place a dead crow is found but will also harass humans who handle crow corpses.

  27. Go through the gate, cross the stile and go through the next gate. Walk straight ahead across the field towards the large house in the trees to reach a metal gate just to the left of the house.

    Barley is a fundamental part of the rural culture - the word "barn" literally means "barley house". During mediaeval times, only the ruling classes had bread made from wheat; the peasants' bread was made from barley and rye.

  28. Go through the pedestrian gate on the right of the gate (or the main gate if open) and walk a few paces to a junction of tracks. Bear right to the waymarked kissing gate. Go through this and follow the path to another kissing gate leading into a field.

    All plants in the onion family are poisonous to dogs including wild garlic. This is one of the reasons that feeding dogs human foods (many of which contain onion such as gravy powder) is not good for them. Garlic is extremely toxic to dogs and cats and the consumption of even a small amount can lead to severe poisoning. Keep dogs away from wild garlic and wash their paws if they come into contact with it.

    The house at Tonacombe dates from the Tudor period, thought to have been built in the reign of King Henry VII or VIII. It is described as "of exceptional architectural interest" and retains many 16th Century features including Elizabethan panelling and a spyhole from the master bedroom into the hall.

  29. Go through the kissing gate and cross the field to the gateway opposite.

    In 1918, a Celtic stone cross was discovered buried upside-down in a field beside the church path where it had been used as a rubbing post for animals. The cross was moved to the (private) garden of the manor and is thought to have been constructed in the time of the Third Crusade around 1190. It is one of only four crosses in Cornwall made of grey elvan (the hard metamorphic rock forming many clifftop rock outcrops). It is also carved with an unusual design: it is based on the fairly common pattern of a cross on a wheel head, but each limb of the carved cross is itself crossed with a transverse bar close to the tip.

  30. Go through the pedestrian gate on the right of the farm gate and then follow the right hedge to reach a kissing gate leading onto a path ahead.

    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.

  31. Go through the gate and follow the path down into the woods to reach another gate.

    Celandine roots have numerous knobbly tubers and when these break off, a new plant can regrow from the tuber. Digging animals such as rabbits and squirrels can therefore help to spread celandines. In some parts of the world they have become an invasive problem where their dense mat of leaves chokes out native species which have not evolved to compete with them.

    The inner bark of the tree carries sugars created by photosynthesis down from the leaves to feed the rest of the tree. The inner bark dies over time to produce the outer bark which protects the living part of the tree.

  32. Go through the gate and keep right at the waymark post to follow the path around the bend and down to the stream. Cross a stone footbridge and continue through a gate to a waymark. Bear right in the direction indicated for Crosstown and follow the path up a flight of steps to a kissing gate.
  33. Go through the kissing gate into the field and head to another kissing gate in the middle of the opposite hedge.
  34. Go through the gate and turn left into the beer garden of the Bush Inn. Continue through the beer garden until you reach the car park.

    The Bush Inn at Morwenstow has a history dating back to AD 950, and is thought to have been a monk's rest on the pilgrimage from Wales to Spain, via the ports of North Devon and the Saints Way to Fowey. The current building dates from the 13th Century. A monastic cross is carved into the flagstone floor leading to the garden, and in the main bar is a Celtic piscina (shallow basin) made of serpentine.

  35. Make your way out of the car park and follow the track to the tarmacked lane.

    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.

  36. Turn left onto the lane and follow this back to the church car park to complete the circular route.

    St John's Well is located in the private gardens of the Old Vicarage but there is public access from the lane leading to the house. The first record of the well is from 1296 when it mentioned as ad quendam fontem Johannis. The building over the well is relatively recent but the stone cross embedded in its roof is thought to be mediaeval. The water from the well is still used for baptisms and also forms a gravity-fed water supply for the Old Vicarage; it is reported as making wonderful tea.

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