Pentewan, Heligan and Mevagissey circular walk

Pentewan, Heligan and Mevagissey

A circular walk from Pentewan to Mevagissey via The Lost Gardens of Heligan which were discovered in the 1990s after 7 decades of neglect and what followed The Times described as the garden restoration of the century.

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From Pentewan, the route follows a footpath across the fields to join the cycle track near the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The walk follows this to Mevagissey then follows small lanes past the church to reach the harbour. The return route is along the South West Coast Path, passing Polstreath beach on the way back to Pentewan.


  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 105
  • Distance: 5.3 miles/8.5 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 105 OS Explorer 105 (laminated version)

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


  • Lost Gardens of Heligan
  • Historic fishing port of Mevagissey
  • Sandy beach at Pentewan

Pubs on or near the route

  • Into The Woods
  • The Fountain Inn
  • The Kings Arms
  • The Sharksfin
  • The Ship Inn
  • The Ship Inn


  1. Turn left out of the car park and follow the lane over the bridge to a junction with the main road.

    Just after you cross the bridge you pass a sign on the right for the Pentewan Valley Trail.

    The Pentewan Valley Trail runs along the trackbed of an old railway. This was originally built as a horse-drawn tramway to transport china clay from St Austell to the new port at Pentewan which was completed in 1826. The line opened in 1829 and used gravity to transport the loaded wagons down the incline from St Austell and then horses to pull them along the flat section to Pentewan, and to return the empty wagons.

    In 1874, plans were made to upgrade the line to a railway with steam locomotives. Although the track strengthening had been implemented, shortly after this, a strategic decision was taken by Great Western Railway to direct its china clay traffic to Fowey. By 1877, the shipments were dwindling and by 1880 the operation became unprofitable. However a boom followed only two years later and the line continued until the First World War. The track was the same gauge as that used to service the trenches in France and both the track and locomotives were acquired by the War Department.

  2. Turn right at the junction and walk past the garage to the 40mph sign.

    Red valerian is also known as kiss-me-quick, fox's brush and Devil's or Jupiter's beard and can be seen flowering in early summer in hedgerows near the coast. The plant is originally from the Mediterranean and is thought to have been introduced as a garden plant roughly around the Tudor period. It has since become naturalised and the brightly-coloured flowers provide nectar for bees, butterflies and moths. Over time the base of the stems can get as thick as a small tree trunk which can lever apart the walls in which it can often be seen growing.

    Red valerian occurs with three main flower colours: about 50% of plants are deep pink, 40% are red and around 10% have white flowers. Very pale pink also occurs to but is much rarer. These distinct forms are an example of flower colour polymorphism. The red pigment within the flowers is an anthrocyanin compound and the different colours are due to different amounts of the pigment.

    The buildings behind the garage were originally a bone mill. A wooden aquaduct ran alongside the river to bring water to the bone mill.

    Bone mills used the power from a waterwheel to crush animal bones and produce bonemeal. The bonemeal was primarily used as a fertiliser to release phosphorus into the soil, which is a vital mineral for healthy crops. In the 20th century, fertilisers based on phosphate minerals, which could be mined cheaply, made bone mills uneconomical. However, the known phosphate reserves are expected to run out within a few decades and so organic phosphorus sources such as animal bones, and even urine, may become increasingly important for farmers.

  3. Cross the road to the public footpath sign opposite and follow the track to a gate.

    At the start of spring, daffodils are sometimes on sale at the bottom of the track.

    Daffodils contain chemical compounds which are toxic to dogs, cats and humans and ingestion of any part of a daffodil is likely to cause a stomach upset e.g. when unsupervised children have eaten leaves. The bulbs have both higher concentrations and a broader range of toxins than the rest of the plant and can be mistaken for onions (although don't smell of onion).

    The male and female parts of a foxglove flower mature at different times to help avoid self-fertilisation. This also ties in with the flowers maturing at the bottom of the spike first as pollinators often start at the lowest flower and then work upwards. They land on the mature female flowers first with a cargo of pollen from another plant, and then leave via the mature male flowers with a new load of pollen.

    The farmhouse near the track is from the 18th to 19th Century but is on the site of a Tudor manor house built in 1511 that was destroyed in a fire in 1720. Before that was a mediaeval house, built around 1283.

  4. Go through the gate if open, or the pedestrian gate on the left of the gate, and follow the track around some bends to a pair of gateways.

    Green dock beetles can sometimes be seen on dock plants. They have a metallic shimmer which can produce colours of gold, blue, purple, violet or red in sunlight. The sheen is produced by a stack of microscopic reflective layers which create interference patterns in light causing different colours to appear at different angles. As the beetles mature, melanin (the "sun tan" chemical produced in humans to protect skin from the sun) pigments the layers and causes them to become reflective.

    The extra distance covered by going up and down does indeed add to the distance shown on a map. However, despite your legs telling you otherwise, this is actually not that huge. On an exceptionally arduous walk solely on the coast with lots of deep valleys, the distance travelled "up and down" is likely to be at most about 10% compared to the distance on the flat. For a more normal coastal circular walk the extra "up and down" is typically not much more than 5% of the distance on a flat map.

  5. Go through the pedestrian gate on the right of the rightmost gateway. Follow the left hedge to reach a pair of gateways.

    Cow parsnip (also known as "hogweed" - not to be confused with "giant hogweed") is a member of the carrot family. It has more solid leaves than cow parsley or alexanders which it often grows alongside. It also flowers later. The leaves are noticeable from around mid-April. Flowering starts roughly at the start of June and continues through the summer.

    Giant hogweed is regarded by some as the most dangerous plant in the UK (although hemlock is also a good contender). If you encounter giant hogweed, avoid touching it and children and dogs should be kept away from it as the sap contains a chemical which is extremely phototoxic. When activated by sunlight, this binds to the DNA in skin cells and kills them. Skin reaction starts as an itchy rash and can develop into third degree burns and scarring. It also makes the affected areas susceptible to severe sunburn for several years.

    The plant gets its name as it can grow more than 10 feet tall, topped with white umbrella-shaped flowers. Due to the similar style of flowers, it is also known as giant cow parsley although the giant hogweed leaves are much more solid with a toothed edge, more similar to cow parsnip (normal hogweed). It is typically found near water or on waste ground.

    The plant was introduced to Britain by Victorian botanists in the 19th century as an ornamental plant and has escaped from gardens into the wild. It has been spreading across the UK (as one plant produces 50,000 seeds) but is still very rare in Cornwall. A project to eradicate it along the Tamar River system is helping to stop further spread into Cornwall.

    If you find giant hogweed in Cornwall (and are sure it's not normal hogweed), take a photo and report it to

    It may be an urban myth that Eskimos have a large number of words for "snow" but it's cast iron fact that there are at least this many words for "hill" in Cornish:

    • Meneth was often used to refer to Cornwall's higher peaks, or (outside of Cornwall) to mountains.
    • Tor was used for hills with rock outcrops protruding (and for the rock outcrops themselves)
    • Brea was used to refer to the most prominent hill in a district.
    • Ryn refers to a "hill" in the sense of projecting ground, or a steep hill-side or slope.
    • Garth was used to refer to a long narrow hilltop.
    • Ambel refers to the side of a hill.
    • Mulvra refers to a round-topped hill.
    • Godolgh is a very small hill.
    • Bron means "breast" as well as hill.
  6. Go through the gateway ahead and follow the left hedge to a gateway in the hedge on the far side of the field.
  7. Go through the gateway and cross the middle of the field to the gateway opposite.

    To the right, there are views up the Pentewan Valley towards St Austell, with the china clay workings in the distance. The St Austell River is fed by many small tributary streams which originally drained the Downs on which the china clay pits have been dug. It's not difficult to see how it became known as the White River, and the water still has a slight milky colour after heavy rainfall.

  8. Go through the gateway and cross the field to the gateway in the opposite hedge.
  9. Go through the gateway and follow the track to a gateway in the corner of the field beside a public footpath sign.

    The heavy clay soils are quite acidic which inhibits plants' ability to take up nitrogen. Farmers therefore needed to increase the pH of the soil. Very few of the rocks in Cornwall are limestone, so this was imported together with coal during Victorian times and burned in lime kilns near the coast. Prior to this, sand from the beaches was used, as this contains fragments of seashells which also contain calcium carbonate.

  10. Go through the gateway and follow the track a short distance then depart on the short path to the stile on the right.

    The field here is sometimes used for cereal crops such as barley.

    The size of a barley grain became part of the British imperial measurement system. The length units were eventually standardised as one inch being equal to 3 barleycorns which in turn were each equal to four poppyseeds. The barleycorn is still in use today as it is the basis of the UK shoe size system. This rises in increments of one barleycorn i.e. a size 9 is one barleycorn longer than a size 8.

  11. Cross the stile and bear left to follow the path alongside the wall. When the path starts to depart from the wall, ignore the small path to a stile on the left and continue to emerge on a cycle track.

    Areas of the valley have been invaded by feral rhododendrons. Efforts are being made to clear these but you may see some springing up along the footpath.

    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. Many of the root stocks of ornamental specimens have suckered off some new common rhododendrons which have then out-competed the ornamental tree and killed it off!

    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.

  12. Turn left onto the cycle track and follow it under a bridge to a junction with a signpost.

    The National Cycle Network is coordinated by the charity Sustrans. It began with one route in Bristol in 1984 and now consists of around 15,000 miles of signposted cycle routes known as National Cycle Routes. These each have a number and are constructed using a combination of roads typically chosen to have light traffic and some traffic-free tracks which are open to cycles.

  13. The walk continues to the left (signposted Mevagissey), but The Lost Gardens of Heligan are a short distance to the right, should you wish to visit first. Follow the track towards Mevagissey to reach a fork with a wooden gate to the left.

    For the Lost Gardens, follow the track to the right to reach a junction, then turn left at the junction.

    The Heligan estate dates from the 13th Century and was bought by the Tremayne family in the sixteenth century. In the mid-18th Century, the gardens were created, and were extended over the decades so that by the First World War, 22 gardeners were employed. Sixteen of the gardeners perished in the war and the gardens fell into neglect. In the 1990s, a tiny room was discovered amongst the fallen masonry and undergrowth with the names of all who worked there under the motto "Don't come here to sleep or slumber", dated 1914. This inspired what The Times described as "The garden restoration of the century" and since the gardens re-opened, they have had millions of visitors. It has become Europe's largest garden restoration project.

  14. Keep right and follow the track downhill between the trees. Continue to where the track crosses a wooden footbridge and emerges onto a larger track at a footpath sign.

    The vetches are a family of wildflowers that is a sub-group within the pea and bean family. Their pretty purple flowers are quite like mini sweetpea flowers. The leaves are also very distinctive, organised in a neat row either side of the stem. Common vetch is a wildflower but is also sown by farmers in some grazing fields to improve the nutrition for ruminants and to introduce more nitrogen into the soil.

    The Coast and Clay Trails is a 45 mile public access network of tracks and roads around St Austell. The trails were first opened as "The Clay Trails" in 2005 as part of a restoration programme to provide new habitats for flora and fauna. The trails are described as "multi-use" although are principally aimed at cyclists, with many sections of the routes being on Public Highways (quiet lanes where possible) and link up with National Cycle Route 3 to Bodmin and Truro. For walkers, the off-road sections provide some additional links across the Rights of Way network.

  15. Turn right at the junction, signposted to Mevagissey, and follow the track until you reach a gate across the track at Cheesewarne, just before the track becomes a surfaced lane.

    Woodpeckers can sometimes be heard drumming on the trees in the valley.

    Green woodpeckers are the largest and most colourful of the woodpeckers native to Britain and have a distinctive laughing "yaffle" call. The two species of spotted woodpecker are smaller and usually noticed from the drumming sound they make on trees although they can sometimes be heard making a short "cheep" sound.

    All of the woodpeckers bore holes in trees in which they nest, but only the spotted woodpeckers drill into trees in search of food, spending most of their time perched on a tree.

    Conversely, green woodpeckers spend most of their time on the ground, hunting for ants. The ants nests are excavated using their strong beak, and then ants are caught on the barbed end of their long tongue. In fact, their tongue is so long that it needs to be curled around their skull to fit inside their head.

  16. Go through the gate and follow the surfaced lane ahead. Continue until the lane ends on the main road.

    The settlement of Cheesewarne dates from mediaeval times and was originally called chysorn, meaning something along the lines of "nook cottage" in Cornish. Over the centuries, the name became mangled so that by the time it was first recorded in 1588 it was spelt "Chisborne".

    A sacred spring beside the settlement was known as Brass Well due to the iron salts dissolved in the water, which formed a characteristic scum on the surface. This would have provided healing properties for sufferers of anaemia, which was common from poor diet and childbearing during mediaeval times. The well still exists but has been enclosed in a concrete tank.

  17. Cross the road to the small lane opposite marked unsuitable for HGVs. Follow the lane until it ends at a junction.

    A fishing village on the northern side of the cove was first recorded in 1313 as Porthhilly from the Cornish words porth and hyly, meaning "salt water harbour", although it is likely a settlement existed here for a long time. Artefacts such as arrows and axe heads found in the village and on display in the museum date back to the Bronze Age. Nearby there was a small religious community of Lamorick, centred around what is now St Peter's Church. In 1259, the church was dedicated to two Irish Saints - St Meva and St Issey (who also crops up in St Issey near Wadebridge). During the 15th Century, the two settlements became known collectively by the saints to whom the church had been dedicated: "Meva-ag-Issey" (where hag is the Cornish word for "and"). During the 17th Century, Porthhilly expanded and merged with the neighbouring hamlet of Lamorick resulting in the single town of Mevagissey.

  18. Turn right at the junction and follow the lane until it also ends at a junction.

    The church is thought to date from the 12th Century and in 1259 it was rededicated to St Peter. It was reworked in the 14th and 15th centuries and amongst other additions, the tower was added. By the 17th Century the upper tower was in a state of collapse. When the church was restored in the 1880s, two pinnacles from the ruined tower were found under the porch and these are now on the upper churchyard gate. The churchyard itself contains a number of sea-worn boulders which were used as grave markers in the 18th Century. Within the church are two piscinae from the early 14th century.

  19. Continue ahead past Admiral Cottage and follow the lane to a junction.

    The north arcade of the church is built with stone from Pentewan.

    The golden yellow elvan known as Pentewan Stone was used in many mediaeval churches as its fine grain allowed stone masons to carve it into intricate shapes without it crumbling. The earliest use found is an inscribed stone at St Cuby, Tregony which dates from the Dark Ages. In mediaeval times, the stone was obtained from where the volcanic dyke met the cliffs of Polrudden Cove. Later, quarries were opened up inland along the course of the dyke and these can be traced for nearly a kilometre to a large overgrown quarry behind the village. In 1985, when the church at St Austell was restored, blocks of Pentewan Stone were recovered from Polrudden beach for the work.

  20. Continue ahead along Church Street until you reach the War Memorial.

    Number 28 on the right, just before the car park, was originally a fish cellar. The building had a U-shaped plan surrounding a central, cobbled courtyard and the walls contain sockets made from Pentewan stone to support weighted beams used to press the oil from salted pilchards.

  21. At the memorial, take the second left to reach the harbour. Follow along the left side of the harbour to reach the museum.

    There was a quay at Mevagissey in mediaeval times, situated in the vicinity of the current East Quay and there is a record of its construction in 1470. This provided protection from the prevailing southwesterlies, but when a gale occasionally blew from the East, the harbour was exposed. In 1774, an Act of Parliament was passed for Mevagissey to be developed as a port, and the current East and West Quays of the inner harbour were constructed at this time. The outer harbour was added just over a century later, initially built in 1888 but only 3 years later it was badly damaged in a winter storm. By the end of the 19th Century, the outer walls had been rebuilt and have changed little since then.

  22. At the museum, double-back up the steep path on the left marked with a "Coastal Path" sign and follow this to a junction with a path at the top.

    Following the construction of the outer harbour in 1888, the lifeboat was moved to Mevagissey from Portmellon, and it was moored in the harbour for a few years until the lifeboat house was built in 1896. The station operated until 1930 when Fowey was equipped with a motorised lifeboat which could also cover the coast around Mevagissey. The lifeboat station is now an aquarium containing some fine specimens of local fish.

  23. Turn right onto the upper path and keep right along this up various flights of steps until you eventually emerge into a large grassy area via a gap in the wall below a public footpath sign.

    In mediaeval times, the village at Gorran Haven was the primary fishing village of the area, dwarfing Mevagissey, and the quay has been rebuilt a number of times throughout its history. The first recorded use of seining for pilchards in Cornwall was here, in the 13th Century. Once drift netting became popular in the late 18th century, Mevagissey took over as the primary fishery and the quay fell into ruin but was rebuilt in 1886 and a period of crab and lobster potting continued until the Second World War. After the war, crab and lobster potting resumed from the bigger harbour at Mevagissey.

  24. Walk straight ahead across the grass and, once you cross the brow of the hill, aim for the rightmost house at the far side.
  25. Bear right onto the coast path and follow this a short distance to where a flight of steps descend to the right.

    Polstreath is a shingle beach facing east into Mevagissey Bay. The orientation of the beach means that it gets the morning sun and is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds by high cliffs. The path to the beach is steep with 187 steps which has the effect of limiting the number of beachgoers.

  26. Keep left along the tarmac path and follow the coast path to a footbridge at the bottom of the valley.

    The names of many coastal features are derived from words in the Cornish language:

    • Pen - Headland (Cornish for "top" or "head")
    • Pol - often used to mean Harbour (literally "Pool")
    • Porth - Port but often used to mean Cove
    • Zawn - sea inlet (from the Cornish "sawan" meaning chasm)

    Note that Haven has Saxon origins (hæfen in Old English) which is why it tends to occur more in North East Cornwall (Millook, Crackington, Bude etc).

  27. Cross the bridge and follow the steps up the other side of the valley to a kissing gate at the top.

    The small blue pom-pom-like flowers have common names which include blue bonnets, blue buttons, blue daisy and Iron Flower but it is best known as sheep's bit. The name is said to originate because sheep enjoy eating it. Confusingly, it is sometimes known as "sheeps bit scabious", yet it is not at all closely related to the group of plants normally known as "scabious".

    Sheep's bit flowers are rich in nectar and are a favourite with bees and butterflies. The flowers are highly reflective to ultraviolet which is thought helps to attract insects. The reason that insects can see UV but we can't is that insects' eyes have colour receptors that are tuned to different wavelengths than ours but also the lens of the human eye blocks UV light.

    The dandelion-like flowers along the coast are most likely to be catsear, also known as false dandelion. Catsear is very salt tolerant, not only growing along the coast but actually in sand dunes. The easiest way to recognise it is by the hairy leaves, hence the name. If you can cope with the texture, the leaves are edible and are much less bitter than dandelion leaves.

    Another way to tell them apart is when they are flowering. Although dandelion flowers over quite a long period, the most profuse flowering is in April and May whereas catsear's intense flowering period is in late June and through July. Catsear has neater flowers than dandelion with squarer edges to the petals (but still toothed). The stems supporting the flowers are also solid, in contrast with the hollow stem of the dandelion.

    Sardines and pilchards are names for the same fish. Sardine was traditionally the name given to the smaller individuals and pilchards were the ones that managed to avoid being caught for a while longer. Pilchards have been deemed by marketeers as unsexy, possibly because those sold in tins during the late 20th Century tended to be the larger, less-bony specimens and so "pilchard" became associated canned fish. Therefore pilchards are now marketed as "Cornish sardines" when they are sold fresh.

  28. Go through the gate and follow the path parallel to the right hedge to reach a stile.
  29. Cross (or pass) the stile and follow the path to reach another stile.

    The point ahead is called Penare, from the Cornish word penn-ardh (pronounced "penarth") meaning promontory. Many of the headlands in the area such as Black Head and Dodman Point were also formerly known as Penare.

  30. Cross the stile and follow the path down the steps to reach a kissing gate. Go through the gate and follow the path alongside the fence on the right to reach another kissing gate in the far hedge.

    From the headland, there are views over Pentewan Bay to the headlands along the south coast: the large headlands closest are Black Head and Gribbin (with the daymark tower). On a clear day, Rame Head is visible at the far eastern end of Cornwall.

  31. Go through the gate and follow the right hedge of the field to reach a gate.
  32. Go through the gate and down the steps; then follow the right hedge to a gap in the wall.

    Every part of the dandelion plant is edible and is high in Vitamin A and higher still in Vitamin K. The leaves can be eaten in salads, though their bitterness is not to everyone's taste. However, the bitterness can be reduced by blanching: drop the leaves into boiling salted water and remove after a minute and quench in ice-cold water to prevent the leaves from cooking.

    At the bottom of the steep cliffs is a shingle beach (Cockaluney Beach), only accessible by sea.

  33. Go through the gap and follow the right hedge to a kissing gate.

    Seawater is about 2.5% salt which is about one tenth of the strength of fully saturated brine solution. By the 17th Century, it was found that dissolving impure rock salt in seawater to increase the concentration and then recrystallising this in clean salt pans was a cheaper way of producing salt than evaporating ten times the amount of water from normal seawater.

  34. Go through the sequence of gates and cross the walkway to reach another gate.

    The derelict buildings at Portgiskey include cottages and fish cellars. Their exact age is not known, but they appear on a tithe map from 1840 and so were built some time before this. This was in the period when pilchards were plentiful, so the cellars were probably used to process these.

  35. Go through the gate and turn right. Follow the path along the right hedge to reach a kissing gate at the top of the field.

    Over recent decades, the kestrel population has been in decline and is now about half of what it was at the start of the 1970s. The exact reasons are not known but it's strongly suspected it is connected to a decline in vole numbers perhaps due to changing farming methods. Reduced availability of nesting sites (e.g. in old trees) may also be a contributing factor.

  36. Go through the kissing gate and turn right. Follow the path until it emerges on the entrance road to Pentewan Sands Holiday Park.

    Bracken has been used as a fuel for centuries but is of interest as a modern biofuel due to its very high calorific value. Normal firewood produces around 15-19 gigajoules of heat per tonne of material (depending on moisture content - drier is more efficient hence kiln-dried logs). Elephant grass can produce around 18 GJ/t and bracken can deliver 21 GJ/t. At least one company has piloted creating compressed fuel briquettes from bracken in a similar way to elephant grass.

  37. Cross the entrance road to the pavement opposite and follow this along the main road to the junction signposted to Pentewan Village. Turn right at the junction to return to the car park.

    Pentewan dates back to mediaeval times when it was mainly a fishing village with a harbour. The harbour was rebuilt in the 1820s both for the pilchard fishery and to create a china clay port. At its peak, a third of Cornwall's china clay was shipped from Pentewan. However the harbour had continual silting problems which meant that it was eventually overtaken by Charlestown and Par. As well as longshore drift carrying sand east across Mevagissey Bay, there was also silt being washed down the river from china clay works and tin streaming. Consequently, the harbour gradually silted up with the last trading ship leaving in 1940 and World War II literally sealing its fate. By the 1960s, the harbour was only accessible to small boats and today the harbour basin is entirely cut off from the sea.

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