Map for Circular walk around Port Isaac and Port Gaverne
  1. From the car park at Port Isaac, turn left and head down the hill to Port Gaverne to a junction with a lane on the right with a public footpath sign.

    Port Gaverne, the tiny settlement and inlet neighbouring Port Isaac, was more prominent than Port Isaac in the past. In fact, the settlement at Port Gaverne dates back to mediaeval times, being recorded in the 1300s. The sheltered inlet made it a good place to launch boats and it is still a popular place to launch small craft today.

    The name was previously recorded as Port Kerne and on maps from the 1800s as Port Keverne. One of the quirks of the Cornish language is that "k" often transforms into "g" when placed after another word, which might have resulted in "Porthgeverne" (which is not far from how some of the locals still pronounce it).

  2. Turn right down the lane with the public footpath sign, next to the old pilchard cellars, and follow it to a concrete step with public footpath sign at the end of the tarmac.

    There were 4 large pilchard cellars built in Port Gaverne at the start of the 1800s which can still be seen at the bottom of the hill leading up to Port Isaac. In their heyday, in the early 1800s, it is suggested that they could have processed 1,000 tons of pilchards in a week.

  3. Climb the step and follow the narrow path to a junction of paths with a green "Private Land" sign to the right.

    The pilchard fisheries rose to their peak in Victorian times. The pilchards were salted and then pressed to extract the oil which was sold as somewhat aromatic lamp oil. The fish were then packed with more salt into hogshead barrels which could fit up to 3000 fish per barrel. Huers (cliff top lookouts) helped locate shoals of fish. The huer would shout "Hevva!, Hevva!" (the Cornish word for "shoal") to alert the boats to the location of the pilchard shoals. The name "huer" is from the old French verb meaning "to shout".

  4. Continue ahead a few paces to reach a fork in the path. At the fork, turn right to follow the path that climbs up the hill. Follow it up the steps to reach a waymarked stile leading into a fenced section along the edge of the field.

    Cornish tradition states that Hevva cake was baked by the huers on their return from their clifftop lookouts to their homes, the cake being ready by the time the pilchard fishermen returned to land. It traditionally contains flour, lard, butter, milk, sugar and raisins and is similar in appearance to Welsh cakes, but the magic ingredient is a heavy spicing of nutmeg. It is made by crumbling all of the dry mixture together, then adding the raisins and mixing to a dough with milk. The dough is then rolled to a thickness of about half an inch, and traditionally a criss-cross pattern is scored across the top which signifies the nets used by the fishermen. It was originally cooked on a griddle, as with Welsh cakes. Hevva cake has had a recent revival (if you taste it, you'll see why!) and is now on sale in many supermarkets as well as bakeries in Cornwall.

  5. Cross the stile then follow the path between the hedge and fence until you reach another stile.

    Barbed wire was first used in Victorian times with several different people independently inventing and patenting different designs. Modern barbed wire is made from steel which is then galvanised to prevent it rusting (at least until the zinc coating dissolves away). The barbed wire used for fencing is often made of high-tensile (springy) steel which is suited to being laid in long, continuous lengths. As it is forbidden by the Highways Act of 1980 for barbed wire to block a Public Right of Way, one practical solution used by farmers is to put a plastic sheath over the barbed wire where it passes over a stile. In the rare circumstance that you encounter exposed barbed wire on a stile, the most likely cause for this is mischievous cattle pulling off the plastic sheaths; let the Countryside Team know and they can alert the landowner.

  6. Cross the stile and the one opposite, and continue along the hedge until you reach a stile onto the road.

    The hedge on the left is planted with blackthorn.

    Blackthorn stems are often covered in fungi or bacteria and if a thorn punctures skin, these can sometimes cause infection. Any splinters left in the skin can also disintegrate over time and result in an immune response. If a puncture wound becomes infected, it's a good idea to get it checked-out in a minor injuries unit in case antibacterial or anti-fungal treatment is needed to prevent it escalating.

  7. Cross the stile and turn left onto the road. Follow it around the bend past Trewetha Farm, until you reach a junction to the right just past Trewetha cottage.

    The first record of the settlement of Trewetha is from 1201 when it was spelt Trewerthan. Other than tre meaning "farmstead", the origin of the name is not known. Given the name is in the Cornish language, it's likely that it dates from before the Norman Conquest in 1066.

  8. At the junction, turn right onto the lane marked with the public footpath sign and follow it as it fades out into a track to the end where a grassy path continues downhill.

    Buddleia are originally from northwest China and Japan where they grow in forest clearings, on riverbanks and on limestone outcrops where they are able to survive with minimal nutrients. They were introduced into the UK as an ornamental plant in the late 19th Century and can found in many gardens. Some have escaped and established a niche on industrial land which resembles their native limestone outcrops.

    The shrub is commonly known as the Butterfly Bush as the flowers are profuse, rich in nectar and are in the shape of champagne flutes; butterflies and bees have sufficiently long drinking apparatus to reach the bottom.

    The plant has two types of leaf; the broad green leaves are replaced with shorter hairy grey leaves during the winter which are more resistant to frost and the drying effect of cold winds.

    As plants go, bindweed is virtually indestructible as not only can the entire plant regenerate from a tiny fragment of root but the seeds can survive in the ground for up to 50 years. The root system can extend to a depth of 16 feet which makes it very difficult to control organically.

    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.

  9. At the end of the track, take the path leading downhill and follow it into the valley to a footbridge over the stream.

    During late winter or early spring, if you encounter a patch of plants with white bell-shaped flowers, smelling strongly of onions, and with long, narrow leaves then they are likely to be three-cornered leeks. Once you're familiar with their narrow, ridged leaves, you'll be able to spot these emerging from late October onwards.

    All plants in the onion family including three-cornered leeks are poisonous to dogs. Keep dogs away from the plant and wash their paws if they come into contact with it.

    Hawthorn's red berries, also known as haws, are abundant in September and October. These are an important winter food for birds such as thrushes and small mammals such as dormice and wood mice.

    In sheltered places, hawthorn trees can reach 20-40ft in height and live up to 400 years. In harsher environments such as the coast and moors they can be as little as 5-6ft tall.

  10. Cross the footbridge and turn right. Follow the path to a junction by a signpost.

    Biologically, there is no such thing as "toads": there are just many species of frog, some of which were given the name "toad" if they were a bit drier- or wartier- looking. However, the 2 species of frog known as the "Common Frog" and "Common Toad" are those you are most likely to encounter in Cornwall, so for discerning fairytale princesses, here's how to tell them apart:

    • Common Frog: always found in or near water; smooth moist skin (green or brown and able to change colour slightly to match surroundings); lays eggs in a cluster.
    • Common Toad: quite often found in dry places; dry, warty skin which is always grey or brown; lays eggs in long strings.
  11. At the signpost, turn left towards Tresungers. Follow the path to a waymarked junction of paths just before a stone stile.

    The path to the right leads to what was once Port Isaac Mill. In the 19th Century, this was a bakery and the owner would carry his produce down the valley by donkey to a shop in Middle Street. The stream has been used for milling since mediaeval times, and the name Port Isaac is from the Cornish for "corn port".

  12. Turn sharply right at the waymark and follow the path into a field and along the left hedge to reach a gate.

    Thistle flowers are rich in nectar and provide an important food source for bees and butterflies. The common thistle was ranked in the top 10 nectar producing plants in two different UK plant surveys. The seeds also provide an important food source for small birds such as goldfinches. The plants themselves are eaten by the caterpillars of the Painted Lady butterfly.

    Blackberries are closely related to raspberries and technically neither is a berry but an aggregate of many individual tiny fruits, each containing a tiny stone like a miniature cherry.

    Bramble seeds are spread very widely by being attached to a tasty blackberry. Mammals, birds, insects and even some fish will eat blackberries. Bramble seeds can survive up to 100 years in the soil, which helps them to colonise recently-cleared land.

  13. Go through the gate to reach a track. Bear left to follow the track uphill to a cattle grid and gate.

    A large proportion of buzzards diet is earthworms and carrion and consequently they have a reputation for being lazy and scavengers. However, when they need to be, buzzards are formidable predators. Diving on rabbits and small mammals from a slow or hovering flight, or from a perch, they nearly always make the kill on the ground.

  14. Cross the cattle grid or go through the gate and follow the track along the right hedge until you reach a stile in the corner of the field.

    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.
  15. When you reach the stile on your right, cross it and follow all the way along the left hedge and fence to a kissing gate. Go through this and continue along the left fence to reach a kissing gate in the corner onto a lane.

    To your right, the headland in the distance is Tintagel Head, forming the far side of Port Isaac Bay. The flat part at the end with a notch is The Island which forms part of Tintagel Castle. The suspension bridge now spans the notch. At the time the castle was built, the gap was small enough to span with some large tree trunks.

  16. Go through the gate onto the lane. Turn left and follow the lane a short distance until you reach a track on the right with a metal gate opposite North Light and The Courtyard.

    The lane was originally the route from Port Isaac to the parish church at St Endellion which is roughly another mile further on from here. The walk to church each Sunday also involved a steep climb out of the valley from Port Isaac.

  17. Turn right onto the track, follow it through the metal gate and continue until it ends in a gate into a field.

    Roscarrock,on a hill near Port Isaac, is named after a prominent Cornish family who owned the Manor which is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The farm is fortified with castellations which are thought may have been a deterrent for pirates. The grain store at the farm dates from the 16th Century and still stands on staddle stones.

    During Tudor times, Nicholas Roscarrock was imprisoned for being a Catholic activist and tortured on the rack, which he miraculously survived, only to be imprisoned again 8 years later. After finally being released, he wrote his only surviving work, "The Lives of the Saints".

  18. Go through the gate and follow the right hedge to a pair of gateways in the corner of the field.

    The wooden pole in the field is probably a "wreck post".

    Wreck posts, resembling a telegraph pole with wooden steps, were used for Coastguard practice exercises. The post emulated the mast of a sinking ship. A "shore" team would fire a rocket carrying a light line known as a whip to a man on the post. Once he caught this, it was secured to the post and a heavier line known as a hawser was pulled out using the light line and secured to the post. This was then used to haul out the Breeches Buoy (a lifebelt with an attached pair of shorts) that the crew member could be rescued with.

  19. Go through the gateway on the left and bear left in line with the end of the headland, until you cross the brow of the hill; then head for a gap in the right hedge.

    In the late spring and throughout the summer, look out for purple betony flowers along the coast path.

    Betony is a grassland herb, common on the coast, with pretty purple anthers that stick out from the plant. The name is derived from the ancient Celtic words bew (meaning head) and ton (meaning good) as it was used as a cure for headaches. From Roman times onward, it was believed to be a cure for a number of things (the Romans listed 47!) including drunkenness; even as late as the 1800s, Richard E. Banks stated that you should "Eat betony or the powder thereof and you cannot be drunken that day" and John Gerard (1597) said that "It maketh a man to pisse well". Betony was also used to ward away evil spirits (hence it is planted in a number of churchyards) and also to make a dark yellow dye for wool.

    The Castor 1 was a cargo ship, nearly 60 metres in length built in the 1950s in Germany. In November 1980, she was on her way back from Londonderry to Par when her engines failed near Port Isaac. Whilst being towed into the harbour, she capsized and sank. The main wreck is lodged in the rocks just outside Port Isaac Harbour and has been broken up by the sea, scattering debris across the seabed of the harbour entrance.

  20. Go through the gap in the hedge and follow the scrub on your left until you reach the coast path.

    In September 1918, the British collier "Milly" was on its return to South Wales from France, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine, two and a quarter miles west of Tintagel Head. Two men died but the remainder of the crew were saved by another passing ship. The wreck is in 46 metres of water and is slowly sinking into the sand front-first. However, a good deal of it is still discernible and it is a fairly popular spot for divers. The stern gun was salvaged and is outside the Golden Lion pub in Port Isaac.

  21. Descend onto the coast path and turn right. Follow the path towards Port Isaac until you reach a gap in the hedge next to a waymark.

    In 1833, Frederick Trevan recorded the foundering vessel - Sloop Theodore of Yaughall - being rescued at Port Isaac in 1821: "Captain Timothy Daisy from Yaughall for Plymouth with potatoes. Vessel seen dismasted. Boarded with difficulty by boat from Port Isaac. Saw no one on deck but heard violin below. The Pats were enjoying themselves it being St. Patrick's Day to whose guidance, of course, they entrusted the vessel. They had entrusted the helm to a boy the day before and he had jibbed her and carried away the mast. The boat people with difficulty got her into Port Isaac after being at it all night. The potatoes were sold at Port Isaac and Padstow and off they went for dear Ireland. Crew exceedingly dirty - great quantity of lice. The Captain would put his hand into his bosom, take one out and address it saying 'Ach, dear honey, I wish you and I were in Dublin' and then replace it."

  22. From the waymark, follow the path down into Port Isaac to where it emerges onto a lane.

    Port Isaac is a pretty fishing village with narrow winding alleys running down the steep hillside to the harbour. Particularly noteworthy is the number of 18th and 19th century white-washed cottages and granite, slate-fronted houses, many officially listed as of architectural or historic importance. Port Isaac was a busy coastal port from the Middle Ages to the mid 19th century, where cargoes like slate, coal and timber were shipped in and out. The stone pier was built in Tudor times, and the rest of the harbour in the 19th century. The economy was also heavily based around the pilchard trade.

    By 1500, Port Isaac had a flourishing pilchard industry and was considered one of the most important fishing harbours on the north coast. Salted pilchards and pilchard oil were exported to Italy. A number of fish cellars were built in Tudor times and their remnants were uncovered when the foundations were dug in the 1820s for the Victorian fish cellars which now occupy the same sites. The sheds where the women cleaned and salted the pilchards now house the fish merchant and tiny aquarium. It's still an active fishing port with locally landed fish available for sale at the fish merchants.

  23. Bear left onto the lane and follow it downhill (past Doc Martin's house) to a junction at the bottom of the hill.

    Following the construction of the pier, a busy period of development began within Port Isaac which lasted until the beginning of the seventeenth century, though by the end of the Tudor period, most of the present day streets were already laid out.

    The village of Port Isaac was originally centred around a flat open space at the southern end of the harbour known as The Platt. This was used as a workplace by the fishermen, a venue for the weekly markets, and as a safe place to draw up the boats during spring tides.

  24. Turn left and follow the main road past the Mote House and the Golden Lion. Continue up the hill past the Old School until you reach Cliff Cottage.

    The Mote (now a restaurant) was the first Inn in Port Isaac, built in 1542 and originally called the Mote Inn. It later became the Bristol Inn and then The Commercial.

    The Golden Lion, at the foot of Fore Street in Port Isaac, was built in the 18th Century, along with two other inns. The larger stones at the base of the inn could indicate it stands on the site of a former quay. It is thought that contraband was stored in the cellars during the 18th Century. It features as "The Crab and Lobster" in the ITV comedy drama series, Doc Martin.

  25. Just past Cliff Cottage, turn left onto the coast path and follow it around the headland to the car park overlooking Port Gaverne.

    The Old School in Port Isaac was built in the mid 1870s, designed by Cornwall's most famous architect Silvanus Trevail who also designed Tintagel's Castle Hotel. The old school closed in the mid 1970s when it was replaced by a new primary school on Mayfield Road, and is now Old School Hotel and Restaurant. It has been returned to its former purpose, as the Portwenn primary school where the character Louisa Glasson (played by Caroline Catz) teaches in the ITV Comedy Drama, Doc Martin.

At high tide, the beach at Port Gaverne is a shingle which is mostly flint - unusual in North Cornwall where most beaches are a golden sand composed of slate and fragments of shell. The reason is that the flint was used as ballast for incoming ships collecting Delabole slate which was brought to the coast by horse and cart.

The Port Gaverne Hotel was originally the Union Inn frequented by crews of the slate vessels. It was built by shoemaker and fisherman James Stroat who "kept it and then spent all he had". His brother William was a Master Mariner and apparently "a good merry old toper". On the walls of the pub, there are lots of photos and paintings of Port Gaverne and Port Isaac from the 1800s and early 1900s.

All along the North Cornish coast, the use of shell-rich sand to fertilise the acidic soils was a major part of the local economy until the end of the 19th Century. At Port Gaverne in Victorian times, the local women and children could earn as much as their seafaring men-folk by digging the sand at low tides and placing it above high water for the farmers to collect.

The road from Port Gaverne which joins the Delabole road was quarried out in the early 1800s by the Delabole Slate company and known as "The Great Slate Road". Around 100 ships a year came to Port Gaverne to collect slate, each capable of carrying 50-80 tonnes. It would take thirty wagons, pulled by over a hundred horses, to load a sixty ton ship. The slates were loaded by women, who then packed them in straw to protect them on the voyage. The incoming ships also brought coal from Wales and limestone, for the local limekiln, which was used to whitewash the cottages.

Until the 20th century, Port Isaac had always been part of the St Endellion parish, with the parish church located there. In Victorian times, Port Isaac was heavily Methodist and St Peter's was built initially as a C of E chapel in 1884 to compete with the convenience of the Methodist chapels in the town, compared with the walk of over over a mile up the formidable Church Hill to St Endellion. Around twenty five years after St Peter's was built, reinforcement works had to be carried out as the building was suffering from subsidence, possibly caused by old mine workings beneath it.

In 1913, Port Isaac gained its first Vicar and St Peter's became a parish church. For the harvest festival celebrations, fish, nets, oars and lobster pots took the place of the more conventional flowers and fruit. After that interlude of around 100 years, Port Isaac has once again rejoined St Endellion parish.

The house named The Dolphin also gives its name to Port Isaac's Dolphin Street on which it is situated. It was formerly the Dolphin Inn which was originally built in 1770s and extended to the front and rear in the mid nineteenth century.

Fern Cottage is a mid to late 19th century building on Roscarrock Hill in Port Isaac, overlooking the harbour. For many years this was a relatively unremarkable house (especially by Port Isaac standards) but it is now one of the most visited and photographed in Port Isaac. The reason is that it features as the house and surgery of the central character, Dr Martin Ellingham in the ITV comedy drama, Doc Martin. Only the exterior is used in filming; the interior shots are done in the studio.

The first Methodist chapel was built in Port Isaac in 1750, during the time when John Wesley was visiting the town. The building no longer exists, though a shed on Middle Street contains a window which may well have been re-purposed from it. A new Weslyan Methodist Chapel was built in the mid-1800s, at the eastern end of Middle Street, which is now a private house.

John Watts Trevan was the village doctor and writer who lived in Port Isaac in the early nineteenth century, which he described as: "Port Isaac a small fishing town but the longest and most thickly inhabited place in this parish it contains about one hundred and forty dwelling houses inhabited mainly by seafaring people being as mean dirty and tumultuous place as can well be conceived." The house where he lived (now named Trevan House), was built a decade before, in the early 18th century.

Victoria House in Port Isaac is a 17th century merchant's house that John Wesley is reputed to have preached from. The house was the victim of a serious fire in the late 1990s but has since been repaired, retaining the 18th century Venetian window from which Wesley may well have addressed the crowd. The fa├žade is quite eye-catching, with the nineteenth century shop front surmounted by the late eighteenth century Palladian window.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, is reported to have visited Port Isaac 14 times in the mid to late 18th century. It's thought that Wesley House acquired its name because this is where he stayed on at least one of those visits. John Wesley described Port Isaac as "the liveliest place in the [Methodist] circuit". Given that the lifestyle advocated by Wesley wasn't exactly hedonistic, we can assume his meaning of "lively" probably didn't involve the large amounts of ale and sea shanties that were likely to have featured in Port Isaac in earlier times! It's possible that the formidable Church Hill from Port Isaac to the parish church in St Endellion may have fuelled the locals enthusiasm for attending Methodist services in Port Isaac and thus foregoing the Sunday trek.

Although Delabole State was an exception, the transport in bulk of building materials such as bricks over long distances was rare before the age of canals, railways, roads and heavy goods vehicles. Before this time, bricks were generally made close to their point of intended use. It has been estimated that in 18th century England, carrying bricks by horse and cart for ten miles over the (then) poor roads could more than double their price.

Consequently in many Cornish villages, brick was not available as a building material until the railway into Cornwall was built in the mid-19th century, and extended into North Cornwall at the end of the 19th century.

However in Port Isaac, brick was available in small quantities much earlier as it was used as the ballast in some of the incoming ships. On Rose Hill, there are a number of slate cottages with brick chimneys. An example is Cosy Cott (1 Rose Hill) which is late 18th or early 19th century.

The pier at Port Isaac was built during the reign of Henry VIII, probably as an investment by the Roscarrock family. At the lowest point of the tide, large stones stacked on their edges can be seen along the left side of the harbour which remain from the Tudor pier. In around 1536, the village was described as: "Porthissek, a pretty fisher village, lyeth about a three miles from the mouth of the aforesaid brook lower bywest on Severne shore. There resorteth a brook to Porthissek: and there is a pier and some succour for fisher boats.". By the reign of Elizabeth I, as well as a busy fishing port, Port Isaac had become an important centre of export, shipping slate from the local quarries to France and Belgium.

By the 1800s, Port Isaac had enough Methodists to support different chapels for 2 factions of Methodism. In 1836, a Methodist Free Church chapel was built at the foot of Roscarrock Hill, above the fish cellars; meanwhile, the Weslyans worshipped in Middle Street. By 1867, the Roscarrock Hill Methodist Chapel could no longer accommodate the swelling congregation. It was therefore converted into a Sunday school and a larger chapel built next door. The chapel bell was retrieved from a wrecked ship, The Bencoolen, which sank off the Bude Coast.

Temple Bar off Dolphin Street in Port Isaac, also known as Squeezy Belly Alley, is just 55cm wide at its narrowest point. It was at one time listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the narrowest public thoroughfare in the world.

Symbols on the front of ships arose both out of superstition for good luck and symbols of power. The general practice of putting a carved figure on the bowsprit became common practice from the 16th Century. Figureheads often depicted either the role of the ship (e.g. warship) or the name of the ship allowing it to be recognised by sailors couldn't read. During the 18th Century, a figurehead of a woman (preferably showing some breast) was thought to bring calm to a stormy sea.

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

The name "stonechat" comes from the sound of their call which resembles stones being knocked together.

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.

A similar-looking bird called the whinchat is also present in the summer but this can be identified by a white stripe across its eye. Both stonechats and whinchats can often be spotted perching on dead sticks or brambles protruding above gorse and heather, and consequently the term "gorse chat" or "furze chat" has been used locally to mean either species. For a long time, stonechats and whinchats were thought to be members of the thrush family but genetic studies have revealed they are actually members of the (Old World) flycatcher family.

Gorse is a legume, related to peas and like other members of the pea family it's able to get its nitrogen from the air. It's also tolerant to heavy metals in the soil and to salt. This makes it able to grow in Cornwall's harshest environments: moorland, coast and mine waste tips.

Like other members of the pea family, gorse produces its seeds in pods. The seeds are ejected with a popping sound when pods split open in hot weather. This can catapult the seeds up to five metres. The plants are able to live 30 years and survive sub-zero temperatures, the seeds can withstand fire and remain viable in the soil for 30 years.

Gorse seeds each contain a small body of ant food. The seeds also release a chemical which attracts ants from some distance away. The ants carry the seeds to their nests, eat the ant food and then discard the seeds, helping them to disperse.

The seeds of common gorse are the source of the chemical used to identify people with the rare "hh" blood group. The red blood cells in the vast majority of people (in blood groups A, B, AB and O) have a material called "H substance" on their surface. It turns out that the chemical extracted from gorse binds remarkably specifically to this and cells from the "hh" blood group (that have no H substance) are left alone.

Gorse is also known (particularly in the Westcountry) as furze from the Middle English word furs. This itself is from the Old English word fyres, closely related to the Old English word for fire.

Before the Industrial Revolution, gorse was valued as a fuel for bread ovens and kilns as it burns rapidly, very hot and with little ash. It was in such demand that there were quite strict rules about how much gorse could be cut on common land.

In more recent times, due to reliance on fossil fuels, this is now out of balance and gorse has increased in rural areas which have been abandoned agriculturally.

As gorse ages, it accumulates more dead material. The spiky, springy nature of the plant even when dead means air can circulate well through the dead material and when this dries out in the summer, it substantially increases the risk of fires. As gorse seeds have evolved to withstand fire, controlled burning can be used to used to keep the gorse at a young age where uncontrolled fires are less likely.

Gorse is present as two species along the Atlantic coast and size is the easiest way to tell them apart: Common Gorse bushes are up to 10ft tall whereas Western Gorse is more of a mat - less than 1ft tall. Common Gorse flowers in spring whereas Western Gorse flowers in late summer - early autumn.

In 2005 a man had to be rescued from a 10ft deep patch of coastal gorse by helicopter. Whilst mountain biking home along the coast from a bar, with the assistance of a not insignificant amount of alcohol, he managed to catapult himself into the bushes where he remained stuck for 2 days before being found by a passer-by. She asked if he needed help, to which he replied "can you ring the RAF?".

Between the two species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrases: "when gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion" (which is recorded from the mid-19th century) and "when the furze is in bloom, my love's in tune" (which dates from the mid-18th century). Common gorse flowers are bright yellow. Western gorse flowers are very slightly more orange - more like the colour of the "yolk" in a Cadbury's creme egg. Also like creme eggs, gorse flowers are edible but are significantly better for use in salads and to make a tea, beer or wine.

Common gorse flowers have a coconut-like scent but rather than fresh coconut, it is reminiscent of desiccated coconut or the popular brand of surf wax, Mr Zoggs. However, not everyone experiences the smell in the same way: for some people it's very strong and for others it quite weak. One complicating factor is that Western Gorse flowers don't have any scent, so you need to be sniffing a tall gorse plant to test yourself.

Flower scents are volatile organic compounds which drift though the air and has evolved as an advertisement to pollinating insects that nectar is available. Squeezing the flowers releases these compounds onto the surface where they can evaporate and therefore intensifies the smell. Similarly the warming effect of sunlight helps the compounds to evaporate faster and so the smell is more intense on sunny days.

Gorse flower wine can be made using 5 litres of gorse flowers stripped from the stems and simmering these in 5 litres of boiling water. Once the flowers are removed, 1.3kg of sugar should be dissolved in the hot water and allowed to cool to room temperature. Then add 500g of chopped raisins and juice and zest of 2 lemons and ferment with white wine yeast and yeast nutrient. Although flowers are present year-round, they are best picked in spring (April and May) when they are most profuse and fragrant.