Porthallow to Gillan circular walk

Porthallow to Gillan

The footbridge at direction 10 is closed for repairs, severing the South West Coast Path. There is no alternative route. The closure notice is in force until 19th October (unless work is completed sooner). We'll update this when we hear more.

A circular walk up Gillan Creek from Porthallow via Nare Point where, during World War II, an elaborate decoy for Falmouth Harbour was created by Ealing Film Studios with fake railways, houses and explosive special effects.

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The walk follows the coast from Porthallow to Nare Point on the mouth of the Helford River, and then follows Gillan Creek to the beaches of Gillan and Flushing. From Gillan Beach, the walk joins bridleways and small lanes to Treglossick and then a final footpath through the woods and fields completes the circular route to Porthallow.


  • Note that most coastal walks in Cornwall have paths close to unfenced cliffs.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 103
  • Distance: 4.4 miles/7.1 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 103 OS Explorer 103 (laminated version)

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


  • Views along the coast and across Gillan Creek
  • Wildflowers throughout the spring and early summer including bluebells and foxgloves
  • Sandy beach at Porthallow at low tide

Adjoining walks


  1. With your back to the sea, make your way to the coast path sign at the top of the beach and turn right to follow the track along the front of the houses to reach a footpath signpost on the steps.

    As the name of the pub - the Five Pilchards - suggests, the port flourished during the heyday of pilchard fishing and a number of the buildings are relics of this. During mediaeval times, it was a major fishery, initially owned by an Abbey, and the pilchard fishery continued into Victorian times. In more recent times, Porthallow was largely owned by the Trelowarren Estate and the beach was still owned by the estate until the 1970s when it was purchased by the village. The place name is pronounced locally as "pralla".

  2. Climb the steps, passing the footpath signpost, and follow the path to reach a kissing gate in the field at the top of the cliff.

    In 1917 a convoy of cargo ships from Montreal successfully crossed the Atlantic to British waters and the Volnay sailed from Wales around Land's End on a course for Plymouth. The ship zig-zagged along the mineswept area in The Channel but one mine had been missed and this exploded against the cargo hold. The cargo hold that exploded was loaded with 18 pounder shrapnel shells, but remarkably these didn't detonate. The ship's engines weren't harmed and so the captain made a run for Falmouth. As he neared Porthallow, he realised that the ship would not make it to Falmouth and changed course for the nearest land, but the ship sank just half a mile from the shore. All the crew managed to abandon the ship and reach safety. The heavy shells sank, but a storm the next day brought much of the lighter cargo ashore. Much to the delight of the residents of the Lizard, Porthallow beach was 6 feet deep in cases of cigarettes, tea, coffee, meat, butter, jam and even potato crisps.

  3. Keep right to pass the gate on your left and continue on the path along the coast to reach a kissing gate.

    On the opposite side of the bay, in a disused quarry at Porthkerris, is the Cornish Sea Salt Factory.

    The Iron Age saltworks on The Lizard inspired the idea for the Cornish Sea Salt Company in 2004 which, after three years of development work, began trading in Jan 2008. The salt is harvested from the sea in a purpose-built building on the Lizard coast. Only a fraction of the salt is extracted from the seawater, which is then allowed to trickle back into the sea through a fault in the rocks, ensuring that the local salinity levels are not greatly disturbed.

  4. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path along the coast to reach a stone stile over a wall at a waymark.

    Lackey Moths are so named due to the brightly coloured caterpillars resembling a footman's livery. They are part of a family of "tent caterpillars" who spin their own silk greenhouse to keep them warm during the early spring. These have several compartments separated by insulating air gaps so the caterpillars can move between compartments to reach a comfortable temperature depending on the outside temperature and amount of sunshine. On sunny days in May, keep a look out for the caterpillars emerging from their tents.

    Handling primroses is best avoided as the hairs on the leaves and stems can cause contact dermatitis which is quite severe in some people. It is thought that some people may develop a tolerance with repeated exposure but nevertheless a study in a medical journal found that over a quarter of Primula growers experienced skin reactions.

    "Sea salt" (evaporated from sea water) undergoes less processing than table salt and retains its trace minerals. Claims that the trace mineral content makes sea salt more healthy than standard table salt are not scientifically substantiated. You can get far more trace minerals in your diet by simply eating vegetables! That's not to say that there aren't other (e.g. environmental, and possibly flavour) advantages of natural sea salt over processed table salt though.

  5. Cross over the wall and follow the path initially along the right hedge and then across the middle of the field. Continue to the far-right corner of the field to reach a stone stile.

    In March 1891, the Bay of Panama - a four-masted steel ship of over 2000 tons - was wrecked at Penare Point near the Helford River in a blizzard. A farmer searching for his animals came across the wreck and found figures hanging in the rigging, some dead and some still alive. The West Briton newspaper reported:

    The lifesaving rockets were brought into requisition, and by their aid, 17 sailors were brought ashore, but the Captain, his wife and 18 seamen were drowned. Several of the bodies were washed ashore yesterday, including the Captain's wife.
  6. Cross the stile in the corner of the field and follow the path to reach a waymarked stile over a wall.

    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.

    As well as attracting insects, the brightly coloured foxglove flowers serve as a warning for animals that the plants contain toxins. All parts of the plant can cause a range of ill-effects in humans from nausea to heart and kidney problems which can be fatal.

    Gannets can sometimes be seen off the headland, circling and diving for fish.

    Gannets are the largest sea birds in the North Atlantic with a wingspan of up to 2 metres and are easily recognisable by their long white wings with black tips. Gannets can dive from up to 30 metres, achieving speeds of up to 100kph as they strike the water, enabling them to catch fish much deeper than most seabirds. To achieve this they have air sacs in their face and chest, which act as cushioning when they hit the water. Also they have no external nostrils, instead they are situated inside the mouth.

  7. Cross the stile and keep right along the fence towards the coastguard lookout. Continue to reach a gate on the track leading to the coastguard lookout.

    The lookout station at Nare Point was originally part of a torpedo testing range in Falmouth Bay. It was one of two control centres that tracked the position of dummy torpedoes dropped by aeroplanes and helicopters and was in use until 1993. After this is was used as a potato store until it was leased by the National Trust to the National Coastwatch Institution in 2005.

  8. Turn left from the gate and follow the track away from the coastguard lookout. Follow it to a hedge where it passes through a gate beside a kissing gate.

    The National Coastwatch Institution was set up to restore visual watches along the UK coastline after two Cornish fishermen lost their lives within sight of an empty Coastguard lookout in 1994. The first station - at Bass Point on The Lizard, where the fishermen had died - opened in December 1994. The organisation, staffed by volunteers, now runs 50 lookout stations around England and Wales.

  9. Go through the kissing gate (or the main gate, if open) and follow the track to another gate.

    During World War 2, a decoy site was constructed at Nare Point which was built by Ealing Film Studios and manned from a bunker above Men-Aver beach. A sister site existed on Nare Head on the other side of Falmouth Bay, so whichever direction bombers approached from, they could be intercepted before they reached Falmouth. A mark in the grass alongside the coast path is the remains of a fake railway with red and green lights on posts to simulate signals. The site consisted of a range of fire-making devices that were designed to emulate a town that was in blackout where bombs had hit their targets. These included exploding sand bags, tanks with tar and 15 foot long fire-trays which could be filled with different mixtures to emulate the effect of a hit on a ship or a train. During Falmouth's most destructive bombing raid of 1944, the decoy site managed to lure 9 heavy bombs away from Falmouth.

  10. Go through the kissing gate (or the main gate, if open) and bear right down the path leading off the track. Follow the path over a bridge and along the coast to reach a kissing gate beside a metal gate.

    The Helford creeks are formed from an ancient river valley that has been flooded by rising sea levels. In total, seven creeks (Ponsontuel Creek, Mawgan Creek, Polpenwith Creek, Polwheveral Creek, Frenchman's Creek, Port Navas Creek, and Gillan Creek) connect to the main Helford River inlet between the headlands of Nare Point and Rosemullion Head. The creeks are an important area of marine conservation and contain eelgrass which provides a habitat for a variety of wildlife including seahorses.

  11. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path along the hedge on the right. Keep following along the hedge to reach a stone stile over a wall.

    Because bluebells spread very slowly, they're considered to be an indicator of ancient woodland sites. In areas where trees are not very old, the fact there are bluebells around can indicate that there has been a wood on a site for a very long time. Even if there are no trees there at all, bluebells tell us that there was woodland there some time in the past. The bluebells along the coast are a relic of the gnarled oak woodland that used to grow here before it was cleared for grazing. There is still a patch of the ancient oak woodland left along the coast at Dizzard.

    The name "Kissing Gate" is based on the way that the gate touches either side of the enclosure. Romantics may however wish to interpret the name as part of the walk instructions.

  12. Cross the stile and follow the path to reach a concrete wall. Follow the path down the steps and continue downhill to reach a beach.

    The protruding tongue of land is known as The Herra. The larger of the two mounds is thought to have been a Bronze Age barrow, as an urn was found in the eroding cliff and another urn was found nearby in Gillan Cove which is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Also found in the cove was a bronze socketed axe head and three bronze ingots. The other mound has been greatly disturbed but may have originally been a barrow that was later re-used for fortification.

  13. At the bottom of the steps beside the beach, bear left and follow the path past a bench and waymark to the wooden boat shed. The walk continues on the bridleway behind the boat shed; you can optionally follow the coast a short distance further to Flushing Cove and the crossing to St Anthony, and then return here to complete the walk.

    At low tide it is possible to cross Gillan Creek between Halamana (on the Flushing side) and St Anthony. Although there is a line of stepping stones, these are sometimes covered with slippery seaweed, in which case it is safer to wade across in the ankle-deep water, avoiding a narrow stretch of deeper water leading towards some old gypsy caravans. A ferry runs at high tide during the summer.

  14. Walk along the left side of the boat shed to join the bridleway. Continue until the path ends on a concrete track.

    Gillan Creek is thought to be named based on the Cornish word gillynn (meaning inlet or creek). Consequently the "Creek" in the name is redundant and is an example of a place name where an English word has been unknowingly added to a Cornish word that already more-or-less means the same thing. Others include "Coombe Valley" and "Porth Beach". Gyllyngvase (beach) in Falmouth is derived from the same word.

  15. Join the concrete track ahead and follow this through the farm, going through any gates across the track as necessary. Keep following the track until it ends at a junction of lanes.

    The settlement of Trewarnevas was first recorded in the Domesday survey of 1086 as Treurnivet having one acre of land and owned by Alwin. The name is the Cornish for "farm on the sacred place", based on the word neved meaning sacred pagan place or grove.

  16. At the junction, cross over the small lane to join the road ahead. Follow the road to a junction on the left signposted to Porthallow.

    Cow parsley, also known by the more flattering name of Queen Anne's Lace, is a member of the carrot family. Over the last few decades, cow parsley has substantially increased on roadside verges: there is more than half as much again as there was 30 years ago. The reason is thought to be to an increase in soil fertility caused by a few different factors. In the more distant past, verges were grazed or the grass was cut and used for hay. Now when it is cut by mechanical devices, it is left to rot in place forming a "green manure". In the last few decades there has also been an increase in fertilising nitrogen compounds both from farm overspill and from car exhausts. Whilst this extra fertility is good news for cow parsley and also brambles and nettles, it is causing these species to out-compete many other wildflowers along hedgerows.

    The satellite dishes on the right are part of the Goonhilly Earth Station.

    Goonhilly Earth Station was set up in the 1960s for telecommunications. Its first dish, Antenna One (also known as "Arthur"), was built in 1962 to receive TV from the Telstar satellite and was ready for the first day of broadcasts. In 1969, the sound and images from Apollo 11 were broadcast to the world from here as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon.

    It went on to become the largest satellite earth station in the world for a while, with over 60 communications dishes and 25 in use at any one time. During the 21st Century, it has been repurposed for space exploration.

  17. Turn left at the junction and follow the lane until you reach a track leading down to a gate on the right, opposite the large metal gates on the left just after the houses.

    There are some nice displays of violets along the lane in early spring.

    The purple flowers resembling a miniature pansy that you see along the footpaths from March to May are almost certainly dog violets, so-called because they are unscented (rather than scented of dog) to distinguish them from the sweet violet. The plants are able to thrive both in shade and full sun, so are found in grassland and hedgerows as well as woodland. Sweet violets prefer shade, so if you do encounter these it will most likely be in woodland, but the dog violets are more common even in this habitat.

    Tarmac was discovered by accident in 1901 when a barrel of tar fell and burst open on a road and then waste slag from a nearby furnace was used to cover up the mess. The resulting smooth surface was noticed by a surveyor for Nottingham County who patented the idea, formed the Tar Macadam Syndicate and registered Tarmac as a trademark.

    This has been adopted into the English language initially as tarmacadam and increasingly now as just tarmac. When used as an adjective it gains an extra "k" (i.e. tarmacked).

  18. Turn right down the track leading from the back of the parking area and make your way to the stile marked with a public footpath sign on the right of the gate. Cross the stile (make sure you close the gate if you use this instead) and then keep left to join a grassy track. Follow it to where it enters a field and a path departs to the right.

    The track seems to be a popular flight path for butterflies searching for nectar-bearing flowers along the hedges.

    The oldest moth fossils found so far are from the Carboniferous period 300 million years ago. By the Middle Triassic (age of amphibians - before the dinosaurs), moths had evolved their proboscis used to collect nectar from flowers. Day-flying butterflies were on the scene in the Late Cretaceous (when Tyrannosaurs were around). Originally it was thought day-flying was to avoid night-flying bats but it's now thought more likely that this was mainly to take advantage of the abundance of nectar that was originally targeted at bees.

    Plantains are common weeds found alongside footpaths. Confusingly, members of the banana family are also known as plantain (e.g. "fried plantain") but despite the name the footpath weeds aren't closely related to bananas.

  19. Keep right just before the field entrance to follow the path between the trees to a footbridge.

    Cow parsnip can be mistaken for giant hogweed as the leaves are similar in shape and flowers look similar. The most obvious way to tell them apart is size. Cow parsnip reaches a maximum of 6-7 feet tall whereas even by the end of May, giant hogweed is massive and can reach 15ft tall by July. Another distinguishing feature is that cow parsnip has a groove in the top of the stem holding each leaf but you should not touch the plant to examine it.

    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, 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 invasives@cormacltd.co.uk

    Trees need a lot of water. A large oak tree can absorb around 450 litres of water per day, most of which is released into the atmosphere as water vapour through transpiration. Trees therefore help to reduce flooding from heavy rain in low-lying river floodplains and also reduce erosion from runoff.

  20. Cross the footbridge and wooden walkways to reach a stile. Cross the stile and keep left to follow the path ahead, winding between the trees, to emerge into a field.

    Bluebells grow in the woodland and usually begin flowering towards the end of April.

    Bluebells are also known by folk names based on their shape including Lady’s Nightcap and Witches’ Thimbles.

    Other common names for the bluebell include "wild hyacinth" and "wood hyacinth" as they are related to the hyacinth family. Their Genus name Hyacinthoides also means "hyacinth-like".

    Hemlock (also known as water dropwort) is a member of the carrot family (related to cow parsley and alexanders) and is common in damp, shady places, particularly near streams. The stems are tubular and quite thick like alexanders and the leaves look quite like coriander (more toothed on the edges than alexanders). New leaves begin to shoot in early winter and by February these are starting to grow into quite noticeable small plants. It flowers in April and May with white flowers similar to cow parsley. It has a deceptively pleasant sweet smell but don't be tempted to try eating it: this is the most poisonous plant in UK. Just a handful of leaves can kill a human and a root contains enough poison to kill a cow.

    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.

  21. Follow along the top of the field to the far side.

    Sorrel is common in fields and hedgerows and easily recognisable by its red seeds at the top of a tall stalk. The leaves resemble small, narrow dock leaves.

    Sorrel is used both in soups or as a salad vegetable. The leaves have a pleasant lemony flavour. The plant was known in Cornwall during Victorian times as "green sauce".

    In common with many vegetables, sorrel contains oxalic acid. Exactly how much is a bit unclear: many articles mention "high amounts" though some published studies report a lower percentage than in spinach, parsley or rhubarb, though don't specify how easily soluble the oxalic acid is in each case. Oxalic acid is poisonous if enough is consumed and prolonged exposure can cause kidney stones. So use sorrel reasonably sparingly and don't eat it every day.

  22. Follow the path leading from the field to reach a wooden kissing gate. Go through this and follow the path until it ends on a track in front of some cottages.

    The northeastern area of The Lizard, around the Helford creeks has been known for at least 1000 years as the Meneage, pronounced "M'neeg". The name means "land of the monks" and it is thought that after the Romans departed, the area was a confederacy of small Celtic monasteries settled by missionaries from Brittany.

  23. Turn left onto the track and follow it along the row of cottages to reach a lane.

    Porthallow's "ex-straw-dinary" scarecrow festival began in 2017 and now takes places each August.

    Scarecrow festivals were traditional in Derbyshire but were first imported into southern England in 1990 in the Wiltshire village of Urchfont. Since then many villages have started annual festivals, often with impressively elaborate and amusing scarecrows.

  24. Turn left onto the lane and follow it back to the beach.

    Porthallow is now probably best known for being the midpoint of the South West Coast Path.

    The South West Coast Path stretches for 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset. It was created as a route between lighthouses for use by the Coastguard so they could overlook the bays and coves to catch smugglers.

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