Porthcothan to Watergate Bay coastal walk via Bedruthan Steps and Mawgan Porth

Porthcothan, Bedruthan Steps and Watergate Bay

A (bus-assisted) one-way walk along the coast with spectacular wildflowers and one of Cornwall's most photographed views over the volcanic rock stacks of Bedruthan Steps, which Victorians liked to think of as a giant's stepping stones.

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Starting with a bus journey to Porthcothan, this walk follows the Coast Path from Porthcothan Bay past the Trescore Islands to Porth Mear. The route then climbs over Park Head to overlook the sandy beach at Pentire Steps. From here, the route passes the iconic islets at Bedruthan Steps to reach Carnewas near the National Trust tearoom. The walk then descends to Mawgan Porth with spectacular views of the beach. The final stretch overlooks Beacon Cove which is only accessible by sea.

Considerations

  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 106
  • Distance: 6.8 miles/11.0 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate
  • Bus: 56 from Watergate Bay to Porthcothan.
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots, or shoes in summer

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 106 OS Explorer 106 (laminated version)

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

Highlights

  • Spectacular coastal scenery
  • Easily accessible sandy beaches at Porthcothan and Mawgan Porth
  • Tidal sandy beaches at Pentire Steps and Bedruthan Steps
  • Rockpools at low tide at Porth Mear
  • Rich bird life including kestrels, skylarks and seabirds
  • Beautiful displays of thrift flowers in late spring
  • Option to cut down to a 4.4 mile walk by parking and catching the bus from Mawgan Porth instead of Watergate Bay

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Merrymoor Inn

Directions

  1. Follow the path signposted as the Coast Path to Mawgan Porth. Pass Porthcothan Bay stores and keep left at all junctions to follow along the back of the dunes and join the path out onto the headland. Continue along the path to reach a kissing gate in a narrow inlet.

    There is a beach at all states of the tide at Porthcothan, though the beach massively increases in size at low tide, and consequently the tide comes in very fast. At the top of the beach, in the sand dunes, is a store. There are also public toilets in the car park, on the opposite side of the road.

    On the left side of the beach there are some double rock stacks. Before 2014, one of these (known as Jan Leverton's Island) was one large rock with a pair of "windows" going through it, but the central section containing the windows was obliterated by storm waves leaving a stack on either side. To the far left of the beach is a collapsed cave that has openings both onto the beach and the end of the headland through which it's possible to clamber at low tide.

  2. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path around the headland (watching out for the collapsed cave at the end) and down into the next cove, to reach a waymark at the bottom of a flight of steps.

    The carpets of yellow flowers on the coast in June and July are Kidney Vetch. The flowers are red when they open and then turn yellow, and appear to be on a woolly cushion. The plant gets its common name as it was used to treat kidney troubles. Its other name - woundwort - is because it was also used to treat wounds. It is the food plant of the small blue butterfly, which is consequently quite common on the coastal heath.

    The white flowers along the coast in July and August which resemble a more compact version of Cow Parsley are the delightfully-named Sea Carrot. Unlike Cow Parsley, the flowers start off pink and become white as they open and sometimes have a single dark red flower in the centre. The Sea Carrot is technically the same species as a wild carrot, from which the carrot was domesticated, but is shorter, stouter and more splayed out than a wild carrot. The two converge the further north and east that you go in Britain: West Cornwall is therefore the pinnacle of Sea Carrot evolution. You should avoid touching the leaves of the Sea Carrot as they can make skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light which can result in blistering caused by extreme sunburn.

    Waves pounding into a cave compress the air inside. This can often be seen venting quite explosively from a cave as a blowhole. Inside the cave, the force from the air being rapidly compressed and decompressed gradually fractures the rock. Eventually this is unable to support the weight of the roof of the cave. Once this collapses, the sea washes away the soil and smaller stones leaving just the largest boulders which are slowly smoothed by the wave action.

  3. Follow the path over the footbridge and take the right-hand path to a kissing gate overlooking Porth Mear.

    The name Porth Mear is easily confused with Porth Meor beach at St Ives and Porthmeor Cove near Zennor because all of these are from the Cornish for "big cove". There is a shingle beach at high tide. At low tide, a large rock platform is exposed with lots of rockpools.

    Rockpool fishing is quite a popular childhood pass-time as a number of species can be lured out from hiding places by a limpet tied on a piece of cotton (leave a trailing end as if anything swallows the limpet, very gently pulling both ends of the cotton will cause it to release the cotton-tied limpet from its gullet). If you are intending to put the creatures into a bucket: ensure it is large, filled with fresh seawater and kept in the shade; ideally place in a couple of rocks for the creatures to hide under; do not leave them in there more than a couple of hours or they will exhaust their oxygen supply; ensure you release them into one of the rockpools from which you caught them, preferably a large one (carefully removing any rocks from your bucket first to avoid squashing them). Species you're likely to encounter are:

    • Blennies which are fish about 5-10cm long, often found hiding under rock ledges. They can change their colour from sandy to black within a couple of minutes in order to match their surroundings. They have strong, sharp teeth for crunching barnacles and will bite if provoked.
    • Shore crabs and sometimes edible crabs which can also sometimes be found hiding under rocks (carefully replace any rocks you lift up). Shore crabs have a fairly narrow shell which is almost as deep as it is wide. They vary in colour from green through brown to red (the redder individuals are apparently stronger and more aggressive). Edible crabs have a much wider shell which resembles a Cornish Pasty and are always a red-brown colour. Both have powerful claws so fingers should be kept well clear.
    • Shrimps and prawns - do you know the difference? Prawns are semi-transparent whereas shrimps are sandy coloured and generally bury themselves in sand.
  4. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path up to the headland. Continue on the path along the cliff edge until you can see a bench on your right and a slate waymark on your left. Keep left to reach the waymark.

    The islands overlooked by the bench are the Trescore Islands.

    The Trescore Islands lie off the headland between Porthcothan and Porth Mear. The rocky islets are surrounded by a sandy beach which is exposed at low tide, creating a lagoon between the islands and mainland. It is shallow enough to wade across from the mainland at low tide.

  5. From the waymark, continue on the path past another slate waymark and along the right side of a wall, past one more slate waymark, until the wall ends.

    The carpets of tiny blue flowers on the coast during April and May are the appropriately-named spring squill, which up close is a star-shaped pale blue flower with a dark blue stamen. They achieve their early flowering by storing energy over the winter in a bulb so they can be the first flowers out on the cliffs before they become overshadowed by larger plants. They thrive in locations which are beaten with wind and salt-laden spray which they are able to tolerate but other plants, which might otherwise out-compete them, cannot.

    During June and July, you might come across a plant on the coast with long and very bright yellow flowers, a bit like elongated gorse flowers. This is likely to Dyer's Broom (also known as Dyers Greenweed). As the name implies, the bright yellow flowers were used to dye clothing. As green was generally a more popular colour than yellow, the yellow fabric was often re-dyed with a blue dye such as woad or indigo to create green cloth. During Victorian times, there was so much demand for the dye that the plant was grown commercially. In West Cornwall, there is a variety of the plant that isn't found anywhere else in Britain.

    Oystercatchers are recognisable by their back-and-white bodies, their long, straight red beaks and loud, piercing call. In flight, the white markings form an image of a white bird towards the back of their otherwise black backs which may have evolved to confuse predators.

    The long beaks are adapted to open shellfish - mainly cockles and mussels - "cocklecatchers" would be a more accurate name. They also can also use their bill to probe for worms.

  6. At the end of the wall, keep right on the path along the coast and follow it until you reach another slate waymark.

    The French fishing boat Le Sillon was at sea during the 2014 storms and was pounded by waves of over 30 feet. One of these smashed the glass in the wheelhouse and shorted the electrics, leaving the boat without power or steering. The RNLI lifeboat attempted to tow the boat to safety but struggled against the waves and eventually the tow rope snapped. The crew were forced to abandon ship and were all saved from the water by a Sea King helicopter from RNAS Culdrose. The remains of Le Sillon are on the rocks of Park Head.

  7. At the waymark, turn left and follow the path to a waymark at the end of a wall with a bench on the far side.

    At the slate waymark, a path to the right leads out onto Park Head where the remains of an Iron Age hillfort can be seen.

    The low plateau is surrounded by ramparts which are believed to date from the first century BC.

    The purpose of enclosures within ramparts varied quite considerably. Some were built as forts to defend from marauding invaders such as the seafaring Scandinavians. Others were defences built around small villages either as a status symbol/deterrent or for the more practical purpose of preventing domestic crimes such as theft of property by occupants of neighbouring villages. There were even some which were probably just a confined space used to stop livestock escaping!

  8. Continue ahead on the path along the coast to reach another stone wall. Follow along this to reach a wooden signpost (pointing ahead to Carnewas) beside a kissing gate.

    Wild thyme grows along the coast and flowers from June to September with tiny pink flowers. During mediaeval times, the plant was a symbol of bravery, possibly due to derivation from the Greek word thumos, meaning anger or spiritedness. An embroidered motif of a bee on a sprig of thyme is said to have been given by mediaeval ladies to their favoured knight.

    Coastal land management including removal of excess gorse and grazing to keep taller plants in trim has allowed wild thyme to become more widespread as well as the Cornish chough. Wild thyme is a nectar source for many bees and butterflies and the food plant for young caterpillars of the large blue butterfly.

    The Birdsfoot Trefoil has yellow flowers tinged with red that look like little slippers and appear in small clusters. They are followed by seed pods that look distinctly like bird's feet or claws. Common names referring to the flowers include "Butter and Eggs", "Eggs and Bacon" and "Hen and Chickens", and to the seed pods, the delightful "Granny's Toenails".

    It is a member of the pea family and is poisonous to humans (containing glycosides of cyanide) but not to grazing animals and can be grown as a fodder plant. It is the larval food plant of many butterflies and moths including the common blue and silver-studded blue, and an important nectar plant for many bumblebee species.

    The "herringbone" style of walling built with tightly packed alternating diagonal slate courses, is unique to Cornwall's heritage.

    Traditionally, hedges (stone boundary walls) were built with whatever was cleared out of the fields, whilst buildings were constructed from stone that was quarried and cut. On a long wall, the herringbone sections are often between "towers" of flat-laid slate (built from the larger and squarer stones) which helped to prevent the wall slumping sideways.

    There is a nice view over the Bedruthan Steps rock stacks from the bottom of the grassy area to the right of the path.

  9. From the signpost, continue on the coast path to reach a kissing gate.
  10. Go through the kissing gate and follow the path between the wall and fence to reach a gap in a wall.

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

    Almost all European countries have reported a rapid decline in lark numbers over recent years. In Britain, two-thirds of the population has disappeared in 30 years. This is thought mainly to be due to intensive agriculture and particularly the autumn sowing of cereals. When cereals were sown in the spring, the fields of stubble that remained after harvest provided an environment where larks could nest during the winter.

  11. Continue through the gap and follow the path along the bank on the left to reach a waymark.
  12. From the waymark, continue to a fork in the path either side of a fenced-off mineshaft.

    On the headland, ahead, are the remains of a prehistoric cliff castle, known as Redcliff Castle. Most of the headland has since fallen into the sea, but there are still remains of a pair of circular ramparts which have been cut into the bedrock.

  13. At the fork, take the path to the right, along the coast, and follow this to a fenced-off section. Bear left into the car park and follow along the bank with tamarisk trees to a gap beside the rectangular stone structure. Bear right through the gap to return to the coast and follow the waymarked path downhill to join a cobbled path at the base of a flight of slate steps.

    The name Bedruthan Steps is commonly used to refer to either this stretch of coastline, the beach or the series of offshore rocks.

    Bedruthan Steps is the name of a stretch of rocky coastline between Padstow and Newquay. The area lies in the parish of St Eval, just to the west of the hamlet of Bedruthan.

    There is no record of the name "Bedruthan Steps" before 1847, but it is thought to have originally referred to one of the two cliff staircases to access Carnewas mine (presumably the one nearer to the village of Bedruthan). The name later also became used for the name of the beach itself.

    The legend of Bedruthan Steps was invented for Victorian tourism, said to be taken from a mythological giant (Bedruthan) who used the rocks as stepping stones.

    The rock stacks were formed after the last Ice Age, when rising sea levels eroded the surrounding soft shales to leave the harder rocks as islands. Each of the 5 rock stacks has a name (Queen Bess, Samaritan Island, Redcove Island, Pendarves Island and Carnewas Island).

    More about Bedruthan Steps.

  14. Bear left and climb the steps (or follow the "no steps" optional path), then follow the cobbled path to a waymark.

    If the tide is out, you may want to take a short diversion down the cobbled path to your right to reach the beach.

    The beach at Bedruthan Steps is only exposed as the tide starts to go out. Initially several small coves are revealed as the tide falls and towards low tide these join into a large beach.

    The beach is accessed by a long flight of steps which lead from a gate just below the viewing area. Note that the gates are closed during the winter when the National Trust café is not open.

    Since only one of these coves has a set of steps, care should be taken not to get cut off by the incoming tide (tide times are displayed on a board beside the gate on the way down). Due to the channels between rocky islets across the beach, there are strong tidal currents and swimming is therefore not advisable. It is also a good idea to avoid choosing an area to sit that is directly below the cliffs as these are crumbling in many places: as well as occasional landslips, loose stones may be disturbed by birds.

  15. Bear right at the waymark. Follow the path until it cuts through a bank, and meets another path at a crossing.

    At this point, you may want to stop at the National Trust tearoom, on your left, for refreshments. There is also a shop and toilets. To reach it, follow the surfaced path, ahead from the waymark. To rejoin the walk route from the tearoom, take the leftmost (unsurfaced) path which will bring you to the next direction.

  16. At the crossing, keep ahead (or if you are coming from the tea room, turn left), and follow the coast path, until you reach a fork in the path, just before a waymark.

    The buildings which now house the National Trust shop and café at Bedruthan Steps were once the offices and outbuildings of Carnewas mine. This operated for just over 20 years from the mid 19th century. Initially it extracted lead, antimony and silver but later much larger amounts of iron ore. The ladders and steps to the beach were probably originally built to access the mine workings.

  17. Take the path on the right, as indicated by the waymark. Follow the path to reach a junction of paths just after a waymark in the middle of the path.

    The slates at Bedruthan Steps are from the middle of the Devonian period when Cornwall lay at the bottom of the ocean. Fossils are quite rare in Cornish slate as most have been subsequently destroyed by the heat and pressure created by colliding continents. A few fossils of fish, corals, trilobites have been recorded at Bedruthan Steps. Although few and far between, they are important as they include some of the last remains of a once-abundant family of fish that became extinct.

  18. Continue along the coast path and follow it to a fork in the path beside a wire fence.

    During late April, St Mark's flies occur in quite large numbers. They are recognisable by their shiny black colour, slow flight and dangly legs and have a habit of landing of anything in their path, walkers included. The larvae live in the soil feeding on roots and rotting vegetation and hatch around St Mark's Day (25th April), sometimes later into May in a cold year. The adults only live for about a week but they do feed on nectar, making them important pollinators. Each of the males eyes are divided into two parts by a groove and each part has a separate connection to their brains. This allows them to use one half to fly whilst using the other half to look for females.

    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.

  19. Bear right past the boulder to follow the path downhill. Continue on the path until it ends in a T-junction with another path.

    In 1908 the schooner known as the Hodbarrow Miner was carrying coal from Runcorn in Cheshire to Truro, when she was caught in a strong gale off the Cornish coast. As the ship rounded Lands End, 20 miles off the Longships lighthouse, the captain was lost overboard. The remaining crew attempted to run from the storm but were driven aground at Mawgan Porth. They launched a small boat but this capsized in the huge swell. The one surviving crew member swam ashore with the ship's boy, but the boy drowned in the breakers. The man was swept under as he reached the shore but he was dragged to safety by two coastguards.

  20. If the tide is out, you can turn right and walk along the top of the beach, keeping the dunes on your left, until you reach the road. Otherwise, turn left to reach a waymark and follow the path across the footbridge and over the headland to emerge on the beach above the high tide line.

    The name Mawgan Porth has arisen from the Cornish name - Porthmaugan, in use in the 18th Century. However, in mediaeval times, it was known by a completely different name - Porthglyvyan - which translates to something along the lines of "cove of the wooded valley stream".

    The beach at Mawgan Porth faces West into the Atlantic and has good surf, particularly when the wind is in an easterly direction. Opinions differ on whether the effect of the tide is significant on the quality of the surf; some say that it is best just after low tide.

  21. Cross the beach, keeping the dunes on your left, and follow the path from the pile of rocks to reach the road.

    The River Menalhyl, which meets the sea at Mawgan Porth, is about 12 miles long and had a number of mills along its length. The name of the river comes from the Cornish words melyn, meaning mill, and heyl, meaning estuary.

  22. Turn right onto the road and follow the pavement across the bridge. Then follow the path along the top of the wall and beside the road to reach a wooden fence with a coast path sign.

    During winter, from November to March, winter heliotrope is visible along the edges of roads and paths as carpets of rounded heart-shaped leaves.

    The name of the plant is Greek for "sun direction" because the flowers turn to follow the winter sun.

  23. Go through the gap in the fence and follow the path to the bottom of a long flight of steps. Climb these to a waymark at the top and continue on the coast path to reach another waymark at the back of Beacon Cove where an inland path meets the coast.

    Thrift is a tough evergreen plant which grows on sea cliffs and consequently it's the county flower of the Scilly Isles. To survive in this environment it needs to be able to withstand drought and salt-laden winds. Its long, thin leaves and hairy flower stems have evolved to minimise water loss.

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

    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.

  24. Continue around the cove to reach a footbridge.

    The fulmar is a grey and white bird related to an Albatross although it can be mistaken at a distance for a gull. Close up, the beak is the giveaway: the fulmar has a tube on its beak which is visible as a black bar across the beak at a distance. The tube is a gland for excreting salt from the seawater that they drink. As a defence mechanism, the fulmar regurgitates foul smelling oil from its stomach - the name comes from the Old Norse for "foul" (full) and "gull" (mar). The oil disrupts the waterproofing of predatory birds' feathers in a similar way to a crude-oil spill, so they avoid preying on fulmars.

  25. Cross the bridge and climb the steps. Follow the path to reach a kissing gate.

    Common fleabane grows in damp areas and produces shin-height flowers resembling a large yellow daisy during July and August.

    The leaves have a scent reminiscent of carbolic acid (phenol). The plant was therefore thought to be an insect repellent without too much thought given to what pollinates it. It was kept in houses in the hope of driving away fleas, hence the name. The genus name also derives from the Latin word for flea.

    An equation developed by the military for carrying load in the battlefield can be applied to estimate calories burned when walking.

    On the flat, someone who weighs 10.5 stone burns around 100 calories per mile (this increases with weight - e.g. about 123 for 13 stone).

    Going uphill this increases (to around 184 for our 10.5 stone walker climbing a 10% gradient) and going downhill this decreases (e.g. to around 75 for a 10% gradient downhill).

    The decrease going downhill is less than the increase going uphill, so undulating terrain burns more calories than on the flat (about 118 for an average 5% gradient and about 159 for an average 10% gradient).

    Also, once the gradient downhill increases beyond about 10%, you start to use more calories to hold your weight. By the time the gradient has reached 32 degrees downhill, you're burning as many calories as on the flat.

  26. Go through the gate and follow the coast path to reach long flight of steps gradually descending to Watergate Bay. Follow these to a concrete area with a gate to The Village on the left, and more steps leading ahead.

    Jackdaws have been found to share food and will share more of a preferred food than an unpleasant one. Although the sharing often takes place in courtship and parenting, the behaviour has also been observed in unrelated birds. It is thought that this pro-social behaviour might be a sign of reciprocity ("do unto others...") and possibly empathy.

  27. Continue ahead down the steps and along the gravel path behind the building to emerge on the road.
  28. Turn right and carefully follow the road downhill to the junction to reach the car parks. If you parked in the Council Car Park, the path on the left side of the road leading past the toilets can be used to reach this.

    Surfing in the UK became popular in the 1960s, driven by the music of The Beach Boys and the Hawaiian influence in California. However there were pioneer surfers in Cornwall and the Channel Islands shortly after the First World War. In the 1920s, the young men of Perranporth were provided with coffin lids by the local undertaker for use as surfboards.

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