Circular walk around Rough Tor and Brown Willy

Rough Tor and Brown Willy

A mostly circular walk to Cornwall's two highest tors passing prehistoric remains including the holy well, summit cairns and settlements.

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The walk climbs to the summit of Rough Tor, via the Holy Well, and follows the ridge Showery Tor, where there are spectacular views to the North Cornish coast. The route then drops into the valley and climbs to the top of Brown Willy - the highest point in Cornwall - where there are views south to the China clay hills around St Austell. The return route circles the base of Rough Tor, through the remains of prehistoric settlements overlooking the Fernacre stone circle.


  • There are granite boulders that need to be negotiated particularly towards the summit of Roughtor and when descending into the valley between the tors.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 109
  • Distance: 5.2 miles/8.4 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots (marshy even in summer)

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 109 OS Explorer 109 (laminated version)

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


  • Roughtor - Bodmin Moor's most rugged and iconic tor
  • Weather-sculpted granite on the top of Showery Tor
  • Spectacular panoramic views from the summits of Rough Tor and Brown Willy
  • Cairns, stone circles and other remnants of ancient Neolithic civilization
  • Brown Willy - the highest point in Cornwall
  • Bronze Age hut circles, field systems and enclosures


  1. From the car park, head through the gate to the bridge over the stream.

    The car park is in an area known as Poldue Downs. Poldue means "black pool" in Cornish and seems to crop up quite a lot on Bodmin Moor, maybe as a result of the dark moorland peat.

    An 18-year old girl - Charlotte Dymond - was murdered near Roughtor in 1844 and her body was found near the clapper bridge. A granite memorial post stands nearby. Her ghost is said to haunt the moors. Her boyfriend was hung for the offence, despite protesting his innocence, with a verdict based on circumstantial evidence and a confession which appears to have been faked. The trial is re-enacted at the Bodmin Courtroom Experience and her gravestone is in Davidstow churchyard.

    More about the murder of Charlotte Dymond

  2. Cross the bridge and follow the stony track ahead until it peters out.

    Roughtor bridge is Grade-II-listed and is a good example of a double-span clapper bridge made of granite.

    Clapper bridges are an ancient form of bridge built out of stone slabs spanning piers in the river. Most were built during mediaeval times, often beside a ford where horses and carts would cross. There is disagreement over the origin of the word "clapper". One candidate is an Anglo-Saxon word cleaca meaning "a bridge of stepping stones". Another is a mediaeval Latin word clapus which is is thought to have originated in Celtic Western Europe and to mean "pile of stones".

  3. Take the leftmost of the grassy tracks, heading towards the middle two rock stacks on the skyline. Follow the track to where it widens out and forks to the left and right. Keep ahead a little further to where it bends fairly sharply to the left.

    On the approach to Roughtor from the car park, in the open grassy moorland the north-west of the tor, is the remains of a settlement consisting of over 120 hut circles, small enclosures and fragments of field systems. The majority of the round houses are laid out in a broad north-south band and linked by the stony banks of a series of six small irregular enclosures. Excavations have shown these to date from the early-mid Bronze Age.

  4. Bear right towards the line of reeds in front of Rough Tor on your right. Follow the reed-lined brook upstream to where the spring emerges from Roughtor Holy Well.

    The Roughtor Holy Well was discovered in 1970 on the slopes of Rough Tor, then lost again and re-discovered and restored in 1994. Unsurprisingly, given its history, it's not that easy to spot from a distance in all the granite fragments on the slopes of Rough Tor. A spring rises in the well but the stream runs only a few hundred metres before disappearing again into boggy ground. The reeds that grow along the stream are the easiest way to locate it.

  5. From the Holy Well, make your way to the top of Rough Tor. The easiest place to climb is onto the ridge just to the left of the summit, then follow along the ridge to the very top.

    Before Christianity, the Pagan Celtic people of Cornwall worshipped wonders of the natural world. Where clean, drinkable water welled up from the ground in a spring, this was seen as pretty awesome. The sites were seen as portals to another world, and is why fairies are often associated with springs. Where the springwater dissolved minerals, for specific conditions (e.g. deficiency in a mineral) or where the minerals present had antibacterial/fungal properties, the water appeared to have healing powers.

  6. From the top of Rough Tor, turn back on yourself and follow the ridge to the next largest rock stack (Little Rough Tor).

    Rough Tor is the second highest peak on Bodmin Moor. It is pronounced "row-tor" because the local dialect word "row" meant "rough". The summit of Rough Tor is encircled by a series of rough Neolithic stone walls which link natural outcrops, to form a tor enclosure. Also on the summit are the foundations of a mediaeval chapel, built into the side of one of the larger cairns.

    Rock balancing art is best avoided on Bodmin Moor as what looks to the untrained eye like a pile of rocks is very likely to be prehistoric remains, and often a grave or memorial which is best not desecrated. Even accidental vandalism of ancient monuments is an illegal act that could result in a criminal record and jail sentence.

    Fortunately, Cornwall has a considerable supply of pebbly beaches where towering extravaganzas can be constructed without such risks.

  7. Continue along the ridge to Showery Tor - the isolated leftmost granite stack at the far end of the ridge.

    The word granite comes from the Latin granum (a grain), in reference to its coarse-grained structure. Granite forms from a big blob of magma (known as a pluton) which intrudes into the existing rocks. The huge mass of molten rock stores an enormous amount of heat so the magma cools very slowly below the surface of the Earth, allowing plenty of time for large crystals to form.

    Tors started out as a lump of granite beneath the surface, which cracked vertically into squares and then part-way through horizontally to form something resembling a stuck-together stack of square pancakes. Millions of years of weathering then gradually rounded these off and widened the cracks between the layers to result in a more burger-like appearance.

    In some cases the horizontal cracks didn't go all the way through so the layers are still joined (the skewer through the brioche bun to stretch the burger analogy to its limit). In the cases where they did fully separate, a massive rocking stone such as the famous Logan Rock at Treen could be created, or the whole lot could collapse into a pile of huge rocks.

    The "basins" on the tops of some of the tors are also the result of repeated freezing and thawing of water which has collected on the surface.

    The word is from the Celtic language but is likely to have come from the Latin turris, meaning "tower", derived from a similar word in Ancient Greek.

  8. Climb to the summit of Showery Tor then turn right and follow along the line of rocks, keeping them on your right. Pass a big pile of rocks on your right and continue following along the rocks to reach the end of the rock stacks.

    Showery Tor is a natural structure quite similar to The Cheesewring at Minions. The tor is encircled by a massive ring cairn made of piled stone and is thought may have been a prehistoric religious site. It is the only natural formation known to have been framed in this way.

    Also in one of the granite bounders on Showery Tor is a double row of drilled holes made by miners. These were used to celebrate midsummer by filling them with gunpowder, lighting a fuse connecting them and retiring to a safe distance.

  9. At the end of the rocks, turn right and head along the side of the valley until you pick up the wide path leading into the valley towards Brown Willy. Follow the path to reach a bridge at the bottom of the valley where the path leads up to Brown Willy.

    The De Lank River springs from Rough Tor Marsh, between the two highest peaks on Bodmin Moor and joins the River Camel near Blisland. It is an important wildlife habitat, noted for diverse and abundant flora and fauna and its surrounding banks, woodlands and marshes have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Together with the River Camel, the De Lank is an important habitat for the otter which is present along the whole length of the river.

    The name is reported as being from a Cornish name which is recorded as Dinlonk. The Cornish word lonk means gully. The name of the riverside settlement Lank is almost certainly related.

  10. Cross the bridge and stile and follow the path uphill from the bridge to reach another stile. Cross this and continue uphill to reach the trig point beside the cairn on the top of Brown Willy.

    Brown Willy is a tor on the north-west area of Bodmin Moor. The name "Brown Willy" is actually a distortion of the Cornish Bronn Wennili which means "hill of swallows". The summit of Brown Willy is the highest point in Cornwall, at 420m above sea level, but only 20m taller than Rough Tor.

  11. From the trig point, continue along the top of the ridge along the several small peaks of Brown Willy to reach the cairn on the southernmost peak.

    These are amongst the most intact cairns on Bodmin Moor due to their remote and inaccessible location. The larger cairn has been postulated to have a calendric function as the sun rises over the Brown Willy cairn from the Stannon Stone Circle at the Equinox. Unless the weather on Bodmin Moor was significantly less prone to mist and cloud in Bronze Age times than it is now, it's unlikely this would have been very effective, as on a misty day seeing the other side of the stone circle is hard enough! An alternative hypothesis is that this is a burial mound; it has never been excavated so whether this is true remains unknown.

    However tempting it might be, don't stack rocks on the summit cairns! This would be desecrating an ancient monument which is a criminal offence.

    The piles or rings of stones known as cairns, were built for a variety of purposes: some ceremonial including burials, some practical such as markers in a calendric sundial. Although much speculation has taken place, the reason for the construction of each is now unknown. When radiocarbon dating was done on nine of the cairns on Bodmin Moor, eight gave average date ranges between 2162 to 1746 BC, suggesting the early Bronze Age was the main building period. The remnants you see today are in many cases a small fragment of the original structure as the rocks from many cairns have since been "re-purposed" for use in drystone walls, buildings, roads etc. The Cornish word for cairn is karn or carn (from karnow, meaning "rock piles") and Cornwall (Kernow) itself may actually be named after the cairns that dot its landscape.

  12. From the southern cairn on Brown Willy, double back to the bridge at the bottom of the valley.

    Looking across the barren granite landscape of Bodmin Moor, it may seem strange that so many settlements can be found here from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. About 10,000 years ago, Bodmin Moor was almost entirely covered in forest, and the Neolithic tribes would have lived in forest clearings. During the Bronze Age, the majority of forest was cleared for farmland. The burning and grazing, over several thousand years, has resulted in poor soils which are naturally quite acidic due to the granite rocks. This, together with the exposure to the wind, is why the few trees on the moor today are generally stunted.

  13. From the bridge, keep left to follow the path parallel to the wall then bear right away from the wall across the open moorland to skirt clockwise around the base of Rough Tor, keeping it on your right and staying downhill of the largest rocks. Use the network of numerous small paths to make crossing the rocky terrain easier. Once the woodland surrounding the car park comes into view, head towards it then join the path leading to the bridge and follow it back to the car park to complete the walk.

    As you skirt around the base of Rough Tor, you pass close to the remains of another settlement.

    On the southern slopes of Roughtor are the remains of a large number of hut circles. The houses and the small enclosures probably represent an economy based on stock rearing, with perhaps a little cultivation of cereals. The extensive field system is likely to be from a later period, representing a time when arable farming was predominant.

    The stone circle to your left is known as Fernacre

    The Fernacre stone circle is located on the slopes of Rough Tor. The name dates back to the Middle Ages. It is thought either to mean "bracken land" or "fairy land" as Feren was the old plural of fairy. Fernacre is one of the largest stone rings in Cornwall, with a diameter of approximately 44m by 46m. Only about 61 stones survive, the possible total originally being between 77 and 95. From Fernacre, it has been suggested that a standing stone on Brown Willy marks the equinox sunrise, which is also aligned with two cairns, and sunset over Louden Hill marks May 1st.

    More about Fernacre stone circle

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