Watergate Bay to Porth Island circular walk

Watergate Bay to Porth Island

It is critical that you carefully time this walk for low tide: the crossing between beaches at Zacry's Island is underwater except around 2 hours either side of low tide. Once you reach the steps at Whipsiderry, there is no time pressure from this point on.

A circular walk along the beach from Watergate Bay to the sea caves of Whipsiderry and Iron Age hillfort at Trevelgue head, returning past the clifftop tombs of Bronze-Age chieftains, with panoramic views of the Newquay coastline.

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The walk begins on the beach at Watergate Bay and follows the sand for over a mile to Whipsiderry. The route then crosses Trevelgue Head to reach the beach at Porth. Here, the route circles the promontory fort on Trevelgue Head, then returns on the coast path past Fruitful Cove with panoramic views over Watergate Bay.

Considerations

  • The beach crossing at Zacry's Island involves negotiating an area of boulders, and rock platform with rockpools.
  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 106
  • Distance: 4.2 miles/6.7 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: Sandals in summer; wellies in winter

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 106 OS Explorer 106 (laminated version)

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

Highlights

  • Walk along 1.5 miles of golden sandy beach
  • Large caves and rockpools at Whipsiderry beach
  • Bronze Age fort and blowhole at Trevelgue Head
  • Panoramic views from the coast path
  • Birds of prey, seabirds and marine life

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Mermaid Inn

Directions

It is critical that you carefully time this walk around low tide and sea conditions: the crossing between beaches at Zacry's Island and several more points between here and Whipsiderry are underwater except around 2 hours either side of low tide. Also note that if there is a large surf running, waves surge in a long way over the flat sand. You can use the Newquay tide times to plan when you do the walk. Setting out whilst the tide is still falling is strongly recommended as is being prepared to turn back if the sea conditions turn out to be unsuitable. Once you reach the steps at Whipsiderry, there is no time pressure from this point on.

  1. From the car park, make your way down to the beach. Turn left along the beach and follow it until you reach the end of the sand at Zacry's Islands. Make for the small gully between the cliff face and the rocks. If the sea is approaching this point then don't attempt to "chance it" - turn back and follow the coast path to Whipsiderry instead.

    Watergate Bay, near Newquay, is still sometimes known by its local name "Tregurrian Beach" which is reported as once being Porth Tregoryan (meaning something along the lines of "Cove at Coryan's Farm").

    The beach is two miles long and popular for surfing of all kinds including kite surfing. The beach faces west, so the best surf occurs when the wind is easterly. The surf is said to be consistent at all states of the tide.

  2. Follow the gully between the island and the cliff, carefully crossing over the rocks to reach the sand.

    During winter storms, starfish sometimes get washed inshore and collect in the rockpools here.

    Starfish can be found in rockpools though much larger numbers of starfish occur a short way out to sea on the mussel beds of the reefs. In winter, storm waves and high tides can result in mass strandings on beaches.

    Starfish are members of a bizarre family of animals with bodies that have five-fold symmetry and date back at least 450 million years. They have no brain but instead have a complex decentralised nervous system spread throughout their bodies. This connects up to sensors which can detect light, vibrations and chemicals, equivalent to eyes, ears and a nose. Starfish eat shellfish such as barnacles and mussels which they lever open with their feet and then extrude their stomach into the shell. This releases enzymes which dissolve the prey into soup which is then absorbed.

  3. Follow the beach to the far end until you can see the steps leading up the cliff; head to the bottom of these.

    The name of Whipsiderry Beach arises from some old mining terms: whips (marker flags) and derrick (an elevated structure for haulage situated over a shaft). It is recorded that the Derrick - resembling gallows - was named after a famous hangman by that name.

    A cave on the side of Porth Island was enlarged in the 1870s as part of the Porth Island Silver and Lead Mine workings. In the 1920s-30s, a harmonium was wheeled in here at low tide for candlelight concerts and consequently became known as the Concert Cavern or Banqueting Hall. It eventually became unsafe and was mostly demolished with explosives.

    Another cave near this, known as Cathedral Cavern, has a pillar and a series of intersecting tunnels. This was once quarried, it is reported, for white marble. Marble is not common in Cornwall, but a bed of it was found deep in a mine fairly nearby in Perranporth so this might be related.

    There are also two smaller caves on Whipsiderry Beach named according to their contents: Fern Cavern and Boulder Cavern.

  4. Climb the steps and keep ahead to reach the road.

    As you climb the steps, the wall on your left is covered with samphire.

    Rock samphire has been a popular wild food since Celtic times. It has a strong, characteristic, slightly lemony flavour and recently has become more well-known as a flavouring for gin. It was very popular as a pickle in 16th century Britain until it almost died out from over-picking in the 19th Century. Consequently, it's currently a protected plant but is now making a good comeback. In Shakespeare's time, a rope was tied to a child's ankles and he was dangled over the cliff to pick the rock samphire that grew in crevices and clefts in the rocks.

    The completely unrelated but similar-looking golden samphire also grows around the North Cornish coast. The leaves look almost identical, but the daisy-like yellow flowers in summer are a giveaway, as rock samphire has tiny green-white flowers that look more like budding cow parsley. Golden samphire is edible, but is inferior in flavour to rock samphire; it is also nationally quite rare in Britain.

    Also completely unrelated is marsh samphire (also known as glasswort) which looks more like micro-asparagus. This is what typically appears on restaurant menus or in supermarkets as "samphire".

  5. At the road, turn right and follow the pavement downhill to a metal gate on the right next to an ice cream hut.

    The beach at St Columb Minor is known either as St Columb Porth or more commonly just "Porth" or "Porth beach", though the latter is effectively "cove beach", rivalling "Coombe valley" ("valley valley") for the place name most lost in translation.

    The narrow beach, between the two parallel headlands, is consequently fairly sheltered and therefore generally better-suited to swimming than surfing. The gradient is very shallow so the tide comes in quite fast. The river running along the right-hand side of the beach is deeper and faster-flowing than you might expect: attempting to wade through in wellies may result in an unplanned swim.

  6. Go through the pedestrian gap beside the gate and follow the path past an information board until you reach a second information board near the far end of the headland.

    Roughly 20 feet down in the sand on the beach at Porth is the remains of a prehistoric forest which is though to date from around 7,000 years ago when sea levels where much lower. This forest extended out into the bay which would have all been dry land. During the 1950s, a water pumping station was built near the Mermaid Inn which involved digging down into the sand. During the excavation, tree stumps were uncovered that were so large that a bulldozer was required to pull them out. Particularly large storms can strip away sand and cause the tree stumps to be exposed, which happened in some parts of Cornwall and Wales in 2014, allowing the age of some of the remains to be estimated using radiocarbon dating.

  7. From the information board, follow the path towards the end of the headland, keeping right at the steps to the beach to reach the bridge to the island.

    On Trevelgue Head, alongside the beach at Porth, are the remains of an Iron Age cliff castle. The site was excavated in 1939 but due to the outbreak of the Second World War, the project was never finished and the results never published until nearly 70 years later in 2007. The fort was surrounded by a series of large earth and stone ramparts, and the settlement in the centre included a large roundhouse and even a protected field system. Estimates of when the fort was in use vary, but certainly from before Roman Times. It's likely to have been built somewhere between 3-6 centuries BC, and then been in use for a number of centuries.

    There are barrows on the headland, dating back further, to the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have also found remains of a bronze foundry and hut circles from this period. However some remains of settlements on the headland date back even further still, to Stone Age times: flint tools have been found that are estimated to be 6000 years old, from the Mesolithic period.

  8. Cross the bridge and follow the well-worn path to the steps at the top of the mound that you can see ahead on the skyline.

    Barrows are megalithic tombs constructed with stone supports and covered with a mound of earth. Archaeology has revealed that the ancient tribes of Cornwall practised burial of their dead. Important individuals, such as kings or tribal chiefs, were often buried in monumental tombs to indicate their significance. Valuable items such as weapons and jewellery were often buried along with the dead. However, many barrows have been subject to grave robbers over the ages, meaning much of this treasure has been lost.

  9. From the top of the mound, continue ahead down the far side and turn right to follow the path alongside the fence. When the fence ends, continue towards the area of exposed rock to reach a path that doubles-back to the right, immediately before this.

    There is a blowhole in the gully at the end of Porth Island, located on the longer right-hand side, opposite where the shorter side ends. At mid-tide, when there is a swell, the waves washing into the cave, compress the air and force a jet of water and compressed air through the blowhole with a roar.

    Blowholes form when waves enter a cave, and the air they compress weakens the roof of the cave and enlarges the chamber. Often the blowhole eventually breaks through to the surface, forming a collapsed cave which ultimately results in a rock stack being severed from the land.

  10. Turn right and follow the path back along the middle of the island, returning through a rampart to the gritty area with a bench alongside before the bridge.

    Promontory forts are only found in the South West of England and are thought to be introduced from Brittany due to the strong links between the Celtic communities. Although many do contain the foundations of Iron-Age roundhouses, it is thought unlikely that the wind-beaten areas on clifftops were permanent residences. Although the initial assumption was that the ramparts were purely functional and for defence, another possibility is that the ramparts were used as a status symbol, making a statement about the power and importance of the owners. If this were the case, the locations could have been used for a range of functions including religious, social, or trade.

  11. Cross the bridge and take the left-hand path to pass alongside a walled area and reach a waymark at a junction of paths at the end of the wall.

    As a wave approaches the beach, the bottom of the wave (which extends as far below the water as the crest does above the surface) starts to get close to the seabed and this begins to slow the wave down. As it slows down, its energy is transferred into increased height and the result is more closely-spaced, taller waves. The bottom of the wave now extends even closer to the seabed and is slowed even more. Eventually, the top of the wave outruns the bottom and the wave breaks. More sudden changes to depth allow the wave to get taller and steeper before it has time to break which is why "reef breaks" attract surfers.

  12. Turn right to follow the path back towards the information board (it used to be possible to walk along the cliffs instead but the coast path is semi-permanently closed due to a cliff collapse) and then turn left to re-trace your steps back to the kiosk by the road.

    During the Iron Age and even during Roman times, bronze was still used particularly for items such as jewellery. There were two reasons for this: unlike iron, bronze does not quickly corrode in air and water and the colour and lustre of polished bronze was more attractive than rusty iron.

  13. Turn left onto the path alongside the road and follow this back up the hill to the area with black bollards.

    In Cornwall, cliffs erode at an average rate of between roughly 3cm - 30cm per year depending on the hardness of the rocks and location. In reality this often happens in infrequent sudden collapses rather than as a steady, gradual process. It was found that one massive storm in 2014 caused around 100 times the average amount of erosion. There are obvious implications from climate change leading to more frequent or more intense storms.

  14. At the end of the bollards, bear left to the top of the steps to Whipsiderry beach then turn right to follow the coast path along the clifftops to reach a kissing gate.

    The island on Whipsiderry beach is known as Flory Island or Black Humphrey Rock. Books from the 19th and early 20th Century record tales of a wrecker called Black Humphrey who was said to live in the old mine-workings. So much of the mine workings on the beach and the island have since been eroded that it's hard to imagine how it would have looked hundreds of years ago. A verse is recorded about Black Humphrey based on ships being wrecked by the westerly gales:

    When the wind is from the west Pray for me among the rest; When the wind is from the east I’ll to church as soon as Priest;

    The alternative name Flory is thought to be a corruption of Phillory, but the significance of the name has been lost.

  15. Go through the gate and continue on the clifftop path until the path forks in front of a conical mound.

    The two large mounds alongside the coast path between Watergate Bay and Whipsiderry are Bronze Age barrows. A stone axe hammer from the Bronze Age was found in a burial cist next to one of the mounds.

  16. Take either of the paths around the first mound (the one on the left has the nicer views but is closer to the cliff edge), which rejoin at a waymark in front of the second mound. Then from the waymark, follow the path along the fence. Continue following the coast path until it eventually passes through a wall and then forks beside a waymark.

    Heathers and heaths are members of the Ericaceae family. The formal definition of a heather is a member of the Calluna genus within this family whereas heaths are members of the Erica genus. Bell heather is actually an Erica and therefore technically not a heather but a heath.

    Some weird and wonderful types of barnacle can sometimes wash ashore on the Atlantic currents.

    Goose barnacles are alien-looking creatures, usually found on flotsam such as driftwood that has been at sea for a while. In mediaeval times, before it was realised that birds migrate, it was believed that goose barnacles hatched into geese just before the winter. The association is thought to be based on similarities in the colour and the long necks of the barnacles. Since there were no plastic bottles or wellies floating in the sea back then, they were only ever seen on driftwood and it was assumed that the wood was already covered in the barnacles, laid by geese, before it fell into the sea. This elaborate lifecycle was also exploited as a "loophole" in religious doctrine which forbade the eating of meat on certain days. As geese were deemed "neither flesh, nor born of flesh", they were exempt and could be eaten.

    The buoy barnacle is a strange-looking blue creature that sometimes washes up on the shore in groups of a few at a time. It is a kind of goose barnacle but it excretes a substance which resembles expanding foam to create its own float. Several barnacles may latch on to the same float, each adding a bit of extra foam to it if they weigh it down too much.

  17. At the fork, take the larger gravel path on the right (the other is close to an eroding cliff edge) and follow this to return to Watergate Bay. There is an entrance into the beach car park tucked between the two Portakabins to save walking on the road.

    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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