Zennor to St Ives coastal walk

Zennor to St Ives

A fairly demanding but rewarding one-way coastal walk, made circular via an initial bus journey, along the rugged coast between St Ives and Zennor, passing Seal Island which may have given rise to the legend of the mermaid of Zennor and - thanks to some imaginative naming - ice cream (Moomaid of Zennor). The walk is in the optimal direction to remove time pressure and for panoramic views across St Ives bay.

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The bus journey to Zennor is done first to eliminate any time pressure for the walk. The walk begins through Zennor and then meets the coast at Zennor Head. The route follows the coast path towards St Ives across the geological boundary from 400 million-year-old rocks to granite weathered over 275 million years into towering cliffs. As the route approaches St Ives, there are panoramic views across St Ives Bay to Godrevy lighthouse. The route then enters St Ives via Porthmeor Beach, the Island and two more beaches to reach the harbour before returning to the car park through the town.

Considerations

  • The coastal section includes some scrambles over boulders of varying sizes. Springs drain into a couple of sections of the coast path so the path and rocks are wet here.
  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 102
  • Distance: 7.7 miles/12.4 km
  • Steepness grade: Moderate-strenuous
  • Recommended footwear: Waterproof walking boots

OS maps for this walk

OS Explorer 102 OS Explorer 102 (laminated version)

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

Highlights

  • Rugged coastline between Zennor and St Ives
  • Panoramic coastal views from Zennor Head
  • Marine wildlife including seals, seabirds including gannets and coastal birds including choughs
  • Heather flowers in July and August
  • Sandy beaches of Porthgwidden, Porthmeor and around Carrick Du
  • St Ives historic harbour and buildings
  • Tate Art Gallery and a myriad of small galleries

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Hain Line
  • The Lifeboat Inn
  • The Sloop Inn
  • The Tinner's Arms

Adjoining walks

Directions

  1. Start by catching the bus from Trenwith Bridge in St Ives (turn left out of the car park, follow the road to the double roundabout and turn left to walk uphill to reach the bus stop just after the 2nd roundabout). Depart at the Zennor Turn bus stop and walk a few paces back along the road to the turning to Zennor. Follow the single track road towards the church until it ends in a T-junction.

    The name Zennor comes from St Senara, to whom the church is dedicated. There were no roads to Zennor until the 1800s so goods were brought here on sledges pulled by animals.

  2. Turn right at the junction and pass Bos Cres then turn left down the track marked "Coast Path". Follow this until it ends, with a small path leading ahead.

    The church building dates from Norman times, though the churchyard itself may date back further. The west tower is thought to be from the 13th century and the north aisle was added in a 15th Century rebuild. Only two of the 15th Century carved bench ends remain and these have been used to make the "mermaid chair", one end of which depicts the Mermaid of Zennor. It is thought that the octagonal font is mediaeval, and may date from the 13th century.

  3. Follow the path ahead to a stone stile.

    The twin promontories of Zennor Head are along the coast path to your right and the long, thin headland behind the headland on the left is Gurnard's Head, due to its profile being similar to that of the fish.

  4. Cross the stile to reach a sign for Zennor Head where the path meets the coast path. Keep right to join the coast path and follow it around the headland and behind Porthzennor Cove until it eventually ends via a few steps at a T-junction with another path at a granite waymark.

    As you follow the path from Porthzennor Cove to the junction, notice how the stones on the path change from hard fine-grained rocks to coarse-grained granite and the path starts to get gritty from weathered granite. The huge blob of granite that makes up most of West Penwith starts here, but didn't quite make it as far as Zennor Head. However, the heat from the molten magma, that eventually cooled to form the granite, altered the surrounding rocks.

  5. When you reach the junction, turn left and follow the coast path around the bay to the headland and to the back of the next bay until you reach a stile, located between two waymarks.

    In this area, magma was forced under high pressure between the surrounding rocks which created granite sheets, visible as light-coloured bands in the darker rocks. You can see these in the rocks on the point that you cross over before you reach Wicca Pool, where the main mass of granite meets the sea. At low tide, rows of granite blocks can be seen in the channels between the grey rocks which would have originally been a single tendril of granite that later cracked.

  6. Cross the stile and stream and follow the path until you eventually reach a stone stile.

    The dandelion-like flowers along the coast are most likely to be catsear, also known as false dandelion. Catsear is very salt tolerant, not only growing along the coast but actually in sand dunes. The easiest way to recognise it is by the hairy leaves, hence the name. If you can cope with the texture, the leaves are edible and are much less bitter than dandelion leaves.

    Another way to tell them apart is when they are flowering. Although dandelion flowers over quite a long period, the most profuse flowering is in April and May whereas catsear's intense flowering period is in late June and through July. Catsear has neater flowers than dandelion with squarer edges to the petals (but still toothed). The stems supporting the flowers are also solid, in contrast with the hollow stem of the dandelion.

    Along the coast, in the late summer and autumn, you can sometimes find parasol mushrooms, obvious from their huge size and umbrella shape. They are one of the best eating mushrooms and have firm white flesh.

    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.

  7. Cross the stile and follow the coast path until you reach another stone stile.

    Heather plants have a symbiotic relationship with fungi which grows inside and between some of the plant root cells. Up to 80% of the root structure can be made up of fungi. The fungi are able to extract nutrients from poor, acidic soils that plants struggle with. In return, the plant is able to generate other nutrients (e.g. sugars by photosynthesis) that are useful to the fungi. A similar partnership between plants and fungi occurs in lichens.

    In July 1916 a huge area of fog caused problems for shipping all along the North Cornish coast. The Neto - a 3000 ton steamship on its way to Cherbourg carrying hay and fodder for the British cavalry horses - ran aground on Gurnard's Head and was wrecked. As salvage work began, another large cargo ship - the Enrico Parodi - laden with coal, appeared from the fog and ran aground just 300 metres away on the Carracks Reef. The salvage crews immediately switched their attention to saving the Enrico Parodi as only the bow was grounded and there seemed a good chance of floating her off at high tide. However as they attempted to tow her off using a salvage ship, a minor leak in the bow split open and the ship began to sink rapidly. The ship was quickly abandoned and sank in the deep water off The Carracks.

  8. Cross the stile and follow the coast path until you reach a pedestrian gate.

    The rocky islands off the point are known as The Carracks.

    The Carracks are named after the Cornish word for "rock". The largest island in the group is sometimes known as "Seal Island" due to the grey seals that live there, and boat trips from St Ives can be seen visiting the island to see the seals. The group of smaller islands closer to St Ives are now known as The Little Carracks, but in the early 20th Century they were still known as Carrack-an-Heythen which is from the Cornish meaning "rock of the birds".

    The rocks on the point surround a rocky lagoon that is isolated from the sea at low tide. The kelp beds surrounding the rocks provide shelter for small pollack which can be seen quite easily from the rocks when the sea is calm.

    The Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust gather information about the numbers of seals in each location to study migration behaviour. Each seal has a unique pattern of spots which is like a fingerprint, allowing individuals to be identified so photos are also very useful.

    If you see one or more seals, take a photo if possible but never approach the seals to take a photo - use a zoom from a clifftop. Send the location, date, number of seals and photos if you have them to sightings@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk.

  9. Go through the gate and follow the path until you reach a granite waymark with three yellow arrows.

    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.

  10. Keep left to continue on the coast path and reach another junction of paths.

    The mermaid of Zennor is a Cornish folk tale, recorded in the 1870s. The story is of a beautiful and richly-dressed woman who occasionally attended services at St. Senara's Church and enchanted parishioners with her beauty and her voice, though they were intrigued that she never seemed to age over the many years she was seen. The mysterious woman became interested in a young man named Mathey Trewella - the best singer in the parish, and one day he followed her home and the two disappeared. Neither was seen again until a boat was anchored near Pendour Cove and a mermaid appeared, asking the crew to lift the anchor as its fluke was resting on her door and she could not reach her children. The crew recognised the mermaid as the mysterious woman who had sung at the church.

    The story is thought to have been inspired by the carved bench end in the church, rather than the other way around (some versions of the legend say that the church carving was created to celebrate the mermaid).

    More about the Mermaid chair.

    Stories of mythical half-woman half-fish creatures date back over 3000 years to Ancient Assyria and Greece and have been part of English culture for over 1000 years. The word "mermaid" comes from the old English word mere, meaning sea. Before the mid-19th Century, dugongs and manatees were routinely referred to as mermaids by mariners although in Cornwall, the most likely creature to be attributed to being a mermaid is a seal. The U.S. National Ocean Service felt it necessary to state in 2012 that no evidence of mermaids has ever been found.

  11. Turn left and follow the path downhill through a gate and down some steps to a footbridge. Cross the footbridge and walk a few paces to reach another junction of paths. Keep right and follow the path uphill to reach a trig point.

    The name "chough" is from the bird's call although this is not that accurate as "chough" is more like the sound a jackdaw makes (a very short "chu"). Locally, choughs were known as "chaws" which is a better representation of their (much longer) sound.

    The old Cornish name for the bird is Palores, meaning digger, which is thought to be a description of it rooting for invertebrates.

    The scientific name (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) means "fire crow" which is likely to be an allusion to its red bill and legs. This possibly also relates to the birds' mischievous reputation during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods for stealing lighted candles or embers and dropping these onto roofs, which were generally thatched in Cornwall at this time.

  12. Continue on the coast path to reach a junction of paths with a waymark post on the right.

    The process of placing trig points on top of prominent hills and mountains began in 1935 to assist in the retriangulation of Great Britain - a project to improve the accuracy of maps which took three decades.

    The brass plate with three arms and central depression was used to mount a theodolite which was used to measure the angles between neighbouring trig points very accurately. These angles allowed the construction of a system of triangles which covered the entire country and provided a measurement system accurate to around 20 metres.

  13. Bear left and follow the path along the coast to reach a metal kissing gate.

    Known as the "Merry Harvesters", the stone circle beside the Coast Path is reported as being fairly recently constructed to resemble one of the ancient stone circles, although many of the ancient circles were themselves reconstructed in Victorian times: The Merry Maidens near Lamorna Cove even gained an extra Maiden during its Victorian reconstruction.

  14. Go through the gate and turn right to follow the well-worn path. Stay on the main path (ignoring paths leading onto the headland on the left) to reach a wooden gate across the path.

    The northwest-facing coastline of Penwith was particularly treacherous for shipping. The high cliffs along the coast prevented ships from being able to see the lighthouses at Trevose Head or the Longships. From Cape Cornwall, the wall of granite runs towards the rocks of the Wra, or Three Stone Oar, off Pendeen, some of which are just below the surface. The cliffs continue all the way to St Ives, and part-way along is the protruding Gurnard's Head which was another major hazard for shipping.

  15. Go through the gate and follow the path along the coast until you pass beside a towering rock outcrop, cross a wall and shortly after reach a fork in the path.

    If you encounter what looks like a small snake on the coast path with a golden-coloured stripe along the length of its back, it's a slow worm.

    During the summer months, slow worms can sometimes be seen basking in the sunshine, particularly on pieces of stone which act as a sunbed. Being reptiles, they don't generate their own body heat so they need to get it from an external source. Despite their resemblance to snakes, slow worms are lizards that have evolved to lose their legs. They are a good example of convergent evolution, where quite unrelated groups of animals have evolved to fill a similar niche. Slow worms are surprisingly long lived, and may exceed 30 years of age in the wild and over 50 years in captivity.

    Sea foam (also known as "spume") is formed due to organic compounds known as surfactants present in seawater. Under turbulent conditions, the surfactants form persistent bubbles which float to the surface, stick to each other through surface tension and are driven onshore by the wind. The surfactant compounds themselves arise from processes such as the offshore breakdown of algal blooms.

    On beaches, sea foam can conceal deep pools and gullies with an apparently flat, uniform surface. Tread carefully, especially on beaches you don't know well, to avoid walking off the edge of a precipice or vanishing into icy cold water.

  16. Bear left down the outer path and follow this around the headland until you reach a fork in the path where a tiny stream crosses the path.

    The foundations of an engine house are all that remains of the mine buildings which were once on Hor Point. The mine worked a copper lode which is exposed on both sides of the headland.

  17. At the fork, bear left towards the rock outcrop and follow the path until you reach a grassy area just after the rocky causeway ends.

    At Hor Point, a radar station was built during the Second World War to monitor shipping and low-flying aircraft. The stations required the antennae to be swung back and forth to detect reflected signals. These were originally powered by members of the Women's Auxiliary Airforce mounted on wheel-less bicycles which chains attached to a gear system, but were later replaced by electric motors. After the war, in 1945, the radar station was disposed of using explosives, reducing it to rubble which rolled down the hill. Chunks of the debris are still on the coast path and in the undergrowth above it.

  18. In the grassy area, bear left to follow the main path over one low wall and continue to reach a second low wall.
  19. Keep right after the wall to pass the rock outcrop. Once you cross the brow of the hill, bear left towards the rock platform and then make for the red lifesaving buoy beside the sea. Follow the path along the edge of the coast towards St Ives from the buoy to reach a waymarked kissing gate.

    The beach ahead is Porthmeor, which has a typically functional Cornish place name, meaning "big cove".

  20. Go through the gate and follow the path until you reach a fork in the path beside the Porthmeor Bowling Club.

    In January 1938, the SS Alba was on its way from Italy to Wales and sheltering from a gale but mistook the lights of Porthmeor for those of St Ives and ran aground. The St Ives lifeboat was launched and rescued 23 crew from the ship but then capsized and was washed onto the rocks. The lifeboat crew were all rescued but five of the Alba crew drowned. The boilers from the Alba can be seen on Porthmeor beach at low tide. Bomb disposal experts were acquainted with them in 2012 after they were mistaken for an unexploded sea mine by holidaymakers unfamiliar with Cornwall's metallic shoreline fixtures.

  21. Keep left at the Bowling Club to follow the small path ahead. Continue until this emerges onto the pavement of the road.

    The Holy Well of St Ia (Venton Ia in Cornish) is a spring located opposite Porthmeor Beach, below the churchyard. The spring has been incorporated into the stone walls that surround the cemetery and now consists of two recesses each containing a trough of water. The resulting frenzy of stonework has been described as not one of the prettiest holy wells in Cornwall, despite the effort that must have gone into it. A plaque states "The holy well of St Ia, until 1843, the main water supply to Downalong" (the name for this area of the town).

  22. Join the lane and follow it downhill, past The Tate, to reach a junction with a cobbled street.

    During Victorian times, open air painting became popular and the scenery and mild climate of St Ives generated a reputation as the ideal place for marine painting (of the decorative rather than boat-keeping kind). Once the railway was completed in 1877, St Ives became more accessible. Around this time, the pilchard industry was in decline which resulted in many unoccupied net lofts, cellars and workshops. These became converted into artists studios, with the first recorded in 1885 which had been converted from a sail loft. In 1920, Bernard Leach arrived and went on to make St Ives internationally famous through his pottery. St Ives has continued to attract artists and is now considered to be one of the most important art centres in Britain. In 1993, the St Ives branch of the Tate Gallery opened (named after the sugar magnate Henry Tate of Tate and Lyle). Since 1978, there has been a St Ives September Festival which runs for 15 days during which many artists open their studios to the public.

  23. Keep left at the junction in the direction signposted for St Ives Museum and then stay on the lane. Follow it around a bend to the right and along a short cobbled section to reach Quay Street near the pier.

    Smeaton's Pier was constructed towards the end of the 18th Century and was originally about half the current length, ending with the lighthouse. In the 1860s this was extended by adding a wooden pier (which was even longer than the current one) but this had collapsed within 20 years. The remains of the wooden supports can still be seen at the lowest point of the tide. Finally the stone pier was extended at the end of the 19th Century and the three arches were added so that sand could flush out from the harbour to prevent it silting up.

  24. Turn right onto Quay Road and follow this along the harbour to reach the Lifeboat Station.

    The Sloop Inn, which lies on the wharf, is dated to "circa 1312", which makes it one of the oldest inns in Cornwall. The building is likely to have been rebuilt a number of times over the centuries and the current structure is thought to date from the 17th-18th century. It is described by Lonely Planet as "a classic old fishermen's boozer, complete with low ceilings, tankards behind the bar and a comprehensive selection of Cornish ales."

  25. Continue ahead from the Lifeboat station on the path along the sea front to reach a lane beside Porthminster Gallery.

    St Ives has had a lifeboat since 1840, though the original was a rowing boat launched from the harbour. In 1867, the RNLI relocated it to Porthgwidden beach and built a boathouse for it. This was not well thought out as launching through the surf proved near impossible and so it was quickly replaced by a building in Fore Street. In 1911, a new boathouse was built on the quay which was better suited to launching the lifeboat which had become motorised by this point. This was finally replaced with the station you see today which was built in 1993 to accommodate a larger modern boat.

  26. Turn right onto the lane and follow this to a crossroads. Cross the road opposite signposted to Visitor Information (Guildhall). Follow the lane past the Guildhall to a junction.
  27. Bear left across the road at the junction to the small lane to the left of the building opposite with lanes either side. Follow this until you reach a concrete ramp on the left, leading to the police station.
  28. Bear left up the path alongside the ramp and climb the flights of steps to emerge on a residential road.
  29. When you reach the top of the steps, turn right onto the road and follow it until you reach a car park on the left with a path signposted to Trenwith car park
  30. Bear left up the path to the Trenwith car park and follow it until you reach a signpost for Leach Pottery.
  31. Turn left up the small path beside the signpost to reach the pedestrian crossing to the car park.

    The large car park in St Ives was once the site of Wheal Trenwith which was mainly a copper mine, although a small amount of tin ore was also extracted. Amongst the copper ore was a black crusty ore that miners thought was copper oxide, but smelting it proved unsuccessful so it was discarded on the waste tips. It was identified as pitchblende (a Uranium ore, containing other radioactive decay products of Uranium-238) but it was seen of no value. An account from 1843 states:

    Pitch-blende occurs in great abundance among the copper ores of Wheal Trenwith, and was long carefully collected, and thought to be black copper ore. The low prices obtained for the ores with which it was mixed, and the inferiority of the metal they yielded, equally disappointed the miner and the copper-smelter; until a specimen of the copper was examined by Mr. Michell of Calenick, and found mixed with uranium in a metallic state. The ores were then inspected, and pitch-blende being discovered among them, its nature and prejudice to the copper ores were explained to the workmen, by whom it has been, of course, since rejected. Was there ever an instance in which an acquaintance with Mineralogy and Chemistry would have been more useful ?

    By 1907, the economic value of radium was well understood and waste tips were being worked for this valuable ore; small pockets were also extracted from the shallower areas of the mine. Between 1911-1917 there were 694 tonnes of uranium ore recovered, mainly from the waste tips. There are reports that pieces of the pitchblende ore can still be found around the edges of the car park today. It is radioactive so handling pieces of the black rock is not advised.

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