121 Gurnard’s Head to St Ives

The number 508 bus should take me back to the Gurnard Head Hotel. Unfortunately, Western Greyhound does not run a service on Sundays. (Why ever not?!) So I have an expensive taxi-ride from Penzance to Treen.

Too excited to look at my map properly, I head off along the nearest footpath, only to find I am nowhere near the sea and about to rejoin the main road. Wrong path! Never mind I take a photo of the hotel across the fields.

 Gurnards Head Hotel, Ruth coastal walk, Cornwall

Gurnards Head looks lovely and I am tempted to go and sit on the rocks at the end – a treat I missed out on yesterday. But I know the walk today will be challenging and I decide to get on with my trek.

Gurnard's Head and cows

My first waypoint is Zennor Head.

waterfall, Ruth's coastal walk, South West Coast Path, CornwallThere are two headlands and three coves to navigate before I get to Zennor Head. The sky is clear, the sea blue, and there is nobody else on the path. What a magical day!

I cross over a couple of streams, just at the point before they begin to tumble down the cliffs. It would be lovely to be out in a ship and get a better view of these waterfalls. I can hear the roar of the water as it crashes down towards the beach below, but I can’t see the falls themselves.

Lean Point, Boswednack Cliff, Porthglaze Cove, Carnelloe Long Rock, Veor Cove, Trewey Cliff, Zennor… The names on the map read like a poem.

On Carnelloe Cliff I stop to take a photograph of the view back to Gurnards Head, so named because it is supposed to resemble the gurnard, a fish that is described as ‘very ugly’ or, more kindly according to the BBC food guide, as ‘prehistoric looking’. I think it looks beautiful.

04 Gurnards Head, Ruth walking the coast, Cornwall

From Carnelloe Cliff onwards, I begin to see more walkers.  Zennor seems a popular place and there are holiday homes visible on the slope leading up to Zennor Head.
near Zennor, adder country, Ruth on the SWCP, Cornwall

The path winds away from the cliff edge, through long grasses, and it is here that I see something small and wriggly.

At first I think it is a worm, thrusting its head forward to try to get off the path, but a wide blade of grass acts as a barrier. But I see the characteristic zig-zag markings on its back. Not a worm.


Only a baby one. I step back (I am astride it) and swing my rucksack off my back and fumble to get my camera out but, before I have a chance to unzip my pack, it finds its way around the blade of grass and slithers off into the undergrowth.

This is the third adder I have seen. The first one was a fully grown male, the second a baby and this one, too, is just a youngster. But still, an adder!

A few minutes later I meet a man on the path. He is walking a terrier.
“I’ve just seen an adder,” I tell him.
“Well,” he says, “I’ve just seen a [he inserts the name of some random rare bird here].”
He has missed the point. This wasn’t a bragging game, but an attempt to prevent his dog from coming to harm.

Before I get to Zennor’s Head, the path dips down and crosses a stream. The walk up the other side is very steep and I am soon sweating in the growing heat of the day. The view from the top is marvellous. (There is good old Gurnard’s head again!)

view from Zennor Head, Ruth coastal walk, Cornwall

I stop for a drink, a rest, and take plenty of photographs.

Zennor Head, Ruth's coastal walk, SWCPZennor Head sign, Ruth's coastal walk around the UKA plaque tells me this land was gifted to the National Trust by someone who signed himself/herself as A.B. I can’t find any information about this generous person.

The rocks at the top are balanced on top of each other in a precarious manner.

Pendour Cove, mermaid territory, Ruth's coastal walk in CornwallLooking down from Zennor Head, there is a wonderful view of the cove below, Pendour Cove. On the other side, at the bottom of the cliff, is a cave. It’s dark mouth, with folded slopes above and dark rocks stepping out below, gives the place a magical and mysterious appearance.

Later I learn this little bay is known as the Mermaid Cove. According to the story, a mermaid heard a beautiful hymn being sung by a soloist in Zennor Church. She walked to the church and fell in love with the handsome young singer, Matthew Trewhella. He fell in love with her too, and followed her back to the sea. At sunset, you may sometimes hear him singing.

Looking forward, I gaze across the clear blue of Porthzennor Cove to Gala Rocks and Mussel Point beyond. The path is visible, a thin line dipping up and down. I have a long way to go before I reach St Ives.

 looking to Mussel Point, Ruth on SWCP, north Cornwall

On my map, I have marked this section with a scrawled word – “Tough”. The path plunges up and down, rollercoasting from the high banks above to the beach below. There is one part where you have to scramble across huge boulders at the top of the beach, hoping you will eventually pick up the semblance of a proper footpath on the other side.

path flattish, Ruth on SWCP in CornwallI sit on a rock, one of the few flat places I can find on the sloping shoreline, and have something to eat. The sun is hot and the grass around me dry. I suddenly realise the stone I am sitting on would make the perfect home for snakes. Once I have this idea inside my head, I am unable to relax and I jump up and eat standing up.

 path, not so flat, Ruth on South West Coast Path, CornwallFrom here onwards, I begin to meet other walkers and I realise that this stretch of the South West Coast Path, between St Ives and Zennor, is a popular route. After doing the tough part, following the coast, you can return to along the flatter, easier and straight-running  Zennor Churchway to St Ives, an ancient route known as the “coffin path”.

The walkers I meet are mainly couples and there is a pattern to their behaviour. The man is striding in front, carrying a small rucksack, the woman following behind, clutching water bottles.  They all look hot and bothered.

Ahead are a small clump of rocks in the sea – The Carracks. In the water below, a head pokes out of the waves. A seal. I take out my binoculars and watch the seal, who is soon joined by several mates. A boat has been hovering around the islands. I thought It was a fishing boat, but now I realise it is a tourist boat, bringing people to watch the seals. Through my binoculars I can see the animals lying on the rocky surfaces. Too far away for decent photographs. Shame.

The Carracks, Ruth walking the coast in Cornwall, near St Ives

A Dutch couple (man and woman) come along. I point out the seals. The man is unimpressed. He tells me there are too many seals in the sea because of conservationists. I think he calls them “the rats of the sea” – but I may have misunderstood.

Further along, I pass red-faced middle-aged woman, trailing behind her husband, who tells me I must bring plenty of water on this walk. “I’ve got plenty of water,” I say and wonder why she thinks I haven’t. Later I realise that she must have seen the empty water-bottle pockets on either side of my rucksack. (In my ignorance, I didn’t realise the purpose of these handy pouches and have filled them with useful things like lip salve and measuring string. I carry my water bottles inside my rucksack.)

I reach Trevega Cliff, above Carn Naun Point. In the distance, I can see a far-off coastline with what appears to be beaches. Beaches! That will make a change from rocks. Ahead lies an easy stroll across the side of a cliff, with farmland above.

 view from Trevega Cliff, towards St Ives, Ruth on the SWCP

From here on, I don’t meet anybody until I get to Clodgy Point. Coming down off the high cliff, I lose the distant view of the far shore. I was hoping to see St Ives by now, but all I see is green slopes, rocky coves and blue sea. The undulating ground, the low sun in my eyes, the absence of physical landmarks, and the lack of any sustained view ahead, makes for strangely claustrophobic walking.

DIY electric fence, Ruth walks the coast near Travalgan There is DIY electric fencing – the first time I have come across this form of ‘stile’. I reach out for the blue handle in some trepidation, but it works. No electric shock.

sign about the Bessemer City, Ruth coastal walkingAnd the landowner of the fields above has posted interesting messages on boards around the place. This one tells of a shipwreck and the scavenging of unlabeled tins. These little snippets of information help to break up the monotony of this particular stretch of the walk. (I am not sure why I find this part such hard going – it must be fatigue.)

I reach the high ground above Clodgy Point and suddenly there is St Ives ahead. Cream sands and blue sea and buildings and people. Behind there is another long stretch of sand.

St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, Ruth walking the South West Coast Path

I sit on a rock and admire the view and then head off towards the town along a path crowded with joggers and strollers, families and couples, groups of teens and babies in buggies and dogs. It is a shock, as always, to come down off a lonely path and find myself surrounded by people.


About Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.
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10 Responses to 121 Gurnard’s Head to St Ives

  1. jcombe says:

    The section of coast between St Ives and Penzance (via Lands End) is my favourite of the whole South West Coast Path. Rugged and remote, with some beautiful unspoilt beaches and attractive towns. I fell in love with St Ives the first time I visited and it remains my favourite town on the whole route.

  2. I agree it would be difficult to find anything more beautiful than this area. I might even be tempted to go back and do the walk again…

  3. mariekeates says:

    I’m surprised I’ve never seen an adder although I’ve done many, many hours of walking in the New Forest where they’re supposed to be common. I’m glad you made it to St Ives and sorry you had such trouble with the train. Relying on public transport is a pain.

  4. Dee Kysor says:

    Hi Ruth,
    I started reading your blog a few weeks ago. I live in the US. In Sept. 2009 my daughter and I hiked parts of the Southwest Coast Path in Cornwall. We loved it and I am really enjoying reliving some of it with your blog. Keep walking and blogging and having fun. Dee Kysor

    • Hi Dee and it’s very nice to hear from you. The South West Coast Path is wonderful, isn’t it? So glad to hear you came over and enjoyed your hiking trip. You’ll have to return and do the Wales Coast Path next!

  5. paul sennett says:

    Ruth… A question if I may… We are filling in a walk we missed on the sw path … Pendeen Watch to St Ives tomorrow.. you split this walk.. do you think it is doable in 7 hours in 1 day?

  6. Hmmm, I found this section tough, Paul. Yes, I think it’s probably doable, but you’ll have to keep marching. The only place you can buy a drink (if I remember correctly) is the Gunard’s Head hotel – assuming it’s still open – so take plenty of water with you.

    • paul Sennett says:

      Just finished it Took 10 hours For 14 miles The issue is the terrain.. easily the hardest coastal walk we have done so far.. much harder than Bide to Hartland

      Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

  7. Karen White says:

    Amazing views again. What a wonderful part of the coast.

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