The Saint's Way

The Saint's Way, or Forth an Syns, is a long-distance footpath that cuts right across Cornwall from Padstow on the north coast to Fowey on the south. Roughly 27 miles long, the route only came to light in 1984 when local ramblers investigating public paths found a series of forgotten granite stiles. The footpath features historic remains, ancient footbridges, old tracks and fascinating churches and passes through a rich and varied landscape of valleys, woodlands, pastures, moors and ancient field systems.

Helman Tor Sunrise
Saint's Way passes over Bodmin Moor

There is no actual historical evidence of a cohesive pilgrim's route here, although sections of the trail are known to be ancient paths connecting shrines, standing stones, Neolithic hill forts, holy wells, chapels and churches that would certainly have been used by the early saints and missionaries. However, the route, which, is also known as the Mariner's Way, is likely to have first been used by early Celtic traders. Gold travelled from Ireland through Cornwall and Brittany to the Mediterranean and it is thought that Egyptians, Greeks and Phoenicians journeyed to the west coast of Britain even before the Iron Age in order to trade with the Celts. During the 5th and 6th centuries the Anglo Saxons pushed the Celts further and further to the South-West, at the same time that Celts fleeing the yellow plague in Wales arrived in Cornwall. The large numbers of people arriving in the county are thought to have followed the trading routes to Brittany where land was more plentiful.

As these early traders and migrates were crossing the Irish and English channels in flimsy wooden coracles it made sense for them to avoid at all costs the treacherous waters around Land's End with their dangerous currents, rocks and pirates. Moreover, before the Rivers Camel and Fowey became silted up due to tin mining activity they would have been navigable much further inland, leaving just a four mile gap. Hence the development of the cross-country trail now known as the Saint's Way.

Restormel Castle
Restormel Castle

Copper was later to be traded along the same routes as gold and it is thought that until the Dark Ages (around 900 AD) Cornwall held more links by sea with Ireland and Brittany than it did with the rest of England. Restormel Castle, also known as the Castle of the Black Prince, gives further evidence of the importance of this trading route, overlooking as it does what would once have been the highest navigable route on the River Fowey.

Today's Saint's Way begins in Padstow at the 15th century church of St Petrock. The path follows the Camel trail before heading up onto St Breock Downs, which is presided over by a 16 foot prehistoric standing stone. From here the trail heads south to Withiel, a parish with links to a 4th century Irish saint whose name, Urel, is derived from a word meaning 'a place of trees' although there are precious few trees there today.

The route makes its way from Withiel to the larger parish of Lanivet, whose 15th century church of St Nivet is supposed to stand in the exact geographical centre of Cornwall. The parish takes its name from the Celtic words 'Lann' meaning church site and 'Neved' meaning pagan sacred place, which suggests that the site had religious significance long before the arrival of the Christian missionaries. Lanivet, which marks the halfway point of the Saint's Way, was once home to 11 copper mines, all of which have long been closed. Continuing south the route heads up to Helman Tor, a nature reserve overlooking the marshy ground of Red Moor. Helman Tor, which has a rocking stone just below the summit, is home to a Neolithic hill fort of the rare and distinctive type discovered by archaeologist Roger Mercer in the late 1970s. This type of fort is called a Tor Enclosure and consists of large hilltop or hillside enclosures situated near natural rock outcrops and surrounded by at least one circuit of stone-built walls.

The path heads south-east from Helman Tor towards Lanlivery, where the church of St Brevita, a saint about whom nothing is known, boasts a tower 100 feet high, the second highest in Cornwall. Just in front of the church is the 12th century Crown Inn, which was extended to house the stonemasons who built the church of St Brevita. There has been an inn on this site since the 12th century and much of the present building dates back to this time, with the slate floors, open fireplaces, low wooden beams and thick granite walls typical of ancient Cornish buildings.

The route continues from Lanlivery to Golant, a small waterside village on the banks of the River Fowey that has associations with Kenneth Graham and the story of Tristan and Iseult. The east bank is owned by the National Trust and it is said that Kenneth Graham wrote 'Tales of the Riverbank', the precursor to The Wind in The Willows, after a trip along this river in 1907. Golant lies in the parish of St Sampson, whose life is one of the earliest recorded of all the saints. Sampson travelled from Dublin to Wales and then on to Cornwall, probably utilising parts of the Saint's Way. He established for himself a church after having made a shelter near a holy well which can still be seen by the south door of the church. Legend has it that the church of St Sampson was the site of the tragic wedding between King Mark of Cornwall and Iseult, who was by then in love with Mark's nephew, Tristan. From Golant the path follows the river until it meets the sea at Fowey.

The Saint'sWay is covered by the OS Explorer sheets 106 and 107 and the Landranger sheets 200 and 204. Access by rail requires changing at Liskeard for stations to Lostwithiel and Fowey. Leave the A30 at Bodmin for Padstow. There are a number of accommodation options along the route including a youth hostel in Golant. The walk is normally split into three sections of roughly nine miles each and expected to take three days.