Cornwall Coast Path - Portreath to St Ives

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This is a stretch of around 18 miles that takes in Godrevy and the great curve of St Ives Bay. The heather-clad remoteness of North Cliffs is followed by the extensive dunes of Gwithian Towans as the path slowly leads you to the attractive and bustling town of St Ives.

Portreath Harbour Wall and Beach

The village of Portreath is spread along a stream valley that leads away from another popular sandy beach with a prominent stack in the middle of the bay. Another favourite haunt for surfers, the beach can be busy in summer, although both the village and the beach tend to be deserted in winter. A former industrial port serving the copper and tin mining industry, Portreath was also home to an important pilchard fishery. Wooden ships were eventually rejected in favour of the larger steamships that could only use the port at Hayle and today the village depends on tourism and the nearby RAF station for its survival.

Ralph's Cupboard
Ralph's Cupboard

The path climbs out of Portreath by way of Western Hill (also called Tregea Hill). Wild flowers dominate in spring and summer. On over Carvannel Downs, home to the dauntingly inaccessible Ralph's Cupboard, about which legends abound. Some link the collapsed sea cave to smugglers, saying the cave was used to store treasure. Others say it was the home of a giant, known as the 'Wrath of Portreath' (possibly corrupted to Ralph), who used to throw rocks at passing boats, steal their treasure and eat their crew. Ralph’s cupboard and several more inaccessible caves along this stretch are used by a colony of grey seals, which can often be seen basking on the rocks at the base of the cliffs.

The footpath tightly hugs the coast, with a few steep ups and downs before the waterfall and stream at Porthcadjack Cove. A little out to sea is the striking Samphire Island, which was farmed for the wild Rock Samphire, a delicacy when pickled in vinegar.

Basset's Cove is named after the Basset family, lords of the manor during the lucrative mining years. The cove was once worked as a stone quarry, with the horse-powered winding gear also being used to raise the wreckage of the many ships that came to grief on this treacherous strip of coastline.

Secret Coves of North Cliffs
Coves of North Cliffs

The path follows the beautiful, remote and heather-clad North Cliffs, which offer superb views on the right day. A secluded, sandy beach at Greenbank Cove is followed by the nastily-named Deadman's Cove. The path runs alongside the road for a short while before heading out around a headland. An impressively sheer drop down to Hudder Cove is closely followed by an even more awesome drop down to Hell's Mouth. This is a fact not wasted on the several people who have committed suicide here.
There is a seasonal café at Hell's Mouth, whose proximity to the road makes it a popular haunt for tourists. The geology of the cliffs at Hell's Mouth has led to some interesting caves on the east side, which make a loud booming noise as they fill with surging waves. The waves compress air into cracks and cavities in the rock, causing further erosion. The cove, cliffs and two isolated stacks out to sea are popular breeding grounds for guillemots and razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes.

Fishing Cove and Cliffs Beyond
Fishing Cove

On around the cliffs to Fishing Cove, still popular with lobster fishermen, and Smuggler's Cove, where the winding path passes traces of North Cliff mine, where lead was extracted in the mid-19th century. On around a headland known as The Navax, or Knavocks, which, like most of this stretch, is owned and maintained by the National Trust. The Navax is full of wild flowers in summer and heather and gorse in autumn. The headland is sometimes grazed by Shetland ponies, and seals and porpoises can often be seen at the base of the cliffs and out at sea.

On to Godrevy Head, where the National Trust have done much to restore and preserve the natural beauty of the landscape. Seasonal toilets and a couple of low-impact cafes and car parks are all that detract from the magnificent views and sparse but colourful vegetation. A prehistoric burial mound was built here on the highest point, and the headland is also home to some crude earthworks thought to date back to the 16th century, when the threat of the Spanish Armada was ever-present.

Godrevy Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse - Godrevy

Godrevy Island, upon which sits the famous white lighthouse immortalised by Virginia Woolf in her novella, 'To the lighthouse', was the scene of a major shipwreck in 1649, when a ship carrying the garments and relics of the dead King Charles I came to grief. The lighthouse was built in 1859 in response to a public outcry about the number of lives lost at sea.

After Godrevy comes the long curve of St Ives Bay, which has been moulded into shape by long periods of geological erosion and is characterised by a sweep of sandy beach backed by extensive dunes, or Towans, as they are known in Cornwall. The beaches at Godrevy and Gwithian are very popular with surfers and windsurfers and pick up a lot of swell and also wind from the west.

Porthkidney Sands
Porthkidney Sands, Lelant

The path continues along the beach or through the dunes until the River Hayle presents an obstruction just before St Uny church in Lelant. Known locally as the red river, a reference to its colour during the days of intensive mining when the waters were stained red by the washings of tin ore, today's river runs clear but adds a few miles to the path. It is necessary to detour inland through Hayle, which has an array of shops and cafes and an excellent ice cream shop and pasty shop. Continuing back to the coast along the opposite bank of the river the path once again reaches the fascinating church of St Uny, this time without a river in the way. Follow along the side of the railway until eventually you meet some steep steps and the road at Carbis Bay. More steps and railway will finally bring you to another residential road. Follow this into the town of St Ives.