The 17-mile stretch between St Ives and St Just is arguably the most beautiful and certainly the most remote section of the entire coast path. It is also one of the most strenuous. There are precious few opportunities for refreshment and accommodation, particularly out of season, and the many steep descents and ascents mean that it will probably take longer than you expect to cover the distance. Be prepared! This is one of Britain’s first Environmentally Sensitive Areas, where annual grant aid allows participating farmers to work the land traditionally. Ancient field systems define a small strip of land between the sea, surging restlessly beneath three hundred foot cliffs, and steep rocky tors that represent the highest points in the Penwith Peninsula. This section is characterised by countless rocky headlands and coves and an overwhelming sense of space rarely found in today's Britain.
Either cut through St Ives, heading for the Tate Gallery, or go along the harbour and around the rocky promontory known as the Island. Either route will lead you to Porthmeor Beach, which sits just in front of the Tate. Pick up the path in a small car park that overlooks this popular sandy surfing beach that offers rare shelter from the prevailing south westerly winds. Bear right by the toilets and follow the headland away from the beach and the town, taking care not to accidentally take the path that leads inland at Clodgy Point. Follow the grazed cliffs around Hor Point, Pen Enys Point and Carn Naun until you reach The Carracks, a group of rocks less than half a mile offshore and home to a colony of grey seals.
Almost directly opposite the Carracks is River Cove, which sits at the mouth of a deciduous wooded valley that marks an important stopping place for birds of passage such as the Firecrest and the Marsh Harrier.
Continue along Treveal, Wicca and Tregurthen cliffs. The latter is owned by the National Trust and was home to the novelist D.H.Lawrence and his wife Frieda during World War One. At Zennor Head look out for Pendour Cove, linked to the myth of the Mermaid of Zennor who supposedly lured local boy Matthew Trewhella to a watery grave through her beauty and singing.
Lawrence raved about Zennor, calling it 'a most beautiful place, a tiny village nestling under high, shaggy moorhills, a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such lovely sea, lovelier than the Mediterranean….it is the best place I have ever been in' and the village, which has seen human settlement since the early Bronze Age (around 2000BC) is well worth a visit. A short path leads inland from the Pendour Cove and the village is home to a decent pub, the Tinner's Arms, the Wayside Folk museum, and even a privately run hostel.
Back by the sea the path continues west over high cliffs and past narrow coves to Boswednack, where prehistoric terraced field systems dating from around 40BC can be clearly seen. Continue past Treen Cove, the site of an old pilchard factory, and around Gurnard's Head, one of the most striking and beautiful promontories in Cornwall. The name in Cornish means 'Castle on a high place', and the remains of a fortified cliff castle dating from the 2nd century BC can still be seen, along with the remains of 18 hut circles. You can go around the promontory, where countless ships have been wrecked, cut across it, or venture a short distance inland to the Gurnard's Head Inn, which serves fine food and drink at all times of the year.
Now the strip of land between the sea and the rocky tors becomes narrower. Carn Galver and Watchcroft, at 816 and 826 feet respectively, loom dramatically, the rocky highlands strewn with loose pieces of granite and rich in archaeological remains giving this area an unmistakably distinctive atmosphere.
On to Bosigran, home of huge black cliff faces renowned among the climbing community. The most notorious of these is Commando Ridge, so called because of its association with the Marine Commando Cliff Assault Wing who trained here in the 40s and 50s. Remnants of mining activity are still extant at Bosigran. Two famous engine houses stand next to the road a little inland, while the coast path closely skirts the ruins of an old water mill.
Continue along high cliffs to the fine sandy beach of Portherras, an unpredictable shelving bay that can be extremely dangerous for swimming at certain times of the year.
The path leads up from the beach to the distinctive and attractive façade of Pendeen Lighthouse, which has been guiding ships through these treacherous rocky waters for more than a hundred years. The high cliffs prevent ships from being able to judge their position through sighting landmarks and the construction of Pendeen Watch, with its 17 meter tower, did much to protect seamen before the days of satellite navigation. Although the lighthouse is still in use, it has been fully automated since 1995.
Follow the road past the lighthouse for about fifty yards, heading west along the cliffs as it starts to bear away from the sea. On past Geevor, which was the last working tin mine in the area, only closing in 1990, and represents the largest preserved mining site in the UK. There is a shop, a café and an extensive underground tour through 18th and 19th century mine workings on the site, which is owned and managed by the local community. Even if you decide not to venture the short distance inland to the café the coast path is deeply affected here by former mining activity, with exposed mining debris on the ground, brightly coloured, mineral-stained rocks and countless ruined granite structures all contributing to the eerie sense of an industrial past of a scale barely imaginable.
Shortly after Geevor, and right on the path, is Levant, a newly-restored former mining centre owned and managed by the National Trust. The old steam engine is now fired up for public display at certain times. Levant was the scene of an horrific mining accident at the end of the 19th century when the mechanism for carrying the miners back up the shaft collapsed.
Continue along the cliffs to Botallack, where the local National Trust Headquarters is situated in the imposing Count House. Here there is an exhibition area with photographs and information about the route you have taken . At the base of cliffs at Botallack, although not actually on your route, are the famous engine houses of Crowns engine houses, which perch on astonishingly exposed rock-cut platforms. If you have the energy it is worth taking a hike down to the ruins to get a full sense of the extreme conditions under which the Cornish miners worked. There are countless other newly-restored mine buildings on these cliffs, including a fascinating maze-like arsenic works, which form part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape Unesco World Heritage Site.
Soon after Botallack the path descends into Kenidjack, a long river valley that was once an important industrial hub. More recently restored ruins provide evidence of this heavily industrial past, the most impressive of which being a granite wheel pit that housed a giant 65 foot water wheel, the 2nd largest of its kind in Britain
The valley ends at Porthledden Cove, a rocky shore with shallow pools that is renowned for diverse marine biological interest.
If the tide is out and you are fairly agile it is possible to continue over the rocks of Porthledden Cove (taking care not to slip on wet seaweed) to Cape Cornwall. If not, or if you fancy a bite to eat or a pint, head up the valley a short distance and pick up the path that leads into St Just, an attractive former mining town and home to a number of cafes, a supermarket, several pubs and the local secondary school.