From Penzance to Land’s End: A Very Long Hike in Cornwall
In May 2021 for the second May Bank holiday in the UK, I walked the paths of Cornwall with my 15-year-old daughter, who joyfully accompanied me in a countryside escape. This was our first trip post-lockdown. Both of us traveled with the freshest of eyes, as if we had been starved of nature for an eternity—which of course was how long the Covid lockdowns had lasted.
Walking 11 miles from the coastal city of Penzance to the westernmost point of Cornwall known as Land’s End via an inland itinerary was a conscious decision to travel slowly off the beaten track. It was a journey that most people could cover in a matter of minutes by car, taxi or bus, or avoid altogether. In Cornwall, the coastal route is deemed more attractive to tourists, offering dramatic sea views and ocean cliffs every step of the way. By turning our attention inland, we were hoping to go behind the scenes of postcard-perfect Cornwall, discovering where the true heart of the Celtic nation lies. From villages where people live, to places where crowds don’t go, to quiet lanes where prehistoric flora thrive––that was where we were going.
The journey was all that––plus an unexpected encounter with the most dangerous predators known to hikers.
Night Train to Cornwall
Getting to the Cornish coastal town of Penzance by sleeper train was part of the experience, an uncomfortable night starting with boarding a train at 11.45pm in London to find a couple of seats where we could lay down our heavy bags and hope to get some horizontal shut-eye before reaching Penzance. Much to our chagrin, we hadn’t scored sleeping berths and in train coaches with seats, ceiling lights never go out all night.
For safety reasons, they were always on and if light prevented you from sailing off in a wooden shoe like Wynken, Blynken and Nod, then you would be able to count every single station where the wheels of the train screeched to a halt and read every station sign even though you were not on the platform. Only eight hours long, the night stretched on forever in between cat naps.
When the train entered the town of Penzance at 7.50 am, I was relieved at the prospect that we would soon be out in the open. This had been a compulsory face mask train journey and the very thought of fresh air meant freedom. Cornwall, at last!
As my daughter and I exited the railway station, the first thing we did was remove our face masks. Deep breath, salty fresh air, seagull sounds. The train station in Penzance was so close to the harbor that we were able to put down our bags on a low wall, and for half an hour watched the city of Penzance come to life. Across the cove, we could see colorful boats bobbing up and down in the turquoise water, the square tower of the cathedral high on the hill where the old town is built, and the seafront wharf buildings on the promenade, all to a soundtrack of buses and cars just entering the city.
My daughter changed shoes and I slightly rearranged the contents of my backpack, heavy loads at the bottom, lighter loads up top. At 8.30am, we grabbed a hearty breakfast at the Quirky Bird Café before hitting the pavement.
Hiking from Penzance to Skimmel Bridge
From downtown Penzance, our hike through Cornwall was on. We started walking down the road leading to St Just and at a wide roundabout marking the edge of the city, tiptoed around a bit to find our bearings. Trees lining the road were in full summer foliage, as were thick hedges of low green bushes, and this made pathfinding a tad tricky. Fortunately, my daughter is a good navigator and spotted a teeny tiny path going up a hill onto a grassy meadow.
We left the sound of city traffic behind and resolutely followed a well-defined path that led us through open meadows and woodland into the countryside. For the first few miles, things logically fell into place and we were treated to a true late spring nature feast.
All around us, birds were in full late spring mode, to-ing and fro-ing in hedges to feed their chicks, who still depended on regurgitated worms to grow. Red kites, with their distinctive tail, flew high in the sky, scanning the ground for small mice. At ground level, the trail sides showed a profusion of green leaves and blue wildflowers, the last of the bluebells still reaching for the sky at the end of their tender stems. Even trees were in on the lush Cornish nature act, many of them clad in glossy ivy leaves.
After an hour’s walk around Dennis Place, we found swathes of the amazing Gunnera manicata, a gigantic rhubarb-type plant that was around when dinosaurs roamed the Cornish peninsula. These plants grow so tall in Cornwall that you could literally take shelter under a single leaf during a rainstorm and stay dry. Not technically trees, not ferns either, they are taller than most humans and are a wonder from a long-gone time. The only thing to look out for is not touching their long fibrous stem as it is very prickly. Admiring Gunnera manicata also provided a good distraction from finding the right direction, as we suddenly realized we were lost.
Where should we go, was it up the hill? Certainly not, a “Private do not enter” sign made that very clear. Was it further along the road, then? No that wasn’t it either, that was taking us back to where we came from. We almost reached peak confusion when fortunately, a Londoner recently relocated in Cornwall pointed us to a (well) hidden path behind a fence and saved the day. He also told us to keep our eyes peeled for the wonders of Skimmel Bridge and a fallen tree whose stump resembled a whale skeleton.
Sadly, a chainsaw must have preceded us because the whale tree was nowhere to be found. At Skimmel Bridge, a double-span 19th-century bridge overlooked a river lined on both sides by shaded woodland and ferns. With its singing birds and deep green vegetation pierced by glistening sunlight, this place was definitely fairy territory.
Hiking from Skimmel Bridge to Sancreed
From Skimmel Bridge, we carried on and crested a hill, looking for ways to cross cattle fields via the faint marks of diagonal paths. Tough luck, paths that were clearly marked on our map were nowhere in sight in the fields. Could it be that local farmers around Sancreed may have helped with this disappearing act? With little navigational clues to go on, we may have trespassed through a field or two to find a proper walking trail again. Sure enough for a random itinerary, some stiles were acrobatic to navigate with our bulky packs.
Ever the peaceful resting place, Sancreed Cemetery provided a lovely lunch spot and we even indulged in the luxury of sitting on a public bench against a wall facing the war memorial. After carrying a heavy pack for a few hours, taking it off brought our shoulders back to life.
It was also at that point that I realized that my feet hurt and already counted a few blisters. Why, oh why had I not checked my hiking boots at home? I might have removed the brand new orthopedic insoles and left the usual worn out soles inside. Too late now, I had to keep walking with my new insoles and break them in, or rather break my feet in at an uncomfortable angle inside familiar boots.
Hiking Hazards: Cows
Right after Sancreed, we almost had to abandon, find a long diversion or call a taxi. That was because of a serious obstacle on our path.
Now, on a scale of one to scary, the most dangerous predators known to hikers in Great Britain are not the most obvious. They even look deceptively docile and slow, probably to fool all of us into walking through them only to throw a fatal stampede.
Cows are dangerous killers and the numbers don’t lie.
Cows kill or hurt more humans than any other animal. In the UK, cows are a particularly big issue, as many hiking trails cross cattle fields and “Bull in field” signs are not uncommon on field gates or stiles. To put this in perspective, between 2000 and 2020, 98 people were killed by cattle in the UK and in 2018 and 2019, 43 incidents involved people being hurt or killed by cattle. In 2019, I was cornered by a herd of cows into a giant blackberry bush and only escaped by the skin of my teeth by crouching under the bush, crawling in the mud and running out back.
So yes, cows are scary and we were about to encounter some seriously scary cows.
After lunch, we still had about two thirds of the way to cover. From Sancreed, we hiked down and up a succession of fields delineated by dry rock walls and were about to reach the top of a hill when I spotted a herd of cows from afar. I cursed under my breath. As we got closer to the entrance of their field, all cows turned to us, turning not just their heads but their entire bodies, and congregated as one in our direction, coming from all corners of the field and even from the adjoining field to form an impassable bovine wall. Mind you, there was a bull in there too. They all stared at us intensely.
I always think of cows as organized crime on hooves. These animals really stick together and there was no way my daughter and I were crossing that field without a proper risk assessment. If we took two steps to the left, the whole herd moved two steps to the Ieft. Two steps to the right. Same reaction. The cows were mirroring our every move and it was very intimidating.
I ushered my daughter under the cover of a low tree, momentarily disappearing from the sight of cows behind a three-foot high drywall. We hoped that the cows would lose interest in us and sat on damp grass, enjoying the view from the top of the hill down to the valley. Much to our dismay, the ruminants followed the sound of our voices on the other side of the wall and we could hear them breathe and chew noisily a few feet away. The cows were standing their ground, and why would they not? It was their field and we were intruding.
What were our options? Turning back meant at least an hour’s detour, maybe longer and missing dinner on arrival in Lands End. As things were, we were already on a tight timing for dinner. Going through the field would significantly reduce our travel time if, and only if we made it across safely.
Google to the rescue. Cows being a known hazard to hikers, there must be discussions on how to avoid cows when hiking. I pulled out my phone and started searching. Sure enough, The Dangers of Cows: A Hiker’s Guide to Avoid Being Trampled to Death was a godsend read, though not very reassuring. “Another common risk factor is passing through a field in which there are calves present.” We peeked quickly over the wall and of course, spotted a couple of calves. To stay safe, the piece recommended to “never enter a field which has both cows and calves.” Obviously, this was exactly what we were about to do. On the upside, the piece mentioned that crossing calmly without brisk movements was the safest course of action. Several walking forums corroborated that approach. Fine. With that safety advice, I felt like we could attempt it. We would walk through a group of cattle in a non-menacing way, move calmly without running and use hiking sticks to keep the cattle at bay. Walk on.
We returned to the stile marking the entry point to the field and, facing the herd, walked slowly but surely onwards. Never had my heart raced so fast. The field to cross was only 100 meters long on grass but our five-minute walk felt like a swimming mile through treacle.
Hiking to Carn Euny
To add a historical element to our day, we took a detour via the Iron Age village of Carn Euny and absolutely loved it. Very few people would know of this place, despite Carn Euny being an ancient village that has puzzled archeologists for centuries. Setting down our bags at the entrance of the inside wall, we set off to explore the walled-in settlement. Among the best-preserved ancient villages in South West England, Carn Euny was occupied from the Iron Age until late Roman times and featured the foundations of stone houses from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD. At the heart of the village, we found its most intriguing feature – a stone-walled underground passage known as a fogou — and both crouched to walk through it and reach an underground circular room. Here was the mystery bit: nobody knew what the underground room was used for, nor what the fogou was used for, but both was very cool.
From the Iron Age village, a short track led to a holy well marking the site of St Euny’s Chapel, which was a lovely spot. However, the true belle of the ball was the village on top of the hill, its green grassy expanse and its underground structure. Stopping for a bit, we sat down on the outside wall and chewed on an energy bar while wondering about life before Romans invaded Britain.
Hiking from Carn Euny to Lands End
From Carn Euny, we crossed a moor with heather known as Tredinney Common, with clearly-marked trails leading westward towards the ocean. Heathland was the harbinger of coastal cliffs and the big blue sea.
Past the Bronze Age tumulus of Carn Brea, we reached a final hill where wild poneys were grazing, with a path leading us to St Agnes Beacon and the trig point. Now, St Agnes Beacon deserves a mention as a really special place to stop and embrace the coastal views at the end of a long walk.
There was once a chain of beacons that linked one end of Cornwall to the other. Traditionally they were lit to celebrate the midsummer solstice. An event that was revived by the Old Cornwall Society in 1929 and continues to this day.
The beacons were also used to warn of threats of invasion, such as the Armada, and for celebration. A K Hamilton-Jenkin described this system in his book Cornish Homes and Customs. The flame could be lit at Chapel Carn Brea near Lands End for example and then would pass from hilltop to hilltop––Castle-an-dinas, Rosewall, Trencrom etc––each signaling the next in the chain. The flame would pass across Cornwall in this way and could supposedly reach Kit Hill near the Devon border in just 20 minutes.
YHA Lands End
Beyond St Agnes Beacon, all we needed to do was find the best way to reach the YHA Lands End. That portion of the walk was arguably not the most scenic, along the airport field on tarmac, but once we found a narrow country road and the youth hostel, we had done it. After checking in our private room and having a shower, we stepped outside to relax on picnic tables overlooking the sea, two small islands and a cove. Drinking a craft beer (from Cornwall, of course) on a meadow white with flowering daisies, I reflected on our long hiking day.
By hiking, the slowest possible way to travel in Cornwall, we had discovered fairytale woodland and ancient villages, landscapes altered by man over centuries and historical mysteries. It was a true journey for unearthing secrets, quite literally unearthing by lifting dirt from the Earth with our hiking boots. Except for the cow encounter, this was a journey I would repeat any day––with the right footwear.