02 Jul Padstow To Fowey On The Saints’ Way – My Solo Hike
The trail starts in Padstow on the north coast then winds its way 30 miles across the countryside to Fowey on the south. Most people have heard of Padstow and some people have heard of Fowey. But practically no-one has heard of the places in between! So I was keen to head off for an overnight adventure to find out what The Saints’ Way has to offer.
The story begins in the small harbour-side town of Padstow, where early pilgrims arrived by boat from Ireland and Wales, on their journeys to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I, however, arrived on the number 11A bus.
Padstow, Where The Saints’ Way Begins
But Not Without A Cream Tea!
Padstow has a couple of things to commend it, including the attractive harbour and the mouth of the river Camel on the coast path. But one thing I can never miss out on is cake at Cherry Trees Coffee House. The bus rolled into Padstow at 2:15, late in the day for the start of a 30 mile overnight hike, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. I reckoned that if I started walking around 3:30 I’d manage about 4 hours hiking before I needed to find somewhere to pitch up. Decision made. So one cream tea in front of me, faster than you can say ‘cream-tea-jam-first’, and I was in heaven.
And with my belly full, the sun shining and the first Saints’ Way signpost easily located I was in a great mood and ready to get going. I followed the sign and headed up a wooded footpath out of Padstow. It lead towards an obelisk at the top of a steep hill, where panoramic views fell away below me.
1 (Mad) Buzzard
On The Offensive
Everything was lush and verdant for the first few miles of the hike: the beginning of summer had definitely arrived in Padstow. But summer in Cornwall doesn’t come without it’s trials. Especially on a hike that wends its way across farmland, and my first reckoning was on a woodland track. I came down the path to a stream at the bottom of the wood and heard the cries of a buzzard. This isn’t unusual in Cornwall, so I thought nothing of it.
But as I came out of the wood into an open field she flew very close above me, screaming then soaring off ahead. I assumed she was after some prey in the grass, but as she rounded and came back at me, lower again, I realised I was the prey she had in mind! And the third time she dive-bombed me I could almost touch her.
A rush of adrenaline flooded through me and my heart began thumping loudly: there I was stuck in the middle of an open field with no cover and a massive bird of prey having a hissy fit above me.
I’ve been attacked like this on two previous occasions (by the same bird, but not near Padstow!) and I can assure you it bloody well hurts when their talons skim across your head! So I marched on, hoping I’d get out of her territory before she had another go. She probably had young nearby, and sure enough she soon disappeared back into the wood.
1 (Dangerous) Herd
Keeping An Eye On Me
But it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. No sooner than I’d crossed the field I came to a stile, and on the other side of it was a herd of cows grazing with their calves – right across the right of way. Cows and their calves are a potentially dangerous combination because, once again, the mothers are very protective of their young.
I hesitated: should I go back and risk the wrath of a crazed buzzard or go ahead and risk trampling by a herd of marauding cows?
I decided to go ahead and judged the safest way was to ignore the right of way and edge my way around the perimeter of the field. Then I could jump over the boundary wall if they came towards me with menace in their eyes! I looked at the map and there was a stream I could follow back to the footpath at the top of the field. A reasonable diversion I thought. In theory…
In practice the stream was a knee deep bog overgrown with thickets of hawthorn, scrub, bramble and nettles. And the boundary wall was a couple of metres the other side of it, topped with barbed wire. And, imprinted into the periphery mud were the ominous tracks of cows… My heart started thumping again and all I could do was edge my way around as close to the scrub as possible. With every snap of twig and squelch of bog at least one of them stopped chewing, raised its head and watched me carefully until I passed by. I couldn’t get out of the field quick enough. And when I finally did I was covered in scratches, stings and stinking mud.
A field of huge bovine beasts is a concern for any solo hiker, because the reality of being crushed with no-one around is all too real. (The ‘cow situation’ seems to have got much worse over recent years don’t you think?) I got back on track relatively unscathed and the relief brought my heart rate back down… As long as I didn’t dwell on the fact that there might be more to come! But the only thing of any concern over the next few miles was where I was going to sleep that night.
St Breock Downs (And A Lump Of Old Rock)
Men Gurtha (Stone Of Waiting)
I had a few more miles to go before then though. Otherwise I’d have a seriously long day 2, and I wanted to savour it not march it! But I had time for a rest stop and that was at Men Gurtha, a neolithic standing stone on St Breock Downs. The Downs offer fantastic open views and the landscape is full of reminders of a long lost history. As well as Men Gurtha, Cornwall’s largest and heaviest standing stone, there are barrows, standing stones, settlements and a stone row in the area. And I reckon that if you don’t have time for this particular hike it’s well worth a walk out to the Downs from somewhere like St Issey (west of Wadebridge) instead.
I sat leaning against the stone, soaking up the atmosphere and let my mind drift. But the surreal sounds of the nearby wind farm were intrusive, and heightened by the buzz of an aeroplane. Some sounds are still alien to me, like the turbines, but it bothers me that we’re so desensitised to the sounds of machines. It’s become hard to block out the noise and just hear nature, but it’s all I want to do. Particularly in a place like this, with its timeless, ancient connections. It was time to stop pontificating because I had practical matters to attend to: where was I going to sleep?
1 Wild Camp, 11.5 Miles From Padstow
Becoming A Vagrant
It’s never that easy to find a wild camp spot on a trail like this, and it usually involves retracing your steps for half a mile. Or more. You walk along and notice somewhere that has potential but think there might be somewhere better ahead. So you walk on. And on. Then you notice the light’s falling and you’re hungry. And that’s when you decide to walk back to the last place you saw. Which in this case happened to be a scrubby little verge at the junction of a farm track and a narrow tarmac lane.
To pitch up here required a bit of nettle and bramble bashing, but the spot was tucked away and pretty sheltered beneath some trees. The ground was stony and ‘rooty’ though, so I spent longer than usual trying to get my tent pegs to stay in the ground. When I was finally inside and tucked up in my sleeping bag I felt like a vagrant, close to the road hoping no-one would spot me. But I drifted off to the rhythmic sound of a nearby wind turbine and slept soundly.
I woke up to heavy rain pounding the tent in the morning, although I had no idea what time it was. It was light, but my phone battery had run out on St Breock Downs and I hadn’t brought a spare pack (which meant no more photos). I love not having a watch and using my body clock or the position of the sun to get an idea of time instead. But I wasn’t going to see the sun on a morning like this and my body was telling me to go back to sleep.
The rain had stopped by the time I started walking. And not far down the narrow lane a farm lorry came passed forcing a dog walker and me into close proximity in the hedge. We passed the time of day and as we parted she told me it was ten past nine. Which was the perfect time to begin the day’s 17.5 mile hike.
Plenty Of Spectacular Views To The Coasts Of Padstow And Fowey
And Summer Solstice Celebrations
There was a lot of tarmac on the mid section of the walk, very narrow, often single track lanes, with glimpses of countryside over the colourful hedgerows. And although I’m not a fan of tarmac (at all – it’s hardly wild is it!), it was good to know I wouldn’t have to worry about cows! The highlight of the day, as far as I knew, would be Helman Tor and I was really looking forward to another visit for the atmosphere and far reaching views.
I was about to climb over a stile to the top of the Tor when a car stopped beside me in the single track lane. I assumed the old couple were lost, but no. They, were random. “There’s a choir up there tomorrow”, they nodded to me. Smiling. Pardon? “A choir. On top of the Tor. We’ve just been up to the car park to make sure it’s clear. People been up there and burnt a pallet. Nails everywhere. I got it all in the back, going to get rid of it at ‘ome. What are people like these days?” Umm, a choir on the Tor? “Ess, longest day”, said the woman, leaning across her husband. “We’re singing. Tis the church choir. There’s cream teas back at the church afterwards. The choir starts at 2 o’clock, then it’s back for cream tea”. Oh, solstice, ok. “Ess, tis a tradition to sing on the Tor for solstice. Been going for years.” Right. Ironic, but not unusual. It delights me that Christians still celebrate Pagan rites. And it seems fitting for The Saints’ Way.
I promised to spread the word and they pootled off to who knows where. I rather wish I’d been around to hear the choir, their voices carried off on the wind.
A gale was blowing at the top near the trig point, cold, but clear and the views out to Bodmin Moor were spectacular. Rough Tor and Brown Willy (Cornwall’s highest point) dominate the skyline and I sat and watched dark clouds roll across them and drench the hills with sporadic rain showers. I ate my unexciting lunch in the lee of a boulder, then went back down to pick up the path for the next section to Crift.
The track to Crift has got to be my favourite part of the walk, in summer at least. It’s lined with high hedges full of tall foxgloves and red campions, and it feels like walking through a secret tunnel (an open topped one!). And that day there was just me, the birdsong, the sweet smell of honeysuckle and dog rose, blue sky above and nothing but the path ahead, which I shared with the butterflies. The track was like a motorway for meadow browns, flitting about ahead of me at waist height, chasing each other along. So many of them that it was an absolute joy to be part of.
Later that day, after a coffee stop at the Crown Inn in Lanlivery (one of the oldest pubs in Cornwall that dates back to the 12th century) I passed through another tunnel. This one lead down a steep and secluded track, and it couldn’t have been more different. The openness of the summer sky was gone and the light filtered through a canopy of old beach and oak trees, where birds called warnings to each other. There were sounds of scurrying in the leaf litter too and I wondered what was afraid of me. I was disgorged into the light, off the tactile stony track onto more tarmac. And the only good thing about these narrow tarmac lanes (apart from them being pretty much cow-less!) is that traffic is sparse, which meant I could push up the hills in a world of my own.
St Sampson Church, Golant-By-Fowey
The next field to cross was a sharp incline to a small gate in the top corner. And I crossed it warily, eyed by horses and goats. From there I dropped down to St Sampson Church where I spent a while admiring the carved medieval ceiling bosses and stained glass. There’s been a church on the site since St Sampson arrived from Wales in the 12th century. And a hermit was living there before him. I pondered the way we’re all embeded into this history of people walking, on a pilgrimage of one sort or another, whether it’s for religious faith or seeking meaning and solace in nature and landscape. (I know which camp I’m in.) We’re all part of that history from early pilgrimages, to the 18th and 19th century Romantics venturing into the mountains to experience the sublime.
On that thought I wandered on through the small, affluent village of Golant admiring the quaint cottages and expensive cars. (It’s curious how the homes of the previous rural poor have become the preserve of the wealthy.) Then I headed along a beautiful wooded track beside the creek, up over more fields. And, eventually, down into the ‘ancient town of Fowey’.
Fowey, Where The Saints’ Way Ends
But Not Without Chips!
I pushed against the flow of tourists still out late in the day, along the estuary and narrow streets to a ‘posh’ fish and chip shop (another contradiction if you ask me!), where I bought an underwhelming bag of chips and a very tasty pickled onion. The chips were wrapped and I planned to eat them at the bus stop, because without my phone I had no idea when the next one was due. I rushed up a short sharp hill, then I saw a bus about to leave. I ran as best I could, flailing my free arm, thinking that most bus drivers actually enjoy driving off when they see someone struggling to get to the stop. But not this one. He waited, smiling. And he said my chips smelt wonderful.
I got home a few hours later on a real hiker’s high and totally rejuvenated after weeks of flu. And I wanted a whole lot more…
Thanks for reading, and happy hiking!
Take A Hike From Padstow To Fowey
Plan Your Own Hike On The Saints’ Way In Cornwall
Do you want to walk from Padstow to Fowey on The Saints’ Way too? If you’re inspired to give it a go head on over to to the Saints’ Way page in the Walking Routes section for more details. I think you’ll love it!