St Michael’s Way (A Stunning Coast To Coast Walk )
St Michael’s Way – updated May 2021
The St Michael’s Way
A Superb 13.5 Mile Walking Trail In The Far West Of Cornwall
The St Michael’s Way is a coast-to-coast trail you can go back to again and again and not get bored. The trail begins on the north coast of the South West Coast Path and finishes on the south:
It starts at Lelant near St Ives and finishes at St Michael’s Mount in Marazion near Penzance, winding across the landscape with views out to the north and south coasts most of the way.
The scenery changes dramatically from season to season: full of colour in summer, and wild and windswept in winter. So whatever time of year you’re down in the far west of Cornwall, I highly recommend you give it a go. I’ve walked The St Michael’s Way a number of times now and it never disappoints.
What Is The St Michael’s Way?
The trail was established in 1994 and crosses Penwith, an area of rugged moorland and rocky granite outcrops, connecting holy wells and churches, neothilic sites and scattered ancient monuments
It follows an extensively researched ancient pilgrimage route from Ireland to Santiago Cathedral in Spain, and the St Michael’s Way meant travellers could avoid the treacherous seas off Lands End by crossing Cornwall on foot. Local historians and The Council of Europe pieced the route back together in the early 1990s and it was officially opened by the Spanish Ambassador in 1994. It still stands as Britain’s only designated European Cultural Walk today.
The St Michael’s Way And The Camino De Santiago
If you’ve walked one of the increasingly popular long-distance trails on the Camino De Santiago (The Way of St James) you’ll recognise the clamshell way-marker along the St Michael’s Way too.
The Camino is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and converge in the cathedral in the Spanish city of Compostela De Santiago. But it’s not so well known that you can begin your hike here in Cornwall.
One of the Camino routes, The Camino Ingles, was too short to qualify for an official completion certificate awarded by the Compostela. However, it’s been agreed that you can now include the St Michael’s Way as part of The Camino Ingles, because the two trails combined make the total of a required 100km (62m) walk. As such you can now get a St Michael’s Way passport and collect the stamps you need to qualify along the way.
But the St Michael’s Way isn’t just for modern-day pilgrims: it’s for anyone that loves treading in the footsteps of the people that shaped this dramatic landscape. (As well as anyone that loves the myths and legends built up around it, including stories of giants – and monuments to eccentric Mayors!)
My First Walk On The St Michael’s Way
I’ve walked this trail a number of times now, as I mentioned earlier, but like most things we do, it’s the first time we do it that sticks in the memory. And walking this trail was no different…
Disintegrating Boots and Vaseline
The best way to get to the start of the walk is to take a train to Lelant, which was a pretty desolate place as the last days of winter blew through. And I was the only one to alight on this particularly miserable grey day.
I’d had an issue with my hiking shoes that morning so made a decision to wear an old pair of mountain boots instead: my ‘Peru boots’, as I call them. I’d trekked the Inca Trail in them well over a decade before, and kept them stuffed in the back of a wardrobe because I couldn’t bear to part with them. They weren’t in great condition (the leather was cracked and stiff) so I wasn’t expecting a comfortable walk on this trail. But I was in the mood to go so I slathered my feet in Vaseline in a bid to stave off blisters. And I’ve got no idea why, but I’d decided to do it on the train: I can still remember the looks today.
I tied my laces on the platform and head off along the Hayle Estuary towards St Uny Church, the official start of the St Michael’s Way.
Here’s The Church And Here’s The Steeple
St Uny Church
I went through the gate into St Uny churchyard where the grey medieval church hunkers down near the cliff edge and a stark, bare tree, bent with the wind, tells of strong winter gales.
I sat there quietly for a while watching the white-topped sea and the fast-moving clouds steaming inland before I head off under a small arched railway bridge and onto the South West Coast Path.
The view across the Hayle Estuary is breathtaking, with a sweeping 10-mile vista from the lighthouse at Gwithian to the beaches of Carbis Bay and St Ives.
The trail follows The South West Coast Path for 2 miles between the single-track railway to St Ives and a large golf course sheltered by the dunes. When the tide’s out you can walk along the beaches, but I stuck to the dunes to enjoy the yellows of the hedgerows and shelter from the wind. After 2 miles The St Michael’s Way heads inland and then sharply uphill to Knill’s Steeple.
The steeple is an 18th-century monument that you can see for miles around. John Knill, who was the Custom’s Officer and Mayor of St Ives, had the 50-foot high monument built in his own honour for his future mausoleum. Hubris clearly went to his head because he also stipulated (in his will) that a pageant from St Ives to the steeple should be held every 5 years:
“This includes dancing for 15 minutes to the tune of ‘All People That On Earth Do Dwell’ by 10 young girls under the age of 10 and who traditionally have to be the daughters of either fishermen, tinners or seamen. The girls are accompanied by 2 widows, the Mayor, the Customs Officer and a Master of Ceremonies.” (St Ives Town Council website)
Random. And definitely eccentric. But even more bizarre is the fact that the good people of St Ives still honour this tradition! (Good luck with finding a tinner these days, mind.)
A Wrong Turn
The prickle of enjoyment began to grow as I looked at the windswept scrub that stretched out from the steeple. The muddy tracks and paths seemed to radiate downhill like veins in a leaf. I made my way down to a quiet back lane and followed the route until the path on the ground disappeared.
Rerouted paths can be a pain in the arse, a bit like blindly following a diversion sign on a motorway. I crossed the pathless field and climbed over a rickety, rusty 5-bar gate onto a farm track, only to see a wooden stile all of 2m to my left. The trail crosses a road here and then over another (obvious) stile into yet another field. A loose rabble of tiny lambs followed me down the steep field: one I shouldn’t have been in. I should have crossed what looks like a hole in a hedge made by animals, but there was no sign indicating that so I carried on down the hill with the lambs in tow (always look at your map!).
Bullocks To Myths and Legends
(Cows Can Run Bloody Fast)
Out of nowhere, I was suddenly chased by a small herd of interested bullocks. And decades of experience told me I wasn’t going to shake them off. Small herds are so used to human contact they latch onto you like guided missiles, and this lot didn’t put the brakes on.
My heart was racing and the only refuge I could see was a strange-looking fenced-off building not much bigger than your average shed. The field boundary was ahead but it was marked by rows of barbed wire, so I vaulted into the safety of the weird enclosure. Seconds later the herd crowded it, sticking their heads through the rails trying to get me! (Hoping I had food, no doubt.)
I couldn’t fathom what the white-painted building was. It was almost butted to the field edge with a long drop down to a road (you’d need a rope to get down). The fence that surrounded it didn’t have a gate and the only way in was to climb over.
Safe! Until I realised the only way out again was back through the field and the buggers had no intention of sodding off. I stood there waiting for them to get bored and saunter away. They obliged by chewing the cud just a few feet away, and they were still at it 15 minutes later.
‘Out of sight out of mind’ I thought, as I tucked myself in behind the building. Sure enough, they eventually wandered off. After 20 minutes I finally climbed out and ran along the boundary to a bank that looked like it had been climbed over more than once before. Finally, I was back on the right track, pulsing with adrenaline and feeling good.
The Bowl Rock (owned by the National Trust) was at the bottom of the track beside a busy road.
The Bowl Rock
The Rock is a smooth, rounded 9′ high granite boulder. It stood out like a sore thumb on the edge of a pond in a patch of lawn filled with pink and yellow primroses (the photo below shows it in summer). Odd as it is, I wondered why the National Trust would bother to claim it as it’s own.
But, The Bowl Rock is the stuff of myth and legends and the National Trust isn’t averse to a few of those. The Rock is, of course, the plaything of giants…left there after a game of bowls. From the Bowl Rock I crossed the main road and headed uphill towards Trencrom.
Trencrom Hill, High Point Of The St Michael’s Way
There’s a neolithic enclosure and Iron Age hill fort at the top of Trencrom, which is a prominent 550m hill. But first, there was another herd of cows to negotiate – thankfully they were dairy and disinterested. The ground bubbled with granite outcrops the closer I got to Trencrom. On the slopes to the top there were glimpses of the spectacular views that were promised from the fort above.
Trencrom Hill (also called Trecrobben) has been owned by the National Trust since 1946. Lieutenant Colonel G L Tyringham donated the freehold to commemorate the Cornish men and women who gave their lives in the two world wars.
It’s a wild place littered with granite tors and hollow topped slabs with names such as The Giant’s Chair and the Giant’s Cradle, and folklore abounds in these parts. Legend has it that the Giant of Trencrom threw a hammer from the top of the hill to the giant of St Michael’s Mount, which accidentally hit and killed his wife. They buried her at Chapel Rock in front of the Mount.
As well as myths and legends, Trencrom shows tangible, archaeological evidence of the banks of a Neolithic enclosure and Iron Age hut circles, demonstrating how important the hill has been for thousands of years.
Spectacular Hilltop Views
The wind was strong on the summit, cold enough to burn my cheeks. The skies were a blanket grey but visibility was good and 360-degree views lay below – and I felt like a bird on the wing. You can see from coast to coast up there, the waves rolling in along Carbis Bay on the north and there on the south coast the distinctive shape of St Michael’s Mount. Carn Brea, another prominent, monument-crowned hill near Redruth (and another great walk), is away across the Hayle Estuary on the eastern horizon.
Down below on the slopes of Trencrom I took in the views of an old engine house, ramshackle fields and rough moorland.
I tucked myself against a rock for shelter from the wind, determined to have lunch with a view. As I sat there looking out towards the lighthouse at Godrevy my mind went off on a random journey of its own. Imagination is fierce in ancient places and I tried to get a sense of what it might have been like to live in a hill fort, at the top of some godforsaken place exposed to the wild weather. Remote and harsh.
I picked my way down through tall, solid cairns until I reached a narrow tarmac lane that leads to a group of cottages and an old chapel. From there the St Michael’s Way meandered off across fields again, some full of wavering daffodils, with occasional tantalising views of St Michael’s Mount along the way.
Following The St Michael’s Way In Pilgrims’ Shoes
A tunnel of blackthorn hid a steep muddy track down to the Red River at Boskennal. A fox ran out right ahead of me and we looked at each other for a few seconds before it disappeared into the undergrowth, young and full of vigour. I hadn’t seen or heard much wildlife at all that day so I blamed the wind, which seemed entirely reasonable.
There’s a deep ford over the river at the bottom of the track that marks the start of a section of muddy springs. They wind their way through woodland to the church at Ludgvan and my feet were killing me at this point, aching like mad with the inflexibility of my mountain boots. I looked at the map and could see there was a fair amount of tarmac ahead of me. My heart sank as I plodded on to the next church at Gulval, mumbling about “bloody pilgrims”.
The Saint Michael’s Way meets the main road to Penzance at Gulval, and at this point I could have head straight to the railway station and a soothing foot-bath at home. But I have an annoying stubborn streak and was determined to walk along the beach to the official end of the trail at St Michael’s Mount. (Despite having walked along the beach more times than I can remember.)
St Michael’s Mount
St Michael’s Mount is a distinctive small island in Mounts Bay close to the shore of Marazion near Penzance. It seems to float in crystal clear waters, but at low tide you can walk there along a stone causeway. The Mount was given to the National Trust in the 1950’s by The St Aubyn Family who still live in the castle and jointly manage the island today.
The legends of miracles, mermaids and giants, make it a destination for tourists from far and wide. It’s a place full of historical treasures and stories too, from the War of The Roses to Gainsborough paintings.
Not for me on that day though.
Wet, Sore Feet
The final section of the hike was a painful end to the day. The tide was in so I had to walk 2 miles along a concrete footpath to the sound of busy traffic. But the view of St Michael’s Mount drew me along, wincing with every step. I tried to distract myself by thinking about the arduous journey those early pilgrims and traders took.
The distraction worked for a while, until I finally got onto the shingle beach and had to cross a deep stream. I tip-toed my way across, unsuccessfully. My feet sank into the ice-cold water until they were soaked through and I might have enjoyed it in other circumstances. But the prospect of squelching about for the next couple of hours didn’t do anything to lighten my mood. I sat near the causeway for a while before I head up to Marazion and the nearest bus-stop to Penzance.
Once I’d dried out at home (and put my Peru boots in the back of the wardrobe where they belong) I knew that would be the first of many times I’d walk the St Michael’s Way.
And, so it was. In comfortable shoes.
Thanks for reading!
Use the info below to plan your own hike on the trail, but feel free to leave a comment with any more questions about it. If you’ve hiked it already, let us know what you think!
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Take A Hike On The St Michael’s Way
Inspired To Walk It Yourself?
(Details below updated in May 2021)
The official route is shown on OS Map Explorer 102
Note: there are two official endings to the walk and the one I took on this route is a mile or two longer (route 1). It does involve a walk on a path beside a busy road, but if the tide’s out you can walk along the beach. At the end of the walk you can either catch a bus to Penzance railway station from Marazion (St Michael’s Mount) or walk back along the beach again.
The other route (route 2) takes you across Marazion Marsh, which is a wonderful place for bird-watching, but it involves a railway crossing and crossing a couple of busy roads. Once you get to St Michael’s Mount you have the option to catch a bus to Penzance railway station or walk there along the beach as you do in the first option (albeit only once and in the opposite direction).
Having walked both endings, I definitely prefer route 2 through Marazion Marsh and back to Penzance along the beach.
Follow the links below to my fully waymarked OS route maps where you can download the GPX files (free)
Outbound To Lelant
- Take the main-line train (between London Paddington and Penzance) to St Erth. Change at St Erth for Lelant (on the St Ives branch line). Check the train times.
- Alternatively, if you wish to travel by car there’s a park and ride at St Erth railway station and you can take the train from there.
Return From Marazion Or Penzance
- The First Kernow U4 leaves from the centre of Marazion to Penzance bus and railway station (main-line to Paddington). Alight at St Erth if you used the park and ride.
NB It’s worth knowing that you can buy a return ticket to St Ives but actually come back from Penzance on the same ticket.
- Small shops and cafes in Lelant and Marazion
- Full town amenities in Penzance (and St Ives) – I recommend a drink (and a meal!) at the Admiral Benbow