25 Mar St Michael’s Way, Coast to Coast In Cornwall
13.5 Miles From Lelant to Marazion
The St Michael’s Way is one of those walks you can go back to again and again and not get bored. It changes dramatically from season to season, full of colour in summer and wild, desolate and windswept in winter. If you’re down in the far west of Cornwall, you should definitely hike this trail. I’ve walked The St Michael’s Way a number of times now and it never disappoints.
An Ancient Pilgrimage Route In Cornwall
The route follows in the footsteps of traders and pilgrims travelling from Ireland to mainland Europe who crossed Cornwall on foot to avoid the treacherous waters of Lands End. It starts on the edge of St Ives on the north coast and winds its way across the countryside to St Michael’s Mount (near Penzance) on the south.
There are around 13.5 miles of spectacular views and historical interest all the way, from pre-Christian myths and legends to neolithic tombs and early Christian shrines. The trail crosses Penwith, an area of rugged moorland and rocky granite outcrops that rise above small stone-bound fields, yellow with daffodils in spring, and scattered with ancient monuments to the west. It’s a stunning walk, one I highly recommend.
It was mid March and the Cornish skies were overcast and uninspiring on the day I hiked the trail for the first time…
The St Michael’s Way Trip Report
Peru Boots and Vaseline
I caught a train to the start of the walk near Lelant and as we lumbered into the station I scrabbled to get my boots on before it headed off to the end of the line in St Ives. The journey was quicker than I remembered and Lelant appeared just as I was just slathering my feet with Vaseline.
Contrary to what other passengers might have thought, I wasn’t planning to walk this ancient pilgrimage route barefoot...
My walking shoes had disintegrated in torrential rain so I resigned myself to wearing an old pair of mountain boots, my ‘Peru boots’ as I call them. I’d trekked the Inca Trail in them well over a decade before and kept them as a badge of honour. The sort of badge of honour you stuff into the back of a wardrobe never to see daylight again. I hadn’t worn them for years and the leather was cracked and stiff as a board. The Vaseline was intended to reduce any friction, so bugger the funny looks.
Hoards of people use the station in summer for to-ing and fro-ing to the beaches in St Ives, but it’s a desolate place as the last days of winter blow through. I was the only one there. I tied my laces and head off along the Hayle Estuary towards St Uny Church,the official start of the St Michael’s Way.
The St Michael’s Way And The Camino De Santiago
From Cornwall to Spain
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 headed 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 South West Coast Path runs 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 spring 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.)
Bullocks To Myths and Legends
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.
I missed the next stile too (although I later discovered it was more of a very miss-able hole in a hedge). A loose rabble of tiny lambs followed me down another steep hill. One I shouldn’t have been in.
Cows Can Run Bloody Fast!
Out of nowhere I was suddenly chased by a small herd of interested bullocks. 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 marked by rows of barbed wire so I vaulted into the safety of the enclosure. Seconds later the herd crowded it, sticking their heads through the rails, trying to get me!
I couldn’t fathom what the white painted building was. It was almost butted to the field edge with a long drop down to the 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.
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…
From the Bowl Rock I crossed the main road and headed uphill towards Trencrom. 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, High Point Of The St Michael’s Way
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. 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. 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 which lead 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. We looked at each other for a few seconds before it disappeared into the undergrowth again, young and full of vigour. I hadn’t seen or heard much wildlife at all that day, so I blamed the wind which seemed reasonable.
There’s a deep ford over the river at the bottom of the track. It marks the start of a section of muddy springs that wind their way through woodland to the church at Ludgvan. My feet were killing me now, 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 pilgrims.
The Saint Michael’s Way meets the main road to Penzance at Gulval. At this point I could have head straight to the railway station and a soothing foot-bath at home. I have an annoying stubborn streak though and was determined to walk along the beach to the official end of the walk 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.
It was given to the National Trust in the 1050’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 today though.
Wet, Sore Feet
The final section of the hike was a painful end to the day. The tide was in. I had to walk 2 miles along a concrete footpath to the sound of busy traffic, wincing with every step. The view of St Michael’s Mount drew me along. 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.
Take A Hike On The St Michael’s Way
Inspired To Walk It Yourself?
The official route is shown on OS Map Explorer 102.
Travel By Train
The train is the easiest way to get to the start of the walk and a return ticket also allows you to return from Penzance.
Take the train bound for St Ives from the mainline station at St Erth. Get off at Lelant Saltings then follow the estuary to the start of the walk at St Euny Church in Lelant. When you finish the trail in Marazion you can walk or take a bus to Penzance railway station and catch the train back to St Erth.More Cornwall
If you’ve got any questions about this hike, or you’ve already walked it, let us know below!