Cornwall feels a world away from the rest of the UK, surrounded by the sea on three sides and almost cut off from neighbouring Devon by the river Tamar. The river marks a natural boundary between the two counties, rising barely four miles from the north Cornwall coast and flowing 61 miles to the south coast at Saltash on the Cornwall side of the border (Plymouth on the Devon side).
The dramatic coastal landscape of Cornwall draws visitors like bees to a honeypot, clustering around pretty villages and small coastal towns. The drama and wildness of the cliff tops and the sweeping sands of long, pristine beaches take your breath away, but
outside of the honeypots the coastline is the preserve of serious hikers and walkers, due in large part to the challenging terrain.
And there’s another aspect to Cornwall that most people ignore: the glorious and varied inland walking available. The county boasts thousands of miles of Rights of Way to explore (2,239 miles to be precise (3,603km)) and for the most part they’re pretty underpopulated, which makes it easy to get away from it all even in the busy summer months. There are paths that hug tranquil creeks, waymarked trails that cross the county from coast to coast, farmland, mining trails, rivers and woodland, and of course the moors.
Bodmin Moor and West Penwith offer the opportunity to find some remote wildness, with rocky tors and granite outcrops studding the ancient landscape. Bronze age field systems, megaliths, stone circles and burial chambers can be found in their 1000s across the 2 moors, often within easy walking distance from each other and even on a sunny summer’s day (when everyone else heads to the coast) you can often have the most impressive ones to yourself. Discover more below.
Cornwall has a granite spine that stretches from Lands End through St Austell and up to Bodmin Moor where a string of granite outcrops (Tors) appear to burst and bubble through the land, especially on higher ground where the landscape becomes wild and rugged. The stone has been quarried for centuries, and towns, villages and hamlets are never without a typical granite cottage. Cornish granite has been used far and wide too, notably for monuments like Tower Bridge and Nelson’s Column in London.
It’s this unique geology that shapes the coastline with the dramatic cliffs, coves and harbours that make it famous. A hike on the South West Coast Path will take you through Millhook Haven on the north coast where the zig-zagged cliff faces will leave you in awe, and through Cligga Head near St Agnes where greisen veined rocks reach for the sky beside the path. A walk around Kynance Cove on The Lizard (on the south coast) will reward you with finely figured red and green serpentine rocks, which are the resulting evidence of the movement of tectonic plates, where the earth’s mantle was thrust up to the surface. It’s a humbling experience to walk in these places, but the interior landscape of Cornwall has a lot too offer too.
The characteristic small, meandering patchwork fields that shape the Cornish countryside are the result of the ancient enclosure of medieval strip-farming, when strips of land were combined and bounded with stock proof Cornish hedges. Some field systems in the far south west are thousands of years old and still being farmed; take a walk on one of the coast to coast trails like The Saint Michael’s Way and discover the landscapes most casual walkers ignore.
Cornwall has over half of the South West Coast Path National Trail to call its own, that’s 300+ miles of coastline to explore. Our coast is full of rich history, fascinating geology, extraordinary wildlife and landscapes, and offers everything from strenuous cliff climbs to easy stretches of sandy beaches and estuaries.
Discover more here:
South West Coast Path
Hikers on the SWCP will see iconic Cornish engine houses clinging perilously close to the edge of cliffs at places like Botallack and St Agnes; ‘bricks and mortar’ evidence of Cornwall’s industrial past. Intensive mining for tin and copper has left the landscape scarred with stories to tell of wealth, boom and bust and an international reputation for the people and expert skills the industry produced, including engineer and inventor Richard Trevithick and the notable chemist and inventor Humphrey Davy.
Then there’s the stuff of myth and legend from Tintagel Castle to the giants of St Michael’s mount, as well as evidence of the harsh reality of WWII D-Day embarkations at Turnaware and Mount Edgcumbe. There are the routes of pilgrims and 18th century travellers and the legacies of innumerable artists, writers and poets (and their characters) who lived, worked and were inspired by Cornwall, its people and the extraordinary landscape.
There are some fascinating wildlife habitats in Cornwall, and the Cornish hedge is unique among them. Walk along any lane or field-edge and you’ll see stone faced hedges, sometimes large enough to support oak and sycamore trees as well as the characteristic wind-blown hawthorn. The Cornish hedge isn’t found anywhere else in the UK and supports a plethora of wildlife from small mammals, insects and birds to a diverse and colourful range of wildflowers. In upland areas the hedges can look like ribbons weaving across the landscape, painted with a slick of gold when the gorse is in flower.
If you like to watch the birds when you’re hiking you should plan a trip in October, when the annual migration often brings rare species to the coast, blown off course on their long journeys south. There are two RSB reserves including the Hayle Estuary and Marazion Marsh, which both hug the coast so that even the casual coast path walker has the opportunity to spot something extraordinary.
As well as creeks, rivers, marshes and rock-pools, all full of life, you might even be lucky to see seals, dolphins or basking sharks out in the bays in summer. But summer’s just one season of delights…
Clear blue seas
Heather and Gorse