Cornwall on foot: clifftop hiking from St Ives to Penzance

Cornwall on foot: clifftop hiking from St Ives to Penzance

Deserted beaches and quiet coastal villages are just two of the perks to hiking from St Ives to Penzance outside peak season. 

Published July 17, 2023

7 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

On a blustery clifftop above a turquoise bay, I meet the second-smuggest person in England. He’s beaming from ear to ear, raving about the beaches and the views. It’s the final day of his late-February hike around the tip of Cornwall, he tells me, and he’s barely passed a soul. I’m walking the same route the other way. “We’re so lucky,” he says. “So lucky.”

Far below us, waves swirl against hunks of dark rock as gulls wheel over deserted sands. We look at the trail winding off to the east and west, the narrow path climbing over knuckly headlands and bracken-clad slopes. After chatting a while longer, we go our separate ways. If you’re wondering who the smuggest person in England is, incidentally, that’s me. I’ve got two more days’ walking to go.

It’s no secret that Cornwall is one of the most dazzlingly alluring destinations in the country, but this fact is both a blessing and a curse. Travel down here as a holidaymaker and you’re assured an abundance of coastal scenery, pretty fishing villages and a sense of salty-aired, tousle-haired release from the nine-to-five. ‘Cornwall isn’t a destination’, state the gift-shop T-shirts, ‘it’s a way of life’. The drawback is that its popularity can sometimes make parts of the county feel more like Piccadilly Circus than Poldark territory.

Overcrowding isn’t a problem, however, when summer is still many months away. I’ve arrived in the last week of February to spend three days walking from St Ives on the north coast to Penzance on the south, following a 41-mile stretch of the South West Coast Path as it wriggles around the Penwith Peninsula. Logistically, it’s a dream for those who don’t want to travel by car: I caught the Night Riviera sleeper down from London to disembark at St Erth — 10 minutes by rail from St Ives — in the early morning. The plan is to hike around Land’s End, then travel back on the same sleeper service from Penzance.

St Ives on a late-winter morning is quiet. A dog-walker strolls through the historical lanes, whistling. Delivery drivers stand and chat. A couple of independent cafes are doing a brisk trade in coffee and pastries, but that’s about it. I’ve been on these same streets in high season, when to mass excitement someone spotted Kate Winslet leaving a restaurant. Today there would be no one around to notice.

But what about the weather? This was my main worry about walking at this time of year. While December and January appeared foolhardy options, however, late February seemed less so. Spring comes early to the southern extremity of the mainland, and within 15 minutes of leaving St Ives I’m passing between flowering gorse bushes, filling my lungs with sea air. Stonechats hop from twig to twig as white-tipped waves roll in off the Atlantic. The day is fresh, for sure, but I’m soon so warm that I’m stuffing my hooded top back into my rucksack.

It doesn’t take long to realise the hike is destined to be unforgettable. For almost two hours I pass no one. The path sticks mainly to the high cliffs, with seascapes below. Every cove is a rocky, raven-flown theatre of beach and boulders. Two Roman-nosed seals appear in the swell; noisy waves smash into huge granite outcrops; a kestrel hovers over the clifftop in the breeze, defying physics.

This is how the days pan out. For long stretches the headlands and bays are washed in sunshine, creating ravishing scenes of empty sands. I follow the trail doggedly as it plunges up and down contour lines. At Pendeen it passes through old mineworks; at Porthgwarra, daffodils and dog violets nod in sheltered copses. I break my journey in both Pendeen and Porthcurno, sleeping like a man knocked out. Only around Land’s End, that perennial photo opportunity, do things feel remotely busy.

There are caveats to all the positives. Though it’s a tremendous walk, it’s a testing one, with lots of climbs and sections that are tough underfoot. Most of the cafes along the route are still closed for winter, meaning I need to stock up on snacks when I get the chance (pubs are a different matter: I find fine options in Sennen, Treen and Mousehole). Similarly, the operator that’s organised the trip doesn’t offer luggage transfers until March, so I’m carrying everything throughout.

Overall, however, the experience is nothing short of life-affirming. The Cornish cliffs are every bit as rugged, and the beaches every bit as golden, in the off season as in July — there are just fewer people around to enjoy them.

Published in the UK & Ireland supplement, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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