An island castle on a bay of beaches and rocky coves
The rocky shore of Mount’s Bay is broken by a succession of coves, linked like beads on a chain by the switchback course of the coastal path. A complete change of mood is provided by The Loe, a tranquil lake surrounded by footpaths, which probes inland towards Helston. There are plenty of places to surf and swim. On many beaches east of St Michael’s Mount, however, the shore shelves steeply and bathing is dangerous at low water.
ST MICHAEL’S MOUNT
Like a giant sandcastle, the granite island rises 300 ft from the waters of Mount’s Bay. A real 14th-century castle caps it. Possibly the Romans shipped tin from the island, then called Ictis; certainly in 1135 a Benedictine priory was built on the summit.
The island was later fortified, and in the 14th century a new church with a battle-mented tower was built. Since 1679 St Michael’s Mount has been the home of the St Aubyn family, but it now belongs to the National Trust and is open to the public.
A causeway, revealed at low tide, or a ferry links St Michael’s Mount to the mainland village of Marazion. There is safe swimming from the gently shelving sandy beach west of the causeway. To the east stretches a string of rocky bays, best seen from a path which runs along the clifftop through an avenue of tamarisk and sweet-smelling alexanders.
SAINT’S ISLE The priory on St Michael’s Mount is dedicated to the Archangel who is said to have appeared to local fishermen in AD 495.
Colour-washed cottages descend the slopes towards the half-mile strip of Perran Sands. To the south-east, gorse blazes on the cliffs above Stackhouse Cove; the long headland cutting off the view is Cudden Point, on whose rocks many ships have foundered.
This jagged cleft in the coast has an eerie black opening leading right back into the slaty cliffs. There is a slipway used by a few small fishing boats. A lane signposted from Rosudgeon on the A394 leads to a car park, from which the cove can be reached in about 10 minutes’ walking.
The cove gets its name from a smuggler, John Carter, who was known as the ‘King of Prussia’. Carter is said to have borne a likeness to Frederick the Great, but another explanation of his nickname is that the king was Carter’s hero in boyhood games. An inn, also called ‘King of Prussia’, which stood at the head of the cove in the 18th century, was owned by Carter, who used his job as a cover for smuggling on a grand scale. His activities included the mounting of a battery of guns on the cliffs around his inn -ostensibly to ward off French privateers but also, it is said, to frighten off Revenue men. More recently, in 1947, the rocks of Prussia Cove claimed the latest victim of many ships wrecked on the Cornish coast over the centuries when the 30,000 ton Warspite was blown inshore while being towed to a breaker’s yard. The ship was pulled off the rocks – only to go aground again at Marazion, where she eventually broke up.
The popular holiday village overlooks a sandy strip 1 mile long, with a backing of high dunes. The western end of the beach is sheltered from westerly winds by the cliffs of Hoe Point; but there are prominent warnings against bathing at low tide.
At the eastern end of Praa Sands there is an easy escape from the crowds by a path up to Lesceave Cliff – 13 gorse-covered acres owned by the National Trust.
The engine-house and chimney of Wheal Prosper, an old copper mine partially restored by the National Trust in 1970, stand on this granite headland as a memorial to Cornwall’s mining days, from about 1750 to 1870. A car park 100 yds above the mine is reached by a signposted road off the A394.
Half a mile further east along the coast path are the ruins of another copper mine, Wheal Trewavas, perched on the steep granite face of Trewavas Head. The miners tore the metal ore from lodes running out under the sea, until the water broke into the workings and closed the mine in 1850.
HELSTON HAILS SUMMER
Helston’s annual Flora Day on May 8 starts at 7 a.m. when the first column of dancers weaves through the streets and in and out of offices and shops to the tune of the well-known Flora Dance. There are dances by costumed figures bearing branches and by children dressed in white before the principal Midday Dance in full morning dress. The ceremony may have originated in a pagan summer festival.
The little town, set between steeply enclosing banks, stands on an attractive section of the coastal path, and has an unexpectedly big harbour. Built in 1811 to import mining machinery and export copper and tin, this now gives haven to small boats with brightly coloured sails. Trailer-borne craft can be launched at high tide; the harbour dries out at low tide.
Despite the calm of Porthleven’s inner harbour, this is a tricky section of the coast even for experienced sailors. A memorial on the cliffs just west of the town honours 22 Porthleven fishermen drowned at sea between 1871 and 1948, and also the many unknown mariners whose bodies have been cast up on this part of the coast.
A freshwater lake more than a mile long is the centrepiece of the 1,600 acre Penrose Estate, owned by the National Trust. Miles of paths wind beside The Loe and its offshoot Carminowe Creek, through woods carpeted with bluebells in spring.
The Loe was formed in the 13th century when a natural sand-bar dammed the River Cober, and gradually a long bank of shingle – today’s Loe Bar – was formed. In olden days locals had periodically to dig a channel through Loe Bar to prevent the pent-up waters of the Cober from flooding Helston; today the flow is controlled by a culvert.
Many ships have come to grief on Loe Bar. They include the frigate Anson which in 1807 was driven on to the sands; 100 men died within a stone’s throw of the shore. Among the crowd who watched the vessel being dashed to pieces was Henry Trengrouse, who the following year invented the rocket apparatus for throwing a line to a ship in distress – a device which, with some improvements, is still used today. The original can be seen in Helston Folk Museum. On the cliffs east of Loe Bar is a memorial to the victims of the 1807 disaster.
The traditions of this song-famed ‘quaint old Cornish town’ are kept alive by the annual Flora Day held usually on May 8 to celebrate the coming of summer. Church bells ring, houses are decorated with greenery and hundreds of local dancers follow the town band through the streets to the tune of the Flora, or Furry, Dance.
Helston was granted its first charter by
CHURCH ON THE BEACH The tiny 15th-century church of St Winwaloe, at the edge of Church Cove, has a separate belfry some 200 years older, built into the cliffs 14 ft away from the chancel.
King John in 1201, and later became one of the four stannary towns where Cornish tin was checked for purity. Coinagehall Street recalls the days when a corner, or ‘coin’, of tin was cut from each smelted block to be tested for purity.
GUNWALLOE FISHING COVE
A long, gravelly beach backed by high cliffs can be reached at low tide along the beach from the Loe Bar, or by an easier walk along the top of the cliffs. The beach shelves steeply and makes bathing particularly hazardous in rough weather. Parking space is very limited. The National Trust owns the foreshore for 4Vz miles from Porthleven to Poldhu Cove.
This sandy cove, crossed by a stream and less hemmed in by high cliffs than many of its neighbours, was the site chosen for a church by St Winwaloe in the 6th century. The present building dates mainly from the 15th century, and part of its woodwork comes from the Saint Anthony, a Portuguese treasure ship wrecked at Church Cove in 1526.
The name of Dollar Cove, a 2 minute walk away, recalls a Spanish galleon that went down laden with 2Vl tons of gold coins in 1785. Gold doubloons and other coins have been found on the beach. Dollar Cove’s sands are backed by low, soft cliffs where erosion is threatening to let the sea break through and turn the church’s site into a tiny, tidal island.
Volunteer lifeguards patrol Church Cove at summer weekends, but bathing in both coves is unsafe at low tide, when strong currents sweep past the headlands. There are surfboards for hire.
One of the ocean’s deeper bites into the south Cornish coast yields a lengthy expanse of sandy beach. It is crossed by a small stream, and sheltered by steep slopes carpeted with turf and bracken. Easy access by car and even by bus makes Poldhu Cove one of the more populated of local beaches; lifeguards patrol in summer, but signs warn that it is unwise to bathe 1 hour either side of low water.
A road and cliff path to the south leads round the gardens of Poldhu Hotel to the Marconi Memorial. This stands near the spot from which the first radio message – a repetition of the Morse letter ‘S’ – was sent across the Atlantic, on December 12, 1901. The man responsible for the experiment, the Italian Guglielmo Marconi, received it at his base outside St John’s, Newfoundland, almost 3,000 miles away.
High cliffs frame a quiet sandy bay in which a stream runs out of a grassy valley and across a delta of hard sand. Winds from the south-west favour surfing, but tidal currents make conditions unsafe at low water.
The cove is reached by a three-quarter-mile footpath from Mullion (starting opposite St Melan’s Church), or by a road turning off the Mullion-Mullion Cove road, but there is no car park close to the beach. A path runs southwards over the cliffs to Mullion Cove.
Blocks of greenstone, a hard basaltic rock, form the enclosing breakwaters of the little harbour whose old-world character has enchanted generations of visitors. It is now owned by the National Trust. The need for shelter on this exposed coast was emphasised in 1839, when most of the cove’s fishing boats, anchored offshore, were wrecked by a sudden gale. The harbour was built in 1895 and had a lifeboat until 1909.
A natural tunnel through the rocks leads at low tide to a small sandy beach on the south side. Offshore is Mullion Island, closed to the public and a sanctuary for many sea-birds, including kittiwakes.
There is a splendid walk southwards over Mullion Cliff to Predannack Head, which rises some 260 ft above the sea and commands a view embracing the whole of Mount’s Bay. The walk passes through part of the Lizard National Nature Reserve; there is a wide range of heathland and clifftop plants, and birds to be seen include kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and shags.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Aero Park and Flambards Village. SE of Helston. Historic aircraft, old village Daily in summer.
Culdrose Royal Naval Air Station. SE of Helston Helicopter base with viewing enclosure. Daily.
Godolphin House. 5 miles NW of Helston. Tudor mansion. Some afternoons in summer
Poldark Mine, Wendran, 3 miles N of Helston Daily in summer.