An island castle on a bay of beaches and rocky coves.
The rocky shore of Mount’s Bay is a broken succession of coves, linked like beads on a chain by the switchback course of the South West Coast Path. A complete change of mood is provided by The Loe, a tranquil lake surrounded by footpaths, which probes inland towards Helston.
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St Michael’s Mount – Like a giant sandcastle, the granite islands rise 300 ft (90m) from the waters of Mounts Bay. A 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 battlemented 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 it 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.
Perranuthnoe – Colour-washed cottages descend the slopes to 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 of Cudden Point, on whose rocks many ships have foundered.
Prussia Cove – This jagged cleft in the coast has an eerie black opening leading right back on to the slaty cliffs. There is a slipway used by a few small fishing boats. A lane signposted from Rusudgeon 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 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 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.
Praa Sands – The popular holiday village overlooks a sandy strip 1 mile long, with a backing of high dunes. The western end of the beach sheltered from westerly winds by the cliffs of Hoe Point. At the eastern end of Praa Sands there is an easy escape from the crowds to Lesceave Cliff – 13 gorse covered acres owned by the National Trust.
Rinsey Head – 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.
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.
Porthleven – The little town, set between steeply enclosed 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 gives the 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.
The Loe – A freshwater lake more than a mile long is a centerpiece 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 damned the River Cober, and gradually a long bank of shingle – today’s Loe Bar – was formed. In the past locals had periodically to dig the channel through Loe Bar to prevent pent up water 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 1807 was driven on to the sands; 100 men died within a stone’s throw of the shore. On the cliffs east of Loe Bar is a memorial to the victims of the 1807 disaster.
Helston – The traditions of this quaint old Cornish town are kept alive by the annual Flora Day held usually on 8th May 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 King John in 1201, and later became one of the four stannery towns where Cornish tin was checked for its purity. Coinagehall Street recalls the days when a corner, or ‘coin’, of tin was cut from each smelted block to be tested.
Gunwalloe Fishing Cove – A long gravelly beach backed by high cliffs can be reached at low tide along the beach from Loe Bar, or by an easier walk along the tops of the cliffs. The beach shelves steeply and makes bathing particularly hazardous in rough weather. The National Trust owns the foreshore for 4.5 miles from Porthleven to Poldhu Cove.
Church Cove – The sandy cove, crossed by a stream and less hemmed in by high cliffs than many of its neighbours, was the chosen site 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 St Anthony, a Portuguese treasure shipwrecked at Church Cove in 1526.
The name Dollar Cove, a 2-minute walk away, recalls a Spanish galleon that went down laden with more than 2 tons of gold coins in 1785. Gold doubloons and other coins have been found on the beach.
Poldhu Cove – One of the ocean’s deeper bites into the south Cornish coast yields a lengthy expanse of sandy beach. It’s crossed by a small stream, and sheltered by steep slopes carpeted with turf and bracken. Poldhu Cove is one of the most popular local beaches.
A road and cliff path to the south leads roundthe gardens of the old Poldhu Hotel, now a care home, to the Marconi Memorial. This stands near a 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 3000 miles away.
Polurrian Cove – 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.
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 was emphasized 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.
There is a splendid walk southwards over Mullion Cliff to Predannack Head, which rises 260 ft (80m) above the sea and commands a view 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.