The seas that wash the Penwith Peninsula are so clear that basking sharks, huge but harmless, can sometimes be seen from the high granite cliffs. Land’s End attracts a throng of summer visitors, but short walks along the cliffs soon leave the crowds behind, and a few sandy coves can be reached only on foot. Salt-laden Atlantic gales explain the lack of trees on the western side of the peninsula, but woods flank lanes to the east.
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Highlights and must-see locations in West Cornwall
Porth Naven – A narrow unsignposted lane with few passing places and limited parking twists down to St Just to this cove of sea-smoothed rocks and low tide sand. The 1 1/4m walk northwards to Cape Cornwall climbs Carn Gloose, a lofty headland where the chimney of a 19th century tin mine overlooks the impressive Ballowall Barrow, an elaborate burial chamber from the late Bronze Age. From the nearby clifftop there are excellent views of Cape Cornwall and Land’s End.
Sennen Cove – Steep slopes plunge down to this attractive little harbour with its huddle if thatched whitewashed cottages. A plaque set in to the harbour’s granite breakwater was given by Sennen’s fishermen to express thanks to Colonel H. W. Williams, who when MP for St Ives in 1908 raised funds for the building of the breakwater.
The harbour looks out across Whitesand Bay, a superb surfing beach. Swimming is safest a high water, because of strong tidal streams run up and down the coast. Lifeguards patrol the the beach during summer months.
Land’s End – 1 million people a year visit this great fist of wave-lased granite which marks the south-western tip of the British mainland. Rocks mottled with lichen stud the clifftop whose turf has been scoured away by innumerable pairs of feet.
Just a mile offshore, waves pound the Longships reef and its lighthouse. The original tower was built at Sennen Cove at the end of the 18th century. Every stone was marled before the lighthouse was dismantled and taken block by block to Longships. The present owner dates from 1873, and its helicopter pad was added 101 later. It’s said one keeper was kidnapped by wreckers, but the light was kept shining by his young daughter. He was very small but reached the lamp by standing on the family bible.
Porthgwarra – A long steep slipway up which small boats were winched runs down to Porthgwarra’s beach of huge, seaweed-draped boulders and low tide sand. The cliff on the eastern side of the cove is pierced by a short tunnel. This enchanting spot, at the end of a valley with just a few scattered cottages, is reached by a narrow lane which wriggles between high, grassy banks bright with wild-flowers in summer.
A 10 minute walk leads to Gwennap Head and a coast-guard lookout perched high above the sea. The sheer cliffs are a challenge for expert climbers who tackle routes with such names as Seal Slab, Pendulum Chimney and Commando Crawl.
Porthcurno – The high, granite cliffs which shelter Porthcurno sands from the west are home of the remarkable and romantic Minack Theatre, where plays are staged in an open-air setting worthy of ancient Greece. The theatre opened in 1932, when locals performed the Tempest.
On the opposite side of the bay, reached from Treen, is Treryn Dinas, a high, jagged headland fortified during the Iron Age and now owned by the National Trust. Also reached by a short walk from Treen is the Logan Rock. A huge boulder estimated to weigh 66 tons. It can be made to wobble by nothing more than a hefty push, and had been a well-known attraction since the 18th century.
Penberth Cove – The National Trust has owned Penberth since 1957and describes it as ‘the most perfect of Cornish fishing cove’. It is a beautiful and tranquil place, popular with artists, with a stream, a few cottages, and small fishing boats beached above the rocky shore. Larger craft used to be hauled from the se by an unusual capstan that resembles a great cartwheel laid in its side.
Lamorna Cove – A leafy lane runs down to Lamorna’s tiny harbour, where ships loaded granite in the 19th century. The steep, bracken clad slopes above the bay are still studded with huge blocks of rock from the quarries. Low tide reveals a small, sandy beach inside the harbour. A walk westwards along the cliffs to Tater-du, Britain’s first fully automatic lighthouse, which became operational in 1965.
Mousehole – The narrow streets and stone built cottage of ‘Mouzel’, as it is pronounced, crowd right down to the village’s snug little harbour, where the ebbing tide reveals a sandy beach. It was Cornwall’s main fishing port for many years, but lost most of its trade when Newlyn was developed in 19th century.
The road to Newlyn passes the Penlee Point lifeboat house from which the Solomon Browne set sail during a ferocious storm in December 1981. She and her eight-man crew were lost trying to rescue eight others from the coaster Union Star. The boat’s coxswain was awarded a posthumous Gold Medal, the RNLI’s equivalent of the VC.
Newlyn – The fishing industry is little more than a memory in many Cornish ports, but Newlyn is still packed with trawlers and overlooked by a busy fish market. The harbour’s oldest pier dates from the Middle Ages, but the main breakwaters were built between 1866 and 1888.
Beyond the harbour, public gardens overlook a beach where shingle leads to sand and scattered outcrops of rock.
Penzance – Though it ceased to be a major West Country port, Penzance still has a harbour for private craft, a small dry-dock and a quay from with the Scillonian ferry plies between the mainland and the Isles of Scilly. A beach of fine shingle patchworked with low rock runs towards Newlyn, while on the other side of the harbour a huge crescent of sand sweeps eastwards to St Michael’s Mount more than 3 miles away.
Penzance itself is full of interest, and a town trail passes its main features. Market Jew Street is dominated by lofty Ionic columns of the Market House, completed in 1838. At their feet stands a statue of Penzance’s most famous son, Sir Humphrey Davey, whoa was born 1778 and invented the safety lantern for miners.
The Morrab Gardens, near the seafront, contain a display of subtropical plants. Trengwainton, just outside Penzance, was built on 1814 and is now owned by the National Trust. Its gardens include a series of walled enclosures containing fine magnolias and camellias, and rhododendrons from the east Himalayas, Assam and Burma. A scenic drive runs along a stream.