Penzance to Porthcurno on the South West Coast Path (aka the Battle of the Bracken)
Updated: Aug 1
Date: 19-20 July 2023
Location: West Penwith, Cornwall
Total distance: 21 kilometres (13 miles)
Summary: What started out as an easy walk along a paved stretch of coast path turned into quite a challenging hike – but not for normal reasons!
Highlights: Watching a pod of dolphins play in the bay, spending a morning relaxing on Porthcurno Beach, dinner overlooking Lamorna Cove
In 2019, I spent three weeks WWOOF-ing at a community farm near St Just, Cornwall. During my trip, I "ticked off" my first sections of the South West Coast Path (SWCP) – in two (long) day hikes, I completed the 47-kilometre stretch from St Ives to Porthcurno. When I passed the Minack Theatre, built into the side of the coastal cliffs, I knew I would be back one day to see a play in that spectacular setting.
After moving to Cornwall in September 2022, I knew this year was the perfect opportunity to finally see a show at the Minack. So, when the season's tickets were released one morning in January 2023, I was ready to purchase tickets for a play in July – when Brett would be visiting.
As the day of the show edged closer, I couldn't help continuously checking the weather forecast, keeping my fingers crossed for warm and dry weather. While southern Europe was experiencing record heat, Cornwall had been grey and rainy for (what felt like) weeks. Although work was piling up, Brett convinced me that we should go camping during his visit, so with sunshine predicted, we packed our bags and started off on a new adventure!
Day 1: Penzance to Treveren Campsite // 16.2 kilometres
I had dissertation work to do on campus in the morning, so we started off the day with a trek up the hill to campus. After work was done and Brett had picked up his new UK residence permit, we hopped on the bus to Penzance. Once we'd arrived, we picked up a map from the Tourist Information Centre before walking along the high street to The Honey Pot Café, which does vegan cream teas. Luckily we didn't have to wait long for a table to open up, so we enjoyed our cream teas – a proper start to any Cornish adventure!
By 14:00, we were on our way, back on the coast path together for the first time since April. The first seven kilometres of the hike were paved and mostly flat, as we made our way around Mount Bay. We walked along the Penzance promenade...
...until we reached Newlyn Harbour, where I had visited during a field trip in the first semester of my master's degree. With the Newlyn fish market just metres away, we stopped in the shade to eat a crab sandwich (not very vegan of me, I know).
The path climbed out of Newlyn and continued following the edge of the bay, with the impressive silhouette of St Michael's Mount still visible in the distance. Our brief stop in Mousehole (pronounced 'mowzel') reminded me that Cornish harbours are definitely more picturesque when the tide is high! We popped into a cafe to pick up a loaf of bread for our breakfast the following morning, but when I saw they had vegan mint chocolate chip ice cream, I couldn't resist! As our third stop for food in just six kilometres, this was turning into quite the food-based adventure!
From Mousehole, the road began to climb in elevation. After 7 kilometres on pavement, I was grateful to finally be on a dirt path. We were, however, quickly met with a new challenge – one I haven't experienced on the SWCP before – seriously overgrown paths. Bracken and other plants hung over the path, making walking slow and, at some points, uncomfortable. I considered changing into my leggings, but it wasn't an appealing decision in the heat of the afternoon.
At one point, we paused to let a group of hikers pass in the opposite direction. When we asked them how much longer the overgrowth would last, I was disheartened when one replied, "a couple of kilometres." Although the coastal views we were passing were spectacular (as always), I found them harder to enjoy than normal – the ongoing battle through the bracken was quickly sapping my patience.
(According to the SWCP website: "Cutting back of vegetation is well underway across the whole of the National Trail. If not already carried out, encroaching vegetation will soon be cleared. Cutting is often timed to enable wildflowers and pollinators to flourish.")
At a couple points, the path wound through forests and we would enjoy the brief respite from the overgrown vegetation, instead navigating through muddy patches.
We stopped for an early dinner of pasta salad at a rocky outcropping overlooking Lamorna Cove. After our break, we followed the path down towards the beach, stopping every hundred metres or so to admire the dramatic rock formation hugging the coast.
Continuing on past Lamorna Cove, where the road ended and the SWCP returned, a sign warned us the next half mile of coast path would be "strenuous, uneven, and close to cliff edges." Slightly unnerving and not made any better by a man walking past us in the opposite direction, his arm bloodied from a large scratch. Despite the warning, however, we didn't find the following section particularly challenging, with just a handful of rocky sections that required a bit of scrambling.
Having passed Lamorna Cove, we had made enough progress for the day and began the search for a campsite. Unfortunately, the path and surrounding areas were still massively overgrown and we struggled to find anywhere suitable.
Near-ish the Tater-du Lighthouse, we found two separate flat and cleared areas that could have made suitable campsites. But with hours of sunlight left, we decided to continue onwards. Looking at the elevation map on my phone, we had a good idea of where we might find other campsites.
As the path lowered us into St Loy, we found a forest with clearings that looked suitable for setting up camp. As we were scouting a good spot, a man approached us and asked if we were looking to free camp. Unsure whether he was going to help us, or ask us to get off his land, I hesitated before saying "yes." He recommended that we continue on the coast path up to the next headland, where he assured us we would find plenty of open spots to camp under the stars.
I wasn't feeling confident, but we took his word and continued along the path, dipping down onto a beach of smooth rocks. After passing the lush gardens of a mansion, we began the climb up to the next headland. Here was where we encountered the most overgrown stretch of coast path we would experience over the two days. For about five minutes, we were ducking under and pushing through gorse bushes that had grown onto the path. For those of you that have't had the pleasure of walking through gorse, it is a shrub covered in "needle-like leaves." Can confirm, not enjoyable to walk through.
Eventually, the path flattened out and we escaped the gorse bushes – there was no turning around now. Unfortunately, the friendly man we met in the forest must not have been up on the headland recently, because we were unable to find any of the clearings he'd described. Everywhere we looked was overgrown. And so on we went.
By this point, I was starting to get nervous. Although we had head torches, I wasn't excited about the prospect of hiking on the coast path after dark. We debated hiking on to Treen Farm Campsite, near Porthcurno, but when we passed a huge sign pointing towards the Treverven Touring Park, I suggested we spend the night there instead.
So, after watching the sun set over the fields, we left the coast path and hiked to the campsite. Once there, we found a spot sheltered from the wind by a hedge and set up our bivvys. It's definitely a bit of an odd experience sleeping in a bivvy at an established campsite, when everyone around you is in tents or caravans! Despite feeling a bit exposed, I was glad we had chosen to bring our bivvys instead of our tent as it meant we could appreciate the dark skies of Cornwall and admire the Milky Way (and shooting stars!) from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
Day 2: Treveren Campsite to Porthcurno // 4.8 kilometres
Although it wasn't as exciting as wild camping, sleeping at the campsite meant we didn't have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to pack up before sunrise. Instead, we were up at 6:30 and back on the coast path an hour later. Here, the path felt better maintained, as it rose and fell with the land, dipping down into picturesque Penberth Cove. As much as I was tempted to stop for a swim, I was keen to get to Porthcurno Beach as soon as we could, to avoid the crowds I knew would come later in the day.
As we climbed up onto the next headland, we were met with stunning views towards Porthcurno. In the distance, we could see the structure of the Minack Theatre built into the cliffside, as well as a pod of dolphins jumping in the bay below us.
When we arrived at Porthcurno, I was glad to see the beach was still fairly empty. After a short swim (the water was icy!), we ate our breakfast of bread with avocado and I changed into my red dress to get some pictures before the beach became too crowded.
As the beach began to fill up with people, Brett and I enjoyed lounging in the sun. I read my book and napped. By noon, I needed a break from the sun, so after eating lunch (BBQ jackfruit wraps), we made our way to the Porthcurno Beach Cafe, where we took a break from the sun and enjoyed cold drinks.
Postscript: A magical trip to the Minack Theatre
That afternoon, we met up with my friends for our trip to the Minack Theatre to see the matinee performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, performed by the Illyria outdoor theatre company.The views over the bay were spectacular and the theatre itself was incredibly unique, the stone seats seemingly carved directly into the cliffs. Our seats were fantastic, with a perfect view of the stage. Thankfully, the theatre staff were able to find somewhere for Brett and I to leave our camping backpacks, because there was no room for them where we were sat!
As we were waiting for the show to start, we were treated to a 20-minute show of dolphins playing in the bay behind the stage. What a magical experience! I remember joking that I could have left then and still been happy. Instead, we stayed and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. I think we were all very impressed with the actors, who managed to perform in thick costumes despite the direct sunlight. I know we were very grateful to be in the shade during the second act, and we weren't running around backstage!
After the show, we made our way back down to Porthcurno for another swim, followed by a picnic as the sun began to set. What a perfect way to end a delightful day!
Info about this section of the SWCP: https://www.southwestcoastpath.org.uk/walksdb/358/
Book tickets to see a show at the Minack: https://www.minack.com/whats-on
Learn more about the history of this incredible theatre: https://www.minack.com/our-story/rowena-cade