Driving Tour: Penwith's Prehistory

  • Start St Ives
  • End Penzance
  • Length 36 miles; one day

Penwith has an astonishing concentration of ancient sites – more than practically anywhere else in northern Europe, in fact – suggesting there was a thriving community in this wild landscape as long ago as Stonehenge.

This road trip takes in the highlights. It begins in St Ives, the centre of Cornwall's buzzing art scene, then veers out into the wonderful B3306 coast road, signed to Zennor – a twisting corkscrew of a road that winds past moorland, granite tors, ancient fields and drystone walls: the land here is thought to have been farmed since the Iron Age, and probably long before. It's worth hiking past the village church to the craggy cliffs above Pendour Cove, said to be the home of the fabled Mermaid of Zennor.

Continue along the B3306 to renowned gastropub the Gurnard’s Head, which makes a great stop for an early lunch. Alternatively, stay on the road till you reach the next left-hand turn, signed to Penzance/Madron (you’ll see a white cottage next to the turning). Stay on this road until you reach a small layby and farm gate on the left; it’s easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled. From here, an unsigned trail leads up to the ring-shaped stone known as the Mên-an-tol – it's worth taking the opportunity to crawl through, as according to local lore, you'll either a) fall pregnant or b) get cured of rickets, depending on which legend you choose to believe. From here, you can hike along a side-trail to the Nine Maidens stone circle. It’s a mile there and back from the layby.

Back in the car, backtrack a little the way you came, and take the left-hand turning signed to Chûn Castle. Though there's little physically left of it these days, this was once perhaps the greatest Iron Age hillfort in the whole of Penwith; most of the walls and stones have been plundered, but you can still make out the enclosing ditch, and the view from the top is super.

Return to the main road, drive past the Mên-an-tol layby and continue for half-a-mile. Before too long, you’ll pass Lanyon Quoit on your left, one of the largest and best-preserved of Penwith’s dolmens, or burial chambers. It's clearly visible from the road, but it's worth hopping over the wall to stand next to it and appreciate its size – and the inexplicably massive effort it must have required to lift the 20-tonne capstone into place.

From here, it’s another couple of miles to the village of Madron and its ancient holy well, one of many dotted across Penwith. These ancient springs have a long and mysterious heritage that stretches back to pagan times, and probably long before; the water is said to have all kinds of curative properties, but it's a pretty spot even if you decide not to taste it.

Continue downhill towards Penzance. When you reach the village of Heamoor, take the minor road signed left towards Gulval. Continue through the village and onto the B3311 towards Nancledra. Climb the hill to Badger’s Cross, and take the next left signed to Chysauster, 0.75 miles after the turning. This is the southwest’s most important Iron Age village, and you can wander freely around the remains of a complex of roundhouses where several families must once have lived.

Follow the road from Chysauster on to the nearby village of Mulfra, where you can see another impressive dolmen, Mulfra Quoit.

For the last stage of the drive, another Iron Age village awaits at Carn Euny. Head to Penzance and take the A30 road west out of town, heading for Land's End. Pass through Drift; you can take the first brown sign to Carn Euny if you wish, but it's easier to stay on the A30 till you see the next sign on the right, signed 'Carn Euny 1½ miles'. Follow this minor road to the hamlet of Brane. Park up and follow the track up for about 500m to find the remains of another impressive Iron Age village and a mysterious stone passage known as a fougou.

Backtrack the way you came to the A30, turn right towards Land's End, and look out for the turning on the left to Boscawenoon Farm. Continue west till you see a small layby on the left; from here, a track leads to perhaps Penwith's most impressive stone circle of all, Boscawen-un. It makes a fitting end to your ancient tour.

Walking Tour: Last Stop Cornwall

  • Start Sennen
  • End Sennen
  • Length 6 to 7 miles; three to four hours

This hike is as far west as you can walk on mainland Britain; it starts at the lovely cove of Sennen and circles round via the end-of-everything headland of Land’s End, taking in some of the wildest coastal scenery in all of Cornwall. A few of the tracks are easy to miss, so an Ordnance Survey (OS) map will come in handy.

Leave the car at the car park at Sennen, and head west along the coast path, which climbs steeply past an old lookout station that’s been refurbished by the National Trust. Head on along the coast path, and look out for the remains of Maen Castle on your right, a prehistoric hillfort dramatically sited on the cliffs. The surrounding area has been inhabited since Neolithic times; it’s thought that many of the field boundaries were established by ancient settlers. This section is particularly spectacular in summer, when the wildflowers are a blaze of colour, and seabirds wheel and circle over the clifftops.

Continue on the coast path till you reach Land’s End, where you can snap your picture next to the famous sign: 28 miles to Scilly, 874 miles to John O’Groats, 3147 to New York, and 1.5 miles out to sea to the famous Longships Lighthouse. From here it’s another mile or so along the rather precarious coast path to the secluded beach of Nanjizal, reached by wooden steps. It’s great for swimming, but the waves can be powerful so take care.

After your dip, take the path leading inland up the hillside; turn left when you reach a junction, and cross the fields till you arrive at Trevilley Farm and the nearby village of Trevescan, where you can reward yourself with a cream tea at the delightful Apple Tree Cafe. From here, head along the road till you come to the junction with the A30. You’ll see a sign for a public bridleway directly opposite the turning, which leads all the way back down to Sennen.