Welcome to the Wild West
Penzance to Sennen Cove
A 23 Km (13 m) trip around the most South Westerly point of mainland Britain. The journey moves seamlessly from a backdrop of an ancient market town, quaint fishing villages past golden coral sands into an austere, granite wilderness all tinged with a unique beauty.
Our journey starts in Mounts Bay under the imposing gaze of St.Michael`s Mount, a former Benedictine Priory, the home of the St.Aubyn family and a jewel in the crown for the National trust.
Leaving Penzance behind us, the white walls of the 1930`s Art deco open air swimming pool act as prominent landmark on the town’s Edwardian promenade, which if followed takes us to Newlyn. Although still a significant fishing port, there are current developments to attract the leisure user. Newlyn is also the point that chart datum is recorded from for all charts.
From here we follow the coast past the former Penlee lifeboat house from where the ill-fated Solomon Browne was lost with all hands on December 19th 1981. The boathouse has been maintained as a memorial to the crew.
Mousehole, a small fishing village, famous for its Christmas lights makes a pleasant stop for the sea kayaker however parking can be a real problem in summer months. Just outside the harbour lies St.Clements Isle, a rocky island giving a home to cormorants, shags and a small colony of seals.
The coast proceeds to Lamorna passing ancient field systems, south facing with tall hedges, used to produce early flowers and vegetables but now slowly reverting back to nature. As we round Penzer Point, the definitive edge of Mounts Bay, we begin to leave behind the commercial world and enter a more magical land.
As we enter the little harbour at Lamorna, some 9 km from Penzance, the power of the sea is evident in the shape of a large hole in the harbour wall. Once a thriving granite quarry with stone transported by sea as far as London and also a famous artist colony, it is now a tourist honeytrap with prices to match – beware of the very zealous car park security.
The coastline thus far has been fairly benign with little tidal influence and makes for a pleasant day touring area for a wide range of abilities but from here on the coastline becomes more rugged and committing. We pass Tater Du lighthouse, built in 1965 as one of the new generation of electric un-manned lighthouses, it shows a red sector light warning shipping from the west of the treacherous Runnelstone Reef. Ahead of us Treen Headland dominates the skyline for many miles, watch out for fishing lines, as this is a favourite spot for sea anglers precariously perched at the sea edge. Once we round this headland we are rewarded with the view of the beautiful beach at Porthcurno, a glorious white
sand created by thousands of small shells, that on sunny days creates a tropical feel with a deep clear blue sea that is often frequented by basking sharks.
The beach however is quite steeply shelving and has a strong shore dump around high water making landings difficult. At low tide other small beaches in the bay are exposed but be prepared for a surf landing on all but the quietest days.
As a very popular tourist beach it is patrolled by lifeguards in the summer season and the usual facilities can be found about 300 m from the beach. No fires are allowed on this beach due to the number of submarine telecommunication cables that start or finish here from all over the world.
Set on the cliffs overlooking Porthcurno Bay is the world famous Minack Theatre. An open-air theatre, first created in the thirties, it now seats 750 people and shows run from May to September. Shows sell out fast so book early if you want to go.
The sea conditions are gradually changing and the predominant South Westerly swell is becoming more evident, the cliffs taller and we soon reach Porthgwarra Cove, our last refuge before Land’s End itself. Accessed by a long single tracked road, the cove has parking, toilets and a little coffee shop with excellent pasties. These facilities can be reached from the beach via a steep slipway or more excitingly through hand carved tunnels in the cliff face. Launching and landing is best avoided at high water. The swell arriving at this cove is a good indicator of what may be in store at Land’s End.
The tidal movement is now very evident, no more so than at the western edge of the cove at Hella Point and Gwennap Head, where close inshore can be found a large tide race and associated overfall. Offshore approx 1.5 km can be seen the Runnelstone Buoy, a south cardinal marker, showing the edge of the infamous Runnelstone Reef. This buoy incorporates a bell and a reed, when the swell moves under cover of darkness or fog it creates a very eerie sound.
This whole section of coastline is very popular with dive charter boats, lobster potters and pleasure craft. Overhead is the constant buzz of helicopters heading for the Isles of Scilly.
The tidal streams here set in a generally East – West direction with the east going stream starting approx 4 hours after HW Dover and the west stream beginning approx 3 hours before HW Dover.
Perched high above this scene sits the former coastguard lookout now manned by the voluntary National Coastwatch Institute. These imposing cliffs, including Chairladder, are a climber’s paradise, passing under here the ant-like figures appear precariously balanced on the edge of the world. Do not however, allow yourself to be distracted for too long by the breathtaking scenery as many off shore reefs litter this area and can produce sudden upsurges of white water to catch out the unwary or uninitiated. After approx 2 km we reach Nanjizal, a small sandy cove where landing is possible on quieter days but be aware that swells can appear from nowhere.
From here it is only a short distance to Land’s End, the most South Westerly point of mainland Britain and the opportunity to experience the picture postcard views from another angle. Here the east – west tidal streams of the English Channel merge and confuse with those of the Atlantic setting up their own potentially complex micro environment. Streams in excess of 4 Kn together with a ground swell with a 3000-mile fetch can create very demanding conditions. Try to appreciate the natural wonder of the area and ignore the commercial aspect which manifests itself in the shape of a hotel and leisure complex dominating the skyline.
Hidden from the view of the hordes on the footpath, a cave accessible below mid tide allows you to pass under Land’s End itself.
For the more adventurous, the Longships Lighthouse lies 2km offshore from Land’s End, built on the largest rock in a complex reef; interesting conditions can be virtually always found. Home to a large seal colony don’t expect to land on anything but the calmest day or a 5 star course.
Returning to the mainland evidence that the lighthouses don’t always protect the unsuspecting mariner can be found in the shape of the wreck of the RMS Mulheim, driven ashore by a combination of engine failure and heavy seas in 2003 it’s shattered shell serves as testament to the power of the sea.
In the distance we can see Cape Cornwall, the only Cape in England. Our journey however ends at Sennen Cove by the RNLI station. Sennen itself boasts a fine sandy surf beach with good facilities, an excellent place to rejoin any non-paddling family or friends. A beautiful place with pint in hand to watch the sun set over the Atlantic and plan a trip to the Isles of Scilly only 25 miles away.
Tidal constant Penzance = Dover –06 35hrs
H.M. Coastguard Falmouth 01326 317575
Penwith District Council (lifeguards+ tourist office) 01736 362341
Reeds Nautical Almanac
OS Explorer 7 1:25000 (Land’s End)
BCU SW Region touring guide Volume 2.
See Cornwall from the sea!
Take a day to explore West Cornwall by Sea Kayak with Paddlecrest Coaching.
Enjoy a wonderful water experience all Kayaks & safety equipment provided. Bring along a packed lunch and a change of clothes or a wetsuit.
No previous experience required but a sense of adventure is useful!
All guides / tuition provided by Richard Uren B.C.U. Sea Coach. Fully insured.
Under 18`s must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian