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The Saints’ Way, Britains most dangerous coastal walk

TIME : 2016/2/27 11:01:11

The mission: a walking pilgrimage across England taking the skinniest coast-to-coast route. The outcome: a time travel along ancient paths once trodden by Druids, Celts, Romans, Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Stone Age man.

The Saints' Way is not just a 45-kilometre, three-day tramp across Cornwall from Padstow on the Atlantic to Fowey on the Channel. It's also a reminder of who we are. Our humanity is made real by the remnants that litter this route – the Neolithic hut circles, the Bronze and Iron Age barrows and standing stones, the early Christian holy wells, shrines and chapels, the medieval churches and industrial-age chimneys and engine houses. 

So in a sense, the Saints' Way is a pilgrimage to make meaning of our world as those ancient people tried to make sense of theirs.

A walk, however, is what you make of it, and if you're just after a walk, this is a fine one of rolling hills, beech and oak forests, autumn berry hedgerows, fast-flowing streams, high downs and verdant emerald valleys, stone and whitewashed villages with charming names like Withielgoose.

Quintessential England, you might say, seemingly unhurried by city pressures; an older England with only the glimpse of a wind turbine to draw you back to the future. But it would be a shame not to step through the looking glass into a richer interpretation of the Saints' Way's unique historic landscape that spans thousands of years.

The genesis of this walk dates from when Irish and Welsh drovers and traders used the cross-country route to avoid the treacherous Land's End waters. Later, in the Dark and Middle ages, when the Romans withdrew and the Anglo Saxons brought war and chaos, Christianity flourished among the Celts, heralding the Age of the Saints. Pilgrims sailed their wooden coracles from Ireland, choosing the way across Cornwall en route to Rome, Santiago de Compostela and the Holy Land. 

We have eschewed the coracle across the Irish Sea for a rented Fiat 500 but we're at the start of the Way. Nonetheless, in Padstow on the Camel River, or Padstein as some cynical locals call it – I count at least 10 Rick Stein establishments. 

It's a charming fishing village, though rabid with tourists, so we're lucky to chance a table at Rick Stein's Cafe for a non-ascetic meal of hake with parsley and garlic crumbs washed down with a sparkling Camel Valley pinot noir (blushing, one might say, at its own hefty price).

Our Contours self-guided walking tour includes B&B accommodation, breakfasts and luggage transfer, plus detailed maps, guide and route information. We still manage to get lost twice a day, for this is as-the-crow-flies kind of walking, over stiles, up hill, down dale, through bog, brambles and bull-snorting fields. 

We are supposed to have a compass but, well, we don't. However, like true pilgrims, we have faith, trusting our instincts to head ever southeast, whittled willow staffs in hand (collapsible walking poles, if you must know) to ward off wolves.

Day one dawns foggy and we dawdle over breakfast. This fog is exactly why early pilgrims went cross-country. The exposed Cornish coast is Britain's most dangerous – a maelstrom of tides, waves, reefs, currents and granite cliffs. That, plus smugglers and wreckers, made the Land's End route a graveyard for ships, taking thousands of lives and spawning tales of spectral ships sailing inland.

The Saints' Way (Forth an Syns) begins at the ancient lych gate of Padstow's St Petroc's Church. St Petroc, one of Cornwall's three patron saints, arrived in the 6th century, built the church and others too, travelling widely to perform miracles, healings and monster banishings. 

The fog is lifting and we surge forth like small spectral ships ourselves to begin our pilgrimage – 17 kilometres today from Padstow to Withiel. Up Dennis Hill we go, arriving at the obelisk to gaze out across the Camel River as those early pilgrims might have done, full of hope and wonder. The trouble is, we're lost already. 

Saints' Way signs and little Celtic crosses mark the way but the posts sometimes lie on the ground and point elsewhere. Surely certain farmers aren't sabotaging the modern-day pilgrim? Walking is king in this king of walking country. However, the Saints' Way may be the path less trodden, with walkers opting for the South West Coast path or the Camel Trail, both of which pass by Padstow. We see only two others during our walk and this suits us fine.

Down to the Camel Estuary we head, finding ourselves tied up in brambles. We retrace our steps to the waypost and try again. Not an auspicious start. We're finally on the right path beside Trerethern, Little Petherick and Credis creeks heading into St Mary's Woods, passing industrial age mines and mills. 

Little Petherick's 14th-century church is dedicated to St Petroc and the village is typical of the charming granite-and-slate Cornish villages we pass through, many dedicated to saints. Cornish farms generally begin with the prefix "Tre" meaning homestead or farm.

We're into the sheltered valleys and rolling pastures of ancient farmsteads. Mellingey's Old Mill (now serving authentic Oriental food) is where Charles Dickens's close friend Dr Marley lived, Dickens borrowing his friend's name for A Christmas Carol. At Blable, which means wolf pit, we're reminded of the dangers facing medieval pilgrims.

Celt country has its own superstitions: butterflies carry the souls of the dead and must be treated with kindness (though a first-of-the-season yellow one means sickness). Beetles are death omens if one walks over your shoe. If you harm a wren, you will break a bone. A hairy caterpillar flung over the shoulder brings good luck (but not for the caterpillar). High-flying swallows mean fine weather and luckily for us, they're currently flying high. 

Soon, the landscape opens onto broad cornfields, rising to the walk's highest point, St Breock Downs, at 213 metres, Cornwall's highest non-granite uplands. A hay bale is where we scoff our Padstow-bought cheese and pickle sandwiches. To the north is the Camel Estuary, to the west Castle-an-Dinas, a large prehistoric hill fort, while to the east is Bodmin Moor, setting for Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn. Lofty wind turbines turn lazily on the ridge.

This 11-kilometre crest of Downs is thick with ancient spiritual sites – prehistoric tumuli, longstones, barrows, hill fort remnants and burial chambers. The Bronze Age 4.8-metre, 16.5-tonne St Breock Longstone or "Men Gurta" (stone of waiting) was a significant Cornish meeting place and reminder of cultures that existed here long before Christianity. 

Tonight we stay at Tregolls Farm (home on the ridge) near Withiel. Marilyn and Lester Hawkey run beef cattle and Suffolk-cross ewes ("the girls"). It's roast lamb for dinner and we wake to the calls of turtledoves as the girls wander down from the top paddock into the farm's emerald valley.

We lose ourselves only twice on day two. Withiel to Lanlivery (15 kilometres) takes us through sheep and cow paddocks, along forest pathways of beech, hazelnut, oak, over slate stiles and granite clapper bridges. The little villages might not have shops, but there's always a magnificent church. We learn to identify the forest of crosses as either inscribed, Latin, wheel-headed, holed or lantern. Cast-iron guideposts remind us that this was a busy medieval route for the throngs of pilgrims, clergy, merchants and farmers who walked before us. 

Spotting the way markers are Where's Wally moments and blackberry scrumping is slowing our progress and staining our fingers purple. We still manage a ploughman's lunch and ale at the ancient village of Lanivet, the Way's halfway point.

At Helman Tor Gate, the two southern arms of the Saints' Way divide and we take the eastern route. This is a steeper day and a long slog up to Helman Tor, landmark for pilgrims and at 209 metres, the second highest point and site of the tumbled remains of a 6000-year-old Neolithic enclosure.

From the Tor, you can see forever – your destination, the English Channel and your starting point, the Atlantic. 

We're running late and forge on along the granite-hedged ridgeway towards Lanlivery, possibly a former prehistoric trade route to the coast. We're so focused on this, plus the fact that the narrow path looks like a cattle run, that yes, we're lost again. Terrified of a milking-time stampede, we plunge off-piste down steep and probably private fields, having to then climb back up to Lanlivery and our inn for the night – the Crown with its typical medieval longhouse built in 1130 and the last stop for Fowey-bound drovers.

Our legs have developed strange pink stripes; the bells of Cornwall's third-highest 15th-century church tower are ringing like the clappers. Thank goodness for the roast beef Sunday dinner, washed down by an elixir of forgetfulness.

Day three's landscape, Lanlivery to Fowey, 13 kilometres, is probably the most gorgeous – steeper valleys but charmingly wooded, the path running along the Fowey River towards our destination. This is Kenneth Grahame country, home of Wind in the Willows and also of the ill-fated lovers, Tristan and Isolde. And as we near Fowey, we enter the Daphne du Maurier landscape of Rebecca and Frenchman's Creek.

Fowey is beautiful with its Church of St Fimbarrus representing the end of the walk. Only one disappointment: the Old Post Office, formerly a medieval pilgrim rest house with its huge pilgrim's scallop, is boarded up for renovations.

Mustn't grumble. As someone famous once said: "Life is a pilgrimage. We go as seekers, filled with longing for all that is true. We are captivated by wonder, held with grace." A ruined photo-op will not spoil our journey. 




Qantas flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to London's Heathrow, stopping in Dubai (24h30), see Heathrow to Padstow by car is about four hours and there's Padstow parking. A post-walk taxi from Fowey back to Padstow costs £45. Mike of Ocean Taxis is pleasant and reliable. See


Contours Walking Holidays' Saints' Way 4-night/3-day self-guided walk includes B&B accommodation, breakfasts, maps, guidebooks, information, emergency assistance and luggage transfers for £310 per person sharing. See

The writer was a guest of VisitBritain