penhale sands

 Black Dog on Penhale Sand Dunes

A free ranging walk over a Site of Special Scientific Interest, past St. Piran’s Oratory and the lost church, over the highest dunes in the UK to catch vistas out across the beach.

One of our regular and favourite walks, just a short drive from home, with wide open spaces, and lots of history.

It’s a strange landscape, quite barren at first sight – short rabbit nibbled grass, occasional gnarled elders and hawthorns, all bent and stunted by the prevailing winds. To one side the ugly sprawl of the caravan park, ahead the rolling peaks of the sand dunes that give way to to the beach and sea, and the Gothic concrete cross paying tribute to St. Piran. To the other side the valley to Holywell Beach, with Cubert village piercing the horizon.

What I especially love about this place is that vastness, how homogeneous it looks on first glance. But get down close to the ground and another world appears. The dunes are home to a wide and wild range of flora, with orchids, buttercups, carrot, vetch, surge, leeks, evening primrose and a rare range of moss and lichen. And in summer it’s a rich habitat for swallows, skylarks, butterflies and moths.

Strike straight out towards the concrete cross and to the right you’ll find St. Piran’s Oratory and the lost church.

It’s on this spot of coastline in the 6th Century that St. Piran is believed to have landed, after being thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck by the Irish. Here he founded his Oratory, a church, and legend suggests accidentally rediscovered the smelting of tin.

After centuries of shifting sands, the church was partially dismantled and relocated 2.5km inland in the 19th Century. But the remains are still here along with a Celtic cross – the oldest of it’s kind in Cornwall – and it’s here every year on the 5th March, St. Piran’s Day, that a procession winds its way through the sand dunes to lay daffodils.

The Oratory, after years of restoration efforts and an eventual burial in 1980, was excavated a couple of years ago and you can see the remains of the original structure and an outer concrete shell added in 1910.

To the north of the church lies the boundary of a MOD camp. Whilst it fences off a huge swathe of the dune landscape there is a permissible path that runs parallel to the beach. If we’re after a longer walk (about 2 hours) then we’ll head past the church, down onto the beach – a huge, quiet sweep of sand – and north along the shore. At the end of the beach there’s a freshwater pool, fed via old mine workings – the Black Dog likes to freshen up here – and a path that climbs back up into the dunes. Continue north to circumnavigate the camp around to Holywell or south along the permissible path that joins the dunes not far from the lost church.

Parking – head towards Perranporth from Goonhavern, on the B3285, and on the sharp left hand bend, just before the Haven Holiday Park, turn right. Along this road there are a number of pull-ins where you can park up, all with pedestrian access onto the back of the dunes. 

Warning – the dunes are home to adders, which in Spring will be emerging from hibernation and may bite if startled. Having said that, we’ve been walking here for 8 years and have yet to encounter one.

More pictures under the map.

St. Piran's Celtic Cross, Penhale Sands, CornwallPenhale Sands Cornwallblack dog on beach

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