This article was originally published by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
On a windswept clifftop overlooking a vibrant turquoise bay, I encounter the second happiest person in England. His face is radiating joy as he passionately describes the pristine beaches and breathtaking vistas. It’s the last day of his late-February trek around Cornwall’s tip, and he admits to encountering only a handful of people along the way. I happen to be walking the same route in the opposite direction. “We’re incredibly fortunate,” he exclaims. “So incredibly fortunate.”
Down below, waves crash against dark rocky formations while seagulls gracefully glide above empty stretches of sand. We observe the trail snaking towards the east and west, a narrow path traversing rugged headlands and slopes adorned with ferns. After chatting for a while, we bid each other farewell, and I continue my journey. By the way, if you’re wondering who the happiest person in England is, that would be me. I still have two more days of walking ahead.
Cornwall’s irresistible charm is no secret, but it’s a double-edged sword. Traveling here as a vacationer guarantees an abundance of coastal beauty, picturesque fishing villages, and a sense of liberation from the daily grind, with a whiff of salty sea air and windswept hair. The gift-shop T-shirts boldly declare, “Cornwall isn’t just a destination; it’s a way of life.” However, its popularity sometimes turns certain parts of the county into bustling hubs reminiscent of Piccadilly Circus rather than the serene landscapes of Poldark.
Fortunately, overcrowding is not an issue when summer is months away. I arrive in the last week of February, prepared to spend three days hiking from St Ives on the north coast to Penzance on the south, following a 41-mile stretch of the South West Coast Path as it meanders around the Penwith Peninsula. From a logistical standpoint, it’s a dream for those who prefer not to travel by car. I boarded the Night Riviera sleeper train from London, disembarking at St Erth—a mere 10-minute rail journey from St Ives—in the early morning. The plan is to complete the hike around Land’s End and return on the same sleeper service from Penzance.
Porthminster Beach, a recipient of the prestigious Blue Flag award, lies just a short stroll away from the heart of St Ives.
On a late-winter morning, St Ives exudes tranquility. A dog walker leisurely roams through historic lanes, whistling a cheerful tune. Delivery drivers pause for a friendly chat. A couple of independent cafes briskly serve coffee and pastries, but that’s about the extent of activity. I’ve experienced these same streets during the peak season, when the sighting of Kate Winslet leaving a restaurant sparked mass excitement. Today, there’s no one around to take notice.
But what about the weather? That was my primary concern when embarking on this journey during this time of year. While December and January seemed rather daring, late February appeared more favorable. Spring arrives early on the southern tip of the mainland, and within 15 minutes of leaving St Ives, I find myself surrounded by blooming gorse bushes, filling my lungs with the invigorating scent of the sea. Stonechats flit from branch to branch as foamy waves crash against the shore. The day is brisk, but I soon find myself so warm that I tuck my hooded top back into my backpack.
It doesn’t take long to realize that this hike is destined to be unforgettable. For nearly two hours, I encounter no one else. The trail mostly hugs the lofty cliffs, revealing captivating seascapes below. Each cove unveils a theatrical display of rocky beaches and boulders, with ravens soaring above. Two seals with distinctive Roman noses emerge from the surf, while roaring waves collide with enormous granite formations. Against all odds, a kestrel hovers gracefully atop the cliff in the cool breeze, defying the laws of physics.
This is the essence of the following days. For extended stretches, headlands and bays bathe in sunlight, creating breathtaking scenes of empty sands. I persistently follow the trail as it ascends and descends, tracing contour lines. At Pendeen, I pass through abandoned mining sites, and at Porthgwarra, daffodils and dog violets sway in sheltered groves. I take rest breaks in both Pendeen and Porthcurno, succumbing to restorative slumber. Only around Land’s End, the perennial photo opportunity, does the atmosphere begin to feel remotely bustling.
Of course, there are some considerations to keep in mind amidst all the positives. While the walk is truly magnificent, it is also challenging, with numerous climbs and demanding terrain. Most of the cafes along the route remain closed during winter, so it’s essential to stock up on snacks whenever possible (although pubs offer great alternatives, with excellent options found in Sennen, Treen, and Mousehole). Additionally, the tour operator responsible for organizing the trip doesn’t provide luggage transfers until March, so I’m carrying everything with me throughout.
Nevertheless, the overall experience is undeniably life-affirming. The Cornish cliffs boast the same rugged allure, and the beaches shimmer with golden beauty even during the off-season. The only difference is that there are fewer people around to revel in their splendor.
How to make it happen:
Mickledore offers self-guided walking trips from St Ives to Penzance, available in three, four, or five-day itineraries, starting at £481 per person. The package includes accommodations with breakfast, a map, a guidebook, and emergency phone support.
Tickets for the Night Riviera sleeper train from Paddington to Cornwall start from £79 for a one-way journey in a twin cabin.
This article was published in the UK & Ireland supplement, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about clifftop hiking
Q: Is Cornwall overcrowded during the off-season?
A: No, Cornwall is not overcrowded during the off-season. The author of the article visited in late February and found that the lack of summer crowds made the experience more serene and enjoyable.
Q: What is the best time to visit Cornwall for hiking?
A: The late-winter period, such as February, can be a favorable time to visit Cornwall for hiking. Spring arrives early in the southern part of the county, and the weather can be refreshing. However, it’s important to check weather conditions and plan accordingly for any potential challenges.
Q: Are there services and facilities available along the hiking route during the off-season?
A: While some cafes along the hiking route may be closed during the off-season, pubs in towns like Sennen, Treen, and Mousehole offer alternatives for food and refreshments. It’s recommended to stock up on snacks when possible and plan accordingly for limited services during the off-season.
Q: Is the hike from St Ives to Penzance challenging?
A: Yes, the hike from St Ives to Penzance can be challenging. The trail includes climbs and sections that can be tough underfoot. It’s important to be prepared for the physical demands of the hike and ensure you have appropriate footwear and equipment.
Q: Can I organize a self-guided walking trip from St Ives to Penzance?
A: Yes, Mickledore offers self-guided walking trips from St Ives to Penzance in various durations, ranging from three to five days. They provide accommodations with breakfast, a map, a guidebook, and emergency phone support to assist you during your hike.
Q: How can I reach Cornwall from London?
A: The Night Riviera sleeper train provides a convenient option to travel from London to Cornwall. Tickets start from £79 for a one-way journey in a twin cabin. The train departs from Paddington and arrives at St Erth, which is only a short rail journey away from St Ives.
Q: Are the coastal cliffs and beaches of Cornwall beautiful during the off-season?
A: Yes, the coastal cliffs and beaches of Cornwall are just as stunning during the off-season as they are in the summer. The rugged cliffs, golden beaches, and picturesque seascapes retain their beauty, and with fewer people around, you can fully appreciate the natural splendor of the region.