The Penwith Tour is a perfect drive around West Cornwall (formally know as West Penwith) that follows the coast beside the tranquil waters of Mounts bay with the iconic St Michael’s Mount and then on to the ancient town of Penzance with her granite clad streets, before skirting the bay to the fishing port of Newlyn to the pretty harbour at Mousehole in part one.
Part two explores the hidden fishing coves and stone circles, the world famous Minack open air theatre on the way to Land’s End.
Last month I started to write about planning a balance between leisure times and trying to see as much as possible of West Cornwall if you are staying couple of days with us at Ednovean Farm. The “Penwith tour” is a contrast to my walking day suggestions following the Penwith Peninsular by car and yet never far from the sea and it is a great way to West Cornwall
The Penwith tour part I – Marazion to Mousehole
West Penwith or West Cornwall if you prefer, is a little bit like an island, only about nine miles wide at times and it is possible to see the sea on both sides in places – so by following the coastal road around the edge you’ll have a wonderful overview of the area if your time is limited. Maybe you’d prefer to break it down into sections, if you have lots of days to explore in though.
So let’s start! Pick up the A394 just above the farm and turn left towards Marazion, and keep to the first exit at the mini roundabout.
An ancient Market town Marazion grew from the two markets: – Marghasyou (Thursday market) and Marhasvean (small market) winds down the hillside beside Mounts Bay with lovely views to St Michael’s Mount of course. It is the oldest chartered town in Cornwall with a well preserved medieval layout.
The village square has a gaggle of tiny shops, art galleries and a museum to explore with pubs and cafes offering al fresco tables to tempt the weary. Beyond the square, the causeway beckons winding across the sands to St Michael’s Mount at low tide or cobbled alleys lead to the boat landing stations at high tide. As one boatman sagely advised “Look to see where there’s a bit of activity m’dear!” The pick up point varies between the harbour or Chapel rock depending on the depth of water.
To park fork right just after the Godolphin Arms signed “Castle car park” The terrace of the Godolphin arms is a wonderful place to grab a quick coffee while waiting for the causeway to open.
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St Michael’s Mount
An ancient raised island cut off by the sea at high tide topped by the remains of an early monastery now the home of the St Alban family.
The mount has powerful pagan roots with lay lines intersecting there and the folk memories reach back deep into pre Christian history – the Cornish name Cara Clowse in Cowse “The Hoare Rocke in the wood”. This refers to a time over 2000 years ago when Mounts bay was a swampy forest and I’ve heard it is possible to see the remains of trees at very low tide – certainly a tree trunk unearthed in pipe laying excavations near to Penzance was carbon dated to 2000 years old.
Early visitor would have come to trade for tin and copper – the secret fiercely guarded by the Cornish and fancifully it is claimed that the Phoenicians came to trade in their black boats, carrying black cats…..Well there are a lot of black cats in Cornwall!
The mount became a place of pilgrimage when the Archangel St Michael appeared to the fishermen in 495 AD which led to the construction of firstly a small church and then a Celtic monastery. It was handed over to the Benedictine Monks of Mont-St-Michel in France by Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) it became an important place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages and it is still possible to walk St Michael’s Way, an overland route from St Ives that the pilgrims would have taken to avoid the hazardous sea voyage around Land’s End.
The abbey was appropriated by Henry V during the hundred year’s war and the abbey was finally dissolved in 1548 to become a fortress. It was from St Michael’s Mount a beacon was lit, to warm of the Spanish armada in 1588. The Spanish did make landfall in Mousehole across the bay in 1595, causing Francis Godolphin and the Penzance militia to have to withdraw and leave Mousehole to the Spanish for two days. Mousehole will be on your route later in the tour!
Arms for the Civil war were stored there and after the war it was purchased by Col St Alban 1659 and his descendants live there to this day.
There are a small group of buildings beside the harbour – the survivors of a big demolition in the 1900 and from here a cobbled path winds its way up under the trees to the top of the Mount. Don’t miss the Chevy chase room with its splendid freeze, the Blue drawing room and the chapel of course, with some wonderful blue glass and stories of giants bones discovered in a bricked up cavity.
As you would expect the views from the terraces are spectacular looking out across Mounts Bay and if you do have a chance do take in the fabulous terraced gardens which open this year on 20th April. For more details St Michael’s Mount
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Leave Marazion behind now, to follow the seas shore between the beach and marshes to reach Penzance.
Penzance derives its name from the Cornish: – Pen Sans, meaning holy headland (although you notice the words order is swapped as in French to “head holy”) From early beginnings when it was considered less important than Marazion a thriving sea port was established.
In early times, Penzance suffered attacks by Turkish Pirates – although it was later that many of the medieval buildings were destroyed by an opportunist raid by the Spanish Don Carlos de Amesquita who had been patrolling the channel in 1588. It must have been a wild and wilful place to live in those days with pirates, the ever present smugglers and press gangs.
As the affluent mining industry emerged, Penzance became a stannary town by royal charter in 1663 and became the most important tin mining town west of Truro and Coinage Hall was built in the Market Place.
I usually suggest parking in the harbour car park and then ignore the modern shopping development take the slipway beside Penzance Dry dock to Chapel Street.
Chapel street was the original main street and has some fine architecture. Make your way passed the Turks Head (1233) and The Admiral Benbow inns along the worn granite pavements of Chapel Street and then continue uphill into Causeway head which is full of small independent shops. If you prefer to turn to your left, to descend Market Jew street with its raised granite terrace and see the imposing statue of Sir Humphry Davy looking down over Market Jew street.
If time permits a visit to Penlee House Museum and gallery, in Morrab road to see some of the Penzance and Newlyn School paintings from the time of the thriving artist’s colony will not disappoint.
Time to drive on now across the Ross bridge (which is sometimes raised to allow access to the dry dock) and wind passed the working harbour where the Scillonian berths at night and then on along Penzance promenade, brave with brightly fluttering flags in Summer and still with the nostalgic hint of the days of fashionable seaside holidays of yesteryear. Look out for a very fine surviving Lido on the seawards side before the road merges almost imperceptibly into Newlyn.
Newlyn has a busy fishing port and the granite harbour and fish market is open to the public. This is very much a working harbour without thrills that lands some of the best fish in the country. It is possible to buy fresh crab and lobster from Harvey or Stevenson Fish merchants.
Back to the car and follow the road along passed the scar of Newlyn quarry and around to Mousehole. There is free parking beside the road above the village or paid parking on the harbour arms.
This is a charming gaggle of Cornish cottages set around the harbour with winding granite paved alleys and a real must for your tour. I can almost imagine the rather well off artist of the Penzance and Newlyn colony, flamboyantly drawing up in an open roadster beside the Ship Inn!
The manor house further up the hill was the last to fall to the notorious raid by the Spanish in 1595 and a rare survivor of the raid. I found a brief extract here in A survey of Cornwall – notice the original spellings
“The three & twentieth of July, 1595. soone after the Sun was risen, and had chased a fogge, which before kept the sea out of sight, 4. Gallies of the enemy presented themselues vpon the coast, ouer-against Mousehole,  and there In a faire Bay, landed about two hundred men, pikes and shot, who foorthwith sent their forlorne hope, consisting of their basest people, vnto the stragled houses of the countrie, about halfe a mile compasse or more, by whome were burned, not only the houses they went by, but also the Parish Church of Paul, the force of the fire being such, as it vtterly ruined all the great stonie pillers thereof: others of them in that time, burned that fisher towne Mousehole, the rest marched as a gard for defence of these firers. The Inhabitants being feared with the Spaniards landing and burning, fled from their dwellings, and verie meanely weaponed, met with Sir Francis Godolphin on a greene, on the West side of Pensance………”
For a more modern literature particularly if you have somebody very young to buy for look for a copy of the “Mousehole Cat” a delightful legend about the magic of a cat helping her master to save the village from starvation and still celebrated in Tom Bawcocks Eve to this day. I found this sweet little film to finish my blog today
For more information about Penzance
To follow the Penwith tour