Explore nature’s landmark and the wildlife that thrives upon it
Words and photographs by Rebecca Bentley
This walk undoubtedly offers some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring scenery in the county and like much of Cornwall, it’s steeped in myth and legend (albeit a Victorian fabrication in this case). This stretch of Atlantic coastline is also a haven for wildlife, and it’s also a hotspot for geologists who are fascinated by the iconic rock stacks that have been eroded by crashing waves over thousands of years, making Bedruthan Steps the famous landmark it is today.
This is a wondrous landscape for walking where you’ll spot linnets, stonechats, fulmars and black-backed gulls nesting in the summer months, as well as pink sea thrift, golden gorse and the little blue stars of spring squill jutting from the heath on the cliff tops. The National Trust car park at Carnewas is very near the Steps so you can get a good look at them without having to venture far if walking isn’t your thing – though the stairs leading down require some effort and are not for the faint hearted so make sure you’ve got good walking shoes on and it’s probably best if you’re not prone to vertigo.
I began my walk from Porthcothan car park, taking the coastal path down to Bedruthan Steps and then followed it back up again because I wanted to enjoy the seascape on the way back too, but you can catch the First 556 bus (previously the Western Greyhound) back up to Porthcothan if you prefer – it’s roughly 2.5 miles each way. The bus stop is by The Inn at Bedruthan, which you can’t fail to notice for the word ‘Inn’ written across the roof of the building but bear in mind that the bus service is limited.
The route is simple, you cross the B3276 road from Porthcothan car park (watch out for cars coming round the bend here) and head across to Porthcothan Bay, joining the South West Coast Path at the cliff tops on the left and follow the path all the way down to Carnewas where you’ll see Bedruthan Steps come into view. Just beyond the Steps you can rest at the National Trust Shop and Café, which were originally built as mining buildings in 19th century when the area was of hub of industrial activity.
Although Bedruthan Steps now refers to the rock stacks and the beach from which they protrude, it is believed to have originally been the name of the hazardous stairways carved from the cliffs during the mining days with the earliest record of the name being found in an edition of The West Briton newspaper from 1847. These stairs were destroyed by landslides and rebuilt by the National Trust in the 70s – the Trust closes the stairway from November 2 to mid-February each year as the beach can be very dangerous in the winter months and swimming is not permitted throughout the year.
As tourists began flocking to holiday in Newquay during the Victorian era, Carnewas and Bedruthan became a popular tourist attraction, with many visitors being drawn by the legend of the giant Bedruthan who was said to have used the stacks as stepping-stones to cross the bay. This is likely to have been a local invention to lure tourists as farmers benefitted by charging tolls for each horse that pulled the visitor’s carriages to the site.
The five stacks formed after the last ice age as the softer rock along the coast eroded was by the sea, leaving behind the harder rock in the form of islets, and each has been given its own name over the years; Queen Bess, Samaritan Island, Redcove Island, Pendarves Island and Carnewas Island. Queen Bess Rock was named in Victorian times as it was thought to look like Elizabeth I, but the Queen has since lost her head to the waves, whilst Samaritan Island takes its name from a cargo vessel that crashed into it in 1846. Sometimes strong currents shift the sands from the base of the rock, exposing remnants of the rotting keel of its namesake.