An 13.5 mile walk along the South West Coast Path between Porthcothan and Padstow
A moderate walk by South West Coastpath standards and even with a misty morning it is nonetheless spectacular. The walk includes Harlyn Bay and Mother Iveys Cottage, which is the source of a local legend of a cursed field. The end is at the bustling port of Padstow where there is plenty of opportunity for rewarding refreshments.
Porthcothan to Padstow Walk - Essential Information
First Group - Bus Service
- Service Number
- 56 - First Group 56 service linking Newquay, Mawgan Porth, Porthcothan and Padstow
- First Group (Devon and Cornwall) Website
- Date of Walk
- Walk Time
- 08:00 to 13:30
- Griffmonster, Kat
- Weather Conditions
- Warm, misty start which gave way to sunshine and blue skies around lunchtime
Although this walk detail is from Porthcothan to Padstow, it can, as on this occasion, be extended with a ferry journey to Rock and a walk round to Polzeath where there is the Valley Park campsite. The section to Polzeath is detailed in a separate walk on this site and can be undertaken in its own right. There is an hourly bus service that links Padstow and Porthcothan which makes this walk self contained and why it appears as an independent walk. There is no direct transport to link Porthcothan and Polzeath unless, as on this occasion, a friend is willing to drive around the Camel estuary, otherwise its a return walk to Rock to get the ferry!
The weather forecast for the day of the walk was a misty start with a warm and bright day in prospect. The misty start fulfilled its prediction. A mist that clung in the air in fine droplets and at times turned into fine rain. Being summer and being Cornwall there is always the hope that the sunshine will eventually break through and that is why no waterproofs were donned. Waterproofs tend to suffocate. They fill with sweaty condensation and make one feel damp. The mist and fine rain makes one feel damp, wet even, but at least it is a fresh dampness. The rain did get worse before it got better but perseverance eventually was rewarded with bright sunshine and blue skies emerging on the final stretch around the Camel estuary and down into Padstow. It did not take long to dry off in such weather.
This walk is rated moderate, but there is a lot of easy walking with the first section from Porthcothan Bay, past Treyarnon Bay and around Constantine Bay, being a pleasant ramble with no challenges of any note. The start of Constantine beach was heralded with a sculptured well made from slate. At its base was an inscribed piece of slate inviting passers-by to throw in shells rather than money as shells are nature's resources and money mans invention. A slap in the face of capitalism.
The path continues onto Trevose Head Lighthouse. This beacon was established in 1847 to guide ships trading in the Bristol Channel around the head to Padstow. As the head is rounded a lifeboat station becomes visible, clinging to the cliffs with a long slipway to the waters below. This is Padstow lifeboat station. It seems to be miles away from Padstow, being on the edge of Mother Ivey’s Bay. One can almost think that it was incorrectly named but, looking at its history, it was originally sited at Hawkers Cove on the Camel estuary and was re-sited in October 1967 due to river silting. The lifeboat can now launch from this position into deep water at any state of the tide. Walking around toward Mother Iveys Bay one cannot help but notice that there is beaches on both left and right. it is a little disorientating at first but the left is another view of Constantine Beach and the right is the beach of Mother Iveys Bay.
Mother Iveys Bay and Harlyn Bay are the location of the legend of Mother Ivey's Curse. It involves a cursed field that if anyone dares to cultivate then a death in the family is sure to occur. The details of the curse, the location of the field and the date of its origin are all uncertain and the various re-tellings of the story are discussed in the feature to this walk. The best option for the humble walker is to pass through this area with all thoughts of digging kept firmly in the back of ones mind. Let sleeping curses lie.
Harlyn Bay contains another fine beach and there are plenty of surfers who make use of the waves. The quaint stone built Harlyn bridge is at the far end of the beach, traversing a stream that sinks into the golden sands and is consequently no obstacle to cross. The bridge carries the road through the village and on the opposite side is a pub, The Harlyn Inn. Tempting. However, being mid morning it was not the time for a drink and such thoughts had to be abandoned in favour of a refreshing cup of tea from a mobile tea hut that had set itself up in the car park beyond the beach. This square hut on wheels served burgers, teas, coffees and other snacks and had a few plastic chairs and tables besides it. A little refuge from the days walk where half an hours rest and refreshment was well worth taking from the dribbling misty day.
The one thing lacking from Harlyn is a public toilet. Locals and surfers alike may beg to differ. It is true that there are information signs that point to a public toilet. 'Public Toilet' they indicate in large bold letters and point toward a path in the field adjacent to the road out of Harlyn. This is very assuring to those with full bladders, weak bladders and toilet enthusiasts alike. One can staunchly follow the direction of the sign in full confidence that ones needs or fetishes will be met. And as public toilets go, this one is a very good example. A sturdy brick edifice dedicated to human waste disposal, discreetly masked by vegetation with concrete path between its openings. this is a good, respectful toilet. It has a presence of a public toilet. It looks like a public toilet. It even smells like a public toilet. But alas it is not a public toilet. It is, in fact, an ex-public toilet. The doors are locked and barred. All accounts that state that this public toilet is a going concern are no longer operative. The urinals has flushed their last waters. The bog is gone. The loo lost. The crappers last poo disgorged. The latrine left to rest in peace. This is an ex-kharsi
For some reason, completely unknown to all but the local council, this, as was many other encountered on the sectional multiday walk between Portreath and Polzeath, was up for sale. Each of these public utilities carried a large placard which clearly stated 'To Let' and most were graffitied, quite appropriately, with the letter 'i' between the two words. The disappointment at finding a locked loo is probably the biggest disappointment a civilised person can have. All that pensive frustration having no place of outlet. There was no alternative in this case but to disappear behind the hedge alongside the building and water the vegetation profusely. The relief was heaven. You could almost hear the sound of gushing waters throughout all of North Cornwall.
The next place on the route, a short amble across the cliff tops, is Trevone and the sandy Trevone Bay. It was here we passed a rabble of young hikers. Teenagers with a senior guide. Fully kitted rucksacks and a lot of dejected faces. Maybe one day a few will look back at this and revel in the adventure they had undertaken and the thrills that it provided. But at this point in time one could see their thoughts were of somewhere dry, of somewhere they could dump their packs and walk away. Hopefully one day they will learn that the magnificence of the landscape can overcome all that the weather can throw at you and all the body's aches and pains.
Out of Trevone the path heads round Roundhole Point, so called because it bounds a feature known as Roundhole. Roundhole is a hole in the clifftop which is round. Whoever named this feature certainly had a an inkling of logic about them. It is literally a huge round hole, an eighty feet deep gorge formed by a collapsed sea cave. Roundhole! A most appropriate name although maybe it should be the Cornish rather words than English. Maybe 'kelgh toll' would be more appropriate?
Next up is the most challenging part of the walk with a steep stepped descent into a valley followed by an even steeper clamber up to Gunver Point. By South West Coast Path standards it is not too bad and once at the summit there is a fairly easy walk across the cliff tops to the 19th century tower at the tip of Stepper Point. This hollow, tall stone construction looks like a chimney or even a wrong coloured lighthouse. It is commonly known as a 'day mark' and was built to serve as a navigation beacon for seafarers during daylight. One can wander inside through the opening arch. Gaze through the slit windows. Take shelter from the elements. There are no information boards so pondering can be done on its history, its use and who carted the stone up here to build it. Pondering is good. Pondering is definitely better than information boards.
The path that leaves the daymark is unclear. There is a broad well trodden path across the meadow behind the tower leading down toward the coastguard lookout station. Another path heads around the cliff edge and disappears down into oblivion. One is always wary of taken the wrong path on the South West Coast Path least they lead you over a cliff edge and into oblivion. A quick peer over the edge to where this path led soon established the conclusion that it may well lead to oblivion rather than Padstow. It went down. It looked steep. Oblivion? It was uncertain. The broad well trodden path looked the better option, and appeared to be more like what the official coast path should look like. This is a gentle amble down to the coast guard station. The officer inside put his hand up in recognition. The path then drops down onto a small path in front of the station where there is a waymarker, one sign pointing toward Padstow, the other directing back along the cliffedge up to the path that disappeared down the cliff face. It did not lead to oblivion after all. That was the official route after!
There is now a steady descent down to Hawkers cove followed by an easy walk past Harbour Cove, St Georges Cove and St Savious Point and down into Padstow. It is on this last stretch that one starts to encounter signs of civilisation. Throughout the entire route we had only encountered distant surfers in each sandy bay, the dejected hikers at Trevone and a couple who were laying flat on the grass at the cliff top at Gunver Point, peering over the cliff edge. Now we meet civilisation in all its touristic glory. Elderly folk treading carefully to meet as much a challenge as they dare along the coast path. Couples with pushchairs daring to go to the furthest edges of Padstow. Kids who think walking is an activity that was never designed for humans. And then the port of Padstow is encountered. Teeming with people. And shops. And boats. And seagulls. Everything a popular Cornish resort is typical of.
The South West Coast Path is clearly marked with the usual acorn markers of a national trail
The bus stop at Porthcothan is on the west side of the cove. Walk along the road to the east side and take the path down the track as the road bends inland. continue along the well marked path through out
The only ambiguous part of the path is around Stepper Point. The path goes along the seaward side of the stone wall that bounds the day mark tower and then follows the cliff edge around which is not totally clear. An alternative path cuts across the meadow behind the day mark and emerges back onto the path at the Coast Guard Station.
The Golden Lion, Padstow View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Lanadwell Street, Padstow
The Golden Lion is the oldest inn in Padstow, dating from the 14th century. The Inn is rustic and welcoming. Old posters are framed on the wall advertising the 'Obby 'Oss festival and make compulsive reading. This festival takes place on May 1st each year to celebrate the arrival of Summer. Its origins are believed to lie in the Celtic festival of Baltane and some say it is the oldest May Day tradition in the entire country.
The festival starts at the Golden Lion with unaccompanied singing of the traditional May Day song and then spreads across the town which is decorated with flags, flowers and greenery and a maypole. The 'Obby 'Oss is released from its stable in the pub early in the morning and, accompanied by drumming, dances first around the harbour and then throughout the town attempting to catch girls and young women. The Red 'Obby 'Oss - known as the "Old" 'Oss - looks like a black caped animal with a mask and represents a stallion. The climax of the festival is the dance of the 'Obby 'Oss around the Maypole, and is preceded by the dance of the "Wee 'Oss", a smaller 'Oss operated by children.
The pub offers food and a range of guest ales.
It is always worth scouting around a town in search of something more than the average pub and The Golden Lion is just that. Away from the packed hostelries alongside Padstow Quay, this quieter pub offered the delights of Tintagel's Castle Gold and Padstow brewery's Windjammer, both mighty find refreshing beers as well as some interesting posters about the Old Oss. Friendly. Rustic. Well worth seeking out.
The legend of Mother IveyView in OS Map | View in Google Map
The legend of Mother Ivey, from which the Bay to the west of Harlyn is named, is a tangled web of information that appears to have been passed down through the ages by word of mouth. What is known is that there is an old house which overlooks the Bay that is locally referred to as Mother Iveys Cottage and is marked as such on OS maps dating back to the late 19th century. These days it is a holiday home but it was originally a fish cellar for the local fishing industry although it is uncertain exactly when the building dates from.
Further along the coast, overlooking Onjohn Cove on Harlyn Bay is a 400 year old building known as The Old Fish Cellars or simply The Cellars. This was originally another fish processing house that was converted into a domestic house in the 19th century. In more recent times it has been used as a holiday let with the recognition in 2008 when the then leader of the opposition David Cameron spent a week in residence. The house still bears testament to its original use with a lintel carved with a Latin motto 'Dulcis Lucri odor', meaning 'Profit Smells Sweet'. The press made good of the local legend and stated that the house was haunted and held a curse although this was probably national press stretching the story of the cursed field to fit their purposes. Having said that, the The West Briton publication stated that
to add an intriguing twist to its chequered past, a renovation of the property during the last century apparently uncovered hidden staircases and rooms as well as 'grim evidence of torture'. although there is no reference as to where they found this information.
The legend focuses on a cursed field which, although is probably well known locally, is difficult to pinpoint from published references. The BBCs Domesday Reloaded project, a 1986 project to record a snapshot of everyday life across the UK for future generations, has one entry which states that the field is locally known as Green Close Meadow. Even so, the OS maps and other various mapping services do not reference such a field. Web resources variously identify the field on the coastward side of Harlyn Farm, the field alongside Mother Iveys Cottage and even the field alongside The Cellars. There is also a Green Close off Sandy Lane in Harlyn which would indicate it to be the uncultivated field that the coast path passes through before descending down to the beach in Harlyn Bay although this appears to be the site of Bronze Age burial mounds.
Finally there is the story, the legend that lacks any firm content. The story certainly appears to have been passed down through the ages by word of mouth as published accounts can only be found in more recent books, newspaper articles and web resources. Two accounts expand on the more simple re-iterations that abound across the many websites and guidebooks. Firstly there is an account in 'Poltergeist', a 1981 book by Colin Wilson, an author on the paranormal. He references the story back to another publication named 'The Folklore of Cornwall' by Tony Deane and Tony Shaw which was published in 1975 which itself references the story to an unnamed national Sunday newspaper which carried an article in 1973.
The second account comes from a genealogy web site on a family history page for the Ivey family that has been compiled by a descendant. The specific entry, on which there are additional notes including the legend, is that for Stephen Ivey who was born in 1668 at St Merryn, the parish that contains both Mother Iveys Bay and Harlyn Bay. The notes are authored by a collective of writers, namely Rosamund Derry, Luke Richards, Tom Sharpe and Christophe Philipps, and they detail the legend although there is no reference as to where the information was taken. The notes also state that
...as the curse is thought to have been made about 1600, I have attached the legend to Stephen Ivey as he is the earliest Ivey ancester I have details for at this time, which would appear to relate either Stephen Iveys mother or grandmother as being the Mother Ivey in the legend. There is no indication as to how the date of 1600 was arrived at and there are no contact details to enquire for more information.
The legend, which I take from the genealogy account, is as follows.
The story begins with the highly lucrative pilchard processing business of the Hellyer family of Harlyn Bay, close to Padstow. Pilchards were caught, salted and packed into barrels, then shipped to Italy. The starving villagers employed by the Hellyers were too poor to feed themselves with the fish they had risked their lives harvesting. For them, the motto carved into the granite lintel of the fish cellars - Dulcis Lucri Odor, meaning ‘Profit Smells Sweet’ - was cruelly ironic. To this day the house still bears this inscription, a grim reminder of their plight.
One fateful day in the sixteenth century, when nearby Padstow was an important fishing town, a large cargo of pilchards returned from Italy, unsold. Though past their best, the fish would have been a blessing for the starving villagers. Mother Ivey, a local white witch and healer, approached the Hellyers and requested that they be donated to ease the villagers’ suffering. Despite her pleas, the Hellyers denied the villagers the fish. The pilchards were ploughed into a field as fertilizer instead. Mother Ivey, in her wrath, cursed the field so that if ever its soil was broken, death would follow. The family however, continued to use the field until shortly after this, the Hellier’s eldest son was thrown from his horse and killed whilst riding in the field. Mother Ivey’s curse, it seemed, had claimed its first victim.
For fear of the curse striking again, the field remained fallow for centuries. Mother Ivey’s social justice was proven. As one source of food was denied from the villagers, so another was denied from the family responsible. The story may have turned to legend - very little has been written about the curse; it survives instead as a folktale passed from father to son of the Hellyer family - yet it resonates ominously to this day. Even now, the curse lives on.
During World War Two the Hellyers convinced the Agricultural Committee to leave the field fallow, despite the ‘dig for victory’ campaign. Despite the latter day Hellyers’ impassioned pleas though, the Home Guard, insisted on digging defensive trenches. Only a matter of days later, the owner’s eldest son met a grisly end. Mother Ivey’s curse had struck once more.
Ownership of the estate has since passed from the Hellyer family. The new owners, Mrs Rees, desperate to cleanse the land of the curse, enlisted the help of a local wise woman. Known as a ‘peller’, a word possibly derived from ‘expeller’, she recited incantations over a tin stuffed with fabric, and buried it in the field. Tragically, her efforts proved futile. In the 1970s a group of metal detector enthusiasts began digging in the field unaware of its deadly history. Within days, one of their number suffered a fatal heart attack. As recently as ten years ago, despite fervent warnings a water company disturbed the soil to lay pipes. The following day, the foreman lay dead also. Mother Ivey’s curse has lost none of its power with the slow passing of time.
To this day the field remains fallow in the heart of the beautiful village of Harlyn, overlooking the sea. The farmhouse itself, an imposing grey-stone presence overlooking the bay has revealed an equally ghastly and wicked history of its own. Twentieth century renovation work revealed hidden staircases and rooms, with grim evidence of torture.
There are several things of note from this account:
The date of the curse is now placed in the sixteenth century in this extract although the overview places it around 1600 whereas the 'Poltergeist' book account places it in the 19th century. The story obviously involves the pilchard fishing industry, and a reference to this can be obtained from wikipedia which states
Pilchard fishing and processing was a thriving industry in Cornwall from around 1750 to around 1880, after which it went into an almost terminal decline. This quote is cited to a web based article which no longer exists online. The latter date does fit in with the Fish Cellars being converted to a house in the 19th century which would indicate it was in decline at this time. The Cornish Sardine Management Association website offers a different date,
Since 1555, when exports were first recorded, Cornish pilchards have been salted whole in bulk, then pressed and packed into wooden barrels and boxes and sold throughout Europe.. So it is inconclusive and either date for the legend could be considered although most re-tellings appear to use the earlier date.
The account also indicates that the land ownership passed from the Hellyer family either before or in the 1970s. However this is in conflict with an article in the Cornish Guardian issue dated April 10 1997 concerning an operation undertaken by South West Water known as Clean Sweep. This was a £2 billion project to transform the region's bathing waters and sewerage network and involved laying pipes across the cursed field. The newspaper report relates the future digging of the cursed field in order to lay the pipes:
South West Water has enlisted the help of a vicar to lift an ancient curse on a piece of land. The company wanted to lay a pipe across a field at Harlyn Bay, near Padstow, as part of its £5 million Clean Sweep programme for the North Cornwall coast. But landowner Frank Hellyar was reluctant to let the work go ahead, unless a spell cast upon the field, was lifted. After hearing of the local legend South West Water officials called on the services of the vicar of nearby St Columb the Rev Robert Law a churchman with considerable experience in dealing with poltergeists in houses and lifting curses on land. The field at Harlyn Bay has always been known as the Cursed Field by local people after a spell was put on it by a witch known as Mother Ivey
This clearly states that Frank Hellyer was the landowner at this time, which post dates the genealogy article reference which had stated the land had passed from the Hellyer family in the 1970's. The article continues:
The witch, whose name is commemorated in the popular beach known as Mother IVEY's Bay cast the spell after the local landowner had ordered that unsold pilchards should be ploughed into the soil there as fertiliser rather than be distributed. to starving local people. She said that if anyone ever ploughed the field again the eldest male member of their family would die. Any attempt to disturb the field has shown that there could be substance in the superstition, says Frank Hellyar, whose family has owned the land for the past 170 years.
Mr Law went out to the Cursed Field and first took a position in each of the four corners. He then held a short service with prayers in the middle of the field, and now the excavators have been into the field and laid the pipe which connects to the CleanSweep scheme for Padstow. Mr Hellyar said that his predecessors had bought the field from a family named Peter. According to local legend, one of their ancestors owned both the land and the pilchard fleet in Harlyn Bay. Each year, the pilchard catch was pressed and salted and a small ship would sail from Harlyn to Italy where they were a sought-after delicacy. Mr Peter ordered the captain of the ship to ensure the pilchards fetched a certain price, and when the Italians would not pay it he headed back to Cornwall with the fish on board When the little coaster arrived back with the pilchards, the hungry villagers from St Merryn and Trevose came down to the harbour, where part of the fish cellars still exist, expecting to pick up some free food. Hard-hearted Mr Peters ordered his men to plough the pilchards into the field. This prompted Mother IVEY to make the curse.
Mr Hellyar does not want to go into details, but he says there have been events, which could have been coincidence, but he felt South West Water should know of the story before they went any further. "We have had tragedies in the past, so I didn't take a chance " Stephen Swain, a spokesman for South West Water, said: "We agreed to call in a local priest and remove the curse and the landowner was then happy for us to carry out the work."
One would assume that the reference to the water company foreman dieing in the Genealogy account is in relation to this work although I can find now collaborative evidence of such a death.
Returning to the question of the land ownership, the 'Poltergeist' account states that the land was farmed by a Mr Bennett (I assume this is to be at the date of the original newspaper report from which the account is taken in the 1970's) and also mentions that a Mrs Mary Rees is the joint owner of the field which is in partial agreement with the genealogy account. Maybe we could speculate that the farm was tenanted with the Hellyers still in ownership of the land.
A snippet of information that can help us to date the original story comes from Frank Hellyer's mention of the previous owners of the field being the Peters family. He states that his family had owned the land for the past 170 years which would place the date of the legend to some time before 1827. The Peters family were indeed landowners from as early as the sixteenth century and are credited to the building the small quay under Cataclews Cliffs in 1794. This makes it none the clearer as to when the curse was laid.
This is about all that can be determined from the published sources thus far. I guess the legend is kept close to the lips of the locals and would take a lot of trust to get more information.
Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information
Summary of Document Changes
Last Updated: ... 2016-01-16