I grew up on two wheels. We lived in a remote, steep-sided valley in the wilds of west Cornwall and my teenage independence depended on my bicycle. One of my first travel experiences was a cycling expedition around the county with some school friends. Back then, the whirr of bicycle wheels was the sound of freedom.
Decades later, I couldn’t resist the lure of a trip down memory lane when I heard about the launch of the new West Kernow Way. Starting in Penzance and finishing 143 miles later at St Michael’s Mount in the adjacent bay, this newly designated cycle trail wends its way in a drunken figure-of-eight around the Land’s End and Lizard peninsulas, stretching east as far as Portreath on the north coast. It seemed to be the perfect mix of coastal and inland Cornwall featuring many off-the-beaten-track sections that most visitors never get to see.
“Is this cheating?” I asked myself as Polly at Ebikes Penzance showed me how to operate and recharge both the battery and the satnav on my rental bike. I once cycled coast-to-coast across America and promised myself I would never get off and push. I kept my word, even in the Rockies. But this time I was determined to enjoy the trail’s more modest ups as much as its euphoric downs.
I was soon cruising along the promenade around the western end of Mount’s Bay as shafts of autumn sunlight turned St Michael’s Mount into an Arthurian vision. Newlyn and Mousehole harbours – “pronounced Mowzle me ’ansom!” – are like the odd couple, one a commercial fishing port with its colourful armada of boats and a cacophony of screeching gulls, the other all ancient cobble-stones and Doc Martin quaintness.
My turbo-charged legs powered me into the wild lands of West Penwith, stopping briefly to party with the Merry Maidens, one of the many stone circles, menhirs, dolmens that haunt the inland moors. The trail then heads to Porthcurno where Rowena Cade created the Minack Theatre, the eerie cliff-top where I have watched performances since the 1960s.
Weather is always a gamble on a cycling expedition, but this time the roulette wheel seemed to have spun in my favour. On every one of my four days on the trail, the low autumn light threw hypnotic shadows from the crisp leaves and branches of sycamore trees onto the hedges of the narrow lanes. It showcased the season at its most beguiling with the dancing red fairies of the fuchsia bushes in full bloom, smiling locals tending their gardens outside granite cottages and baleful cows mooing from the fields beyond.
After skirting around the still-crowded car park at Land’s End, I stopped briefly in Sennen to peek inside its ancient church which dates back to AD 520. On the wall at the back of the nave are wooden boards inscribed with a message to the parishioners from Charles I thanking them for their loyalty during the Civil War. Heading on I exchanged a cheery wave with some fellow ebikers, who offered a refreshing change from the disapproving stares of the lycra brigade.
In St Just, my Cornish endeavour continued as I picked up a pasty from Warrens, the oldest pasty shop in Cornwall (est 1860), and sat down in Market Square – in reality an almost perfect triangle – to watch the world go by. Downing a pint of Doom Bar ale outside the adjacent pub, a white-bearded gent with a wand reminiscent of something that Merlin would wield and a giant garnet on his finger chatted amiably to some female goths with bright purple and orange hair. Pushing off once more, I paused just outside town to snap a picture of a mile-stone sign still featuring the pointing fingers of days gone by, just as a vintage 1950s Rolls Royce Silver Ghost swished by. I found myself half expecting to find a phone box with the A and B buttons of my youth.
The route from St Just follows moorland along the Tinners Way, one of the trail’s reclaimed “lost ways” which has its origins in the Bronze Age but was also an important highway during Cornwall’s tin mining boom in the 18th and 19th centuries. Offering a unique insight into Cornwall’s mining heritage – set off by the stark beauty of its inland moors – this lost route turned out to be one of the most unusual and compelling sections of my entire ride.
Cycling UK, who pioneered the trail, classify the route as “blue” – a moderate rating suitable for anyone with experience of off-road surfaces, but avoiding any extreme technical sections. Most cyclists will probably spend four days on the trail, but a lot depends on whether you are goal-orientated or are taking a more relaxed approach. In high summer, accommodation can be hard to find, but B&Bs, campsites and coastal hotels are all good options – especially if booked well in advance – whether exactly on the route or in the nearby vicinity.
As I made my way towards the Lizard Peninsula, I couldn’t resist a short detour through Helston – adjacent to the valley where I grew up and home to that irrepressible Spring bacchanalia, the Furry Dance. Once at the peninsula itself, ghostly figures from decades past – smiling and laughing I am happy to report – danced along beside me through such familiar landmarks as Porthleven and Mullion, before skirting the cliffs at Kynance Cove, circling around Lizard Point and heading up the east coast through Cadgwith to beautiful Coverack where I spent the night.
My final full day took me to Gweek on the Helford Passage, the inspiration for Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, then north over the hills west of Falmouth, skirting the alluring bleakness of Stithians Reservoir and beyond Redruth to Portreath. Every corner I turned revealed unexpected highlights. With its combination of coastal views, winding rivers, wooded creeks and an inland patchwork of fields and lanes, it was the perfect end to the ride – a section that captured the appeal of the West Kernow Way as a whole.
Gearing back for normality, I found myself in rushing train-catching mode on the trail back to Penzance, the ebike battery tuned to flat-out turbo. But I did manage to steal enough time to climb Carn Brea on the outskirts of Redruth. As I gazed out over this ancient landscape, Daphne Du Maurier’s moving elegy to a lost past, Vanishing Cornwall, first published in 1967, popped into my mind. Changed since my childhood? Yes. But vanished? Most certainly not.
The route: A PDF of the West Kernow Way can be found on the Cycling UK website (cyclinguk.org).
Where to stay: Accommodation should be booked well in advance if visiting during peak season. My choices were a few miles off the trail itself but all within easy reach. Hotel Penzance (01736 363117; hotelpenzance.com) from £79; Pedn Olva Hotel, St Ives (01736 796222; pednolva.co.uk) from £120; Bay Hotel, Coverack (01326 280464; thebayhotel.co.uk) from £96; Driftwood Spars, St Agnes (01872 552428; driftwoodspars.co.uk) from £77.
Bicycle hire: Ebike Penzance (07394 981083; ebikecornwall.com) rent e-bikes with powerful Bosch motors and waterproof satnav systems programmed with requested routes from £30 for three hours; £100 for three days; £180 for seven days