Our spring break road trip to Cornwall started as a trip to the West Country, but it soon became apparent that there was way too much to see to cover the whole area. So we decided to do the bit furthest west and stick to Cornwall and you can’t go further west in England than Cornwall without getting wet!
After the long drive from London, we collected our groceries for the first few days and settled into our cosy Airbnb in St. Ives for the evening, all ready to hit the road the following day and start exploring.
The first stop on our itinerary was Gwennap Pit. This circular amphitheatre in the small village of Gwennap is still used for religious services, as well as other events. It is commonly believed that the pit formed due to collapsed mine workings. Today, it is landscaped and can hold 1,500 people in its 12 tiered rings.
It was a bit wet under foot when we got there, but only the very centre was a little muddy and it was easy enough to descend out of the wind. It doesn’t take long to visit, but was a curious and interesting thing to start our trip with.
Kennall Vale Gunpowder Factory
Next up was a find from Atlas Obscura– the Kennall Vale Nature Reserve which is the former site of a gunpowder factory. The entrance is tricky to find and we struggled to find definitive directions online so we eventually contacted the Cornish Wildlife Trust who kindly confirmed our thinking about where the entrance is. Parking is in the village and please don’t park on Cot Hill and obstruct traffic. From there it’s then a gentle walk uphill to the entrance where the path goes in front of a cottage and you’ll see the gate to enter the reserve. Just inside is a map showing the main features of the remains of the gunpowder works.
The first part of the walk is fairly flat and forms a gentle stroll through pleasant woods and many people were walking their dogs along the path whilst we were there. The first building you come to is the remains of the Packing House. There isn’t much to see here now, just the walls of the building and no remaining clues as to what it was for. Continuing on the same path you arrive at the quarry which long since flooded and is now a peaceful oasis. Granite from here was used to prepare memorials for the First World War and in the stonework of the London Embankment.
Just beyond the quarry is the blacksmith; I imagine it was kept some distance away from the other buildings for good reason- blacksmiths generate sparks and use fires!! We took a small wrong turn here and didn’t continue on to the Corning House and instead we cut across the river and up to the more perilous part of the reserve. At the entrance they do warn you that the path here is more difficult than the rest. Up here, it’s more of a clamber and there is running water to navigate, but it’s worth it. This is where the Incorporating Mills are and I think these were the most interesting parts of the gunpowder factory.
Each pair of mills was powered by a waterwheel between them and you can still clearly see the path the water would have taken to power the wheel. Inside each house (some are more accessible than others) the remains of the drive wheels can be seen which makes it easy to envisage how the process worked to take the energy from the rushing water to grind the ingredients for gunpowder.
The ruins of the Change House and Mixing House marked the end of our exploration. These are just the shells of buildings, similar to the blacksmiths at the start. We returned to the entrance via the stone bridge across the River Kennall and headed back down the hill to the car.
If you would like to read more about the site and the process of making gunpowder, Cornish Mining has an excellent PDF.
Cornish Seal Sanctuary
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek was our next port of call. This is a working facility looking after seals that have been rescued, and hopefully rehabilitating them so they can return to the wild. Whilst centred around seals, you will also get to see sea lions, penguins and otters as you explore the site.
At the convalescence pool we saw the seals being fed and noticed the keepers were standing well back from the edge of the fence overlooking the pool and throwing the fish into the pools. At first it seemed like a bit of larking about rather than just delivering the fish more easily, but in fact they do this so that the seals don’t see where the fish come from. If they did, they might start to associate humans with food and approach them in the wild instead of hunting for their own meal, so it’s actually all part of the rehabilitation process.
Whilst the intention is to return the animals to the wild, some of them have been at the centre for quite some time and it seems will never return to the wild. It’s an interesting place to visit and your entrance fee helps ensure they can continue their work. I’m not a big fan of zoos where animals are kept in captivity purely for us to see them, but here you can see animals as they are helped to return, where possible, to the sea to live out the rest of their lives naturally.
Goonhilly Earth Station
A quick photo stop next, the Goonhilly Earth Station is a private facility handling space communications, so you can’t go in and have a look around. As we were passing anyway, we pulled over to take a quick picture of the two huge satellite dishes that dominate the site.
Lizard Point is a peninsula within the peninsula of Cornwall and contains the southernmost point in the British mainland. As well as offering a rugged and beautiful coastline, it is also where modern communications began -something we’d be learning more about at our last stop of the day. For now we headed out to the point, past the ‘Most Southerly House‘, with the lighthouse off to our left to enjoy the beautiful views and enjoy the sea air.
Our penultimate stop was Kynance Cove, a beautiful cove managed by the National Trust. Be aware there are two routes from the car park so if you want to visit the beach café and the tide is in, make sure you take the rightmost route. The left route, whilst more direct, means crossing the beach to get to the café, so when the tide is in that would be perilous to say the least! We only went down to the rocks overlooking the incoming tide to enjoy the view, listen to the waves crashing over the rocks, and watch the people who were trying to avoid waves as they made their way to the café across the rapidly disappearing beach.
Our final stop was arguably the birthplace of modern communications- the Marconi Centre which stands on the ground that the first ever transatlantic radio signal was transmitted from. On the 12th December 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, listening on the other side of the Atlantic in St. John’s, Newfoundland, heard the distinctive three clicks of a Morse ‘S’. Whilst there is some scepticism surrounding whether this first test was successful, wireless communication clearly was and this groundbreaking work lead to the wireless connected world we all rely on on a daily basis. In fact you might well be reading this web-page via WiFi or 4G.
Today, all of the apparatus is long since disappeared and the site is a field with a few blocks of concrete buried in the soil. However the spot is marked by an obelisk and the museum, for it’s significance in the story of wireless communication, would make a good world heritage site in my view.
The museum is run by local amateur radio enthusiasts so you’ll need to check the opening times as it’s only open when they can spare the time. We made sure to be there when it was open and looked at the exhibits which includes Morse keys that you can play with, and the story of this historic site and its impact on the world. One of the volunteers was free to chat with us and provided much interesting information about some of the exhibits. He also tried to demonstrate how the original apparatus that was used to transmit the signal worked; sadly the demo model was playing up and wouldn’t co-operate for him!
We left the museum, leaving a donation to help them continue their work and headed back to our Airbnb with our first, very varied, day of exploring Cornwall at an end.
To read more about our adventures on our Cornwall Road Trip, please feel free to check out these posts:
Next Post: Coming soon….