The quiet waters and wooded banks of the Helford River inspire thoughts of tall sailing ships stealing through dawn mist. Sails are still in evidence today, and during spring and summer you’ll see a constant to-ing and fro-ing of yachts across the mouth of the river as they tack into the sanctuary of the Helford and head upriver. The Helford is where the famous Cornish novelists Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier set their romantic stories.
A perfect hiding place
The Helford’s cross-Channel connections are historic. French privateers and smugglers were united with their Cornish brethren through smuggling – a respected, though illegal, business during the 18th and 19th centuries. Seagoers, legitimate and otherwise, would have used the river as a perfect hiding place from storms and the authorities. The Helford was later used during World War II by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which sent specially adapted boats, disguised as Breton fishing vessels, to mingle with the French fishing fleet. These vessels and their crews passed on special agents, equipment and information under the eyes of a German-crewed overseer vessel. Today the French connection is a strong as ever, with countless sailing trips to Brittany starting from the river.
Mawnan Church stands on the site of a prehistoric earthwork. An original structure was erected in the 13th century, but changes have taken place over the years. In spite of clumsy restoration work of the early 19th century, the building retains great character. The name Mawnan again underlines the area’s strong connections with France, as it is believed to have been the name of a Breton monk who settled here during the 6th century ad. The site is possibly Bronze Age and Iron Age, a typical progression in the siting of Cornish religious buildings. There are 13th-century remnants, not least a fine piscina – a water basin with carved heads – in the wall of the chancel. You can try out your Cornish language, Kernewek, at the 19th-century lychgate, whose inscription translates as ‘It is good for me to draw nigh unto God’.
The first part of the walk makes its pleasant way from Mawnan Church via a lane and then a field path to the coast, and then follows the coast path round Toll Point, overlooking the mouth of the Helford River. As the route leads away from the coast and along the north shore of the river the value of Helford as a sheltered anchorage becomes obvious. The mix of wild foreshore with a hinterland of lush green fields and woods is a token of long-term ownership by grand estates, which created an almost park-like ambience that sits happily with the natural beauty of the river. The National Trust now owns a good section of the riverbank south of Mawnan Smith, and maintains this sense of beauty and serenity for all. From a little stony beach at Porth Saxon, the route heads inland to the outskirts of the village of Mawnan Smith and then leads back to the coast at Rosemullion Head and so back to Mawnan Church, where a visit to the churchyard uncovers history in stone.
Leave the car park and walk up the lane for about 300yds (274m). Turn right through a gate, between the entrances to houses, and follow a public footpath along a track. Go over a stile and follow the left-hand edge of a field.
Join the coast path at the seaward corner of the field. Turn right and follow the coast path along the edge of the field, to go through a wooden kissing gate.
Continue along the coast path for just over 0.5 miles (800m). Emerge from the woods and go through a kissing gate into a field. Keep straight ahead along the field-edge, with views of the Helford River.
Go through a kissing gate by a wooden bench, and over a stone stile. Follow the path, soon descending some steps, and continue along the river’s edge. Go through a wooden kissing gate into a field and keep straight ahead, descending steeply. Go through a kissing gate and cross above the small stony beach at Porthallack. Ignore the footpath going inland. Turn right to the left of a boathouse, go through a kissing gate and turn left along the field edge. Go over a stile, pass another boathouse and cross above Porth Saxon beach.
Pass in front of yet another boathouse, and then turn sharply right off the coast path by a National Trust sign for ‘Carwinion’ and follow a track inland. Go into a field and, in 30yds (33m), go through a gate and follow a wide stony track for 0.5 miles (800m) through woodland. Cross a slate bridge and continue straight ahead to pass alongside Carwinion Garden. Climb steeply to a wooden gate and then follow a track. At a junction by Carwinion Cottage keep right and follow a track to the public road on the outskirts of Mawnan Smith.
Turn right down the road, walking with care. Keep round left at a junction by Nansidwell. In just over 300yds (300m) turn right, go over a concrete stile and continue down a driveway. Go through a gate and follow a path down to the coast.
In sight of a small, rocky beach, turn right and follow the narrow coast path. At Rosemullion Head, bear off left along a barely discernible path, and skirt round the seaward edge of the Head. Join the coast path, which becomes the lower, less prominent of the two paths. Cross a wooden bridge and a stile into a field. Go over another stone stile into a field and turn immediately right (waypoint 2 of the walk). Go steeply up the field edge to reach a stile by a gate. Continue to the road and turn left to reach Mawnan Church and the car park.
Good coastal and field paths, short sections of road walking; many stiles
Wooded riverbank and low coastline
Lead required for field sections and roads
OS Explorer 103 The Lizard
By Mawnan Church (fee charged)
Opposite the Red Lion pub in Mawnan Smith (on road to Helford Passage)
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Discover Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
Cornwall has just about everything – wild moorland landscapes, glorious river valley scenery, picturesque villages and miles of breathtaking coastline. With more than 80 surfing spots, there are plenty of sporting enthusiasts who also make their way here to enjoy wave-surfing, kite surfing and blokarting.
In recent years, new or restored visitor attractions have attracted even more visitors to the region; the Eden Project is famous for its giant geodesic domes housing exotic plants from different parts of the globe, while nearby the Lost Gardens of Heligan has impressive kitchen gardens and a wildlife hide.