St Michael’s Way – 11/13.5 miles – 1 day – Lelant to St Michael’s Mount. A coast-to-coast micro-pilgrimage in the Westernmost reaches of Cornwall. The pilgrimage offers diverse holy places, from ancient Irish Saints at its start, to Giants on hilltops and their stones, to flowing holy water. Route Description by Will Parsons.
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St Michael’s Way
Forth Sen Myghal
A Pilgrimage of Stone, Miracles and Water
Train travel to St Ives or Lelant can be arranged through www.thetrainline.com/.
St Michael’s Way is a one-day coast-to-coast Micro-Pilgrimage in Cornwall. It traverses the north-south line between Penwith and the world. It offers a pilgrimage of ancient stones, lost miracles, and holy wells – through a land of Saints and Giants.
The route was created after the discovery of ancient shipping rosters proving that pilgrims historically came to Lelant by sea on their way to Santiago de Compostela, and travelled over land to Marazion to avoid the waters of Lands End.
St Michael’s Way is the only pilgrimage route in Britain that is officially part of a European Cultural Route. It is a genuine British leg of the Camino to Santiago!
St Michael’s Way connects five churches, four holy wells (plus one lost), two hillforts, two standing stones, two disappeared chapels, a monumental needle, a nature reserve, and a river both near source and joining the sea – set amongst incredible scenery and unique countryside, deep in the heart of Old Cornwall.
In 2015 a group of called Friends of St Michael’s Way formed in Cornwall, with the aim of working with other groups to care for and promote this incredible path which had for a number of years previously been rather neglected. Visit their website here.
The routes and information shared below are based on their official route – but with a few minor deviations…
The route starts at Lelant, once an important harbour as part of the Hayle Estuary. Saint Euny arrived here from Ireland, and successfully shared Christianity with native Cornish folk. Lelant was his burial place. His feast day is on the 1st of February. However, Lelant’s oldest Saint was not Euny but St. Anta, a mysterious and long-forgotten woman of the Celtic past. Her Church was probably on this same site, but local legend speaks of huge sand-drifts burying it entirely. There is also local legend that the rectangular churchyard of Leland Church indicates it was a Roman fort.
Lelant Church is the start of your pilgrimage. As with all holy places, we recommend circumambulation – walking in a circle around the outside (clockwise) before entering, to honour the place and to ritualise your encounter. It’s a micro-pilgrimage of its own.
Once inside, give your pilgrimage a proper start. You are about to move a long way, so be still now. This is a place to set your pilgrimage intentions in place, to open yourself in preparation for the journey ahead. Contemplate/pray/meditate. You might wish to light a candle, say words aloud, or sing a song as an offering.
From St Uny’s Church cross the golf course toward the blue, then follow the south West Coast Path through the dunes with the sea on your right.
A kilometre along the path can be found the somewhat perilous but beautiful St Euny’s Well – also known as the Fairy Well or Wishing Well. Greet the water by putting both hands in. Tradition suggests leaving a gift of silver. We recommend the purest quality you can – you don’t want to leave a gift that pollutes the water. A 1915 silver thrupenny piece is 925 silver and costs around £1.20. This is a good gift to leave. Likewise, if you tie a ‘cloutie’ rag near a holy well, ensure it is made of natural fibres – cotton or wool – as nylon and polyester rags will remain forever, and will degrade the pure source you are trying to honour. We do not want to be prescriptive – but please do be thorough and mindful in your gestures at holy places.
Continue past Carbis Bay until you turn off the South West Coast Path. Pass through suburbia for a while, seeking beauty as you can. The Pilgrims Pledges recommend catching the eye and smiling at folk you meet. It can work small miracles. Follow Steeple Lane until it goes green and town disappears behind.
The Knill Monument should be unmissable now. Go there. John Knill (1733-1811) was a customs officer and mayor of St Ives, and he built this as his mausoleum. He purchased the entire hill and spent a fortune in doing so! But he was buried in Holborn, London. However, the second element of his bequest was respected – and still is. Every five years, ten maidens under ten years old, all dressed in white, daughters of local miners, fishermen and seamen, dance around the tower to a fiddler’s music on St James Day (July 25th). Also in attendance are two local widows in black, the local Mayor and the Customs Controller. This has been done continuously since 1801 (even before Knill’s death). It remains a very popular event.
Follow Laity Lane for a kilometre, then cut across a holiday park. You soonafter pass the Beersheba Standing Stone – a 10 ft Menhir – in cow fields on your left. This is private property, so we cannot recommend going to meet it.
Where the track meets the road at Mennor, pass straight over. You will find the Bowl Rock tucked into a layby beside the road. This round erratic stone has the legend of being used for a bowling game between two Giants: Treccoben of Trencrom and Cormoran of St Michael’s Mount. From a Cornwall of coastal Saints, you are now entering a land of hilltop Giants.
You are at the foot of Trencrom Hill. If you ascend, this will be your Mount Joy (the standard Medieval name for any place from which you first see your pilgrimage destination). We therefore recommend ignoring waymarkers that direct you round the lower edge. Instead, climb directly to the top. If you are worried about fitness, go slowly and rest often.
This was a Neolithic single-walled enclosure, and an Iron Age hillfort. It is an obvious strongpoint. You can see forever from here, and the rocks on the top – known as Giant’s Chair, Giant’s Cradle and Giant’s Spoon – offer shelter whichever wind blows. This is a holy hill, so spend some time in quiet here, and make connection through contemplation, prayer or meditation. Also, sit in wonder among the endless vistas. This is the sort of place the Thermos was invented for.
The ancient spring/holy well on Trencrom meant it could sustain inhabitants. In the legendary past it was home to the Giant Trecobben, about whom we know little except he was responsible for accidentally killing Cormelian, the Giant wife of Cormoran, by mis-throwing a huge hammer for Comroran to borrow. So as well as dipping your hands into the holy well water to make contact, we recommend collecting some in a small bottle to carry on your pilgrimage. By pouring it out at your destination you will physically connect the two holy hills of Trencrom and St Michael’s Mount by more than just your footfall. You will also symbolise reconcilation between the Giants, and wash away the violence of the past.
To get down from Trencrom, take the track south toward St Michael’s Mount, emerging near Trencrom’s car park. St Michael’s Way then heads through scrub and fields. Past Ninnes Bridge and Trembethow Farm, you reach a ford over the Red River. This is known locally as ‘Dowr Amal’ – ‘Boundary River’. You might wish to take your shoes off and wade across the granite ford. Beware of thorns. You can use the bridge. You will again cross the Red River when it enters the sea at Marazion, marking your entry into the sacred centre of your pilgrimage. So take a moment to be still here, for this is a holy place. I cannot help but remember St Christopher when crossing fords. Children you help over may not be who you think…
Turn left down Blowing House Hill lane, then over stone stiles to Ludgvan. Ludgvan Church has long been an important pilgrimage centre – you can see a stone carving of a pilgrim with staff above its porch.
Inside the Church is a memorial to Humphry Davy, President of the Royal Society, and the man who invented the Miners’ Lamp. People whose families have a mining past – much of the South West – may wish to offer thanks for the increased safety this object offered. You may be alive because of it…
Ludgvan Church’s most fascinating story is of an vicar who prayed for a miracle to increase the power of his ministry. God answered in the form of a Spring flowing from the ground. On drinking some, the Vicar realised he could see microscopic details. He also became wonderfully eloquent. But best of all, he realised that anyone baptised with this water would never be hanged by a hemp rope. In an age when life was violent and dangerous, such a guarantee was a powerful and attractive force. All hangman’s nooses were made of hemp – except for aristocrats, for whom the rope was apparently silken.
This power was tested when a local murderess was hanged – but parish records proved she had been baptised in another church. There is a further story about the well being spat in by the devil, which made its powers of super-sight and clear-speech wane. But its protection from hanging never left. We suspect that ability of commoners to merely drink the water without priestly intercession was less popular with religious authorities, so the baptismal power was championed while the more open-to-all power was discouraged.
Today, the well has disappeared. It is unclear when or why. Perhaps it was victim of a Reformation cull on pilgrimage? In the South West various wells were blocked at this time. Perhaps this well even had a connection with the tragic and terrible Prayer Book Rebellion? Ludgvan was apparently the last church to hold a Cornish language service, in the late Seventeenth Century, so as a village it was likely to have been near the heart of the Old Cornish folk who were so appalled by the attack on their culture represented by the imposition of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. We imagine people who were going off to fight the King for religious freedom would have keenly grasped at any guarantee against hanging. However, as things turned out, hanging was not the way it went for many.
The holy well remains here somewhere, waiting to flow once more. Perhaps a heavy stone is on top? We suggest pilgrims to Ludgvan Church have a clear task – a test – to circle the Church with staff in hand, tapping the ground while hoping and praying for the holy well to spring. It is usually with a staff that historic Saints discovered holy wells. Will you be the pilgrim who makes the water flow today?
Ludgvan also claims to have been the last place where a native Wolf lived in Britain – which is powerful though unsubstantiated, and could be a symbolic reference to the Rebellion.
Ludgvan offers the last public house before Marazion – so if you want to stop and rest with a Cornish ale or plate of local food, the White Hart is the place, and now the time.
Now follow Eglos Road until it becomes a track, then a footpath.The path will take you behind the cafe of the Tremenheere Sculpture Garden and Kitchen. This is an incredible new Cornish attraction, a wild but wonderful outdoor art gallery space. It includes powerful works like James Turrell’s ‘Skyspace’, a temple tunnelled in the hillside, a slice of the sky its focus in darkness.
Tremenheere Sculpture Garden costs £8 to properly enter, and experience the art set among gardens. The cafe is free. If you have time, enter the main Sculpture Garden. The green space itself, a mix of exotic planting and wild native abundance, is an incredible experience – but with the addition of internationally important Installation Art, it becomes a very engaging space. Plus the cafe is famously good.
After the gardens, follow the lane to Gulval Church. Gulval is another of those Celtic saints about whom we know almost nothing. But this parish has a rare and distinctive legend – the claim that Jesus himself once came here, while working for his Uncle Joseph of Arimathea, a tin-trader who he accompanied to the ancient Ding Dong mine of this parish. Of course, the Church was not present then…
Now follow Posses Lane south. Though you are not quite in Penzance, this is the start of its outer limits. Expect static caravans. There is a pedestrian crossing over the A30, then a bridge over the railway line, where the helipad used to fly to the Scilly Isles. From now on St Michael’s Mount dominates the horizon, and will not leave your sight as you progress these last miles.
The Coast Path becomes dunes for one brief stretch before Marazion begins. For a moment, it is easy to imagine how this coast was once entirely Dunes. You now cross the Red River as it issues into the sea. This marks your transition into the sacred centre – the start of your pilgrimage destination. You may wish to walk barefoot here, but if you do, go watchfully.
Your first sub-destination is Chapel Rock, a lone rock on the beach where a shrine to Mary once stood for pilgrims on their way to St Michael’s Mount. If the tide is out or halfway, climb up and make your connection here. Check here for tide times.
When the tide is out you can walk over the Causeway to St Michael’s Mount. At other times, the ferry boat costs £2 each way. The Mount is closed on Saturdays, so if this is the day of your pilgrimage, you will get no further than the end of the Causeway before turning back. Should this be the case, we suggest making Chapel Rock your destination. It works.
On all other days, climb St Michaels’ Mount to its chapel. This was a grey rock surrounded by woods until 1700 BC, when the sea advanced and the Mount became a tidal island.
To access St Michael’s Chapel you will need to pay a fee, for the Mount is property of the National Trust. If you are a member you can sail in, but otherwise you must pay something less than £10. It is cheaper for the Castle without the gardens. Check here for prices.
Halfway up the steep cobbled path to the castle you will find the Giant’s Well. Pour your Trencrom Holy Well water here, to connect the two hills, and to help reconcile Cormoran’s wife’s accidental death – as well as the very deliberate death of Cormoran. After years of raiding local farmers and eating their sheep and chickens, this giant fell afoul of Jack the Cornishman. Jack dug a great hole, into which Cormoran fell and died. This well is the very place it happened. So offer holy water here, perhaps to help wash away the violent past of our land.
Further up the track you will find the Giant’s Heart – a granite stone in the shape of a heart. This too is a good place for some drops of Trencrom holy water.
Follow the track to the Castle gates, and look West. Down the slopes here Michael the Archangel appeared to local fishermen, which gave the Mount its name. Michael is known today as an Angel of battle, but to early Christians he was the great Angel of healing. He is often associated with hills, and worshipped in the same places as his German predecessor Wotan.
You are now arrived at the sacred centre, the chapel of St Michael. Stop here and be still, for longer than you expect. Whatever you do, don’t rush off and miss the end. You have strived all day, covering many miles, spending great energy and time to reach here. So give a little more time now, to let your arrival catch up.
Congratulations pilgrim! You are arrived! May your intention be well met!
After a pilgrimage is complete, try not to rush home by train or car. Aim to stay at least for sunset, and also have food and a nice drink perhaps. Let the end soak in a bit. The more time you can give to this transition, the better you might retain the benefits of the journey. This itself is a small pilgrimage of sorts – the slow journey into not being on a journey.
Eating food and having a drink really helps your body to relax into non-movement, and your mind to echo with the journey just made. It’s like the lull of completion, the still moment after culmination. Relish this end.
And when you do return home, be sure to soak in a hot bath if you can. Few of us walk for a whole day regularly, and a hot bath can help allay the aches. You may as well feel great tomorrow. Fling in some Epsom Salts if you have them –
The Official Alternative Ending – over Marazion Marches
The Friends of St Michael’s Way offer an alternative shorter ending to the St Michael’s Way. This saves 2.5 miles, making your pilgrimage 11 miles instead of 13.5. This will cut an hour’s walking, and is fully way-marked throughout.
But be warned – the short route has two A-roads to cross without designated pedestrian crossings. All roads are dangerous, so take care and be patient. Never cross till you are sure it is safe. Even if you wait an unreasonably long time, this too is pilgrimage. You also have to cross a railway line without a bridge, and cow fields. All of which you may prefer to avoid, but perhaps the beauty of the short route is these very trials, for they represent a micro-pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, having their own special destination: Marazion marshes.
The short route is beautiful and compelling. The choice is yours between this and the longer path. Perhaps try both!
From Ludgvan pub, the White Hart, follow farm tracks to meet a lane south, toward the A30. Cross here very carefully. This route has no pedestrian crossings, and though all roads can be dangerous, A-roads require special care. Next cross the A394. This is even more nippy than the A30. Take care pilgrim!
Next cross cow-fields. If you have a dog, keep it on a lead. Lastly, cross a train line without a bridge. Really: stop, look and listen. Trains cannot brake or swerve.
But after all this, you will find yourself in Marazion marshes, where the perils of modernity fade and an older, less human world thrives. These are Cornwall’s largest reed-beds, a crucial area of rare wetland wildlife habitat and an RSPB reserve. Here you may hear or see bitterns flying over the reeds, or herons nesting. In late Autumn you might see a murmuration of starlings. In our built-up human world of agriculture, towns and roads, somewhere so entirely non-human is rare and holy. As with all holy places, do not just walk by. Stop, be still and listen, and make connection and offering.
The marshes can be soggy underfoot, but raised boarding paths run over the worst parts. You are walking beside the Red River again, circling the boundary of your pilgrimage’s sacred centre. Soon, the marshes end and you emerge onto sand dunes, at the point where the Red River issues into the sea. Cross the bridge, and your destination begins. Details as above…
An Unofficial Alternative Start – St Michael’s Way from St Ives.
This alternative start of the route offers wonderful opportunities. But please note: it is a BPT initiative so you will not find the scallop shell waymarkers which guide you along the official sections of the route. You will need to rely on GPX and smartphone navigation.
Starting from St Ives saves half a mile, making the total pilgrimage just over 10 miles – a very reasonable day’s distance. You’ll feel it, but it’s really not that far…
But distance is not the main reason to consider this route. St Ives was traditionally less important than Lelant, but today this has reversed, and St Ives is a major destination for Cornish tourism. A pilgrimage from here is more accessible for more people. It gives the newly resurrected St Michael’s Way a far better start in life.
We do not recommend that St Ives supplants Lelant – as with the two official endings, this optional start is only another choice, and allows a total of four varieties of St Michael’s Way.
The two starts have interesting parallels – to begin with, their saints are brother and sister! St Euny (Uny) of Lelant was brother of St Ia of St Ives. Little is known about St Euny, we do have a story about St Ia – she was an Irish princess told by her brother she was too young to sail to Cornwall to teach the locals of God. So Euny and pals sailed away and left Ia behind. But as she sat despairing by the seashore, Ia saw a leaf floating on the sea. She pushed it down with her staff, and it grew. Mustering her trust, Ia sat on the leaf, which carried her rapidly to Cornwall, to arrive long before her brother and his companions. It is a beautiful image, the princess speeding over the waves in her giant green leaf, staff in hand.
This St Ives route begins from an island which is not an island, on a headland jutting out to sea from the coast. This offers perfect symmetry for the eventual destination in the South.
This route starts at the chapel of St Nicholas, on the most northerly point of St Ives. This Medieval chapel – and smuggler lookout – was nearly demolished by the War Office in 1904, but was then restored fully by 1911 after public outcry. It is open during summer months, with services every Thursday morning. Its patron, Nicholas, is the patron saint of children and sailors.
From here descend to Porthmeor beach and the Tate Gallery. If you are only here to make the pilgrimage, you should make time for a quick visit inside. This too is a holy place!
After the Tate, follow the coast to Barnoon Cemetry. At its far corner you will find St Ia’s Holy Well, known as Venton Ia. This was once the water supply for this entire end of town. Take time here. Be still. Put your hands in the water. Offer silver. Clean away someone else’s litter. And if you have a filter, drink!
Now pass through Barnoon Cemetery, toward the coast and St Ia’s Church. This was originally built as a Chapel of Ease – a convenient Church for people struggling to reach the main centre of Lelant. Look out for water Saints in the wagon roof.
Now follow the South West Coast Path eastward, until you reach the turn off St Michael’s Way amid Carbis Bay.
And from here, follow the route as above.
Walk Well on your St Michael’s Way Pilgrimage!
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