Sam takes us on a long ride on some new-old trails that will make for a great weekender, or a really big day out.
Words Sam Jones Photography Jordan Gibbons and Stef Amato
The last time I ‘turboed’ anything was more than 20 years ago in the student union, and it involved cheap lager and a Smirnoff Ice. That so-called ‘turbo shandy’ was like rocket fuel and while it powered my legs for the dance floor, it left me feeling decidedly poorly the next day and with acid reflux at the mere mention of the word ‘turbo’. My old English teacher, Mr Holden, liked to say that by the end of all great tales, the characters have gone through various adventures and ultimately a transformative change. So this is my story about how I stopped hating and learned to love the turbo.
I say turbo, not, of course, in the sense of pain caves and endless sweat, but rather the joy of turning the power up to 11 when riding an e-bike through incredibly hilly terrain like Cornwall.
This ride had been in the offing for some months as we planned to recce part of the West Kernow Way, the new off-road bikepacking route developed by the charity Cycling UK. My companions came from real pedalling pedigree: writer and bikepacking specialist Katherine Moore, Pannier.cc’s Stef Amato and Jordan Gibbons helping to lead the way, cycling circumnavigators Rob Penn and Vedangi Kulkarni, and then Sophie Gordon and I from the charity.
Riding in such company, a little extra goes a long way, and for the trip we’d managed to borrow some of Specialized’s Turbo Creo e-bikes. For those of us who regularly ride acoustic, it’s easy to scorn those going electric. Call me Judas for betraying my roots, and I’ll call you a liar just as Bobby D did to similar accusations in 1966. Going electric is just a variation on the riding we all enjoy. In hilly terrain with a group of differing abilities it’s a game changer – that elastic band effect disappears on the climb and is only really present in the descent.
Carefully working out when we’d all be free, and Cornwall not too busy, we’d sort of failed to take into account the global situation: we ended up visiting Cornwall as President Biden and pals gathered for the photo opportunities and largely meaningless platitudes of the G7. Still, where we were going, there was little chance of encountering world leaders, nor the trouble their collective presence caused to the region through road closures and the like.
Out of toon
We started in Land’s End late morning having ridden from Penzance. Making our way into the car park at the end of the world, we glided past the tailback of people seeking to visit the UK mainland’s most south westerly point. Any thought of getting our photo taken by the iconic signpost were scuppered by a local racket charging extortionate rates for the privilege. Instead, we enjoyed the antics of Ian and Mary, which the signpost declared as very much in love and Toon Fans.
Avoiding the traffic along a gravel track with an avenue of purple foxgloves in full bloom, we came to the sweeping vista that is Sennen Cove. A long white stretch of sandy beach with crashing waves favoured by surfers. Appealing as it was to drop down and have a dip, we had a lunch planned just outside of St Just and needed to make tracks.
Fortunately, to get there we had a stretch of quiet road that whisked us past the grandly named Land’s End airport, followed by a rapid descent into the Cot Valley through a green blur of subtropical plants. There we met up with Caroline Davey, founder of wild cookery school, the Wild Hen. Promising us to secrecy, Caroline led us to a tucked-away cove and a feast of seaweed miso soup, black mustard sushi, and delicious nettle cupcakes. Politeness flew out the window as the gannets descended leaving nothing but leftover petals from the edible garnish.
Full bellies at the start of a climb are uncomfortable. Building myself up for the grind on the skittery steep bridleway, I heard an elated whoop of the word ‘turbo!’. In a blue streak Katherine sped by, going full throttle as she laughed her way over the crest of the hill. Soon enough everyone’s digits were dabbing the dial and groans turned to grins as we emerged on the top among the traces of Cornwall’s Bronze Age past, and the funeral cairn of Ballowall Barrow.
Bronze Agers had something going with views for final resting places. To the south and west you look at ‘General de Galle in his bath’ aka the Brison Rocks, a notorious location for shipwrecks but now a breeding ground for gannets, and to the north, Cape Cornwall and Priest’s Cove. While Land’s End might be more famous, Cape Cornwall with its iconic chimney is certainly more majestic a spot, and more fun to get to. A long straight trail leads down to Priest’s Cove, but the loose rocks and popularity with walkers enjoying the view, coupled with the limitations of a gravel bike meant we cautiously rattled down – if only to avoid the embarrassment of a tumble with an audience. Passing through St Just we stopped briefly to stock up on supplies and suntan lotion ahead of our journey through the Poldark territory of the Botallack tin mine.
Keep your shirts on
For some time, ahead of the launch of the West Kernow Way, a trial name for the route had been the ‘Poldark Way’. Fortunately, sense prevailed, the connotations of semi-naked miners and Sunday evening BBC TV abandoned, and its current name which celebrates the land it crosses adopted instead (West Kernow being Cornish for, yep you guessed it, West Cornwall). Now the smokestacks and pump houses are empty of the smells and hustle and bustle of yore, replaced by crisp sea air and the odd meandering tourist. But as we rolled along the wide undulating dirt track, the scale of the site makes it easy to see how this part of Cornwall was once one of the most important industrial centres for the production of tin right up to the end of the 19th century.
All too soon we left this sea cliff-hugging track behind, returning to a brief stint of road leading to the beginning of the Tinners Way in Penwith Moor. This ancient way has been used in one way or another for the transportation of goods since the Bronze Age. It’s Land Rover wide at the start, but look at OS maps and you’ll see dashes of a footpath. Backed with solid research by CyclingUK showing historic use for centuries by horse and cart, we ignored modern cartography and bounced along as the ancients once did, only stopping briefly for a symbolic passing of a Tunnocks through the Mên-an-Tol stone ring.
The moor is tough going, but hardly feels visited. In season when the wildflowers and yellows and purples of the heather and gorse are out it’s a real treat. The gloaming was upon us though, and while the campsite was not far, the pub was in danger of not serving food. Stopping off at the Tinners Arms in Zennor for a feed, while most ordered beers, Vedangi was left disappointed by their lack of her favoured tipple: sambuca. Full bellies later we rolled into the midgefest of our campsite at Lower Penderleath Farm. To the casual observer, the array of shelters employed might have looked somewhat ramshackle, but I’d warrant no one else had a £11.5k S-Works tent pole for their tarp like Jordan!
Pioneering so you don’t have to
The following morning, fortified with an array of porridge, bananas and local delicacy saffron cake (try all three together for a brekkie of champs), we headed out and promptly found a kilometre stretch of quagmire – the perils of pioneering a route! A dog-leg north is more pleasant and allows a stop at Trencom Hill, giving a view to St Michael’s Mount and down to our destination at the Lizard, but sacrifices for the greater good, right? It’s the sign of a good crew though who can shrug off the mud, nettle stings and brambles. A quick squirt from bidons cleared out the worst of the muck from the brakes and we continued our easterly trek to the Lizard.
Our group was temporarily separated around Ashton, with Stef, Jordan and Katherine all taking a sensible road detour to Porthleven. Everyone else followed me down a dead-end bridleway and had to leap over a stile and wade through a sea of nettles (pioneer perils chapter 2). The sting was taken out by a return to civilisation (read giant pasties in Porthleven) and the 5km effortless descent with its sweeping sea views to get there. Tackling the ascent out of this pretty harbour town watched by sunbathers in their holiday homes, we edged up to the summit of the cliffs and skirted around walkers on their way like us to the Loe Bar.
On skinny 38mm tyres, the Loe Bar defeated us all. This shingle beach that prevents the River Cober flowing freely into the sea is fat bike territory, and while we worked up a sweat puffing along the sands, the waters’ treacherous currents prevented us from doing anything but look.
Keeping the sea on our right, our end goal of the Lizard was a mere 20km away…but damn those Cornish coastlines, they make you work for your beer! With the sun high in the sky, we sweated along the lanes to Mullion, before joining the gravelly bridleway in Predannack which played merry hell with the undercarriage.
Cattle farming is prevalent in this part of the Lizard, and while we were careful, it was clear one calf was unfamiliar with the friendliness of cyclists. Seeking to save it from distress, we hefted our steeds over a drystone wall and took a short walk along a footpath before continuing our way along the perimeter of Predannack Airfield.
A more scenic option at this point would have been to head to the coastal path, but negotiations with the National Trust in the creation of this route sent us inland and on a permissive access route towards Kynance Cove. Even e-bike-powered legs were daunted by the steep track to the sea, and with the lure of a pub at the end, we forewent the pleasure of visiting the water and began our final climb of the day.
The UK’s most southerly point is a fitting end to this ride, but Rob and I missed it. Instead we took a hit for the team: we found a pub serving sambuca for Vedangi, secured a table and got a round in. If it meant we had to have a pint while we waited for everyone to celebrate journey’s end, then so be it.
For the record it was a shandy – just not turbo.
Even at the best of times, Cornwall is a busy place, but take to the trails, quiet lanes and lost ways and you’ll see a different side of the county.
Head off-road, and as soon as you leave the boundaries of a town or village, the Cornish countryside becomes yours. For much of the ride, it will be just you, your bike and any riding companions. It’s only when returning to civilisation that you might notice a bit of a difference with more folk milling about with cameras taking selfies, and shops selling ice cream and pasties.
The route is part of charity Cycling UK’s newly launched West Kernow Way. Funded through the European Regional Development Fund’s Experience project, it’s a figure of eight loop that heads west from Penzance. This particular ride connects the UK mainland’s most south westerly and southerly points at Land’s End and The Lizard, as you travel across the Penwith Peninsular to the Lizard Peninsular. It’s not a technical route by any means, and is probably best rated as a ‘blue’ difficulty, but there are enough steep climbs and rugged descents that you’ll want good fitness to make the most of the route – especially if you’re attempting to do it in one day. It’s not just the climbing which will leave you breathless, the views will do that too, especially over the Loe Bar and the western coast with the descent down to Cape Cornwall being a particular favourite, where you’re riding through true Poldark territory with remnants of the tin mines of yore.
Much of the whole Cornish peninsular is granite based, so a lot of the trail should not be affected by poor weather – there are sections though where you could become stuck. The Penwith Moors and parts of the Lizard will suffer under wet conditions, and even in the dried-up warmth of June were a bit boggy in short stretches. While this might make a roadie quake, us off-roaders know to pack the waterproof socks and power on through.
What bike to take will be down to what you have and the weather – a hardtail is more than sufficient and, if you fancy a bit more of a technical challenge, a gravel or adventure bike with tyres 42mm and above will make the descents more entertaining.
On stretches of this route, you may see the odd ‘footpath’ sign, and as a considerate mountain biker you’re going to question whether you should ride there. Yes, you should – you’re not doing anything illegal. Like much of the UK, Cornwall is a hotchpotch of poorly recorded rights of way, which is why we so often find byways and bridleways stopping for no reason. Cycling UK has done the research, joining the dots between these lost ways. A prime example is the Tinners Way recorded as a footpath or track in places – this route used to transport tin for the mines between St Ives and St Just and wasn’t done on just foot alone. For each stretch of footpath Cycling UK says you can ride along the West Kernow Way, the charity has identified historic use, in some cases going back hundreds of years, to recover this lost way, and then put in Definitive Map Modification Orders where previous applications did not already exist to make sure the route is correctly recorded and upgraded. Just because a track is incorrectly recorded, it doesn’t mean your right to ride on it ceases to exist. Riding this route, respectfully, you’ll be exercising not just your legs, but also your legitimate rights to increased access too.
- Distance: 86km
- Elevation: 1,100m
- Time: 7hrs
- Map: OS Explorer 103 and 104 / Landranger 203
Cornwall is a popular destination, so book in advance. Through the Experience project, Cycling UK is working to create cycle-friendly places (and routes) in Penzance and the wider area, meaning some accommodation is now providing tools, spares and most importantly secure storage for your bike, like the Summer House.
A midway option, Lower Penderleath Campsite, isn’t far from Zennor and is just under half the way point at 35km.
Options abound around the Lizard for both campers and those who prefer a more solid roof with beer on tap.
You’re riding through the Badlands of Cornwall in terms of bike shops. Only Porthleven’s Dawson Cycle Services is on route at around the 62km mark. There are bike shops in St Ives, Lelant and Hayle, though these are all between 3-5km off route.
If starting in Penzance, E-Bikes Cornwall are exceptionally helpful, and worth a visit for their excellent coffee and helpful topographical knowledge (non e-bikers don’t be surprised if you come away regretting your choice of eschewing e-assist after visiting them).
The train stops at Penzance, so you can always cycle the first part of the West Kernow Way to Land’s End (~24km). If you drive, and do similar, there’s free parking on Alexandra Road. Otherwise a lift or taxi (~£27) might be necessary to the start.
Returning again is tricky unless you’ve a pal or partner willing to pick you up. You can continue along the West Kernow Way and go the long way round via Redruth and some excellent gravel tracks along old miners’ ways (another ~90km), return direct by road (38km) or take a taxi to Penzance (~£60). Go Bus Cornwall is in the dark ages and sadly won’t take bikes unless they fold.
Alternatively, especially if you’re riding the first section from Penzance, there’s no shame in breaking the route in two and creating loops coming out from there. Using the B3311 from Nancledra (~35km) will take you back to Penzance for well-deserved fish and chips (and if you’re lucky with your booking a chance to relax in the thermal pool at the art deco Jubilee Pool). For day 2, if so inclined, you can cycle along the sea front to St Michael’s Mount at Marazion and then follow quiet roads to rejoin the route just south of St Erth.
Eating and drinking
You’re in the land of pasties and cream teas – but resources are fairly scant on this route. St Just, Porthleven and the Lizard are best bets for refreshment.
Try the Dog and Rabbit for lunch and Moomaid for ice cream in St Just, and Tinner’s Arms in Zennor for dinner. Pasties galore abound in Porthleven, and there are a couple of pubs in The Lizard too. If you’re feeling fancy and are back in Penzance, the aforementioned Jubilee Pool also has an excellent restaurant.
What are lost ways?
Ever ridden a bridleway in England or Wales that suddenly stops as it crosses an invisible boundary and becomes a footpath before reverting to a bridleway? Thought so – we’ve all been there. It’s nothing to do with suitability of use, as after all you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a bridleway and a footpath in a photo line-up. Those long and short dashes we see on our OS maps are the results of councils recording rights of way in the 1950s, when they were tasked to compile their official maps. Mistakes happen, and consequently some footpaths ended up recorded as a bridleway, while in some cases rights of way that exist on the ground ceased to exist on the map.
Cycling UK calls these “lost ways”, but where we have evidence of their historic use there’s an opportunity to reclaim them through Definitive Map Modification Orders. The process to correct these errors is complex and time-consuming, not just from the user perspective, but also due to the huge backlog councils have.
Time is running out though to reclaim our lost ways, as no new applications will be accepted after 2026.
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