Aled BathChief Outdoor Officer for Stohk beer. When not behind the Stohk bar, Aled can often be found down a muddy track, writing and photographing gravel bike adventures. Prone to overpacking and taking the scenic route.
Just a stone’s throw from the brewery gate, the announcement of the newly formed bikepacking route The West Kernow Way, had Stohk co-founder Aled and his wife Jo itching to explore it.
We’re rolling into Porthleven just after dusk. The first few stars are out and the festoon lights twinkle around the harbourside lighting up the fishing boats. It’s picture postcard stuff but we’re both hanging. We’ve just ridden and pushed our way across The Tinner’s Way – an ancient moorland path that goes over the top of West Penwith between St Just and St Ives.
Not setting off until almost midday, we have covered over 100km mostly off-road. It’s only day one, and our expectations have been exceeded in every sense. Every effort has been out-done by the rewards. Breathtaking cliff-top tracks through the Botallack tin mines, before riding perfect gravel towards the Bronze Age sites and prehistoric settlements scattered across the uplands of West Penwith. But as we’re finding out, to experience them you first have to tackle this challenging terrain. Constantly sloping, navigationally challenging and occasionally too rugged to ride, this place is raw and out there. It comes as no surprise to learn the settlements along the Tinner’s Way were abandoned in Bronze Age times, presumably in favour of easier to reach, loss hostile places.
After slow progress across the moorland, I am too tired and hungry to bother trying to shoot any photographs of the lovely harbour. Instead, having arrived too late for food at the old Ship Inn, we opt to make camp before feasting on a dinner of crisps, nuts and beer. We chat about the ‘epicness’ of the places we’ve seen today, but we’re fading fast and our minds quickly turn to curling up in our sleeping bags under the stars. Crisps and Cornish pale ale have never tasted so good but soon we’re both out like a light.
The West Kernow Way is a newly devised, largely off-road bikepacking route curated by Cycling UK, which takes you way out west and deep into Cornwall’s ancient history, archaeological sites, old tin-mining settlements and fishing communities. Starting in Penzance, the 236km figure of eight offers up a unique blend of lost ways (ancient highways often misclassified as footpaths) bridleways, abandoned mining tracks, windswept beaches, clifftop gravel and remote moorlands while managing to pack 4000 metres of climbing into 236 kilometres before finishing up on St. Michael’s Mount for a stunning finish.
It’s a route that was rumoured to exist long before it was actually launched, and is destined go straight onto the bucket list for swashbuckling bikepackers looking to experience of the wilder side of Cornwall.
If there was gravel in heaven I am pretty sure it would be like this
5am wake-up call from the seagulls. I had just drifted back to sleep having been woken in the night by something sniffing round our camp. Tired, I listen to the gulls and notice the clear sky from last night has been replaced with a damp sea mist. I drift in and out of sleep as the seagulls do their best to keep me awake.
Day 2 seemed like it would be easier when I was planning it from the comfort of home. I hadn’t considered the hangover from yesterday’s unrelenting hills or the fact that we’d have to forgo dinner, or the Cornish creatures of the night. Today we’ll be going coast to coast heading north to finish up at Portreath, another beautiful fishing port, but not before a scenic detour via the most southern point on the UK mainland.
It’s another slice of Kernow time travel. Our route includes Loe Bar, a half mile shingle bank steeped in legend, and Cadgwith cove, an olde world fishing community surrounded by shipwrecks where the only sport is gig racing. High-up on a gravel path that rides like a magic carpet I pinch myself. After the jutted and jagged rocks of the Tinner’s Way, we had found the opposite end of the gravel spectrum. If there was gravel in heaven I am pretty sure it would be like this.
After pushing across the soft shingle of The Loe Bar, more punchy and rocky climbs guide us slowly south. Navigation is tricky. We’re still tired from yesterday. A dropped GoPro means retracing our steps for 5km to find it – thankfully rescued by a Cornish Pisky (a legendary type of Cornish fairy today disguised as a dog-walker). Later, on a long 15% downhill bouncing down towards the Helford River, the vibrations are shaking right through me when suddenly out of the corner of my eye I glance my Garmin jump free and disappear somewhere back up the hill. I grab the brakes and eventually slide to a halt. Knowing it’s too steep to remount and get going, I walk slowly back to where the Garmin is laying on the ground now smashed to pieces and unresponsive. Chatting over a perfectly timed and well earned pasty I am more enthralled and bemused than annoyed.
Well-fed with ‘straight off the boat’ fish and chips, we sleep through the seagulls the following morning, waking full of energy for the final blast to St Michael’s Mount. We’ve got another coast to coast ahead of us but this time we’re heading south. A mere 50km or so, but we’d learnt by now that considering the terrain, that could mean anything in relation to time. We start the day up an insanely steep old railway track that takes us out of Portreath on our way to the old mining tracks that lay to the south. Coasting along pristine gravel through the old mining settlements before a tough climb up to the imposing Carn Brea (an 18th century castle built on old Neolithic fortifications), today is another smorgasbord of bridleways, stream beds, old pony tracks and lost ways. We continue to be surprised by the remoteness and the gradient of the hills that keep coming.
We make it to Marazion and soak in the view across the misty sea to St Michael’s Mount, the official finish of the West Kernow Way. The tide is high so unfortunately the ceremonial ride across the causeway to celebrate with a cream tea at the castle will have to wait for another day. We make do with the can of Stohk that has been in my bottle cage since the start – slightly battered but still amazingly refreshing, which sort of sums up the West Kernow Way. Time happens slowly down here, but time spent offers rewards way beyond expectation or effort. It’s no surprise this place is so rich in stories, myth and legend. In the space of just 3 days I can sense something has been etched in my memory that will last a lifetime.
How to Ride it Yourself
The 230km route can be done in one go or as a figure of eight it lends itself to be easily split into two. There’s the added benefit of decent train connections at several towns along the route too which means it can be further divided up for smaller distances. Cycling UK has produced a great guide book for the West Kernow Way and recommends it is tackled over 3-4 days but if you want to enjoy the amazing places you’ll pass through and nearby at least 4 days makes sense.
Some of the nicest places to stay are just off the main route, which can add around 5-10km per day on-top of the official length and worth seeking out. The route is hoped to help promote cycle tourism in the area in the shoulder months (late spring / early autumn) and with the unpredictable Cornish weather, staying in bricks and mortar and enjoying the wonderful local food on offer makes a lot of sense. Logical places to find West Kernow Way accommodation include the main towns of Penzance, St Just, Hayle, Porthleven, Redruth and Camborne.
The route keeps you away from civilisation for much of the time, meaning provisions between the towns can be hard to come by so be sure to pack snacks.
We chose to go with our ultra-light camping set-up with a tarp in case of rain. There are some good campsites around here, with our 2-day itinerary camps at Porthleven and just outside Portreath gave us chance to experience two lovely fishing villages.
Although there are plenty of campsite opportunities in summer, off-season can be a bit more sparse. However, with plenty of the route along the coast, wild camping between the tidelines and catching a sunset or sunrise promises a unique experience.
Fancy a swim in the sea or some bodysurfing? Conditions dependent, the beaches are stunning along the north coast with Portreath offering a nice, sheltered beach and places like Gwithian and Hayle just off the route offering top-notch surfing. Places like The Loe Bar, whilst beautiful are best avoided due to the strong currents with plenty of sheltered secluded options just off route.
It is mainly off-road with stretches of quiet lanes making up the balance. I’d say it suits a mountain bike or gravel bike with 40c+ tyres to help you across the rougher stuff.
Route >> Amazing smooth cliff-top gravel tracks, miles of old mining trails past derelict engine houses, abandoned hill forts, ancient stone formations, castles, old fishing ports, secluded coves, and some unexpected wilderness too.
Food >> The route takes in several traditional fishing ports that offer some amazing fish shacks and restaurants. Lobster anyone? Or maybe just the best traditional fish and chips on the harbour wall while the sun sets over the sea? And of course, some epic spots for a cream tea with a view and plenty of pasty sampling opportunities.
Thanks to: Cycling UK, Apidura, The Overland & Condor Cycles.
Aled is one of the co-founders of outdoor company Stohk that is starting life making great beer to be enjoyed after an epic day outdoors on the trails.
Stohk XPA (extra pale ale) is cold-brewed in small batches to be the perfect apres-adventure quencher and is available now at stohk.co. @stohkofficial @stohkaled.
Don’t miss a single adventure
Sign up to our free newsletter and get a weekly BASE hit to your inbox