I had never lifted my leg on an e-bike for a multi-day excursion before, but when someone offered to lend me one – a sleek, lightweight gravel bike with an internal battery – to ride a new one cycling route in the deepest parts of Cornwall, I did not hesitate. Many will enjoy trekking the 200km West Kernow Way, which circles the Penwith and Lizard Peninsulas with only muscle power, but for me, now in my fifth decade of cycling, electric assist has made a huge difference. pleasures that far outweighed the gossip of my children when I returned.
It’s hard to think of another part of Britain that has such a variety of landscapes in such a small area. On the Penwith Peninsula, we passed granite cliffs, the wide beach of Whitesand Bay, high barren moorland, rolling dairy farms and steep, narrow valleys lush with ferns. On the Lizard Peninsula there were densely forested streams, plant-rich shallows, and picturesque coves taken from the pages of a novel by Daphné du Maurier. The penultimate section of the route, which begins and ends in Penzance, follows abandoned mining trams: once used to transport ore from the Cornish industrial backbone around Redruth and Camborne to the coast, they have been turned into excellent gravel bike paths.
Choosing the right type of bike for a ride that mixes tarmac and trails on such varied terrain is not easy. Hardtail mountain bikes (with just front suspension) and gravel or “adventure” bikes generally fare better. As anyone who has toured the South West by bike will know, Cornwall is hilly. In fact, the topography here is only defined by short but very steep climbs, especially in and out of sheltered bays like Cadgwith and Coverack on the Lizard. But these can be lightened with an electric bike.
The West Kernow Way was developed by Cycling UK and Cornwall County Council, with funding from the EU. The route is not marked, so you need a GPS device, it is also not perfect – there are sections of bridleways that are rarely used, very overgrown (at least in summer) , and lengths of technical, stoned singletrack that I had to go through with my steed. These are minor flaws, however, and we should be thankful to Cycling UK anyway: the West Kernow Way is the latest addition to a growing list of long-distance, mostly off-road routes that the organization has helped set up, including the Far North. King Alfred trail and path.
Cycling UK, formerly known as the Cyclists’ Touring Club, has been campaigning since 1878 for cyclists to use rights of way – first roads, and more recently bridle paths – since 1878. They have this time around. here taken a radical approach: several segments of the West Kernow Way are designated as trails, or at least they are “incorrectly recorded on the map as trails”, according to Cycling UK, which cites historical map evidence that they were previously used by horses and vehicles. These “lost lanes” can be restored through legal action (final card change orders or DMMOs, if you have to know it) but the process takes years, if not decades. Much better, Cycling UK insists, we are starting to use these ‘lost lanes’ now. Some cyclists are reluctant to ride on the trails; others will appreciate such acts of silent intrusion. For everyone, however, traveling the West Kernow Way is a chance to reflect on the rigidity of the rights-of-way system in England and Wales, where 78% of the network is banned from cycling.
Many well-known sites are included in the West Kernow Way – Land’s End, Sennen Cove, Cape Cornwall, the Menhirs of Mên-an-Tol, Lizard Point, the Helford River and Mount Saint Michael – but many people will probably already have visited them. More enchanting, for me, were the unexpected encounters with land and sea: bright pink carpets of wrecks retreating into rocky coves; streaks of white foam entwined around headlands in the blue-black sea; stone barns with roofs covered with orange lichen; lawns piled up with corridors of silena, foxgloves and bluebells; windswept trees and sunsets that lasted forever.
Endurance cyclists will inevitably try the entire West Kernow Way in one go. Most people break it down in three or four days, lingering along the road on headlands and pub gardens, swimming in the sea and picnicking next to Neolithic cairns. We rode the route for three days in June, carrying our gear in bike bags which made a good noise, but did a better job than a rack and saddlebags. We camped in a farmer’s field one night and in a bell tent next to the Coverack hostel the next. The route was developed with the aim of attracting cyclists to Cornwall during the “middle” months of September, October, March and April, when camping may not be so appealing. There are plenty of hosting providers on hand, but planning will be key.
Fortunately there are villages and cafes close to the road, so we didn’t take any cooking equipment. Instead, we ate excellent fish and chips from Fraser’s on the promenade in Penzance, pies the size of a rugby ball in Portleven, mussels at the Hotel de Paris overlooking the sea in Coverack and a delicious brunch at the Slice of Cornwall cafe in the woods near Constantine. One afternoon, we treated ourselves to a forage lunch of seaweed miso, black mustard sushi and nettle cupcakes, all made to order and served by the sea by Caroline Davey of Fat Hen on the way to Land’s End.
As the roads get busier with vacationers in June, this route gets you away from visitors’ honeypots in the blink of an eye. We avoided the traffic jams at St Just and quickly found ourselves on the glorious gravel path that winds through the abandoned copper and tin mines around Botallack Head; we traded the restless lunchtime crowd at Porthleven for the peace of the shore at Loe Bar; and we left the bustling banks of the Helford River behind to ride on our own on farm tracks above Butteriss Downs to the Stithians Reservoir.
Driving through this Cornish hinterland allowed us to savor not only the scenery, but also the distinct soundscapes: the shrill calls of jackdaws early in the morning; the stinging wind in the blackthorn thickets; the liquid song of larks on the moors in the heat of the afternoon; and the repetitive boom of Atlantic combers bending over pebble beaches – sounds that stuck with me long after I finished the ride, reluctantly returned the e-bike, and traveled north, away from this magical land.
A West Kernow Way guide and GPX files of the route will be available from Cycling UK in early September. The Tour de Bretagne cycling race starts in Penzance on September 5
Rob Penn is the author of Slow Rise: A Bread-Making Adventure (Penguin, £ 17.99)