The Saint’s Way is generally well signed with a celtic cross device but there are moments when one feels deserted. It has rather too many roads for our taste but where it goes across country it is charming. The great benefit is a plentiful supply of churches and wheel-headed crosses. The route divides near the south with two options.
- Cornwall Council’s site is once again pretty brief
- Visit Cornwall does a bit better and actually has a good Google map
- A generic Cornwall site contains a fuller description
- Oliver’s Cornwall has its usual, very personal, take but is probably the best other than …
What did we make of the Saints’ Way?
It is unquestionably fun to have completed a crossing of the peninsular following what was probably a pilgrimage route. This brings our total to three such crossings: the St Michael’s Way and Saints’ Way on foot, and the Camel Trail by bicycle.
It was also something of a triumph to have created the trail in the first place, persuading Cornwall Council to invest in signage and limited support material.
At the end, we were left with one big question: how historically accurate is it?
The Tinners’ Way, or Old Land’s End Road as it is also known, is relatively easy to see on the ground. Passing through under-developed land, the ancient tracks are still evident as they follow sunken lanes or field boundaries consisting of stones of such size that no one has thought to move them for hundreds of years. The track follows the natural fall of the land. It exudes authenticity.
None of this is true for the Saints’ Way. It travels through a much more developed landscape where large stones are not the usual field edges. The paths do not head for obvious landmarks. There are few sunken lanes – although where there are, they are lovely – and one rarely follows the natural curve of the land or contours.
The biggest criticism is that there are too many roads. Although these are generally quiet and make for easier walking when it is wet, they do destroy the sense of enjoying the countryside and lead to some pretty zig-zag turns. It is perfectly possible to be walking west then east then south in quick succession.
When Cornwall’s roads were modernised they were largely created by laying tarmac over existing tracks, many of which may have been little more than cart tracks. As the Saints’ Way had long since fallen out of use and purpose, we do not today have an obvious single road from Padstow to Fowey, nor even part of a road. It really does not look as though any part of the original Way survived long enough to have become part of the modern road network.
Without a very evident series of paths, or roads in place of paths, we were left with a feeling that the original Way was either rather more informal or actually consisted of a variety of routes joining the two coasts.
Where might these have gone? The people who created the modern Way did a good job of linking up the most obvious churches, the wayside crosses which were well-known as route markers, and even some characteristic triple stiles. But the whole does not quite gel.
They may have neglected the importance of water as an early medieval form of transport. Arriving at Padstow, it would have been a simple matter to transfer to a small river craft and use the tide to reach the interior of the county. Little Petherick, with an early version of its church, could have been a stop but Wadebridge or even Bodmin would have been within reach. After all, the Romans built a short-lived trading post at Nanstallon on the edge of Bodmin, a short distance from Lanivet.
On the south coast, Fowey is easily reached in a small boat from Lostwithiel – see our earlier posting about canoeing between the two – and Lostwithiel is a day’s walk from Bodmin/Nanstallon. also, as one heads south, the sweep of St Austell bay is very inviting and it is hard to dismiss Par as a possible place of departure.
Even if the journeys themselves were not done by water, then the sides of the river valleys would have provided a natural highway. The original route would have followed a course in a broad strip bounded by Wadebridge, Bodmin and Lostwithiel on the east – is there a hint that a modern road does link these three – and Withiel, Lanivet and Luxulyan to the west. We had followed the western edge of the strip.
The most authentic part of the route is also the most unspoilt. If you are limited for time then walk from Lanivet to Luxulyan or Lanlivery. There are some lovely stretches of path; a great collection of crosses and stiles; some lovely damp copses around streams; simple Cornish churches and rolling countryside. This central section might just be the core of an original route.
But look out for fallen signposts – lack of maintenance means that many have rotted – and don’t take a car anywhere near Fowey without a fat credit card.