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The Vicar of Morwenstow's Gothic World

A walk through Cornwall's most northerly parish, one time home of the eccentric Victorian parson-poet, Robert Stephen Hawker.

Distance 7 miles (11.3km)

Minimum time 4hrs

Ascent/gradient 1,640ft (500m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Generally good, but inland paths and tracks can be very muddy during wet weather

Landscape High cliffs punctuated by deep grassy valleys and backed by quiet woods and farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 126 Clovelly & Hartland

Start/finish SS 206154

Dog friendliness Dogs off lead in places, but under strict control in fields and grazed cliffland

Parking Morwenstow: Follow signposted road from the A39 about 2½ miles (4.4km) north of Kilkhampton. Small free car park by Morwenstow Church and Rectory Farm Tearooms

Public toilets Duckpool

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1 Follow the signposted track from the car park to the coast path, then turn left. You'll reach Hawker's Hut in about 100yds (91m). Continue from here along the coast path to Duckpool.

2 When you reach the inlet of Duckpool walk up the road along the bottom of the valley to a T-junction and turn left. At a junction, go right to cross a bridge beside a ford. Follow the lane round left for about 150yds (137m), then bear off left along a broad track through some woodland.

3 Cross a stile on the left, go over a wooden footbridge, climb the slope, then turn right and up a track. Turn left at a T-junction, keep ahead at the next junction, then in 40yds (37m) go right through a metal gate.

4 Follow a field track leading to a surfaced lane at Woodford. Turn left and go downhill past Shears Farm then round right and uphill to a junction with a road. Turn left past a bus shelter.

5 Turn left along a path between cottages to a kissing gate. Turn right and then immediately left and follow the edge of the field to a stile on the left. Cross this stile, then cross the next field, bearing slightly left, to reach the hedge on the opposite side.

6 Go over two stiles and then straight up the next field, often muddy, to a hedge corner. Go alongside a wall to a hedged track and on to a junction with a surfaced lane.

7 Go through a gate opposite, then turn right through a gap. Go left to a stile. Bear left across the next field to its far left-hand corner, then go up to Stanbury House. Turn right to reach a surfaced lane.

8 Go left along the lane for a few paces and then over a narrow stile on the right. Go straight across the next two fields to reach a stile and gate into a farm lane behind Tonacombe House.

9 Go right for a few paces then bear off left along a muddy track. Cross two fields then descend into a wooded valley. Keep right, cross a stream, then go right and up steeply to a stile.

10 Cross over the fields to reach a meadow behind the Bush Inn. Go down the left side of the buildings, and then up to the road. Turn left for Morwenstow Church and the car park.

The Gothic landscape of North Cornwall's Morwenstow parish, all gaunt sea cliffs, backed by remote farmland and wonderfully gloomy woods, was the ideal environment for the 19th-century parson-poet the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker. Hawker was vicar of the parish from 1834 to 1874. He was devoted to his parishioners, most of whom were poor farmers and labourers. He cared also for the victims of shipwrecks on the savage Morwenstow coast. There were few survivors, but Hawker made it his duty to bury the dead. He would search the barely accessible foreshore beneath the cliffs, dressed in sea boots and a fisherman's smock, and salvage the often gruesome remains. Legend says that the vicar often dosed his reluctant helpers with gin to overcome their revulsion and superstition. The graveyard at Morwenstow pays homage to the drowned of numerous wrecks.

Hawker is said to have dosed himself with other substances too. He smoked opium, in keeping with the habits of fashionable Romantic poets such as Coleridge and de Quincy. At the tiny 'Hawker's Hut', a driftwood shack that nestles just below the cliff top near the beginning of this walk, he wrote and meditated, often under the influence. He is said to have dressed as a mermaid on occasions, took his pet pig, Gyp, for long walks, and once excommunicated a cat for catching a mouse on Sunday. And why not?

Take the spirits of Parson Hawker and Gyp the pig with you through this dramatic landscape as you walk from the splendid Church of St Morwenna out to the edge of the great cliffs, to Hawker's Hut. From here the coast path dips into and out of dramatic valleys, often within sight of the slate-grey fins of smooth slabby rock that protrude from the cliff edge. The route leads past the Government's eerie radio tracking station at Cleve where huge satellite receivers cup their ears to the sky.

At Duckpool, the cliffs relent and you turn inland and away from the often boisterous coast to find picturesque thatched cottages beside a placid river ford. Beyond lies the calm of deep woodland. Yet there lingers even here, a sense of Morwenstow's other-worldliness, as the route winds through lonely fields and past handsome old manor houses at Eastaway, Stanbury and Tonacombe to reach Morwenstow's welcoming pub and then Parson Hawker's handsome church once more.

What to look for

Parson Hawker's eccentricity extended to the vicarage he built next to Morwenstow church. The house's chimneys replicate the towers of other North Cornwall churches and the tower of an Oxford college. The kitchen chimney is a replica of the tombstone of Hawker's mother.

While you're there

Morwenstow's Church of St Morwenna is unavoidable and unmissable, from its atmospheric graveyard and splendid Norman doorways to its wonderfully gloomy interior. Even the approach to the lychgate has drama. You tread on visible depressions, bare of pebbles, the graves of unsanctified suicides or criminals. Just inside the gate, on the right is a granite cross with the initials of Hawker's wife. The cross on the left commemorates drowned sailors.

Where to eat and drink

There are no refreshments along the way but the Bush Inn is just along the road from Morwenstow Church. It does bar meals and you can enjoy smoked mackerel or crab salad with your Hick's Special Draught. The delightful Rectory Farm Tearooms & Restaurant is right at the start of the walk and offers morning coffee, lunches, cream teas and evening meals by arrangement.

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