A winter treasure: Three-lobed Crowfoot and the Grochall Track

The more traditional way to visit Kynance Cove on The Lizard is to park in the National Trust car park, walk down the footpath to the cove itself and enjoy the shimmering sea and serpentine followed by a cup of tea and slice of cake in the cafe. Then follows the steep but short slog back up the hill to the car.

Kynance Cove
Kynance Cove

It will be spring or summer, and on a sunny day there will be many other people at this understandably popular spot. You might take a walk along the cliff top, either north towards Soapy Cove or south towards Caerthillian and Lizard Point. You will be rewarded by the wonderful flora of The Lizard all along the tops of the cliffs, from the Thrift that is everywhere to sweet-scented Chamomile to the rarer clovers that The Lizard is rightly renowned for.

The warmer months are, however, not my favourite time of year to make a trip to Kynance, and neither is this route the way I prefer to arrive there. I like to make the journey in winter, or early spring, starting from further east, taking a route across the Lizard Downs. The footpath is called by many the Grochall Track, though it does not call it that on the OS map, and it starts next to Kynance Garage petrol station at Mile End. It is not the most enticing of entryways, and on a dull winter day even less so.

The gate onto the Grochall track
The gate through to the Lizard Downs National Nature Reserve

Bear with it, though. Two or three minutes along a hedge-bound path and you arrive at a gate announcing you have arrived at the Lizard Downs. Enter, and find a wonderful world. The track heads pretty much straight south-west. To the north lies a small-holding (marked Grochall on the OS map), now managed for conservation and owned by the National Trust since 2009. Walking westwards you find yourself on the National Nature Reserve, managed by the local Natural England team. In summer, when there has been enough sunshine, the track itself will be largely dry, its pale buff-coloured soil firm beneath your feet. There will be the beautiful Cornish Heath blooming in later summer, pink flowers of Common Centaury and, if you keep your eyes peeled, its tiny cousin Yellow Centaury, opening its petals to the warmth of the sun. Around you the Downs stretch out, coconut-scented gorse, heathers and grasses, in an expanse of green. Summer is a nice time to go, I admit.

It is a bit bleak, though, even in summer. Not many folk walk this way, away from the cliffs and coast. You cannot even see the sea until you get a mile or so further west. In winter, though, it takes on a bleakness at quite another level. A brisk, cool and bright day is great, but I much prefer it when it is vaguely misty and mizzly. The path is clear enough that it is impossible to get lost, but with your eyes cast downwards and your collar up, dim shapes hover at the edge of sight and the world contracts around you. The ubiquitous Purple Moor-grass takes on a whole new purpose: its knobbly clumps serve as stepping stones as you stomp and splash along what is now a path of sticky mud and puddles.

It is wonderful. Rather than lifting up your eyes to seek the horizon and the first sight of the sea, with Kynance the end goal, you are focussed on the ground, and so you notice things closer to your feet. Early frogspawn, for example, or the fine filaments of stoneworts in the puddles. And it will also be impossible to miss the winter treasure of my title: Three-lobed Crowfoot.

28/2/11 R. tripartitus, Lizard Downs
Three-lobed Crowfoot, Lizard Downs

It hardly looks like anything in the cold winter months, compared to some of the showier plants with which it shares the Downs. When I was studying at Tremough, I spent many weeks, in both winter and summer, surveying for Crowfoot on the west side of The Lizard, including the Grochall Track. Despite saying a few sentences ago that it is hard to miss, you do need to get your eye in. At first, I would stop at every puddle along the track looking for the plant hopefully: separating out its delicate small leaves from other vegetation could sometimes take several minutes. Eventually, though, the distinctive crowfoot shape imprinted itself firmly into my brain and I would find it quickly and with ease. As I closed my eyes at the end of a day surveying, lying pleasantly exhausted in bed, I would see crowfoot leaves floating before me.

“It grows into your soul like a favourite song”

I came to love it. I love the sight of a few of its leaves lying on the surface of a puddle as if they have been placed there, hidden in full sight for the weary traveller to find. I love it when you find a place where it has exploded, carpeting a shallow pool with exuberant abundance. I love the shape of it: the graceful smooth notches in the leaves creating the three-lobed form, the fairy-like gentle green colour. An unpretentious little plant, it grows into your soul like a favourite song.

Then, in the earliest days of spring, it blossoms. Tiny, white, yellow-centred flowers held on stiff little stalks above the leaves. I remember the first time I saw its flowers, after weeks of searching for and counting the leaves. My amazement was out of all proportion to its diminutive petals. Maybe I was brain-fuddled by all the surveying, but I think it was rather that it was so precious to see this brave flower, holding out in the still cold depths of the downlands.

Three-lobed Water Crowfoot in flower
Three-lobed Water Crowfoot in flower

Three-lobed Crowfoot is a national rarity. Its range has reduced considerably over the last few decades. It is still found in western Pembrokeshire, the New Forest, and on some sites in Devon and West Cornwall, but The Lizard remains one of its last strongholds. It is one of a few plants growing on the trackways that benefit from a low-level of disturbance, something that once would have been provided by the horse-drawn carts carrying serpentine from The Lizard’s quarries to the serpentine craft workshops (the Grochall track was one of these routes, before the toll road – now the main vehicular access to Kynance – was created in the 1930s). Disturbance reduces competition from other plants, so in order to conserve the Crowfoot, conservation managers now need to recreate similar levels of human activity, either by using grazing stock or by driving vehicles up and down the tracks – a fun thing to do, but with a serious point to it.

When I walk the Grochall Track in winter or early spring, arriving at Kynance is almost incidental. Sometimes I walk down the switchback path at the northern side of the cove, in order to feel the sand beneath my feet and admire the serpentine rocks. More often, though, I find a sheltered place to sit at the top of the cliffs and eat a sandwich, looking down on Kynance and Asparagus Island, at peace with the view and reflecting on the tranquillity of the Downs. Then I pick up my rucksack and head back along the Grochall Track, looking for more Crowfoot.

Kynance Cove


Getting to the Grochall track:

Travelling south through The Lizard down the A3083, at Mile End you will see Kynance Garage on your right (SW700145). Turn left immediately opposite and there is a small area on the left where you can park. Cross the A3083, taking care to avoid cars which shoot up and down the road here, and you will see the footpath starting to the left of the garage. The track (which is clearly marked on Ordnance survey maps) heads straight from here, bearing south-west until you reach the cliffs and sea and the road switchbacking down to the cove (SW685134). If you have left the car at Mile End, you will need to walk back the same way, unless you take the National Trust access (toll) road back to the A3083 and then walk north along the main road until you get back to Mile End. I would not recommend it, however – the A3083, although seldom chock-a-block full of traffic, is a straight and fast road. There is nothing to complain about in enjoying the Grochall Track twice – and it is safer.

Related walk:

I blogged before about a walk starting on the Grochall Track, but which then turns north before you get to Kynance and visits Lower Predannack and Kynance Gate prehistoric village. It was a summer walk, and I wouldn’t recommend it in winter (or summer) unless you have a good map and possibly even a compass if you are unfamiliar with The Lizard, as the paths away from the Grochall Track are not always as clear. In winter, if you think the Grochall Track is muddy, some of the other tracks leading away from it are spectacularly boggy. Sturdy walking boots are essential, and it is amazing how disorientating just a bit of mist can be. 

Find out more:

Bates, Robin and Scolding, Bill, 2002. Wild Flowers of The Lizard.  Cornwall Council, Truro (a great and accessible little book that will fit in your rucksack, written by two local experts, with good photos and available from most bookshops and gift shops in the area).

Find out more about Three-lobed Crowfoot on the Discovering the Natural Lizard website here, or on the Plantlife website here.

For anyone that wants to find out more about how low-level disturbance is of practical use in conserving Three-lobed Crowfoot and some of the other Lizard rarities, here is a link to the one scientific paper I have to my name, which explains the positive outcome of conservation work at nearby Windmill Farm. I may be the lead author (it came out of my university project study), but my co-authors are infinitely more knowledgeable: Scott A, Maclean IMD, Byfield A, Pay AR and Wilson RJ, 2012. Artificial disturbance promotes recovery of rare Mediterranean temporary pond plant species on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall, England. Conservation Evidence, 9, 79-86

A walk on The Lizard: Grochall to Lower Predannack

I’ve been visiting family away from Cornwall for a while, so first of all apologies for not having posted for three weeks. But I’m back now, and I’ve been enjoying getting out and about in all this glorious sunshine. A little earlier this week, I went to visit some old haunts of mine on The Lizard – read on to discover what I found.

Chamomile, Kynance

Scented carpets, ancient homes, flying boats and crackling gorse…a walk from Grochall to Lower Predannack, and back again

Over the summer of of 2010 I had the blissful task of surveying for rare plants on some of the trackways on The Lizard. The plants I was looking for were mainly opportunistic annuals that spring into action when conditions are right and competition from other plants is limited, and I was researching into how they were faring. It was interesting to study (as well as fairly idyllic spending so much time in beautiful surroundings in the name of work!), and I ought to explain more about it in a future post.

Yellow Centaury (Cicendia filiformis) on the Lizard Downs in 2010 (photo: Amanda Scott)
Yellow Centaury (Cicendia filiformis) on the Lizard Downs in 2010 (photo: Amanda Scott)

In the meantime, this week I thought I would pay a visit to a couple of the tracks I surveyed back in 2010 to see if I could spot one particular plant – Yellow Centaury – in locations where I know it appears. You can see this delightful, tiny plant, with its yellow flower that only opens in the sunshine, as early as the beginning of June on The Lizard in good years, but the bad weather earlier in 2013 put paid to that timing. However, with the complete turnaround in the weather, I thought I might be in luck. In the end, I only found two individual plants in separate places (hopefully the first of more), but I’ve given you a photograph from 2010 so you can admire its delicate beauty.

The gate to the Grochall Track (photo: Amanda Scott)
The gate to the Grochall Track (photo: Amanda Scott)

But even though I didn’t find much Yellow Centaury, there was plenty else to keep me interested on my way through the heathland. This is a nice walk, so I’ve tried to explain my route so you can follow it on a map if you’d like to try it yourselves.

I set off on my walk on the Grochall Track. This old trackway begins immediately to the south of the Kynance Garage (on the A3083 to Lizard Village). Walk a few metres along the public footpath, and you come to a gate that tells you that you have arrived at The Lizard National Nature Reserve. Enter, close the gate behind you, and start your journey…

The Grochall Track - the older way to Kynance Cove (photo: Amanda Scott)
The Grochall Track – the older way to Kynance Cove (photo: Amanda Scott)

The Grochall Track has a long history. Until the early part of the twentieth century it was the main transport route to Kynance, crossing in a straight path across the Lizard Downs until it reaches the Cove itself. Now it is a sandy, rocky and sometimes grassy footpath, pretty boggy in the wetter months but dry and dusty in this hot weather. The track itself can seem a little bleak and dull at first glance, even on a sunny day: it is almost entirely straight, surrounded by flat heathland landscape, with the drone of cars passing on the A3083 behind you. The sea only appears on the horizon from about three-quarters of the way along the path. But it isn’t only interesting because of where it is leading…just look and listen…!

Cornish Heath (Erica vagans) by the Grochall Track (photo: Amanda Scott)
Cornish Heath (Erica vagans) by the Grochall Track (photo: Amanda Scott)

Ahead of me a solitary crow sat on a shrub, standing sentinel over the way to the west. Birds chattered in the gorse, making mad dashes across the path ahead of me. Butterflies (Small Heaths, Common Blues in hundreds) danced with each other through the bracken and grasses and across the heather. Ah yes – the heather! It was at the start of its season of glory, just beginning to bloom: Bell Heather (Erica cinerea), Cross-leaved Heath (E. tetralix), and the lovely Cornish Heath (E. vagans). I also found Lesser Water-plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides), another of the plants I surveyed for in 2010. This plant of water’s edges and boggy places has a fairly stable foothold in the west of Britain, but is declining elsewhere due to habit loss and eutrophication. Its species name of ranunculoides derives from the fact that its seedhead appears very similar to that of a buttercup (Buttercup family=Ranunculus), but it is in fact in a different family altogether.

Lesser Water-plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides) (photo: Amanda Scott)
Lesser Water-plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides) (photo: Amanda Scott)
Sailing through Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)
Sailing through Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)

I didn’t go all the way to Kynance Cove, but instead turned right (north) to head towards the prehistoric village at Kynance Gate. Before I did so, I watched a yacht with one red and one white sail move across the Cove. In the heat haze it was hard to distinguish sea from sky at the horizon, and the boat could almost have been flying through the air, companion to the gulls of Asparagus Island.

I followed a rough stony track downhill until I reached the small wooden bridge across a stream at the entrance to the Kynance Farm, still part of the National Nature Reserve. Here I marvelled at dragonflies and damselflies, including a Broad-bodied Chaser and the quick weaving azure flight of two Beautiful Demoiselles.

Roundhouse at Kynance Gate prehistoric village (photo: Amanda Scott)
Roundhouse at Kynance Gate prehistoric village (photo: Amanda Scott)

Go through the gate and the path bends to the left and upwards, but you can first detour here on to the much vaguer path to the right and head up the hill until you find the roundhouses of Kynance Gate prehistoric village. Occupied on and off between 1200BC and Roman times, the site was probably only used in the summer for grazing. They reminded me of those I visited at Bodrifty in my last post: quiet and empty of human life, but teeming with the hum of life that bees, butterflies and plants bring.

Returning to the main path at the gate to Kynance Farm, I made my way uphill until the path forks. The arrow points you to the right-hand fork so, of course, I went left (the paths rejoin each other in any case). Eventually you arrive at a large farm gate. To follow my route you need to go through the gate and turn right up a gravelled straight track, but first it’s important to take a moment (or several) to enjoy the view to the left, back to Kynance Cove across a field of low grass and wild flowers. At this time of year, the wild Chamomile is beginning to carpet the field and the apple-scent as you walk through the grass is uplifting.

Chamomile field (photo: Amanda Scott)
Chamomile field above Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)

Back on the path and I was heading north towards Lower Predannack and Jolly Town Farm. A stream runs across the path just below Jolly Town, heading downhill towards Soapy Cove to the west, but here it pauses for a moment, forming a shallow pool even in the heatwave conditions, home to surface hopping insects and tadpoles.

Tadpoles below Jolly Town (photo: Amanda Scott)
Tadpoles below Jolly Town (photo: Amanda Scott)
Entrance to the bridleway within the perimeter of Predannack Airfield. Turn  right - don't go straight on! (Photo: Amanda Scott)
Entrance to the bridleway within the perimeter of Predannack Airfield. Turn right – don’t go straight on! (Photo: Amanda Scott)

Just beyond here, the track goes through a gate and becomes grassy, and you walk, still heading north, with the heathland to your right and a hedge to your left until you reach another gate and turn right up a surfaced path. A couple of hundred metres further and you meet a sturdy metal gate and this scary sign at the entrance to Predannack Airfield, linked to RNAS Culdrose. Never fear! – there is a public right of way (bridleway) within the perimeter of the airfield. Go right here and follow the path (another site for Yellow Centaury), which eventually turns left until you meet an equally scary sign and exit from the bridleway back on to the heath.

From here, it is a little difficult to explain, so please please please come armed with decent map and compass if you are following this route for the first time! On the OS map it looks easy – a clear path from the SE corner of the airfield, heading south-east past Die’s Pool (non-existent in the dry weather) until rejoining the Grochall Track and heading back to your starting point. On the ground…..well. That clear south-east track is very faint and overgrown over the heathland, and you end up in a hollow with a fence to your left, going through a gate into a wooded area, taking stepping stones over a small stream, out the other side through another gate, across a boggy patch (muddy even in this weather!), until thankfully picking up a clearer path back to the Grochall Track.

A Gorse pod - just popped! (Photo: Amanda Scott)
A Gorse pod – just popped! (Photo: Amanda Scott)

I’m less fond of this part of the route, I have to admit, probably because it’s at the end and I’m tired (I should try the walk the other way round, maybe!). This time, though, I was surprised by something unexpected. Just before going through that first gate to the wooded area, pausing to catch my breath and grumble at the bramble trailing across the path, I became aware of a constant crackling and popping from all around me. My first thought was wildfire…but suddenly there was a loud crack only inches away from me, making me jump! I realised I’d heard of this before but never experienced it – hundreds of Gorse pods popping open in the heat to display their shiny black fruit. It definitely made this ‘grumpier’ part of the walk worth the effort.

This walk is a good one if you want a mix of heathland, grassland and sea views, with a bit of archaeology thrown in for good measure. If you want to make it longer, you can head further north and go all the way up to Predannack and Mullion before heading south again, either inland or on the coastal path, or you can divert to Kynance or Soapy Cove. Definitely have a good OS map, though, not just to show you all the trackways: if it gets misty (as it might in less clement weather), it’s easier than you think to get disorientated. Enjoy!

Erica cinerea, Grochall Track