Dramatic cliffs and beautiful bays lead to the Bedruthan Steps in north Cornwall, says Mark Rowe

The crumbling stones of Bedruthan Steps are the highlight of this dramatic walk along one of the finest stretches of the South West Coast Path. The walk starts on the north coast at Porthcothan Bay, which can be reached by bus from Padstow, five miles away.

Pause to buy an ice cream or pasty from the beach shop, before heading up the left hand, southern flank of the cliffs. Porthcothan must be one of the loveliest of Cornwall's bays: when the tide is out, the sands stretch for more than 300 yards, framed on either side by high cliffs, delightful rock pools and craggy outcrops.

The path runs below some holiday houses before passing thrillingly close to the cliff edge. You zigzag down Porth Mear to sea level before climbing once again on to Park Head, one of several headlands that the coastal path cuts off at the neck.

Continuing along the coast, the scenery is spectacular; sheer cliff edges drop 300 feet down into the riotous Atlantic. You pass the scattered remains of Redcliff Castle, an Iron Age settlement that once stretched to the coast but has long since crumbled. You then come upon Bedruthan Steps, volcanic rock islands carved away from the coast by an unrelenting Atlantic and topped with grass and heather.

The common notion that the steps are said to be the stepping stones of a Cornish giant named Bedruthan was dreamt up by Victorians. The name belongs to the almost perpendicular staircase cut into the rocks that drops to the bay. Historically, the steps have been perilous and the cliffs surrounding them unstable so the National Trust closes them every few years for repairs. It is worth checking tide times and to try to visit during low tide.

Back at the top of the steps, a short climb takes you up to the superbly located National Trust tea shop, housed in old mine buildings. The path hugs the coastline and after a mile drops down into the bay of Mawgan Porth, an atmospheric, brooding beach.

From the bay, head left up the road, and, just before the brow, turn right in front of some cottages and immediately take the path to the right, marked "footpath only", to follow a grassy flank that gives views across the Vale of Mawgan. Soon you come to a meeting of paths, where you follow the signpost for St Mawgan. The path crosses a bridge and you walk up the paved hill with a caravan site to your right. At a T-junction cross straight over the stile and follow the track past some farm buildings and drop into delightful coppiced woodland.

You leave the woods, joining a metalled road that drops into the picturesque village of St Mawgan. You pass, unexpectedly, a Japanese garden full of bamboo groves, azaleas and Japanese maples. Also look out for the 13th-century granite and slate manor house, now a convent; the village church is also a gem, with a sloping churchyard and the stern of a rowing boat - a memorial to 10 men who drifted ashore, frozen to death in 1846. The Falcon Inn is a good pit stop.

To continue, turn right immediately after crossing the bridge and follow the road as it curves up hill. Just before leaving the village, take the right-hand way-marked path through a gate along a sheltered, grassy track. You will see a cemetery on your left. Cross a series of fields and stiles, following the way-markers. After the third stile you make a dog leg over a fourth stile, turning left then right again following the path downhill. The path follows the river to a spring, where you bear right up to a stile over a fence, keep the hedge on your left and then turn left through a way-marked gate. Keep straight ahead until you reach the small road.

There is no direct footpath back to the coast from here, so the following route uses the quietest lanes. Turn left along the road to a T-junction. Cross and follow the way-marker across the field to another signpost in a hedge, where you cross another field, this time bearing slightly to your left, following the tractor lines to a way-marker on the far side of the field. At the road, turn right and enter the village of Tregurrian. In the village turn right, continue for a couple of hundred yards, and then bear left, following the paved road leading down to the coast road.

To rejoin the coast path you'll need to turn left for 200 yards before picking it up. Below you are the magnificent sands of Watergate Bay, which stretch for two miles to Newquay. The last mile or so into Newquay is an uninspiring plod through suburbia; you may prefer to hop on a bus into town.


DISTANCE: 11 miles

HOW TO GET THERE: Porthcothan Bay and Watergate Bay can be reached by a two-hourly bus service that runs between Newquay and Padstow operated by Western greyhound (westerngreyhound.com). For bus and rail connections from the London-Penzance route to Padstow and Newquay contact National Rail (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk) or Traveline (0870-608 2608; travelinesw.com). For more on walking in Cornwall see visitcornwall.co.uk.

WHERE TO STAY: Mark Rowe stayed at the Bedruthan Steps Hotel (01637 860555; bedruthan .com) in Mawgan Porth. Double rooms start at £160, full board.