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Go with the flow: summit-to-source-to-sea in Cornwall

Simon Calder

Our travel correspondent is making the most of the UK in August by taking on a challenge a day, and hopes that you might follow.

Today: from the summit of Cornwall’s highest peak to the source of the Fowey River, then following the waterway all the way to the sea.

Africa has Kilimanjaro, the Americas have Aconcagua and Asia has Everest. The highest point in Cornwall, meanwhile, is Brown Willy.

From Jamaica Inn, the notorious smugglers’ hideaway turned roadhouse for long-suffering drivers on the A30, squelch your way northwest for two-and-a-half miles across the boggy fields of Bodmin Moor, with some intermediate-grade stream leaping thrown in.

Sound good so far? Persevere: at 1,378 feet it is just one-20th of the height of Everest, and from the summit you will (weather permitting) gasp at the austere beauty of central Cornwall, the embroidery of the shoreline and the dazzle of the Atlantic.

The roof of England’s southwesternmost county is the ideal place to begin a series of seven adventures in seven days: taking on one challenge a day in the four nations of the UK. And all without a car.

The first mission: find the top of Cornwall and, nearby, the source of the River Fowey – or, as some prefer, the Fowey river. Then follow the waterway as closely as possible for 26 miles before it emerges into the English Channel.

Journey's end: Fowey harbour in southern Cornwall (Simon Calder)

Summit-to-source-to-sea starts with an exercise in elementary orienteering. Looking to the northeast, identify the valley that divides High Moor from West Moor (disconcertingly to the east), and try to avoid Crowdy Marsh and Scribble Downs.

Got it? Then journey to the source of the Fowey. The modest origin turns out to be a pool the size of a bathtub, with gin-clear water that tastes faintly of tea. Within a few hundreds yards it is already a recognisable waterway, threading through the gorse bushes that dab splashes of colour onto an otherwise leaden palette.

Stay high, though, to avoid some of the boggiest terrain this side of the Amazon Basin. And perhaps hope for a shower: a perfect rainbow decorated the moorland for me.

“Amazonian” is not a description for the young Fowey, but it wisps delicately beneath the A30’s monstrous flyover. For nutrition, though, aim uphill to Jamaica Inn – which is an excellent place to leave a bike on which to pick up the trail.

Your breakfast will not slow you down, since the next six glorious miles adhere to the river. It isn’t flowing uphill.

Tranquil waters: the young River Fowey (Simon Calder)

Glide down the pretty lane beside the water – whose serenity is punctuated by cheerful gurgles. But suddenly it takes on torrential credentials. Welcome to Golitha Falls.

Now, this is eight miles from the source of the River Fowey, not hundreds of miles along the mighty Zambezi, so manage your expectations: the Victoria Falls need not feel threatened. Yet the cataracts are mesmerising, and the opportunity for some wild swimming tempting. Go with the flow and drift downstream as windows in the forest canopy dapple you with sunshine.

Back on the bike: turn your back on the river. The next few miles from here are unsuitable for cycling (trust me, I have checked). So instead follow in my tyre tracks across the hills to the town of Liskeard. It is off-route, but a train from here will take you (and your ideally pre-booked bike) in just 10 minutes to Bodmin Parkway.

Here, resist the temptation to hop on a steam train: the Bodmin & Wenford Railway puffs north from here. Instead, take the National Cycle Network track that begins right next to the car park. You are soon on a curved path that flirts with the river.

River junction: from beside the Fowey at Bodmin Parkway station, the Bodmin & Wenford Railway puffs north (Simon Calder)

At the end, turn sharp left on the second-prettiest bridge across the Fowey and head up the hill. You are aiming for the well-signposted Duchy of Cornwall Nursery: a place where plants, not toddlers, are cultivated. Then take the signposted public footpath veering off to the right.

Now, due to a luggage malfunction, I was navigating with the help of a 1930 Ordnance Survey map (for complicated reasons my 21st-century version is currently in the back of a blue BMW). But it worked a treat, guiding me across the Great Western Railway and the now-adolescent River Fowey, and then to Restormel Castle: a preposterously circular 13th-century fortification that is now in the care of English Heritage.

Navigate carefully through the pheasants that have taken up residence along the lane south to Lostwithiel. Those passing through are urged to pause in an “Ancient Stannary Town” (it was once home to the Stannary Parliament, looking after the interests of tinners), though you may be happy just to let the gentle muddle of Georgian townhouses and ecclesiastical remnants augment your happy journey.

Cross the prettiest and lowest bridge on the river, originally built by the Normans, and prepare your thighs for three steep climbs and corresponding descents in seven miles. Unless and until GWR reinstates the railway that runs beside the river, you have to ascend high above

Cold front: Simon Calder swimming in the River Fowey at Golitha Falls (Graham Hoyland)

The first two, to Lerryn and Penpoll, give you a taste of the sea: a trace of salt in the air introduces you to a pair of tidal tributaries of the Fowey.

By the third, the prospect of climbing another 350 feet from sea level is unappealing. But stay with it: just beyond the crest, the horizon is suddenly filled with the gleam of the Channel and the muscular headlands that guard Fowey. And as you drop down to the ferry at Bodinnick, the final left-hand bend reveals the harbour in its playful, colourful glory. Of all the Cornish fishing villages-turned-cherished resorts, Fowey indulges the eye most generously, thanks to a gorgeous setting embellished with pastel-painted cottages and bobbing boats.

Celebrate your achievement with a feast in some of the county’s most imaginative restaurants: after all, you may be only the second person to go from summit to source to sea in a day. But I must move on for my next adventure.

Tomorrow: can Simon Calder beat the trans-Wales express train from Cardiff to Holyhead – by hitch-hiking?