Day out: Roche Rock, Cornwall

Delve into the history and folklore of an astonishing ruined chapel in the ‘Cornish Alps’ on a walk to Roche Rock, Cornwall

Ruins on a rock

Towering 20m tall, high above a Cornish heath, the outcrop of Roche Rock is an incredible sight. In autumn, many of the surrounding heathland plants have faded, save for the prickly gorse, revealing a muted palette of greens and browns punctuated by the black, white and grey of the rock itself. 

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Like something from Arthurian folklore, hewn from this rock, the ruins of St Michael’s chapel rise up, standing sentinel over the village of Roche and the ‘Cornish Alps’ – the white-topped spoils of the nearby china clay works. 

Chapel on a rock in winter
To access the ruined chapel, you will need to climb a steep iron ladder clamped to the rock. The tower of St Gomonda of the Rock, Roche’s parish church, stands in the distance
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History and folklore of Roche Rock

Roche Rock was formed over millions of years as geological forces eroded softer rock around it, leaving the tough outcrop of tourmaline-quartz. An archaeological dig at nearby Tregarrick Farm revealed that this striking geological formation may have been as much a pull for ancient people as it is for us. The dig unearthed pits containing items such as flints and pottery, most of it virtually unused, dating to the Neolithic era (4,500–2,500BC). Food items such as hazelnut shells were among the finds, suggesting this may have been the site of autumnal ritual activity; perhaps a harvest-time or Halloween gathering before the darkness of winter drew in. 

Like many sites of such antiquity, there are myths and tales associated with the ruin.

It was thought the chapel began life as a hermitage when a leper, shunned by the local community, was forced to live on the rock. Another legend tells of two lovers, Tristan and Isolde, an early story thought to have been the inspiration for Guinevere and Lancelot.

Tristan was quested to bring Isolde from Ireland to his uncle King Mark along with a love potion (what could go wrong?). Inevitably, the pair ‘accidentally’ drank the potion and fell in love. Forced to hide from the King, they sought refuge in the chapel at Roche. 

Starlight above chapel
Roche Rock underneath the Milky Way
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Roche Rock walk

The easiest way to reach the rock is to park outside the village church or in the larger car park for patrons of the Rock Inn opposite; the rock is just a short walk east from here. However, the mostly off-road walk along footpaths from Bugle is far more pleasant. The climb up the steep ladders of the tower can be challenging but the view makes it worth the effort. 

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To extend the day, wander along one of the footpaths that criss-cross the area; the linear route to Hensbarrow Beacon in the south is particularly enticing in autumn.