Goonhilly Downs

The eighteenth century traveller Charles Littleton said that the Goonhilly Downs were ‘boggy, naked, barren moors with not a tree or shrub to be seen’. Indeed, the plateau of Goonhilly, sitting almost in the middle of The Lizard, can appear bleak on an overcast and cold day, with little shelter from chilly Atlantic breezes. Somewhere to go for a brisk walk with your dog, but not much else.

Charles Littleton was, however, definitely missing something. Venture just a little deeper and you will find the Downs have many secrets to reveal – wildlife, rare flora, a special geology and a heritage that stretches back into prehistory – with much to discover and cherish.

On a sunny day in summer, the pools will be buzzing with dragonflies and damselflies; the heaths will be humming with bees and butterflies nectaring on the rare Cornish Heath and other vibrant flowers; while overhead birds will be singing, including the iconic Skylark. In cooler months, you will find both migratory and stay-at-home birds, while taking time to explore the archaeology and history of this magical place.

There are well-marked paths across the Downs, though some are rough underfoot, and may be wet outside of the warmer months of the year. There is lots to find even close to the car park, but you can follow tracks further across Goonhilly, down to Croft Pascoe or north to the boundary of the Goonhilly Earth Satellite Station.

Parking: Small free car park. Open all year. Heading eastwards, turn right into car park from the B3293, not long after the entrance to Goonhilly Earth Station

Facilities: Please note there are no toilet or café facilities on site. Dogs are very welcome, but please keep them under control as there may be livestock and/or ponies grazing

Accessibility: The paths closer to the car park are reasonably accessible to wheelchairs, but tracks further away become muddy and more difficult to navigate.

Activities: Walks, wildlife, flora, history and archaeology

The raised plateau of Goonhilly Downs, like much of The Lizard, sits above underlying serpentine rock. It lies 7 km south of Helston, and is fairly central to The Lizard. The highest point on The Lizard sits on Goonhilly – you can visit the Trig Point, near to Dry Tree Menhir.


To the west and south, the Downs are bordered by outcrops of granite-gneiss, and to the east by gabbro and hornblende-schist, but it is the serpentine, unique to The Lizard in England, that lies under the Goonhilly plateau and which gives it its character. In geochemical terms, Serpentine is ultra-basic (or ultramafic). This means it is enriched in iron and magnesium and low in silica and calcium, and has a high-pH (acids have a low pH, whereas alkali materials have a high pH). The serpentine weathers into gley (water-saturated) soils, which in parts are covered by loess (windblown) silty deposits – these are more acidic than the serpentine soils.

Together with the pools, quarries and historic cart tracks that cross the Downs, these various geological features support a range of habitats, mainly lowland heathland, but also lower-lying peaty wetland habitats. There are also some larger pools, including Croft Pascoe and Bray’s Cot.

Geology can tell us much about the flora we might see in a location, and Goonhilly is a great place to explore this. Did you know, for example, that many plants found on The Lizard, including the rare Cornish Heath, only grow over the serpentine, because they like getting their roots into the alkali soils. So, the flora we see tell us tales of the deeper ground beneath our feet.

You can read more about the geology [hyperlink to] of The Lizard, or pick up a copy of Beneath the Skin of The Lizard, by Robin Bates and Bill Scolding, which details seven coastal walks exploring the geology of the peninsula.

Photos: 1. Serpentine; 2. Cornish Heath

Flora and fauna

At first glance, the windswept plain of the Goonhilly Downs seems as if it hosts little variation in habitat or scenery. As you start to explore, you will find that could not be further from the truth. Heathland, pools, wooded areas, scrub, the tracks themselves – all these serve to support a range of flora and fauna, some of it rare and unique to The Lizard. Goonhilly is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) as well as part of The Lizard National Nature Reserve.

Rare plants

The ancient trackways that criss-cross the Downs are perfect for some of our rare plant species. Pygmy Rush is unique to The Lizard in the UK, and can be found in May and June. In the height of summer seek out the tiny Yellow Centaury and Lesser Water-plantain, and in the spring, you can find the white flowers of Three-lobed Crowfoot glistening in the pools and puddles along the tracks.

Across the heathland, you’ll find the Cornish Heath flowering in high summer: The Lizard is the only UK mainland location for this emblematic plant.

Orchid lovers should also head to Goonhilly – you can find Fragrant, Green-winged, Southern Marsh, and Heath-spotted Orchids, among others.

In wetter areas, look out for the red glow of Round-leaved Sundew and the stately Royal Fern.

Photo: Pygmy rush

Notable birds on Goonhilly include the Nightjar. It breeds in the conifer woods on the south of the site. You’ll also find (and hear) Skylark, Curlew and Lapwing, and a variety of raptors, including Merlin and Kestrel, and owl species.

With so much wetland, including Croft Pascoe and Bray’s Cot Pools, as well as the many other smaller pools and puddles, you’d expect to see dragonflies and damselflies, and you wouldn’t be disappointed. Keep an eye out for the nationally scarce Black-tailed Skimmer, but you’ll see many of the more common species, too.

Butterflies and moths love the rich flora of the site. In May, you may be lucky enough to spot the Marsh Fritillary, as Goonhilly is one of the strongholds of this rare species.

You are most likely to spot grazing cows and ponies doing their bit for conservation. However, the wild mammals are there: they are just shy! Voles, mice, weasels and their cousins are foraging in the scrub and undergrowth, and larger mammals, such as foxes, badgers and deer can be spotted. Tread quietly, and who knows what you will see.

Find out about some more of the flora, birds, butterflies and moths, and other animals you can see on The Lizard. [Species profiles]

The heritage of Goonhilly stretches from prehistory to World War Two, encompassing Early Bronze Age settlers, to mediaeval farmers, to wartime radar operators.

What’s in a name? The name Goonhilly was first recorded in the twelfth century as Goenhili. Technically, it’s incorrect to say ‘Goonhilly Downs’, because ‘goon’ means ‘downland’. It crops up in other Cornish placenames, such as Goonhavern (summer pasture downs) or Gunwin (white down).

There are two theories as to the derivation of Goonhilly. It either comes from goon- and hyli- (brine), meaning ‘brackish downs’, or goon- and helghi-, meaning ‘hunting down’.

Find out more about the landscape history of The Lizard’s downs and moors here [hyperlink to:].

Early Bronze Age
The earliest settlers on Goonhilly date back to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2150 to 1500 BCE), as part of the transition from a nomadic to more settled lifestyle. The serpentine downs of Goonhilly are not especially fertile, but these early inhabitants probably used them for summer grazing, while farming the more fertile land around its edges. You can catch traces of our ancestors in the Dry Tree Menhir, which lies close to the car park, alongside Cruc Draenoc barrow (the highest point on Goonhilly).

Summer grazing of Goonhilly has continued into modern times, though now it is mainly for conservation. Cruc Draenoc barrow predates the creation of parishes in Anglo-Saxon times, but was used to mark where five parish boundaries meet – Cury, Ruan Major, St. Keverne, St. Martin-in-Meneague, amd Mawgan-in-Meneague. This served to mark the division of the common grazing land of the downs for pasture between the five parishes.

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
Later, some of the downs began to be divided into crofts, or smallholdings. The evidence is in placenames and at Croft Pascoe, but at Croft Noweth you can still see the ruined farmhouse and relics of field boundary walls and cattle sheds. It may sound like an idyllic country setting for a farm, but Goonhilly is not very fertile. People were driven there due to the economic downturns of the nineteenth century.

Twentieth century, and World War Two
In World War Two, Goonhilly hosted one of the string of defensive radar stations set up across the country. Called RAF Dry Tree, many of the buildings – in some disrepair – remain, and you can climb to the roof of the old receiver block. You get a great view across Goonhilly.

As you walk across the Downs, you will spot straight lines of mounds. In the Second World War, each of these mounds would have supported a tall pole, now long gone. These were glider baffles, to prevent enemy gliders landing. They were never needed, in the end, but it was an ingenious solution to a possible threat.

Twenty-first century

Just to the north of the Goonhilly reserve, you can see the old satellite dishes of Goonhilly Earth Station, which is now entering a new lease of life as a satellite communications enterprise.

If you are interested in finding out more about the archaeology and history of Goonhilly, then you might like to explore a walk we have published on this website. Led by Charlie Johns, a local archaeological expert, the walk takes you through the rich history of Goonhilly. []


Goonhilly Downs
Goonhilly walk

Goonhilly Downs: a walk through history (three miles)
Walk through history

Tour of ancient Lizard

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