Botallack Head

The route stretches between West Wheal Owles (filmed as Wheal Leisure and Wheal Grace in the BBC's Poldark), the engine houses on Botallack headland, and Levant mine where a beam engine has been restored to working condition.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 102 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 2.5 miles/4 km
  • Grade: Easy
  • Start from: Botallack Count House
  • Parking: Botallack Count House car park (NT). From St Just, follow the B3306 towards St Ives then turn off at Botallack on the left. Follow the road to a junction on a sharp bend and continue ahead to take the junction. Keep following the small lane until you eventually reach the high walls of a ruined mine building on the right. The car park is beside this. Satnav: TR197QQ
  • Recommended footwear: Walking shoes

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Rugged coastline with views to Pendeen Lighthouse
  • Engine houses perched on Botallack Head
  • Mining Interpretation Centre at Botallack Count House
  • Working beam engine at Levant Mine
  • Wildlife including choughs and peregrine falcons

Adjoining walks

Directions

  1. Turn left out of the car park and follow the track until you reach a track departing to the right just past an old barn.

    The Count House at Botallack was built during the 1860s when the dressing floors were expanded on the cliff top, replacing a previous Count House on the track leading down to the engine houses on the headland. As the name suggests, it was where the miners collected their pay but it was also the hub of the day-to-day running of the mine. It was restored by the National Trust and is now open to the public with a café and an information centre about the history and wildlife of the area (no entry fee). The building is now heated geothermally, by bore holes in the ground below it to heat water using the same hot rocks that made the mines unpleasantly hot to work in.

  2. Turn right and follow the track until you reach a granite post with a path departing to the right.

    The engine house ahead with the spoil heaps housed the pumping engine for West Wheal Owles.

    In 1783, the mine was known as Crackegodna. In the 19th Century, this was taken over as part of the Wheal Owles complex and renamed West Wheal Owles although the old name still survives as Cargodna shaft. The surviving engine house was for the pumping engine. The corner of a wall is all that remains of the winding engine house which was used to power a double track tramway leading down to a shaft on the cliffs.

    The West Wheal Owles pumping engine house is used for filming both Wheal Grace and Wheal Leisure in the BBC's Poldark series. There was a real mine called Wheal Leisure at Perranporth where Winston Graham lived.

  3. Turn right onto the Coast Path and follow this until you reach a waymark where a path departs to the left to the engine houses beside the sea.

    The Cornish name for Botallack Head is Lae Maen Veor, meaning great stone ledge. The two engine houses perched on the ledges were part of Crown mines, named after The Crowns rocks off the headland. The mine was built in 1815 and the workings extend for a quarter of a mile under the Atlantic ocean; the deepest shaft is 250 fathoms below sea level. In 1863 the chain which pulled the mine gig suddenly broke, causing eight men and a boy to plummet to their deaths down the shaft. The mine finally closed at the outbreak of the First World War.

  4. Keep right in the direction waymarked and follow the path until you reach a fork in the path at the bottom of some rough steps.

    The tall chimney to your right was part of an arsenic labyrinth. A path leads up to it via the building with the arched brick doorway. Once you have finished exploring, return to the path alongside the dressing floors and continue until it forks.

    The granules of ore were heated in a furnace to remove impurities such as sulphur and particularly arsenic. By heating the ore in air, the arsenic impurities could be driven off as a vapour. As the impurities escaped as gasses, the particles of ore melted into grey crystalline lumps of tin oxide known as "black tin".

    The exhaust gasses were cooled and condensed to form a white powder deposited in the flues or purpose-built condensers. The white powder - arsenic - was collected and sold. A few grains of pure arsenic are enough to be fatal but the majority of arsenic workers managed to protect themselves by stuffing cotton wool up their noses and painting their faces and any other exposed areas of skin white with fuller's earth to prevent arsenic being absorbed through the pores of their skin.

  5. Bear left at the fork to follow the path up the steps to a granite waymark. Turn left at the waymark and follow the track until you reach another granite waymark by a wooden gate.

    Arsenic disrupts the production of the ATP (energy carrying) molecules vital in the metabolism of multi-cell organisms. Due to its toxicity, arsenic was used as an insecticide and rat poison, and by the ruling class to murder one another. It also had a variety of chemical uses including metal alloys, clarifying glass and in pigments. In Victorian times, one of these pigments known as "Scheele's Green" (copper arsenate) was used to colour sweets green; later it was used as an insecticide!

    During Victorian times, having a sun tan was seen as common, as peasants working in the fields were out in the sunshine. In order to make their faces paler, women of the higher social classes mixed arsenic oxide with vinegar and chalk and ate this! They also rubbed arsenic into their faces and arms. The Victorian notion that women were "frail creatures" may have had something to do with arsenic poisoning.

  6. At the waymark, turn left down the coast path until you reach a fork just after passing over a stone wall.

    The conical structures in the old dressing floors are the remains of devices known as "buddles". These were used to separate the tin ore from the rock (known as gange) in the ore slurry created by the stamping mill. The slurry was trickled onto the centre of the dome and a rotating set of brushes, suspended from wooden spokes, smeared the slurry around the circular structure. The heavy tin would deposit near the central dome whereas unwanted rock fragments would travel further and end up in a pit around the outside.

  7. Take the right-hand path and follow it to the remains of a chimney then a little further to a waymark. Keep left at the waymark to join a path running across the tips from the mine. Continue until you reach a (concrete) trig. point.

    Peregrine falcons nest on the cliffs here so you may see one flying overhead or perched on a rocky outcrop as you walk along the coast to Levant.

    The peregrine falcon can reach over 322 km/h (200 mph) during its hunting stoop (high speed dive) making it the fastest member of the animal kingdom. In 2005, a peregrine was measured at a top speed of 389 km/h (242 mph). The air pressure at this speed could damage a bird's lungs. However small bony tubercles on a falcon's nostrils guide the powerful airflow away, enabling the bird to breathe more easily while diving. In Cornish dialect, these falcons are known as "winnards" and local expressions include "shrammed as a winnard" (meaning chilled) and "rumped up like a winnard" (meaning huddled).

  8. Bear right very slightly at the trig point to stay on the major path ahead. Follow this past some mineshafts until you reach a junction of paths.

    Choughs nest in the area and are fairly regularly seen.

    The chough is a member of the crow family, with striking red legs and a red beak. It was known as the "Crow of Cornwall" and appears on the county coat of arms. The birds have a distinctive call which is perhaps best described as resembling a squeaky dog toy! They are also recognisable from feathers, spread like fingers, on their wings.

    In the 1800s, many choughs were killed by "sportsmen" and trophy hunters. Also around this time, grazing livestock were moved to inland pastures where they could be more easily managed. The result was that the cliff slopes became overgrown and choughs found it increasingly difficult to find suitable feeding areas. By 1973, the chough had become extinct in Cornwall.

    Since then, clifftops have been managed more actively which has included the reintroduction of grazing and choughs have returned to Cornwall by themselves from colonies in Wales or Ireland. The first pair settled in 2001 on the Lizard Peninsula. Since then, the birds have successfully bred and been joined by a few more incoming birds, and the population has slowly but steadily grown. Each chough is fitted with one leg ring in the colours of St Piran's flag and two other colours on the opposite leg to identify them.

  9. Keep right at the first junction beside the stone wall then, almost immediately, where path forks, take the path to the left towards the pair of chimneys on the skyline, and follow this to a gap in a stone wall.

    Under the sea, shafts to ventilate and cool the mines were not an option so most submarine mines were uncomfortably hot (30-40 Celcius) as the temperature of the rocks increases by 1 degree Celcius for each 15 fathoms that a mine is sunk. The large numbers of miners' candles in the relatively confined spaces also served to push up the temperature further. In some mines it was so warm that miners candles were liable to melt away unless surrounded in water. Chemical reactions between air, water and the ore could also increase temperature. In the Hot Lode in the United Mines at Gwennap, water was recorded at a temperature of 52 Celcius.

  10. Follow the path through the gap and down into the gulley to a crossing of paths. Take the path ahead and follow it to the small rock outcrop on the top of the headland where there is a junction of paths.

    The gulley is part of the inlet known as Whealcock Zawn.

    According to "The Z to Z of Great Britain", there are just over 40 place names in Britain that begin with the letter Z; over three-quarters of them are in Cornwall. One of the main reasons for this is that the Cornish word for "coastal inlet" is zawn, and coastline is something that Cornwall has rather a lot of.

    Zawn Brinny, near Levant mine is an example of one of these.

  11. Continue on the major path ahead and follow it to the remains of the chimney on the next headland. From the chimney, continue along the path until it ends in a turning area at the end of a track overlooking Levant Mine.

    Cornwall has the longest stretch of coastline of any county in the UK, stretching for roughly 400 miles around 80% of the county. Wherever you are in Cornwall, you are never more than 16 miles from the sea, and from the majority of hills you can see it on a clear day.

  12. Continue ahead to the corner of the wall. At this point you can optionally visit Levant Mine and return here. Otherwise, turn right onto the track along the wall. Follow the track along the wall to reach a fork in the track.

    As early as the 18th Century, mine workings in the Levant area tunnelled below sea level and went beneath the sea. In 1820 the operation known as Levant Mine was established and operated continuously for over 100 years until 1930, after which it was abandoned and slowly flooded. It got the nickname of "mine under the sea" because its network of tunnels over 60 miles long extends under the Atlantic Ocean, stretching 1.5 miles out from the coast. Within the tunnels, a blind miner helped others to navigate when their candles failed.

    The beam engine is still in-situ and was restored after 60 years of decay by a group of enthusiasts known as the "Greasy Gang". The working engine can be seen within a mining museum run by the National Trust.

  13. Keep left at the fork and follow the track back to the Count House car park to complete the circular route.

    Some of the Cornish mines were up to half a mile in depth and every day men needed to get from the surface to the bottom of the mine and back after doing a day of physically exhausting work. Having men climb a half-mile long ladder was not profitable for mine operators, so faster and less exhausting means to move men about were invented. Winding apparatus could be used to lower and raise men in a basket, and mechanisms along these lines were still in use in the granite quarries of Bodmin Moor during the 20th Century. However, the beam engine offered an alternative approach: the long rod of a pumping engine could have steps on which men could ride down, usually 12 feet, during one beam engine stroke and the sides of the shaft could have ledges, so the men could step off onto a ledge whilst the engine reversed direction, then step back on for the next stroke. Some of the larger mines had dedicated "man engines" which were tailored for this purpose: since miners generally started and finished at similar times, there would be a column of men, stacked one above the other riding down the shaft in the morning, and up in the evening.

Help us with this walk

You can help us to keep this walk as accurate as it possibly can be for others by spotting and feeding back any changes affecting the directions. We'd be very grateful if could you look out for the following:

  • Any stiles, gates or waymark posts referenced in the directions which are no longer there
  • Any stiles referenced in the directions that have been replaced with gates, or vice-versa

Take a photo and email contact@iwalkcornwall.co.uk, or message either IWalkCornwall on facebook or @iwalkc on twitter. If you have any tips for other walkers please let us know, or if you want to tell us that you enjoyed the walk, we'd love to hear that too.

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