Chapel Porth to St Agnes

The walk joins the Coast Path at Chapel Porth and passes the pumping engine house of Wheal Coates before reaching the coastguard lookout on St Agnes Head. The route follows the coast around the headland to Trevaunance Cove where there is a pub and a coffee shop as well as a sandy beach. The return route passes alongside a number of old mine workings, now overgrown with wildflowers, and along lanes and footpaths to the upper part of Wheal Coates before descending to Chapel Porth.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 6.1 miles/9.8 km
  • Grade: Moderate
  • Start from: Chapel Porth car park
  • Parking: National Trust car park. Take the B3277 to St Agnes and turn left when you reach the mini-roundabout, signposted to Goonvrea, Beacon and Chapel Porth. Follow the road until you reach a bend where the lane ahead is signposted Chapel Porth Beach; turn left onto this lane and follow it until it ends at the car park. Satnav: TR50NR
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots, or trainers in summer

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Sandy beaches with excellent surf at Chapel Porth and St Agnes
  • Rockpools at St Agnes and caves at Chapel Porth
  • Iconic engine houses and mining relics at Wheal Cotes
  • Panoramic views from the Coast Path around St Agnes Head
  • Historic pub and local brewery at St Agnes
  • Vibrant art scene and traditions including Bolster Day and the World Bellyboarding Championship

Directions

  1. Follow the lane out of the car park, a short distance, until you reach the coast path on your left.

    The beach and surrounding coastal land at Chapel Porth is owned by the National Trust who run the café and toilets in the car park. The beach is a narrow gulley at high tide that opens out to a mile long expanse of sand at low tide. Due to the shape of the beach, it is very easy to get cut off by the rising tide. There are are a number of caves along the length of the beach arising from a combination of mining and erosion by the sea of faults in the ore-bearing rocks.

  2. Turn left onto the coast path, in the direction of Wheal Coates, and follow the path until you reach a bench where another path joins from the right.

    The name Chapel Porth arises from a mediaeval chapel and Holy Well, situated just above the gully to the right of the beach, with an enclosure and holy well dedicated to St. Agnes. By 1780, the remains of the chapel had been removed and the stone re-used elsewhere; the holy well remained until 1820. There are still some remains of the mediaeval enclosure, in the form of earth banks, and a small building (probably a tool shed or powder store), built from the remains of the chapel.

  3. From the bench, continue ahead, keeping right along the main path, to reach another bench at the back of the valley.

    In 1928, the SS Eltham - a steam-powered cargo ship - was found on Chapel Porth beach with a hole in the hull and no crew, no log book and no cargo. It is thought the the crew's flares failed and they were lost at sea. A smashed lifeboat was washed ashore in another cove. The ship was known to be on its way from Swansea to France with a cargo of coal. How the ship came ashore with no cargo and a relatively small hole that looked like it had been made at the point where it ran around is still a mystery. A boiler from the ship is still visible at low tide on Chapel Porth.

  4. At the bench, follow the main path to the left until you reach a junction of paths on the headland.

    An annual festival called "Bolster Day" is held at Chapel Porth, starting in April and culminating on 1st May. Giant puppets are used to re-enact the Cornish legend of the young girl, St Agnes, who slays Bolster - the fierce giant, who was rumoured to eat children and overcame the Knight, Sir Constantine and a procession of local dignitaries and heroes. Bolster's Blood has given its name to one the ales brewed by the Driftwood Spars pub and brewery.

  5. At the junction, take the waymarked path along the coast until you merge onto a larger path just before an engine house.

    Cornwall's iconic engine houses were built to house huge beam engines - a type of steam engine with a pivoting beam. This configuration was particularly suited to powering pumps to stop the quarry pits and mines from flooding as water trickled into them from above. Inside the engine house, steam from a boiler would push up a piston, causing the beam to tilt downwards, pushing the pump down into the shaft. The steam would then be shut off and cold water would be used to condense the steam within the piston back into water, creating a partial vacuum. Atmospheric pressure then pushed the piston back down into the vacuum, raising the beam and lifting water out of the shaft. The valves to apply the steam and cold water were mechanically automated, maintaining a steady rocking motion of the giant beam.

  6. Continue ahead, past the engine house and follow the path to a waymark.

    The engine house beside the coast path near Chapel Porth is known as the Towanroath Pumping Engine House and was built in 1872. It was used to pump water from the 600 ft deep Towanroath shaft adjacent to the engine house. The shaft was used to access a seam of tin just below sea level.

  7. At the waymark, take the path to the left of the coast path, then keep right to end up on the middle of the three paths from the waymark. Follow this path, keeping left along the coast, until the path eventually bends inland to rejoin the coast path.
  8. At the junction, turn left onto the coast path and follow it to a fork in the path just past a St Agnes Head National Trust sign.

    The headland that you have just passed above is known as Tubby's Head and there is a blowhole in the headland which emits a plume of spray during a large swell.

    An Iron-Age fortification is situated on Tubby's Head near Chapel Porth. The flat area on the top of the headland is separated from the mainland by a metre-high bank approximately 20 metres long. The exact function is uncertain: it could either have been a promontory fort or possibly a defended landing area as there is a flat rock by the waterline which could have served as a natural quay.

  9. At the fork, take the waymarked left path and follow the coast path to reach a waymark on the headland beside a quarried area.
  10. From the waymark, follow the path along the edge of the coast and into a small quarry where the path forks.

    St Agnes Head is home to a large breeding colony of kittiwakes.

    Kittiwakes are a member of the gull family, recognisable by their black legs and black wing tips. During the spring and summer, the birds form colonies on cliffs or rock stacks. After August, the move offshore for the winter to feed. Unlike herring gulls, which have been able to adapt their shoreline scavenging to urban rubbish tips, kittiwakes feed solely on fish and have been declining in some areas, possibly due to overfishing.

  11. Keep left to follow the path out onto the coast and continue until you reach a rocky outcrop.

    In July 1885, the SS Cheerful left Falmouth for Liverpool with a cargo of two tonnes of Cornish tin ingots. On the way along the North Cornish coast, she collided with the HMS Hecla off St Agnes Head in a very dense fog. The Cheerful sank within four minutes. Thirty-six of the passengers were rescued by the Hecla, but nine went down with the ship, and three more perished shortly after being picked up. The wreck was salvaged in 1994 and a small piece of the cargo is now on display in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.

  12. At the outcrop, you can optionally take a diversion to the right to visit the NCI St Agnes Head lookout. To continue on the walk, keep left to follow the coast path until you eventually reach a waymark labelled Trevaunance 1m at a junction of paths.

    The coastal lookout to your right was built by the National Trust in 2008, replacing an earlier lookout at the same location which was built in 1926 but had become unsafe. The lookout is run by volunteers from the National Coastwatch Institution who reopened it in 2007, 16 years after its closure as a Coastguard lookout. The volunteers on watch, unless engaged in an emergency, welcome walkers and non-muddy dogs to see inside the lookout.

  13. Keep left at the waymark, then immediately keep right at the fork and follow the path until you eventually reach a fork, with a grassy path leading inland.

    The National Coastwatch Institution was set up to restore visual watches along the UK coastline after two Cornish fishermen lost their lives within sight of an empty Coastguard lookout in 1994. The first station - at Bass Point on The Lizard, where the fishermen had died - opened in December 1994. The organisation, staffed by volunteers, now runs 50 lookout stations around England and Wales.

  14. At the fork, take the left path along the rocky coast path, and follow it until the path reaches a waymark with four large boulders across the path.
  15. At the boulders, bear left on the path along the coast. Follow the cobbled path downhill, in the direction waymarked, until it ends by a final waymark at a gravel track overlooking Trevaunance Cove.

    Trevaunance Cove is a shingle at high tide and is popular with surfers as its north-facing position means that the prevailing southwesterly winds are offshore. As the tide goes out, the central area of the beach is sandy. To the right, large areas of rock are revealed with numerous rock pools, and a low tide it is possible to clamber over the rocks to reach Trevellas Cove. On the left side of Trevaunance Cove are the remains of the old harbour wall and beyond this there are caves, arches and rock stacks along the cliffs.

  16. Follow the path to the gate ahead. Pass this and follow the lane until you reach Watch House on your right, opposite a gap on the left leading to a flight of steps.

    The original name for the settlement of St Agnes was along the lines of Breanek or Bryanick, a Cornish name which may mean either "Agnes hill", or more mundanely "pointed hill". Either way, this is likely to refer to St Agnes Beacon. Since prehistoric times, the area was a centre for mining copper, tin and arsenic.

  17. Turn left down the steps and follow the path until it emerges on the road.

    The large rectangular stones scattered along the left side of the beach are the remnants of the harbour wall, of which a small part is still standing at the far end.

    Since the 17th century, there have been many attempts to create a harbour for St Agnes - all with limited success. From 1632, the lords of the manor of Trevaunance made three separate attempts to build a harbour. Their third harbour was washed away in 1705 together with their family legacy. The harbour was rebuilt in 1710 by others and lasted 20 years before being levelled in 1730 by the Atlantic waves. In 1798, a new harbour was constructed which was to last for over 100 years. This supported a fishing industry and allowed for the export of copper ore and the import of coal from South Wales for the smelters at the mines. St Agnes remained a busy port until the collapse of the harbour wall in a storm in 1915/16, after which it was never rebuilt.

  18. At this point you can visit the beach by following the ramp on the left. The walk continues uphill on the road to reach the junction opposite the Driftwood Spars pub.

    In 1802, a pilchard fishing industry was established from the harbour at St Agnes, reaching its peak around 1830.

    Cornish pilchard fisheries existed in mediaeval times, and in this period, the fish were smoked to preserve them before export to Spain and Italy. From Tudor times until the early 20th Century, Cornwall's pilchard fisheries were of national importance, with the bulk of the catch being exported almost exclusively to Italian Catholics for religious fasting (Cornish pilchards were a staple ingredient of spaghetti alla puttanesca). The pilchards were salted and then pressed to extract the oil which was sold as somewhat aromatic lamp oil. The fish were then packed with more salt into hogshead barrels which could fit up to 3000 fish per barrel. Huers (cliff top lookouts) helped locate shoals of fish. The huer would shout 'Hevva!, Hevva!' (the Cornish word for "shoal") to alert the boats to the location of the pilchard shoals. The name "huer" is from the old French verb meaning "to shout".

  19. At the junction, turn right follow the lane past the pub car park and up the hill until you reach Little Orchard Village.

    The Driftwood spars is located beside the road to the beach at St Agnes. The building was converted over the years from a number of buildings dating back to the 17th Century, including a tin mining warehouse, chandlery, sail making loft and fish cellar. The name is derived from the huge timber beams (spars) that are said to have come from ships wrecked along the coast. The pub started its own micro-brewery in 2000 and since then, the beer has won national awards. All the proceeds from their Red Mission beer go to the Cornwall Air Ambulance.

  20. At Little Orchard Village, turn right, in the direction signposted to Polberro. Go through the gap on the right of the gate and keep right to follow the path uphill to where it bends to the left at a memorial garden.

    During the spring, if you encounter a patch of plants with white bell-shaped flowers, smelling strongly of onions, and with long, narrow leaves then they are likely to be three-cornered leeks. The plants get their name due to their triangular flower stems and, as the name also suggests, they are members of the onion family and can be used in recipes in place of spring onions or leeks. They are at their best for culinary use from February to April. By May, they have flowered and the leaves are starting to die back.

  21. At the memorial garden, keep left on the path and follow it a short distance until it emerges onto a track. Turn right onto the track and follow it around a bend to the left to reach a large chimney.

    The chimney was part of the Polberro Mine workings.

    Polberro Mine is situated on the hillside above St Agnes and was said to produce the finest tin ore in Cornwall. This included very pure tin (known locally as "diamond tin") that needed little processing. By 1750 the mine was operating as one of the largest in Cornwall, with so much tin ore produced that there were not enough packhorses in the St Agnes area available to carry it. By the early 1800s it employed around 450 people and produced 30 tonnes of tin ore per month. Its extensive operation was described by the local newspaper in 1843 as "...a surface of upwards of 200 acres, and contains 24 shafts, 9 of which are now in full working, with 3,000 fathoms of levels...".

  22. At the chimney, keep ahead on the track, ignoring the various paths that lead off either side. Follow the track until it emerges onto a lane.

    Public byways are rights of way down which motor vehicles may be driven depending on how brave you are and how expensive your car is to fix. You are also permitted to use a horse-drawn carriage, should you own one. Byways tend to be surfaced in an ad-hoc manner either with gravel or occasionally with a smattering of tarmac, but still leaving plenty of room for a good crop of grass to grow down the centre. They are conventionally marked using red waymarks or a "Public Byway" sign. There are 130 miles of byways in Cornwall.

  23. Cross the road to the footpath directly opposite and follow the path a short distance to a junction with another path.

    The overgrown scrub either side of path is a large area of mine workings. There are many old mineshafts here so it is wise to stick to the paths.

  24. Keep right at the junction, and follow the path a short distance to another junction in an open grassy area.

    The bushes colonising the old mine tips include blackthorn and hawthorn.

    Blackthorn is one of the first trees to flower: the white blossom appears before the leaves in April. In warm weather, the leaves may quickly catch up and this is when it can get mistaken for hawthorn, which produces leaves before flowers. However, there are a few other ways to distinguish them: blackthorn pollen is orange whereas hawthorn is pink, fading to black; hawthorn petals overlap each other whereas blackthorn is more "gappy"; hawthorn leaves have bits sticking out like oak whereas blackthorn is a classic leaf shape with a serrated edge.

    A cordial can be made from blackthorn blossom by dissolving 100g of sugar in 1 litre of warm water mixing one large handful of blossom, scaled up to produce the quantity you require.

  25. Turn left at the junction and follow the path to the end, where it emerges onto a track.

    Gorse, also known as furze, is present as two species (Common Gorse and Western Gorse) along the Atlantic coast. Between the species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrases: "when gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion" (which is recorded from the mid-19th century) and "when the furze is in bloom, my love's in tune" (which dates from the mid-18th century). Gorse flowers are edible and can be used in salads and to make a tea, beer or wine.

  26. At the end of the path, turn left onto the track and follow it to a fork.
  27. At the fork, keep left along the track, past several junctions to the right and the Old Chapel, to emerge onto Beacon Road.

    The house opposite is named Wheal Sparrow. There were a number of small mines dotted around St Agnes beacon.

    Many Cornish mines have names starting with Wheal, and it is a common misconception that Wheal meant "mine". In fact, Wheal simply meant "workplace". The word for "mine" was bal and the women who worked on the surface were known as Bal Maids.

  28. Turn right onto the road, and follow it to a junction where a granite stone on the left indicates a path for the Beacon and that the lane to the right leads to the coast path.

    During Georgian and Victorian times, many teenage girls were employed in Cornwall as "Bal Maidens" (sometimes shortened to "Bal Maids"). Whilst the period may conjure up images depicted in Jane Austen novels, young ladies were somewhat less sappy in Cornwall. The girls would break ore-bearing rocks with a heavy pointed hammer to separate the ore from the surrounding rock. The ore was then broken into granules (a process known as buckling) by bashing it with a lumphammer. It was recorded in 1851 that there were more than 6,000 women and girls working at Cornish mines.

  29. Turn right down the lane and follow it until you reach a gate on the left with a waymark.
  30. Turn left and follow the waymarked track until it ends at a stone stile.
  31. Cross the stile and follow the path along the fence to a junction of paths at the end of the fence.
  32. Turn left at the junction of paths and follow the path (ignoring any minor paths that lead off) to join the Coast Path at a bench.
  33. Turn left onto the Coast Path and follow it past the mineshaft and along the wall until the path forks at a waymark.

    The pyramidal cages and coarse grilles covering mineshafts allow bats to be able to roost in the shafts. Shafts which are fenced and completely open are one of the favourite nesting places of the Cornish chough. Therefore resist the temptation to drop stones down the shafts otherwise you may unknowingly be stoning bats or chough chicks to death.

  34. At the waymark, keep left along the wall to leave the Coast Path and follow the path to Wheal Coates, aiming for the large, isolated chimney to the left of the buildings as you approach.

    Wheal Cotes is an area of mine workings between Chapel Porth and St Agnes, now preserved and owned by the National Trust. Wheal Coates is reported as working from 1815-1914, though small-scale extraction of copper and tin has occurred in this area since prehistoric times. The surviving buildings date from the 1870s when deep underground mining began on the site. The complex consists of a cluster of buildings at the top of the cliff with another engine house mid-way down the cliff next to the Towanroath mine shaft. Both tin and copper were extracted here and it is said that in its heyday, Wheal Coates employed around 140 miners.

    The building downhill slightly from the two engine houses at Wheal Cotes was a calciner furnace used to roast the tin ore.

    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.

  35. Bear right at the chimney, between the engine houses, and follow the path parallel to the coast until you reach a fork in the path, just past a cairn.

    The two engine houses in the upper area of Wheal Coates were used for hoisting the tin ore up from the mineshaft and for crushing it.

    Hoisting devices were refered to as "whims" and before steam engines were available, these were powered by blindfolded donkeys turning capstans.

    In order to be processed, ore-bearing rock mined from mineral veins needed to be crushed to a powder. In earlier times, millstones were used to grind down lumps of ore but later it was done using a process known as "stamping" where the ore was crushed by dropping heavy granite or metal weights to pound it against another hard surface (often a piece of granite known as a mortar stone - as in "pestle and mortar"). The crushing was automated first with waterwheels and later with steam engines. The process was far from quiet and could often be heard from a number of miles away.

    Once rendered into a powder, the tin ore was separated from fragments of less useful rock, usually using water and taking advantage of the heavier tin ore sinking more quickly out of a suspension than the other minerals. The slurry was sometimes run slowly down an inclined wooden board: the heavier tin fragments would settle near the top and could be scraped off whereas the fragments of lighter rock could be discarded from the bottom, and the material in the middle could be recycled into the next batch. It's possible that the Cornish mining word for the waste sludge of rock fragments - gange - is the origin of the English slang word "gunge".

  36. At the fork, keep right and follow the path to a junction.

    The final stage of tin production was a process known as smelting which produced the pure shiny metal which was known as "white tin". The smelting process used charcoal or coal as a source of carbon to chemically reduce the tin from the oxide to its elemental form, similar to the blast furnaces used for producing iron.

    Particularly in the earlier years of mining, this was typically done in a specialised facility (known as a "blowing house") to which the concentrated tin oxide (known as "black tin") was transported from the mines. In Victorian times, reverbatory furnaces using powdered anthracite replaced the charcoal and forced-air furnaces powered by water wheels, and more smelting was done onsite at the mines.

  37. Continue toward the headland, and turn left at the waymark to follow the Coast Path back to Chapel Porth car park.

    The World Belly Boarding Championship (WBBC) started in 2002 as a memorial contest to a regular visitor with his wooden board at Chapel Porth. There are now over 300 people who take part in this delightfully eccentric and quintisentially British contest involving surfing, tea and baking. Surfing is rigorously old-school with no wetsuits, fins or other modern nonsense allowed. Under-60's must compete in the "juniors" category, and prizes are awarded for prettiest surfboard, as well as "best surfing trick" and "longest ride" (amongst many others); there's also a bake-off. The WBBC takes place on the first Sunday in September at Chapel Porth.

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 also very grateful if could you look out for the following:

  • If you have a large dog, let us know if you find problems with the stiles on this walk (e.g. require the dog to be lifted over). A rough idea of how many problematic stiles there are is useful as some single women can just about manage one or two but not a dozen.

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