Pendeen to Portheras Cove

The walk begins by passing through the mining relics of Geevor and Levant where many of the minerals used in artists' pigments paint the landscape in an altogether more strikingly literal way. The walk then follows the rugged coast around Pendeen Watch, passing the lighthouse, to reach the white sandy beach at Portheras Cove. The return route is up the river valley and then across the fields to join the lane along the leat from Pendeen.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 102 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 4.0 miles/6.5 km
  • Grade: Moderate
  • Start from: Pendeen car park
  • Parking: Pendeen car park. Satnav: TR197DW
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots; wellies in winter

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Working beam engine at Levant Mine
  • Sandy beach at Portheras Cove
  • Geevor Mine

Adjoining walks

Directions

  1. Turn left out of the car park and follow the road past the North Inn to the entrance to the Geevor Tin Mine.
  2. Turn right down the entrance road to Geevor Tin mine and follow this past some buildings and through the gates across the road. If the gates are closed (e.g. on a Saturday) there is a small gap in the wall to the right of the gate for pedestrians. Continue along the road to where the road splits.

    On of the buildings that you pass on the road is for the gig racing club.

    The six-oared elm boats known as Pilot Gigs were general-purpose work boats, but one of their uses was to transport the pilot to and from a ship, which resulted in the name. The first boat to meet a ship gained the business of transporting the captain (and thus being paid) and thus a "race" came into being, with different boats competing for business. Today, Gig Racing is of a recreational nature, but the boats are still built to the exact well-documented specification of the originals. Elm wood is highly resistant to water, so much so, that town water mains were made of elm before the widespread availability of iron.

  3. Continue ahead in the direction signposted to Disabled Parking. Follow the road until it ends in a parking area in front of the entrance.

    Geevor tin mine was originally a small operation known as Wheal an Giver, meaning something like "goat mine" and perhaps referring to the other occupants of the workplace. In the 19th century, it was worked as East Levant Mine and later as North Levant, after which it closed. In the early 20th century, tin prices rose rapidly. An Australian Gold mining company bought this and a number of neighbouring mines and the mine re-opened in 1911 and worked throughout most of the 20th century, annexing some of the neighbouring workings. In 1985, the International Tin Council collapsed and there was a dramatic fall in the price of tin. The mine closed in 1990 and pumps were switched off in 1991, allowing the workings to flood. Whilst it was working, over a million gallons of water was pumped from the mine daily and during the 20th Century, it produced about 50,000 tons of "black tin" (concentrated tin ore). The mine is not geologically exhausted of tin, but the tin remaining is currently not recoverable economically. It is now a museum and heritage centre left as a living history of a working tin mine and is the largest preserved mining site in the United Kingdom.

  4. Bear left and follow the wall on the left to reach a waymarked stile next to a gate in the corner. Cross this and follow the path to a junction of paths beside an old stile.

    Tin is a semi-rare metal well-known for its corrosion resistance which is used extensively in electronics, engineering alloys and anti-corrosion coatings. Unlike many other "heavy" metals, it is not poisonous which has resulted in its use within food packaging - the ubiquitous "tin can" - and increasingly as a replacement for lead, which was used extensively before its toxicity was understood.

    Tin is found in Cornwall as the ore cassiterite (tin oxide) which occurs in small crystals amongst other rocks; even a "rich" tin ore only contains 5% tin. The name for the ore is thought either to come from the Greek kassiteros meaning "tin" or from the Phoenician name Cassiterid for Britain and Ireland.

  5. At the junction, turn right and follow the path downhill until the path emerges on another path at a granite marker.
  6. Where the paths meet, continue ahead onto the wider path and follow this until it ends in front of a granite boulder.
  7. At the boulder, turn left and follow the path until the path forks in front of an area of red mud with three chimneys ahead.

    The leftmost chimney was part of the man engine.

    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.

  8. Turn right and follow along the bank to reach a waymark at a junction of paths.

    A short diversion to your left is the Levant Mine museum (entry fee).

    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.

  9. Turn right at the waymark and follow the path downhill, past one waymark and the array of concrete pillars to reach a waymark just before the gateway leading to the chimney beside the lake.

    The remains of the building on the coast with brick arches was an arsenic works.

    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! Arsenic was also used as a beauty treatment: arsenic oxide was mixed with vinegar and chalk and eaten by Victorian women to make their faces paler. They also rubbed it into their faces and arms. Having a sun tan was seen as common, as women working in the fields were out in the sunshine.

  10. Turn left at the waymark and follow the path to reach another waymark then continue downhill to the footbridge.

    As you approach the footbridge, just after the pillars are remains of dressing floors where the tin ore was concentrated.

    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.

    The process was further optimised by the introduction of the rectangular "slime tanks" in which fine particles of tin were recovered along the channels of the settling tanks, similar to those used to separate out china clay from a slurry.

  11. Cross the footbridge and follow the path over the headland and down into the next valley to reach a gate.

    Choughs nest in the area and if you are lucky you may see some flying past as you walk along the coast.

    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.

  12. Go through the gate and follow the path to a stream crossing.

    By the end of the 1950s, Geevor had exhausted the areas of the lodes it was working and needed some more ore reserves. The best options lay to the west in the direction of Levant. The flooded workings of Levant were examined with a view to draining the mine so it could be re-opened but it was found that the water level changed with the tide - the mine had been breached and flooded by the sea.

    Undeterred, divers were sent down to find of the breach and located it in a known weak spot called "40 backs" where the tunnels were close to the sea floor. In an engineering feat of its day, the mine was sealed from the outside using concrete and by 1962 was watertight. After that, 50 million gallons of water had to be pumped out of the mine.

    Once Levant mine was safe, a tunnel was bored from the Geevor mine to connect it and mining began. Sadly after all the effort, the mineral lodes that Levant had been working were found not to be very productive.

    New under-sea tunnels were then created from Geevor which located richer lodes. During the 20th Century, a total of 85 miles of tunnels were created within the Geevor mine.

  13. Cross the stream and follow the waymarked path inland until it emerges onto a lane.

    The northwest-facing coastline of Penwith was particularly treacherous for shipping. The high cliffs along the coast prevented ships from being able to see the lighthouses at Trevose Head or the Longships. From Cape Cornwall, the wall of granite runs towards the rocks of the Wra, or Three Stone Oar, off Pendeen, some of which are just below the surface. The cliffs continue all the way to St Ives, and part-way along is the protruding Gurnard's Head which was another major hazard for shipping.

  14. When you reach the lane, turn left and follow the lane to reach a small parking area in front of the lighthouse.

    As you approach the lighthouse there are some benches on the left, and a path leads down onto the headland from these. The views from the headland are spectacular and there is also a good view of the lighthouse over the wall.

  15. Follow the lane past the parking area to a junction, and bear right onto the rough track into a small car park. Cross the car park to reach a waymark to the left of the track.

    During the 19th century, Trinity House became increasingly concerned at the number of ships being lost along the West Penwith coast and in 1891 decided that both a lighthouse and foghorn was needed here. The construction was a large-scale engineering project that involved levelling the top of the headland by creating a huge retaining sea wall, and consequently took a number of years. Pendeen Lighthouse was finally lit in 1900 and was manned until 1995. As well as the 17 metre tower to support the lamp, residential accommodation was built for the lighthouse keepers which even included enclosed gardens, although in the harsh maritime climate these didn’t turn out to be a huge success. Drinking water was collected on the flat roof of the accommodation block and stored in an underground tank. The original oil-fired lamp is on display in the Trinity House National Lighthouse Centre in Penzance. Although the optic weighed 2.5 tonnes, it was floated on a bath of mercury so it could be set in motion by the slightest touch.

  16. Climb down the stile below the waymark and follow the path to the track. Merge onto the track and follow this down towards the cove to reach a waymarked path on the right.

    The car park has been created from the waste tips of the Pendeen Consols mine.

    Pendeen Consols was primarily a copper and tin mine which operated in the mid 19th Century, although some lead was also raised. It employed around 100 people and the shafts were 220 fathoms deep, with some extending beneath the sea. Many of the mine structures were cleared to build the lighthouse, however a Counting House (where miners were paid, and where mine operations were run from) remains opposite the lighthouse. There are also a number of waste tips below the small car park on the coast path. Specimens of a number of different minerals can still be found in these dumps.

  17. Turn right up the waymarked path and stay on the main path as it zig-zags up the headland. Follow it past one waymark to a second waymark (with multiple arrows) at a junction of paths.

    The Liberty was wrecked during a northwesterly gale off Pendeen, in 1963. Her engines were not powerful enough to make headway against the gale and she was driven ashore at Pendeen Watch where she caught fire. However, the 35 crew were all rescued, mostly using rocket apparatus. She was demolished for scrap, though parts of the wreck are still visible at low tide.

  18. Keep left along the coast path and follow it until you reach a gate across the path with a stone stile next to it.
  19. Cross the stile next to the gate and follow the path until you reach a waymark at a junction of paths.

    Dolphins can sometimes be seen in the bay.

    Both Common Dolphins and Bottle-nosed Dolphins are quite frequently encountered off Cornwall. Bottle-nosed Dolphins are the species found in marine parks and are the saloon car of the dolphin world: quite large (adults are 7-12ft long), plain grey and tend to cruise at fairly low speeds though they can do short bursts of over 30km/h. Common Dolphins are their sports car cousins: a little smaller (adults are 6-8ft long) with a flashy hourglass-shaped "go faster" stripe of gold at the front and light grey at the back and can swim up to 60km/h. The considerable intelligence of dolphins includes the ability to learn new behaviours from each other and cooperate with other dolphins or even human fishermen to catch fish.

  20. Bear left, in the direction waymarked, and follow the path to reach another waymark, this time with two arrows.

    In 1963 the Alacrity, carrying a cargo of anthracite, ran aground and was wrecked at Portheras Cove. As the wreck began to break up, the large pieces of rusting iron became hazardous for swimmers. In 1981, the military attempted to remove the wreck. However this took the form of "overenthusiastic demolition work with explosives" and the result was a beach covered in razor-sharp fragments of shrapnel that were even more dangerous to beach-goers. Until 2004, areas of the beach were out of bounds due to the metal fragments in the sand; these have now been cleaned up. When the sand is shifted during winter storms, the remains of the wreck are sometimes exposed which beach-goers need to be wary of. However, when sand levels are high, the wreck is safely buried.

  21. The walk continues uphill on the rightmost path but first you may wish to visit the beach and return here. Follow the small, stony path, keeping left to follow the line of the valley where any small paths join from the right. Continue until the main path forks, just after passing along the top of a wall in a marshy area.
  22. At the fork, bear right and keep right to follow the path up the bank. Continue following the path until you can see a gate with a stile beside it, then head for this.
  23. Cross the stile next to the gate and follow the path to emerge next to a cottage on your left with a waymark on your right.
  24. At the waymark, bear left in front of the cottage and join the track leading away from the farm. Follow this until you reach a public footpath sign on the right.
  25. Cross the stile on the right and follow the left hedge of the field to a stone stile in the corner.

    A fogou is a drystone underground passage found in a few Iron Age settlements in West Cornwall. Their purpose is not known, but one theory is that they were used for food storage.

    The word derives from the Cornish word for cave (mogow which became vogou). This also gave rise to a dialect word for cave - "vug" - which has been assimilated into mining terminology to mean a natural cavity in rock.

  26. Cross the stile and follow along the right hedge to reach another stone stile. Cross the stile and follow the right hedge to a waymarked stile next to a gateway.

    The farm across the fields to the right is Pendeen Manor Farm.

    Pendeen Fogou is a prehistoric man-made cave set into a hedge in the farmyard of Pendeen Manor Farm. The passage at Pendeen is around seventeen meters long and lined with stone blocks. After about seven metres, the main passage slopes steeply and the roof slabs are stepped, like the underside of a staircase. Two smaller passages branch off at the end of the main passage. The passage dates back around three thousand years, to the late Bronze Age, when it was possibly part of a larger settlement. Many historians think that there was a cliff castle where Pendeen lighthouse is today and that the fogou may have been used in conjunction with it as a place to perform ceremonies and rituals.

    William Borlase, one of the first scholars of Cornish prehistory, was born in the Manor in 1693. It's possible that the fogou may have sparked his interest in the subject.

  27. Cross the stile (or go through the gate if open) and follow the right hedge, past a waymark, to a gate in the corner of the field, beside the building.

    Evidence of windmills in England dates from around the 12th century and in Cornwall there are records of windmills as far back as 1296. Wind turbines may be viewed as the modern successor but actually themselves date back to Victorian times: the first large windmill to generate electricity was built in 1888 in the USA, and in Cornwall, a private house was lit using electricity generated by a wind turbine in 1890.

  28. Go through the gate and cross the stile. Follow the path to emerge down some steps at a waymark on a track. At the waymark, turn left onto the track and follow it, keeping left at a junction of tracks, until it ends on a road.
  29. Cross the road to the small lane opposite and follow this towards the church until it ends on the main road in Pendeen opposite the car park. The church is located at the back of the car park if you wish to visit it.

    Pendeen was originally part of the parish of St Just and was known as North St Just. In a Parliamentary Act of 1843, districts were split off from large parishes and Pendeen was left without a parish church. A new vicar was appointed and in 1849 he approached the miners in the Town Platt, saying: "Come on, get your picks and shovels. We are going to build a church". A cartload of timber was delivered, and the slightly bemused miners built the wooden church in three weeks. This was used for just over two years, then the stone church was built and the wood from the temporary church was re-used for the floor. The church was completed in 1852 and dedicated to St John in 1854. In 1888, the tower was extended and the church clock was added.

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.

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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