Porthpean to Black Head

The walk follows the Coast Path from Porthpean around St Austell Bay, passing through the Ropehaven Cliffs Nature Reserve on the way to Black Head. After rounding the headland to Hallane Mill, the route follows the stream up the valley to Pencarrow and then a lane through Trevissick and Lobb's Shop to Castle Gotha farm. From here the route follows footpaths across the fields with spectacular views of the bay before reaching Higher Porthpean, with the road past the church completing the circular route.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 105 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 5 miles/9 km
  • Grade: Strenuous
  • Start from: Porthpean Beach car park
  • Parking: Porthpean Beach car park. From St Austell, follow the signs to the Minor Injuries Unit. Continue past the hospital and follow the signs to Porthpean beach. Satnav: PL266AX
  • Recommended footwear: Walking boots or trainers in summer

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Panoramic views from Black Head of St Austell and Mevagissey Bays
  • Rocky cove at Hallane with a waterfall and natural arch
  • Spectacular views across St Austell Bay from near Castle Gotha
  • Sheltered, sandy beach at Porthpean

Directions

  1. From the car park, follow the track towards the beach to the end of the wall where there is a footpath signpost.

    In the years after the Second World War, once the defences had been cleared from the beach and Porthpean was once again used as a pleasure beach, a sea mine washed up one morning. As it was a hot summer's day, the local coastguard carried it into the Watch House as he knew many people would be coming to the beach. He informed the Coastguard service and that evening, the bomb squad arrived from Plymouth and cleared the beach. The mine was carried back to the beach where it was detonated and the resulting explosion went higher than the tall cliffs around the bay.

    Most of the mines used during the Second World War were triggered by sensors which detonated if a metallic object disturbed the electromagnetic field surrounding them. When the coastguard had initially carried the mine off the beach, he had been wearing his coastguard hat which had a large metal badge!

  2. Turn right up the path signposted as the Coast Path and follow it towards the gate of the sailing club, then turn left onto the waymarked path and follow this along the coast to reach a flight of steps leading to a stile.
  3. Continue along the Coast Path from the stile to reach a small footbridge.
  4. Cross the bridge and the stile ahead and then follow the path up the steep field to reach a kissing gate at the top.

    In the mid-1980s, engineers identified ancient underwater channels criss-crossing the seabed in St Austell bay which had become filled with tin-rich sediment. However, no further exploration was done after the price of tin dropped. In recent years, the price of tin has been steadily increasing as the relatively rare metal is used in the production of electronic devices. These reserves are now being re-examined, with possible exploratory work to follow.

  5. Go through the gate and follow the steps to the bottom of the valley to reach a footbridge.
  6. Cross the footbridge and climb the long flight of steps up the other side of the valley. Then follow the path to reach a stile and flight of steps leading to a lane.

    In Autumn, sloes are often plentiful and can be used to flavour gin, sherry and cider. The berries can be harvested from September until nearly Christmas. Traditionalists say that you should wait until the first frosts in late November when the sloes are less bitter. The sloe gin produced from sloes in September and October seems just as good but possibly requires a little more sugar to compensate.

  7. Cross or pass the stile and descend the steps to the lane. Bear left onto the lane and follow it through the parking area to a fork just past the Trenarren sign. Keep left at the fork and follow the track until you reach a waymark on the left just past the house.
  8. Turn left onto the path and follow it until it joins another path at a bench, then turn right and follow the steps uphill to a junction of paths at the corner of a field.

    A 49 acre area of the cliffs above Ropehaven was purchased by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust in 1986 to create a nature reserve. The reserve consists of mature broadleaf woodland and cliffs below which are formed from some of the oldest sedimentary rocks exposed in the South West of England. The inaccessible cliffs provide nesting sites for seabirds such as fulmars and gulls, and sea caves in the bay provide haul-out sites for grey seals. Near the exposed clifftop, the woodland consists of salt-tolerant blackthorn and hawthorn. On the lower slopes, in the lee of Black Head, it is mostly comprised of Sycamore and Ash with some Ivy and Holly growing beneath the canopy.

  9. Keep left at the top of the steps and follow the path around the coast until you descend a flight of steps to reach a waymark.

    The lines of buoys in the bay are mussel farms.

    The lines of buoys out from Ropehaven are England's first offshore mussel farms. A line runs between two weights on the bottom and this is lifted to a couple of metres below the surface by the floats. The mussels are grown on ropes suspended from this which don't touch the seabed, ensuring they don't pick up grit and as many barnacles. They are naturally-occurring blue mussels which at their planktonic stage look for any suitable attachment to grow on, and attach themselves to the ropes. The ropes are initially coiled to suspend them in the top couple of metres of water where the mussel plankton (known as "spat") are most prevalent. Once the mussels begin to grow, the ropes are uncoiled to give them more space and to protect them from seabirds and other surface predation.

  10. Keep left at the waymark at the bottom of the steps and follow the path until you reach a junction of paths at a large granite memorial.

    The granite memorial on Black Head, engraved with "This was the land of my content", was erected in the memory of Arthur Leslie Rowse, a Cornish writer and historian. Rowse was born in 1903, the son of an uneducated china clay worker, and was the first Cornishman to win a university scholarship, reading English at Christchurch College, Oxford.

  11. At the memorial, turn right and follow the path around the coast until it eventually enters some woodland to reach a waymark.

    At the memorial, the path to the left leads out onto the headland.

    The name "Black Head" dates back to at least Tudor times. A map from 1576 records it as The Blak heade poynt. From the North side there are views across St Austell Bay and to the South, across Mevagissey Bay to Chapel Point.

    Black Head was the site of an Iron Age fort which is thought to date from around the 3rd Century BC. Two large banks and ditches are clearly visible across the narrowest part of the headland. There were originally three ramparts but the outermost has almost vanished.

  12. Continue ahead at the waymark and follow the path to another waymark at a junction. Turn left at the waymark and follow the path over a stile next to the gate marked Hallane Mill to reach another waymark beside the cottage.
  13. Keep right at the waymark and follow the path until you reach a waymark beside a footbridge.

    The path running down the left side of the cottage leads to Hallane Beach.

    Hallane is a south-facing shingle beach with submerged rocks a short way offshore which surface as the tide goes out, and at low tide, a rocky platform is exposed along the shoreline. It is very sheltered which makes it suitable for swimming, and the offshore rocks provide a suitable spot for a rest and warm-up although care must be taken of the sharp barnacles. On the right-hand side of the beach, a waterfall cascades over a natural arch. At low tide, it is possible to walk around the arch to get behind the waterfall; slippery algae grows on the rocks beneath the waterfall so climbing through it is not recommended.

  14. Keep right to stay on the path up the valley and continue to reach a gate. Go through this and follow the path to reach another gate with a blue waymark.
  15. Go through the gate and follow the path along the fence on the right to reach another gate.

    Buzzards can sometimes be seen perching in the trees, and if not their loud and distinctive call can often be heard.

    Despite their reputation for being lazy and scavengers, buzzards are formidable predators. Diving on rabbits and small mammals from a slow or hovering flight, or from a perch, they nearly always make the kill on the ground. During their breeding season in spring, buzzards create spectacular aerial displays by soaring high into the air and dropping suddenly towards the ground.

  16. Go through the gate and follow the path into a field. Follow along the left hedge of the field to reach a gate in the corner at the far side.
  17. Go through the gate and across the footbridge. Follow the path along the gully to emerge into a grassy area facing a house.
  18. Cross the grassy area to a wooden post opposite then turn left to reach a gate on the right-hand side of the house. Go through the gate and follow the path to a driveway.
  19. At the end of the path, turn right onto the driveway and follow it to reach a lane.
  20. Turn right onto the lane and follow it to a crossroads.

    As a pedestrian, it's still possible to participate in Cornwall's custom of highway chivalry. When a car approaches, if you make an effort to get out of the road as much as you are able, you will most likely be greeted with a cheerful wave or "proper job"; it is customary to reciprocate with a similar greeting.

  21. Continue ahead at the crossroads, signposted to St Austell and Porthpean, until you reach a track on the right, marked Castle Gotha Farm (next to a large barn).
  22. Turn right down the track and follow it until you reach a waymarked gate on the left, opposite a kissing gate on the right.

    To the right of the track, over the corner of the far hedge, is the remains of Castle Gotha.

    Castle Gotha was a small oval-shaped settlement with a bank and ditch around it. Most of this has been ploughed away but a small section of the bank remains as the hedge between fields. Excavations have shown that the site was occupied in the Iron Age from the Second Century BC to the Second Century AD, and timber huts were originally located against the ramparts. The name of the settlement is from the Cornish word gov, meaning "blacksmith" and during excavations within the sites of the huts, metalworking remains were found. These included pits, hearths, a stone mould for casting brooches and the remains of a larger mould embedded in the floor. The larger mould is thought either to be an ingot mould or possibly for casting sheet metal.

  23. Go through the waymarked gate on the left and bear left across the field to reach a kissing gate in the bottom left corner.

    Wheat is the neatest of the grains with grains arranged on alternate sides of the tip of the stem, so that the seed head looks like giant, fat grass seed. Barley is similar but each grain has a long whisker protruding from the end. The hairyness of barley makes amazing patterns and rustling sounds as the wind moves through the crop. Oats are much more loosely arranged than wheat and barley, with individual grains hanging off short threads like a Christmas decoration. Wheat is amazingly easy to turn into flour: once ripe, wheat grains easily pop out from the husk and a handful of these in a pestle and mortar results in lovely wholemeal flour. In contrast, the husk is very much more firmly stuck to barley grains and specialist mechanical processing is required to de-hull it, producing pearl barley.

  24. Go through the gate and turn left. Follow the top hedge along the field until the field ends with an opening in the top corner.

    Since prehistoric times, a year of fallow was used to allow soil nutrients to recover before planting a crop the following year. By the end of the Middle Ages, a three-year scheme was in use with alternating crops allowing production two out of three years. In the 18th Century a four-crop rotation was introduced (wheat, turnips, barley, and clover) which not only resulted in continuous production but included a grazing crop and a winter fodder crop, providing food for livestock throughout the year. Crops used in the rotation had different nutrient demands, giving the soil chance to recover. In particular, bean crops and clover impart nitrogen into the soil and are therefore a key part of modern rotation schemes. As well as balancing the use of soil nutrients between years, by staggering the rotation in adjacent fields, the spread of pests and diseases is reduced.

  25. Keep left through the opening and then keep the hedge on your right (ignore the waymark) to reach the corner of the field, where there is a gate.
  26. Go through the gate and follow the path to a driveway. Follow the driveway away from the house to reach a car park, and walk through this towards the telephone box to reach a lane.
  27. Turn right onto the lane and follow this down the hill past the church to reach Porthpean Beach car park and complete the circular route.

    The whole village of Porthpean once formed part of the Penrice estate owned by the Sawle family. The church was built as a private chapel in 1884-5 out of local stone and slate. After the death in 1971 of Mrs Cobbold Sawle, the last in the line, the church was given by the estate’s Trustees to St Austell Parish. The church is dedicated to St Levan, the Cornish patron saint of fishermen.

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
  • 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 also useful.

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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