Porthtowan to Chapel Porth

From Porthtowan the walk follows the Coast Path to the remains of the engine house at Wheal Charlotte and crosses the copper lode to Chapel Porth with spectacular views along the coast to St Agnes Head. The route turns up the Chapel Coombe valley, passing the engine house of Charlotte United Mine and follows a footpath to the ridge at Towan Cross. The walk descends again to Banns Vale where it follows the wooded stream. The final leg follows the valley from remains of the Tywarnhayle mine to the sea, passing Wheal Ellen's castellated chimney and other mining relics.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 4.7 miles/7.5 km
  • Grade: Moderate
  • Start from: Porthtowan beach car park
  • Parking: Porthtowan beach car park. Satnav: TR48UD
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots

Maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Long, sandy beaches at Porthtowan and Chapel Porth
  • Iconic engine houses and mining relics
  • Minerals and crystals along the footpaths
  • Panoramic views from the Coast Path
  • Vibrant art scene and traditions including Bolster Day and the World Bellyboarding Championship
  • Riverside walk through broadleaf woodland along Banns Vale

Adjoining walks

Directions

  1. Turn right out of the car park and follow the road past the beach and the cafés until it ends at a barrier.

    The name means something along the lines of "beach with sand dunes". The dunes have suffered erosion from large numbers of beachgoers and residents have donated their Christmas trees so these can be buried in the dunes to help stabilise them. You can see rows of them poking out of the dunes as the sand gradually collects around them. At low tide, a number of coves join together to form a mile-long sandy beach, and on a low Spring tide it's just possible to walk all the way to Chapel Porth along the beach.

  2. Pass the barrier and keep right along the coast path. Follow the main path until it forks, just after a fence descends the cliff to meet the path.
  3. At the fork, turn left and follow the path to a bench on the end of the headland.
  4. From the bench, follow the path around the headland to rejoin the coast path near a waymark. Bear left onto the coast path and keep left along the coast until you reach another waymark.
  5. Bear left onto the larger path and follow it past the Wheal Charlotte sign, down a valley and up the other side. Continue ahead on the path alongside the cliff edge until a smaller path forks left towards the coast.
  6. You can take either path as they rejoin: the narrow one on the left has nicer views, the broader one on the right is easier walking. Continue until the two paths rejoin and then a short distance further to where the path forks once again.
  7. Take the right path towards the stone structure on the skyline and follow it to a junction of paths just before what you'll be able to see is the remains of an engine house.

    Wheal Chalotte was a copper mine first opened in the late 1700s and early 1800s to mine the shallow deposits where the lode meets the surface (known as the "strike" in mining jargon). In the late 1820s, the mine was reopened under the name Great Wheal Charlotte and the engine house was built to pump out a deep shaft which met the lode further underground (which is why the engine house is back towards Porthtowan) and tunnels followed the lode underground.

  8. Turn left at the junction of paths in front of the engine house remains and follow the path to the bottom of a large spoil heap, where a number of other paths intersect.

    The mounds are the remains of earlier mining activity before the engine house was constructed.

    The mounds alongside the coast path approaching Chapel Porth from Porthtowan mark the presence of rocks bearing copper ore. The seam of ore-bearing rock (known as a lode in mining jargon) hits the surface along the line of heaps and then slopes down into the ground towards Porthtowan. The copper minerals can be seen as orange stains on the white bedrock within the cliffs.

  9. Bear right onto the coast path and follow it along the bottom of the spoil heap. Keep left along the main path until you reach a waymark at a junction of paths.

    Deep in the earth's crust where there is lots of sulphur and little oxygen (hence the smelly sulphur compounds around volcanic vents), copper occurs as crystals of sulphide compounds. Nearer the surface, chemical reactions with air and water form brick-red oxide and blue-green carbonate compounds and also copper sulphate. The latter is the blue stuff from school science lessons which you may vaguely recall is soluble in water; thus it became concentrated at the water table. In the Ice Ages that followed, Cornwall was scoured by glaciers which bulldozed away many of these concentrated deposits. Early copper mining took place on the few remaining areas of these surface layers, but it was not until innovations in pumping technology that copper mining could be carried out on the deeper sulphide deposits and these account for the bulk of the ore mined. The most common ore (called chalcopyrite) is a copper-bearing version of "fool's gold"; when pure it looks like gold but where it meets air and water, patches of irridescent green, blue and purple form and so it was known as "peacock copper".

  10. Take the middle path (ahead) and follow this down to the bottom of the valley to a junction beside a wooden rail.

    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.

  11. Turn right onto the path leading up the valley. Follow this until you pass the engine house and reach a waymark post with blue and yellow arrows.

    The Engine House in the valley marks the remains of the Charlotte United Mine.

    The Engine House beside the stream in Chapel Coombe marks the remains of the Charlotte United Mine (not to be confused with the mine of the same name at Perranuthnoe). The shaft was built in the 1870s to mine the copper lodes which run across the valley. The mine was not very productive as the concentration of copper ore was quite low in this section of the lode compared to those near Wheal Charlotte on the top of the hill. It is thought that the mine was a speculation on the concentration of copper increasing in the direction of Wheal Charlotte, but this gamble did not pay off.

  12. Keep right at the waymark post to stay on the path leading ahead up the valley. Follow this until it eventually emerges onto a track.

    Make sure you stick to the path as there are unfenced mineshafts in the valley on either side of the path. The wooden poles with small black and white signs depicting a figure disappearing into an abyss do indicate this but approaching one to read it clearly might lead to a more empirical discovery of its warning.

  13. Bear right onto the track and follow it until it ends on a lane.

    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.

  14. Turn right onto the lane and follow it past the house on the left to where a path departs from the left, just past the house.
  15. Take the path on the left and follow it until it eventually emerges onto a road.
  16. Turn left onto the road and follow it carefully for a short distance to a junction on the right with a weak bridge sign.
  17. Turn right at the junction and follow the road down to the bridge at the bottom of the valley. Cross the bridge and follow the road a short distance until you pass Ross Cottage and reach a track departing from the right, creating a Y-shaped junction with the road.

    The valley is known as Banns Vale though the "vale" is redundant as Banns (originally the name of the farm from which the hamlet has taken its name) means "hollow" in Cornish.

  18. Turn right onto the track and follow it a short distance to a waymark. Bear right at the waymark and follow the bridleway to a spring on the left, festooned with decorations. Walk a short distance further from the spring to where a path departs from the right along the river's edge.

    Before Christianity, the Pagan Celtic people of Cornwall worshipped wonders of the natural world. Where clean, drinkable water welled up from the ground in a spring, this was seen as pretty awesome. Where the springwater dissolved minerals, for specific conditions (e.g. deficiency in a mineral) or where the water was antibacterial, the water appeared to have healing properties. The sites were seen as portals to another world, and is why fairies are often associated with springs.

  19. Turn right onto the path along the edge of the river and follow this over a few low walls until it eventually rejoins the bridleway. Continue along the bridleway until eventually you reach a waymark next to a footbridge.
  20. At the waymark, turn right over the footbridge then bear left at the waymark and follow the path beneath the rope swing to reach the other side of the ford.
  21. Bear right onto the bridleway and follow it until it eventually emerges onto a track next to a metal gate on the left.

    The mine workings on the hillside on your right are the remains of the Tywarnhale Mine.

    Tywarnhayle (which means "House on the Estuary") began as Wheal Rock in 1750 and was renamed United Hills in 1809, finally becoming Tywarnhayle in 1906 when a company was formed with the intention of using new technology to extract the copper from the surface dumps and part-drain the mine in order to work the remaining ore in the higher areas. A building housed the world's first froth floatation plant - a method used to extract small amounts of copper from large amounts of rock (such as the mine waste) - which has since been widely employed by the mining industry as they have been forced to mine deposits of decreasing concentration. Meanwhile Cornwall's first submersible electric pump was used to drain water from the mine. Unfortunately, the sulphide ores react with water in the mine to form sulphuric acid and this quickly corroded the pump. Despite the innovative technology, the operation failed to make a profit and was aborted. After this the mine was used as a training mine by London's Royal School of Mines and there are some videos from the 1980s of mining students in action on the Imperial College website.

  22. Continue ahead onto the track and follow it alongside the fence. Continue until it merges with another track.

    Early copper mining took place on surface deposits that were of relatively high concentrations. As these were used up, mining moved onto deeper and increasingly less concentrated deposits requiring ever more sophisticated techniques to be developed, to sift the ever-lower concentrations of copper ore from the tonnes of surrounding rock.

    The waste tips from early mining are becoming of increasing interest as these contain copper ore at a concentration which was uneconomical to recover during Victorian times, but with increasingly sophisticated techniques, recovery may once again become economically viable.

    One such method is to use sulphuric acid to dissolve copper out of the mine waste in the form of a very weak copper sulphate solution (the blue stuff familiar from school chemistry lessons, but in this case so weak that it wouldn't be noticably blue). Special bacteria can then be used to precipitate the very low levels of copper out of the solution which can then be recycled for use on the next batch of mine waste.

  23. Bear left at the junction of tracks and keep right to reach a lane.

    The tall trees higher up the valley and engine house chimneys make good perches for buzzards, which hunt for small mammals in the low scrub on the valley floor.

    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.

  24. Turn right onto the road and follow it downhill to a junction.

    The engine house with the castellated chimney marks the site of Wheal Ellen.

    The engine house with the castellated chimney on the left side of the road from Mount Hawke to Porthtowan marks the site of Wheal Ellen. Wheal Ellen was a copper mine created in 1834 by a merger of two former mines. Over 24,000 tones of copper were sold before the mine closed in 1862. The engine house was built for a re-opening in 1866 but a nationwide financial crisis resulted in the project being aborted. The engine was never fitted and it is rumoured that the builder of the engine house was never paid.

  25. Cross the road to the garage opposite and follow the driveway along the right side marked with a public footpath sign until you reach a fence at the end of the gravel.
  26. Keep right along the narrow path to reach a residential road and follow this ahead until you reach a public footpath sign just as the road turns left over a bridge.
  27. Bear right down the path indicated by the public footpath sign and follow this parallel to the road, to emerge further down the road.
  28. Turn right on the road to reach the car park.

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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