St Agnes Beacon and Wheal Coates

A circular walk between St Agnes Head and the engine houses of Wheal Coates via St Agnes Beacon, with spectacular panoramic views
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The walk begins from what was a bustling Army Camp in WW2 but has now been reclaimed by the heather. There is a gentle climb to the Beacon from which there are spectacular views in every direction. The walk then returns via some of Cornwall's most photographed engine houses at Wheal Coates, perched on the cliff edge.

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 3.0 miles/4.9 km
  • Grade: Easy-moderate
  • Start from: St Agnes Head car park
  • Parking: St Agnes Head car park TR50ST. Head into the centre of St Agnes, into the one-way system and turn left at the church onto Trevaunance Road. Follow this onto Beacon Drive until you reach a lane on the right opposite the St Agnes Beacon sign on the left. Turn onto this and park in the car park at the very end (if there are spaces). Otherwise park in the closest one that you can and walk to the one at the end to start the walk.
  • Recommended footwear: walking boots, or trainers in summer

OS maps for this walk

(dark blue corner = laminated version)

Highlights

  • Iconic engine houses and mining relics at Wheal Cotes
  • Views along the coast to Porthtowan and Portreath
  • Spectacular 360 degreee panoramic view from St Agnes Beacon
  • Vibrant art scene and traditions including Bolster Day and the World Bellyboarding Championship

Directions

  1. Make your way to the information board in the final car park at the very end of the lane. Go through the gap to the right of the information board and then immediately turn left onto the path heading inland towards the Beacon. Follow the path to reach a crossing of paths with the path ahead leading along a fence.

    Several varieties of heather grow in Cornwall and are most easily recognised when they flower from July to September. The one with the most brightly coloured (purple) flowers is known as bell heather due to the bell-shaped flowers. This is usually interspersed with ling or common heather which has much smaller flowers which are usually paler and pinker. A third kind known as cross-leafed heath is less abundant but can be recognised by the pale pink bell-shaped flowers that grow only near the tips of the stems, resembling pink lollipops. A fourth species known as Cornish heath grows only on the Lizard and has elaborate flowers.

  2. Continue ahead to follow the path along the fence and reach a flight of steps.

    During the Second World War, the 10th Light Anti-Aircraft Practice Camp, Royal Artillery was built on St Agnes Head which included an anti-aircraft battery as well as an army camp. It was known locally by the more snappy name "Cameron Camp", from the name of the landowning estate. After the war, the camp was used for housing but this was all levelled in 1971 and has been reclaimed by the heather. Concrete foundations of the gun emplacements are present in the cliff-top car park.

  3. Climb the steps to reach a rough tarmac track. Follow this until it ends in a gate with a waymark to its left.
  4. Pass through the gap on the left of the gate and turn right onto the lane. Follow the lane until it ends in a junction with the road.
  5. Cross the road to the St Agnes Beacon National Trust sign opposite and take the right-hand path in front of the sign. After a few paces where the path splits a second time, keep left to stay on the major path leading uphill. Follow the path until you reach a fork at the top of the hill.

    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).

  6. Keep right at the fork and follow the path to the summit.

    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.

  7. Take the path leading from the opposite side of the summit and keep right at the fork to descend from the hill and reach a crossing of paths immediately followed by a fork.

    St Agnes Beacon is 630ft above sea level allowing a view of roughly 30 miles out to sea, and a wide panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Many of the landmarks that can be seen on a clear day are indicated on the topograph on the summit.

  8. Continue a few paces to the fork then keep right in the direction of the gate to reach another fork. Again keep right to reach the gate.

    Due to the curvature of the earth, the distance you can see to the horizon depends on your height above sea level. This increases with the square root of height (i.e. with diminishing returns). An adult typically sees the horizon about 3 miles from the beach. From the top of a 100 foot lighthouse, it is about 12 miles away. At the top of the highest cliff in Cornwall it is roughly 33 miles out but if a 100ft tower were built all the way up here, it would only allow an extra 2 miles to be seen.

  9. Cross the stone stile on the right of the gate and follow the right hedge until it bends away. Then continue across the field to the wooden gate to the right of the large standing stone.

    The number of cows in Cornwall has been estimated at around 75,000 so there's a good chance of encountering some in grassy fields. If you are crossing fields in which there are cows:

    • Avoid splitting the herd as cows are more relaxed if they feel protected by the rest of the herd. Generally the best plan is to walk along the hedges.
    • Do not show any threatening behaviour towards calves (approaching them closely to take photos, making loud noises or walking between a calf and its mother) as you may provoke the mother to defend her young.
    • If cows approach you, they often do so out of curiosity and in the hope of food - it may seem an aggressive invasion of your space but that's mainly because cows don't have manners. Do not run away as this will encourage them to chase you. Stand your ground and stretch out your arms to increase your size. Usually if you calmly approach them, they will back off. It's also best to avoid making sudden movements that might cause them to panic.
    • Where possible, avoid taking dogs into fields with cows, particularly with calves. If cows charge, release the dog from its lead as the dog will outrun the cows and the cows will generally chase the dog rather than you.
  10. Go through the gate and bear right across the gravel to the barn. Join the track and follow this away from the farm until it eventually ends on a road.
  11. Turn left onto the road and follow it a short distance to a car park entrance on the right with a green Wheal Coates National Trust sign.
  12. Turn right and keep right past the barrier to follow the grassy track indicated by the "Footpath to Chapel Porth" sign. Continue until the grassy track ends in a junction with a stony path.

    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.

  13. Join the stony path and keep right to follow the main path to reach an information board beside the chimney in front of the engine houses.

    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".

  14. Continue ahead to follow the stony path between the two engine houses then bear left to join the narrow path departing along the coast. Follow the path past some small quarries and onwards until you reach a distinct fork in the path just before a deep valley ahead.

    The building located 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.

  15. Take the path to the right and follow this downhill to a bench.

    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.

  16. At this point you can take an optional diversion to Chapel Porth beach by following the path to the left, returning here to continue the walk. The walk continues to the right. Follow the path from the bench, past the engine house to a reach a fork at 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 vein of tin just below sea level.

  17. Keep right at the waymark on the rocky path leading uphill to reach another waymark.

    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.

  18. Bear left at the waymark onto the coastal path. Follow this until it ends in a junction with another path at a waymark.

    The headland 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.

  19. Turn left and follow the path to reach a wooden bench at which the path forks.

    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.

  20. Keep left past the bench and follow the path until you reach a National Trust St Agnes Head sign in a piece of granite just before a waymarked path departs to the left.
  21. Keep right on the larger path and follow this back to the car park.

    The coastal lookout on St Agnes Head 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.

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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