Hayle and The Towans

A circular walk on the Towans at Hayle where Cornwall's beam engines were cast using sand from a prehistoric lagoon when West Penwith was an island

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The walk follows the quays where Harvey's of Hayle once shipped beam engines around the world and enters the dune system of The Towans. The route follows the coast path across the cliffs with views over St Ives Bay to reach Mexico Towans. The route turns inland through the dunes to reach the mediaeval churchyard of Phillack and then descends to Copperhouse Pool which is walled using blocks of slag from the copper smelter. The final stretch of the route is through the King George V Memorial Gardens.

Reviews

This is a lovely walk. So many interesting shrubs and plants with a very nice view.
Such a lovely walk and the gardens are kept lovely

Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 102 (scan QR code on right to order from Amazon)
  • Distance: 2.7 miles/4.3 km
  • Grade: Easy
  • Start from: Hayle Swimming Pool Car Park
  • Parking: Swimming Pool Car Park TR275AA. Turn off the A30 at the Loggans Moor and go straight across the double roundabout into the town. Continue until you see a right turn for North Quay. Cross the bridge and then turn right onto King George V Memorial Walk to reach the car park. If the car park is full, there is more parking along the road along the quay.
  • Recommended footwear: walking shoes

OS maps for this walk

Click or tap on map for more info (blue=laminated)

Highlights

  • Views over the Hayle Estuary and St Ives Bay
  • Vast sandy beach stretching to Godrevy
  • Bird life in the Hayle Estuary
  • Colourful gardens along Copperhouse Pool
  • Industrial and mining heritage
  • Can be combined with Gwithian and Upton Towans walk via a very short drive

Directions

  1. Turn left out of the car park and follow the road to a junction.

    The town of Hayle is a product of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the industrialisation, a track and mediaeval bridge existed across the mouth of Copperhouse creek, linking the small settlement of Phillack (around the church) with the river crossing to Lelant. A quay was built in the 1740s and initially Hayle was little more than a small port to import coal and export ore from the more major industrial settlement at Angarrack.

  2. Cross the road to the pathway onto the quay and make your way up the steps to the area above the railings (note that dogs are not allowed on the lower quay area). Keep following along the fence on the right to reach a tarmac road leading down to the quay where the black railings end.

    In the 1750s the Cornish Copper Company moved from Camborne to Hayle and set up a smelter, giving its name to Copperhouse Creek. Smelting involved roasting and melting the ore eight times to increase the purity with each cycle.

    Smelting continued until 1820 and was then moved to south Wales because vast amounts of coal were needed to smelt the copper and it was more economical to ship the copper ore to an area rich in coal than vice versa. After the smelting works closed, the buildings were converted into an iron foundry. This was demolished in the early 20th Century but a few fragments of the building survive within the properties along Copper Terrace.

  3. Bear left to cross over the road and resume walking along the railings above the quay. Continue until the railings finally end at another tarmacked road.

    A wave power test facility is located in a dedicated area of ocean more-or-less directly out from Godrevy Head. Undersea power cables run from the offshore site back to a substation hub in Hayle allowing tens of megawatts of power to be sold to the national grid from the test devices. Shipping lanes from Lands End into Bristol Channel have been moved further offshore to make room for the wave energy pilot and consequently most large vessels are now seen close to the horizon along the north Cornish coast.

  4. At the end of the railings, bear left to join the track leading through the blue gates to Harveys Towans Car Park. Continue on the track, keeping right where it forks at the entrance for Riverside, until you emerge into the car park.

    In 1779 John Harvey established a foundry and engineering works at Hayle which by 1800 was employing more than 50 people. The company worked with Cornish engineers including Richard Trevithick and Arthur Woolf to manufacture beam engines which were exported internationally. During the early-mid 19th Century, it was the main mining foundry in the world.

  5. Follow along the right-hand side of the car park to reach a waymarked track leading past some houses.

    During a period of global warming before the Pliocene period (up to about 3 million years ago), rising sea levels flooded the dunes, turning West Penwith into an island. The Hayle valley was a narrow gulf separating the island from the mainland and the shallow sea depositing a layer of blue clay on top of the sand in the lagoons along the valley. As the climate cooled, sea levels dropped as water was tied up in the polar ice sheets, reuniting the island of West Penwith with the rest of Cornwall.

  6. Bear right onto the track and follow this past several houses to where it narrows into a path.

    Pits were dug at St Erth initially to extract clay for affixing candles to the helmets of miners. The sand beneath the clay also found a use. As it was extracted from the water, each grain of sand would be coated in a thin film of clay. Under gentle pressure, this could be used to form moulds for casting molten metal. This was used by Harvey's Foundry at Hayle for casting beam engines and consequently one of the pits is known as Harvey's Pit. The sand was also exported throughout Cornwall and beyond for use in engineering castings.

  7. Continue ahead on the path and follow it until it emerges in a tarmacked parking area.

    As Harvey's and the Cornish Copper Company both grew, rivalry turned into open hostility with regular disputes over access to the sea. As the Copperhouse Pool was controlled by the Cornish Copper Company, Harvey's built their own pool (Carnsew) in the neighbouring Penpol creek and constructed a dock and tidal sluice there.

    Harvey's operated a "Company Store policy" which forced all workers to buy their provisions from Harvey's Emporium and prohibited the development of any independent shops.

  8. Bear left onto the tarmac and follow it to reach small path on the left marked with a slate waymark just after Sansgene.

    This area of the dunes is known as Riviere Towans, named after Riviere Farm which was originally built to accommodate packhorses, mules and horse-drawn carts used by the Cornish Copper Company.

  9. Bear left onto the small path beside the slate waymark and follow it until it emerges on a concrete path to the lifeguard hut.

    The RNLI was founded in 1824 under the original name of the National Institution for Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. It was renamed to the RNLI in 1854. Until 1890 all the lifeboats were rowed with oars until some steam-powered boats were introduced. By 1905, petrol-powered boats were being trialled and fairly quickly replaced the bulky steam-powered predecessors. Today a fleet of over 340 lifeboats provide a 24/7 search and rescue service around the UK. The charity has saved over 140,000 lives since it was set up.

  10. Bear left then immediately right to join the small path leading along the coast. Follow this to the Surf Lifesaving Club.
  11. Take the small, waymarked path ahead and keep left where it levels out, to pass a waymark. Continue until you pass another waymark and reach a junction of paths beside an information board for Mexico Towans.

    Dunes (called towans in Cornish) form when dry sand from the beach is blown by the wind, and initially lodges against an obstruction, eventually forming a ridge. More sand can then accumulate against the ridge and vegetation such as marram grass can then take hold, preventing the resulting sand hill from washing or blowing away. Erosion of the vegetation by foot traffic can cause the dunes to disintegrate, so areas are sometimes fenced off to allow the all-important weeds to recover. Most of the major dunes on the North Cornish coastline are thought to have formed from around 5,000 years ago when sea levels finally stopped rising after the glacial ice from the last Ice Age had finished melting.

  12. Continue ahead on the path leading into the dunes to reach an engraved slate waymark also saying "Mexico Towans".

    The path to the left leads to Gwithian Beach.

    The series of west-facing beaches running from Hayle to Godrevy are particularly favoured by kite surfers due to the large expanse of uncrowded waves. At high tide, the largest beach stretches over two miles from Black Cliff to rocks at Gwithian. North of this, St Gothian Sands lies between Strap Rocks and Magow Rocks at Gwithian. North of the Red River and smaller again is the Godrevy beach, which disappears into several small coves at the highest part of the tide. At low tide, all these beaches combine into one three mile stretch of sand from Godrevy point to the Hayle River.

  13. From the slate waymark, bear left slightly to follow the path leading downhill into the dunes. Follow the path past 3 kissing gates in the fence to reach a final kissing gate in the far corner of the fence.

    This area of the dunes is the start of a Site of Special Scientific Interest which includes a number of nature reserves. Mexico Towans is named after Mexico Lane and Mexico Terrace in Phillack which are a reference to Cornish mine enterprises in Mexico.

    In 1824, a complex of flooded Mexican silver mines were sold to a group of London investors who began recruiting miners and engineers in Cornwall. Beam engines were shipped out, and many Cornish emigrated to Mexico which had a cultural as well as industrial impact. Auténtico paste (pronounced pasty) is still on sale in shops with a St Piran's flag and there is even a pasty museum. Another cultural export from Cornwall was football, which also went on to become rather popular.

  14. Go through the gate and follow the path, keeping ahead at any junctions. When a wall ahead lined with wooden fence posts comes into view, keep right to reach a kissing gate in the wall ahead.

    This area of the dunes is known as Common Towans, presumably from an area of Common Land.

    The overhead power lines are the remnants of a coal-fired power station that was built beside the mouth of the River Hayle in the early 20th Century. This was in use until 1973. The site of the old power station has been used for the wave power test facility.

  15. Go through the gate and follow the path towards the church tower. When you can see the line of palm trees along the edge of the churchyard then keep left to continue towards the leftmost palm tree and reach an opening into the churchyard.

    The Cornish palm is neither originally from Cornwall nor a palm! It is from New Zealand where it is known as the cabbage tree, being neither related to or tasting anything like cabbage. The top of the stem from which the leaves shoot was harvested by the Maori, resulting in something resembling an artichoke. It is bitter so it was traditionally eaten with fatty meats such as eel to make it palatable. The largest specimen of the plant is thought to be around 500 years old and has a circumference of nine metres at the base! It was introduced to Britain after being collected on Captain Cook's first voyage to the Pacific on the Endeavour.

  16. Enter the cemetery and walk ahead to reach the grassy area at the far end. Then bear right to keep the scrub on your left and reach a pair of metal gates.

    The first record of the settlement and church of Phillack is from around 1150 as "Eccl de Egglosheil but there is good evidence that the settlement dates back much earlier. Roman broches and the remains of a bronze-age axe have been found on the towans, for example. The saint's name, Felec, is first mentioned in a late 9th Century geographically-ordered list of Cornish saints which is consistent with the location of the church.

  17. Go through the gate and the one ahead and walk through the churchyard to the corner of the building ahead to reach a junction in the path.

    The black blocks used to construct the vestry building are made from waste material from the copper smelter.

    During the copper smelting process, impurities such as fragments of rock and iron ore melt and float on the surface of the denser liquid copper metal. The molten slag from the initial melting of the ore was a waste material known as scoria containing little copper. For the subsequent seven cycles of roasting and melting the ore, the slag was sufficiently rich in copper to be worth recycling and so it was fed back into the earlier stages of the process.

    Roughly 2 tons of scoria were produced for every one ton of copper. The molten slag was cast into blocks which were used as a cheap building material. They were given free to the employees of the Cornwall Copper Company to build their houses and sold for sixpence for 20 blocks. The gasses released during the smelting process made the slag layer quite frothy which is why the blocks are porous.

  18. Turn right and follow the path along the front of the church, passing to the left of the railings to reach the exit from the churchyard.

    The church building is a Victorian rebuild which left few remains of the previous Norman church which had been extended in the 15th century, apart from the 15th Century tower.

    Prior to the Norman church, there is strong evidence (including inscribed stones and fragments of pottery) that the churchyard was a Celtic religious site. The circular stone above the doorway carved with XP characters (Chi-Rho Greek letters for Christos) could date from around the 5th Century.

  19. Exit the churchyard and cross the road to Phillack Hill. Walk down the hill to a reach a junction.

    The churchyard wall along the road is also built with black scoria blocks. As you approach the bottom of the hill, the causeway crossing the creek was built with them, as are many of the walls alongside the pool. The iron content in the blocks makes them very heavy despite the porous structure.

  20. Continue ahead at the junction until you reach King George V Memorial Walk immediately before the road bends. Turn right and follow the Memorial Walk until you reach a greenhouse.

    Copperhouse Pool was modified in around 1785 from a natural tidal creek. In 1788 a weir and flood gates were added at the mouth of the creek to form a tidal reservoir. This was both so ships could travel up to the dock and so that the main channel could be flushed of sand and silt by releasing the reservoir at low tide. The old wooden sluice gates are resting against the wall within the memorial gardens. The sea wall along the edge of the pool was built in around 1800.

  21. After the greenhouse, bear right into the Sensory Garden and follow the path through this to re-emerge on the Memorial Walk.

    A Site of Special Scientific Interest extends from pools of the Hayle Estuary to Carrack Gladden, including the beach and dunes of Porth Kidney Sands. Hayle is Britain’s most southwesterly estuary and due to the mild maritime climate, it never freezes. Up to 18,000 birds have been seen here in the winter. During the spring and autumn, its far westerly location makes it a very important site for migratory birds to stop and rest. Ospreys have been seen here in a number of years.

  22. Continue on the Memorial Walk until it ends, opposite the car park.

    Philps Pasties spans 4 generations of the Philps family, starting with cousins Everet (the baker) and Sammy Philp (the business brains) baking pasties to sell to the local pubs in the 1950s. The word got around and demand grew. Despite weighing around 7 stone, Everet could make nearly 3000 by hand in a day. The business is now run by Sammy Philps' grandchildren and their children maintain the family tradition of peeling vegetables and crimping pasties before they go to school.

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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